The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins turned the tables on the Providence Bruins, and when the comeback was completed at a stunned Dunkin’ Donuts Center on Wednesday night, it was clear that something special had taken place.
"What we accomplished is really difficult to do," Penguins head coach John Hynes told the Citizens’ Voice. "It speaks volumes about the character of the group and it is special. Anytime you can be in sports and make history, it’s something teams are going to look at down the road and this team did it. That’s part of leaving a legacy."
Wilkes-Barre didn’t get into the win column until Game 4, but the Jekyll-and-Hyde series turned 20 minutes into Game 2 when Brad Thiessen took over the goaltending duties from Jeff Zatkoff. Zatkoff, who had led the AHL with a 1.93 goals-against average in the regular season, had been blitzed by the Bruins for 12 goals on 40 shots in the first four periods of the series.
Thiessen allowed four goals on 181 shots the rest of the way.
The Bruins held on to win Game 2, and then took a commanding 3-0 series lead with a 2-1 overtime victory in Game 3. But the Penguins stayed with the game plan and it paid off with four consecutive wins — including convincing shutouts in Game 5 and Game 7. Wilkes-Barre outscored Providence 16-4 after the Game 2 goaltending change, including 14-1 over the final 11 periods (plus a bit of OT) of the series.
"You go down 3-0 and you’re pretty frustrated and things are looking pretty bleak," said Thiessen, whose 46-save masterpiece in Game 6 was the series’ signature performance. "Slowly but surely we started to gain momentum and it culminated [in Game 7]."
Before Wilkes-Barre’s effort, only two other teams in the 77-year history of the American Hockey League had accomplished the same feat.
In 1960, the Rochester Americans were still a fledgling franchise, in their fourth season of play in the AHL. Only four clubs in the seven-team league qualified for the playoffs that spring, so the Amerks’ first-round meeting with the Cleveland Barons amounted to a league semifinal series with a trip to the Calder Cup Finals at stake.
After leading the league in both offense and defense in the 1959-60 regular season, Rochester was considered a heavy favorite to win the series. But the Barons stunned the Americans in the first two games of the series at the Rochester War Memorial, winning a pair of defensive battles by 2-0 and 2-1 scores. A 7-5 decision back home in Game 3 put Cleveland on the verge of an upset.
Former Barons defenseman Steve Kraftcheck, a future AHL Hall of Famer who was now Rochester’s player/coach, guided his club into the win column with a 5-3 victory in Game 4. The Amerks took Game 5 at home, 4-1, then evened the series with another 5-3 win back in Cleveland. With all the momentum and none of the pressure, Rochester finished off the comeback with a 4-1 victory in Game 7 in front of 7,762 home fans.
It would be nearly three decades before another team matched the Amerks’ feat. And it would play out about 240 miles down the New York State Thruway in Glens Falls, N.Y., where the Adirondack Red Wings and Hershey Bears locked in an epic battle with a trip to the 1989 Calder Cup Finals on the line.
Adirondack, which had already won two Calder Cups in the decade, skated to the Southern Division title with a 100-point regular season which would go down as the best showing in the franchise’s 20-year history. Led by future AHL Hall of Famer John Paddock behind the bench, Hershey was the defending AHL champions, following a 12-game sweep of the rest of the league in the 1988 postseason.
The Bears jumped out to a 3-0 series lead on the strength of three close wins, taking 4-3 and 5-3 decisions on the road before eking out a 1-0 win back at Hersheypark Arena in Game 3. After their perfect run the previous spring and their five-game ouster of Utica in the division semifinals, Hershey now had wins in 19 of its previous 20 playoff games.
For Red Wings head coach Bill Dineen, there was something familiar about the position his team was in. Dineen was one of the leading scorers on the 1960 Cleveland squad that had coughed up that same 3-0 series lead to Rochester.
Facing the prospect of being swept, Adirondack built a four-goal lead in Game 4 and held on for a 6-3 road win, but the Bears were still leading three games to one. Then came the dramatics.
A Brent Fedyk power-play goal in overtime of Game 5 in Glens Falls gave the Red Wings a 3-2 victory. Back in Hershey, Glenn Merkosky snapped a 2-2 tie with 2:29 left in regulation of Game 6 and then added an empty-netter for a 4-2 Adirondack win. The series was tied.
A crowd of 6,106 stuffed into the 4,700-seat Glens Falls Civic Center for Game 7 and was treated to a classic goaltending duel between the Red Wings’ Sam St. Laurent and the Bears’ Mark Laforest. Murray Eaves, who had 118 points in the regular season, scored for Adirondack 4:44 into the game. Brian Dobbin tied it for Hershey midway through the second period. And finally at 10:31 of overtime, 21-year-old Red Wings rookie Adam Graves threw a shot on net that eluded Laforest and finished off one of the most exciting series in AHL history.
Rochester and Adirondack had different follow-ups to their 0-3 comebacks. After rallying past Cleveland, the Americans faced Springfield in the Calder Cup Finals and lost in five games; it would be the first of three consecutive championships won by the Indians. The Red Wings, on the other hand, carried the momentum of their dethroning of the Bears into the Finals and knocked off the New Haven Nighthawks, four games to one, for their third title in nine years.
History has already been made by the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. But will it be more than just a footnote when all is said and done? The Pens open the Eastern Conference Finals in Syracuse on Saturday night.