Derek Nesbitt played in Binghamton only once during his AHL career, and that was more than four years ago. He posted one shot on net and didn’t record a point, yet the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins winger did come away with a memory.
“I remember the rink feeling smaller than most,” Nesbitt said.
That’s something that every opponent takes away from playing on the Senators’ smaller ice surface contained in the 40-year-old arena. With its low ceiling and seating capacity for 4,710 fans — smallest in the AHL — the Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena has a habit of making opponents feel as if the Binghamton fans are right on top of them.
And that doesn’t bother the Penguins, who open the 2013 playoffs tonight with their sixth trip to Binghamton, at all.
“I’ve played there so many times in my career, it’s just another rink,” said goaltender Jeff Zatkoff. “But it’s a fun rink to play in. I don’t mind playing there at all.”
Neither does Trevor Smith, who led the Penguins with six goals and nine points against the Senators this season.
“It’s an older rink and has some good character,” he said. “The fans are loud and it’s a fun place to play.”
In fact, those raucous fans cheering on the home team actually give the Penguins a momentum boost as well. According to Zatkoff, the better the atmosphere the easier it is to play, regardless of the rink.
“You’re going to be in some harsh environments in the playoffs, so what matters is how you control them as a team,” he said. “We have to make sure we’re on our game and block everything else out.”
With the first two games of the series in Binghamton, Zatkoff did caution that the smaller rink can present dangers, especially for opposing goaltenders.
Everything happens quicker on a smaller ice surface, Zatkoff said, so goaltenders tend to see more action.
“A transition happens a lot quicker, a turnover in the neutral zone — since the ice is smaller, is going to happen a lot quicker,” he said. “You really have to be aware.”
The way Nesbitt sees it as he prepares to play his first postseason game as a Penguin, there is one aspect that makes every rink in every city equal — Binghamton included.
“The area around the net is the same in any rink, and that’s where you have to go to score goals,” he said. “That doesn’t change.”
Penguins coach John Hynes often mentions that the Senators are well-coached when he talks about Binghamton, referring to his counterpart behind the other bench, Luke Richardson.
One reason for the compliment is the way Binghamton’s first-year coach, along with his veteran players, handled the adversity of losing many of their regular to NHL call-ups after the lockout ended. The Senators lost nine regulars to the NHL this season but still managed to stay among the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s a tribute to (Richardson) and his veteran leaders. They still played the same way, got the same efforts and are getting good results,” Hynes said. “It’s a combination of the coaching staff and veteran leadership on that team.”
Power play yet to peak?
Although the Penguins power play ranked 22nd at 15.1 percent, there is reason to believe it could get better in a hurry. Nesbitt has only played one game with the Penguins so far, so the 26-goal scorer has yet to have a chance to show his offensive prowess.
He scored eight power play goals with Peoria this season, and adding Nesbitt’s shot to a power play that already includes the likes of Smith, Chad Kolarik and Riley Holzapfel can be downright deadly.
“For sure it can be,” Smith said. “He’s a great player with a great shot, and he can get it away quick from the slot, the half-wall or anywhere on the ice. He’s a great addition.”
On the season
The Penguins won the last three regular-season meetings against the Senators to finish 4-6-0-0 in the season series. They outscored the Senators 12-6 over the span, but in the other seven games the Penguins were held to just one goal in six contests.
How they compare
Penguins - Thanks to a pair of trades, the Penguins forwards enter the postseason as a formidable group. With five players topping the 20-goal mark, this doesn’t look like the same team that scored 185 goals, the lowest total in the Eastern Conference.
Chad Kolarik, who was acquired from Connecticut at the all-star break, leads the way with 31 goals and 68 points. Trevor Smith provided stability with 23 goals and 54 points, while Riley Holzapfel rounds out the top line after appearing in all 76 games this season and posting a career high 21 goals.
Paul Thompson (20 goals) and Brian Gibbons (30 points) add depth, while Bobby Farnham, Zach Sill, Adam Payerl and Chris Collins bring the grit.
Senators - With 227 goals, Binghamton finished 10th in the league in goals scored, and they did it thanks to a trio of rookies in Mark Stone (15 goals), Shane Prince (18 goals) and Cole Schneider (17 goals). Stephane Da Costa tied Stone for the team scoring lead with 38 points.
Although no player on the Senators scored 20 goals, the offense is full of youth and speed that can put the puck in the net quickly.
Advantage - Penguins. It’s hard to overlook five players on the top two lines who have scored 20 goals or more.
Penguins - This unit is a perfect mix of up-and-coming rookies like Brian Dumoulin, second-year players Alex Grant and Philip Samuelsson, and steady veterans Dylan Reese and Joey Mormina. Cody Wild and Reid McNeill provide the depth.
Senators - The losses of Andre Benoit, Patrick Wiercioch and Eric Gryba hurt, but Brett Lebda (18 points in 32 games), Chris Wideman, Mark Borowiecki (157 PIMs, plus-21), Tyler Eckford and Fredrik Claesson helped ease the pain.
Advantage - Penguins. The defensive unit was a major reason behind the team allowing the fewest goals against in the league this season.
Penguins - Jeff Zatkoff and Brad Thiessen are other major reasons for the fewest goals against. Zatkoff experienced a career-resurgence during his first season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, posting a league-low 1.93 GAA.
Thiessen served as the backup for most of the season, and his experience and hot streaks allowed him to post improved numbers from last season.
Senators - Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop are the best duo in the league — at least they would be if they were here. Lehner is in Ottawa and Bishop in Tampa Bay, so that leaves Binghamton with Nathan Lawson (12-6-2, 2.19, .938) as the top man in net.
His numbers in 23 games are superb, but Lawson is banged up and has missed practices of late. If he can’t go, Marc Cheverie will get the start, which would be his first AHL playoff experience.
The Penguins briefly owned Cheverie’s rights over the summer when he was traded from Phoenix along with Harrison Ruopp for Zbynek Michalek. He was not offered a contract by Pittsburgh.
Advantage - Penguins. Zatkoff and Thiessen give Hynes the perfect one-two in net.
Players to watch
Penguins - Derek Nesbitt. Recorded consecutive 20-goal seasons the last two years with Peoria and has a wicked shot. Has only played one game with the Penguins so far, so Nesbitt is still an unknown. Figures to be penciled in on the second line.
Senators - Hugh Jessiman. Four of his 10 goals have come against the Penguins, and the 6-foot-6, 231-pound winger is a physical force as his 155 PIMs serve as proof. Tough to play against physically and can put the puck in the net.
Prediction - The Penguins are healthy, they have an offense with goal-scoring depth and Zatkoff a wall in net. Binghamton is fast and dangerous, but they don’t have the track record like many of the Penguins do. Still, the Senators open the first two games at home, which is an advantage.
Penguins in five.