W ith 11 games remaining in the season, there a new sense of excitement permeating the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins locker room. It centers around the Calder Cup playoffs, and the opportunity has the Penguins’ rookies — especially those who came from the college ranks — licking their chops in anticipation of their first postseason as a pro. It’s a time when rivalries develop and enemies are made, along with the grind of facing the same opponent for a five- or seven-game series ... with everything on the line.
“That’s one thing I’ve never really been a part of,” said Brian Dumoulin, who spent last season at Boston College, where the postseason is defined by single-elimination games as opposed to a lengthy, grueling series.
“It’s something that’s going to be new to me and I’m looking forward to it.”
So is Bobby Farnham, who spent the last four seasons at Brown University, where the postseason is defined by several rounds of best-of-three series.
“But even that wasn’t enough to define who the better team was. You could still squeak them out,” Farnham said. “To have five- and seven-game series, that’s the coolest part about hockey at the pro level.”
Despite not having any experience in a lengthy playoff series, those Penguin players who came up through the college ranks did benefit from the shorter postseason format.
Every minute of every game mattered, and the pressure to keep their season came down to a 60-minute contest.
“That’s the good thing about playing those one-and-done games in college,” Dumoulin said. “You had to play your best and if you didn’t, your season was done.
“I am going to take that same attitude into the playoffs at this level -- every game will be the most important game.”
That experience with the high-pressure “one-and-done” games of the college postseason will help with the transition into a pro playoff series, according to second-year pro Brian Gibbons.
Gibbons spent four years at Boston College before turning pro with the Penguins last season and experiencing his first AHL playoff series. He said the grind of a series was an adjustment, but his team at Boston College played in some big postseason games, helping ease that transition to the professional ranks.
“I was comfortable playing in big games. A playoff series in the pros is still a little different, more of a process, where in college every game is a Game 7. Lose and go home,” Gibbons said. “It’s the same here -- you have to play with some urgency and not think that you can lose a few games and still be in the series.”
But first, the Penguins simply need to make the postseason before their rookies can think about that first playoff opportunity. Heading down the stretch, they’ve been in the middle of a tight Eastern Conference that still has a handful of teams vying for the last few spots.
It’s a big turnaround from this time last season, when the Penguins were battling for home-ice advantage and already had a playoff berth locked up.
Fighting to make the postseason is something that many of the Penguins -- rookies and veterans alike -- are used to.
That includes rookie Jayson Megna, who played at the University of Nebraska-Omaha last season and remembers his team’s quest to not only make the playoffs, but lock up home ice as well.
“Home ice was one of our goals that we set at the beginning of the year and we pushed really hard for it,” Megna said. “We didn’t get it, but you could definitely notice the atmosphere change in the locker room where guys were really bearing down on that goal.
“You can sense that here. It’s getting to that point of the year when it makes or breaks your season.”
For the Penguins, “making” their season means just getting a chance to extend it into the postseason. That has everybody -- veterans and rookies alike, excited.
“We’re still in the hunt and there are no guarantees at this point,” head coach John Hynes said. “There’s an excitement for that and our focus isn’t so much the playoffs, but more the challenge to get into the playoffs.”