Mike O’Brien and Kristian Stefanides
The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins entered their 15th season of hockey in northeast Pennsylvania, looking to build off the previous year which saw the team reach the Eastern Conference Final. The Penguins once again fielded a squad with highly-regarded prospects such as Brian Gibbons, Scott Harrington, Jayson Megna and Harry Zolnierczyk, along with established veterans like Chris Conner, Nick Drazenovic, Andrew Ebbett and Brendan Mikkelson. The signing that was perhaps most acclaimed by Penguins fans was that of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s all-time scoring leader, Tom Kostopoulos. The 15-year veteran once again donned the “C” for the Penguins as the team began its quest for the Calder Cup.
While slow starts to the season had plagued Wilkes-Barre/Scranton the previous two years, it would not be an ailment these Penguins would suffer in the beginning of 2013-14, as the team opened the season with six straight victories – their best start since winning nine in a row in 2010-2011 and 2005-2006. Throughout the tenure of head coach John Hynes, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has been known mainly for its defensive prowess, but it was a high-flying offense that headlined the show early in the season. During the win streak, the team averaged 4.5 goals per game, led in scoring by Gibbons (4g-7a), Mikkelson (1g-6a), and Ebbett (2g-5a).
That offense was on display on October 5 in the team’s first game of 2013-14, coming on the road versus the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. With the Penguins down, 2-1, late in the second, left wingers Chris Conner and Harry Zolnierczyk went on to tally two goals each, helping the team head home with a 5-2 victory. Along with the Penguins’ strong performance offensively, starting netminder Jeff Deslauriers stopped 22 of 24 shots in the win.
The following Friday, the Penguins took the ice for their first home game of the season at Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza, facing off against their fiercest division rival, the Hershey Bears. Despite falling behind, 1-0, a few minutes into the second period, the momentum swung after a shorthanded goal by Gibbons came just three minutes after the Bears had gone ahead. It wasn’t until 2:38 remained in the third period that Conner broke the tie and gave the Penguins the 2-1 lead. Zach Sill added some breathing room, netting his first of the season with just over a minute left in regulation to cap off the Penguins’ first home win of the season.
It was an outpouring of special teams goals the next night in Syracuse the helped Wilkes-Barre/Scranton thump the Crunch, 6-3. The Crunch were able to strike once each on the power play and the penalty kill, taking a 2-1 lead into the third period. But the Penguins exploded for five goals in the final frame, highlighted by power play markers from Kostopoulos and Drazenovic, and a shorthanded tally by Megna – all within the first nine minutes. The Penguins ended the night with a 3-for-9 performance on the power play, and picked up a shorthanded goal of their own. Drazenovic led all skaters three points (2G-1A), while Kostopoulos netted a pair of goals. Deslauriers was strong in net once again with 26 saves to run his personal win streak to three games.
Back on home ice the next weekend, the Penguins skated to another 6-3 victory, this time against the Adirondack Phantoms. Linemates Megna and Gibbons showed their chemistry as Gibbons assisted on two goals by Megna, while chipping in with a power play goal of his own. It was the second straight game-winner for Megna and third multi-point effort in the first four games for Gibbons.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton trucked up to Worcester, Massachusetts for an October 19 match-up against the Sharks and continued to rumble on the ice. Although the Sharks held a 2-1 edge over the Penguins heading into the third period, a gritty come-from-behind effort netted Wilkes-Barre/Scranton the win. Ebbett tied the score at 2-2 at 12:45 of the third, before Tom Kuhnhackl ripped home the game-winning power play goal with just 40 seconds left in the contest. In his first start of the season, goalie Peter Mannino stopped 28-of-30 shots to earn the victory.
Finishing up the weekend in Manchester on Sunday afternoon, the Penguins stretched their winning streak to six thanks to a 4-3 overtime win against the Monarchs. In what was a back-and-forth contest, three times the Penguins took the lead and three times Manchester fought back to score the equalizer. Gibbons exhibited his early-season mastery once again, recording two goals and an assist as the score remained tied at the end of the third period, 3-3. Gibbons was not done, however, as he led a 2-on-1 rush which Brendan Mikkelson converted just 22 seconds into overtime for the win. Gibbons’ four-point game was a career high and Deslauriers set a season best with 31 saves in the victory. At 6-0-0-0, the Penguins were off to one of the best starts in the team’s 15-year history.
However, all good things must come to an end, and the Penguins’ win streak was halted in Binghamton on October 25 when the team fell in the shootout to the Senators, 4-3. Although Binghamton was on top, 3-1, after two periods, the Penguins were again able to battle back to force overtime and an eventual shootout. Four Penguins shooters were unable to solve Sens goalie Nathan Lawson, while Stephane Da Costa and Matt Puempel each converted for Binghamton. In what would be an ongoing theme for Binghamton this season against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Senators went 2-for-3 on the man-advantage and also registered a shorthanded goal.
The Penguins ended the month of October the following night when the team fell short against the Norfolk Admirals, 2-1. A 1-1 first period deadlock stood until the 5:45 mark of the third when Maxime Sauve notched the deciding tally. Admirals goalie John Gibson won the goaltending battle versus Mannino, making 26 saves on 27 shots.
Despite consecutive losses on the road, the team’s record stood at 6-1-0-1 at the end of the month, putting the Penguins atop of the East Division. There were few in the league more productive than Brian Gibbons in October. With five goals and nine assists in eight games, the third-year forward finished the month third in the AHL with 14 points. Although Wilkes-Barre/Scranton finished October with a pair of losses, the Penguins would quickly find the win column once again in November….
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