It was June 5, 2014, literally less than 48 hours after the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins bowed out in Game 6 of the 2014 Calder Cup Playoffs to the St. John’s IceCaps in the Eastern Conference Finals when the first signing for next year was announced.
It was the captain, Tom Kostopoulos.
Kostopoulos, at age 36, was third on the Penguins this season in scoring. He has been the unmitigated leader of the Penguins for the past two seasons and the heart and soul of the team. The fire still burns. Here is a quote that he gave Jonathan Bombulie last season:
“It’s pretty much all I’m playing for. I don’t want to retire without winning.”
Kostopoulos hasn’t yet achieved the zenith that every hockey player plays for which is a championship. The team that he captains, the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins, has made the playoffs for thirteen consecutive seasons and have yet to hoist the Calder Cup above their heads. That Kostopoulos, before he even packs a bag or gives an exit interview on that warm June day, makes his first order of business to re-sign with the Penguins sight unseen, speaks volumes at the level of competitiveness and determination that Kostopoulos has in delivering the city of Wilkes-Barre it’s first ever Calder Cup.
Standing in the way are fifteen wins to the pinnacle. This thousand mile journey begins with the Syracuse Crunch.
Here is your breakdown….
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals – Series “D” (best-of-5)
4-W-B/Scranton Penguins vs. 5-Syracuse Crunch
Game 1 – Fri., Apr. 24 – Syracuse at W-B/Scranton, 7:05
Game 2 – Sat., Apr. 25 – Syracuse at W-B/Scranton, 7:05
Game 3 – Wed., Apr. 29 – W-B/Scranton at Syracuse, 7:00
*Game 4 – Thu., Apr. 30 – W-B/Scranton at Syracuse, 7:00
*Game 5 – Sat., May 2 – Syracuse at W-B/Scranton, 7:05
* – if necessary
Jonathan Marchessault paced the Crunch this season with 67 points. Next closest for the Crunch was Yanni Gourde with 57 points and next closest is combinations of Mike Angelidis and Tanner Richard with 38 points each and Vladislav Namestnikov with 35 points. For the Penguins, it’s much more clumped together with Conor Sheary pacing the Penguins with 45 points followed by Andrew Ebbett and Tom Kostopoulos with 44 points and Scott Wilson, who is currently on NHL recall with 41 points. Other players such as Jayson Megna and Tom Kuhnhackl are getting hot at the right time. This is a Crunch team that has scored just 22 times in its last 10 games, 9 of 10 of these games Syrcause has come out at the losing end of while slipping out of division contention and being passed by the Hartford Wolf Pack. Conversely, for the Penguins, they have scored 31 goals in the past 10 games and stayed on the tails of the Hershey Bears up until the final weekend of the season and held off a number of teams for the 4 seed in the Conference. Syracuse’s forwards can get hot at a moment’s notice, but given the 10 game snapshot the Penguins are the more consistent unit up front.
All you need to know here is that the Penguins were the top defensive team in the 30 team AHL while Syracuse had more goals allowed (219) than goals for (218) and are the only team in the postseason with a negative goals differential. The Penguins may be without Taylor Chorney, Brian Dumoulin, Scott Harrington and Derrick Pouliot on recall to Pittsburgh but the choice is clear.
It’s not close and it will never be close for as long as the Penguins are alive and Matt Murray is healthy. Murray re-wrote the record book in 2014-15 with a record of 25-10-3 with a 1.58 GAA and a 0.941 SV%. Those numbers are astounding. Kristers Gudlevskis is Syracuse’s number one, and his numbers don’t come close to Murray’s.
Advantage: Penguins, running away.
Here is where we look at coaching and special teams. John Hynes vs. Rob Zettler. Zettler piloted Syracuse to the Calder Cup Championship two years ago and used Hynes’ Penguins team as the springboard to the Finals before bowing out to the Grand Rapids Griffins in six games. Syracuse then missed playoffs in 2013-14 while Hynes guided the Penguins through another season and to the Conference Finals again. Hynes has the benefit of home ice for a possible three out of five contests. Zettler’s club lost 9 of its last 10. That is something unheard of in John Hynes’ vocabulary. It’s advantage Wilkes-Barre. The Crunch were 25th or worse in both power play (25th, 14.2%) and penalty kill (26th, 79.6%) even by Wilkes-Barre’s standards, which has never been a club known for being lethal on special teams, that is pretty bad. But in a playoff series anything can happen and if a team clicks on special teams against an opponent in a series, especially in a tight five game series, it’s up in the air. You certainly can’t state that any team has an advantage over the other here on special teams, at least not yet. So it’s a push or more of a, “wait and see.”
Social Media Coverage
For the Penguins…
Twitter: @WBSPenguins / @WBSGameDay
Beat: @CVBombulie and @TLTomVenesky
For the Crunch…
Penguins in four. That may actually be a generous allocation, because this could easily be a Wilkes-Barre sweep. I see the Penguins going up 2-0 in the series this weekend, the Crunch taking Game 3 in either overtime or by a large goal margin and the Penguins closing the Crunch out in four games next Thursday.
Game 1 Gameday blog setup hits Friday at 3 p.m.