HERSHEY — Daniel Sprong made a habit this season of sniping shots through any open area into the net, no matter how small.
But at the end of Sunday’s game against the Hershey Bears, it was a wide open empty net that evaded him.
In the last game of the regular season, Sprong needed a hat trick to finish as the leading goal scorer in the American Hockey League. Three goals would’ve also tied Sprong with Chris Minard for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins season record.
“It was probably in the back of my mind,” Sprong said of the achievements at stake.
Instead, Sprong had to settle for one goal as the Penguins, who rested most of their regulars, beat the Bears, 3-2 to finish out the regular season. The Penguins move on to play the Charlotte Checkers in the first round of the playoffs.
Sprong finishes his rookie season tied for second in the AHL with 32 goals, one behind Charlotte’s Valentin Zykov. He tied Janne Pesonen for the second-most goals in a season for the Penguins, and his 65 points are the fourth-highest in franchise history.
So does Sprong think his rookie season was a success?
“It’s not for me to decide. I have my goals but I’ll leave them to myself,” he said. “That’s for other people to decide.”
Sprong got to work during a first-period power play, sniping a wrist shot for his first goal and a 1-0 Penguins lead.
In the second period, Sprong had a good chance during a two-on-one rush with Adam Johnson, but his shot hit Vitek Vanecek in the pads.
Sprong had a better chance during a power play in the third period. Kevin Schulze stole the puck in the offensive zone and dished to Sprong, who skated to open ice in the slot and fired on Vanecek. Sprong’s shot was stopped, but the rebound bounced to Gage Quinney, who slammed it home to give the Penguins a 3-1 lead.
Sprong earned an assist on Quinney’s goal, giving him 65 points on the season.
It wasn’t until the final seconds when Sprong raced into the Hershey end to collect the puck and fire at the empty net, only to have a Bears player slide into the post and knock the goal off.
Sprong tried to convince the official that the net was intentionally knocked off its moorings, but to no avail.
“I would have taken it. I thought he pushed it off,” Sprong said.
Instead, the Penguins will shift their focus to the first-round playoff series against Charlotte, which begins on the road on Friday, April 20.
The Penguins finished 1-3-0-0 against the Checkers in the regular season, but head coach Clark Donatelli wasn’t too concerned about the record.
“I don’t think it matters. A lot of things change over the course of the year,” he said. “We know they’re a good, skilled team that’s fast. It’s going to be a good series.”
Even Sprong said his regular season accomplishments will take a backseat to the postseason, adding there is one scene that he wants to see play out.
“If we play the way we know how to play and we all show up every night, at the end of the road Tom Kostopoulos will be holding the Calder over his head,” said Sprong, referring to the long-time team captain who will be retiring at the end of the season.
– Tom Kostopoulos didn’t play in Sunday’s game, officially bringing an end to his AHL regular season career. Kostopoulos finishes the regular season with five goals and 19 points in 31 games.
– Donatelli was happy to get a look at some of the new players on Sunday and it might not be the last game for some of them. “We wanted to see what type of depth we have. You never know what’s going to happen in the playoffs. You never know when your going to need them,” Donatelli said.
Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky