Not that I’m a bitter Bruins fan but I’d like to thank the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins for a memorable night of hockey Saturday that came at the expense of the Washington Capitals.
The baby Pens defeated Washington’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears, in a thrilling series-clinching game 5 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Wikes-Barre, Pa. last night. The Penguins scored two second period goals and survived a furious third period rally by the Bears to win 2-1, and advance to the second round of the AHL’s Calder Cup playoffs.
Last night was quite the experience for this Bruin fan in Penguin territory. Given the circumstances, a winner-takes-the series game 5 between two regional rivals, of course last night was going to be intense.
I’ve attended AHL games in seven cities and there’s no question, Wilkes-Barre has the loudest and most passionate fan base that I’ve encountered. [Insert complaints here.]
For nearly two periods I listened to anxious Pens fans scream and mutter under their breaths and squirm as the first round’s final game inched forward without a goal. It’s cliché but yes, the tension was palpable.
Penguins forward Cal O’Reilly scored at 17:31 of the second and the arena exploded. We were still celebrating when Zach Sill scored a softie seven seconds later on Bears goalie Dany Sabourin, a former Providence Bruin and WBS Penguin who backed up Braden Holtby early in the Bs/Caps series.
The Penguins handed out glossy paper (about letter size) that was folded-up like a fan and pounded constantly during the game. The paper was sturdy but many ended up in shreds as Pens fans nervously clutched them, slapped them against seats and the glass and tore them at game’s end.
You want passionate? Their mascot, Tux, sported a black leather vest that looks like something he stole from a Hells Angels biker. Like all good mascots, Tux does his usual zany things but there was almost something menacing in how badly he beat on a stuffed bear and how much the crowd enjoyed it. Tux also wasn’t bashful about driving an off road utility vehicle to center ice between periods and doing a bunch of donuts.
They also pass around a wooden or plastic garbage-can sized Penguin during games, which is an arena tradition that further fires up the crowd.
Surprisingly, the Penguins rank in the bottom third of AHL playoff attendance this year (averaging 3,501 per game compared to a league average of 4,845). It was noticed as there was a three-seat gap between me and a super fan to my left in the lower bowl.
Even with the empty seats, last night was beyond expectation. Loud. Fun even for a diehard Bruins fan. A compelling AHL playoff game.
Watching the Penguins defeat Washington’s AHL affiliate brought a small measure of satisfaction, though I am still stinging from my NHL team’s premature playoff defeat.
Regardless of your rooting interests, if you’re a serious hockey fan and you pass through Pennsylvania, then a stop in Wilkes-Barre is a must.
BIO- Justin Walden blogs about the business of minor league and college hockey at https://shootingfortheshow.wordpress.com. Follow him on Twitter, @justwalden.