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2011-12 Season in Review: ECQF vs. Hershey

Like most teams in the American Hockey League in any given season, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins went through their ups and downs during the course of the 2011-12 campaign.  The peaks for the Penguins were definitely higher than valleys as they finished second in the East Division and skated to the fourth-best record in the league.   This week, we look at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s run through the Calder Cup Playoffs.
By the final weekend of the regular season, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was almost assured home-ice advantage for their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal.  Losses by Hershey and Connecticut on that Friday, confirmed what most everyone already knew: that the Penguins would be facing the Bears in the best-of-five first round series.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton enjoyed the edge in the regular season series versus their I-81 rival, but this was Hershey.  They had one of the best offenses and power play units in the league and one could easily see this veteran-laden team putting it all together for a long playoff run. 
One storyline that grew in prominence as the series moved along was the success of the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Though Bears stars like Keith Aucoin and Braden Holtby were up with the big club, the demise of Washington in the postseason would potentially see those players return to give Hershey a huge boost in the series.  The general feeling among the Penguins faithful was their team needed to close this one out quickly or root like hell for the Capitals to make it to the next round.  Not surprisingly, the Penguins and Bears would go the distance in this one with the winner making a trip to “The Rock” for the next round. 
Best Win – 7-2 W vs. Hershey – 4/21/12
Not only did it allow the Penguins to sweep their first two home games, but it also gave them a much-needed 2-0 series lead versus the Bears.  This was fun for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton fans and players alike as the home team dominatied from start to finish.
The onslaught started early with the Penguins finding the back of the net four times in the first period.  In fact, Colin McDonald needed only 79 seconds to give Wilkes-Barre/Scranton a 1-0 lead.
Head Coach John Hynes and his staff devised the perfect game plan for this contest.  Strong neutral zone play and stellar puck retrievals in the defensive end led to numerous odd-man rushes for the Penguins.  You had a sense that it was going to be that kind of night for the Pens when Zach Sill made it 2-0 at 10:57.  You knew things were going Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s way when Cody Wild completed a 3-on-2 just 1:22 later.  Geoff Walker wrapped up a fantastic twenty minutes of hockey with a power play tally three minutes before the intermission that helped the Penguins build a 4-0 cushion.
Hershey sandwiched markers in the second around Matt Rust’s first ever playoff goal and stayed within striking distance, but the third period was a veritable clinic in defense put on the by Penguins.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton held Hershey to just three shots in the final frame, while Ben Street added a shorthanded penalty shot goal and McDonald struck again – this time on the man-advantage.   
Goaltender Brad Thiessen needed only to make 14 saves to earn the win, but it was a complete team effort by the Penguins that helped them pick up this important victory. 
Toughest Loss – 4-3 OTL at Hershey – 4/25/12
The reason that the Penguins owned a 2-0 series advantage over the Bears were many, but two biggest were the ability to get early leads and keep Hershey’s power play off the board.
When enforcer D.J. King scored his first goal of the entire season at 6:15 of the first period to give Hershey the early edge, one could assume that chips would fall in the favor of the Bears on this particular night.   Hershey fans had no reason to feel any different when rookie defenseman Cameron Schilling added to the lead just before the intermission.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton chipped away at the deficit and tied the score thanks to goals by Cal O’Reilly early in the second and Eric Tangradi at 6:22 of the third.  Though the momentum clearly belonged to the Penguins, Hershey retook its lead with seven minutes remaining on Kyle Greentree’s tally. 
The Penguins’ power play – which had scored five times already in the postseason - would force overtime when Alex Grant sneaked a slapshot under the pads of Dany Sabourin with 3:17 left in regulation.
Having battled back from two goals down and a late go-ahead goal by the Bears, the opportunity was there for the Penguins to escape GIANT Center with a win and the series sweep.  That chance would fall by the wayside after Nick Petersen was whistled for a high stick in the opening minutes of overtime.   Hershey’s power play finally broke out of its slump as Ryan Potulny one-timed a shot from the near circle that rocketed over a sliding Brad Thiessen.
No one truly believed that it would be so simple for the Penguins as to see this series wrap up in the minimum three games, but the road got much tougher with the Bears finding new life after their dramatic Game 3 win.
Defining Game – 2-1 W vs. Hershey – 4/28/12
This is why you fight during the regular season for home-ice advantage.  Both Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Hershey had been the victor so far in their own buildings and set up the decisive Game 5 at Mohegan Sun Arena. 
This match was a much different monster than the previous four.   It was the first game in which either team failed to score in the first period.  In fact, it wasn’t until the 17:31 mark of the second that the scoreless tie was broken.  Cal O’Reilly put his team on top, 1-0, with yet another power play goal for the Penguins in this Eastern Conference Quarterfinal. 
On the ensuing faceoff, Zach Sill needed only eight seconds to stretch Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s lead to two and have Penguins fans feeling confident as the second period came to an end. 
The good vibes lasted all of 23 seconds of the third period as Ryan Potulny sliced the Penguins’ lead in half and created a decidedly tenser atmosphere in the arena.  It would remain like that for another 19:37 until the final horn sounded with the score staying unchanged.   The Penguins had conquered their fiercest rival in an emotional and draining series.  Their reward was a meeting in the next round with the Atlantic Division Champion St. John’s IceCaps
MVP of the Series – Jason Williams
The only Penguin this season with his name on the Stanley Cup, the 12-year veteran was no stranger to playoff hockey.  Williams raised his game another level, leading the team with eight points (1g-7a) in five games as Wilkes-Barre/Scranton took down Hershey. 

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