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Calder Cup Playoff Atlantic Division Quarterfinal Preview: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins vs. Hershey Bears

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. – The Hershey Bears and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins are set to clash in the first round of the playoffs for the first time in over half a decade as a result of the expanded playoff format. The biggest crime is that the series will only last three games maximum. These two teams last met up in the division finals during the 2016 playoffs. In that series, Travis Boyd’s memorable overtime goal in Game 7 lifted the Bears to a series win and ultimately led to their return to the Calder Cup Finals.

They’ve already clashed 12 times during the regular season, with Hershey winning a record seven straight games over Wilkes-Barre early on. However, the Penguins had success in the back half of the season series, with three consecutive wins. That includes two crucial ones in April that helped lead to their home-ice advantage in this series.

Final Regular Season Records:

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins: 35-33-4-4, 78 points, 0.513 points percentage, 4th Atlantic Division

Hershey Bears: 34-32-6-4, 78 points, 0.513 points percentage, 5th Atlantic Division

Series Schedule:

Game 1: Friday, May 6 – Hershey at WILKES-BARRE/SCRANTON – 7:05 PM ET

Game 2: Sunday, May 8 – Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at HERSHEY – 5:00 PM ET

Game 3 (if necessary): Monday, May 9 – Hershey at WILKES-BARRE/SCRANTON – 7:05 PM ET

Season Series Recap:

The Bears had a dominant start to the season series that ultimately saw them take eight wins between the two teams before the month of January was over. Despite faltering in the latter stages of the season series, Hershey finished as the winner with an 8-3-1-0 record in 12 games. Hershey’s success in the front half of the series was largely due to the trio of Joe Snively, Mike Vecchione, and Axel Jonsson-Fjallby. At the same time, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton got strong performances from Valterri Puustinen and Radim Zohorna throughout the season series and earned a few key late-season matchups between the two teams. Snively’s incredible season in Hershey ended after a matchup with Wilkes-Barre in late January. He scored two goals to lift the Bears to a 6-2 win, after which he would be recalled to the Washington Capitals.

Wilkes-Barre’s higher seed in the playoff battle is largely due to the Penguins’ strong second half of the season. That performance led the team to battle their way out of the Atlantic Division basement and into the playoff hunt. At the same time, key personnel recalls from the Bears, including Snively and Jonsson-Fjallby factored into a weaker second half from Hershey. Wilkes-Barre won two critical standings battles between the two teams in the late stages of the season at Mohegan Sun Arena to help build a standings lead they would not relinquish. The Penguins clinched home-ice advantage courtesy of Hershey’s pair of losses to conclude their regular-season schedule.  Though, the Penguins lost four straight games to end the season and relied on a tiebreaker when all was said and done. The prediction that Wilkes-Barre would be a dangerous team in the playoff hunt we made earlier this season has certainly come to fruition.

How Wilkes-Barre Wins The Series:

The Penguins can win the series with the same effort that saw them win the last three games of the season series: gritty defensive efforts over a Bears team struggling to score goals. Hershey’s 202 goals for ranks sixth in the Atlantic Division. Plus, Wilkes-Barre blanked them in the final matchup of the season, which also happened to be their final home game. Both teams have played better at home throughout the season, making games at home essential in such a short series between the two, and the Penguins have earned the extra game at home in this series. Wilkes-Barre’s offense has been stronger since their NHL affiliate acquired William Nylander from the Chicago Blackhawks. That move has helped Puustinen and rookie forward Sam Poulin open the floodgates of scoring in the second half of the season. The Penguins are hoping for a quick recovery for one of their top scorers of late, with Michael Chaput leaving with a lower-body injury in the last weekend of the season. Chaput had a shorthanded goal against the Bears in the season’s final matchup between the two teams.

Wilkes-Barre has thrived in the absence of key Hershey difference-makers like Snively and Jonsson-Fjallby. Still, the Penguins have seen their roster strengthen since the majority of the games played between the two teams. Although the Penguins lost seven straight games to open the series, those games largely took place during the December and January months, where the team’s roster was most impacted by COVID-19-related moves. The Penguins have gotten stronger since then, and their recent success in the season series reflects this. Although both teams are struggling heading into the postseason, the Penguins have the recent momentum. Their success against the Bears of late has them looking like the early favorite.

How Hershey Wins The Series:

The Bears will be entering the series with a bit of a chip on their shoulder. The team received Snively back from their NHL affiliate in Washington on a long-term conditioning assignment as a reinforcement. As a result of the rule, Snively is eligible to play exclusively in the three games between the two teams before he is required to return to the Capitals. Still, his return is an offensive boost as he tallied 38 points (15 goals, 23 assists) in 35 games played before leaving for Washington. Although Jonsson-Fjallby is unavailable in the postseason as he was not made eligible to the Bears, particularly because he was previously claimed off of waivers earlier in the season, Snively’s return is pivotal towards jumpstarting the team’s offense. The big caveat is that Snively has been on the injured list since early March since having wrist surgery but has been back practicing with the team since their season ended. Therefore, the Bears have to hope they get more players back from the injured list, with key players like Cody Franson and Shane Gersich unavailable to the team when the season ended.

If Hershey is to win the series, their trend of offense coming from strong defense will need to continue. The Bears have the statistically strongest goaltender of either team available to them in Pheonix Copley, with the caveat being that he will be the go-to guy with Zach Fucale recalled to Washington as the NHL playoffs get underway. It continues a recent trend started by the Capitals in 2018 after the Bears did not make the playoffs, with Copley being recalled after the season and serving a role in practice. Washington won the Stanley Cup that season and has similarly recalled goaltenders every year since, but Hershey will have a strong backup in the form of Hunter Shepard. In addition, Hershey will be hoping Snively’s return helps get top scorers Mike Sgarbossa, Garrett Pilon, and Vecchione back to early season forms. The trio of top forwards struggled in the latter stages of the season, narrowly missing chances and ringing a lot of posts in the process.

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