Wilkes-Barre, Pa. - On any other night, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins five-goal third period would have been the headline. After a lackluster first 45 minutes, the Penguins exploded for two goals in just 49 seconds. A secondary explosion occurred in a 17 second span just 11 minutes later. Bobby Farnham, a man more known for his ability to get in his opponents head than for his offensive abilities, helped lead the charge and earned the second star of the night. The Penguins (12-4-0-2, 26 points 1st in East Division, 2nd in Eastern Conference) defeated the St. John’s Ice Caps (8-8-1-2, 19 points, 3rd in Atlantic Division, 9th in Eastern Conference) 5-2 in front of 5102 fans at the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza Saturday night, splitting the weekend series with their neighbors to the north.
“It was fun,” the Penguins’ victorious goaltender exclaimed after the game.
This was not any other night.
One year ago, Eric Hartzell was in the midst of a breakout year. The 2013 Hobey Baker candidate flew under the radar for most of his time as a Quinnipiac University Bobcat, but he was in the midst of a program record 21 game unbeaten streak.After leading his team through the ECAC tournament semi-finals, into the NCAA tournament, and onto the Frozen Four and National Championship Game against rival Yale, the White Bear Lake, MN native was signed by the Pittsburgh Penguins. He did not play, but was a member of the Penguins through the end of the regular season and into the playoffs.
“My first two weeks there were with the top 5 top 10 best players in the world, ” he reflected. “Just to be able to go from Quinnipiac to that helped me adjust for training camp.”
Things didn’t go quite as planned for Hartzell. Sure, he was re-signed by the Penguins, and with an injury to Tomas Vokoun, poised to be the number one goalie in Wilkes-Barre. He suffered his own injury, though, and was unable to play until November 1st when he made his debut with the Wheeling Nailers.
He allowed five goals in his pro debut. Hartzell proceeded to lose his following two starts, albeit with one in a shootout. He took his 0-2-0-1 record into a game against Elmira on November 14th. He stopped all 35 shots he faced en route to the rookie’s first professional win. After a final tune-up two days later, Hartzell was back in Wilkes-Barre, the place he assumed his professional career would begin.
“I think the coaches made a great decision sending me down to Wheeling to get some game time, especially coming off my injury,” Hartzell said. “That’s pro hockey too. You see a lot of action and the hockey’s good.
“It kind of got the rust off my wheels a little bit and made my transition easier.”
On the day that his Alma Mater saw their slightly less impressive 13-game unbeaten streak end, the Penguins saw a new era begin, as Hartzell was tested early and often en route to his first AHL win in his first AHL start.
“It was exciting,” Hartzell said. “It was a great team win and it was fun to win the way we did in the third period. Couldn’t have gotten more exciting for me.”
In the opening period alone, he was tested early and often, as the Penguins lack of discipline led to three powerplays for the Ice Caps. With that and solid offensive play from the Winnipeg Jets’ AHL affiliate, Hartzell was busy in the first frame, stopping all 12 shots he faced.
“Whenever your penalty killing goes well, your goalie always has to be good,” coach John Hynes said. “[Hartzell] looked calm, he looked relaxed, he competed real well in net and made some big saves early in the game.
“…On the second penalty kill, [St. John's] had some really good looks, a cross crease pass, a cross pass high in the zone. He came across and made some game changing saves on those penalty kills early in the first.”
Ice Caps’ goalie Eddie Pasquale only had three shots against him in the first period and nine in the first two combined.
Meanwhile, Hartzell had to face another onslaught in the second, but he proved up to the task, stopping 13 of 14 shots. His lone blemish in the period came 10:08 in. Just as a 4-on-4 was ending and St. John’s went on an abbreviated powerplay, Ice Caps’ defenseman Kael Mouillierat sent a pass across the point for Brenden Kichton. Kichton one-timed a slapshot that Hartzell made the pad save on, but the rebound came to the open right side of the net, where Eric O’Dell came sweeping around to put home an easy tapper into the open net and open the scoring at 1-0 St. John’s. Hartzell continued to whether storm and picked up where he had left off, concluding an otherwise flawless second period, and making it look easy with the glove, pads, and his body.
