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Atlantic Division Semifinal Preview: WBS Penguins vs. Springfield Thunderbirds

Following their dramatic 4-3 overtime winner Monday night to eliminate Hershey, the WBS Penguins advance to a best-of-5 division semifinal series against Springfield. Here’s everything you need to know.

Radim Zohorna prepares to take a face off during Game 3 against Hershey on Monday night.
@WBSPenguins

It took 8 minutes and 22 seconds longer than anticipated, but the WBS Penguins have survived the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs. Next on the schedule is a best-of-5 Atlantic Division semifinal series with the top affiliate of the St. Louis Blues, the Springfield Thunderbirds. Here’s some things to know in advance of Game 1 tonight.

THE PLAYOFFS SO FAR

  • In the Atlantic Division, WBS/Springfield is one series, while the sixth-seed Bridgeport eliminated the third-seed Providence in two games in the other first-round series. Bridgeport now faces top seed Charlotte in a division semifinal.
  • In the North Division, fifth-seed Rochester eliminated fourth-seed Belleville in two games to advance. Rochester now gets the North’s top seed Utica, while Syracuse and Laval are currently tied 1-1 in their semifinal series.
  • In the Central Division, fourth-seed Rockford eliminated fifth-seed Texas in two games to advance. Rockford now takes on the Central’s top seed Chicago, while Milwaukee leads Manitoba 2-0 in their semifinal series.
  • In the Pacific, the higher seeds all won their first round series in two games, as Ontario defeated San Diego, Colorado defeated Henderson, and Bakersfield defeated Abbotsford. As the lowest seeded team, Bakersfield will take on the division winner Stockton, while Ontario and Colorado will face off.
  • All division semifinals are best-of-5 series.

SERIES SCHEDULE

  • Game 1 tonight at Springfield, 7:05 pm start
  • Game 2 Thursday, May 12 at Springfield, 7:05 pm start
  • Game 3 Sunday, May 15 at WBS, 5:05 pm start
  • Game 4 Monday, May 16 at WBS, 7:05 pm start (if needed)
  • Game 5 Wednesday, May 18 at Springfield, 7:05 pm start (if needed)

SEASON SERIES: WBS leads 4-1-0-1

  • October 30: WBS 4 @ Springfield 3
  • November 19: WBS 4 @ Springfield 5 (SO)
  • December 12: Springfield 0 @ WBS 6
  • February 2: Springfield 3 @ WBS 4
  • February 19: Springfield 2 @ WBS 3
  • April 23: WBS 1 @ Springfield 3

FORWARDS

Springfield enjoyed no shortage of offense this season, finishing a 76-game season with 233 goals to finish with a 3.07 goals per game average, 16th best in the AHL. Eleven different forwards scored double digit goals for the Thunderbirds, led by Matthew Peca with 23 and Sam Anas with 20. Peca added 37 assists to finish with 60 points and a tie for 21st in AHL scoring, while Anas added 44 assists to finish with 66 points and a tie for 12th in AHL scoring. Former Pittsburgh Penguin James Neal joined Springfield January 26 and has paid valuable dividends, recording 14 goals and 12 assists in just 28 games.

For the Penguins, Radim Zohorna led all skaters with 5 points (2 goals, 3 assists) in the first-round playoff series with Hershey. Alex Nylander joined him with two goals, including the series winner in overtime on Monday. Sam Poulin and Felix Robert each had a goal and an assist, while Valtteri Puustinen contributed two assists.

Edge: Springfield. This is a dangerous, dangerous set of forwards who can break any game open at any time. The WBS defense will have its work cut out for them.

DEFENSE

While the Springfield offense finished the season 31 goals better than WBS’s first-round opponent, their defense was perhaps more leaky than that of Hershey. Springfield conceding 221 goals over 76 games for a 2.91 goals per game average, 10th in the AHL and only four goals less than WBS. Longtime AHL veteran Tommy Cross led the Springfield defense with 8 goals and 21 assists for 29 points in 67 games. Calle Rosen led the defense in assists with 24 in 40 games, while four other defenders finished the regular season with double digit assists.

Pierre-Olivier Joseph led WBS defenders with three assists in the three-game series with Hershey. Mitch Reinke also contributed one assist. It was Will Reilly’s goal on Friday that kickstarted WBS’s Game 1 victory, while Matt Bartkowski was the beneficiary of that own-goal by Beck Malenstyn that tied Game 3 at 1 in the first period.

Edge: Push. If not for the two extra-attacker goals by Hershey during their last stand, WBS would have conceded just three goals to Hershey over three games. As it happens, five over three games is still really good, but Springfield’s offense is much, much stronger than that of Hershey. I expect this to be a wide-open series.

GOALTENDERS

Charlie Lindgren and Joel Hofer split duties for Springfield in net this season. Lindgren finished with a 24-7-1 record, a 2.21 GAA, a .925 save percentage, and three shutouts in 34 appearances, while Hofer finished the season with a record of 18-14-6, a 2.96 GAA, a .905 save percentage, and one shutout in 39 appearances.

Tommy Nappier’s star shone brightest in the three-game series against Hershey, finishing the 3-game series with a 1.60 GAA, a .946 save percentage, and one shutout. He has been improving steadily all season, and he still seems to be getting better at a time where Pittsburgh’s organizational goaltending depth is being sorely tested.

EDGE: Unknown. Lindgren had a stellar regular season, finishing third in the league in GAA and second in save percentage among qualified goalies, but this is an unknown edge primarily because Lindgren did not face the WBS Penguins once this season. Nappier has one appearance against Springfield this year, and it was a victory. I like WBS’s chances more if Hofer gets the starts, as Hofer went 2-0-3 against the Penguins in 5 games; if it’s Lindgren, then who knows what will happen.


PREDICTION: There are a lot of unknowns and conflicting statistics with this series. WBS has a better regular season record, but they did not face Charlie Lindgren once. Springfield’s got a better power play than Hershey, converting at a 20.3% pace that was 8th best in the league, but their PK was worse at 78.3%, 25th in the league. Springfield hasn’t played in 11 days, while by the end of Game 2 tomorrow night, WBS will have completed 5 games in 7 days.

I think that layoff will be the difference, as well as home ice. WBS won all three of its Springfield home games in the regular season, they took one out of three at Springfield, and they won both of their home games against Hershey in Round 1. If all that holds to form, then they’ll need one out of Springfield’s “Thunderdome” to advance to the division finals.

Penguins in five.