For the 16th straight spring, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins take a seat at the table of the Calder Cup playoffs. For the last time, Tom Kostopoulos will lead the Penguins in their search of their first AHL championship. Opposing them first, the top affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes, the Charlotte Checkers.
Let’s set the stage for a rematch seven years in the making.
2017-18 SEASON HISTORY (Charlotte won season series 3-1-0-0)
October 7 (season opener): Charlotte 5, WBS 2
December 8: Charlotte 2, WBS 1
March 13: WBS 5, Charlotte 2
March 14: WBS 1, Charlotte 3
The only time WBS and Charlotte have played each other in the Calder Cup playoffs was in 2011. WBS had just finished the best regular season in their history, 58-21-0-1, and overcome a 2-0 series deficit in round 1 against Norfolk with four in a row to dispatch the Admirals. Charlotte eliminated the Hershey Bears in six games to advance.
Charlotte and WBS split the first two games in Wilkes-Barre, then Charlotte won two in a row in Charlotte. Facing elimination, WBS turned in a 1-0 shutout behind 23 saves by Brad Thiessen to force the series back to Wilkes-Barre. In Game 6, WBS built a 3-0 lead in the third period behind goals by Ryan Craig, Corey Potter, and Joe Vitale, only to see Charlotte score four in a span of 10 minutes in the third period (two by this year’s Sollenberger Trophy winner Chris Terry, one by Brett Sutter, and the game-winner by Zac Dalpe) to steal Game 6 and eliminate the Penguins on their own ice. The collapse is rivaled only by WBS conceding six goals in 12 minutes in Game 6 of the 2005 second round in Philadelphia to crash out of those playoffs.
Charlotte would proceed to get swept by the eventual Calder Cup champion Binghamton Senators in the Eastern Conference final.
Game 1: Friday, April 20 at Charlotte, 7:00 pm EDT
Game 2: Saturday, April 21 at Charlotte, 6:00 pm EDT
Game 3: Thursday, April 26 at WBS, 7:05 pm EDT
Game 4: Saturday, April 28 at WBS, 7:05 pm EDT
Game 5: Sunday, April 29 at WBS, 3:05 pm EDT
This series has the potential to be a high-flying showcase of offense. The WBS Penguins finished fifth in the league in overall goals with 252 goals, which would ordinarily be impressive until you realize that 252 goals was only good enough for third place in the Atlantic Division.
WBS was paced this season by the most dynamic rookie to walk through the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza tunnel perhaps ever, Daniel Sprong. Sprong finished with a WBS rookie record 32 goals and 65 points in his 65 games, falling just short of the overall rookie scoring record held by Toby Petersen (67, 2000-01). I have a feeling though, that had Sprong not been called up to Pittsburgh for a short time during the season, nor had he missed the assorted game due to healthy scratches characterized as “part of the learning process”, Sprong might have set a lot more rookie records.
Behind Sprong, WBS also received a 50-point season from their team MVP Jean-Sebastien Dea, a 21-goal season by Teddy Blueger, and double-digit goals from a total of nine players (including four rookies).
Not to be outdone, the Charlotte Checkers boasted the league’s top offense at 265 goals. Leading the way was third-year forward Valentin Zykov, with 33 goals and 54 points in 63 games. Charlotte not only had a total of 10 forwards with double-digit goals (including five rookies), but four of those forwards cracked 20 goals, including rookies Warren Foegele (28) and Aleksi Saarela (25). From my colleague Justin Lape over at Canes Country:
Charlotte possess a top-tier offense that has been built up over years of farm system building. The most explosive player this year was Valentin Zykov who was acquired via trade from the Los Angeles Kings. Zykov led the American Hockey League in goals with 33, a 17-goal improvement from last season. Lucas Wallmark continues to be solid at the AHL level but Warren Foegele has been the best surprise of all. The rookie forward, much like Andrew Poutralski last year, has burst onto the scene with 28 goals and 46 points in 73 games. He thrives around the net and has scored a good amount of his goals on rebound chances. Look for him to be a factor in this series.
A midseason trade saw Greg McKegg and Josh Jooris switch organizations, with McKegg going to Charlotte and Jooris coming to WBS (and, later, Pittsburgh). McKegg played in 19 games for Charlotte following the trade, scoring 9 goals and 14 assists; Jooris dressed in only six WBS games, scoring one goal, and as of Wednesday night’s Game 4 against Philadelphia was a healthy scratch for Pittsburgh. (UPDATE as of 12:48 pm EDT Friday: Pittsburgh has announced the reassignment of Jooris to WBS, though I’m not totally convinced his addition to the roster is enough to swing this series one way or the other.)
EDGE: Push. This has the potential to be a 3 to 5 game track meet; if it does, the last shot could win on any given night.
The WBS defense took a considerable step back this season, going from the fewest goals allowed in the league last year (170) to 19th this season (223). Perhaps this can be attributed to a ridiculous revolving door in net (we’ll get to that), but I’ve long felt that defense is a team effort; to that end, allowing 53 more goals this year over last year is very concerning...especially when you’re about to stare down the league’s top offense in a short series. The Charlotte offense vs. the WBS defense might very well decide this series, and I think the WBS defenders are well equipped to handle the challenge.
The WBS defense featured a remarkable five free agent acquisitions this season, with Andrey Pedan the most prolific goal scorer among them with 9. Kevin Czuczman provided a reliable distribution from the blue line with 31 assists, tied for 6th among all league defenders.
