By Kristian Stefanides and Mike O’Brien
For the second year in a row, and third time in team history, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins opened up the Calder Cup Playoffs versus their closest geographical rival: the Binghamton Senators. Last year saw the Penguins sweep the Senators in three games, winning all three by a score of 3-2. This season’s battle produced another tight series, as the best offense (Binghamton) and defense (Wilkes-Barre) in the American Hockey League collided.
The Eastern Conference Quarterfinal opened up on April 25 at Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena, where the Senators were a perfect 4-0 versus the Penguins in the 2013-14 regular season. Questions loomed for both teams heading into the series: could Wilkes-Barre/Scranton contain Binghamton’s offense and power play, especially on the Senators’ home ice? Would the Senators be able to overcome the absence of Mike Hoffman, who finished the season in Ottawa after leading Binghamton with 67 points in 51 games?
Binghamton’s power play looked just fine to start off Game One. On their first man-advantage of the series, the Senators made the score 1-0 on a Cody Ceci goal at 6:06 of the opening period. Penguins forward Harry Zolnierczyk, skating in his first career postseason match, redirected a shot past Andrew Hammond to tie things up with 7:37 remaining in the second.
It wasn’t long, however, until the home team took the lead for a second time. A little more than two minutes after Zolnierczyk’s goal, Jean-Gabriel Pageau blasted the puck past Peter Mannino to put Binghamton ahead once again.
A subsequent boarding call on the Penguins sent the Senators to the power play looking to add to their lead. But it was the Pens who proved to be the team converting on the penalty kill, with Andrew Ebbett tallying shorthanded with just 2:03 left before the second intermission to even the score, 2-2.
A scoreless third period led to overtime, where Anton Zlobin beat Hammond with a wrist shot at 8:40 to give the Penguins the 3-2 victory and a 1-0 series lead. Mannino won the goaltending duel, stopping 27 shots, while Hammond turned away 34 of 37 shots he faced. The Penguins’ win was the eighth straight playoff victory versus the Senators, dating back to April of 2005.
The Senators snapped that streak just one night later, however, picking up an overtime win of their own, this one by a 4-3 score.
The Penguins took a 3-1 after the first 22 minutes of play on goals by Chuck Kobasew, Tom Kostopoulos and Mike Carman, and seemingly were set to cruise their way to a 2-0 series lead. Binghamton had other ideas though, and started to rally when Stephane Da Costa pulled his team within one on a power play goal 3:26 before the intermission.
Just 23 seconds into the third period, Mark Stone, who had already picked up two assists on the night, tied the score at three, a goal that sent the game into extra time. Da Costa scored his second of the night at 11:07 of overtime to send the series back to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton tied at one game apiece.
Despite the tough loss, the Penguins were able to gain the important split on the road and brought home-ice advantage back to Mohegan Sun Arena for Game Three on April 30. And for the third straight game of the series, the winner was decided in overtime.
As it was in the first two contests, the two teams went back and forth trading goals. Working on a two-man advantage, Nick Drazenovic took a dish from Kobasew and gave the Penguins an early 1-0 advantage 7:32 into the first period. The lead lasted only 21 seconds though as Corey Cowick converted on the ensuing penalty kill for Binghamton.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton eventually took back its lead when Adam Payerl put one past Andrew Hammond with 3:23 remaining in the second period. The 2-1 edge held until midway through the final frame when Jim O’Brien tipped in a shot that forced overtime.
Making his professional playoff debut in Game Three, Conor Sheary introduced himself to the home crowd in grand fashion. Signed to an amateur tryout agreement in March, the undrafted free agent out of the University of Massachusetts flung a puck in from the blueline that Kobasew redirected inside the left post to give Wilkes-Barre/Scranton a 3-2 victory over the Senators at 7:32 of OT.
Despite having their last eight playoff meetings decided by just one tally, Game Four between the Penguins and the Senators proved to be a much different story. A Wilkes-Barre/Scranton power play unit that had scored just once over the first three games converted on its first two opportunities to help the Penguins take control of this match.
Kobasew opened up the scoring 11:38 into the game, netting a goal on the man-advantage for his third tally of the playoffs. A 5-on-3 power play allowed the Penguins to take a 2-0 1:19 into the second period when defenseman Brian Dumoulin found the back of the net. It was all Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for the rest of the period, as Dominik Uher and Andrew Ebbett also tacked on goals to give the Penguins a 4-0 cushion heading into the third.
The Senators finally broke through against Mannino with a power play goal at 3:50 of the third, but that was as close as Binghamton would get. Zolnierczyk put the bow on the game and the series with an empty net goal at 17:53 to make the final score, 5-1. Mannino finished the night with 26 saves on 27 shots.
Having eliminated the Senators in the first round for the second year in a row, the Penguins moved on to face the Providence Bruins in the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the second straight postseason. Last year saw Wilkes-Barre/Scranton make history with an amazing comeback from a 3-0 deficit to win the series versus Providence. The 2014 edition of the clash between the Penguins and Bruins would not disappoint either with another epic seven-game series.
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