Senators face new challenges in playoffs

by Nicole DelVillano || AHL On The Beat Archive

The Binghamton Senators have overcome call-ups, injuries and being a young team to secure the third seed in the Eastern Conference and their first East Division title since 2004-05.

They now face a new challenge — surviving the Calder Cup Playoffs.

“Everything in (the) playoffs is under a bigger microscope; you can’t afford to take plays off or have any mental lapses,” Senators goalie Andrew Hammond said. “Every team in the playoffs is a great team and obviously it’s going to come down to hard work, going the right way and preparing as much as you can.”

The B-Sens have been a strong presence on the offensive front, leading the American Hockey League with an impressive 276 goals and 16 shorthanded goals. While their offense is a challenge for teams to overcome, the goaltending and defense has been the Achilles’ heel throughout the season.

In between the pipes, Binghamton looked to veteran Nathan Lawson early in the season but had to fall back to rookie Hammond after Lawson struggled with illness and injuries. With Lawson out for the foreseeable future, Hammond will continue to lead the team through playoffs.

“Hammond deserved the chance to be the guy; he’s shown it time and time again,” head coach Luke Richardson said. “Lawson is a real valuable guy to our team. He’s an experienced guy and it’s unfortunate he’s battled some injury over the last half of the season, but it has really given Hammond the chance to mature and grow. He’s ready for the challenge.”

Hammond played in 48 games during the regular season and put up a 2.81 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage. The 26-year-old goalie signed with Ottawa after completing four years at Bowling Green State University.

“It’s been a big learning experience from college. There have been some bumps in the road, but luckily I’ve been given some opportunities,” Hammond said. “At the end of the day you just need to make the most of each opportunity, and I’ve tried doing that.”

With Hammond ready to step up in the crease, the guys in front of it needed reinforcements.

Binghamton lost one of their top defensemen, Cody Ceci, in December due to a call-up by Ottawa that resulted in him staying in the NHL for the rest of the season. Mark Borowiecki, another top defensemen and heavy presence, has recently been fighting injuries and did not play in the last seven regular-season games.

With the defense suffering, Ottawa looked to add two veteran players for their top affiliate when the trade deadline came along. Alex Grant and Patrick Mullen were acquired in March to make for a better-rounded team.

Grant came from an East Division rival, the Norfolk Admirals, and realized early on what he would have to bring to the team.

“I knew coming in that this was a solid and great team. It was very skilled and young,” Grant said. “I just tried to come in here and provide some leadership in the best way that I can both on and off the ice.”

While with Norfolk, the 25-year-old Grant scored his first career hat trick against Hammond and the Senators earlier in the 2013-14 season and was eventually traded in exchange for one of Binghamton’s top forwards, Andre Petersson. Nevertheless, he quickly felt welcome in the new organization and brought his strong slap shot that helped set him apart from an average defenseman.

Mullen was also enthusiastic to join a young team and felt he learned more from the players as a result.

“I’ve been playing with [Borowiecki] in pretty much all the games. He’s as good as they come defensively,” Mullen said. “He’s made it so easy. I don’t know how much I’m helping him, but he’s definitely helping me a lot.”

Binghamton coaches kept an eye on Mullen when he played for the Utica Comets prior to being traded. With the skill to get the puck off the boards and into the forward’s hands, Mullen was a welcome addition to the team.

“Mullen and Grant have been a huge help to us. I know in the first two games [they played] we were on a bit of a down skid but you could see right away the poise and veteran leadership they brought both on the bench, in the room and on the ice,” Richardson said. “The defense has gone from a young and inexperienced one to experienced with lots of depth.”

With Mullen’s experience on two teams prior to Binghamton, he found the B-Sens have exactly what they need in order to succeed.

“This team is very confident. As long as we keep that, we will be fine.”

The B-Sens confidence will be tested from the start as they face the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs, an all-too-familiar storyline after the Penguins swept the Senators in the first round of the playoffs last year.

After a successful regular season, the B-Sens are looking to make another run out of the playoffs with an eye on the Calder Cup.