Just like in the first two games of their Atlantic Division semifinal series against the Charlotte Checkers, the WBS Penguins jumped out to an early lead on Thursday night at the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza during Game 3. Unfortunately, just like in the first two games of this series, Charlotte withstood, then overcame the early WBS pressure to score five straight goals en route to an emphatic 7-3 elimination of the Penguins from the 2018 Calder Cup playoffs.
Starting Gs:#WBSPens - Tristan Jarry— Mike O'Brien (@MikeOBrienWBS) April 26, 2018
(0-2, 2.45 GAA, .922 sv%)
CHA - Alex Nedeljkovic
(2-0, 1.46 GAA, .945 sv%)
Expected #WBSPens Lines— Mike O'Brien (@MikeOBrienWBS) April 26, 2018
Expected #WBSPens D-Pairings:— Mike O'Brien (@MikeOBrienWBS) April 26, 2018
With Kevin Czuczman and Jarred Tinordi unable to go after picking up injuries during Game 2, Ethan Prow and Niclas Almari drew into the defense.
WBS struck first again as noted above at 4:40 of the first, as Teddy Blueger, centering a 3 on 2 rush, sent a soft shot on net between two Charlotte defenders. Checkers goalie Nedeljkovic saved the shot but left a rebound right in front of him, and Anthony Angello pounced for his first goal of the playoffs and the first professional goal of his career. Defender Niclas Almari picked up an assist as well.
The Johnson/Blueger/Angello line continued to wreak havoc, as not long after they scored the first goal they scored a second. Following some tenacious forechecking, the puck drifted loose to Zach Trotman in the center of the ice at the blue line, and he let fly a shot that was deflected ever so slightly by Adam Johnson and into the net for Johnson’s first of these playoffs. Blueger picked up another assist.
Charlotte took command of the game after the second WBS goal, though.
Then, just 21 seconds later...
One little flub by Pedan, and that’s all it took for the former WBS Penguin Greg McKegg to pounce and tie the game.
Charlotte continued to press after their equalizer, but they could not take the lead in the first period. The first ended 2-2, with shots 12-9 Charlotte.
The second period had a distinct ebb and flow to it, with each side getting its share of chances. It took until the 17:46 mark of the second period for the tie to break, but in the most agonizing way possible for WBS supporters.
That’s a cross ice pass to Aleksi Saarela, who centered it possibly not knowing if anyone was there. Poor Jarrett Burton...he tried to deflect the centering pass but completely flubbed it, and it ended up going into his own net for Charlotte’s third goal. Checkers 3, Penguins 2 after 40 minutes, with overall shots favoring Charlotte 20-19.
Charlotte weathered a brief WBS power play to start the third period, then put the hammer down.
Not 2 minutes later...
As if to foretell the ignominious end of the season, with his career on the line, Tom Kostopoulos took a roughing penalty by objecting to Miller’s celebration of that goal, the first of two minors he would take in the third period and one of four minors WBS took in the third, leading to a total of six Charlotte power plays.
Even though the WBS PK was perfect in the game, each minor they took slashed precious time off the clock. WBS provided a spark of hope with 6:29 to go as Angello scored his second of the game by trickling a shot just through Nedeljkovic to bring WBS back to 5-3, but Charlotte salted the game away with two empty netters in 18 seconds to remove all doubt as to which team was superior in this series.
Nedeljkovic, after the two early goals, settled in once again to save 26 of 29 shots. Only one of his 6 goals allowed in the series was in the third period, Angello’s second in Game 3...a testament to his mental focus and ability to shake off early mistakes.
Meanwhile, after two solid performances in Charlotte, Tristan Jarry regressed in Game 3. He was credited with 25 saves on 30 shots, with one of those goals being the Saarela centering pass off Burton.
Third star was Anthony Angello with two goals; in his limited action at the very end of the regular season and playoffs, I was very impressed with his play and his size. I look forward to next season to see what he can do over a full campaign. Second star was Valentin Zykov with two assists; top honors went to Andrew Miller with a goal and an assist.
Charlotte now advances to the Atlantic Division final, where they await the winner of the series between Lehigh Valley and Providence. That series is tied at 1, with Game 3 tonight, Game 4 Saturday, and the if-necessary Game 5 on Monday, all in Lehigh Valley. Greg McKegg led all Checkers with one goal and four assists for 5 points, while four different players (Haydn Fleury, Aleksi Saarela, Clark Bishop, and Lucas Wallmark) scored two goals in the series.
WBS, meanwhile, suffered a playoff series sweep for only the third time in their history (2004, Calder Cup Finals vs. Milwaukee; 2010, round 1 vs. Albany). While the Penguins did enjoy a handful of solid to great rookie seasons from the likes of Daniel Sprong, Adam Johnson, Gage Quinney, Thomas DiPauli, and Lukas Bengtsson (despite Bengtsson’s injury), as well as the half-season brilliance of Zach Aston-Reese before his promotion to Pittsburgh, I can’t quite shake the overwhelming feeling of “meh” I have as I look back on yet another 40-win season and playoff qualification going poof once the playoffs actually began.
Who will be back?
Who will be gone?
I don’t have the answers, but it feels like some kind of reckoning might be coming after a second straight first-round exit.
The one thing I will be watching all offseason, though, has nothing to do with players or coaches. I will be watching the monthly meetings of the Luzerne County Convention Center Authority, the governmental authority that oversees the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza.
You see, next season is the 20th season for the WBS Penguins, and with it comes the conclusion of their current 10-year lease to play at the Mohegan Sun Arena. As of the Authority Board’s April meeting, summarized here by the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, talks have begun between the Board and the Pittsburgh Penguins organization, but nothing more than talks.
As I sit back and look at 19 years of WBS Penguins hockey, I don’t see a reason why Pittsburgh would move its affiliate from Northeastern Pennsylvania, nor do I have any clue where they would move to, but I also know that in the world of governments, nothing is certain until the contracts are signed.