Chirps from Center Ice

A fan blog about the AHL's Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins

Penguins / Bears Series Preview

The Penguins open up the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs vs. their I-81 rival Hershey Bears tomorrow. It is time for me to do my best in breaking down the series.

Penguins were 7-3-0-2 vs. the Bears this season. The three regulation losses were a 3-2 loss opening night, a 6-0 whitewash after Christmas on December 27 and a 5-1 loss in Hershey February 12.

This series is going to be determined on variables. The most glaring one is the outcome of the Washington / Boston series currently underway in the NHL with the Bruins leading the series two games to one with Game Four tonight in the nation’s capital. If it goes Bruins in five or six, Braden Holtby, Dany Sabourin, Keith Aucoin, Dmitry Orlov and Cody Eakin (edit: Eakin was assigned to Hershey Thursday) could all potentially be dressed and in the lineup in time for Game 3; Game 4 if it goes seven games. Forget about the names above if the Caps win the series.

Another variable to consider is the fact that the Penguins have home ice advantage in the series and the fact that they are downright pedestrian at home, 18-16-2-2, which points wise is the worst home record amongst the sixteen teams participating in the Calder Cup playoffs. Meanwhile on the road, the Pens were 26-9-0-3 which was the second best record in the AHL amongst all thirty teams.

Let’s get to the breakdown.

Forwards

Hershey boasts perennial stars in Chris Bourque, Ryan Potulny and Jacob Micflikier buoyed by Kyle Greentree, Boyd Kane and Graham Mink. Tomas Kundratek came over from the Connecticut Whale and turned into a Penguin killer. Bourque won the scoring title. He and Potulny were the series leader in points vs. the Penguins (2-10-12 and 6-6-12 respectively) – Wilkes-Barre can’t stop all of these guys, they can only hope to contain them and limit their chances in key situations.

Wilkes-Barre has more of a balanced attack and never truly had a “top line” at any point in the season. Geoff Walker and Ben Street worked well as a pair on a line together. Lerg and Street both show 3-8-11 in the season series vs. the Bears.

Advantage: Hershey

Defense

Wilkes-Barre prides itself on defense. Led by Brian Strait, Robert Bortuzzo, Alexandre Picard and Joey Mormina with rookies Alex Grant and Simon Despres. The Penguins allowed the fewest shots allowed per game this season. They boast the fourth stingiest defense amongst the Eastern Conference Calder Cup contenders (based off of goals allowed.) The Bears have the seventh goals allowed average out of eight teams in the East. Simply, if the Bears had a better defense, they wouldn’t have lost their last eight games (0-6-0-2) and finished third in their division.

Advantage: Penguins

Goaltending

If it stays with Daren Machesney in goal for the Bears and Sabourin and Holtby stay up, it’s advantage Penguins with a capital P. The Pens boast experienced goaltenders in Brad Thiessen and Scott Munroe who have both been to the playoffs multiple times before. If by some chance Sabourin does return, he was 1-4-1 vs. the Penguins this season with a 4.07 GAA and a 0.855 SV%. Holtby, meanwhile, boasted a 4-2 record with a 2.00 GAA and a very respectable 0.926 SV%. Thiessen appeared in nine games vs. the Bears with a 5-3-1 record, 2.86 GAA and 0.884 SV%. Munroe was 2-0-1, 3.16 GAA, 0.889 SV%.

Advantage: Penguins, but that can shift to Hershey as the series goes on, depending on personnel moves.

Intangibles

The Bears had the best power play all season long in a runaway. The Penguins power play was anemic at times, but still finished tenth overall. The Bears had the fourth best penalty kill in the AHL, the Penguins only managed 22nd best. Hershey has a huge advantage on special teams. Coach John Hynes has only lost twice in Hershey. Some fans in Hershey have called for Mark French’s job this year. How can a lineup like the Bears’ finish third in its division? The Penguins get the advantage in coaching.

Coverage on Twitter

Penguins Official: @WBSPenguins
Radio: @MikeOBrienWBS / @TGracePens
Beat Writer: @CVBombulie
Fan Blog: @nafsnep

Bears Official: @TheHersheyBears
Radio: @ScottStuccio / @RRJ_Hockey
Beat Writer: @timleone
Fan Blog: @SweetestHockey

The Penguins must take advantage of something they took for granted this season and that is home ice. If they do not win BOTH games this weekend they face the potential of having the Washington cavalry returning to the Bears next week and no one wants to face that uncertainty. While the season series with both teams at full capacity has been almost even, Aucoin, et. al will not be available for the first two games. His absence is huge by itself. The Pens have to make sure they capitalize on the regulars not being in the lineup and win early.

Prediction: Penguins in four. They win both games Friday and Saturday, lose Wednesday, get it together and dispose of Hershey next Friday night at Giant Center.

It all unfolds tomorrow night. The blog Gameday setup will be up tomorrow at 3 p.m.

Let’s Go Pens!

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