Hello darkness, my old friend…
The Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins have qualified for the Calder Cup Playoffs for sixteen straight seasons. No other team in the AHL can claim that honor. Sure, there are AHL teams from decades past that have longer postseason appearance streaks. But one thing has been certain for more than a decade and a half when it comes to life. Death, taxes and the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins qualifying for the Calder Cup Playoffs.
Fifteen of those years have left the Penguins without the ultimate prize, the Calder Cup. Their captain, Tom Kostopoulos, announced a few weeks ago that this would be his final season, his last year of professional hockey. He’ll walk out of the Penguins locker room for the final time in his playing career be it this round or later on with some hardware in the form of a Calder Cup, and walk straight into the AHL Hall of Fame someday, probably after he is enshrined in the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins Hall of Fame.
The Penguins meet in the first round the team that shocked them many years ago and beat them in six games, the Charlotte Checkers. Charlotte has been a nomad team, playing in just about every division and every conference in the American Hockey League in the past five years.
This is going to be a battle of offense vs. defense. Let’s break it all down.
Atlantic Division Semifinals – Series “B” (best-of-5)
A2-Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins vs. A3-Charlotte Checkers
Game 1 – Fri., Apr. 20 – W-B/Scranton at Charlotte, 7:00
Game 2 – Sat., Apr. 21 – W-B/Scranton at Charlotte, 6:00
Game 3 – Thu., Apr. 26 – Charlotte at W-B/Scranton, 7:05
*Game 4 – Sat., Apr. 28 – Charlotte at W-B/Scranton, 7:05
*Game 5 – Sun., Apr. 29 – Charlotte at W-B/Scranton, 3:05
*if necessary… All times Eastern
Valentin Zykov won the AHL’s equivalent of soccer’s golden boot as the man with the most goals. Zykov posted 33 goals in 63 games. Zykov was bested by teammate Lucas Wallmark who, in just 45 games, put up 55 points to Zykov’s 54. Rookie Warren Foegele had a nice season for himself, 28 goals, 46 points in 73 games. Greg McKegg came over to the Checkers in a midseason swap of forwards between the parent teams of the participants and exploded for 9 goals, 14 assists, 5 of them power play goals in just 19 games for Charlotte.
Wilkes-Barre is led by superstar rookie Daniel Sprong, who had a very balanced season and just missed out on the goal scoring lead with 32 goals, 33 assists and 65 points for the Penguins in just 65 games. 11 of those goals were on the power play. After Sprong, J-S Dea put up 50 points, 18 goals, 4 of those shorthanded and Teddy Blueger who was balanced, like Sprong in his offensive attack; 21 goals, 24 assists in 70 games. Josh Jooris was traded for Greg McKegg but has spent much of his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has only appeared in 6 games and scored once.
Advantage: Charlotte. Not a matter of if the Checkers forwards fill up the score sheet, it’s a matter of when. Charlotte had the most explosive offense in the AHL, averaging 3.45 goals per game. Penguins were a half step behind with 3.32 goals per contest. The Penguins may be equally as capable, but the Checkers have the advantage on paper.
An extremely healthy group of high caliber defensemen are employed by the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins. Because of all the offensive firepower up front for Charlotte, Checkers defenders can focus on keeping pucks out of the their goaltenders nets and have. Charlotte had the 8th best defense, limiting opponents to 2.79 goals per game. The Penguins, normally automatics in the top three in defense, had an uncharacteristic year and placed 17th in defense at 2.93 goals per game. Texas (20th) and Rockford (22nd) are the only teams currently still playing with worse numbers defensively.
That said, this group Wilkes-Barre has have a lot of games together and are very experienced. The only rookie in the defensive corps is Lukas Bengtsson.
Advantage: Penguins. These guys will know who to key in on when they step over the boards and will be ready for whatever the Checkers forwards throw at them.
It was a position by committee for the Penguins, who used seven goaltenders this season as compared to the Checkers who used Callum Booth for four games and Alex Nedeljkovic (49) and Jeremy Smith (30) for the remaining games. No goalie in this matchup led the AHL in any significant category (Nedeljkovic was fourth in minutes played with 2726:13)
Nedeljkovic projects as the Checkers Game 1 starter. He went 31-12-3-5 with a 2.55 GAA and a .903 SV%. Tristan Jarry projects as the Penguins Game 1 starter with a 9-5-2-0 record and a 3.05 GAA and a .901 SV%. Jarry spent a significant portion of his season playing in the NHL backing up or filling in for Matt Murray.
What this series may boil down to is the backups. Michael Leighton is fully healthy and has stepped in when the Penguins needed to win a big game to qualify for playoffs (April 7 vs. Binghamton) or lock up home ice in the first round (April 14 at Leigh Valley) How short a leash does Clark Donatelli give Jarry if the Penguins are down 3-0 in the second period of Game 1? If the Penguins lose Game 1, does Leighton step in and play Game 2? Leighton is a sure fire AHL Hall of Famer, and was brought in during the year for veteran insurance purposes. His sample size is small, because he spent the majority of his time injured once he arrived in Wilkes-Barre and played most of his games on the road and not in front of the fans at the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza.
Jeremy Smith’s numbers were pedestrian. 13-13-1-0 with a 2.71 GAA and a .902 SV% If the Checkers turn to Smith, it may be series over for Charlotte.
Advantage: Penguins. Tristan Jarry’s audition for the NHL backup job for next season starts Friday in Charlotte. If he stumbles, Clark Donatelli has an ace in the hole with Michael Leighton.
Coaching, special teams get talked about here plus anything else not mentioned above.
Penguins special teams in the regular season was a punchline to a joke. 29th in the 30 team league, 13.8% only trailed by the Belleville Seantors, who struggled out of the gates from the drop of the puck in October. The Penguins power play clicked somewhat at the end of the season, but otherwise has been in the bottom third for a long while. Charlotte’s power play was 3rd overall, clicking at just a tick over 20% (20.4%) so far and away, the Checkers dominate the Penguins in special teams.
Clark Donatelli opposes Mike Velucci on the benches. Both had their hands full. Velucci’s forwards all want the puck, only Andrew Poturalski appeared in all 76 games for the Checkers and was followed by Trevor Carrick and Warren Foegele who played 73 each. Every other night was a roster in flux with players shuffling in and out.
Clark Donatelli had to balance winning and getting to second overall in the division with seemingly a different goaltender in the net every night for a large portion of the season. Both come heavily respected and may some day be running NHL benches. I see my first push here and it comes in the coaching department.
Collectively, both teams have 29 wins and 16 losses against Atlantic Division foes. Head to head, Charlotte won the series 3-1.
The Checkers have a full compliment of players at their disposal since the Carolina Hurricanes did not qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Pittsburgh Penguins have forwards Zach Aston-Reese, Josh Jooris, Dominik Simon and goaltender Casey DeSmith on recall from Wilkes-Barre as eligible players to return to the Calder Cup Playoffs. Perhaps expect one player, Josh Jooris to return to the AHL. Dominik Simon’s return could tip the scales for the Penguins, but I wouldn’t bet on it unless Pittsburgh is knocked out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Social Media Covverage
For the Penguins…
Radio: @MikeOBrienWBS / @_NickHart
Beat: @CVPicotti and @TomVenesky
For the Checkers…
Beat: None that I know of
Obviously, Wilkes-Barre needs to limit Charlotte offensively. Ideally, the Penguins need to score a power play goal a game and comes out of this series with a power play success rate of 25% or better. The Penguins also need to stay disciplined. Taking penalty after penalty will be the death knell to the high powered offense that the Checkers employ. Limiting penalties to no more than four a game and ideally zero stick fouls has to be the goal for Wilkes-Barre written on the chalkboard in the locker room.
The series starts in Charlotte for Games 1 and 2 before shifting to Wilkes-Barre for Game 3 and 4 or 5 if necessary. Charlotte will have the advantage by having the first two games played at the Bojangles’ Coliseum with last change. The Penguins need a split or better if they want to have any chance of advancing to the second round.
The Checkers simply need to do the same, get at Jarry quickly, goad the Penguins into mistakes that cost them a man and they win this series.
Checkers in four. Charlotte has been on of late, firing out of the doubt of missing playoffs at the benefit of fifth place Bridgeport and rocketed past Providence to claim third place. Give another week in the season and it could easily be Charlotte with the home ice advantage in the first round and the Penguins the road team. Donatelli sticks to his guns, refuses to turn the reigns over to Leighton if things go south and the Penguins aren’t able to adjust enough with the series beginning in Charlotte to advance to the second round. Wilkes-Barre may chase this entire series, get frustrated and in a five game series where the margin of error is razor thin, the Checkers advance in four games.
That’s how I, unfortunately, see it unfolding. If you agree, disagree or just want to comment, do so below.