The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins traveled to Syracuse in a must win game, having trailed the Crunch 3 games to 1. They apparently forgot how important the game was, and went down 7-0. The Syracuse Crunch move on to the Calder Cup Finals and the Baby Pens head home for the season. There are some rumblings that the line changes the last 2 games are indicative that the Pens had given up and were just trying to get some of the lesser used guys some playoff experience. I have no way of knowing whether or not this is true, but I must admit I was thinking that last game.
The first big change is that the Pens chose to go back to Jeff Zatkoff in net, benching the AHL's playoff leading goaltender Brad Thiessen. Zatkoff was in net for all 7 of the Crunch's goals, getting pulled early in the 3rd. He only made 22 saves on 29 shots (.759 Save %) in 45:43 (9.19 GAA). So he has now let in 19 goals in the past 3 starts (a total of 23 in 5 starts) on 69 shots (142 shots total), giving him a .725 Save % (.838 total) and a 9.11 GAA (5.45 total). Considering he finished the regular season with an AHL best 1.93 GAA and an impressive .920 Save %, his playoff performance is just abysmal.
Thiessen finished out the game, playing the final 14:17, but he only faced 1 shot the entire time he was out there. So it doesn't really help his playoff stats, but it doesn't hurt them either. He still leads all playoff goalies with a 1.38 GAA, although both games tonight ended in shutouts, so his formerly tied for league high 2 shutouts is now #3 behind the Crunch and Griffins with 3 shutouts. He is also still #2 in Save % with a .952 (the #1 Save % was the Aeros backup who only played 2 games). The goalies from the remaining 3 teams: Syracuse Crunch (1.86 GAA, .920 Save %, 3 shutouts, and an 11-1 record), Grand Rapids Griffins (2.08 GAA, .921 Save %, 3 shutouts, and a 9-6 record), and Oklahoma City Barons (2.14 GAA, .932 Save %, 1 shutout, and a 9-5 record) are all far enough behind that Thiessen could still finish the playoffs with the best goaltending stats.
This game also saw the professional debut of Pens top D prospect Derrick Pouliot, who entered the lineup in place of Wheeling Nailers Captain Peter Merth. Pouliot's first shift saw him quarterbacking the top PP unit in place of Alex Grant. The rest of the D was Olli Maatta with Joey Mormina, Brian Dumoulin with Scott Harrington, and Philip Samuelsson with Pouliot. The lineup looked like the future NHL Pens D, all of our top defensive prospects (ok, maybe not Samuelsson) and the veteran team Captain. Within the next 2-3 years, we could see them joining Letang and Despres on the NHL roster. An interesting tweet from my favorite member of the WBS press spells it out nicely.
"Ages of WBS D corps tonight: Mormina 30, Dumoulin 21, Samuelsson 21, Harrington 20, Pouliot 19, Maatta 18." Jonathan Bombulie (@CVBombulie)
We also saw two changes amongst the forwards, as Derek Nesbitt returned to the lineup after being scratched in Game 4, and Bobby Farnham returned for the first time since the Game 3 loss in Providence. They replaced Chris Collins and Christiaan Minella. The top line returned to the regular season combo of Riley Holzapfel, Trevor Smith, and Chad Kolarik. The 2nd line reuinited Brian Gibbons and Paul Thompson, who were split in Game 4, while adding Jayson Megna on their wing. Derek Nesbitt got bumped down to the 3rd line, joining the usual Warren Peters and Adam Payerl. Zach Sill remained in his normal spot centering the 4th line, joined by his on again off again linemates Dominik Uher and Bobby Farnham.
Surprisingly, this is very similar to what I had suggested they do following the Game 4 loss. I was glad Pouliot got a chance to play in the last game of the post-season. However, I didn't think they would be willing to be without the highly successful Merth Effect, so I had assumed that Maatta would sit in order to give Pouliot a look. I also got the pairs mixed up, as I had assumed Pouliot would join Dumoulin (which he did on the PP anyway) while Harrington would join Samuelsson to for a shutdown pair. The forwards I was happy to see the Top line back together, as well as reuniting Gibbons and Thompson, keeping Peters and Payerl on the Check line, and Sill centering the 4th line. However, while I did suggest the return of Nesbitt in place of Collins, and suggested keeping Megna and Uher in the lineup, I didn't see Farnham replacing Minella. I also got some of the lineups wrong, as I had assumed Nesbitt would return to the 2nd line, suggested moving Uher to the 3rd, and thus relegating Megna to the 4th. Still, I was pretty close. The goalie change, I really never saw that coming, although Thiessen was admittedly not at his best in game 4 and it was a back to back game, so I do understand why they did it.
Obviously, the Pens lost 7-0, so it wasn't a good night for them overall. There were a lot of turnovers and defensive lapses, which, while the turnovers have been an ongoing problem all season (both in the AHL and NHL), the defensive breakdowns were uncharacteristic for the team that finished the season with the fewest Goals Against. The Pens did better with offensive pressure and had some nice chances, but the game was clearly controlled by the Crunch. The Crunch out shot the Pens 11 to 9 in the 1st and then 15 to 6 in the 2nd. By the 3rd, they had largely stopped trying and were just maintaining the lead, so the Pens managed to have am 8-4 edge. However, overall the Crunch out shot the Pens 30 to 23. The Pens excellent PK faltered slightly, going 2 for 3 on the night, and the PP went 0 for 4. There really isn't much positive to say about the night, but as mentioned, the starting lineup gave the impression that they were mostly playing for experience rather than believing they had a chance to win.
So let's look at what went wrong that the Pens managed to let in 7 Goals. The first goal came late in the 1st, up until then they had been playing well enough, play going back and forth along both ends of the ice. But then, 16 minutes into the 1st, it started with a Pens giveaway, as they so often do. However, this time a player was able to get in the way to block the shot. Unfortunately, it then took a weird bounce up over Zatkoff and got batted into the net. Interestingly, this is nearly identical to the 1st goal against Pittsburgh, although that puck trickled low rather than bouncing up and over. That goal pretty much drained everything they had, and the went on autopilot for the rest of the game. And then, less than a minute later, the Crunch extend their lead with a deflected point shot taken off the faceoff (i.e. the Neal play).
The Pens got dominated for much of the 2nd, despite an early PP opportunity, but they started to get even deeper in the hole when they took a costly penalty roughly 11 minutes in. However, the managed to kill it off, but were unable to clear the zone as the penalty expired, and sustained pressure allowed the Crunch to score another on a wraparound goal by Philippe Paradis, his first goal and first point of the playoffs. Normally, I'm not concerned about which players score against us, but this time it is important... stay tuned to find out why. If they hadn't been out of it at the end of the 1st, that goal drained everything the Pens had left, resulting in another turnover that lead to a Crunch goal 2 minutes later. If that wasn't bad enough, another penalty a minute after that, and the Crunch cash in on the opportunity. The deflated pens go into the 2nd intermission trailing 5 to nothing.
If it wasn't already bad enough, a minute into the 3rd Dumoulin, skating the puck out of the zone, lost and edge and went down, turning the puck over to Philippe Paradis, who capitalized on the mistake and scored his 2nd goal of the playoffs. Starting to see what is coming next? A few minutes later, nearly 6 minutes into the 3rd, Philippe Paradis scores once again. His first three goals of the playoffs net him a hat trick against Jef Zatkoff. One last shout out, Andrej Sustr, who had been invited to the Pens rookie camp this past July and was the big name (hehe, big... guy is a giant at 6'8" 228lbs) undrafted college free agent signed by Tampa Bay at the end of his college season, finished the night with 3 Assists (tied for most points in the game) and a leading +4 rating.