PENGUINS SEASON ENDS IN GAME SEVEN
HERSHEY, PA – The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins posted 274 goals during the 2008-09 regular season, second in the league and the second-highest mark in team history.
They then rattled off 35 in the first 10 games of the Calder Cup Playoffs, and the club’s 3.5 goals per game were by far the highest average of any team in the league at that point.
But the Penguins’ sticks fell silent in Game Six, and didn’t wake up in Game Seven, as the Hershey Bears advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals with a 3-0 victory in the series finale.
“This one hurts,” interim head coach Todd Reirden said. “It’s a rival that we certainly had our way with during the year. We just couldn’t solve their goalie at the end there.”
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton posted seven wins in 10 tries against Hershey during the regular season, but ran into the hot glove hand of Michal Neuvirth in the second round. The rookie goaltender stopped 203 of 218 shots he faced in the series, including 54 straight over the final two games. The shutout he posted in Game Six was the first time the Penguins were held without a goal since Mark 21, 2008, breaking a string of 124 consecutive games with at least one tally.
“We had a number of Grade-A opportunities[to score] in both games, and just weren’t able to get one by him,” Reirden said of Neuvirth. “A disappointing outcome for us, but I couldn’t be prouder of the way our guys showed up and played tonight.”
It was slightly remarkable that the Penguins even made it to a seventh game against the Bears. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton fell into a 2-0 hole in the series, then clawed its way to an overtime win in Game Three at the Wachovia Arena – a game where the Pens trailed for more than 39 minutes before forcing OT.
“We spent a lot [of energy] to get back here,” said Reirden.
The Bears big-two of Alexandre Giroux and Keith Aucoin opened the scoring just 50 seconds into the game. Giroux, a 60-goal scorer during the regular season, carried the puck into the Penguins zone and danced around the slot, drawing two defenders in the process. That freed up Aucoin at the far post, who took a feed from Giroux and tapped home his second goal of the postseason.
As it turned out, that would be all the offense the Bears would need to move on to the Conference Finals for the third time in the past four seasons. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton interrupted Hershey’s string last season, when the Penguins advanced to the Calder Cup Finals.
The strength of the East Division has been evident for the past several seasons, with a team from the division being represented in the championship round in each of the past five springs. This season two points separated first place Hershey from third place Wilkes-Barre.
“You’re talking about two of the top five teams in the league, and I think arguably the two top teams in the league,” said Reirden. “You’re going to knock one another off. Certainly we came into this thing thinking it was going to be us that was going to send them packing. But things didn’t go our way tonight. It’s a bitter pill to swallow for a while here.”
Chris Bourque extended the lead to two goals early in the second period with a power play goal, and Steve Pinizzotto, who proved to be the Pens nemesis throughout the series, took advantage of a broken stick by Bill Thomas to skate in two-on-one and beat goaltender Adma Berkhoel midway through the third frame.
Berkhoel was the story of the series for the Penguins, jumping into action to replace the injured John Curry early in Game Two. The backup netminder finished with a 2.12 goals against average and .936 save percentage in six games played.
Berkhoel’s performance was just the most recent highlight of the season for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The team became the first in AHL history to post four consecutive 100 point seasons. Janne Pesonen (82 points, 50 assists), Jeff Taffe (50 assists) and Chris Minard (34 goals) set new scoring marks, and John Curry set new records for wins in a season (33) and in a career (57).
“We had a lot of guys go up and play their first NHL games. We had some coaching changes; our coach went up and Reirdsy came in and did a great job. Berky came in the playoffs and did a great job. There’s a lot of individual stuff that I think guys can look back and be proud of,” said team captain Connor James. “Right now it’s a tough pill to swallow. But I think in a couple of days guys will realize it was a successful season even though we came up short tonight.”
Reireden, who last year at this time was serving as a volunteer assistant with the team, guided the Penguins to a 14-9-1-2 record in the final two months of the regular season and a first round upset of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
“Certainly I would love the opportunity to continue to lead these guys,” said the interim head coach. “They’ve been nothing but first class to me and my family. We love Wilkes-Barre, and they want to win here. And I want a challenge, I want to produce that winner for Wilkes-Barre.
“It’s going to be a long summer, and will light a fire underneath me to make sure we come back and take these guys down next year.”