And the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins fall to the Syracuse Crunch 4-2 and are now on the brink of defeat, trailing the series 3 games to 1. They will be back for a do or die Game 5 tomorrow night. They have been down this road before, last round trailing 3 games to none and coming back to win 4 straight, so victory is still not out of the question, but they are certainly having trouble "Munching the Crunch."
The big thing going into the game was that the Baby Pens really shook up the lineup with some unexpected changes. Reid McNeill remained scratched in favor of newcomer Olli Maatta, as he had in Game 3. In addition, newcomer Scott Harrington made his pro debut in place of Alex Grant. And that wasn't the only changes they made, they also switched up the D pair. On would have expected Maatta and Harrington to play together as they had already become familiar with one another playing in London. However, they instead decided to put Harrington on the Top Pair with Brian Dumoulin, in place of the still injured Dylan Reese. The 2nd Pair remained the solidly effective Captains Peter Merth (Nailers Captain) and Joey Mormina (Pens Captain). And finally that left a 3rd Pair of Maatta with Philip Samuelsson. The remaining D scratches included Derrick Pouliot, whom Coach Hynes had already said would be unavailable for the game, as well as AHL veteran Cody Wild and Black Ace Harrison Ruopp.
The D wasn't the only place they changed things up. Derek Nesbitt was held out of the lineup in favor of Jayson Megna, and the lines got shuffled around. The Top Line retained Riley Holzapfel and Trevor Smith, but now added Adam Payerl. The 2nd Line retained Brian Gibbons at center, but with new wingers in Megna and Dominik Uher. The 3rd Line then retained center Warren Peters, but paired him up with normal 2nd line wingers Chris Collins and Paul Thompson. The 4th line still kept together Christiaan Minella and Zach Sill, but now had former Top 6 winger Chad Kolarik. The usual scratches were Steve MacIntyre and Bobby Farnham, with injured Philippe Dupuis and Tom Kuhnhackl, and Black Aces Chris Barton, Matia Marcantuoni, and Anton Zlobin.
Brad Thiessen returned in net, but had an unfortunate game behind a lackluster Penguins team, and only managed to stop 20 of 23 shots for a .870 Save %. This caused him to drop down to #2 in AHL Playoff Save % with a .951. Although to be fair, the one goalie ahead of him was a backup for the Houston Aeros who only played in 2 games. However, he does still lead the way with a 1.41 GAA and is tied for the lead with 2 Shutouts. He was backed up by Jeff Zatkoff, who hasn't played since a disastrous 4 goal 1st period in Game 2 vs Providence. And waiting in the wings is Black Ace Scott Darling.
Despite losing 4-2, and Thiessen have an unprecedentedly low Save %, they didn't play that bad defensively. There were some mistakes, or course, which led to a few of the goals, but like the last game the biggest issue was the lack of offensive production and the inability to control the zone. This is why it is so strange that they chose to scratch one of their top scoring wingers Nesbitt, or their most offensively talented D (and PP quarterback) Grant. Of course Nesbitt, while he is one of the top scorers in the league, he hasn't had much success lately, putting up no points and a -2 rating in the past 2 games. Grant as well, while he had the most Points per Game amongst the D this season, he has had some issues with turnovers, which may very well have led to him being replaced.
At the end of the night, the shots were nearly even 24-23 Syracuse. The penalty parade continued as it had in the previous match up, with the Pens going 1 for 7 on the PP and 4 for 4 on the PK. And like the previous game, there were a few missed opportunities caused by bad penalties. Early in the 1st, Desjardins got nabbed for a Delay of Game for playing the puck outside of the trapezoid, and Thompson, bearing down on him, turned aside and narrowly avoided him. However, Desjardins flopped, drawing the penalty for Goaltender Interference, and the teams went 4-on-4 on what should have been an early chance for the Pens to control momentum. Then again, early in the 2nd the Pens were on the PP, but just under 30 seconds in and Gibbons takes a penalty for cross checking, ending the PP opportunity and sending the teams to 4-on 4. Interestingly, the new arrivals Maatta and Harrington both got time on the PP and the PK.
Speaking of Harrington and Maatta on the PP, the first goal of the night was scored on the PP midway through the 1st period by Harrington, assisted by Gibbons and Holzapfel. It was Harrington's first pro game, his first pro shot, and his first pro goal. Maatta was also out there with them, and while he didn't get a point on the play, he was instrumental in setting it up. Unfortunately, just over a minute later the Pens failed to clear the puck out of their zone and the Crunch tied it up due to a screen in front of Thiessen. They entered the 1st intermission tied at 1, but with the Crunch leading shots 7-4.
They did a good bit of line swapping at this point, returning Kolarik to the top line to join his former linemates Holzapfel and Smith that did so well together during the regular season. The Pens had some excellent chances in the 2nd, but Desjardins was a brick wall and they were unable to get past him. That is, not until late in the period when Megna scored, assisted by Peters and Uher. But then the Crunch answered back again just over a minute later to tie it up at 2. So ocne again the score was tied going into the 2nd intermission, although the Pens now lead shots 10-7.
At the start or the 3rd, the Pens started to struggle a bit, and just under two minutes in the Crunch took the lead. They went for a wraparound, Thiessen closed in on the post to stop it, and they instead decided to pass to what was now an uncovered man who scored on a virtual empty net. Big defensive lapse here, and a costly one. The Pens never managed to bounce back from that, and they had very few offensive chances for much of the period. But then at the end of the period, 3 minutes remaining, the Pens got a must score PP opportunity. They pulled Thiessen and went at them 6-on-4, but they were unable to find the back of the net. Then just as the penalty expired, the Crunch player springs from the box, gobbles up the puck, and scores the empty net goal to seal the deal.
It was a fairly close game, both sides with excellent goaltenders and top notch defense. But the Pens just lacked the offensive output needed and have been unable to score on a regular basis the past few games. They really need to improve on this if they plan to stay alive tomorrow night. Part of the issue may be that they had spread the lines thin in an attempt to have scoring depth all down the lineup. But at the moment what they need is the ability to sustain pressure, peppering them with shots until something can sneak by. They aren't likely to come back again this round, but we will see how they far tomorrow night before we lose hope.