The Charlotte defense finished in the top half of the league, conceding 212 goals to finish 13th. Charlotte’s Trevor Carrick led all Checkers defenders with 11 goals and 33 assists for 44 points, finishing tied for 8th in goals, 4th in assists, and 6th in points. Fellow Checkers defender Brenden Kichton hit 20 assists as well. Once again, Justin Lape:
The Charlotte defense has fluctuated this season and could even be classified as their weakness. Hadyn Fleury graduated to the NHL but was sent day when the Hurricanes wrapped up play so he will be involved in this series. Roland McKeown is above average at the AHL and projects as a bottom pairing defenseman at the NHL level. His puck movement is exceptionally well and he is quickly becoming a fan favorite in both Raleigh and Charlotte. Phillip Samuelsson’s (author’s note: former WBS defender) numbers are a little inflated due to heavier usage this season. Charlotte’s could have a hard time matching up against WBS’ forwards but it’s safe to say that it will be a high scoring series.
What a difference a year makes. Last season, WBS featured Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith for virtually the entire season, and both goalies posted GAAs in the low 2s to win the Hap Holmes award for fewest goals allowed. This year, due in large part to the spectacular implosion of Antti Niemi as the backup goaltender in Pittsburgh, the WBS net became a true revolving door, with seven different goaltenders suiting up for the Penguins over the course of the year and only one, DeSmith, playing enough minutes to qualify for league rankings.
DeSmith isn’t here this year, though. Left standing at the end of the season are Jarry, the all-time leader in AHL shutouts Michael Leighton, and professional tryout signer turned AHL contract winning Anthony Peters. At their very best, Jarry and Leighton are more than capable of locking down the WBS net, but Jarry has been far less than his best in his limited WBS action, posting a 3.05 GAA and 90.1% save percentage in 16 appearances.
The Charlotte net has been far more consistent in staffing, led by Alex Nedeljkovic. More from Justin Lape, this time on Nedeljkovic specifically:
The second-year netminder was given the keys to the castle and was asked to play a major role this season. He finished tied for third in wins and improved his save percentage after abysmal play in net last season. His performance is make or break for Charlotte.
Nedeljkovic finished 31-12-3, with a 2.55 GAA (18th in the AHL), and a 90.3% save percentage in 49 apperances. Seconding Nedeljkovic will be Jeremy Smith, posting a 13-13-1 record, a 2.71 GAA, and a 90.2% save percentage in 30 appearances.
EDGE: Inconclusive. This series will hinge, among other things, on which goaltender rises to the challenge...Nedeljkovic or Jarry. Both face tall tasks...Jarry facing down a Charlotte forward tandem touted by no less an authority than Hershey Bears head coach Troy Mann as the best the AHL has to offer, and Nedeljkovic staring down the dynamic Daniel Sprong and an Olympic bronze medalist, among others.
Here’s where the series could swing. The Charlotte power play, fueled by all those talented forwards, finished third in the AHL with a 20.4% success rate. They will be facing a WBS penalty kill that finished 20th in the AHL with an 82.0% success rate, but consider this from the Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice’s Tyler Piccotti:
Also here's your insane stat for the day: The Pens PK is 64.5% without Teddy Blueger. With? 83.6%, granted it's a small sample size.— Tyler Piccotti (@CVPiccotti) April 17, 2018
On the other side, the WBS power play, despite 11 power play goals from Daniel Sprong, only got 30 power play goals from others to finish with the second worst conversion percentage in the AHL this season, 13.8%. They will be staring down a Charlotte penalty kill that finished the season dispatching 81.2% of penalties it faced, seventh-worst in the AHL.
EDGE: Charlotte. Justin tells me that Charlotte plays a very physical style, which logic might dictate would lead it to take a few more penalties, but that same physical style on penalty kills might also serve to disrupt an already shaky power play. Just as it would be 5 on 5, the battle between the Charlotte power play and the WBS penalty kill will be integral to this series.
This could prove to be another difference in the series. With the Carolina Hurricanes out of the playoffs, Carolina returned Zykov, forward Nicolas Roy, and defenders Haydn Fleury and Roland McKeown to Charlotte on April 7. On the other side, while forwards Zach Aston-Reese, Dominik Simon, and Josh Jooris are eligible to play for WBS in the playoffs, they likely aren’t going anywhere unless and until Pittsburgh gets eliminated. Often, an AHL playoff series hinges on who has their best players and who does not; Charlotte currently is the best it can be, while WBS can still be better.
This will be the fourth AHL playoff series I have written about in my three years writing about the WBS Penguins for Pensburgh. I have yet to correctly predict a series winner. I’ve predicted WBS to win twice, and each time, they’ve lost.
So this year, I’m not even going to try.
The two biggest matchups to watch:
- The experienced, physical WBS defense against the Charlotte forwards, both even strength and on special teams.
- Nedeljkovic vs. Jarry.
A huge thanks once again to Justin from Canes Country for his insights towards this series preview. You can find Justin’s series preview here. The crew at Canes Country will have full coverage of this series from the Charlotte perspective, starting with tonight’s Game 1 and continuing into Game 2 tomorrow night, while I will be on site for the remaining games in WBS.
Get ready, folks. While I may not agree with the assertion of Kevin Czuczman, as relayed by Tyler Piccotti, that the playoffs are “like Christmas morning every morning”, I do agree with the assertion of the Charlotte Checkers’ broadcaster Jason Shaya, also relayed by Piccotti, that we are in for “5 games of heart palpitations”.