Monday, October 20, 2014

Bears over Hartford 1-0 in OT

So…how does one go about scoring on a 6'8" goaltender? Very good question.

First let me try to wrap my head around this. A 6'8" goaltender. That's like having Zdeno Chara, but with quick reflexes and the ability to move about on the ice even faster, in net. Many of you may already be familiar with Jason Missiaen since he's been with Hartford for a couple season now. However, he's definitely fallen under my radar for prospect goalies.  And I thought Pekka Rinne and Anders Nilsson were big.

Anyway, back to my question. How does one score on such a goaltender. The answer is with as many shots as possible and hope for a lucky bounce. And that's exactly what Hershey got on Sunday afternoon as they defeated the Wolf Pack with a power play goal in overtime with 1.5 seconds remaining.

This was a very high tempo game for both clubs as they definitely matched each other for speed. However, it was the Bear's continued excellence in the defensive zone that really stood out last night. In Saturday night's game against the Falcon's, the Bears allowed just 8 and 7 shots in the first and second periods, respectively. Last night, 8 total shots were allowed in the first and second periods (4/4). And Hartford's first shot of the second didn't come until 7:43 left in the period. That's pretty amazing against an offensively talented team like the Wolf Pack.

That being said, this was the goalies' night. And while much of the spotlight was put on Missiaen because of his numerous outstanding saves, Pheonix Copley, though not facing as many shots, was equally up to the task and deserved the shutout.

As Scott Stuccio mentions in his post game PennLive blog post, Missiaen's best saves came in the third period when he stopped both Chandler Stephenson and Garrett Mitchell back-to-back at point blank range. However, about a minute before, Copley made his own save of the game with a diving blocker on a Hartford 2 on 1. What's interesting about the lead up to this save is that the Bears had the Wolf Pack pinned in their zone 5-on-5 for what felt like at least 2 minutes. And Hershey played it like they were on the power play. You see plenty of times when one team has all the momentum but the opposition fights through and scores a goal. And it just kills the other team's energy. So Copley's save was definitely big.

So in overtime on the power play with both the Bears and Wolf Pack scrambling around the front of the net, Casey Wellman was somehow able to get the puck free and sort of flip it over Missiaen who was sprawled on the ice. Plenty of shots and a lucky bounce. I must admit that I was relieved that the Bears scored with 1.5 seconds left because I was wondering how they were going to get anything past Missiaen in the shootout.

One last thing. The Bears briefly played 3-on-3 in overtime per the new rules implemented in the off season. Scott Stuccio called it weird to watch. And I agree. However, I'm going to wait until after this weekend to see if we get another game where the 3-on-3 is played before I give my opinion on this new overtime setup.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Bears beat Falcons 4-1

While the two games against Norfolk displayed the Bears excellent play in the first period, last night's game in Springfield, MA was all about the 3rd. The first and second periods were pretty uneventful despite Casey Wellman scoring in each.

Actually, it seemed like most of the action was taking place with the rowdy crowd that was sitting directly below the press box and really giving to the Bears and refs. Scott Stuccio noted it all game long and hilariously stated in the early third period that they should close the concession stands; "and not the ones where everyone can buy something."

The Bears played a very strong defensive game in those periods and didn't allow many scoring chances (only 8 shots in the 1st and 7 in the 2nd). However, the Bears did allow too many odd man rushes; with 2-on-1's for the Falcons way too prevalent. Luckily, Springfield wasn't able to generate much from those opportunities. Even with those chances, Philip Grubauer wasn't tested a whole lot and was well positioned and strong for the few times he needed to be.

The great puck movement of the team is really a bright spot this early in the season. And it especially showed on the power play in the first when Tim Kennedy took a pass from Kris Newbury and then needled a pass between a Falcon's defenders legs to Casey Wellman for the tap-in goal.

The third period really broke loose and opened up after Springfield finally scored their first goal of the game. Both teams traded scoring chances and power play opportunities in end-to-end action that didn't have many stoppages. The teams were pretty much evenly matched with only a slight edge going to the Falcons because of the momentum from their goal. And up until Philip Cornet's goal with about 7 minutes left, the Bears best scoring chance came from Joel Broda's short handed breakaway.

