After losing playoffs the last two seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the American Hockey League will once again contest the Calder Cup Playoffs this May and June. The playoffs have been expanded this season to include 23 of the league’s 31 teams, and for the 18th time in 21 possible seasons, the WBS Penguins have qualified for the playoffs. As the 4th place finisher in the Atlantic Division, they hold home-ice advantage in a best-of-3 series against the 5th place finisher in the Atlantic, the Hershey Bears. The series opens tonight with Game 1 at WBS. Here’s everything you need to know for the 2022 Calder Cup Playoffs.
THE REST OF THE LEAGUE
As part of the expanded playoffs, only the bottom two finishers in each division were eliminated from playoff contention. The rest of the playoffs shake out like this:
- In the Atlantic Division, the 6th seed Bridgeport has already eliminated the 3rd seed Providence in two games. Bridgeport, guaranteed to be the lower seeded team remaining, will play division winners Charlotte in the division semifinals, while the Penguins/Bears winner will play 2nd seed Springfield.
- In the North Division, the top three finishers (division winners Utica, 2nd seed Syracuse, 3rd seed Laval) advance to the division semifinals. The 4th seed Belleville plays the 5th seed Rochester in round 1. That winner plays Utica, while Syracuse and Laval play each other.
- In the Central Division, the top three finishers (Kilpatrick Trophy winners Chicago as the best team in the regular season, 2nd seed Manitoba, 3rd seed Milwaukee) advance to the division semifinals. The 4th seed Rockford plays the 5th seed Texas in round 1. That winner plays Chicago, while Manitoba and Milwaukee play each other.
- In the Pacific Division, only division winners Stockton advance to the division semifinals. The other six qualifiers play round 1 series: 2nd seed Ontario vs. 7th seed San Diego, 3rd seed Colorado vs. 6th seed Henderson, and 4th seed Bakersfield vs. 5th seed Abbotsford. Bakersfield has already eliminated Abbotsford in 2 games. The lowest seeded team remaining after the opening round series end plays Stockton, while the other two surviving teams play each other.
- All round 1 series are best of 3. The division semifinals and division finals are best of 5, while the conference and league finals are best of 7.
SEASON SERIES: Hershey leads 8-3-1-0
- December 11: Hershey 3 @ WBS 2
- December 14: Hershey 4 @ WBS 1
- December 18: WBS 3 @ Hershey 8
- December 27: Hershey 4 @ WBS 1
- December 29: WBS 1 @ Hershey 6
- January 8: WBS 0 @ Hershey 3
- January 9: WBS 2 @ Hershey 3
- January 16: Hershey 1 @ WBS 2
- January 25: WBS 2 @ Hershey 6
- February 22: WBS 3 @ Hershey 1
- April 15: Hershey 2 @ WBS 3
- April 19: Hershey 0 @ WBS 3
Don’t let the final season record fool you. Even though Hershey won the first 7 games of the season series, those games were during the league’s COVID outbreaks in December and January. As the season went on, WBS showed a marked improvement over not just its I-81 rivals but everyone else. WBS won 4 of its last 5 games against Hershey, punctuating the season series with a 3-0 shutout April 19.
Recall also that around the time WBS acquired forward Alex Nylander in a trade with Chicago on January 5, WBS was one of the worst teams in the league. The 3-2 loss to Hershey on January 9 dropped the Penguins to worst in the division and 7 tenths of a percentage point away from worst in the entire league. That the team could recover from that low point to eventually get into the playoffs is a credit to the coaches and players alike.
Hershey got both a boost and a subtraction from their parent team Washington for round 1. The Capitals sent forward Joe Snively back to the Bears for a conditioning assignment, but they recalled forward Brett Leason on Thursday. Snively scored 15 goals and 23 assists for Hershey in just 35 games, one of 8 different Bears forwards to hit double digits in goals. Garrett Pilon led the Bears with 17 goals on the season, followed by Mike Vecchione and Axel Jonsson-Fjallby with 16 each, Shane Gersuch with 14, Mason Morelli with 12, and Mike Sgarbossa and Beck Malenstyn with 10. The Bears as a team averaged only 2.66 goals per game this season, second-worst in the entire league.
Meanwhile, WBS lost one of its more prolific forwards to recall when Pittsburgh promoted Drew O’Connor on April 30 prior to WBS’s regular season finale. In 33 games for WBS, O’Connor scored 12 goals and 20 assists. O’Connor was one of 10 forwards to score double digit goals for WBS, led by Valtteri Puustinen’s 20. Sam Poulin tied Felix Robert for second on the team in his rookie season with 16 goals, while fellow rookie Filip Hållander tied Nylander with 14 goals for WBS. Nylander finished with 22 goals combined with Rockford and WBS. Michael Chaput, Radim Zohorna, and Kyle Olson all scored 12 goals, while Jonathan Gruden connected for 10. The Penguins offense fared slightly better than that of Hershey, tying for 26th in the AHL with 2.75 goals scored per game.
EDGE: Penguins, slightly. Poulin and Hållander have shown vast improvement this season, while Puustinen started out strong and stayed consistent. It will be youth vs. experience at forward in this series, especially with Hershey getting Snively back.
Five of WBS’s presumptive top six defenders for the playoffs posted double digit assists this season, led by Juuso Riikola’s 34 helpers. Mitch Reinke placed second with 24, while Pierre-Olivier Joseph added 10 goals to his 23 assists. Hershey likewise had five defenders with double digit assists, led by veteran Cody Franson with 26.
Hershey as a team conceded an average of 2.75 goals per game, 5th best in the AHL. The WBS defense conceded 2.96 goals per game, 12th in the AHL.
EDGE: Push. If you like offense from your defenders, WBS gets the edge, but if you’re looking for defense from your defenders, I think I like Hershey more.
Hershey was led in net primarily by the tandem of Pheonix Copley and Zach Fucale this season. Copley finished with a record of 18-12-5, a GAA of 2.38, a save percentage of .913, and two shutouts. The net figures to be his alone for the playoffs, as Washington recalled Fucale on May 1.
WBS started the season with Filip Lindberg and Louis Domingue as their top two, but they’ll go into the playoffs with Tommy Nappier as their #1 due to Lindberg’s injury, Domingue’s current stand-in role for Pittsburgh, and Alex D’Orio’s promotion to Pittsburgh to back up Domingue. Nappier finished the season 13-10-2 with a 2.87 GAA, a .897 save percentage, and one shutout. WBS signed Samuel Harvey from the just-eliminated Fort Wayne Komets of the ECHL to a PTO on Thursday morning to serve as Nappier’s backup.
EDGE: Hershey. Nappier has shown vast improvement over the course of the season, but he will need to be at his very best in this series. Copley enjoyed a 5-1 record against WBS this season in six starts, all between December 11 and January 25.
PREDICTION: This will be the eighth all-time meeting in the playoffs between WBS and Hershey. Hershey currently holds a 4-3 advantage, including in their most recent meeting in 2016, a seven-game thriller that ended with a Travis Boyd overtime winner in Game 7.
I think the Penguins have just enough to square that record this year, though it will be close. Give me WBS in three games.