By Mike O’Brien and Kristian Stefanides
Heading into December with a 13-5-1-2 record, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins had successfully navigated some rough seas during the previous month. A rash of injuries on the Pittsburgh Penguins roster saw key players such as Andrew Ebbett, Brian Gibbons, Jayson Megna and Simon Despres spend significant time in the NHL. No one could foresee that the waters would get much more treacherous for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The injury bug continued to hound Pittsburgh throughout December. At one point, nine players from the Penguins were recalled to their NHL affiliate. Brian Dumoulin and Philip Samuelsson add their names to the list of players making their NHL debuts from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Despite the absence of some his biggest contributors from the line-up, Coach John Hynes continued to guide his squad through adversity and find the win column more often than not.
The Penguins started out the month with a two-game matchup on the road versus the St. John’s IceCaps on Dec. 6 and 7. St. John’s got the ball rolling early with a goal by Carl Klingberg less than five minutes into the first period – the first of his two goals on the evening – and the IceCaps never looked back. St. John’s offense unit exploded for four more goals through the final two periods, providing the home team a 5-0 victory. The IceCaps defense also made its presence felt, allowing just 20 shots on goal.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton wasted no time in getting revenge by beating St. John’s, 3-0, the very next night, despite collecting only 16 shots. After a scoreless first period, Tom Kuhnhackl struck on the power play at 10:10 of the second frame to give the Penguins the only lead they would need. Brian Gibbons added another tally at 17:17 to widen the Penguins’ margin to two heading into the third period. Bobby Farnham chipped in with a goal to go with an assist he collected on the Gibbons’ goal. Brendan Mikkelson went on to record two helpers. Jeff Deslauriers also earned his first shutout of the season, stopping all 30 shots he faced.
Following the win, the team returned back to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for a six-game stretch at home, beginning on Dec. 11 against the Springfield Falcons. Springfield’s Patrick McNeill notched a goal midway through the first and added a power play goal just before the end of the second period to put the Falcons up, 2-0, heading into the third. A Penguins rally started at 2:58 of the frame when Harry Zolnierczyk converted a shorthanded penalty shot past Springfield goalie Jeremy Smith. Less than nine minutes later, right winger Paul Thompson potted the equalizer. With the score knotted at two, it was the Falcons who capitalized on the man-advantage once again, when Jonathon Marchessault scored the game-winner at 12:38 of the third period.
Two days later, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton rebounded with a 5-3 victory over the Hershey Bears. The Penguins were awarded an amazing six power plays in the first period and converted three times on goals by Kostopoulos, Thompson and Gibbons. A seemingly comfortable 3-0 lead for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was quickly whittled away by Hershey. Goals scored 55 seconds apart by Ryan Stoa and Nicolas Deschamps in the final five minutes of the second slashed the Penguins’ lead to one going into the final period. Tom Kostopoulos added his second tally of the night at 6:05 to give Wilkes-Barre/Scranton a two-goal edge yet again, but Hershey refused to go quietly. While Deschamps notched a shorthanded goal to cut the Penguins’ lead back to one at 8:56 of the third, it was Nick Drazenovic who iced the game and made final score, 5-3, when he found the back of the net with 3:39 left in regulation.
The good times on home ice for the Penguins carried over into the next night in the first-ever meeting against the Utica Comets. If Friday night against the Bears featured goals aplenty, the following evening was a decidedly defensive battle in a 1-0 win over the Comets. Following a scoreless two periods, the Penguins’ final power play opportunity of the game would net the only goal of the match. Nick D’Agostino’s first goal of the season was a big one, as blasted the puck behind Comets’ goalie, Joe Cannata, with eight minutes remaining to help the Penguins skate to the win. Penguins goalie Eric Hartzell earned his second shutout of the season, stopping all 22 shots he faced.
Despite the Penguins’ ability to capitalize on the power play in their previous two games, the special teams were unable to convert on the man-advantage this time around. On Dec. 20, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton fell to the visiting Worcester Sharks, 4-1. The Sharks methodically built a 3-0 lead by the middle of the third period. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton foiled Worcester’s shutout bid when Drazenovic scored on a penalty shot with 2:30 left in the final frame. Soon thereafter, Worcester put home an empty-netter to seal the contest versus the Penguins.
Regardless of the small hiccup, it wasn’t long until the Penguins were using the man-advantage to their benefit yet again. Both goals for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton came on the power play as they edged the Syracuse Crunch, 2-1, on Dec. 21 . Recalled from Wheeling earlier in the week and making his AHL debut on this night, Zack Torquato gave Wilkes-Barre/Scranton a 1-0 edge at 9:58 of the first. The score held until the opening minutes of the third when Brendan Mikkelson doubled the Penguins’ lead with another power play tally. Evan Rankin provided some late-game drama when he scored for Syracuse with 1:43 left, but Wilkes-Barre/Scranton held on as Jeff Deslauriers made 25 saves in the win.
The Penguins returned from the holiday break on Dec. 27 for their second meeting of the season against the Norfolk Admirals. The Admirals had won 10 in a row at Mohegan Sun Arena coming into the match and they would extend that streak to 11 after a 3-1 win. With six minutes left in the first period, the Admirals’ Max Friberg netted the first goal of the night before Nolan Yonkman pushed Norfolk ahead, 2-0, 1:58 into the second. The Penguins cut Norfolk’s lead in half when Tom Kostopoulos slipped a shot past goalie John Gibson at 7:28 of the same period. That would be as close as Wilkes-Barre/Scranton would come as Steven Whitney netted a goal to cap off the Admirals’ victory with 2:50 left in regulation.
The next day, the Penguins would fall to the Hershey Bears in the shootout, 2-1, in their final road contest of the month. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton got on the board first at 7:27 of the second period when Mike Carman tallied his third goal of the season, but the Bears answered five minutes later on David Kolomatis’ equalizer. In the eventual shootout, Casey Wellman and Ryan Potulny each converted for the Bears, while David Leggio turned aside 4-of-5 Penguins shooters.
Back on home ice for their last game in December, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton ended the month on a high note. The Penguins dominated the Syracuse Crunch, 5-2, on New Year’s Eve. Although the Penguins found themselves down, 2-1, at the end of the first, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton used the final two periods to race away with the win. With almost nine minutes gone in the second frame, Nick Drazenovic tied the game, 2-2, before Kostopoulos followed 1:44 later with a power play goal that gave the Penguins their first lead of the game. Anton Zlobin and Cody Sylvester provided some insurance, chipping in with a goal apiece in the third period to clinch the win and send the team into 2014 on a high note.
Despite the numerous injuries and call-ups that tested the depth of the entire organization, the Penguins went 5-4-0-1 in the month of December for an 18-9-1-3 record overall. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton sat just one point of the first place entering the New Year and looked to stay with the field in the East Division as the second half of the season began….
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