June 7th, 2011.
Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of the Binghamtonwinning the Calder Cup. A date that made history for hockey fans all over the Southern Tier Region of New York State and beyond.
A date that will always be remembered for an incredible run highlighted with the emergence of a rookie goaltender that eventually earned him a championship ring, as well as the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy for the MVP of the playoffs.
A date that will live forever that inspired those that followed hockey in the past as well as in the future, to show a Championship was indeed possible, even if it took almost 40 years to accomplish. It was also a boost to all area youth hockey for years to come.
In maintaining the theme of that fifth anniversary run, this is the final of a three-part series that covered that unforgettable events in the Spring of 2011.
In the first round the Senators narrowly escaped the wrath of Manchester, as they defeated the Monarchs in seven games that led to the second round, as they disposed the Portland Pirates in six. Here's the summary for both Atlantic Division Series.
The upstart Charlotte Checkers were next for the Eastern Conference crown after their series wins over the Hershey Bears and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton their way to a 4-0 Eastern Conference sweep that landed them a surprise finale, against the Houston Aeros., as both ended in six games. But it was the Senators with the upper hand going forward, as they quite handily steered
Houston was victorious in their first round sweep over the Peoria Riverman. Next up for the Aeros was the Milwaukee Admirals in a tight 4-3 series win that featured 3 overtime conclusions. In the Western Conference Finals, it was Houston and the Hamilton Bulldogs in another grueling series that went the distance in seven, but with the Aeros on top once again.
What a season it was, as we finally got our wish, a hockey championship that had eluded us for so long. It almost didn't happen if you believe in jinxes. As I recall before Game 6, the local paper ran an article in their online edition that stated a parade would follow after the series and to stay tuned for details. This was BEFORE the series was over! Talk about giving the opposition some motivation. It was later removed much to the relief of the fans.
I instinctively remembered my then-director Keith Heggelke turning to me after the winning goal and said, "We're going to the finals!" with a slight tone of bewilderment in his voice. I was somewhat befuddled as well, then, with slow acceptance of the upcoming event, I then replied, "ya..yes we are, aren't we?..Holy Shit!!" as we shared a high-five before wrapping-up that night after the game. That was a moment I'll never forget (besides winning it all) in my 12 years working for the BSens in the video room. (Keith, if you're reading this, good times eh?!)
Ryan Potulny was the top producer with an outstanding 26 points, (14g 12a in 23 games) followed by an impressive run by Ryan Keller (10g, 15a) and Kaspars Daugavins (10g, 10a). Rookie goaltender Robin Lehner earned the playoff MVP award with a 14-4-0 record in 19 games, 2.10 GAA, 0.939 SV% and 3 SO.
As far as hockey history in Binghamton, they would appear in the finals just twice. The Broome Dusters era of the 70's in 1975, as they were swept by the Johnstowns to take the Lockhart Cup of the NAHL and the Binghamton Whalers in 1982, only to lose this time in five to the New Brunswick Hawks in the AHL. I remember attending both series as my parents were season tickets holders when I was a young lad.
Game 1 - BSens 1 @ Houston 3
The seven game series opened up with the first two games at Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. Bobby Butler scored the first goal midway through the second period, as Lehner made 27 saves after two to secure the slim lead headed into the third period. There, things went south as Houston forward Jed Ortmeyer scored a pair of goals assisted on both by line-mate Colton Gillies for the Areos.
The tight checking contest would go to the wire, as Lehner was pulled for the extra attacker to no avail, as Warren Peters added an empty netter, his fourth of the post season to help secure the 3-1 win and an early series lead. Lehner ended with 38 saves while Houston netminder Matt Hackett stopped 23 shots.
Game 2 - BSens 2 @ Houston 1 OT
Another tight battle as both teams scored in the first five minutes on their respective powerplays with Butler (12) for the Senators and Casey Wellman (6) for the Aeros. Sens managed just three shots in the final 20 minutes of regulation as Lehner came up with 10 saves of his own.
In the overtime, Jim O'Brien would end it with his game winner at 7:54 as he scored his third of the playoffs on a low wrist shot by Hackett. This gave the Senators the victory and evened up the series at a game apiece.
Game 3 - Houston 2 @ BSens 1
Series then shifted to the Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena for the next three games as they looked to come up big for the home fans.
The sellout crowd was in it, but was taken out of it early in the first period when Houston's Jon DiSalvatore scored only a little over a minute in with a nice backhander past Lehner for a 1-0 lead. The Aeros increased it to 2-0 by a goal from defenseman Nate Prosser, his second that set the fans on edge.
Ryan Keller finally gave the crowd something to cheer about with a powerplay tally early in the third, but couldn't score the equalizer with Lehner pulled in the final minute.
Game 4 - Houston 0 @ BSens 3
This was a big one for both clubs, as Binghamton did not want to repeat the first round, going down three games to one with a loss on home ice, and they knew it. The club came out full throttle with the loud cheers from the fans behind them that helped stake them to a 2-0 lead on 18 shots after the opening 20 minutes with goals by Cody Bass (2) and regular season AHL MVP Corey Locke (2) on a powerplay.
