By Samantha Patterson and Mike O’Brien
With a roster that was decimated with call-ups and injuries in December, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins were amazingly able to post a record over .500 during the month and remain just one point behind first place Binghamton Senators. While many of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s offensive mainstays such Brian Gibbons, Andrew Ebbett and Jayson Megna remained up in Pittsburgh, the team looked to its defense to carry it through the month of January. The onset of 2014 also would see the emergence of rookie goaltender Eric Hartzell as the Penguins pressed through the dog days of winter.
The Penguins started the calendar year on Jan. 3 against the Hartford Wolf Pack in the first contest of a three-game weekend. The end result was a nail-biting 2-1 shootout win at XL center. Neither team was able to find the back of the net through the first two periods, but at 6:36 of the third Sam Klassen broke the scoreless tie giving the Wolf Pack the lead, 1-0. It was not until 3:59 remained in the third when Penguins’ Harry Zolnierczyk was left wide open in front and knotted the match to send things into overtime. The tied game carried through the extra period and into the shootout where Jeff Deslauriers saved 5-of-6 shots and Paul Thompson tallied the deciding goal in round six.
The travel back to Mohegan Sun Arena may have caught up with the Penguins as they fell short to Manchester Monarchs the following night, 4-2. Battling back from a 2-0 deficit, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton pulled even on Nick Drazenovic’s tally at 7:43 of the third. Seven minutes later, Manchester forward Nick Deslauriers beat Penguins goalie Jeff Deslauriers for the game-winning marker.
On Jan. 5, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton finished their three-day weekend with a victory that cut short the Binghamton Senators’ seven-game winning streak. Anton Zlobin and Drazenovic helped the Penguins establish a 2-0 cushion before Binghamton used a four-minute power play and a goal from Cole Schneider to get on the board. With 2:14 left until the second intermission, Zach Torquato allowed the Penguins to regain their two-goal lead. At 6:35 of the third, Barry Goers added his first goal for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to help ensure a 4-1 win for the Penguins. Hartzell made 23 saves on 24 shots in the contest in what would be a sign of things to come in January for the rookie netminder.
Three days later the Penguins took the ice at Mohegan Sun Arena against the Syracuse Crunch. Syracuse was able to open a 2-0 lead halfway through the first period with two goals only 30 seconds apart when Vlad Namestnikov converted during a two-man advantage and Jon DiSalvatore scored on the ensuing 5-on-4. The Crunch put together another set of goals in quick succession in the second period as Brett Connolly beat Jeff Deslauriers at 8:04 and Cedrick Paquette followed 55 seconds later to make it 4-0 for the Crunch. Despite Philip Samuelsson’s efforts to erase the deficit, recording the first multi-goal game of his pro career, the Penguins fell by a final score of 4-2. Connolly and DiSalvatore each tallied a goal and two assists to lead Syracuse’s offense.
On Jan. 10, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton traveled to New York to face Adirondack Phantoms at the Glen Falls Civic Center. Despite being on the penalty kill four times in the opening period, it was the Penguins who opened the scoring at 13:32 of the first frame. Tom Kostopoulos started his three-point night by giving the Penguins a 1-0 lead. Although Adirondack was able to tie the game at 6:57 of the second with a one-timer from Kris Newbury, a slew of penalties on the Phantoms allowed Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to strike twice during 5-on-3 advantages. Kostopoulos notched his second tally of the evening and 14th of the season, putting Wilkes-Barre/Scranton back in the lead. Fifty-two seconds later, Kostopoulos set up Brian Dumoulin to make the score 3-1 for the Penguins. Harry Zolnierczyk added an empty net goal to with 45.8 second left to finish off the 4-1 victory over the Phantoms.
The following night back home against the Hartford Wolf Pack, the Penguins struggled to find their legs through the first forty minutes of hockey. With Hartford leading by a score of 3-2 heading into the third, the Penguins shifted into high gear and dominated the final period with a 17-2 shot advantage. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was also able to find the back of the net three times during the frame. Tom Kuhnhackl evened the score at three with a power play goal at 8:09 of the third. Four minutes later, Anton Zlobin registered the game-winner for the first multi-goal game of his pro career as Wilkes-Barre/Scranton defeated the Wolf Pack, 5-3.
On Jan. 17, the Penguins began a three-game, three-day trek that saw the team open the weekend in Providence versus the Bruins. Providence ran away with this one as Justin Florek and Bobby Robins each lit the lamp in the opening frame to give the home team a 2-0 cushion after one. The score remained the same over the next twenty minutes of hockey as Wilkes-Barre/Scranton managed just six shots in the second period. By the nine minute mark of the third, the Bruins had doubled their lead on a power play goal by Craig Cunningham and a tally from Zach Trotman. Harry Zolnierczyk prevented a Providence shutout with the lone goal for the Penguins, but the Bruins would go on to win by a final score of 5-1.