Philip Cornet, who received a nice backhand pass from Caleb Herbert, showed great patience in front of Falcon's goalie Anton Forsberg as he was able to sneak the puck up under Forsberg's arm on the blocker side. Really glad to see Cornet get his first of the year in a Bears' jersey. Let's hope he reaches that 20 goal mark like he did back in 2011-12 when he was with Oklahoma City and an AHL All-Star.

Next the Bears move on to Hartford where they'll face former Hershey hero Chris Bourque, former Bear Ryan Potulny and the Wolf Pack, who are 2-0-0 to start the season.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Complete 60 Minute Game

If Monday night's game against the Norfolk Admirals was an indication of what Hershey fans can expect from the Bears this season, then it's going to be an exciting year. Granted, I realize that it is only the second game of the season and there will be more difficult teams that the Bears will face but this was a very solid game throughout the lineup. The Bears played a full 60 minutes and didn't let up the couple of times the Admirals tried to shift the momentum to their side.

As Scott Stuccio noted in his post game PennLive post, the Bears once again came busting out of the gate in the first period and peppered opposing goalie Igor Bobkov with 15 shots. In addition, they continued their excellent play along the boards and close in around the goal. Both first period goals, by Stan Galiev and Chris Conner, were shot right in around the hash marks. However, Kris Newbury gets the goal of the game with the beautiful tip in about half way through the third period as he drove to the net. 

Pheonix Copley put in a very good performance for his AHL debut. While facing at least double digit shots every period, there weren't a whole lot of incredible scoring chances for the Admirals. However, Copley's biggest challenges were Norfolk's first two power plays (one in the first and one in the second). The Admirals had some really good chances on both power plays and Copley fought them off really well. Throughout the game he looked calm in the different types of situations that were thrown at him. Let's hope he gets a fair amount of starts this year in Hershey.

The defense played very stable and gave up few turnovers or chances to Norfolk. The defensive play of the night was made by Steve Olesky when he broke up a 3-1 about mid-way through the third period. The score was still 4-2 so there was still a chance the Admirals could sneak back in. Olesky blocked the pass with his body and calmly sticked the puck to the side boards. Perfectly played.

And let's not forget the stand up check by Mike Moore on Chris Wagner at the Bears' blue line, which resulted in a quite a melee. Speaking of which, Brad Winchester was quite a loose canon last night and got what he deserved with the 2 and 10 from that "so called" fight; which consisted of Wagner hanging onto Carrick while Winchester pummeled him. This, in addition to Winchester fighting Mitchell early in the first.

The biggest take away from these first two games of the season: LOTS of shots. 37 each game both Saturday and Monday. Troy Mann has put together a very up tempo system and this team is not afraid to shoot.

Next up is a trip up to New England for a Saturday tilt against Springfield and Sunday against Hartford.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Plenty of Work Needed

As was mentioned at the beginning of the third period on Saturday night, no matter at what level of the game "opening night jitters are always a factor". This seems to have been the case for the Bears as they dropped the opening game of the 2014-15 season to the Norfolk Admirals 5-4.

The game started off well enough for the Bears as they took the lead in the first period three different times. However, Norfolk was able to come back each time and tie the score; notably on Chris Wagner's two short handed goals of his three total for the night.

A bright spot for Hershey in that first period was its play below the face-off dots, in the corners and behind the net. Instead of using the usual grinding tactics along the wall, the Bears really used their speed to cycle the puck between the half wall to the corner and to the hash marks to generate the majority of its scoring chances and produce those three goals.

Unfortunately, the Bears' defensive game gave them the most problems. It seemed to get progressively worse over the course of the game and that prevented the Bears' from being able to maintain any pressure in the offensive zone. This was unexpected considering the coaching and system changes in the off-season. Even still, the team looked fairly solid in the first period.

The same can not be said for the second and third periods. Credit should be given to the Admirals for adjusting their game between both periods and it showed in the first half of the second period. The turning point appeared to be in the beginning of the second period when Steve Olesky took a hooking penalty. The ensuing delayed call had Hershey running around in its defensive zone for at least a minute and a half despite the Bears touching the puck about half way through. Granted, the rules state that the team needs to gain control of the puck but I have seen play at both the NHL and AHL levels stopped for less than that. It was almost like giving the Admirals a four minute power play. And the resulting goal to give Norfolk the lead just sort of killed any momentum the Bears might have had coming out of the first period.

