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Last updated: May 24. 2013 6:08PM - 2211 Views
By - tvenesky@civitasmedia.com



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Something happens between a team and its opponents as they progress deeper and deeper into the playoffs. It's happening with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins right now.
It began with a first round matchup against the Binghamton Senators — the team that was seeded one place ahead of the Penguins entering the postseason. The Penguins were almost .500 against the Senators in the regular season, so it wasn't like one team had a distinct advantage over the other heading into the series.
Last round's opponent, the Providence Bruins, matched up even better against the Penguins on paper. With a defense just as stout as Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's, the Bruins allowed the second-fewest goals in the AHL during the regular season. The Penguins allowed the fewest.
And now, as the Penguins kick off their Eastern Conference finals matchup against the Syracuse Crunch tonight, they face another opponent where the playing field is basically level once again. Both teams have been playing exceptionally well in the postseason, backed by strong play in net.
Not only does each round of the playoffs bring a tougher opponent, in the Penguins case it always pits them against a team that is more closely matched than the last.
“As you move into each round you get down to teams where everyone's playing well,” Penguins coach John Hynes said. “You use the same preparation process for each, but you just have to search deeper for some concepts that will make a difference.”
The Penguins found a way to make a difference against the Bruins to advance to the conference finals. The historic comeback from a 3-0 series deficit was still fresh on the Penguins' minds as they bused to Syracuse after Friday's practice, but so was the goal ahead of them.
“What happened in the last series was great, a part of history,” Hynes said. “But now we have a chance to continue to our ultimate goal — a championship.”
NOTES
• Forwards Bobby Farnham and Jayson Megna and defenseman Dylan Reese are considered day-to-day heading into the Syracuse series. Chad Kolarik and Zach Sill didn't practice on Friday, but Hynes said they had “maintenance days” and will be ready to go tonight.
• During the regular season, the Penguins were 3-5 against the Crunch, the top-ranked team in the East Division. The Crunch had the highest-scoring offense in the league during the regular season with 247 goals and during the season series they outscored the Penguins 19-14, including shutting them out three times.
“They're a pretty complete team — good offense, defense, net and special teams,” Hynes said. “It's going to be a good test.”
PENGUINS VS. CRUNCH
SERIES BREAKDOWN
FORWARDS
The Crunch had nine players top double-digits in goals during the regular season, led by AHL MVP Tyler Johnson (37-28-65) and Brett Connolly (31 goals). In the postseason, Johnson is second in the league with 14 points while teammate Ondrej Palat is tied for the AHL lead with 15. Those numbers would be even higher if not for one thing — the Crunch have only played seven games so far because they've swept both of their opponents in the first two rounds.
The Penguins top scoring threats of Chad Kolarik and Trevor Smith came to life halfway through the Providence series and scored when it mattered most. Smith leads the team with 11 points while Kolarik is tops with five goals. Brian Gibbons (3-4-7), Riley Holzapfel (3-4-7) and Paul Thompson (3-3-6) round out the scoring attack, while Chris Collins, Warren Peters, Adam Payerl and Zach Sill have supplied valuable depth.
Advantage: Syracuse. The Crunch have registered 30 goals in the playoffs, one less than the Penguins. But they've done it in only seven games.
DEFENSE
Syracuse's Matt Taormina and Mark Barberio established themselves as scoring threats during the regular season, and they kept up the pace in the playoffs. Taormina has six points in seven games while Barberio has three goals. Radko Gudas brings an agitating style while former Penguin Jean-Philippe Cote, along with Andrej Sustr, provide defensive stability.
The Penguins defense has been stellar all playoffs, and has shown plenty of offensive upside as well. Joey Mormina and Brian Dumoulin are tied for the AHL lead among blueliners with seven points each. Phil Samuelsson has continued his excellent play from the regular season while Peter Merth stepped in halfway through the Providence series to add two assists and a plus-4. Top blueliner Dylan Reese remains sidelined with an injury.
Advantage: Penguins. Even without Reese, the Penguins defense is the perfect combination of offensive upside, strong play in their own end and depth with the likes of Merth.
GOALTENDING
The Crunch acquired Cedrick Desjardins late in the regular season and he was superb, posting a 2.12 goals against average and a .918 save percentage. In the playoffs, Desjardins has been just as strong, evident by his 2.02 GAA.
The Penguins' Brad Thiessen can be considered the main reason behind the team's come-from-behind series win over the Bruins. One just needs to look at his numbers this postseason — 0.89 GAA, .970 save percentage, two shutouts and wins in six of seven games.
Advantage: Penguins. Thiessen is putting together a historic postseason and his numbers keep getting smaller with each game. Can Thiessen maintain his minuscule GAA against the AHL's top offense? I wouldn't rule it out.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
After scoring 31 goals in the regular season, Brett Connolly only has two for the Crunch in the playoffs. Granted the team has only played seven games, but one has to expect that as the postseason progresses and Connolly logs more games, he'll also log more goals.
Chris Collins is a playoff kind of guy. He's gritty, passionate and thrives in pressure-filled games. He earned two assists in Game 7 of the Providence series, and Collins' chippy, pest-like style of play resurfaced as thrived on throwing big hits and doing a bit of yapping.
Prediction: Penguins drop the first three games of the series only to win the next four. Wait, they already did that. This one's tough. Thiessen is a wall in net, while Syracuse is an offensive juggernaut that hasn't lost yet. Which one will bend? I'm going to say Syracuse takes it in seven, only because the Penguins' defense is a bit dinged up with the absence of Reese. Sure, they did fine without him against Providence, but Syracuse is a different ballgame. If Reese returns and is 100 percent, however, then all bets are off.

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