The Hershey Bears held service once again Tuesday night, and in so doing, earned themselves a spot in the AHL's Eastern Conference finals.
Another brilliant performance by rookie goalie Michal Neuvirth and a solid, all-around defensive effort paved the way for the Bears, who shut out the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, 3-0, at Giant Center in Game 7 of their second-round series.
The home team won every game of the East Division finals series. Hershey now awaits the winner of the Atlantic Division final series between the Providence Bruins and Worcester Sharks.
Providence leads that series, 3-2, with Game 6 set for tonight in Worcester. The Bears will host the winner in Game 1 of the conference final on Saturday night.
"I was just trying to be focused for the whole game," said Neuvirth, who turned away all 24 shots he faced in posting his second straight shutout in the series as Hershey climbed back from a 3-2 series deficit. "My defense, they played great back-to-back. I think the shutout's a team effort. I got to thank my defense and all my teammates."
Penguins coach Todd Reirden could only tip his hat at Neuvirth's performance.
"Their goalie played outstanding," Reirden said. "I thought he was much better here than he was on the road."
"Neuvy played a heck of a game," Hershey defenseman Bryan Helmer said. "The last two games, he's been unbelievable. It's just been a team victory the last two games, right from Neuvy to the D to the forwards.
To Neuvirth, the key was that he once again found himself playing with the lead -- a very early lead.
Just 50 seconds into the game, Alexandre Giroux, holding the puck at the top of the left circle, spotted Keith Aucoin at the back post. And after freezing Penguin goalie Adam Berkhoel with a head fake, fed the puck to Aucoin for the easy goal.
"The first goal for us was huge," Neuvirth said. "They were always behind us, so ... No shots, no breakaways today."
"I think the goalie was thinking I could shoot, so he challenged me a little bit," Giroux said. "I saw Coiner, so it was just an instinct play."
Still, the early goal meant nothing more than the lead, and while the Bears were able to carry the play throughout the first period, they couldn't add to that cushion.
The lead appeared even more tenuous when, late in the period, Dean Arsene was hit with a delay of game penalty while the Bears were on the penalty kill, giving the Penguins 38 seconds worth of 5-on-3 advantage.
The Bears killed that penalty, then extended their lead to 2-0 when Chris Bourque redirected Aucoin's blast from the point on a power play a little less than five minutes into the second period.
Then, in a series which had seen all sorts of breaks and bounces, came the "unluckiest" break of all for the Penguins.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was effectively cycling the puck in the Hershey zone and had already managed two shots on net when J.M. Daoust picked up a rebound and fed it out to Reid Cashman at the left point.
Cashman wound up for a slap shot through traffic, but his stick broke as he hit the puck. The puck slid to Steve Pinizzotto, triggering a quick 2-on-1 break with Darren Reid against Jon D'Aversa
Pinizzotto carried the puck all the way into the zone, then slid a backhander into the net.
"It was a good bounce," Pinizzotto said. "I just kind of fronted the guy on the shot, it came right to me, and me and Darren Reid were going 2-on-1."
"We had a pretty good opportunity there, and the stick breaks," Reirden said. "They were able to go down and get a bounce off Jon D'Aversa. That's hockey."
It offered up some needed breathing room.
"That third goal was a big one," Hershey coach Bob Woods said. "They're a dangerous team that came back on us numerous times during the year, so you knew they weren't going to quit.
"Once we got that third goal, they didn't quit, but that kind of made us feel a little more secure."