by A.J. Atchue || for NHL.com
For a team that hadn’t made the AHL postseason in six years, the Binghamton Senators sure gave their playoff-starved fans in New York’s southern tier a first-round series for the ages, rallying back from a 3-1 deficit to oust the Manchester Monarchs in Game 7 on the road.
That might be enough excitement for fans, but the Ottawa Senators organization also has to be pleased that numerous players who logged heavy minutes with the big club in 2010-11 are contributing to Binghamton’s playoff run.
“It was quite the experience for sure,” said rookie forward Bobby Butler, the MVP of January’s AHL All-Star game who broke out with 21 points (10-11-21) in 36 NHL games down the stretch.
“We have a good group of guys in here, so I don’t think I was ever worried when we were down 3-1. I was more excited just to play as hard as we could play and see what we could do.”
You want tense, playoff-style hockey? Five of the seven games in the series extended to overtime – including one into double OT – and Binghamton became the second team in the AHL’s 75-year history to collect all four victories in one series beyond regulation.
How about resiliency? Not only did the B-Sens storm back from the 3-1 series deficit, but they often had to battle back within games. Remarkably, Binghamton is moving on despite playing with the lead for only one-fifth of the series, or 93:02 of game action.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, honestly,” said first-year Senators coach Kurt Kleinendorst. “Five overtime games, that’s just ridiculous – and the way it happened, too. Twice we had three-goal leads, and both of those times the game went into overtime, the last one being Game 7. Two or three times we were behind with less than three or four minutes left in elimination games and came back to tie it. That just never happens, let alone three times.”
With Ottawa in rebuilding mode at the NHL level and unloading bodies near the trading deadline, several young prospects in Binghamton earned an extended look with the big club down the stretch.
In addition to Butler, the NHL Senators saw players like Zack Smith (55 games), Erik Condra (26), Colin Greening (24), Andre Benoit (eight), Ryan Potulny (seven), Roman Wick (seven), and Jim O’Brien (six) make the move from the AHL to Ottawa.
That’s a group which combined for more than 400 AHL points in 2010-11, and when the NHL season concluded, everyone was reunited in Binghamton for the Calder Cup Playoffs.
“I was excited – it’s always an honor to play in playoff hockey, and I haven’t played a lot of it over the last couple years,” said Smith, a third-round draft pick by the Senators in 2008. “It’s a good time to be playing hockey. There’s a lot of buzz around town since we haven’t made the playoffs in several years here.”
“I just wanted to come down here, work hard, and have fun,” added Butler, who turned 24 on Tuesday. “Nothing beats playoffs wherever you are, so I think it’s just a mindset of needing to come and work hard because playoffs are fun. It’s totally different hockey in the playoffs, so you need to be ready to play.”
While Kleinendorst certainly welcomed the reinforcements to his roster, he wasn’t about to assume that everyone would simply return to the AHL and pick up where they had left off. It’s not quite that simple.
“If anybody thought these guys were just going to come right down and we were going to click, I was telling them that’s not going to happen,” Kleinendorst said. “We’re going to have to re-create things, re-adjust, guys are going to have to take on different roles than maybe before or what they were doing up in Ottawa.”
The numbers through the first four games of the Manchester series give credence to Kleinendorst’s warning.
Butler had only a goal and an assist, Greening just one goal, and Condra, O’Brien and Smith combined for three points.
Once the Senators had their backs up against the wall, though, the young core seemed to hit its stride. A 22-goal scorer during the AHL regular season, Butler struck for a goal in Games 5, 6 and 7 of the series. Condra combined for five points (2-3-5) in the final two games, and O’Brien set up both goals in Binghamton’s 2-1 double-overtime triumph in Game 6.
“They all had to get re-acclimated, and get their minds around what’s happening right now,” Kleinendorst said. “It doesn’t make them bad people in any way – it’s just human nature.”
Potulny, who emerged from the first round as the AHL’s overall leading scorer (8-6-14), was in Binghamton late in the year and appreciated the mindset of the returnees from Ottawa.
“The main thing was when they came down, they bought into our system,” said Potulny, who spent most of the 2009-10 season in the NHL with Edmonton. “They didn’t come down and just play however they wanted or think that they deserve (special consideration).”
While the Senators won Game 5 on home ice and sent Game 6 to overtime on a tying goal by Butler with 9:34 left in regulation, the team’s season nearly came to an end in one of the most unfathomable of ways.
Early in the second overtime, with the puck loose, a pair of Binghamton defensemen shoved the net off during a scramble in front of goaltender Robin Lehner. It resulted in a penalty shot being awarded to Bud Holloway, Manchester’s leading postseason scorer (4-7-11) and the owner of seven career game-winning goals in the AHL playoffs.
With his club’s season on the line, Lehner – just 19 years old and a second-round pick by Ottawa in 2009 – swatted away Holloway’s bid up high to extend the game. A little more than five minutes later, the Senators scored to force Game 7.
“It was pretty unbelievable that the entire season came down to that one shot, a penalty shot. But it was a pretty sweet feeling (to stop it),” said Lehner, who appeared in eight NHL games this year.
“I almost couldn’t watch, but I knew Robin was going to stop him and keep us in it,” Butler said. “That was definitely a turning point.”
The winner-take-all tilt also required overtime, but Potulny, who had four assists in regulation, capped off a five-point effort with the decisive tally at 3:07 of the extra session. The goal came nearly three years to the day after Potulny, then in the Philadelphia Flyers organization, scored in a fifth overtime period to end the longest game in AHL history.
“They both were shock and relief,” he said. “Once you score you kind of look around, you don’t know what’s going on, and then your teammates are celebrating. And the next thing you know, you’re on the bus on the way home.”
Earlier this week, that bus was bound for Portland, Maine, and the Senators’ second-round match-up against the Portland Pirates, Buffalo’s top affiliate. Games 1 and 2 are on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, before the best-of-7 series shifts to Binghamton on Saturday.
The mood among the Senators is a mixture of relief and confidence after digging out of a massive first-round predicament in what, for many of them, was their first taste of the postseason.
“It’s not a position you want to put yourself in, being down 3-1, but we learned from it,” Smith said. “It might have been the best thing that could have happened to us.”
“Now, maybe try and do it in regulation time.”
Several current B-Sens may have spent much of the season in Ottawa, but they’re enjoying the AHL playoff ride for now and hoping to make an impression on their bosses along the way.
“If there are a few of us who play in Ottawa next year, the management wants to know that we can play playoff-type hockey, too,” Smith said. “It’s definitely good development, and it’s fun at the same time.”
Kleinendorst, who has done an admirable job in Binghamton given the roster turnover, couldn’t agree more.
“The experience of the seven-game series, the overtime pressures, all those little things are going to help these guys be better down the road,” Kleinendorst said. “Whether it’s back in the American League in a series, whether it’s this next round, whether it’s someday with the big club in a series and in overtime, that’s the benefit of it all. They actually get to experience everything.”