As sure as the sun coming up tomorrow, the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins are in the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs. For 13 of the 14 seasons that the Penguins have qualified for the postseason, Wilkes-Barre has been a mainstay in the second round.
In 2016, it is their biggest rival standing across from them in the yard that leads out onto the street that takes you to the Conference Finals.
It’s the Hershey Bears, the Atlantic Division winners, attendance leaders and 11 time Calder Cup Champions. The Bears are led by AHL MVP and scoring leader Chris Bourque and a flock of impressive rookies in Riley Barber, Travis Boyd and Jakub Vrana. They have experience on the blueline and in goal.
Which one of these two postseason behemoths makes it out of the yard alive?
Let’s break it down.
Atlantic Division Finals – Series “I” (best-of-7)
A1-Hershey Bears vs. A3-Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins
Game 1 – Wed., May 4 – W-B/Scranton at Hershey, 7:00
Game 2 – Fri., May 6 – W-B/Scranton at Hershey, 7:00
Game 3 – Sat., May 7 – Hershey at W-B/Scranton, 7:05
Game 4 – Mon., May 9 – Hershey at W-B/Scranton, 7:05
*Game 5 – Wed., May 11 – W-B/Scranton at Hershey, 7:00
*Game 6 – Fri., May 13 – Hershey at W-B/Scranton, 7:05
*Game 7 – Sun., May 15 – W-B/Scranton at Hershey, 5:00
* – if necessary
The Bears offense was carried this season by AHL MVP and future Hall of Famer Chris Bourque. Of the 259 goals scored by the Bears in 2015-16, Bourque figured into 30.8% of them. Take Penguins forward Carter Rowney, a player that has played 74 games for Wilkes-Barre and run that same equation, and you get 24.3%.
Beyond Bourque, the aforementioned rookies in Barber, Boyd and Vrana all finished top six for the Bears in scoring.
Taking a look at the Penguins, Dustin Jeffrey technically leads Wilkes-Barre with 64 points, but 46 of those points were with Springfield before he was moved at the trade deadline. Jeffrey has been nearly a point a game player for the Pens since his return. Getting down to the fifth forward on the Penguins point board that has played the entire season for Wilkes-Barre finds Kael Mouillierat and his 45 points. Fifth place forward for the Bears in scoring? Sean Collins with 39 points.
Advantage: I am tempted to say push, but because of the presence of Chris Bourque, this has to go to Hershey.
The Penguins only fished 203 opposition goals out of their nets this season while the Bears were scored on 220 times. Rookie Madison Bowey led the Bears defensive corps with a +22 plus / minus analytic. Next is Aaron Ness at a +12 and Christian Djoos at a +7 and Erik Burgdoerfer at a +10.
But take all that information carefully. The Bears offense in the regular season was a juggernaut.
Looking at the Penguins defense, one that shut down leading goal scorer Frank Vatrano and the high powered Providence Bruins offense in the first round, going back to what I said in the preview of the Pens / P-Bruins a few weeks ago, where I picked Wilkes-Barre on the advantage over Providence, I think the same logic applies.
Advantage: Wilkes-Barre. Stopping, or slowing down Bourque while maintaining the same offensive pace that was displayed in the first round with Providence is going to be pivotal for the Penguins in the hopes of advancing to the Conference Finals. If Bourque starts to catch fire, it will be over for the Penguins. I don’t think that this corps as it is constructed allows that to happen.
It’s still a mystery who the Game 1 starter will be for Wilkes-Barre tomorrow in Hershey. Will it be first round hero Casey DeSmith or will it be the established Tristan Jarry?
Jarry against the Bears in regular season: 5 games played, 3-2 record, 3.57 GAA and a .863 SV%.
DeSmith in postseason: 3 games, perfect record, 2.45 GAA and a .930 SV% including a franchise record 59 in the close out game against Providence in Game 3.
Hershey will ride with Justin Peters in Game 1. He shutout the Pirates in Game 4 and only allowed one goal in the deciding Game 5.
But Peters numbers against Wilkes-Barre are abhorrent. 2-2-1 record, 3.45 GAA and a .884 SV%. Back up Dan Ellis’ numbers aren’t that much better, 3-3 record with a 2.66 GAA and a .883 SV%.
Advantage: Penguins. Just the unknown of Casey DeSmith with the fact that Tristan Jarry is waiting in the wings against whatever Hershey wants to trot out in goal gives the Penguins the advantage in this category.
The loser of the Pittsburgh / Washington series is going to enrich the AHL roster of their affiliate. That is something to keep an eye on. Game 7 of that series if it gets there is Thursday, May 12. Depending on how quickly the losing team gets exit interviews done and breaks for the summer, reinforcements can make an impact as early as Game 6 of this series, if it gets there.
Edit: Washington wouldn’t send anyone down to Hershey. Must be nice to have a healthy franchise. Pittsburgh can only send Matt Murray, Derrick Pouliot, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson and Oskar Sundqvist. Of those six, the most likely to be sent back would be Sundqvist and Pouliot. I suspect that Matt Murray will not be let out of the sight of the Pittsburgh brass. Wilson and Rust are banged up and Sheary may get a few days to recover before being assigned and eligible in a future series. In sum, reinforcements from the NHL are not that big of an intangible.
Special teams wise, the Penguins were 7th overall in the AHL while the Bears were an uncharacteristic 18th on the man advantage in the regular season. These teams were dead even in penalty killing, with the Penguins and Bears filing in 16th and 17th respectively. In the postseason, both teams gave up one power play goal against and both have scored two on the man advantage. Here is a push.
Based off of the fact that Clark Donatelli spent his whole week last week scouting the Bears and Pirates in the first round of the playoffs and the fact that he and Hershey head coach Troy Mann are so familiar with one another’s teams and coaching styles, I can’t see one coach outfoxing the other. It may come down to home ice and last change. Push here too.
Social Media Coverage
For the Penguins…
Twitter: @WBSPenguins / @WBSGameDay
Radio: @MikeOBrienWBS / @_NickHart
Beat: @CVSethLakso and @TLTomVenesky
For the Bears…
Beat: It’s a shame that a team as storied as the Bears doesn’t have a dedicated beat writer anymore.
Penguins in six. If this prophecy is to come to fruition, then Wilkes-Barre will need to use that extra week of rest and study on the Bears and steal the first two games in Hershey. Or, at least get it back to Wilkes-Barre split 1-1, then take the next two at home. Penguins will make Peters look pedestrian, will shut down Bourque and company and rookies Daniel Sprong and Jake Guentzel will continue to shine and exceed expectations and the Penguins advance to the Conference Finals to take on the winner of Toronto / Albany.
Or, like last round, I could be totally wrong and Chris Bourque scores the game winner in double overtime in Game 7 and the Bears win that game 1-0 and Justin Peters is given the keys to Hersheypark and Chocolate World.
Gameday setup for Game 1 hits the blog Wednesday at 3.