By Mike O’Brien || AHL On The Beat Archive
Every season is different. For that matter, every team is different. Over the course of 76-game regular season schedule, each squad goes through adversity, evolves and develops its own personality. For all players involved, the hope is that their team in this season has found the right recipe that not only equals a spot in the playoffs, but also ends with championship glory.
Some players have been there before and tasted victory. For others, the proverbial “second season” has proved to be elusive over the course of a career. Many are in the first year as a pro and will be getting their initiation into playoff hockey in the big leagues.
The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins are in an enviable position as the American Hockey League regular season comes to a close this weekend. Riding a seven-game win streak and a stretch of nine straight contests with a point (8-0-0-1), the Penguins seem to fall under the category of teams “playing their best hockey at the right time of the year.”
What this translates to for the playoffs is still to be determined, but it has everyone in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton excited about the potential.
Sixth-year veteran Trevor Smith need not look too far in the rearview mirror to remember what it takes to win a championship. There was no hotter team in the history of sport than the Norfolk Admirals were in 2011-12. Smith and the Admirals finished the regular season on a record 28-game winning streak and steamrolled the competition in the post season en route to the Calder Cup.
Unlike like last year’s Admirals, Wilkes-Bare/Scranton was teetering on the cusp of a playoff berth with a few weeks ago. It was Smith and the rest of the leadership in the locker room that helped steer the team back onto a winning path.
“We got together with about 10 or 12 games left in the regular season when we didn’t have a playoff spot,” he said. “We knew we had what it takes to be a playoff team and a championship team. Everyone has picked it up and bought in. We know what’s at stake.”
It wasn’t until his fourth professional season that Cody Wild made his first appearance in the postseason. Having split his previous three years between the AHL and ECHL, the playoffs were not in the cards for the defenseman. Originally tabbed for depth along the blueline as the postseason began, Wild found himself in the line-up to begin the first-round series against Hershey after fellow defenseman Simon Despres was recalled to Pittsburgh.
Wild scored his first-ever playoff goal in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinal as Wilkes-Barre/Scranton skated to a 7-2 win against the Bears and a commanding 2-0 series lead. The next day Despres would return to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Wild would be out of the line-up for the rest of the Penguins’ playoff run.
Though appreciative for the experience last season, Wild is bullish on this year’s version of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
“You come to this organization and there are no individuals,” stated Wild. “The team chemistry is through the roof. Guys like playing for each other. Guys like blocking shots for one another. Guys like fighting for each other.”
It is difficult to have as much playoff success at the college level than Brian Dumoulin experienced at Boston College. During his three years at BC, Dumoulin won three Beanpot Championships, three Hockey East titles and was an NCAA Champion in both 2010 and 2012.
Now in his rookie year and already having played almost twice as many games as he would have at collegiate level, Dumoulin is bracing for a different type of playoff experience.
“Obviously in college, it’s a single elimination in the playoffs and you have all week to gear ramped up for games [during the regular season].” Dumoulin commented. “At this level, you’re just going and going.”
It’s that kind of single-game mindset though that Dumoulin feels served the Penguins well in recent weeks and will into the playoffs.
“We were in a dogfight to get into the playoffs. As a team, we were playing like every game meant something and that every game might be our last. That’s what has made close as a team heading into the playoffs.”
Though the paths and perspective of each player may differ, one can easily pick out the similar themes in their stories. With the Calder Cup Playoff just over the horizon, the focus in the Penguins locker room seems to be aligning at the exactly the right time.