WILKES-BARRE TWP. — Facing a Hershey Bears team that trailed them by three points in the division standings, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins knew that Friday’s meeting was a big one.
And they played like it, too. Aside from the first 10 minutes.
That’s when Hershey scored three times to put the Penguins in an early hole that, no matter how well they played for the rest of the way, was just too much to overcome.
For the sixth straight game the Penguins couldn’t produce more than two goals and on Friday it led to a 3-2 loss to the Bears.
The loss drops the Penguins to 29-24-2-1 and allows Hershey to move within one point of their hold on third place in the East Division. The Penguins are now 4-6-1 against the Bears this season with one more game remaining in the series.
With 20 games left in the season, the Penguins are starting to feel the pressure of battling for playoff position — or to simply make the postseason to begin with.
“It’s the first time you look at the standings and it’s a big game,” veteran forward Warren Peters said. “A huge tilt for both teams.”
At the start, the ice was titled Hershey’s way as the Bears mounted a big lead with a trio of goals in an eight-minute span. Boyd Kane, Jeff Taffe and Ryan Potulny scored for Hershey to send goaltender Brad Thiessen to an early exit in favor of Jeff Zatkoff. Thiessen stopped four of the seven shots he faced on the night.
Penguins coach John Hynes said the 3-0 deficit was the result of several factors.
“It was a combination of Hershey had a good start, us not being good in those areas and giving up scoring chances, and we didn’t get a stop,” he said.
The Penguins were forced to regroup in the second half of the period. And they did.
After a stretch of five straight games without a first-period goal, the Penguins snapped the streak with a historic score.
With Hershey’s Casey Wellman in the box for boarding, the Penguins’ power play went to work in the offensive zone, cycling the puck behind the net before sending a pass out to Chad Kolarik on the point. Kolarik’s shot was stopped by Dany Sabourin, who allowed a rebound out to Trevor Smith at the corner.
Smith deked a Hershey defender and slid the puck underneath Sabourin, where Bears defenseman Kevin Marshall stopped it with his stick just before it crossed the goal line. Before Marshall could clear, Tom Kostopoulos rushed in and slammed the puck home to get the Penguins on the board.
The goal was Kostopoulos’ 100th as a Penguin and cut Hershey’s lead to 3-1.
The Penguins picked up steam in the second period, outshooting Hershey 16-2 and drawing within one thanks to a slapshot from new captain Joey Mormina.
Mormina’s goal, his second of the season, made it 3-2 and the Penguins entered the third within striking distance.
Throughout the final two periods the Penguins succeeded in areas that had previously been troublesome. They got plenty of pucks to the net, jumped on rebounds and went to the crease with a purpose.
“It was a level of game that we haven’t seen for a while with this club,” Peters said. “That part’s encouraging.”
The Penguins had a golden opportunity to tie it late in the third with a power play opportunity, and they came close when Peters tipped a shot that went just wide of the post. Before that, Jayson Megna pounced on a rebound in front and fired a shot at the open net only to have Sabourin kick the puck away at the last second.
No matter how hard the Penguins worked, however, they couldn’t get the equalizer in a game during which they dominated for most of the night.
While they can’t take away a win, the Penguins surely can take away plenty of positives.
“It stings in the sense that we got to a game that we took over for 50 minutes and didn’t get rewarded. But if anything its motivating. That’s the way I prefer to look at it,” Peters said. “I think we’re going to score more goals than two goals if we continue to do that on a nightly basis.”
• RW Christian Minella, RW Paul Thompson (injury), C Phil Dupuis (injury), D Alex Grant and LW Steve MacIntyre (injury) were scratched for the Penguins.
• The Penguins have now scored eight goals in their last six games.
• The Penguins have scored two goals or less 33 times this season and are 10-22-1 in those situations.
Hershey 3, Penguins 2
Hershey 3 0 0 — 3
Penguins 1 1 0 — 2
First period—Scoring – 1. HER, Boyd Kane 12 (Oleksy, Stafford) 4:45. 2. HER, Jeff Taffe 13 (DiSalvatore) 8:45. 3. HER, Ryan Potulny 11 unassisted 9:30. 4. WBS, Tom Kostopoulos 3 (Smith, Kolarik) power play 15:15. Penalties – WBS, Megna (tripping) 2:43; WBS, Farnham (misconduct) 9:14; HER, Brouillette (tripping) 10:18; HER, Wellman (boarding) 14:14.
Second period—Scoring – 5. WBS, Joey Mormina 2 (Peters, Payerl) 7:37. Penalties – None.
Third period—Scoring – None. Penalties – HER, McNeill (slashing) 12:10.
Shots on goal—Hershey – 9-2-4-1 Penguins – 9-16-9-34
Power-play opportunities—Hershey – 0 of 1 Penguins – 1 of 3
Goaltenders—Hershey – Dany Sabourin 8-8-3 (32 saves – 34 shots) Penguins – Brad Thiessen 12-10-1 (4-7); Jeff Zatkoff – 9:34 of the first period, (7-7)
Starters—Hershey – G Dany Sabourin, D Kevin Marshall, D Julien Brouillette, LW Mattias Sjogren, C Mike Carman, RW Garrett Mitchell Penguins – G Brad Thiessen, D Joey Mormina, D Cody Wild, LW Chris Collins, C Warren Peters, RW Adam Payerl
Three Stars—1. HER, Ryan Potulny (game-winning goal) 2. WBS, Joey Mormina (goal) 3. HER, Jeff Taffe (goal)
Referee—Trevor Hanson. Linesmen—Bob Goodman, Jud Ritte