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Monday, April 25, 2016

WBS First Round Recap by @jfoo1654

Providence Journal

The "underdog" Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins finished off their first round sweep of the heavily favored Providence Bruins on a Jake Guentzel 2OT goal, and behind a team record 59 saves from the Cinderella Story known as Casey DeSmith. The two rookies played like seasoned veterans, as they led the way for the Penguins throughout the first round match up. Guentzel totaled 3 goals and 7 points to lead all scorers in the series, and DeSmith was outstanding all the way posting a 2.45 Goals Against Average, and a .930 Save Percentage.

Coming into the series, the Penguins had a few unknowns, such as who their starting goaltender would be. Tristan Jarry was sent down from Pittsburgh on the morning of game 1, and arrived in time for the morning skate, but Head Coach Clark Donatelli wouldn't show his hand, until Casey DeSmith led the team out for the opener. The decision was scrutinized by some as DeSmith had only played a handful of games for the Penguins in the regular season, and at times he was as low as 3rd on the ECHL's Wheeling Nailers depth chart. So the fact that DeSmith not only played, but excelled, surprised more than a few hockey fans in Northeaster Pa. After each game the same question would be asked of Donatelli, "Who will start in Goal?," and each time he stuck with the hot young goalie who is writing a storybook ending to his first professional season. He frustrated the skilled offensive talent of the Bruins, making highlight reel saves time and again, while the Penguins were scoring relatively easily at the other end of the ice. As WBS prepares for the Atlantic Division Finals, I'm sure the same questions will continue to be asked of Donatelli, but at this point I think Casey DeSmith has answered it for his head coach. You can expect to see #1 between the pipes for game 1.

DeSmith Robs Former Penguin Max Talbot
Most people surrounding this series, expected the Bruins to win this series and rightfully so seeing as they were the best team in the AHL after Christmas. Providence boasted a ton of young explosive offensive players who put up huge numbers throughout the regular season. Frank Vatrano had 36 goals in 36 games as a rookie in his first pro season. The Penguins on the other hand were reeling down the stretch and came into the series largely overlooked. As people kept saying that the Pens couldn't match the skill and speed of the P-Bruins, WBS used the underdog role as fuel to motivate themselves. It's true, the Penguins didn't have the speed and skill to match the Bruins, but what they did have was loads of playoff experience and a much more physical team from top to bottom. It took only the first few shifts of the series to figure out what the Penguins gameplan was; to pound the young, skilled Bruins into submission. WBS consistently dumped pucks in behind the Bruin defense, and then hammered on those defensmen time and time again. A rugged forecheck forced turnover after turnover, and the physically imposing Penguins won every wall battle behind the Bruin Goalie. This resulted in multiple easy tap in goals, in which Providence Goalie Jeremy Smith had absolutely no chance to stop. In fact, Carter Rowney's game 1 overtime winner was scored in that exact fashion.

Carter Rowney celebrates his Game 1 OT winner

Another common theme coming into this matchup, was that Daniel Sprong wouldn't make much of an impact on this series, certainly not a big enough impact to tip the scaled in the Penguins favor. After game 1 it appeared that maybe Sprong wouldn't be able to adjust to the AHL quickly enough to leave his imprint on the series. He skated on a line with Tom Sestito and Teddy Blueger, and only had one shift between the 3rd period and Overtime. He wasn't able to generate more than a few harmless shots from the perimeter. He began game 2 skating on the same line, but he did manage to find himself on the team's second PP unit. He had the puck on his stick on the PP early in Game 2, when he turned a puck over to Providence forward Noel Acciari who buried his shorthanded chance to give the Bruins an early lead. Rather than stuff his young sniper on the bench, Clark Donatelli opted to put him back out there, only this time on the top line with Dustin Jeffrey and Kael Mouillierat. On Sprong's very first shift with the top line, he took a centering feed from Mouillierat and deposited the puck in the net for his first career AHL goal, and it tied game 2 at 2 apiece. The kid wasn't done yet; midway through OT he knocked a floating pass from Mouillierat out of midair and past Jeremy Smith. The rookie jumped into the glass in celebration as he put his team ahead 2-0 in the best of five series. You can hear Sprong comment on his Game 2 performance here.

The Bruins had no answer for the physical play
Jake Guentzel had progressively gotten better each game that he played for the Penguins coming out of The University of Nebraska-Omaha, where he was named Team Captain as a Junior and led the team in scoring. He was disappointed that he didn't get a chance to play in the NCAA tournament, so he hoped he could make a long playoff run in Wilkes-Barre. So he took matters into his own hands. Playing on a line with Carter Rowney and Tom Kostopoulos, Guentzel had a goal and 3 points through the first two games of the series, and that line was dominating the Bruins with a mix of speed and punishing physicality. Guentzel would continue his hot streak by opening the scoring in Game 3 less than a minute into the game as he banged home the rebound of a Steve Oleksy point shot. He would also assist on PP goals by Dominik Simon (1) and J.S. Dea (1) and he continued his fearless play along the boards, continuously putting his body in harms way to make a play for his teammates. The Penguins took a 4-1 lead into the 3rd period only to watch the Bruins rally to tied the game with 3:40 left to play. The teams would trade chances throughout the entire first OT, with both goalies making A+ saves to keep the game ongoing. Early in the second OT the Pens would get a PP, that would eventually become a 5 on 3. They couldn't convert and back and forth the chances would go. With just under 8 minutes to go in the second OT, Guentzel and Kostopoulos would get a 2 on 2 rush. Bruins defenseman Brett Bellemore fell down, and TK sent Guentzel in alone with a perfect feed, and Jake would end the series with a snipe that beat Jeremy Smith just under the arm. The Penguins celebrated wildly along the half wall while the Bruins lay on the ice in shock.

Jake Guentzel tallied 7 points in 3 games
Anything can happen in the Calder Cup Playoffs, and the 2016 WBS Penguins are the latest proof. Despite being overlooked by just about everyone picking this series, they showed just how little a paper lineup can mean. This series goes to show that a few players elevating their level (DeSmith Game 1, Sprong Game 2, Guentzel Game 3), a red-hot goalie, and a perfectly executed gameplan can turn a series upside down in the blink of an eye. Now the Pens will wait and see who wins the other Atlantic Division Semi-Final between Portland and Hershey, which is tied at 1 game apiece. They will use this time to heal up the bumps and bruises, and develop yet another gameplan that will give them a chance to do what no one believes they can. WBS has played in 3 CC Finals in its brief history, will this be the year that they finally win it? Time will tell, but one thing is for sure, don't call them "underdogs."

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