Chase Berger didn't have to go far when he made the move to professional hockey.
On March 28, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton signed the 24-year-old forward to an AHL contract for 2019-20 (and an amateur contract to finish this season) following the conclusion of his senior year at Penn State. Two days later, after a quick two-hour drive up I-80, Berger made his professional debut in the Penguins' 4-1 loss to the Springfield Thunderbirds.
Berger made his debut on the fourth line, centering the speedy Cam Brown and another recent college free agent signing, Chris Brown. Berger didn't record any points in his first game, but he certainly made a good impression. His four shots were the second-most on the team, and he came within inches of scoring in the first period:
"I think it was just really huge to get in a game, and hopefully some more here," Berger told me of his debut this week. "I thought I played pretty well. It would have been nice to get the win, but there's some stuff that I can work on. There's some very good players in this league. All in all, I thought I played well, and hopefully I can get better as it goes."
The Penguins first worked with Berger in 2017, when he was invited to the summer's development camp on a tryout basis. Bill Guerin has kept in touch with Berger since that camp, and made an offer when Berger's college season ended. It wasn't a tough decision for Berger.
"I got treated really well at development camp two years ago, I just thought it was a top-notch organization," he said. "When I finished my career and they showed a lot of interest, for me it was going to be tough to beat what they were giving as far as the organization. I want to be at a place where I'm treated well. Everything about this place is top-notch."
Berger, 6-feet and 195 pounds, brings a strong two-way game to the lineup. He kills penalties and is skilled in the faceoff circle, as well. He consistently contributed offensively at Penn State, recording 51 goals and 67 assists in 154 games as a Nittany Lion.
One of his biggest strengths though, was the ability to play in each of those 154 games. In Berger's four years, he didn't miss a single game, the first player in school history to achieve the feat.
With Berger's physical, hard-nosed playing style, he did have some close calls in his sophomore and senior seasons during the streak. It wasn’t just luck that kept him in the lineup for each game, it was hard work with an assist from the training staff.
"I just try to take care of my body as well as I could off the ice, so I was never in a situation where I thought I was at a greater risk for injury," he said. "That's a lot of credit to the strength coach and the trainer we have. Being healthy, eating the right way and taking care of your body is a huge part of it. They give us all the tools to succeed in that regard."
The last time Berger missed a game was way back in 2014-15, his final year in the USHL with the Tri-City Storm. He missed two games that year with the stomach flu, something that made him determined to not miss any more.
"I think I learned a lot more about how to stay healthy in that regard, with sleep, vitamins, and eating the right way, which helped me not get sick as much, as well," he said.
In reading about Berger and speaking to people who have dealt with him at Penn State, it's clear that his character is one of his greatest assets. He captained the Nittany Lions his senior year, and was the winner of the conference's Sportsmanship Award. According to one of his bios, "Berger began a reading rewards program at a local elementary school in State College. Berger and the team will visit a local classroom a few times per month and read stories to them and also participate in different games with the children."
He's a good dude.
"We have a lot of good character guys at Penn State," Berger said. "I just think that being a good teammate goes so far. The best teams always seem to have good chemistry, they really get along and they truly love each other and want to win for the team, not for themselves. That's kind of how I was raised and how the culture is at Penn State. I think maybe I get a little more credit than I deserve, it was just a product of the culture we have and who I was surrounded by. I was just being a good teammate."
At Penn State, every incoming freshman on the team gets a mentor. Berger's mentee? Nikita Pavlychev, the Penguins' 6-feet-8 2015 seventh-round pick. Pavlychev was a junior this season, and will most likely return to school for his senior year. After that? Berger would love a reunion.
"(Pavlychev) is awesome, he's really come a long way as a player and a person," said Berger. "He's a great guy and a really good player. I hope we play together in the future. as well."
For now, Berger is getting to know his new teammates. Veterans on the team like Chris Wideman and Jimmy Hayes have been instrumental in getting him acclimated (and taking him out for dinner, too). There are two other new college free agent signings currently on the team in Chris Brown and Michael Kim, both out of Boston College, and the three have formed a bond over making the transition to professional hockey together.
Wilkes-Barre currently sits one spot and five points out of a playoff spot with seven games remaining in the season. It's a tight race in the playoff push. Berger isn't only getting in the lineup to get a taste, he's playing because the team thinks he can help them with that push.
