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Calder Cup Playoffs Round 2 Series Preview: WBS Penguins vs. Hershey Bears

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For the 7th time, the WBS Penguins and Hershey Bears will face off in the Calder Cup Playoffs. Here's all you need to know.

WBS Penguins

Hello, my friends, we meet again. It's been a while. Where should we begin? It feels like forever.

Well, OK, not forever, but it's been four years since the WBS Penguins and Hershey Bears met each other in the Calder Cup Playoffs, and the 7th time in WBS's 15 playoff appearances that they must go through The Franchise, the 11-time Calder Cup champions, on the path to the title they've never won.  Let's take a look at the series.

Schedule

Wednesday, May 4 @ Hershey, 7:00 pm
Friday, May 6 @ Hershey, 7:00 pm
Saturday, May 7 @ WBS, 7:05 pm
Monday, May 9 @ WBS, 7:05 pm
Wednesday, May 11 @ Hershey, 7:00 pm
Friday, May 13 @ WBS, 7:05 pm
Sunday, May 15 @ Hershey, 5:00 pm

Season Series

November 13 Hershey 0, WBS 7
November 28 Hershey 2, WBS 3
December 6 WBS 1, Hershey 4
December 26 WBS 0, Hershey 5
February 23 Hershey 4, WBS 1
March 5 WBS 2, Hershey 6
March 6 Hershey 4, WBS 5
March 19 Hershey 1, WBS 4
March 20 WBS 6, Hershey 5 (OT)
April 9 WBS 4, Hershey 3
April 10 Hershey 5, WBS 3
April 17 WBS 1, Hershey 2 (SO)

Total record: 6-5-1
No real patterns here, as despite all the roster upheavals, WBS managed to split the season series with Hershey, taking 13 out of a possible 24 points.

Playoff History

As mentioned above, this will be the 7th time WBS and Hershey face off in the playoffs.  Here's a brief look at their previous six meetings:

2001 Western Conference Final WBS swept Hershey on the way to the Calder Cup final, where they would lose to the Saint John Flames in six games.
2006 Round 2 Hershey swept WBS on the way to the Calder Cup championship, the ninth in their history.
2007 Round 2 Hershey defeated WBS in five games, clinched by a 5 on 3 PP goal in overtime of Game 5 by Alexandre Giroux, the second 5 on 3 PP Hershey received in that OT alone.  Hershey would make it to the final that year only to be defeated by the Hamilton Bulldogs in five games, led by that year's Calder Cup Playoffs MVP, current Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price.
2008 Round 1 WBS defeated Hershey in five games, capped off by a rare Dennis Bonvie goal with 15 seconds to go.  That was the first step in a Calder Cup Finals run for the Penguins, who made it all the way to the league championship before falling to the Chicago Wolves in six games.
2009 Round 2 Hershey overcame WBS in seven games.  All seven games in this series were won by the home team, punctuated by back-to-back 3-0 shutouts by Calder Cup Playoffs MVP Michal Neuvirth in Hershey to end the series.  Hershey would go on to win the Calder Cup this year, the tenth in their history.
2012 Round 1 WBS defeated Hershey in five games.  WBS would go on to lose in Round 2 to the St. John's IceCaps.

Forwards

Turns out that Daniel Sprong, fresh from juniors, had much more of an impact on round 1 than I originally figured.  Sprong's two goals in Game 2, followed by his goal in Game 3, tie fellow late-season addition Jake Guentzel with three goals on the postseason, tied for the team lead and trailing only Josh Anderson of Lake Erie among goal scorers after round 1.  Guentzel's 7 points in three games tie for the league lead with Toronto defenseman Connor Carrick.  In the Providence series, the line of Guentzel, Kostopoulos, and Carter Rowney was a force, combining for 5 goals and 15 points, including two game-winners in the Providence sweep.  From top to bottom, the WBS forward lines brought heavy pressure and thunderous hitting to the Providence Bruins.  I expect that to continue in a heated rivalry series such as with Hershey.

The Hershey Bears, as they have been for a number of years, are led by Chris Bourque, the 2015-16 AHL MVP with 80 points in 72 regular season games.  The Bears featured an impressive mix of veterans and rookies among the forwards, with established AHL names such as Bourque, Sean Collins, captain Garrett Mitchell, and former WBS Penguin Zach Sill with dynamic rookies such as Riley Barber (26 goals, 29 assists in regular season), Travis Boyd (21 + 32), and Jakub Vrana (16 + 18).  Vrana led the Bears with five points in 5 games against the Portland Pirates, with Bourque and Boyd contributing one goal and two assists each.

ADVANTAGE: Push.  Both teams are stocked with a great balance of veterans and young talent, and based on WBS's performance against Providence, I have a hard time putting one group of forwards ahead of the other.

Defensemen

The WBS defense had a tall order ahead of them in Round 1 to hold back the Providence attack, and they did an admirable job.  Leading all WBS defenders in Round 1 was Tim Erixon, with two goals and two assists in their 3-game sweep.  Fellow defenders Will O'Neill, Steve Oleksy, and Barry Goers all recorded assists.