The second period settled in and while Steve Olesky was able to tie the game 4-4 the Bears always seemed be playing reactionary instead of proactively. From there the game became bogged down in the latter half of the period due to a series of penalties. The third period didn't fair much better with the Bears not being able to get any sustained pressure on Norfolk. And Chris Wagner's hat trick half way through the period pretty much ended it.

Hershey's continued defensive breakdowns in the third period prevented them generating many quality scoring chances despite having 11 shots. Their best opportunity  of the period was when Chris Conner blew past the Admirals defenseman down the left side wall for a partial breakaway and looking to sneak it short side on Jason LaBarbera. And the play basically went completely unnoticed by everyone.

While certainly not a bad game for the Bears, it is clear that two areas they need to work on are overall team defense and putting in a complete 60 minute game. The next game is on Monday still in Norfolk. Let's hope the Bears can split this two game road trip to Virginia to the start the season.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Bears Start the Season in Norfolk

9 of the first 11.

That is how many games the Bears play on the road at the beginning of the season.  From tonight through November 7, basically 4 full weeks, the Bears will play a total of 2 home games.

Tough way to start the season.

The first two games are in Norfolk, tonight and Monday night.

Last season the Norfolk Admirals finished 8th in the Eastern Conference, just edging the Bears on the final weekend of play in April for that spot.

Many of us remember that all too well.

So let's move on.

Tonight our new Bears will take the ice against a new looking Norfolk team.

In 2013-14 the Admirals had 9 different players that scored double digit goals.  Of those 9 only 4 remain.

Their top returning scorer is 21 year old Max Friberg who had 17 goals and 23 assists in 74 AHL games last season.

4 of their top 5 scorers are no longer even on the team as 3 graduated to the NHL with the Ducks and one (Andre Petersson, their top scorer) went to the KHL.

So like I said...a mostly new team.

And still a pretty young one.  Of their top 11 scorers last season, 5 were AHL rookies.  4 of them are still in Norfolk (including Steven Whitney who I am guessing is injured as he doesn't show up on Anaheim or Norfolk's roster).

In addition to them, a number of late season tryout players are shown on their roster for this season.  Including Nic Kerdiles, Matt Bailey, and Stefan Noesen.  Those guys didn't light the world on fire in their 19 games - 3 goals 4 assists combined - but I suspect they will get additional minutes this season.  (Although Kerdiles did record 1 goal and 3 assists in his 6 games, so he is one to watch.)

They also brought in a couple of veterans to help out.  Specifically two former double digit goal scorers in the NHL, Brad Winchester and Brandon Yip.

Neither are prolific scorers any more, but both are capable of contributing.  Winchester scored 19 goals last season and Yip tallied 14.

Add in Louis Leblanc and his 13 goals last season for Hamilton and you have a lineup that looks quite similar to the Bears.  Lots of potential offense, but a bit of an unknown on who will be the main scorers throughout the year.

Based on their roster the Admirals will be able to roll 3/4 solid scoring lines throughout the year.  Just like Hershey.

On defense they also seem to be similar to Hershey.

Of their 7 defenseman, 2 are older than 25 and 6 of the 7 are 6'1" or taller.  In Hershey it is similar, 3 of 7 are older than 25 and 6 of the 7 are 6'0" or taller.

And they are puck movers.  Jesse Blacker and Kevin Gagne return to Norfolk after both finished in the top 10 on the team in scoring last year, combining for 9 goals and 38 assists.

Goaltending is where the teams no longer compare.  Jason LaBarbera is likely at least goalie #1a for the start of the season.  He is coming off an average season with a 15-15-2 record, 2.94 gaa, and .901 save % in 32 games with Rockford.

But he will turn 34 midway through the season.

Sharing the goaltending duties will be Igor Bobkov who only played in 10 games for Norfolk last year.  He had decent numbers though going 5-3-1 with a 2.43 gaa and .919 save %.

While goaltending is probably Hershey's strength, it is probably Norfolk's biggest weakness.

Obviously rosters will change a lot during the season and injuries can change a teams fate early and often, but these teams will likely have many close battles throughout the season.

Tonight's game is game 1 of 8 against the Admirals this season.  And after Monday night the Bears don't return to Norfolk until their road trip in April.  (In fact, the two teams don't meet again until December 30.)

All I know for sure going into this one is that I am excited for the season to finally be here.

It was too long of an offseason and what is hopefully game 1 of the 12th Calder Cup season in Bears franchise history starts tonight at 7:15!