Making the jump to pro hockey is big in and of itself. In Wilkes-Barre's case, each game is the new biggest game of the season. It's intense. It seems like a lot to just be thrown into the middle of that, into the fire, to make your pro debut, but Berger enjoys the added pressure.
"That's the way I'd want it to be," he said. "This is a fun time of year, and obviously I don't really say much but you can tell by the way the guys talk that this is crunch time. Every shift matters. I'm just trying to do my part and help in any way possible."
Berger says he'll take these remaining games of the season as a learning experience, to better prepare him for next season. He'll learn which areas of his game need some work, and focus on them in the offseason so he's ready for his first full year.
"I'm trying to use these games to see where my deficiencies are, and hopefully what my strengths are, as well, so I can improve on the weaknesses and keep the strengths strong," he said. "I just have an open mind and am taking this as a learning experience, and just trying to help the team."
He has some other learning experiences to work on this spring, too. He's still in school, and has three classes to finish up before he can get his degree in finance.
Berger is working with his professors (and getting notes from his buddies) to be able to complete his upper-level Derivative Markets class while in Wilkes-Barre. Not easy stuff. His online class in Intro to Jazz isn't quite as difficult.
THE ROSTER MOVES
• Forward Renars Krastenbergs was reassigned to Wheeling. He did not play in any games during his recall.
• Berger joined the team.
• Forward Thomas Di Pauli hasn’t played since Dec. 16 with a lower-body injury.
• Forward Ben Sexton hasn’t played since March 2 with an upper-body injury.
• Defenseman Chris Wideman hasn’t played since March 6.
• Tim Erixon was the latest guest on the Penguins Podcast. These are always entertaining.
• March 27: vs. Providence, 2-0 win
Jake Lucchini opened the scoring with the lone goal of the first period, his second professional goal in his eighth game since joining Wilkes-Barre.
After a scoreless second period, Sam Miletic extended the lead with his 10th goal of the season 6:21 into the third period.
Tristan Jarry stopped all 23 of the Bruins' shots for his first shutout of the season.
The Penguins went 0-for-3 on the power play, and 2-for-2 on the penalty kill.
• March 30: vs. Thunderbirds, 4-1 loss
Springfield's Vincent Praplan scored the first goal of the game in the final minute of the first period.
The Thunderbirds extended the lead 1:55 into the middle frame, and then Ryan Haggerty cut the lead to one goal with his 20th goal of the season.
Former Penguin Harry Zolnierczyk regained the two-goal lead for the Thunderbirds with a power play goal in the third period. Five minutes later, Sam Lafferty dropped the gloves with Springfield's Jake Horton. It was Lafferty's second career fight:
The fight didn't provide the spark the Penguins needed, and the Thunderbirds extended their lead to three goals three minutes later to seal the win.
Jarry took the loss with 26 saves on 30 shots.
The Penguins went 0-for-2 on the power play, and 2-for-3 on the penalty kill.
• Goals: Blueger, 21 in 45 games.
• Assists: Ethan Prow, 29 in 68 games
• Points: Prow, 46 in 68 games
Sam Miletic – Sam Lafferty – Ryan Haggerty
Jake Lucchini – Jarrett Burton – Jimmy Hayes
Joseph Cramarossa – Joseph Blandisi – Anthony Angello
Cam Brown – Chase Berger – Chris Brown
Juuso Riikola – Chris Summers
Kevin Czuczman – Jeff Taylor
Matt Abt – Ethan Prow
• After this week, the Penguins record is 33-26-7-3. They remain in fifth place in the eight-team Atlantic Division. The top four teams in the division make the playoffs. The Penguins are currently five points out of a playoff spot and have a one-point lead over the sixth-place Lehigh Valley Phantoms (34-28-4-3).
• The magic number to clinch a playoff spot is 18.
• The power play dropped to 16.3 percent, 26th in the 31-team league. The penalty kill sits at 80.7 percent overall, 20th in the league.
• The Penguins will visit the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (40-21-6-2) on Tuesday morning at 10:30. They'll host the Binghamton Devils (26-38-6) on Friday, then have a two-game series in Lehigh Valley (34-28-4-3) on Saturday and Sunday.
• Including this coming week, the Penguins have seven games remaining in the regular season.
GOALS OF THE WEEK
Lucchini scored his second:
Haggerty with the laser:
WILKES-BARRE FUN THING
What a group:
— WBS Penguins (@WBSPenguins) March 28, 2019
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