It seems rather appropriate that the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins are facing the Hershey Bears in the East Division Final. It’s almost like it was destined that the two teams would meet at some point in the postseason.
But in reality, the Penguins and Bears are simply following in the footsteps of their NHL parent clubs.
When the pucks drops tonight at 7 in Hershey to open the series, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitols will have started their first game six hours earlier.
The similarities between the two series extend far beyond opponents and into bitter personal battles that have placed the Penguins-Bears and Penguins-Capitols among the top rivalries in their respective leagues.
While the NHL series features stars such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, the AHL matchup has its own superstar showdown with the Penguins top line of Jeff Taffe, Chris Minard and J-M Doust squaring off against the likes of Graham Mink, Keith Aucoin and Alexandre Giroux.
Here’s a look at how the two teams matchup by position:
Penguins – When top scorer Janne Pesonen went down with an injury early in the Bridgeport series and didn’t return, it could’ve spelled doom for the Penguins as their other top point producers sputtered a bit at the end of the regular season. But head coach Todd Reirden simply inserted a new sparkplug – J-M Daoust – in his top line and all cylinders quickly fired. The trio of Daoust (three goals, four assists), Jeff Taffe (three goals, four assists) and Chris Minard (five goals, two assists) meshed right away to dispatch the Sound Tigers in five games. It’s no secret that Minard can hammer goals at will and Taffe can score or set up his teammates with ease, but Daoust’s hustle and ability to make smart plays made the loss of Pesonen a little easier to swallow. Reirden said there is a chance Pesonen could return at some point in the series, and if he does an already potent Penguins offense could go off the charts.
But the Penguins forwards are much deeper than the top line. Three of Dustin Jeffrey’s four goals have come on the power play, Mark Letestu has continued his mastery of orchestrating the man-advantage opportunities from the wall and Luca Caputi is always a threat to chip a puck in by grinding around the net. Bill Thomas and Connor James are healthy again and provide valuable penalty kill ability, while Paul Bissonnette, Nick Johnson, Tim Wallace and Joe Vitale can bang bodies and chip in a goal here and there.
Hershey – Surprisingly, the AHL’s top scoring team in the regular season only managed a mediocre 14 goals during its sweep of Philadelphia. But on the flip side, the Bears only allowed six while killing all 22 power plays they faced. The effective penalty kill can be partly attributed to Hershey’s forwards, but one shouldn’t overlook the immense offensive potential that could erupt at any time.
Topping the list is Alexandre Giroux, who scored 60 goals in 69 regular season games. In the postseason Giroux has only tallied two goals, but that figure could balloon at any time. Center Keith Aucoin (96 points), Chris Bourque (73 points), Graham Mink (32 goals) and Kyle Wilson (28 goals) can do their part to transform a game into a shootout. Six of Hershey’s forwards topped 50 points in the regular season, and seven had more than 20 goals. Still, the Bears forwards can do more than score goals at will. Steve Pinizzotto, Jay Beagle, Oskar Osala and Francois Bouchard don’t shy away from throwing hits and wearing down opponents.
Advantage – Even. Sure the Penguins power play has been deadly while Hershey’s offense has withered, but Giroux’s 60 regular season goals mean things could change quickly.
Penguins – Alex Goligoski is the perfect power play quarterback on the point and has the speed and skill to carry the play up ice. Ben Lovejoy – the AHL regular season leader in plus-minus, finished the Bridgeport series with a minus-one but also took on an extended workload due to injuries. Look for the smooth-skating Lovejoy to step it up a notch while facing the Bears top line. His partner, Joey Mormina, showed during the Bridgeport series that he can get under opponents’ skin with his mouth and shut them down with his hits. Deryk Engelland provides a steady presence in his own end and enjoys punishing opponents who dare go into the boards. Reid Cashman is valuable on the power and provides some offense, as does Jon D’Aversa.
Hershey – The loss of Sami Lepisto due to injury hurt the Bears ability to produce offense from the blueline. Still, Karl Alzner can put up points and Staffan Kronwall had two goals in three games during the Philadelphia series. Bryan Helmer provides a veteran presence, Dean Arsene and Greg Amadio are a physical force and Tyler Sloan (plus-4 in the postseason) is as steady as they come.
Advantage – Penguins. They have a good mix of offense ability, physical play and are responsible in their own end.
Penguins – John Curry simply can not be rattled. Bridgeport crashed the net with a vengeance and banged into Curry every chance they had, but it didn’t throw him of his game. He posted a 2.67 goals against average and .913 save percentage in the series, proving that he is a legit postseason goaltender who thrives under the pressure.
Hershey – When the offense sputtered, Michal Neuvirth carried the Bears on his back at times during the Philadelphia series. He shutout the Phantoms to seal the sweep and a 1-0 win, and Neuvirth posted an impressive 1.50 goals against average and a .945 save percentage in the postseason.
Advantage – Bears (slight). Simply based on numbers alone, Neuvirth had the better first round. But that doesn’t mean Curry wasn’t effective. The Penguins power play could make Neuvirth’s first-round success look like a fluke. But at the same time, Curry will have to shoulder the burden of shutting down the likes of Giroux, Aucoin and Mink.
It would be easy to pick the Bears based on their regular season success, deadly offense and convincing sweep of the Phantoms. But even without Pesonen in the lineup, the Penguins match up effectively with Hershey. The Penguins beat the Bears seven out of 10 times during the regular season. Sure, the slate is wiped clean for the playoffs, but that regular season success has made the Penguins extremely confident facing the Bears.
- Penguins in seven.
CALDER CUP PLAYOFFS
East Division Finals, Game 1
Penguins vs. Bears
7:05 p.m. today
Giant Center in Hershey
Radio: WDMT 102.3 FM