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B-Sens getting healthier for conference final

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
The waiting game is doing small wonders for the Binghamton Senators' blue line.

Decimated by injuries for much of the first two rounds of the Calder Cup playoffs, the B-Sens' defence corps was a veritable patchwork unit at times. But with a five-day break before the opener of the Eastern Conference final against the Charlotte Checkers, the picture is beginning to look a little more brighter in that area.

On Monday, B-Sens head coach Kurt Kleinendorst revealved that rookie blueliner Eric Gryba — who's been sidelined since the end of March with a high ankle sprain — would likely return for the series opener Thursday night at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte (7:05 p.m., Team 1200, Patrick Wiercioch and Craig Schira could be next to return from the injury list, though likely not in time for Game 1.

"Every day puts us one day closer to being a little healthier," Kleinendorst told the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin. "It looks like we'll get at least one of our defencemen back (for the opener) ...  unless Gryba has a setback, it looks like he's good to go."

Derek Smith, David Hale and Patrick Coulombe also remain sidelined, which meant an excess of minutes for Andre Benoit and Geoff Kinrade in the just-completed Atlantic Division final against the Portland Pirates. But the B-Sens got a big addition for what turned out to be the clincher against the Pirates last Friday, when the parent Ottawa Senators assigned 6-5, 220-pound Jared Cowen to the farm after his Spokane Chiefs were eliminated from the Western Hockey League playoffs.

Nobody appreciates the influx of healthy bodies more than goaltender Robin Lehner, whose 36-save performance Friday sent the Pirates home for the summer in a 3-0 triumph.

"It's really good seeing guys are coming back now," Lehner told the Press & Sun-Bulletin. "It's huge for us. We need to kind of balance out the minutes on the (defence). We've been putting a lot on two guys, and I think Jared is a great player to get to take some of those minutes. Hopefully, we get more and more defencemen back."

Goaltending spotlight changes for B-Sens, Checkers

The B-Sens won the season series between the East Division rivals 4-3-1, including an overtime victory. Barry Brust started all eight games in goal against Charlotte, while Justin Pogge was between the pipes for the Checkers in six of eight meetings. However, when the conference final starts Thursday, expect to see Lehner in goal for the B-Sens, with Mike Murphy stopping pucks for Charlotte. Both netminders are a big reason why their respective teams are still alive in the Calder Cup chase at this point.

For Binghamton, the 19-year-old Lehner has posted a 7-2 record since taking over for an ailing Brust in the opening round against the Manchester Monarchs. He backstopped three straight overtime wins to help the B-Sens rally from a 3-1 hole in that series and had the shutout that finished off Portland.

Murphy has been one of the AHL's top stoppers throughout the Calder Cup playoffs, with a 7-3 record, 1.79 goals-against average and .944 save percentage as Charlotte sidelined the defending champs (Hershey Bears) and 2010-11's top regular-season team (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins). He was 1-1 against the B-Sens this season.

Around the boards

The B-Sens travelled to North Carolina today and will practise in Charlotte on Wednesday before opening up the series the following night ... The Checkers rallied from a 3-0 deficit on Saturday night in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., to end the Penguins' season with a series-clinching 4-3 win ... Murphy posted a scoreless string of 161:11 between the first period of Game 3 and third period of Game 5 against the Pens, the longest such stretch of the Calder Cup playoffs so far ... Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final goes Friday in Charlotte (7:05 p.m., Team 1200, before the series shifts to Binghamton's Broome County Arena for Games 3 (May 17), 4 (May 18) and 5 (May 21). 

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