In a spring-summer of change in hockey Washington, it’s fitting that one thing remains the same: Caps vs. Pens in a postseason — taking the shape of a showdown affiliation style. The Hershey Bears and the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins met in the East Division finals last May, and beginning this Wednesday night at Giant Center, they’ll do so again. I hope they meet every postseason — and with Norfolk affiliating with Tampa beginning this summer, that appears likely — but I also hope that this is the last spring we’re devoting majority energies to covering the future combatants of this bitter rivalry, rather than the present ones.
Wilkes-Barre bested Norfolk in its opening round, winning the series four games to two, and while the Bears were assured of a 108-pt. foe in round 2, I think they’ve got next the team they’d have preferred. You have to be careful what you wish for, particularly in this rivalry, but the numbers make a compelling case that seeing the Admirals’ ship sail for golf vacations beginning this week was a good thing for the Bears.
In the regular season, Hershey won six of its ten meetings with the Mini Mullets, with one loss coming in a shootout, but the real story of those games was the Bears’ dominace the back half of them. Hershey won five of their final six games against Wilkes-Barre, in blazing fashion. Bears’ beat reporter Tim Leone of the Patriot News details the battering in his file this morning:
“Hershey outscored the Penguins a collective 21-8 in the last six meetings, holding them to one or fewer goals four times.”
Look at some of the scores down the stretch between the clubs: 3-0 Bears on March 30; 3-1 Bears on April 8; 6-1 Bears on April 14. Consider, too, that many of the players who will skate for Hershey this week — guys like Jeff Schultz, Mike Green, Dave Steckel, Tomas Fleischmann — were still with the Caps as Hershey wound down its regular season.
The Bears opened the 2006-07 season with a 7-4 thumping of Wilkes-Barre on the road back on October 7. It’s been pretty good karma against this club all year.
The numbers against Norfolk, however, were much different. The teams split the regular season series 5-5, but three of the Bears’ victories came very early in the season. In the season’s second half, the Admirals won most of the matchups, many of them one-goal affairs. And Norfolk spent a fair portion of the ’06-’07 season lodged in first place in the East, before Hershey’s torrid finish overtook the Admirals.
While Hershey will have a deeper, slightly different, and overall more pwerful look from the second-place club that swept the Mullets out of the postseason last May, Wilkes-Barre will be missing some key pieces from last year and boast some new, high-profile young talent this. The most conspicuous change will be the absence in net of Marc Andre Fleury. But the biggest change will be Ryan Whitney’s graduation. The young flightless fowl will also be missing Colby Armstrong and Maxime Talbot up front.
It’s terrific news for the Penguin organization that so many kids came through for the parent club this past season, but those graduations came at a cost this spring in matchups with Hershey. There are some new and notable names wearing the Wilkes-Barre sweater now: Robbie Schremp, Marc-Antoine Pouliot, and Robert Nilsson — all high-profile castoffs from other organizations. All could perhaps be said to be at development crossroads. Nolan Schaefer will man the Mullet pipes in place of Fleury. He played all six games in the first round.
Like last spring, and like so many instances between the clubs in games at Verizon Center over the years, there will be fantastic atmosphere in the stands for this series. And thousands of awful haircuts.