2011-12 Season in Review: February
Like most teams in the American Hockey League in any given season, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins went through their ups and downs during the course of the 2011-12 campaign. The peaks for the Penguins were definitely higher than valleys as they finished second in the East Division and skated to the fourth-best record in the league. Over the next few weeks, we will take a look at the highs and lows for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as we break down the season month-by-month.If you missed January, check it out here.
Many call it the Dog Days of the season. The excitement from the first few months wore off long ago and the push for a playoff spot is still a distant spot on the horizon. For players and coaches alike, it is a grind. For the Penguins, the challenge in February was to keep up the blistering pace that saw them win 10 of 14. During the Dog Days though, sometimes merely keeping you head above water can be considered a success. The Pens went 6-5-0-1 in February and while they found themselves behind a suddenly-hot Norfolk Admirals team, the team was still firmly in the mix for a postseason berth headed into the final six weeks of the regular season.
Best Win – 4-3 W vs. Hershey – 2/3/12
For better or worse, some of the Penguins’ most dramatic wins (and losses) of 2011-12 came against their fierce rival, the Hershey Bears. The day after Groundhog Day saw the Bears skate into town looking to continue their dominance at Mohegan Sun Arena this season. After forty minutes, it appeared that trend would carry on as Hershey established a 3-0 cushion.
The tide started to turn 17 seconds into the third when Bears goaltender Braden Hotlby sent the puck over the glass for a delay of game penalty and Penguins power play. Jason Williams’ howitzer from the blueline got Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on the board and the ball rolling for the home team.
Less than two minutes later, Brandon DeFazio beat Holtby clean with a wrist shot from the near circle to get the Penguins within a goal. It took another 55 seconds for Robert Bortuzzo to even the match on a long wrist shot that pinballed off bodies in front before finding the back of the Hershey net. When it was all done, the Penguins had scored three times over a span of 2:44 to erase the Bears’ lead.
Hershey Head Coach Mark French inserted back-up goalie Dany Sabourin to staunch the bleeding and the strategy worked. The game settled down into a third-period chess match with each team searching for the slimmest opportunity to strike. That chance came with 4:29 remaining, as Brian Gibbons chipped the puck to the far post of the Bears’ net for Ben Street, who fed Paul Thompson for a one-timer and the game-winning goal.
It was the Penguins’ biggest comeback of the season and allowed them to start February with a bang.
Toughest Loss – 2-1 L vs. Syracuse – 2/25/12
For the first period of this contest, it looked like fans would be privy to a goaltending battle between Scott Munore in net for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and veteran Antero Niittymaki manning the crease for Syracuse. Both goalies kept the opposition off the scoreboard during the opening frame, but a series of events at 3:33 of the second would change the course of the game.
A pad save by Munroe and a scramble to cover the loose by puck left the Penguins’ goalie down on the ice after the whistle. After being tended to by the training staff, Munroe skated off the ice under his own power, but recent Wheeling call-up Patrick Killeen would be thrust into his first AHL action of the season.
The Crunch’s Dan Sexton and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Ryan Craig traded power play goals in the second period, but Partick Maroon’s tally with less than eight seconds before the intermission would prove to be the decisive goal.
Killeen played admirably over his 35 minutes of action, allowing only two goals on 11 shots. Though they fired 36 shots in on the Syracuse net, many Penguins players would lament that most of the chances came from a distance and they failed to truly challenge Niittymaki.
Defining Game - 7-6 SOW vs. Manchester – 2/23/12
This was the type of game that has coaches throwing their hands in frustration or up all night rewinding it again and again in their head. Luckily, there isn’t a column in the standings for ugly wins and this one counted just the same as any other victory.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton seemed to be in the driver’s seat after two periods, up by a score of 4-2 over Manchester. Even when Linden Vey pulled the Monarchs within one at 4:05 of the third, the Penguins stretched their lead to three 27 seconds later with goals 16 seconds apart by Jason Williams and Zach Sill.
Then things got weird.
Manchester’s Richard Czarnik made it just a two-goal game midway through the third before Vey potted his second of the night at 16:41 and just like that the Penguins were clinging to a 6-5 lead. Skating with the extra attacker, the Monarchs would force overtime as Trent Hunter picked up a loose puck on the near circle and fired it home with 48 ticks left on the clock
In the shootout, it seemed like Manchester would complete the comeback as Vey scored to open the first round, but Penguins netminder Scott Munroe shut the door rest of the way and got conversions from Geoff Walker and Bryan Lerg to earn the win.
It wasn’t necessarily a victory about which the players skated off the ice feeling great, but it was an important two points for the Penguins with March right around the corner.
MVP of the Month – Bryan Lerg
It wasn’t a stellar month statistically for anyone on the Penguins roster, but Lerg was the most consistent contributor in February. The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton forward registered four goals and six assists in 11 games.