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20 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Memories for 20 Years, Part 2

In the second installment of our two-part WBS Penguins memory series, we close it out with our final 10 favorites.

The WBS Penguins salute their fans at the end of their 20th season.
Photo taken by dps2002

On Tuesday, I compiled a list of 10 of my favorite memories from the past two decades of WBS Penguins hockey. As we wait for the Luzerne County Convention Center Authority to formalize the lease extension agreed to on Monday with the Pittsburgh Penguins to keep Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre Township for the next 10 years (which should take place at the Authority’s monthly meeting later today), let’s continue onto the second half of top memories to close off our celebration of 20 years of WBS Penguins history.

May 11, 2007: Nygel (2007 Calder Cup Playoffs, Round 2 Game 5: WBS 6 @ Hershey Bears 7 OT)

Twenty-three power plays. TWENTY. THREE. In an elimination game. With three of them coming in quick succession in overtime, leading to the eventual 5-on-3 power play goal in overtime to end the season.

A game well worth my $6 on the old AHL Live service, in retrospect.

Down 3-1 on the road at Hershey with the season on the line, the Penguins and Bears punched and counter-punched to a 6-6 tie after 60 minutes, with Marc-Antoine Pouliot (2), Robert Nilsson, Connor James, Joe Jensen, and Jonathan Filewich matching a Scott Barney hat trick and goals by Dave Steckel, Tomas Fleischman, and Kyle Wilson. Four of WBS’s goals were power play goals, while Hershey connected on two power plays during regulation.

Overtime, though, went completely against what you might consider a professional hockey game overtime to be (whistles away). Referee Nygel Pelletier whistled Hershey’s Tyler Sloan for interference at 0:40 of overtime, WBS’s Joe Jensen at 1:25 of overtime for goaltender interference to cancel out the power play, then WBS’s Micki DuPont at 3:03 of overtime to turn the power play into a 5-on-3, then Jonathan Filewich at 4:48 of overtime for hooking to give Hershey an unheard of 2nd 5-on-3 PP of overtime. To the surprise of no one, the most dangerous Hershey goal scorer of WBS’s time, Alex Giroux, scored at 4:58 of OT to KO the Penguins.

You know it’s a weird moment, and one of the more memorable exits in team history, when the most penalized player in AHL history, Dennis Bonvie, is seen trying to get after Pelletier after the final goal, with then-Hershey radio broadcaster John Walton calling the reaction “pretty understandable.”

April 29, 2008: Streaking (WBS Captain Nathan Smith Suspended for Playoff Game)

Over 20 years of WBS Penguins hockey, we have generally had a well-behaved team. If there have been any incidents of bad behavior from the players, they have usually been minor enough to stay out of the newspaper headlines.

With one notable exception.

On the morning of April 27, 2008, the then-captain of the WBS Penguins, center Nathan Smith, was discovered streaking. Per the Associated Press, Smith was charged with public drunkenness, open lewdness, disorderly conduct, and indecent exposure. Also charged in the incident was forward Ryan Stone, who was dinged for public drunkenness, his second such charge of the season.

Smith was issued a one-game suspension by the WBS Penguins, which ended up being Game 1 of WBS’s second round series that year against the Philadelphia Phantoms. Philadelphia won the Smith suspension game 5-2, but WBS reeled off four straight victories thereafter to dispatch their rivals in five games.

May 24, 2008: Clutch (2008 Eastern Conference Final Game 7: Portland Pirates 2 @ WBS 3)

The year 2008 was a very, very special year in the history of the Penguins organization. It is the only time in our shared 20 years of existence that both NHL club and AHL affiliate advanced to their respective championship finals.

The 2007-08 Penguins won the regular season East Division and Eastern Conference championship with a record of 47-26-3-4, good for 101 points, two clear of the Philadelphia Phantoms in second place. Leading the Penguins in scoring that year was Tim Brent, with 18 goals and 43 points in 74 games. Leading the Penguins in goals that year was Chris Minard, with 25 in 56 games, a prelude to his 2008-09 season where he would set the team record with 34, a record that still stands despite the strong challenge given to it by Daniel Sprong (32) in 2017-18.