The third period started off similar to the opening two for the Penguins, as they appeared sluggish and lackluster. Then, they finally broke the proverbial seal 5:20 into the period. 18 seconds into the Penguins powerplay, there was a scrum in front of Pasquale. Dominik Uher had a few pokes at the puck in front, but captain Tom Kostopulous wristed home the rebound to tie the game at 1 on his seventh goal of the year. Then, 49 seconds later, Nick D’Augustina shot the puck wide, but the rebound off the end boards went right to Bobby Farnham, whose initial shot was saved by Pasquale. He got his own rebound and softly shot it through to the back of the net to give the Penguins their first lead of the night. It was his first of the year, and he celebrated by going to the right wing glass and leaping into it to celebrate with the fans.
Seven minutes later, Hartzell suffered another blemish. Throughout the game St. John’s had a lot of traffic in front and was trying to screen the rookie netminder. Even with that traffic in front, Hartzell was still able make the initial save on Kichton’s shot, but the puck pinballed off O’Dell for his second goal of the night and team leading ninth of the year at 13:57.
It was Andrew Ebbitt’s powerplay goal at 16:37 that proved to be the difference. He took a feed from the point and let go a soft wrister from above the right wing circle that Pasquale should have stopped, but it went right through the wickets to give Wilkes-Barre/Scranton a 3-2 lead and they never looked back. 19 seconds later Zack Sill scored on a shot that went right off a rattled Pasquale’s glove and into the net, and a late emty net goal made the final score 5-2.
Hartzell’s play Saturday makes for a tough decision for coach Hynes. Jeff Deslauriers has done a great job in net for the Penguins, but Hartzell has proven he can compete with the big boys. Add to that Deslauriers is on a PTO which will expire at 25 games and Hartzell is on an NHL two-way deal. Compounded by the reward Jeff Zatkoff has earned as a result of Vokoun’s injury, the Penguins organization has one of the best possible problems on their hands, too many goalies. Scouts from at least seven organizations were in the press box watching Saturday’ game, but it’s too early to jump to conclusions. One thing is for sure. Hartzell will get more opportunities to prove himself and if his positive play continues, could return to Pittsburgh sooner than later.
If he gets to that level this year, Eric Hartzell could go down in history as the first Quinnipiac Bobcat to play in the NHL.
“I definitely want to be the first in the NHL,” Hartzell said. “It’s definitely an honor and I’ve gotta tip to hat to my team last year. A couple of guys on that team are playing in the A[HL] now and that was a great squad. Without them I wouldn’t be where I am today”
The Penguins are off until Wednesday when they travel to the Adirondack Phantoms in Glens Falls, while St. John’s continues their long road trip in Bridgeport Sunday afternoon.
- Hartzell is the second QU goalie to play at the AHL level. Jamie Holden suited up in 14 games for the Cleveland Barons in 2005-06. He wen 5-7 with a 3.50 GAA. Bud Fisher was signed by the Binghamton Senators, but did not appear in a professional game in 2009. Dan Clarke was signed by the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in 2012, but did not appear in a game. Clarke is currently with the SPHL’s Mississippi Surge.
- Hartzell is the fourth active player with Quinnipiac bloodlines. Fellow 2013 alumni Mike Dalhuisen (Bridgeport) and Jeremy Langlois (Springfield – no longer active) join 2009 alumnus David Marshall (Utica) in the top tier minor hockey league. A plethora of alumni joined Hartzell in the ECHL this year.
- As mentioned above, Hartzell missed roughly the first month of the season due to injury, allowing him to attend the Frozen Four banner raising at Quinnipiac on October 19th.
“It was a little emotional just because I wasn’t seeing that National Championship banner go up, and that’s obviously what we strive for last year,” the goalie reminisced. “It was fun get to see something like that. You don’t get to see it often and I’m just glad I got to participate.”