By Samantha Patterson and Mike O’Brien
Entering March, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins were coming off their most difficult stretch of the season. With just one win in their previous eight games, the Penguins needed to turn things around quickly if the team wanted to stay in the playoff hunt. Luckily, the Penguins were able to find their stride once again, thanks in part to a netminder who made his last appearance with the squad on October 26.
It had been a winding road of a season for Peter Mannino. Signed in the off-season to battle for the number one goaltending spot in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, an injury kept the sixth-year pro out of the lineup at the start of the year and allowed the tandem of Jeff Deslauriers and Eric Hartzell to take over the netminding duties. Mannino fell victim to the numbers game and was loaned to the Wheeling Nailers, but refused the assignment and was suspended by Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The exile lasted nearly four months before he returned to Wheeling and ultimately was recalled by the Penguins to make a start against the Albany Devils on March 1 at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.
Mike Sislo, who scored a hat trick against the Penguins the last time they met, put the Devils on the board at 11:21 of the first and gave his team the 1-0 lead. The score held until Brendan Mikkelson tied the game with a wrist shot at 13:33 of the final frame. Two minutes later, the Penguins were awarded a power play and Tom Kostopoulos notched his 20th goal of the season with 3:52 left in the contest to send Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to the win over Albany, 2-1. Mannino made 19 saves for his first win since October 19 and gave the Penguins the lift they needed in net.
The following Friday, two former players would get the best of the Penguins when they faced the Utica Comets. A defensive battle ensued until Spencer Machacek’s goal 1:12 into the second period to make the score 1-0 for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The Penguins were seconds from skating away with a victory, when Brandon DeFazio scored with the extra attacker with 9.7 seconds left in the third to knot the game. A scoreless overtime gave way to the shootout, where Cal O’Reilly scored the only goal for either side and the Comets took the 2-1 shootout victory.
The memory of the loss was short-lived as the Penguins posted a 4-2 win over the Hamilton Bulldogs the next night. In Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s first visit to Hamilton in more than five years, the Bulldogs took their only lead of the contest when Gabriel Dumont opened the scoring at 15:17 of the first. The Penguins’ Andrew Ebbett began his big night on the offensive attack by evening the game with a power play goal 42 seconds into the second period. Kostopoulos then put the Penguins on top at 1:39 later with another tally on the man-advantage. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton increased its lead to 3-1 with a goal from Denver Manderson at 10:59 of the second that would prove to be the eventual game-winner. Ebbett completed his three-point effort (2G-1A) with an empty-net goal to finish the scoring.
The Penguins traveled to face the Toronto Marlies for the last game of their three-day weekend and the result was one of the craziest games of the season. The Penguins headed into the final frame with a 2-1 lead, but the Marlies deadly power play led by Spencer Abbott was able to tie things up at 10:56 of the third. With 4:01 left in regulation time, Trevor Smith put Toronto ahead for the first time in the game. As time was running short in the contest, the Penguins were able to find the equalizer after pulling goaltender Jeff Deslauriers for an extra attacker. There were just 12.9 seconds left on the clock when Ebbett hit Nick Drazenovic for a one-timer that forced overtime. After a scoreless five minutes, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton got the better of Toronto goalie Drew MacIntyre, scoring three times in four chances. Conversely, Deslauriers stopped three of the four shooters he faced to secure the 4-3 win and a five-point weekend for the Penguins.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton returned home to face the Hamilton Bulldogs on March 14 for the second meeting in less than a week. Anton Zlobin posted two goals and an assist while Mannino stopped 26 shots as the Penguins skated to a methodical 5-1 victory over the Bulldogs. Andrew Ebbett put the Penguins up 1-0 at 11:45 of the first with the rare shorthanded, penalty shot goal. This game, however, was perhaps most notable for the debut of Chuck Kobasew who was assigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton by Pittsburgh earlier in the week. Kobasew proved to be one of the biggest additions for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton down the stretch as he and Ebbett would form a chemistry that produced goals seeming at an every-game pace.
In his first AHL action since the 2004-05 season, Kobasew immediately made his presence felt as he gave the Penguins a little breathing room and made the score 3-1 with just over five minutes left in the second. The eventual win, along with a Norfolk loss in Binghamton, put Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in first place in the East Division standings.
On March 15, the Penguins’ annual St. Patrick’s Day uniforms brought them the luck of the Irish in a 4-0 win over Norfolk, ending a 12-game home winless streak against the Admirals. Everything came together for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in this contest, as they outshot Norfolk by a 40-12 margin and chased starter John Gibson from net after two periods of play. Four different Penguins netted goals, including Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond, who chipped in with his second tally of the season. Mannino needed to only stop 12 shots to record his first shutout as a Penguin. In the process, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton extended its winning streak to four games, its longest since their six-game stretch to start of the season.