Winning the East Division gave the Penguins home ice advantage in the first two rounds, which they used to great advantage by dispatching the Hershey Bears in 5 games in Round 1 with 3 wins at home. Longtime rival Philadelphia stood in the way in Round 2, as noted above, and despite dropping Game 1 of the series 5-2 at home without their captain (see above) WBS won the next four, punctuated by an 8-4 victory in Game 4 in Philadelphia, to advance to their third conference final.

Awaiting the Penguins in the Eastern final was Portland, who had upset both a 110-point Hartford team and the Kilpatrick Trophy-winning Providence Bruins to get to the Eastern final.

In a classic seven-game final, WBS and Portland split the first two games in WBS, with Portland then winning two of three at home to return to NEPA with a chance to advance to the Calder Cup Final. WBS staved off elimination in Game 6 as WBS scored three straight goals after falling behind 3-0 (Connor James at 19:48 of the 2nd, then Minard twice in the third), then James scored his second of the night just 20 seconds into extra time to force Game 7. In a reversal from the night before, WBS took early control in Game 7, with the late Dave Gove and Ryan Stone scoring in the first period, but Portland punched back through Stephen Dixon and Geoff Platt in the second. The third period was controlled by WBS, outshooting the Pirates 11-4, but it looked for a while as Game 7 would need overtime as well.

Until WBS’s scoring leader decided otherwise.

With just 31 seconds to go, Tim Brent scored his 11th of the playoffs to break the deadlock and clinch WBS’s third trip to the Calder Cup Final.

June 6, 2008: Personal Redemption (2008 Calder Cup Final Game 4: Chicago Wolves 2 @ WBS 3)

Remember how I said Tim Brent led WBS in scoring in 2007-08 with 61 points? Their opponents in the Calder Cup Final in 2008, the Chicago Wolves, boasted four players who exceeded that point total, led by an absolutely absurd 112-point season from Jason Krog. Chicago eliminated Milwaukee in six games, Rockford in seven, then Toronto in five to get to the Final, and their rampage continued in the Final as they took both home games to open the Final by scores of 5-4 and 4-2. Chicago blew out WBS on Penguin ice 6-1 in Game 3, setting the stage for the worst possible deja vu for me, as once again on my birthday, I attended a Calder Cup Final game featuring my favorite team with the possibility of seeing the Cup awarded once again on WBS ice after a sweep.

WBS gave Chicago all it had left in Game 4, with goals by Chris Minard and Dave Gove answered by Darren Haydar twice. WBS captain Nathan Smith broke the tie at 2:21 with his seventh of the playoffs, and as my friends put my name on the video board for my birthday, I watched as WBS held the lead through to full time to deny Chicago a sweep and allow me to see my favorite team win on my birthday.

WBS blew away the Wolves in Game 5, scoring five straight goals to win 5-1 and force the series back to Chicago, where the Wolves eventually won the Calder Cup on their home ice 5-2 in Game 6. But the opportunity to see my favorite team win on my birthday deserves an inclusion on my list here.

May 7, 2011: The Collapse, Version 2 (2011 Calder Cup Playoffs, Round 2 Game 6: Charlotte Checkers 4 @ WBS 3)

For 18 consecutive seasons (2000-01 to 2017-18), the final game of the season for WBS has been a loss. All of them, on some level, have hurt and have left some kind of bad taste in the mouth as the season ended. But the loss to end the 2010-11 season was probably the most painful.

The 2010-11 Penguins ran roughshod over the rest of the league, winning 58 out of 80 games to finish with 117 points, a points percentage of 73.1 percent (team records for wins, points, and percentage), and the Kilpatrick Trophy for the best regular season record with a cushion of 14 points. WBS had no scorers in the top 20 in the AHL that season; in fact, the team leader Brett Sterling only recorded 53 points, including 27 goals, tied for 17th in the league. That team was led by its goaltending, with Brad Thiessen posting a 35-8 record in 46 starts with a 1.94 GAA that was second in the AHL by 0.01, and second goalie John Curry posting a 23-13 record with a 2.44 GAA that was 15th in the league among qualifying goaltenders.

