Pens look mightier than they were in December

Brendan McCarthy
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Wilkes-Barre have undergone significant personnel changes since last meeting with IceCaps

Note: Edited to show that Sheary went to UMass-Amherst

For the first time in these American Hockey League Calder Cup playoffs, the St. John’s IceCaps are preparing to take on a team they faced in the regular season. But that’s not to say the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the IceCaps’ opponents in the AHL Eastern Conference final beginning Saturday night at Mile One Centre, can be truly described as familiar.
The IceCaps and Penguins played four times this season, each team winning in regulation twice, but the last time they squared off was Dec. 7 at Mile One, and much has changed on the Pens’ roster since that contest.

In fact, of the 20 players dressed for the Penguins in that early December contest, only seven suited up for them on Wednesday night in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., when they held on to beat the Providence Bruins 5-4 in the seventh and deciding game of their conference semifinal.

In an overall team sense, the Penguins are still very much the same stingy defensive group they have been in their four years under head coach John Hynes, but in the last few months, they have undergone a complete changeover when it comes to their netminding and significantly added to their offence via trades, reassignments from the parent club in Pittsburgh and through the showing of a couple of youngsters, including an-under-the-radar college free-agent signing near the end of the season.

In other words, this looks to be a better club than St. John’s faced almost 20 weeks ago. The Penguins will be surely be a test for the IceCaps, as should be expected when you get to the last third of spring and only four teams out of 30 are still skating. (Still, it certainly can be argued the IceCaps have also improved significantly since December, although their improvement came from within, without the significant roster alteration).

Here’s a rundown of the Penguins’ as the best-of-seven series prepares gets underway:

 

Forwards

Wilkes-Barre was led in scoring during the regular season by captain Tom Kostopoulos (71 GP, 22-25-47) and seven-year AHL veteran Nick Drazneovic (63 GP, 13-29-42), but the playoffs have seen a complete change at the top of the team’s points list when it comes to forwards and wingers.

Right-winger Chuck Kobasew, who didn’t play his first game for the AHL Penguins until mid-March after being sent down from Pittsburgh, has 11 points (5G, 6A) in 11 post-season games.

Like Kostopoulos (eight playoff points), Kobasew has suited up in more than 600 NHL games, but another of Wilkes-Barre’s top point-getters this spring is a relatively brand-new pro. Centre Conor Sheary, former captain at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, was signed as an undrafted free agent in March and although he’s listed as being five-foot-eight and 175-pounds, can be described as a huge find; Sheary’s averaging a point a game through nine playoff contests.

Another springtime revelation has been rookie Anton Zlobin. The Russian left-winger spent most of the season with Wilkes-Barre (46 GP, 8G, 11 A), but was assigned to the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL for 10 games late last fall. Despite his modest regular-season numbers, Zlobin — who spent three seasons in the QMJHL — has popped in the playoffs, with five goals and eight points in nine games.

Harry Zolnierczyk, who has played in the NHL with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh (including 13 with the parent Penguins this season), has nine playoff points, while centre Andrew Ebbett has a half-dozen despite missing the entire series against Providence with an injury.

Other notable forwards are Jayson Megna and Maritimer Zach Sill, both of whom played 20 or more games with Pittsburgh in 2013-14; right-winger and former IceCap Spencer Machacek, who came over from the Springfield Falcons as a result of a midseason trade between Pittsburgh and Columbus; Czech Dominik Uher (a three-year junior teammate of the IceCaps’ Brenden Kichton); big OHL product Adam Payerl; and Bobby Farnham.

And then there is Brian Gibbons, who came down from Pittsburgh after the latter team was eliminated in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Gibbons spent more than half the season and 41 games with the big club, even seeing some time on a line with Sidney Crosby, an indication of the third year pro’s skill level.

If you want tangible proof of the same, and haven’t already seen it, check out the goal he scored in Wednesday’s win over Providence (http://tinyurl.com/nw2hngh). It’s Gibbons’ lone tally (and point) through four playoff games with Wilkes-Barre, but what a tally it is, a candidate for goal of the year, no matter how many leagues you include in the survey.

 

Defence

When former Boston College star Brian Dumoulin turned pro a couple of years ago, he came with the reputation of a defensive rearguard, but he’s shown an offensive flair in these playoffs, with 11 points in 11 games for Wilkes-Barre, leading all blueliners on the club.

Other regular defencemen for the Penguins are former Anaheim Duck and Tampa Bay Lightning Brendan Mikkelson; ex-Canadian world junior Scott Harrington, who captained the London Knights to a pair of OHL championships; 2009 Pittsburgh first-round draft pick Simon Despres; big (six-foot-four) Reid McNeill and the diminutive (five-foot-nine) Barry Goers.

Philip Samuelsson, the son of Ulf Samuelson, a two-time Stanley Cup winner with Pittsburgh, played 64 AHL games this season, but has appeared in just two playoff games because of injury.

Defenceman Derrick Pouliot, Pittsburgh’s first-round (eight overall) draft pick from 2012, would have likely joined Wilkes-Barre after the conclusion of his junior career with Portland of the Western Hockey League, but has undergone shoulder surgery.

The Penguins’ defence has produced six of the team’s 36 goals this post-season, but is mostly notable for its endeavours in its own end of the ice, blocking shots and limiting opposition chances. In fact, it’s part of Hynes’ coaching mantra, as for a fourth straight season, Wilkes-Barre had the lowest average shots against in the league (24.60). That’s an even more important stat when you consider the AHL Pens also launched the fewest shots for in entire circuit (26.70 avg.) during the regular season, although they’ve picked up the pace in the playoffs, averaging nearly 30 per game.

 

Goaltending

Former IceCap Peter Mannino (2.51 goals-against average, .901 save percentage in these playoffs) has played every minute between the pipes for Wilkes-Barre through 11 post-season games against Binghamton and Providence, which is remarkable, considering Mannino was suspended and inactive for almost three months mid-season.

Mannino started the 2013-14 campaign with the AHL Pens, but after playing sparingly behind Jeff DesLauriers, was assigned to Wheeling in early November. However, he balked at the demotion, was suspended and didn’t play again until late January, when he relented and reported to the Nailers.

After six games with Wheeling, Mannino was recalled by Wilkes-Barre and soon took over as the No. 1 netminder, finishing with an 11-4 record, 1.76 goals-against average and .932 save percentage.

That performance helped the Penguins secure the Harry ‘Hap’ Holmes Memorial Award for the lowest team goals-against average in the AHL for the third time in four years. However, Mannino’s name won’t be on the trophy because he didn’t appear in the requisite 25 games. Instead, the official honours go to DesLauriers and Eric Hartzell, neither of of whom have dressed for a playoff game this spring — Deslauriers’ season is done because of injury, while Hartzell has been a regular scratch.

Matt Murray, who doesn’t turn 20 until Monday, has backed up Mannino for every playoff game so far. He joined Wilkes-Barre after finishing his junior season with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the OHL.

 

bmcc@thetelegram.com

 

 

Organizations: Boston College, Penguins, IceCaps Providence Bruins 5 NHL University of Massachusetts-Lowell London Knights Western Hockey League

Geographic location: Wilkes-Barre, Pittsburgh, Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Philadelphia Columbus Wheeling Portland Binghamton

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  • SNL Sean Connery
    May 23, 2014 - 10:53

    Yes....Some Might even say "The Pen-Is Mightier" Trebek!