Robin wasn't tested much with his 21 saves, but the Sens accomplished what they needed to do as they evened up the series at two. Hackett was tested often with 37 shots as the fans gave him the business with chants of "You Can't Hack-It" throughout the night.
Defenseman Derek Smith scored the final goal for his first of the post season on a nice snapshot from the point to help seal the shutout for Lehner.
Game 5 - Houston 2 @ BSens 4
Locke got the party started in the first period with his second in two nights with an assist from defenseman Andre Benoit from the point, but Houston countered with one of their own off the stick of forward Jean-Michel Daoust to even it up. Erik Condra then put his team back on the lead with a nice individual effort, but Daoust once again answered with seven seconds left in the period.
Binghamton once again regained the lead as Zack Smith was successful in the second period, and again in the third (7,8) that gave his team the win before a very emotional SRO home crowd. They sent their team off with loud ovations that gave them momentum heading back to Houston with a 3-2 series lead. Lehner shined once again with his 41 saves, and he'd be asked to do the same for Game 6.
After the win, this was the scene with fans spilling out of the Arena with excitement and full of anticipation in what was yet to come!
Game 6 - BSens 3 @ Houston 2
This is it. Talk about a nail-biter with the Senators on the brink of history.
It remained scoreless after one in front of 10,000 plus at Toyota Center. After the nerves settled down during the first intermission, forward Roman Wick scored early in the second, but was answered four minutes later by a goal from DiSalvatore on a powerplay with Benoit in the box for slashing.
Then Houston went ahead with another powerplay goal with Daoust cashing in, with defenseman Eric Gryba off then for tripping. The Aeros felt comfortable as they had the lead after two periods with their large home crowd behind them.
It was time for the Senators to step up as they rallied back on a pair of powerplay goals of their own in the third period. Butler opened up the final frame at 16:34 with a hard wrister that sailed by Hackett, his 13th of the playoffs.
Then Binghamton's phantom goal from Captain Keller. A goal from an seemingly impossible angle. After all, it was fitting as the Hockey Gods were sided with the Senators throughout these playoffs.
Robbie Earl was in the box serving his time for a high stick call with less than ten minutes to play that sent the Sens on their fifth man-advantage opportunity of the evening. With special teams pressing, Benoit sent a quick, sharp pass to Keller down low by the circle, as he crashed the net and somehow tucked the biscuit high side, near corner that had to shake Hackett to his core.
The BSens would somehow figure out a way to survive the rest of the distance that lasted forever and left fans feeling quite anxious back home with one last faceoff to deal with. Bass was sent to take the final faceoff deep in the defensive zone with less than six seconds left, as he was the longest tenured player for Binghamton at the time and Coach Kurt Kleinendorst gave him the honors in that recognition to end it.
Bass ended up losing the faceoff, as the puck went to the blueline but jumped past the defenseman and out of the zone. One final desperation was attempted but it was too late, as the players jumped over from the bench and raced to the corner with a mob celebration that ensued amongst the chorus of boos from the disappointed home crowd.
Game 6 in Houston was on TV, as the cable networks agreed to broadcast all home and away tilts for the finals. Our work in the video room was not only going to be shown in the Texas and New York regions, but all across Canada.
People were doing their own celebrations as they were either glued to the TV or listening to Grady on the radio, or perhaps both (which was the case for myself). I needed to hear that call from Grady and not some homer on television in Texas. What a miraculous, yet remembered post season in all my years of following hockey here in Binghamton.
Assistant Coach Steve Stirling found himself watching from a hospital bed back home, as he was being treated at the time for a heart condition suffered late in the finals. The boys paid their respects with get well wishes for their fallen comrade.
Key Notes; 1.) Lehner was remarkable with a 1.49 GAA, 0.957 SV%, 2.) The fans were something to remember as the Arena was loud, really loud with "Let's Go Sens" chants that echoed throughout the barn before puck drop in each outing that was alive with passion, amazing atmosphere 3.) Sens defenseman Geoff Kinrade saved a goal with his leg kick by the corner of the net that would have tied it, as Lehner was late in his coverage. If you saw Game 6 late in the final period, you know what I'm talking about.
A lot went wrong during that regular season, but ended up right come playoffs. The team struggled mightily, as I recalled Coach KK lost some confidence with some of his 'mediocre' players to the media. Playoffs seemed to be a pipe dream at some point, but that group eventually prevailed and ended up pulling it out, aided with some lucky breaks. Sometimes luck is needed to get over the hump in order to win.
What happened in the first round against Manchester after being down 3-1, and with their comeback, that alone was a sign they were well on their way. Reflecting back, Binghamton had the best forward from the regular season (MVP Locke), and ended up with the best goaltender in the playoffs (MVP Lehner). That's quite impressive.
The Lake Erie Monsters are currently up in their AHL playoffs over the Hershey Bears. Don't count the Bears out just yet though.
Just ask the 2011 BSens.
*Cover Pic & Inserts Courtesy Of Darren Abate/AHL