Certain events seem to signal the return of Spring every year.
The swallows returning to Capistrano.
The Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington D.C.
And the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins meeting the Providence Bruins in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
Well, maybe that third option hasn’t been as firmly established as the trees sprouting or the birds chirping, but there’s been plenty of excitement around the Pens and Bruins in recent postseasons.
The 2016 Atlantic Division Semifinals marks the third time in the past four postseasons that the teams have faced off with one another, but the first time that head-to-head series has come in the first round.
The Bruins were the scourge of the Eastern Conference during the 2012-13 season, racking up 50 wins en route to 105 points, first place in the Atlantic Division and the top seed in the postseason. The Pens finished with a respectable 42 wins and 88 points, placing them third in the East Division and fifth in the conference standings.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton faced off with their intra-division rivals, the Binghamton Senators, in the first round and, despite finishing eight points behind the B-Sens in the regular season, dispatched their opponent in three straight games to advance to the second round.
Meanwhile, the Bruins had their hands full with the eighth-place Hershey Bears, who finished with 36 wins and 81 points sneaking into the playoffs. Hershey captured the first two games of the series in Rhode Island to take a commanding lead, before the Bruins battled back for a consecutive wins in Hershey (5-1 and 5-4) to even the proceedings. A back-and-forth Game Five saw Jamie Tardif score with just over 10 minutes to play to give the Bruins a 3-2 win, and the series comeback.
But the come-from-behind magic switched sticks in the second round.
The roll the Bruins got on against the Bears carried over to the series with the Penguins, as Providence produced impressive 8-5 and 4-2 victories in Games One and Two. Game Three, played back in Wilkes-Barre, was more closely contested, but Carter Camper’s goal just 31 seconds into overtime proved the difference in a 2-1 victory, and gave the top-seeded Bruins a commanding 3-0 lead in the second round.
But history was about to be made.
Camper opened the scoring 7:37 into Game Four, but Brad Thiessen closed the door from there, stopping 31 of 32 shots on the evening. On the other side of the puck, Warren Peters, Riley Holzapfel and Chad Kolarik netted second period goals to give the Penguins a 3-1 victory on home ice.
Thiessen was once again on top of his game the following night, stopping all 30 shots he faced in a 4-0 win. The Pens went 3-for-11 on the power play in the game, which saw the teams combine for 117 penalty minutes.
The series switched back to Providence for Game Six, but thee change of venue only brought out the best in Thiessen. He faced 47 shots on the night, with the only blemish being a Craig Cunningham tally at 1:07 of the second period. Brian Dumoulin countered five minutes later to tie the game at 1-1, and Trevor Smiths goal at 3:26 of OT forced a decisive Game Seven.
By this point, all of the momentum was with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Thiessen was once again perfect, stopping all 34 shots he faced, and the Pens rattled off five goals to become the first team in AHL history to overcome a 3-0 series deficit and win the series away from home.
The 2014 postseason followed a similar path. The Bruins, who finished the season in third place in the Atlantic Division, defeated the Springfield Falcons in five games to advance to the second round, while the Penguins once again downed the Senators to earn the rematch with the baby bears.
Unlike the previous meeting, this series between Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Providence was an evenly matched affair.
The Bruins rattled off four first period goals, with a pair of tallies from Alexander Khokhlachev bookending tallies from Cunningham and Andrew Cherniwchan, and the visitors took Game One in Wilkes-Barre, 4-0.
The Pens turned the tables the following night, scoring four times in the second period as the home club evened the series with a 6-1 victory. Anton Zlobin (2+1) and Dumoulin (1+2) led the offensive onslaught for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Back in Providence, Game Three turned out to be a classic come-back for the Penguins. Chuck Kobasew’s fifth goal of the playoffs gave the visitors a 1-0 lead at 7:14 of the second, but the Bruins scored four times in a span of 5:50 to take a 4-1 lead 1:06 into the third period.
But the Pens pulled out all of the stops in the third, as Tom Kostopoulos, Simon Despres and Conor Sheary scored goals within a seven-minute span to force extra time. One OT wasn’t enough to decide a winner, even with the Penguins putting 14 shots on Niklas Svedberg. Svedberg turned aside six more pucks in the second overtime, before Despres beat him for the second time that night to give the Penguins a 5-4 win. In the process, Despres became the first Penguins player to record two goals in the second overtime of a post-season game (his first came against the St. John’s IceCaps on May 8, 2012).
Game Four featured just as much drama, as Ryan Spooner scored with one second left in regulation to force overtime, where Cory Kane batted home his first goal of the playoffs 6:31 into the extra frame to even the series at 2-2.
Game Five saw Zlobin play the hero once again, as his fourth of the postseason was the difference in a 3-2 win at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.
Back in Wilkes-Barre, Khokhlachev produced his second two-goal game of the series to lead the Bruins to a 4-1 victory, forcing a decisive Game Seven two nights later.
After a scoreless first frame, the Penguins came out guns blazing in the second period, scoring five times in a span of 5:59 to take what looked to be a commanding lead over the Bruins.
But the visitors chipped away, with future Penguin David Warsofsky getting Providence on the board late in the second period, and Ryan Spooner tallying 26 seconds into the third period to make it a 5-2 game.
Once again, Khokhlachev showed his skill, netting a pair of goals at 6:43 and 9:55 of the third period to make cut the Penguins lead to an all too uncomfortable one-goal margin. But Peter Mannino stood tall between the Pens pipes, registering his seventh win of the postseason and giving Wilkes-Barre/Scranton a second straight trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Will the 2016 match-up between these heated rivals produce another memorable series? We’ll find out soon enough, as the Penguins and Bruins will play Games One and Two in Wilkes-Barre this Wednesday and Thursday. Individual tickets are available for both contests at the Mohegan Sun Arena box office, online at TicketMaster.com, or by calling the Penguins at 570-208-7367.