Crawford's Corner: Calder Cup Playoff Action into Second RoundMay 5, 2016
By Bob Crawford
Round One of the Calder Cup tournament is history, and form pretty much held in the first-round series’ in the Eastern Conference, with only one mild upset. That was Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the third-place finishers in the Atlantic Division, ousting second-place Providence in a three-game sweep.
That was an impressive accomplishment for the Penguins, on whom the parent Pittsburgh club has leaned heavily to provide reinforcements for their own playoff run. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has been missing offensive kingpins Conor Sheary, Scott Wilson, Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl, as well as defenseman Derrick Pouliot and goaltender Matt Murray, for the better part of the last two months, and more recently lost centerman Oskar Sundqvist to the big club. Within the last week, winger Tom Sestito and defenseman Steve Oleksy were also called up.
The AHL Penguins had struggled down the stretch, going 2-5-0-1 in their last eight regular-season games, and the P-Bruins had finished strongly, with five straight wins to end the regular year and an 11-3-0-1 record in their last 15, and the margin of victory in the series between the two clubs was razor-thin, with all three games going to overtime, but Wilkes-Barre/Scranton got the final word in all three.
Providence came back to tie all three contests in the third period, but had no luck in overtime, and two recent prospect additions to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton roster both struck for OT goals. Daniel Sprong, a 2015 second-round pick by Pittsburgh who spent most of this year in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, ended Game Two 5:13 into overtime and Jake Guentzel, a 2013 third-rounder who is fresh out of the University of Nebraska-Omaha, had the double-overtime series-winner in Game Three. That came after the Penguins had blown a 4-1 third-period lead.
Also notable in that Wilkes-Barre/Scranton-Providence series was that Casey DeSmith (pictured, courtesy of wbspenguins.com), who spent most of this season in the ECHL, played all three games in goal for the Penguins and delivered a 93.0% save percentage, including a 59-save performance in the clincher, in which Providence had a 63-37 shots edge.
DeSmith, Sprong and the Penguins served notice that their first-round sweep was no fluke, with a 4-0 shutout of Hershey Wednesday, in Game One of the two Keystone State rivals’ second-round matchup. DeSmith stopped 33 Bear shots in his first pro whitewash, and Sprong scored twice, including a goal only 45 seconds into the game.
There was another Division Final-round series opener Wednesday night, and that saw the Albany Devils hand the regular-season league-champion Toronto Marlies a 2-1 defeat at Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto. That was the first postseason loss for the Marlies, after a first-round sweep of Bridgeport, who had nosed out the Wolf Pack for fifth place in the Atlantic Division and the right to cross over into the North Division draw.
Only one first-round series went the full five-game route, and that was the Atlantic Division-champion Bears’ struggle with the fourth-place Portland Pirates, who failed in two chances to eliminate Hershey after a 2-1, triple-overtime Pirate win in Game Three of the series. Justin Peters made 19 saves to blank Portland 2-0 in Game Four, and then the Bears advanced with a 2-1 victory in Game Five on Sunday, only to have to jump right back into action against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton two days later.
The Pirates’ heartbreaking loss, meanwhile, was followed by the stunning news that the franchise had been sold to interests in Springfield, who were moving the team to the MassMutual Center to replace the recently-departed Falcons. Wow.
The other Eastern Conference first-round matchup was the 2-3 series in the North Division, which Albany won in four games over Utica, with Scott Wedgewood allowing a total of only eight goals in the Devil net in the four contests.
Over in the Western Conference, the higher seeds also won three of the four series, but the one who didn’t was the regular-season conference champion, the Milwaukee Admirals. The Admirals, who finished with 48 wins and 101 points in the regular season to win the Central Division, were bounced in a sweep by the fourth-place finishers, the Grand Rapids Griffins, a 90-point team in the regular season. Grand Rapids had stumbled to the finish line, losing their last five and ten of their last 13, and scored a total of only nine goals in the three-game series, but goaltender Tom McCollum was a wall. The seventh-year pro allowed the Admirals only one goal in each of the three Griffin wins, stopping a total of 91 out of 94 shots.
The other Central Division series was also a sweep, with second-place Lake Erie downing third-place Rockford, for the Monsters’ first-ever playoff series win. In the Pacific Division both series’ went four games, with division-champion Ontario prevailing over San Jose to begin the Reign’s defense of the championship the team won last season as the Manchester Monarchs, and second-place San Diego beating third-place Texas.