Another Eastern Conference classic

chi-wbs08_400.jpgFor the fifth time in nine seasons, the right to represent the Eastern Conference in the Calder Cup Finals came down to one last grueling test: one game, one goal, one moment that will live forever in AHL history.

The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins’ Game 7 victory over the Portland Pirates on Saturday night was the latest in a recent string of memorable moments that decided the AHL’s Eastern Conference championship. Former Pirate Tim Brent’s goal with 30.7 seconds left in regulation broke a tie and gave the Penguins a 3-2 victory and a berth in the Calder Cup Finals for the third time in franchise history.

Brent’s heroics were made possible by Wilkes-Barre’s improbable comeback the night before, erasing a three-goal deficit to win Game 6 on Connor James’ overtime goal, and they were also reminiscent of the storyline from eight years earlier, when the Hartford Wolf Pack tangled with the Providence Bruins in the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals.

In that series, Hartford trailed the defending Calder Cup champions three games to one before rallying to force a Game 7. With the score tied at 2-2 in overtime of the finale, defenseman Terry Virtue banked home the winning shot and sent the Wolf Pack to the Finals. Virtue, like Brent in 2008, was in his first season following a stint with the team he had just helped eliminate.

In 2002, the first-year Bridgeport Sound Tigers took on the Hamilton Bulldogs for the right to play for the Calder Cup out of the East. The Bulldogs had won Game 5 and Game 6 (in overtime) to force the decisive contest, and were poised to complete the upset as Game 7 remained scoreless into the final minutes. But Raffi Torres snapped the stalemate with just 1:27 left in regulation, Rick DiPietro held on for the shutout and after two empty-net goals, the Sound Tigers had a 3-0 victory and a ticket to the Finals.

Watch: Tim Brent’s game-winner (2008, 3.9 MB)
Watch: Eric Fehr’s game-winner (2006, 2.0 MB)

Two years later, Hartford was back in the conference finals against an upstart Wilkes-Barre team that had already knocked off the top two teams in the East Division. After dropping Game 6 at home, the Penguins hit the road to try to spoil the Wolf Pack’s party plans. Game 7 was scoreless until the teams traded power-play goals midway through the third period, then Matt Murley played the role of hero and won it for Wilkes-Barre at 13:21 of overtime. With the victory, the Pens became the first team in AHL history to win two Game 7’s in OT in the same postseason.

The 2006 Eastern Conference Finals matched the Hershey Bears against the Portland Pirates. Hershey had won its first 10 playoff games before the Pirates came from behind late to win Game 3 in double overtime. Portland then staved off elimination twice in Games 5 and 6 to set up a showdown at the Giant Center. Anaheim, eliminated from the NHL playoffs three days before Game 7, sent the high-powered trio of Dustin Penner, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf to the Pirates in time for the contest. Penner scored twice and Perry once, but former Pirate Graham Mink erased Portland’s one-goal lead with just 2:09 left in regulation and Eric Fehr won it 9:07 into OT, sending Hershey to its 19th Calder Cup Finals.

The 2008 Penguins, bidding for the franchise’s first Calder Cup championship, are the latest team to survive an arduous Eastern Conference road to the Finals. They will face the Western Conference champion Chicago Wolves in the title series beginning Thursday night.