Defense and goaltending were the story yet again as Mannino turned aside 16 shots for his second consecutive shutout when the Penguins faced the Crunch in Syracuse on March 21. At 7:38 of the first period, Machacek picked up his 17th goal of the season. Adam Payerl followed almost exactly ten minutes later, tallying his third goal of the year and putting the Penguins in the lead, 2-0. The score would hold until the final horn as Mannino extended his shutout streak to 162:20.
The next night, the Penguins were back at home to battle the Utica Comets. The Penguins’ five-game winning streak ended when the Comets outworked Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for a 2-1 victory. After a scoreless first period, Utica’s Pascal Pelletier broke the 0-0 tie with a power play goal at 12:28 of the second. Kobasew answered in kind during a 5-on-4 advantage only three minutes later to tie the game. It was Colin Stuart’s wrist shot eight minutes into the third that turned out to be the game-winner for the Comets. Mannino’s shutout streak for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton ended at 194:48.
On March 23, the Penguins traveled back to Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City to take on the Albany Devils. As had been the case in their previous two meetings this season, this was another tight-checking, low-scoring affair. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton held the 1-0 lead entering the final period after Kobasew’s power play goal in the first frame. Adam Larsson then tucked one past Jeff Deslauriers just 42 seconds into the third before Travis Zajac put Albany in the lead, 2-1 at 7:16 of the same period. The Devils were ready to skate away with a victory, when Brendan Mikkelson scored his seventh goal of the season with only 68 seconds remaining in regulation. In the overtime, Kobasew completed a 2-on-1 rush with Jayson Megna at 1:22 for a 3-2 win.
In their final Wednesday game of the month, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton fell victim to the Providence Bruins and goaltender Malcolm Subban in a 2-1 loss. Craig Cunningham was the first to post a goal at 3:42 of the first, putting Providence in the lead. Although there was no answer from the Penguins for the rest of the first, it took Kobasew only 17 seconds of the second to even up the game and stretch his goal streak to five games. With 5:10 remaining until the intermission and the Bruins on the power play, Ryan Spooner scored what proved to be the decisive goal for the Bruins.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton then hit the road for a two-game weekend set versus the Norfolk Admirals. On March 28, in the first game of the head-to-head match-up, Kobasew potted the game-winner in an important 2-1 win for the Penguins. The Penguins opened up a 1-0 lead thanks to the newest member of their team. Making his pro debut out of the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Josh Archibald registered his first AHL goal at 14:05 of the first. Kobasew and Ebbett teamed up 42 seconds after the start of second period to double the Penguins lead. Emerson Etem’s goal at 12:34 of the second was the only one mustered by the Admirals as Wilkes-Barre/Scranton held on for the win.
The beginning of Kobasew’s time with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton had reached extraordinary levels. Not only had he scored in his first six games with the Penguins, but his six-game goal scoring streak was the longest active stretch in the AHL going into Saturday’s contest.
Kobasew would not find the back of the net the next night, but Wilkes-Barre/Scranton did record its second consecutive 2-1 win over Norfolk. After the first period came and went without a goal, Brendan Mikkelson picked up his eighth of the season, giving the Penguins the 1-0 edge halfway through the second. Fifty-six seconds into the third period, Dominik Uher netted his second shorthanded goal of the season and the Penguins once again were up, 2-0. Devante Smith-Pelly was able to cut Norfolk’s deficit down to one with a power play marker at 4:57 of the third period, but the Admirals again fell a goal short in its comeback effort.
With an 8-2-1 record in March, the Penguins firmly pulled themselves back into the playoff race and were once again challenging the Binghamton Senators for first place in the East Division. Kobasew’s goal streak ended at six games, but stands as the second-longest streak in team history. Tom Kostopoulos also set another milestone, playing in his 400th game as a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguin against Norfolk on Mar. 29.
Not to be lost in the shuffle was the play of Peter Mannino. The Penguins goalie came in and was the brick wall that the Penguins needed as they tried to get their game back in order for a playoff run. Mannino was named CCM/AHL Goaltender of the Month for March after making 10 starts for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton during the month, allowing two goals or fewer in each and compiling a 7-2-1 record with a 1.09 goals-against average, a .950 save percentage and two shutouts.
With the Penguins’ position in the standings looking much better than it did a month ago, next on the agenda was securing a berth in the Calder Cup Playoffs and perhaps the East Division crown…
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