scored a shorthanded goal just 1:13 minutes into the third period, it appeared as though the only thing preventing the Penguins’ ticketing department from printing Game 7 tickets for Monday night was the final 18:47 minutes running off the game clock.
WILKES-BARRE – When Wilkes-Barre/Scranton center
After all, at that point WBS led the Charlotte Checkers by a 3-0 margin, the Penguins were in the midst of improving to eight-for-eight on the penalty kill and goaltender Brad Thiessen
was a brick wall between the pipes.
Unfortunately, almost unexplainably, things unraveled for the Penguins shortly thereafter.
Charlotte scored three times in a 3:46 minute span midway through the final period – including a pair of goals by forward Chris Terry – to tie the score at 3-3. Then, with just 3:18 minutes remaining and overtime quickly looming, the Checkers leading scorer, Zac Dalpe, slid a Brett Sutter pass behind Thiessen to allow Charlotte to complete the improbable comeback, 4-3, stunning the home crowd at Mohegan Sun Arena.
“I thought we were playing pretty well, but then we had a couple of breakdowns and they ended up in the back of our net,” first-year WBS head coach John Hynes said.
The victory allowed Charlotte to clinch a 4-2 series victory.
While the WBS Penguins are naturally disappointed allowing a 3-0 third-period lead, and a potential Game 7 in their home building slip by the wayside in stunning turn of events, Saturday night’s loss doesn’t detract from what was a banner season of hockey in Northeast Pennsylvania.
Much like the parent club, WBS spent both the second half of the regular season and the playoffs constantly overcoming not having key players in the lineup.
“The effort was great by the guys all year,” Hynes said. “The guys really stepped up and played really well. Right until the end we had guys stepping up for us.”
That WBS was able to take the high-flying Checkers to the brink of a seventh game was amazing when you consider the Penguins were missing the services of forwards Dustin Jeffrey
, Chris Conner, Nick Johnson and Eric Tangradi
– four players whose regular-season contributions were crucial to the Penguins winning a franchise-record 58 games – the second-highest win total in American Hockey League history, and a total which clinched the team’s first-ever Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as regular-season champion.
RELATED ARTICLE: Special Teams Were Just That For WBS in Game 6
All four players spent the majority of the second half in Pittsburgh serving as injury replacements, with Jeffrey, Johnson and Tangradi each suffering injuries of their own that prevented them from being part of WBS’ playoff roster.
However, led by the outstanding leadership of Hynes and assistant Alain Nasreddine, WBS never missed a beat, even during a mid-February stretch when it seemed half of the team’s roster, including Tim Wallace, Ryan Craig
, Brett Sterling and Vitale, were all summoned to Pittsburgh.
“Everyone stuck together through all the call-ups and injuries,” Vitale said. “Hopefully we’ll look back and take those positives out of this year.”
In the opening round of the Calder Cup playoffs the Penguins proved their regular-season resiliency wasn’t a fluke, as they overcame a 0-2 series deficit to the Norfolk Admirals by winning four straight games – including three in a row in Norfolk after dropping the first two games at home.
That WBS remained near the top of the class in the AHL throughout the regular season and playoffs is due in large part to the outstanding netminding they received from Thiessen.
The Aldergrove, B.C. product teamed with partner John Curry to form the best goaltending duo in the AHL. Thiessen established franchise records for wins (34) and shutouts (6) in a single season, earning him the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL’s most outstanding goaltender.
“It was a lot of fun and a great group to be a part of,” Thiessen said. “A lot of guys were able to have good individual success because of the way the team played.”
When a netminder posts a 1.94 goals-against average and .922 save percentage like Thiessen did in the regular season, it’s almost impossible to imagine him getting better in the postseason.
But that’s exactly when Thiessen did, as he compiled a 1.67 goals-against average and .940 save percentage while leading the Penguins to the brink of the conference finals for what would have been the fourth time in the franchise’s 12 seasons.
Instead, Thiessen and the Penguins must deal with a disappointing finish, but an ending that doesn’t take away from everything this franchise accomplished this season.
Although the Calder Cup is going to have to wait at least another year before making a visit to Coal Street (home of the WBS practice facility and team offices), we take one final minute to celebrate a spectacular regular season as we look forward to another strong campaign in 2011-12.