The regular season success did not fully translate over to playoff success, however, as WBS dropped its first two home games against the Norfolk Admirals in the first round and had to rely on a three-game sweep of the road games in Norfolk before finishing off the Admirals in six games. Round 2 did not go according to plan either, as the Charlotte Checkers forced a split of the first two home games in WBS, then won two in a row. WBS needed a 1-0 shutout from Thiessen in Game 5 to bring the series back to WBS the next night.

The WBS offense looked to be clicking into place over the first 42 minutes of Game 6, as Ryan Craig, Corey Potter, and Joe Vitale scored to build a 3-0 lead in the opening minutes of the third period. But just six minutes later, the harshest 10 minutes I’ve seen at the Mohegan Sun Arena began, as Chris Terry (7:24), Brett Sutter (10:40), Terry again (11:10), then Zac Dalpe (16:24) scored on Thiessen to give the Checkers a shocking 4-3 comeback victory to take out the league’s regular season champions.

By this time, I had discovered social networks, and I had taken to sharing the events of the WBS Penguins games from the arena as they had been happening. The Game 6 collapse in 2011 was so shocking that I actually had people reaching out to me in concern. It was such a stunning collapse that the Penguins didn’t even stop to acknowledge the fans after the post-game handshake; they simply retreated to their locker room (a decision that I could understand, but which caused a fair bit of consternation among some of the fans afterwards).

January 20, 2013: The Coldest I’ve Ever Been (2013 AHL Outdoor Classic: WBS 2 @ Hershey 1 OT)

I have had the good fortune to attend four games played outside during my time with the Pittsburgh/WBS Penguins. I was in attendance on New Year’s Day 2011 as Washington defeated Pittsburgh in that year’s Winter Classic. I found myself back at Heinz Field in 2017 for the Stadium Series, as Pittsburgh defeated Philadelphia. Just a few months ago, I was in Philadelphia for the return Stadium Series game, painfully won by the Flyers in overtime.

I was also fortunate enough to attend the only game the WBS Penguins have ever played outdoors, as they visited Hershey Park Stadium to play the Hershey Bears in the 2013 AHL Outdoor Classic. If you have two hours of time, you can watch the game here, but if you don’t, what you need to know is this.

  1. Hershey’s Tomas Kundratek opened the scoring at 15:40 of the second, Riley Holzapfel for WBS tied the game at 7:47 of the third, and Paul Thompson won it 1:19 into overtime.
  2. I have never, ever in my life been as cold as I was sitting in the bleachers of a football stadium in Hershey in late January. I would not advise doing this unless you are well and truly prepared for it.

May 17, 2013 to May 22, 2013: The Greatest Comeback (WBS Reverse-Sweeps Providence Bruins)

We’ve called the Penguins the Cardiac Penguins around these parts for years, and never has that moniker been more appropriate than in 2013, when WBS became the third team in the history of the AHL to turn an 0-3 series deficit into a series victory, and the first to win the deciding Game 7 on the road.

Providence stormed out to an 8-5 win in Game 1 and were up 4-1 after the first period of Game 2 when then-coach John Hynes replaced goaltender Jeff Zatkoff with Brad Thiessen. Thiessen kept a clean sheet for the rest of Game 2 as Providence won 4-2, then only conceded two in Game 3 as Providence won 2-1 in overtime. Game 4 at the Mohegan Sun Arena went to the Penguins 3-1 with three straight goals in the second period; Game 5 in the WB was a 4-0 shutout for the Penguins. In Game 6 back in Providence, Thiessen turned in arguably his greatest WBS performance, stopping 46 Bruins shots over 63:26 of game time, and Trevor Smith scored his third of the playoffs 3:26 into overtime to take the series to a seventh game, which WBS won handily 5-0.

When the smoke cleared, Zatkoff had conceded 12 goals on 40 shots in the first 80 minutes of the series, but Thiessen only allowed four on 181 shots over the remaining five games and change.