The Penguins found victory the next night when they took on the Portland Pirates at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston, Maine. It was a game in which the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton defensemen shined offensively. With the game knotted at one heading into the second, Simon Despres put the Penguins back in the lead at 8:46 of the period, firing a shot over the blocker of Pirates goalie Mark Visentin. With 2:25 left until the second intermission, Philip Samuelsson netted his third tally of the season to increase Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s lead to 3-1. The two defensemen teamed up at 4:20 of the third when Samuelsson assisted Despres in making it a three-goal cushion for the Penguins. With a goal and three assists, Samuelsson set a career high with his four-point night. Rookie blue liner Scott Harrington also potted his third goal of the season in the match. Eric Hartzell went on to make 27 saves on 29 shots as Wilkes-Barre/Scranton skated past the Pirates, 4-2.
Back in Providence on Sunday afternoon, the Penguins had a much different result from Friday night’s loss to the Bruins. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton raced out of the gate and quickly went ahead, 1-0, at 2:47 of the first on Anton Zlobin’s goal and went up by two later in the period after Dominik Uher posted his fifth of the season. With 27.8 seconds left in the period, Simon Despres registered his third goal in his last three periods of play, giving the Penguins a 3-0 lead heading into the first intermission. After a scoreless second period, former Penguins defenseman Joe Morrow converted during a 5-on-3 at 3:11 of the third period. Nick Drazenovic and Tom Kostopoulos each tacked on goals in the final eight minutes of regulation to ensure the 5-1 win for the Penguins.
On Jan. 24, the Penguins fell to the Norfolk Admirals, 4-1, but the biggest story coming out of the game was a goalie fight between Norfolk’s John Gibson and Jeff Deslauriers. The Penguins keeper got the worst of penalties doled and was forced to exit the game early in the second period. In his first game with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton since Nov. 23, Zach Sill posted the Penguins only goal 2:14 before the intermission to pull the team with one. With 6:27 remaining, the Admirals’ Devante Smith-Pelly dashed any comeback hopes for the Penguins when he tallied his second power play goal of the game.
The very next evening, Hartzell was astounding in net as the Penguins went through an eight-round shootout in edging the Admirals, 2-1. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Mike Carman recorded the game’s first goal, poking a loose puck across the goal line at 12:27 of the first period. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton remained in the lead until Smith-Pelly struck on the man-advantage with only 8.2 seconds remaining before the second intermission. The Admirals made their push to pull ahead in the third period, outshooting the Penguins 14-5. Hartzell turned them all aside and continued to stand tall as Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was also outshot, 4-0, in the overtime period. The shootout went seven rounds without goal before Tom Kuhnhackl beat Brad Thiessen in the top half of round eight. Hartzell denied Alex Grant on the other end of the ice to help the Penguins to a weekend split with Norfolk. Hartzell finished with 33 saves through the extra session and was a perfect 8-for-8 in the shootout. It was not a night of total joy for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as locker room leader Zach Sill suffered an upper body injury that would keep him out of the line-up for the next six weeks
The weekend culminated on Sunday at GIANT Center, where Hershey’s Philip Grubauer made 27 saves in a 2-0 win over the Penguins. Dustin Gazley and Jeff Taffe each posted a goal and an assist for the Bears, to put an end to the Penguins’ four- game winning streak versus Hershey.
That Wednesday, the Penguins rebounded with a convincing 4-0 shutout victory over the Syracuse Crunch to begin their five-game home stand. Holding the Crunch to just 20 shots, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton received goals from four different players including a goal and an assist from captain Tom Kostopoulos. Hartzell made 20 saves for his third shutout this season and raised his record to 9-3-1.
The Penguins fell short to Norfolk, 2-1, on Jan. 31, as the Admirals extended a streak of 12 straight wins at Mohegan Sun Arena. Maxime Suave’s shorthanded goal gave the Admirals the 1-0 edge at 6:24 of the first period. Charles Sarault then put the Penguins down by two five minutes later. Although the first goal of Reid McNeill’s AHL career cut Norfolk’s lead in half, the Penguins were unable to get the equalizer and closed out January with a loss.
January saw Hartzell display the flashes of brilliance that made him a Hobey Baker Finalist with Quinnipiac University the season prior. For his efforts, Hartzell was selected as CCM/AHL Goaltender of the Month as he made 10 appearances and allowed two goals or fewer in each of them, posting a record of 5-2-0 with a 1.33 goals-against average, a .944 save percentage and one shutout.
The Penguins went 8-6-0-0 in first month of the New Year to raise their record to 26-15-1-3. The gap for first place in the East Division grew slightly with Binghamton holding a three-point cushion. February would present the stiffest challenge of the season for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and nearly derail the team’s postseason hopes…
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