By Kristian Stefanides and Mike O’Brien
A rough patch suffered during the month of February was a distant memory as the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins turned up the heat in March by winning nine of 12 contests. Having pulled themselves back into the playoff race, the Penguins would battle the Binghamton Senators over the final weeks of the regular season for the East Division title.
To start things off in April, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers paid a visit to Mohegan Sun Arena in their first meeting since the season opener. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton started off the month in much the same way it finished March – keeping opponents’ shots and goals to a minimum. This was again the case on Apr. 4 when the Penguins blanked the Sound Tigers, 3-0. Bridgeport managed only 17 shots as Peter Mannino recorded his third shutout of the season. Three different Penguins got on the board, including Bobby Farnham, whose goal at 10:13 of the opening frame was his first game-winner of the season. Veteran Chuck Kobasew added a goal three minutes later and Dominik Uher buried a shorthanded tally with 2:07 left in the second to help ice the victory.
Just one night later, fans saw a goaltending duel between Mannino and the Albany Devils’ Keith Kinkaid. The only goal came at 1:02 of overtime, giving Wilkes-Barre/Scranton a 1-0 victory. Off an assist by Tom Kostopoulos, Nick Drazenovic netted his 13th goal and third game-winner of the season. Mannino, the reigning AHL Goalie of the Month, stopped 25 shots for back-to-back shutouts and became the only goaltender in the league on the season to register consecutive shutouts twice. This game would also see the Penguins’ amazing run of allowing two goals or less extend to 10 games.
All good things come to an end, however. Not surprisingly the Penguins’ four-game streak was interrupted on Apr. 6 at Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena in a 6-2 loss to the Senators. Binghamton’s rink had become a house of horrors for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, having lost three straight there while being outscored, 16-7. The Senators wasted no time in capitalizing early, scoring three times in first 7:56 of the contest. Spencer Machacek gave his team a brief respite at 9:45 of the first with a power play tally to make it 3-1. Garrett Thompson would respond to help Binghamton regain its three-goal lead before Cole Schneider converted on the man-advantage to put the Senators up, 5-1, after one. It was 6-1 on the scoreboard when Machacek tacked on his second goal of the match, the lone bright spot for the Pens in a tough loss to a division rival. With a chance to stretch a lead over the Senators for first in the East to four points, the Penguins instead found themselves in a tie for first in the division with Binghamton holding the tiebreaker.
The Penguins got back into the win column that Friday as they dug deep to scratch out a 3-2 shootout win versus the Syracuse Crunch. It was all power play all the time with all four goals during regulation coming on the man-advantage. Just 4:46 into the first period, Kobasew notched his ninth goal of the season only to have Vladislav Namestnikov score the equalizer less than four minutes later. Jon DiSalvatore gave the Crunch their first lead of the game with 3:51 remaining until the intermission and it was 2-1 for Syracuse after one. Kobasew would strike again during a 5-on-4 advantage to tie things up at 7:28 of the second and the two teams skated through the overtime period in a 2-2 deadlock. Looking to secure the win was Tomas Vokoun between the pipes for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Having been out of the line-up since training camp due to a blood clot, the Pittsburgh netminder got his first game action of the season on a conditioning assignment to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Anton Zlobin and Machacek each outsmarted Crunch goalie Cedrick Desjardins, while Vokoun turned away all four shots he faced in the showdown to lead the Penguins to victory.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton got the opportunity to redeem themselves after the ugly loss to the Senators when Binghamton came to Mohegan Sun Arena on Apr. 12. The Penguins made the most of the venue change and pulled ahead of the Senators into first place thanks to a 2-1win. Despite a goal by Ryan Dzingel with just 47 seconds left before the first intermission, the Penguins would strike at the end of the second period to even the contest. Right winger Carter Rowney posted the first shorthanded tally of his pro career 46 seconds before the break, while Scott Harrington also buried his first game-winner of the season at 8:14 of the final period. With the victory, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton had once again punched their ticket to the postseason, making the Calder Cup Playoffs for the 12th
year in a row.
Looking to sweep the three-game weekend, the Penguins hosted the Toronto Marlies on Sunday afternoon. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was seemingly in control after Adam Payerl struck on the power play in the first and Kostopoulos added another during the second for a 2-0 Penguins lead. A delay of game penalty at 8:30 of the third, however, turned the game completely on its head. Greg McKegg knocked in a rebound 23 seconds into the power play and T.J. Brennan scored 39 seconds later to knot the game in the blink of an eye. With just 27 seconds remaining in regulation, the Marlies completed the comeback and stunned the Penguins when Jerry D’Amigo netted the game-winner. The loss was a blow to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s title hopes as Binghamton now sat just one point behind the Penguins with a game in hand.
After losing to Toronto in overtime on Wednesday, the Senators had pulled into a tie first place with the Penguins. In the next to last game of the regular season, the two teams faced off in Binghamton on Apr. 18 for a tilt that would essentially decide the division. The start to the story would be a familiar one as Wilkes-Barre/Scranton found itself in a hefty deficit. Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s power play goal at 6:26 of the second not only capped off a hat trick for the Binghamton forward but also gave his team a commanding 5-0 lead. Only 20 seconds later, Payerl scored to give the Penguins some life. Later in the same period, Bobby Farnham’s shorthanded goal shrunk the Senators’ lead to three heading into the third. In the final frame, Andrew Ebbett and Chuck Kobasew each found the back of the net and suddenly Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was within a single tally with 2:36 remaining. Despite outshooting Binghamton 26-7 in the third period, the Penguins would be unable to find the game-tying goal and fell by a final score of 5-4. The Senators clinched the East Division with the win and home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
With division title out of reach, the Penguins took the opportunity in their regular season finale to skate some of the prospects that had joined the team late in the season. The line-up against Utica on Apr. 19 featured forwards Josh Archibald, Jean-Sebastien Dea, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Scott Wilson and goaltender Matt Murray. The Comets’ Peter Andersson potted the only goal needed at 7:18 of the first. Pascal Pelletier added some insurance with a power play goal 3:10 into the final frame. In what was his first professional start, Murray was more than solid in net while making 23 saves on 25 shots. Joacim Erikkson, however, was stellar on the other end of the ice, stopping all 27 shots to lead Utica to the 2-0 win.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton wrapped up the regular season with a 42-26-3-5 record, finishing second in the East Division and sixth in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins would face a familiar foe in the first round of the postseason with a best-of-five series against the Binghamton Senators. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton got the better of Binghamton last year, sweeping the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal in three games, but it was the Senators that held the advantage in the season series in 2013-14. Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena had proved particular unkind to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton during the regular season and that is where the series would begin between these two division rivals.