EDIT, as of 7:00 pm EDT May 3: Thanks to Kris Letang's suspension, Pittsburgh has recalled Oleksy, but logic dictates that this callup would only be for one game, and I would fully expect Oleksy to be back for Games 2 and beyond (pending any other nonsense between Penguins and Capitals).

Hershey's defense features the same mix of veterans and rookies as their forward lines, with rookies such as Tyler Lewington, Christian Djoos, and Madison Bowey supported by hardened vets such as Aaron Ness, with four assists in the Portland series; and Ryan Stanton, the former Vancouver Canuck and Chicago Blackhawk with two goals in the Portland series.  I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the curious case of Erik Burgdoerfer, who has scored 7 goals in his two seasons for Hershey, with the majority of those against WBS.

ADVANTAGE: Slight edge to WBS on the basis of experience.

Goaltenders

The original plan for the Providence series was to have Casey DeSmith play Game 1 and Tristan Jarry play Game 2.  DeSmith had none of it.  After stopping 31 of 33 shots in Game 1 for the victory in OT, coach Clark Donatelli stuck with his rookie in Game 2, and he responded with 30 more saves on 33 shots.  Then, in Game 3, with DeSmith firmly entrenched in the net, he turned in the performance of a lifetime in Game 3, recording a WBS-record 59 saves on 63 Providence shots to keep the Bruins at bay long enough for Jake Guentzel to win the game in double-OT.  DeSmith ended the series with a GAA of 2.45 and a save percentage of 93.0%.

Where WBS sports youth in goal, Hershey brings experience in the duo of Dan Ellis and Justin Peters.  In the regular season, Ellis played in 43 games, recording 25 wins, a GAA of 2.38, and a 90.8% save percentage.   Peters posted 17 wins in 37 appearances, with a GAA of 3.04 and an 89.6% save percentage.  Hershey started its Portland series with Ellis in net, but after allowing 6 goals to Portland in Game 1, Peters took the net for the remainder of the series and posted a microscopic GAA of 0.85 and an astronomical 96.6% save percentage in four games.  Peters will be able to cruise right into Round 2 with relatively normal rest, just two days.

ADVANTAGE: Hershey, but slightly.  With an 11-day gap between the end of the Providence series and the beginning of the Hershey series, it'll be really fascinating to see how DeSmith comes out of the extended break.

Special Teams

The Penguins' power play received 11 chances in the Providence series, scoring two goals but allowing two shorthanded goals.  The Penguins' penalty kill faced 10 opportunities and shut down 9 of them.

The Hershey power play received 20 chances in the Portland series, converting on two of them and allowing no shorthanded goals.  The Hershey penalty kill faced 24 penalties and shut down 23 of them, allowing only one goal.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, it's still the Penguins and the Bears.  When rivalry games such as these are played, none of the above matters.  The key things to watch in this series are:

  • How will WBS take the ice after 11 days of no games...sluggish, rusty, and slow, or like the well-oiled, ferocious machine I saw against Providence?  There's only so much you can do to simulate game conditions in practice.
  • Third periods will be huge in this series.  WBS carried a lead into the third period in each of the three games against Providence, including a three-goal lead into the clinching Game 3, and lost each lead in the third, needing varying amounts of overtime to win each game.  By contrast, Hershey carried leads into the third period in each of their last 3 games against Portland, conceding only one such lead in Game 3, which they lost in triple-OT.  Hershey held its lead in Games 4 and 5 at home to clinch the series.
  • Goalies:
Can DeSmith carry his first-round magic into the second round?  Will Peters revert to his substandard form against WBS in the regular season?  If it comes down to backups, what sort of condition would Tristan Jarry be in if pressed into service?
  • Pittsburgh vs. Washington: I would be remiss if I didn't address the elephant in the room, the fact that the NHL affiliates of WBS and Hershey are playing their Stanley Cup playoff series concurrently with their AHL affiliates.  If Pittsburgh and Washington goes the distance, Game 7 would be played May 12, the day before a potential Game 6 between WBS and Hershey.  It is very likely that the AHL series will stretch beyond the conclusion of the NHL series, so whichever affiliate sees their NHL parent club lose would be due for a significant infusion of players.  For WBS, that could mean the addition of Matt Murray, Derrick Pouliot, Bryan Rust, and Conor Sheary for the end of the series if the Capitals win.  It's less clear what the impact of a Pittsburgh win would mean for Hershey's roster, but Hershey has already survived a mid-series boost to their opponents once, as Florida's elimination from the Stanley Cup playoffs sent three players to the Portland Pirates for Games 3-5 of that series.

Prediction

In their previous 14 playoff appearances, the Penguins won their first series in 13 of them.  Of those 13 first series wins, WBS would go on to win their second series only five times.  The second round has spelled the end of so many playoff runs for WBS over the years, with their title bids stopped by Hershey themselves three times.  But on the heels of being about as wrong as I possibly could be with my first round prediction, and as a great band once said...

Penguins in six.