Thanks to the comeback, WBS advanced to the conference final, where they fell in five games to the Syracuse Crunch, culminating in a demoralizing 7-0 defeat at the War Memorial.

May 21, 2014: Nearly The Collapse, Version 3 (2014 Calder Cup Playoffs, Round 2 Game 7: Providence 4 @ WBS 5)

The 0-3 comeback in 2013 was the first of several memorable playoff confrontations between the Penguins and Bruins in recent memory. The two sides met again in the 2014 playoffs in the very same second round, and unlike in 2013, the teams traded victories. First, a Bruins shutout, then a WBS 6-1 romp. WBS wins in double-overtime, Providence answers in single overtime. WBS wins 3-2 to bring the series back to the WB with a chance to win, Providence wins Game 6 4-1, setting up the culminating Game 7.

The first period went scoreless, but WBS exploded in the second period for five goals in the span of 5:59, including one of the greatest individual efforts in team history.

That goal chased starter Niklas Svedberg from the game, and his backup Malcolm Subban promptly gave up one more for good measure to put WBS up 5-0. A David Warsofsky shorthanded goal for Providence at 19:06 of the second gave Providence some life, which they turned into three goals within the first 10 minutes of the third period to draw back to 5-4 and elevate my blood pressure to dangerous levels, but WBS starter Peter Mannino settled down from there to lock down the victory and send WBS through to the conference finals.

WBS would proceed to lose the conference finals again in 2014, this time to the St. John’s IceCaps.

December 12, 2015: The Coach’s Promotion, Version 3 (Mike Sullivan Promoted to Pittsburgh After 18-5 Start)

After coach John Hynes was signed away from the Penguins organization following the 2015 season, the Penguins organization agreed terms with Mike Sullivan, who previously had been with the Chicago Blackhawks as a development coach. While under Sullivan, the WBS Penguins stormed out to an 18-5 record to open the 2015-16 season, but my most vivid memory of Sullivan comes two days before the Pittsburgh Penguins fired then-coach Mike Johnston and promoted Sullivan to head coach.

On Wednesday, December 9, Sullivan’s WBS Penguins defeated the Syracuse Crunch 6-2. But with the game 5-1 in the third, the Crunch and Penguins came together in front of the WBS bench for some pushing, shoving, and extracurricular nonsense. The most powerful memory I have from Sullivan in his brief time with WBS is him standing behind the WBS bench, wrapping his arms around players on the bench to keep them on the bench and away from the altercations.

Two days later, following a 4-0 shutout of the Phantoms, Sully was up, Matt Murray came with him, and the rest is history.

April 30, 2017: The Brick Wall (2017 Calder Cup Playoffs, Round 1 Game 5: Providence 2 @ WBS 1)

The 2017 playoffs were the fourth straight season in which WBS and Providence butted heads. I have already recapped the first two of those series above, but WBS was on a three-year winning streak over the Bruins after sweeping Providence out of the first round in 2016.

With home-ice advantage in the series, WBS chose to play the last three games of the best-of-five series at home, as opposed to the first two. WBS got a split of the games in Providence thanks to a 6-5 OT victory in Game 2. The Penguins pushed the Bruins to the brink in Game 3 with a 2-1 victory, but the Bruins answered with four goals in the first 34:09 of Game 4 to power themselves to a 4-2 win to force Game 5.

Game 5 was one of the most one-sided offensive games I’ve ever seen at the arena, with WBS putting up a team playoff-record 51 shots against Providence goaltender Zane McIntyre, but McIntyre stopped 50 of them to backstop his Bruins to a 2-1 victory and the first of two straight first-round eliminations for the Penguins (2017 and 2018) before missing the playoffs entirely this past season.

After three conference playoff titles, two Kilpatrick Trophies, four regular season division championships, 17 playoff qualifications, a streak of 13 straight 40-win seasons, and innumerable players graduated to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the history of WBS Penguins hockey can be largely considered a success. The only thing missing from our resume is a championship; while it is certainly not the overall goal, it would be nice to get one, and now, we’ve got 10 more years to see it happen.