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There are match-ups between much more established American Hockey League franchises, but the rivalry between the Binghamton Senators and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins continues to grow into one of the most intense in the American Hockey League in its second season.
Binghamton got the best of the rivalry in dramatic fashion this weekend, taking consecutive overtime wins from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the home-and-home series.
The Senators moved into a third-place tie with the Penguins in the East Division with Friday night's 3-2, home-ice victory. They took over third, temporarily, Saturday night with a 5-4 win in Wilkes-Barre.
Jason Spezza, who continues to make a case as the top player in the entire AHL, and Denis Hamel provided the heroics.
Spezza scored twice in the first nine minutes, once on the power play and once shorthanded, to give Binghamton a 2-0 lead Friday.
After Michel Ouellet's second-period goal and Alain Nasreddine's third-period goal sent the game into overtime, Spezza stepped back into the spotlight.
Spezza sent Antoine Vermette into the Penguins zone alone. Vermette's back-hander beat Fleury for the winning goal.
The teams staged an up-and-down struggle Saturday night.
Hamel finished with two goals and an assist, including the game-winning goal at 3:33 of overtime.
Binghamton appeared to have the game in control after taking a 4-1 lead by scoring twice while outshooting Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, 19-4, in the second period.
The Penguins then killed more than six consecutive minutes of penalties, including more than two minutes of 5-on-3, while only giving up one shot to stay within two goals in the third period.
Shane Endicott and Matt Murley then scored 13 seconds apart in the final two minutes to force another overtime game.
Hamel redirected a Spezza pass for the winning goal.
The loss was the fourth straight for the Penguins - three in overtime and one in a shootout. Because they did not lose in regulation, the Penguins have gained points in the standings in 11 straight games, including Sunday's 6-1 victory over Hamilton to move back ahead of Binghamton.
WEEK IN REVIEW
District 2's top fall sports teams continued through state play.
Crestwood repeated as Class AA field hockey champs by beating Wyoming Valley Conference rival Wyoming Seminary, 1-0, in overtime Saturday.
Wilkes-Barre Coughlin also reached the final, but lost, 4-0, to Emmaus in the Class AAA championship game.
In boys' soccer, Abington Heights was eliminated by West Chester Henderson, 3-1, in the Class AAA semifinals.
All-star midfielder Alex Hargrove and forward/midfielder Tony Pagnotti, both of whom have family in Susquehanna, helped the Comets remain unbeaten until the final four in the state.
Pagnotti gave the Comets a shot at the final when he scored 1:04 into the game, but Henderson rallied with three straight goals before halftime.
Lakeland and Berwick are the last two District 2 teams alive as the football playoffs move to the quarterfinals.
Colin Striefsky ran for 219 yards and two touchdowns as Lakeland defeated Dunmore, 31-6, in the District 2 Class AA championship game. The Chiefs improved to 12-0, including handing Dunmore (10-2) both of its losses.
Berwick defeated Pottsville, 19-12, to win the District 2-11 Class AAA Subregional.
Lackawanna Trail had been the only Lackawanna Football Conference team other than Lakeland to make it into the weekend.
The Lions were badly overmatched in a game against two-time defending state champion Southern Columbia at Scranton Memorial Stadium.
Southern Columbia racked up a 22-1 advantage in first downs and 497-17 in total yards in the first three quarters.
Henry Hynoski, a 6-foot, 225-pound sophomore fullback, carried 17 times for 217 yards to lead Southern Columbia.
Keystone College's Brooke Elliott, a 5-foot-2 freshman from Forest City, was selected as a second-team North Eastern Athletic Conference women's soccer all-star.
Elliott was one of only two players to start all 19 games as the Lady Giants improved from just one win a year ago to 6-13 this season. She was fourth on the team with four goals.
Mansfield University's Joe Frick, a senior from Montrose, earned second-team Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference East Division football honors as a defensive back. Frick finished third in the PSAC in tackles.
THE WEEK AHEAD
Old Forge and Carbondale have added a Thanksgiving morning football game to the schedule. Along with Lakeland, which is playing Friday against Lansdale Catholic at Wissahickon in the state Class AA quarterfinals, they are the only Lackawanna Football Conference teams still playing.
Predictions for this week's games: CARBONDALE 13, Old Forge 12; LANSDALE CATHOLIC 37, Lakeland 21.
Our picks went 2-0 last week, improving our record to 6-1 on the playoffs and 96-16 on the season, both of which are 85.7 percent.
Tom Robinson writes a weekly local sports column for the Susquehanna County Transcript. He can be reached online at RobbyTR@aol.com.
BIFFLE Wins Race, BUSCH Wins Championship
Homestead, FL – “It’s feast or famine in this business,” said Jack Roush, Greg Biffle and Kurt Busch’s car owner. “We got in a dog fight today, and I wouldn’t have given you five cents for our chances.”
Roush had reason to celebrate Sunday after the Nextel Cup Ford 400 at Homestead, Florida.
