Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, is about four and a half hours from Pittsburgh, with stretch of 100 miles of Interstate 80 separating the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza, home of the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, from CONSOL Energy Center, home of their major-league affiliate.
With five trips in either direction this season so far, forward Dustin Jeffrey would figure to know I-80 pretty well. But the organization has done a good job of managing the travel for its most frequent call-up, said the 22-year-old forward.
“It’s tough, but … if you look at last weekend, I played in (AHL) Providence, and then went up to (NHL) Boston, then back to (AHL) Hartford, so it wasn’t a lot of travel,” Jeffrey said. “I think they’ve done a good job of when I’m getting called up and sent down. The travel hasn’t been as bad as it’s seemed.”
He’s also learned to be prepared.
“I have a couple suits and a couple shirts that are always packed, so I don’t have to worry about doing that kind of stuff,” Jeffrey said.
Jeffrey has earned the opportunities by dominating at the AHL level. He was tied for the league scoring lead when he got his first recall of the season on December 10, and made an immediate splash in his first game with the big club, scoring a goal and an assist in Pittsburgh’s 5-2 win at Buffalo.
Since then, Jeffrey has continued to lead the Baby Pens in scoring, with 41 points (15G, 26A) in 37 games. His latest NHL turn comes with Pittsburgh’s two biggest stars, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, on the shelf, the first time that’s happened simultaneously since both have been in the NHL.
Saturday against the Carolina Hurricanes, he made the most of the chance, getting open in front of the net to put home a four-on-four goal late in the second period.
“We had a good shift in-zone, me and [Jordan] Staalsy. It was four-on-four and there’s a lot of room there,” Jeffrey said. “And [Kris Letang] did a good job. When he cuts through [the crease], it really confuses guys, who’s covering who. I was able to get open, and Staalsy had a really good screen in front of the net.”
“I thought Jeffrey played a great game, especially for the [11:55 of] ice time he had,” said Staal. “I told him on the bench he was going to get one for us, and he did.”
The goal opened the scoring and gave the Penguins a shot of momentum heading into the third, where they scored twice more – once on the power play, once shorthanded – to open up a 3-0 lead en route to a 3-2 win over the Hurricanes.
“To get the lift from Jeffrey, a fresh call-up [who] got his second goal tonight, a big goal – that’s how you need to win games as a team,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “And we came out in the [third] and played with a little bit more vim and vinegar and physicality, put them back on their heels, and allowed us to get goals in different situations.
“That’s a big two points for our team.”
And a big opportunity for Jeffrey, who can look to recent Wilkes-Barre/Scranton graduates Mark Letestu, Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland for motivation. All became full-time NHLers this year, and all have received multi-year contract extensions since last summer.
“It’s a big opportunity, a good opportunity,” said Bylsma. “I look back to last year’s Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland as an example; they got 10 hockey games where they showed they can play in this league. So, when you go to make a decision about calling a guy back up, or where they fit in the organization – all the experiences they get, games they played as a showcase to say, ‘hey, he can play at this level.’”
With three points (2G, 1A) in six games with the big club, Jeffrey is establishing his NHL readiness. He’s shown versatility, with the ability to play at center or on the wing, and has seen time on both the power play and penalty kill. He has a 28.6 shooting percentage, is a plus-three and has been competent on faceoffs at 41.7 percent.
“Dustin’s shown us in training camp, with his speed, he’s got an extra step,” Bylsma said. “He’s come in and played a couple games now, been a factor in those games, and was a factor tonight with his goal. He’s been good in the faceoff circle.
“Every time he can show that is a time he can prove he can play in this league, and sets himself up for the next situation, and where he stands in the organization.”