Minnesota may call itself “The State of Hockey,” but right now Pennsylvania is challenging that title.
While the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins open the Eastern Conference Finals on Friday in Pittsburgh, the franchises’ American Hockey League affiliates, the Philadelphia Phantoms and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, are battling in the East Division final of the Calder Cup Playoffs.
It’s not the first time Philadelphia and Pittsburgh squads have met in the crucible of the playoffs. In fact, some of the same players who take to the ice Friday night in Pittsburgh (7:30 p.m. ET, VERSUS) skated in the last “Keystone State Collision.”
In the 2005 AHL playoffs, the Phantoms and Baby Penguins met in a taut, five-game East Division final. In all, 11 players and both coaches -- Philadelphia’s John Stevens and Pittsburgh’s Michel Therrien -- who took part in that Calder Cup series currently are with their respective NHL clubs.
With that familiarity is going to come some major-league contempt.
“It was extremely heated (in the AHL), just like it is with our team and the Penguins,” said Flyers forward R.J. Umberger, who played center on that Phantoms team. “There was a lot of bad blood, lot of fights in the AHL. I think both teams are going to have a lot of hatred by the end of the (NHL) series.”
It’s hatred that stems from one of the more memorable playoff series in American Hockey League history. The Phantoms, led by Umberger, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Randy Jones, Riley Cote and goalie Antero Niittymaki, had the home-ice advantage against the Baby Pens, who featured current Pittsburgh players Ryan Whitney, Rob Scuderi, Maxime Talbot
and Kris Beech, with current Penguins starter Marc-Andre Fleury in goal.
The Phantoms won the first two games of the series by identical 4-1 results as Niittymaki allowed just two goals on 49 shots. Wilkes-Barre took Game 3, 3-1, but the Phantoms won Game 4, 5-3, to set up a decisive – and historic – Game 5 at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia.
The Phantoms fell behind 3-1 after two periods, and the deficit became 4-1 when Tomas Surovy scored his second goal of the game 37 seconds into the third period. Eight minutes later, the Phantoms erupted like water bursting through a dam, scoring six times during the final 11:37 of the game to turn the deficit into a 7-4 victory and a berth in the conference final.
“I think anybody that was a part of that game, especially the winning side, it was an unbelievable experience,” said Stevens. “We just seemed to get rolling and it wasn’t going to stop. To be able to close out a series like that, it really gave our team confidence we could come back, that we were never out of a game. But we had that kind of a team that year. We had balance on defense, we had balance up front; we got goals all over. … We had a team not that different from the one we have now.”
Jones believes that comeback gave the team the spark it needed to get past Providence in six games in the conference final, and then sweep Chicago for the franchise’s second AHL title.
“Coming back in Game 5, we got six goals in the third period, I think that was the biggest thing,” he said. “You let that game slip, you have to go back to Wilkes-Barre for Game 6, anything can happen -- especially in that barn. I think Game 5, that comeback put a lot of confidence in us, in our scoring and I think that carried through the rest of the playoffs.”
It also was another part of a burgeoning rivalry.
The 2005 series victory is the only time in three playoff meetings the Phantoms have topped the AHL Penguins since Wilkes-Barre/Scranton entered the AHL in 1999. And as players have progressed through their respective farm systems, the rivalry has progressed to the NHL level.
“They were tough games,” Niittymaki said. “There were a lot of big games, like the ones we play against Pittsburgh right now.”
“Neither team liked each other (then),” said Jones, “and it’s expected to be the same (now).”