It took just seven days and four games for the Hershey Bears to dispose of the Norfolk Admirals in the East Division semifinal series of the AHL’s Calder Cup playoffs. The Bears will have to wait longer than that for the next series to get underway. By the time the East Division finals series pitting the Bears and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins opens on Thursday at Wachovia Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Hershey will have been idle for eight days.
Although the Penguins endured a hard-fought seven-game set with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers that included three overtime contests and seven one-goal games, they will also be well rested. Game 7 of that series was on Saturday, so the Pens will have had the benefit of four full days to rest and recuperate.
Hershey won the Norfolk series with timely goals, excellent goaltending and terrific even strength defense. The Bears outscored the Admirals 18-9 in the four games, with the team’s top forward line of Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Beech and Graham Mink combining to supply half of those goals. Hershey’s checking line of Boyd Kane, Dave Steckel and Boyd Gordon contributed six goals and the line of Colin Forbes, Brooks Laich
and Eric Fehr netted three.
In the Hershey nets, veteran Frederic Cassivi stood tall. He posted a 2.06 goals against average and a .932 save percentage while earning all four wins in the Norfolk series. He was aided by a group of solid and mostly seasoned defensemen. The Bears’ blueline corps was very effective at getting bodies and sticks in passing and shooting lanes. As a result of Cassivi and the defense’s effectiveness, Hershey surrendered only two even strength goals in 13-plus periods of hockey during the Norfolk series, and none in the final 161:26 of the set.
Forbes posted a minus-1 defensive rating in the Norfolk series; every other member of the Bears was plus or even during that series as Hershey claimed its first Calder Cup series win since 2002 and its first win in a best-of-seven series since 2001.
The Bears went 5-for-28 (17.9%) on the power play against Norfolk, but also gave up seven power play goals in the four games and posted a penalty kill success rate of just 79.4%. Two of the power play goals against the Bears came while Hershey was at a two-man disadvantage.
Hershey ranks eighth among the AHL’s 16 first-round playoff clubs in power play success. The Bears are 14th in the league in penalty killing heading into their second-round series with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Bridgeport engaged in a taut, exciting first-round duel. When WBS won Game 7 at Wachovia Arena on Saturday, it marked the first time in the entire series that the home team came out on the winning end. The Penguins outshot the Tigers by 43 in the seven games, but the goal differential between the two clubs was a mere 17-16.
Including three brief overtime affairs, it took a total of 437:02 of hockey to decide the Penguins-Tigers series. More than 400 minutes (408:06) of the series was played with the score tied or the lead at a single goal.
The Penguins went 4-for-40 (10%) on the power play in their first-round series. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton ranks last among the 16 first-round combatants in power play prowess. The Pens successfully snuffed 31 of 36 (86.1%) shorthanded situations in the first round, tied for third best in the AHL.
Two of the Penguins’ power play goals came in the last two games of the series, and both were scored by rookie Ryan Stone, who was a teammate of Hershey’s Eric Fehr with the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings for four seasons (2001-02 through 2004-05). Both of Stone’s power play strikes proved to be huge.
His first was the overtime game-winner, coming at 13:39 of overtime in a must-win Game 6 for the Penguins. That goal evened up the series and sent it back to Wilkes-Barre for the deciding Game 7. With Wilkes-Barre/Scranton nursing a 3-2 lead early in the third period, Stone tallied his third goal of the series and second on the power play at 4:47. The insurance marker proved to be crucial when Bridgeport tallied twice in the game’s final three minutes. The Pens had two power play goals in their first 36 opportunities in the first round and then two more in their last four chances.
During the regular season, the Penguins rolled up a 51-18-5-6 record, good for 113 points. Only Grand Rapids (115) and Portland (114) fared better. The Pens are built on a foundation of goaltending and defense, a pretty good combination to have in the postseason. During the 80-game regular season slate, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton surrendered just 178 goals, 39 fewer than any other club in the AHL. Dany Sabourin
did most of the goaltending for the Pens during the season. He was 30-14-4 with a 2.26 GAA and a .922 save percentage. He was 2-2 with a 1.73 GAA and a .934 save pct. in the series against the Sound Tigers.
Highly regarded prospect Marc-Andre Fleury, the first player chosen in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, was 10-2 with a 1.57 GAA and a .939 save percentage in a dozen regular season contests for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He was a less impressive 2-1 with a 2.81 GAA and a .901 save pct. during the Pens’ first-round series with Bridgeport, but Fleury did backstop the Penguins to a win in Game 7 of that series.
On defense, the Pens got a boost when Ryan Whitney was sent down from parent Pittsburgh at the end of the NHL’s regular season. Whitney was a top player in the AHL in 2004-05 and will be a workhorse for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in all situations. Whitney heads up a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton defense that is younger and greener than that of the Bears.
Matt Hussey led the Penguins in regular season scoring with a modest total of 51 points. Erik Christensen, who spent a good bit of the season in Pittsburgh led Wilkes-Barre/Scranton with 24 goals, piling up that total in just 48 games. The Penguins had just four 20-goal scorers (Hershey had eight) during the regular season but had 14 players who reached double-digit goal totals. First-year defenseman Noah Welch just missed with nine.
Hussey scored just once against the Sound Tigers, but it was a big goal. He tallied at 1:12 of overtime in Game 3 to give the Pens their first win of the series, preventing them from falling into an 0-3 hole. In the Bridgeport series, rookies Stone (three goals) and Jonathan Filewich (five) did most of the offensive damage, accounting for nearly half of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s goal total for the seven games.
During the regular season, Hershey defeated the Pens four times in 10 meetings, with just one of the victories coming in regulation time. This year’s second round series is the second Calder Cup series between the two clubs. The Penguins swept the Bears in the 2001 Conference Finals, outscoring Hershey 12-7 in the process.
The two clubs are fairly evenly matched this spring, setting up what should be a long, tight and hard-fought series. Games 1 and 2 are at Wachovia Center in Wilkes-Barre on Thursday and Saturday. The series shifts to Hershey’s Giant Center for Game 3 on Sunday at 5 p.m. and Game 4 on Tuesday at 7 p.m.