Biffle won the 267 lap race, the last of the season, while Kurt Busch claimed the 2004 Nextel Cup Championship – by only eight points – the smallest margin in NASCAR history.
Hendrick teammates, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon wound up finishing second and third in the championship chase.
In a race that was typical of his late-season run, Kurt Busch overcame a series of misfortunes to pull off a fifth-place finish. His major problem was a bad wheel on his No. 97 Sharpie Ford.
By the time his team had replaced it, Busch had gone from the second position to 26th.
“We dodged a huge, huge problem with that broken wheel, that could have been devastating,” said Busch. “Many things have fallen in place to make this possible.
“Jimmy Fennig (crew chief on the No. 97) has not only been an inspiration, but he really taught me what I needed to do to win this championship.”
Johnson, who finished second in Sunday’s race also wound up second in the final points standings.
“I’m disappointed, but we gave it all we had, and it just wasn’t meant to be,” said Johnson.
Jeff Gordon finished third in both the race and points.
“I don’t think we could have done much better,” he said. “That 97 car was strong. As I look back, it was still a great year.”
Mark Martin came in fourth in the final points.
“I’m proud of this team,” said Martin. “We could have had a better day, but we couldn’t have won it.”
The fifth place points finisher, Dale Earnhardt Jr. never got the handle on his No. 8 Chevrolet and struggled all day. He finished 23rd.
Greg Biffle led the most laps during the race, but he had lost track position late in the race because he had to make an extra fuel stop. But after a late race caution, which set up a green/white/checkered finish, he was second behind Tony Stewart.
Stewart, who was penalized earlier in the race, spun his tires on the restart, which allowed Biffle to get under him for the lead and eventual victory.
Top ten finishing order: 1. Greg Biffle, 2. Jimmie Johnson, 3. Jeff Gordon, 4. Tony Stewart, 5. Kurt Busch, 6. Brendan Gaughan, 7. Jamie McMurray, 8. Rusty Wallace, 9. Ricky Rudd, 10. Kevin Harvick.
Final Top-10 Driver Standings: 1. Busch-6506, 2. Johnson-6498, 3. J. Gordon-6490, 4. Martin-6399, 5. Earnhardt Jr.-6368, 6. Stewart-6326, 7. Newman-6180, 8. Kenseth-6069, 9. Sadler-6024, 10. Mayfield-6000.
Not All Fans Like The Chase – The checkered flag for the 2004 season has been given. Despite all the drama, and the closest finish in series history, not all NASCAR’s fans were happy with the new championship format.
When the checkered flag dropped Sunday at Homestead, three of the most popular drivers on the circuit were all within a few car lengths of the points leader.
Many fans have been slow to warm up to the new 10-race playoff format, because it seems NASCAR was able to manage the outcome, like when they docked Dale Earnhardt Jr. 25 points for uttering a mild curse word.
Under the previous Cup system, the championship was a season-long affair that awarded consistency above all else. Drivers earned points depending on their finish in each of the 36 races, totaled them up at the end, and the leader walked off with the title.
Typical of the way things have gone for a while, last year's champion was Matt Kenseth, who won exactly once, ran about seventh a lot, and drove very carefully to protect his lead the rest of the time.
This year, with a new sponsor aboard and a desire to juice up the end of its TV schedule - when the races compete with NFL games and playoff baseball for ratings - NASCAR made a radical change.
They totaled up the points after the first 26 races, made only the top 10 eligible for the Chase, reset the points between them so the spread was only 45 with 10 races left in the season.
Measured by TV ratings, the changes didn't take with the fans, at least not right away. The first two races in the Chase lost viewers compared to a year earlier, but then jumped 21 percent at Atlanta three weeks ago.
NASCAR got what they wanted—a close championship race—that bunched the leaders up.
Some fans complained the playoff essentially wiped out the first two-thirds of the season, and made the final third almost irrelevant to all but 10 drivers. Some griped the points system punished one bad race too severely and others took the opposite side, arguing that it didn't allow for enough separation.
To make matters worse, some sponsors have started grumbling that even when their driver has a good day, most of the airtime is diverted to those drivers competing in the Chase.
But like or hate the new format, Brian France said, "We always said we wanted to let the full year play out, but the balance we have now, we're real happy with. We may end up making some slight adjustments next season, but nothing very noticeable."
Whether this Chase For the Championship increased the number of fans who watched on television will not be known for another month.
But the overall effect has been to stir up almost all fans, be they for or against it. In that respect, the format has been successful. We’ll have to wait until next year to see what new scheme NASCAR comes up with.
The next televised NASCAR event will be the Nextel Cup Awards Ceremonies, Friday, December 3.
Racing Trivia Question: Who will Kenny Wallace be driving for in 2005?
Last Week’s Question: Darrell Waltrip has been voted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. How many Winston Cup championships did he win? Answer. He has three (1981, ’82, ’85).
NEXT WEEK: A recap of the 2004 Cup season and a look at the announced driver changes for next season.
Gerald Hodges/the Racing Reporter is a syndicated NASCAR columnist. You can read additional racing stories by Hodges at www.race500.com
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