Let’s pretend for a second that we pass each other on the street in Rockford, Illinois on a late September afternoon. You are a diehard fan of the Rockford IceHogs, the proud AHL affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks. What would you say if I told you, right there in the streets of Rockford, that the IceHogs would make the playoffs and that they would be one of the four best teams left in the playoffs in late May / early June.
To add to that, let’s say that I guarantee that not one, but two IceHogs goaltenders would win the AHL Goaltender of the Month Award and that two virtual unknown players would go on to the Blackhawks and have an immediate impact at the next level.
Do you take it?
Of course you do. You would be considered irrational otherwise.
For the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins, that fantasy was a reality played out in the 2013-14 season. Not just this season, but last season too.
This years version of the Penguins amassed 92 points and a record of 42-26-3-5 and finished second in the East Division, four points behind the champion Binghamton Senators and was a six seed, getting passed by the Albany Devils in the final days of the season.
The campaign kicked off in Bridgeport on October 5, a 5-2 Wilkes-Barre win. A guy by the name of Chris Conner scored two goals in that contest, one where the Penguins scored two goals in :11 to cruise to victory. Scoring goals in the third period would become a theme early in the season.
Early on, the Penguins goaltending carousel started to spin. Peter Mannino was sent to Wheeling. Then he was recalled again all within the span of days.
The Penguins opened up their home campaign against their biggest rival, the Hershey Bears, and won that contest 3-1, using another third period where they scored multiple goals.
The Penguins jumped out of the gate in October winning their first six games and were off to a fantastic start.
November would begin with a home and home sweep of the Hershey Bears, then three straight losses to Syracuse, Albany and Springfield.
We saw the first NHL call up of Brian Gibbons’ career. It was also Eric Hartzell’s time to shine as well, as he would go on to endear himself to Penguins fans with a 5-2 win in his debut against the St. John’s IceCaps, then later with a 25 save shutout against the B-Sens.
With the Hartzell recall, that Wilkes-Barre goaltending carousel that I mentioned earlier was fully spinning. Peter Mannino was assigned to Wheeling and fails to report, which results in his suspension from the team.
Despite the personnel turnovers and turmoil, the Penguins manage a 6-4-1-1 record.
The organizational injury bug was alive in the month of December. The Pens managed a 5-4-1 record. It was an up and down month.
My first 2014 entry here on the blog would involve the end of Chris Conner’s tenure with the Penguins.
The Binghamton Senators were a streaky team this season. The Penguins ended their seven game winning streak with an “all hands on deck” performance. Brian Gibbons would get nominated to the All-Star team. Just when you thought that bodies were healing, they weren’t. More call-ups.
Philip Samuelsson would be named AHL Player of the Week after a Providence-Portland-Providence weekend New England trip.
Back on the ice, Jeff Deslauriers and John Gibson would fight at center ice in Norfolk. The very next night, the Penguins would earn a shootout win over ex-Penguin Brad Thiessen. This night would also see a scary incident involving Norfolk defenseman Nolan Yonkman’s skate and Zach Sill’s wrist, which would sideline Sill for the immediate future.
For as great as January was for the Penguins, capped off with Eric Hartzell winning Goaltender of the Month, February was the exact opposite.
We’d begin by saying goodbye to Paul Thompson and say hello to Spencer Machacek. Brian Gibbons would assist twice in the All-Star Classic as the AHL All-Stars would romp Farjestad BK by a score of 7-2.
February was a really forgettable month for the Penguins, as injuries would finally start catching up to them. There was a span there that the Pens would lose six straight games; to Hershey three times, Binghamton twice and Providence once. We were scoreboard watching one Sunday Evening, as the Penguins were a point out of the playoffs. They finally broke the six game losing streak by scoring six goals against the Hershey Bears. The fifteenth season would also have Wilkes-Barre induct a trio into its first ever Hall of Fame.
March came, and that is what the Penguins did; straight into solid playoff contention.
It started with the NHL trade deadline and the arrival of a guy by the name of Chuck Kobasew. Binghamton walked away winners in the deadline day dealings which solidified their pursuit of an East Division Championship.
The AHL trade deadline followed shortly afterwards and the news that the Penguins had signed an undrafted kid by the name of Conor Sheary.
I doubted at the time the effect that Kobasew and Sheary would have on the Penguins organization. I could not have been more wrong in my assumptions as Kobasew scored at nearly a point a game and Sheary emerged as a diamond in the rough that became a household name.
On the ice, the Pens went 9-2-1, with a five game winning streak and a sweep of the Norfolk Admirals in Virginia.
Peter Mannino, the prodigal son of the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins, had a huge hand in the big month for the organization, and he was rewarded for his efforts by being named AHL Goaltender of the Month on April 1.
The Penguins, seemingly firing on all cylinders but for a 6-2 whooping the Binghamton Senators put on them on April 6, quickly sewed up their twelfth consecutive trip to the Calder Cup Playoffs with a 2-1 win over those same Senators a week later.
It would be Binghamton, surprisingly, that the Penguins would face in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs. After dressing a lineup of the future, with all of the veteran big name players given the night off in the final game of the season in Utica, the Penguins were on to face the East Division Champion B-Sens.
Same song, different verse. Like last year, the Penguins dismissed the Senators in the first round. Unlike last year Binghamton got a victory, in overtime, to avoid the sweep. But the Penguins used the newly found home ice to their advantage and won Games 3 and 4 at home.
Same song again, different verse…again. Up next were the Providence Bruins. After splitting a pair of games at home, the Pens took control of the series with Simon Despres’ double overtime game winning goal in Game 3. Oh, but the Bruins battled to the bitter end, literally. Scoring with .6 left in regulation to tie Game 4 and going on and winning in overtime, the Pens would battle back to win Game 5 and a wild and crazy Game 7, which almost ended up a disaster for Wilkes-Barre, who were up 5-0 at one point only to scrape by and eliminate the Bruins for the second straight year by a score of 5-4.
It was on to St. John’s for the Conference Championship. Splitting a pair on the Rock, then losing two straight at home, Zach Sill’s goal with 15.8 seconds left in Game 5 would hold up as the game winner as the Penguins would force a Game 6, only to be shutout by St. John’s 5-0 to see their season and quest for their first ever Calder Cup Championship come to an end.
So closes the chapter of the 15th season of Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins hockey. Soon, a new chapter will have begun to be written. Some of the outline has already been completed, with team captain Tom Kostopoulos already signing a contract for the 2014-15 campaign.
Familiar names will most likely either graduate to the NHL full time, either with Pittsburgh or some other team. Others may find work with another AHL team or in Europe.
There will be a refresh of talent headed to Coal Street in the Fall. We’ve gotten a taste of the talent of Conor Sheary, guys like Josh Archibald and Matt Murray can bring. Regular names like Tom Kuhnhackl, Eric Hartzell and Anton Zlobin will be back next year, better than ever. Couple this with additions during the offseason who will view Wilkes-Barre as a premier destination for their hockey playing career and the future is once again bright for the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins.
If you knock on the door of success enough times, someone is bound to answer. The Penguins have been knocking for twelve years now. The knocking became louder in the past two seasons with consecutive trips to the Conference Finals. As long as they keep knocking and continue to go all the right things, someone will answer, someday.
Let’s Go Pens!!!