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2011-12 SEASON IN REVIEW: ST. JOHN’S

 

2011-12 Season in Review: ECSF vs. St. John’s
 
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.
 
Having vanquished the Hershey Bears in five games, the Penguins looked now to their second round match-up against the St. John’s IceCaps. 
 
It was an epic series between two evenly-matched opponents.  One that saw three straight games go to overtime.  A bounce here or there and the series could have gone in a vastly different direction.  As it was, five of the seven games were decided by one goal. The other two?  By two goals. 
 
In the end, the hole that Wilkes-Barre/Scranton found itself in was just a little too deep climb out off and St. John’s had just enough to hold off a determined Penguins squad. 
 
Best Win – 3-2 W (2OT) – Game 5 – 5/8/12
 
After splitting the first two games of the Eastern Conference Semifinal up in St. John’s, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton skated onto home ice looking to take control of the series.  Back-to-back losses in overtime instead had put the Penguins on the brink.
 
The prospects of sending the series back to Newfoundland were not very promising after the IceCaps dominated the first period and took a 1-0 lead on Jason King’s tally at 5:21.   The Penguins righted the ship in the middle frame and were able to knot the score on an even-strength goal by Paul Thompson. 
 
The third period provided the kind of dramatics saved for the climactic scene of a sports movie.  Defenseman Alex Grant put Wilkes-Barre/Scranton ahead for the first time in the game with a one-timer at 2:18.  The Penguins barely had an opportunity to hold the lead as a holding call put them on the penalty kill eleven seconds later.  St. John’s made them pay when Paul Postma drove a long slapshot to the back of the net. 
 
The intrigue continued late in the period when a collision involving goaltender Brad Thiessen sent the netminder off the ice with a gash above his eye and in need of medical attention.  Not knowing Thiessen would return, it was up to Scott Munroe to come into the game cold and keep the IceCaps from recording the potential series-clinching goal.  Though forced to make only one save over 4:25 of relief, it was a big one to keep the score tied.  Thiessen returned from the locker room to return to the game with fans showing appreciation for Munroe’s performance and the toughness of their starting goaltender. 
 
The final scene of this show wouldn’t occur in regulation time. It wouldn’t even take place during the first overtime.  No, it was during the second overtime that this marathon finally came to an end.  Rookie defenseman Simon Despres fired a bad angle wrister on net and followed his own shot to backhand the loose puck over Eddie Pasquale. 
 
After two gut wrenching losses, the Penguins had found a way to take Game 5 and in the process, forced the series back St. John’s to see if they could complete the comeback.
 
Toughest Loss – 2-1 OTL – Game 3 – 5/5/12
 
By all accounts, this is a game that should have seen the Penguins raising their arms in triumph instead of heading off the ice in a 2-1 series hole.  The difference was IceCaps goaltender Eddie Pasquale, who made 28 saves to help his team steal a victory at Mohegan Sun Arena.
 
The stat sheet showed that the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton outshot St. John’s 28-19 in the contest and even held the road team to zero shots in the second period (though there remains scholarly debate as to that total).  In reality though, the Penguins were not generating the consistent offense like they had in Game 2, where they managed 38 shots in a 3-1 win.
 
Pasqaule was solid for the duration of the game and spectacular on the handful of grade-A chances manufactured by Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.  It seemed like Brock Trotter’s goal at 12:37 of the first period would stand as the game’s lone tally, but the Penguins broke through with just over a minute remaining. 
 
With 62 seconds remaining and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton skating with the extra attacker, Eric Tangradi tucked in the rebound from Colin McDonald’s initial shot and tied the score at one to force overtime. 
 
The overtime period was a back-and-forth affair until midway through, a defensive breakdown led to a 2-on-1 rush for the IceCaps. Goaltender Brad Thiessen was able to deny Carl Klingberg, but couldn’t get over in time to stop Trotter for his second goal of the night and the game-winner. 
 
It was a frustrating night in that the two mistakes made by Wilkes-Barre/Scranton ended up in the back of their net and the offense could not find that extra gear.  Instead of owning a 2-1 lead in the series with two more games at home, the Penguins would be forced to battle from behind once again. 
  
Defining Game – 3-2 L – Game 7 – 5/12/12
 
When a series comes to down a Game 7, how can it not be the defining game?  The Penguins had won two in a row to force this Game 7 at Mile One Centre, but the issues that plagued them in the losses this series would do so once again. 
 
The IceCaps got on the board first with Ray Sawada’s tally at 11:52 of the opening period and the home team would take a 1-0 lead into the locker room.  Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s resiliency in this series was yet again on display with Ryan Craig’s breakaway goal at 6:43.  To see the Penguins Captain pick up a loose puck at center ice, outrace the defense and beat Eddie Pasquale clean to even the score looked to be the kind of moment to inspire a team to victory. 
 
Unfortunately, untimely goals allowed were the undoing of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.  Five minutes after Craig’s goal, Aaron Gagnon put St. John’s ahead for good with a power play marker that made the score, 2-1.  A manageable one-goal deficit doubled just 57 seconds into the third as Gagnon struck again.  The third-line center had put St. John’s firmly in the driver’s seat.
 
Colin McDonald converted on a power play at the halfway point of the third to get the Penguins within a goal, but equalizer would never materialize before the thunderous applause of the crowd greeted the IceCaps as they stormed from the bench having clinched the series.
 
 
MVPs of the Series – Colin McDonald & Eric Tangradi
 
McDonald was one of the best performers for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton during the playoffs and was a point-per-game player versus the IceCaps with two goals and five assists.  Tangradi returned from Pittsburgh’s too-brief playoff run during the Hershey series and made his presence felt against St. John’s. The “Big Dog” posted three goals and four assists to tie McDonald for the scoring lead versus the IceCaps.
 
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