|Captain Ryan Keller hoists the Calder Cup after the Binghamton Senators edged the Houston Aeros 3-2 at the Toyota Center to claim their first American Hockey League championship. The B-Sens won the series in six games (Photo by Darren Abate/pressphotointl.com/AHL).
Finally, the wait is over for the Binghamton Senators.
Putting the exclamation point on a remarkable turnaround season, the B-Sens captured the 2011 Calder Cup championship with a 3-2 win over the Houston Aeros at the Toyota Center in Houston on Tuesday night.
The Senators, who joined the AHL in 2002-03 as the top development team of the Ottawa Senators, had missed the playoffs for five consecutive seasons entering the 2010-11 campaign but finished it by earning the city of Binghamton’s first championship in 29 years of hosting an American Hockey League franchise.
It was also an emotional triumph for the B-Sens, who were without assistant coach Steve Stirling. The 62-year-old Stirling underwent quadruple bypass surgery on Sunday and didn’t travel with the team to Houston. But Binghamton players spoke earlier in the day about wanting to win the Cup for the man they call ‘Stirls.’
When captain Ryan Keller — who scored the series-clinching goal at the 9:09 mark of the third period — accepted the Calder Cup from league president Dave Andrews, he did so holding a Stirling nameplate in front of the championship hardware.
The team plans to bring the Calder Cup to the hospital in Johnson City, N.Y., where Stirling is recuperating when it returns to Binghamton on Wednesday. They'll also have him insert the final puck into a plaque containing 16 of them in all — one for each victory the B-Sens recorded en route to the Calder Cup crown.
"We’re a team and we weren’t gonna let Stirls down,” B-Sens head coach Kurt Kleinendorst said in a post-game radio interview. “No way. This was all about Stirls.”
Binghamton took the best-of-seven final 4-2, winning the final three games in a row and four of the last five after dropping the series opener. The Senators also established an AHL record with 10 road victories this postseason (10-2) and finished 15-4 in their final 19 playoff games overall after falling into a 3-1 deficit against the Manchester Monarchs in the first round.
The B-Sens overcame that deficit – winning all four games of the series in overtime – before knocking off the Portland Pirates (4-2) and Charlotte Checkers (4-0) en route to the Finals matchup with Houston.
"It's surreal. We never do it the easy way. Again tonight, our first two periods weren't great, and we found a way in the third. That's this group for you. There's no quit in it. It's unbelievable. We're going to enjoy this one." - Ryan Keller
One more comeback was required to close out the Aeros. Trailing 2-1 entering the third period, the B-Sens evened the score on the power play when Bobby Butler
whipped a wrister past Houston goaltender Matt Hackett at the 3:06 mark of the final frame. It was Butler’s 13th goal of the post-season, one shy of the AHL playoff record for rookies.
"It's a great feeling, just unbelievable," Butler told the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin
. "Just to put it in, Game 6, championship, at any level — it's something that you always wanted to do as a kid. It's just a great, great feeling."
Keller’s game-winner also came with the man advantage, while the Aeros scored both their goals — by Jon DiSalvatore and Jean-Michel Daoust — on the power play. Roman Wick opened the game’s scoring for the B-Sens early in the second period.
"It's surreal," Keller told the Press & Sun-Bulletin
. "We never do it the easy way. Again tonight, our first two periods weren't great, and we found a way in the third. That's this group for you. There's no quit in it. It's unbelievable. We're going to enjoy this one."
Keller also scored the overtime winner to eliminate the Charlotte Checkers in the Eastern Conference final. He finished second in the playoff scoring race (10-15-25) behind teammate Ryan Potulny (14-12-26).
"He's been our leader from Day 1," Kleinendorst said of Keller. "He's been there with me every step of the way and for him to get that game-winner, it's fitting. It couldn't have been a more deserving person."
Kleinendorst, in his first season with the B-Sens guided his club to the Eastern Conference’s crossover playoff berth after finishing fifth in the East Division with a regular-season record of 42-30-3-5 (92 points). The Senators’ playoff roster featured 15 players who appeared in a combined 232 National Hockey League games with the parent Ottawa Senators during the 2010-11 season.
"We’re a team and we weren’t gonna let Stirls down. No way. This was all about (winning it for) Stirls." - Kurt Kleinendorst
B-Sens rookie goaltender Robin Lehner
won the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the most valuable player of the 2011 Calder Cup playoffs, finishing 14-4 with a 2.10 goals-against average, a .939 save percentage, and three shutouts in 19 appearances this spring. A 19-year-old native of Goteborg, Sweden, Lehner was a second-round draft pick (46th overall) by Ottawa in 2009 and appeared in 22 AHL games for Binghamton and eight contests for the NHL Senators during the 2010-11 regular season.
"It’s hard to describe the feeling. I’m so happy. I’m so relieved,” Lehner told the Ottawa Sun
. “This is the biggest thing I’ve ever done. I have a lot of guys to thank.”
Said Kleinendorst: “We don’t win it unless Robin’s between the pipes. I’m not saying that (Barry) Brust wouldn’t have been able to get it done, but there’s no question that Robin was the difference.”
The 19-year-old Lehner became only the fourth teenage goalie to win the Calder Cup, following Carey Price (2007), Patrick Roy (1985) and Gordie Bell (1943).
Binghamton will honour its first AHL champions with a downtown parade on Wednesday night.— Files from AHL.com contributed to this report