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Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins Season in Review: February
by Jen Dobias

The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins took the ice in 2012-13 for their 14th season of play and looking to come on top of the rough and tumble East Division. With the NHL lockout providing the backdrop for the first half of the season, the Penguins seemed to find their stride over the final two months of the regular season en route to their 11th consecutive Calder Cup Playoff appearance.  Over the next few weeks, we will recap Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s season, month-by-month. 

February had plenty of thrilling come-from-behind wins. It also had its fair share of tough losses. In the end, the Wilkes/Barre-Scranton Penguins showed both offensive flair and defensive grit in what proved to be a month of highs and lows.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton began February with three games in three days and won all three to extend its winning streak to four games.  Against Manchester on Feb. 1, the Penguins doubled their shorthanded goal total for the season en route to a 4-1 win.

Already up by one, the Penguins found themselves down a man late in the second. Trevor Smith collected the puck behind the Manchester net, threw a backhanded shot at goalie Peter Mannino’s pads before then grabbing his own rebound and finding the back of the net.  Shorthanded again in the third period, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton would hit paydirt thanks to a strong individual effort by Zach Sill as he raced down the ice on a breakaway and rifled a shot past Mannino to lengthen the Penguins lead to three.  Not only did the Penguins score two shorthanded goals, they were perfect on the penalty kill, thwarting the Monarchs five times.

Brad Thiessen’s fourth shutout in his last eight starts led Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to a 3-0 win over Adirondack on Saturday, Feb. 2. The reigning CCM/AHL Goaltender of the Month made 20 saves to frustrate the Phantoms attack.  Warren Peters led the offense for the Penguins with a pair of even- strength goals.

The last time they played the Hershey Bears, the Penguins stormed the ice after winning in overtime, 2-1, in the AHL Outdoor Classic. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton would repeat that script on Feb. 3 at GIANT Center.

Although the Penguins peppered Dany Sabourin with 22 shots through two frames, it was the Bears who had 1-0 lead heading into the third after Boyd Kane’s power play goal at 9:03 of the second.  Riley Holzapfel finally solved the Hershey netminder, shoving the puck past Sabourin with 7:57 left to play.

As it was in the Outdoor Classic, the Penguins were awarded a power play early into the extra frame. This time, Chad Kolarik was the hero as, with less than 11 seconds left in OT, he sent a one-timer screaming inside the far post to seal the 2-1 win.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton then travelled down to Norfolk for a two-game set with the Admirals. In the first game, the Admirals took a 1-0 lead at 7:46 in the first but Peters netted his third goal in three games to knot the score at one with 2:18 left in the second period.  In the third, Norfolk scored three unanswered to skate to a 4-1 win.  Checking-line forwards Jay Rosehill (2g-1a) and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond (1g-2a) had career nights in helping the Admirals to the win. 

The final score of the second game would be a carbon copy of the previous match, though this time it was the Penguins who came out on top. Riley Holzapfel and Trevor Smith each notched a goal and an assist and Zatkoff made 25-of-26 saves to secure the 4-1 win.

Even though the Penguins’ penalty kill had a solid night on Feb. 12 in going 8-for-9 versus Binghamton’s man-advantage, the Senators were not hurting for offense in a 5-1 defeat of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at Mohegan Sun Arena.  The lone bright spot was Dominik Uher’s first professional goal, coming on the power play at 3:35 in the third.

Three days later, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton suffered another setback against Norfolk. Letourneau-Leblond continued to be a Penguins killer, notching the only goal of the contest at 3:17 of the final frame. While Wilkes-Barre/Scranton held the Admirals to only 12 shots in the game, Letourneau-Leblond’s goal was all that they would need. Igor Bobkov made 32 saves, including 14 in the third, to shutout the Penguins.

The Penguins rebounded in a big way the next evening against a familiar foe.  Binghamton goaltender Robin Lehner had 5-0-1 against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at that point in the season, consistently thwarting the Penguins offense and making more than 30 saves five times in the season series.

While Lehner would again turn aside 30 shots, the Penguins exploded for five goals en route to a commanding 5-2 win.  Special teams led the charge as Wilkes-Barre/Scranton went 3-for-11 on the power play and Brian Gibbons added a shorthanded goal.  The top line of Smith (2g-2a), Kolarik (1g-3a) and Holzapfel (2a) combined for 10 points on the night. 

After flexing their offensive muscle against the Senators, the offense dried up again the next day against Syracuse. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton could not get the puck past Syracuse goalie Riku Helenius, who made 23 saves in the shutout.  Kyle Wilson scored twice as part of a three-goal, third period that gave the Crunch the 3-0 victory. 

The Penguins were back on the ice on Feb. 22 to face off against the Adirondack Phantoms and would start off a run that saw the team win three straight – all by a 2-1 margin.  The stretch began though with Marcel Noebels drawing first blood for the Phantoms with the extra man midway through the first.

In danger of being shutout for the third time in four games and with the clock draining down, Bobby Farnham netted the equalizer at 13:34 in the final frame, picking the top right-hand corner of the net with a wrist shot. Less than two minutes later, Gibbons slipped a backhander past Cal Heeter for the final tally.   

The next night, it would take an overtime period to decide things. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Connecticut played scoreless hockey until the third, when each team capitalized on a power play less than a minute a part. Kolarik struck against his former team to make it 1-0 at 4:16 but the Penguins took back-to-back penalties to give Connecticut a 5-on-3 advantage that saw Brandon Segal net his 15th of the year.  With 53 seconds left in overtime, Smith won an offensive-zone faceoff back to defenseman Joe Morrow, who patiently waited for a screen and then fired a shot past Cameron Talbot.

Even more bonus hockey awaited Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on a Sunday afternoon in Bridgeport. Aaron Ness put the Bridgeport Sound Tigers on the board first less than five minutes of the opening frame, while Tom Kostopoulos recorded the game-tying goal at 4:13 of the second.  After a scoreless third and overtime, the game went to a shootout.

In the shootout, Kolarik opened the scoring in the first round, but Jack Combs answered eventually for the Sound Tigers in round three.  After Holzapfel converted the fourth chance for the Penguins, Thiessen stoned Brock Nelson in the top half of round five to seal the 2-1 victory and the weekend sweep. Thiessen was a rock in net, making 34-of-34 saves and denying 4-of-5 shooters in the shootout.

The final game of the month against Norfolk also ended in a 2-1 score, but the Penguins found themselves on the wrong side of the ledger.  Tom Kostopoulos’s power play marker at 7:33 in the second put the Penguins up, 1-0, but the Admirals would respond with their own man-advantage marker as McMillan tied the game with 51 seconds remaining until the intermission.  With 5:20 to go in the contest, Josh Brittain capitalized on the turnover and fired home the go-ahead goal and deciding tally for the Admirals.

The Penguins went 8-5-0-0 in February to bring their season record to 29-23-2-1. The top line of Smith (4g-6a), Kolarik (3g-6a) and Holzapfel (3g-5a) each enjoyed much success during the month and all three would continue to shine in the ensuing week.  For the first time this season, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton put together two successful months of above-.500 hockey and looked to continue their upward trend into March. 

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