I know what you are thinking by reading the headline.
It wasn’t a success.
That’s because the sixteenth campaign of the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins ended with another dismissal in the Calder Cup Playoffs, this time to the Manchester Monarchs in five games last week.
It wasn’t a success!
Technically, if you base your definition of “success” off of the Calder Cup Playoffs, then no, it wasn’t a success. But you need to define a season based off of its entirety, so you need to paint with a broader brush.
The purpose of the American Hockey League is to develop players, coaches and officials for the next level, the National Hockey League. The purpose of an AHL team is to develop and win at the same time. Some franchises just develop and don’t win. Others win but don’t develop. What you have on Coal Street in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania is the perfect balance of development and winning. Scott Wilson, Bobby Farnham, Bryan Rust, Scott Harrington, Derrick Pouliot and Dominik Uher all made their NHL debuts this season. The Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins made playoffs in the AHL for the thirteenth consecutive season, the longest current run for any AHL team in the 30 team league. The Penguins led the AHL in defense for the fourth time in five years, something unheard of in a team with 30 teams.
The fact of the matter is, the 2014-15 Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins season was a success.
The season opened Saturday, October 11 at home against the Phantoms, who were playing their first game under the banner of the Lehigh Valley. It ended in a 5-2 loss. The next afternoon against Manchester wasn’t any better, a 4-1 loss and in retrospect, a bit of foreshadowing for the Penguins as it was the Monarchs that gave the Penguins fits that day and ultimately gave them fits in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
A trip to St. John’s, where the prior seasons campaign ended four months ago, resulted in a two game sweep. After getting shutout by Albany on the return trip home, the Penguins would shutout the Springfield Falcons backstopped by a 21 save shutout by some wet behind the ears kid by the name of Matt Murray, making his second professional start.
The shutout against Springfield that day would be the first step for Murray towards his re-writing of the AHL record books.
Battles with familiar foes in Binghamton, Hershey and Norfolk would carry the Penguins to the top of the East Division at the quarter pole of the season. Wilkes-Barre would remain at the top of the East Division through November.
Head Coach John Hynes would collect his 200th AHL win on teddy bear toss night about an hour south of here in Hershey, PA. A goal by Steve Oleksy :39 in to the game set off more than 17,000 bears onto the Giant Center ice which led to a lengthy delay while all of the furry toys were cleaned up off the ice. But the Penguins would win the day and re-claim first place in the East Division and net Hynes his bicentennial win.
The Penguins rang in 2015 at home with the Bears on New Years Eve with a 2-0 win backstopped by a 24 save performance by Jeff Zatkoff, who had a tremendous December.
Let me remind you that this was a Penguins team that led the East Division in January that was filled by guys that were called up from the ECHL. Names like Sahir Gill, Zack Torquato and more familiar names like Matia Marcantuoni, J-S Dea and Josh Archibald.
But a six game losing streak hit the Penguins and eventually the personnel losses caught up with them. They lost the division lead to rival Hershey, something the Bears would never relinquish, and were spiraling.
Right before the All-Star break, the Penguins would end the six game skid and turn things around with a four game winning streak. The Penguins all-star representatives were Tom Kostopoulos (playing as the Eastern Conference Captain) Derrick Pouliot and Jeff Zatkoff. Zatkoff would miss the game due to injury.
The month of February would see the Penguins rip off a 7-0-1-1 record and go without a single regulation loss. It was a month that they didn’t want to see end and really solidified them as a playoff contender but not a division contender because the Hershey Bears were as equally as hot as the Penguins.
But February would set the table for March and Matt Murray, who cemented himself as the number one goaltender in Wilkes-Barre and the number one goaltender in the AHL.
Murray would collect the AHL Goaltender of the Month Award in February and again in March, back to back months which was aided by his shattering of the AHL’s shutout streak of 304:11 in a game against Springfield, obliterating the streak set by Barry Brust of Abbotsford of 268:17. Consecutive shutouts against Portland, Providence, Bridgeport and Manchester would be footnotes for Murray’s remarkable, remarkable run.
But he wasn’t done. Two more shutouts, back-to-back, running the total to twelve and getting the Penguins to the playoffs for the thirteenth consecutive season on April 8 in Lehigh Valley.
The Penguins would dismantle the Syracuse Crunch en route to a three game sweep in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs and got reinforcements back from Pittsburgh in the form of Taylor Chorney, Brian Dumoulin, Derrick Pouliot and Scott Wilson.
But the cadre of talent down from Pittsburgh wouldn’t be enough to topple a Manchester team which would bounce the Penguins in five games. Matt Murray could not stop the onslaught of offense that Manchester rolled in waves towards him and the Penguins were done in five.
Graduations happen in the Spring. High Schoolers look towards college and collegians look towards adulthood and the real world. The same story goes for the Penguins. Jonathan Bombulie, who has covered the Penguins since their inception in 1999, announced that he was “called up” to Pittsburgh and took a job with the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. There is speculation swirling about John Hynes’ future, as his days behind an AHL bench are short and some NHL GM is going to want to give him a shot at running an NHL team sooner rather than later.
On the ice, there are many players that played in Wilkes-Barre that are ready for the NHL next season and plenty of players that are ready for full time AHL work next season and are one step closer to playing in the NHL in 2015-16. Brian Dumoulin, Taylor Chorney, Bobby Farnham, Derrick Pouliot, Scott Harrington, Scott Wilson, Bryan Rust are names that saw NHL action this season and are strong cases to see more NHL games next season. Names like Carter Rowney, Nick D’Agostino, Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl, Josh Archibald, J-S Dea and Reid McNeill are ready for a full AHL workload in 2015-16 and will be looking at NHL opportunities if they continue their ascent in developing.
So it doesn’t end with a trophy and a celebration for Penguins for the sixteenth season. But there was a lot to celebrate as a Penguins fan in the past and a lot to look forward to as a Penguins fan in the future.