Friday, April 24, 2015

Hershey Bears vs Worcester Sharks 2015 First Round Playoff Preview

I am hyped.  Not sure how everyone else feels but I truly believe this Bears team could make a long run.

I am nervous.  Not sure how everyone else feels, but I am terrified that the Bears could lose this first round series.

I can't remember having such opposite feelings about a team heading into the postseason.  The last team good enough to make a run was I believe the 2009-10 team.  And really there wasn't much doubt with them.  Surely not in the first 2 rounds.

But here is my concern with the Bears this season...

They were two distinct teams.  (And this Sharks team is pretty good...more on that later though.)

There was the team that went 28-8-2-1 from Christmas through March and there was the team that went 18-14-2-2 prior to December and in April.

Half the season they dominated.  Half the season they barely stayed above .500.

Two different teams.

So which one is real?

Well, to figure that out I looked at the schedule.  I don't have time to look at the rosters each game, but I can say this...

The schedules were pretty even.  39 games from Christmas through March and 37 the rest of the time.  15 games against playoff teams in both sections.

21 home games, 18 road games in the middle.  17 home and 20 road on the ends.

So pretty even.

Which means to me that you have to dig a bit deeper.

Anyone that follows the team closely understands that there are two differences between the Bears before Christmas and after...

1. Stanislav Galiev was FINALLY given a chance at a top 6 forward spot.
2. Jim O'Brien joined the team in early January.

Coincidentally, April saw Galiev earn a recall to Washington while O'Brien (as well as others) missed some games.

Honestly, that makes me feel a bit better about the Bears chances (I literally did that research AFTER writing the open).

So I believe that the real Bears are the team that played so well from Christmas to March.  The other versions just weren't a complete team yet.

But I am still a bit worried.  Philipp Grubauer remains on recall in Washington and it seems highly unlikely that he will return before game 3.

Pheonix Copley has been tremendous, and I for one feel extremely confident in him.  However, this is his first pro playoff experience.  Will he be ready?

Plus, Andre Burakovsky is in Washington and seems very unlikely to return to Hershey before the Caps are eliminated.  That isn't that big of a deal, he only played 13 games in Hershey anyhow so he was never a big part of the offense...but having him here sure was nice.

AND...this 2 games on the road to start business is crappy.  A loss in Game 1 and the entire series changes as the Bears would be in an almost must win going into Game 2.

And Worcester is a good team.  Both at home and on the road.  They went 19-16-2-1 on the road this year, just a touch behind Hershey's 20-15-2-1.

So while the Bears could conceivably lose games 1 and 2, I don't find it likely that they can win 3 straight in Hershey over the Sharks.

Which means...Game 1 is critical.

So what can we expect between these two teams?  Based on the season series...a VERY even series.  (Another reason I am concerned.)

The season series went Hershey's way with a 2-1-0-1 record.  But every single game was close.

The teams split the home and road games, each winning once in each building.

4 games, 20 goals scored.  10 for Hershey, 10 for Worcester.

Every single game was decided by 1 goal.  Only 1 game went into extra time with the most recent game on April 1 going to a shootout.

Two of the games were in November and the other 2 were in mid-March and April 1.  The Bears DID have a "complete" team for the most recent two.  And obviously they were a different team for the first two, as I discussed above.

Shots were decidedly in Worcesters favor (as expected) with 145-104.

Surprisingly, the 2 Hershey victories came when they were DISTINCTLY out-shot.  They were out-shot on November 22 38-20 and won 1-0 at home.  Then in Worcester on March 18 they were doubled up 46-23 and won 3-2.

So, if you are listening to the games tonight and tomorrow (as I will be) or watching on AHLLive ($9.99 a game...not paying that!), then expect to hear Scott Stuccio discussing the Worcester shot total a whole bunch.  "Copley makes the save" might be his most used line (hopefully).

For a 2/7 seed matchup, this is going to be tight.

While I do believe in our Bears as much as ever, I am also worried about this series.

My prediction though...Bears in 4.

What Should You Know About Worcester?

1.  They don't have any dominant players.  

Bryan Lerg is their top point producer with 41 points.  6 Bears have more.

They have 4 players with 16+ goals.  Hershey has 6.

So there isn't a particular player that I can say Hershey has to watch out for.

2.  They do have depth.

Hershey has 8 players with 10+ goals...Worcester has 10.

Hershey has 11 players with 20+ points...Worcester has 15.

Again, they don't have one or two guys that will dominate.  They are a good team from top to bottom.

3.  They don't take penalties.

They finished the season with only 809 penalty minutes, good for best in the league.

As a comparison, Hershey finished with 1507, 5th most in the league.  And only 1 playoff team had more, Syracuse.

Discipline is going to be key for both teams.  But Hershey will have to do their best to play a clean game as special teams often decide series and giving the Sharks too many power plays surely won't be good.

4.  Once they are done...the Worcester Sharks are done.

The Sharks are one of the teams moving west next season.  So Game 2 might be the final AHL game to be played in Worcester.

With that in mind, I would expect the fans to come out in droves and make it loud.

Although, they only drew 3,847 in 38 home games this season so maybe it will remain half empty.

5.  Their top goal scorers are:

LW - 18 - Micheal Haley  -   he had 18 goals, leading the team.
RW - 13 - Evan Trupp  -  he had 16 goals and 24 assists, finishing second on the team in both goals and points.
RW - 19 - Daniil Tarasov  -  he also had 16 goals.
RW - 28 - Jeremy Langlois - he also had 16 goals.

6.  Players to watch:

LW - 11 - Bryan Lerg  -  the veteran finished with a team leading 41 points and scored 2 goals against the Bears this year.
C - 50 - Chris Tierney  -  he was as dominant player as they had picking up 29 points (8 g, 21 a) in only 29 games.  He only played in 1 game against the Bears this season.

7.  Goaltending:

They had two goalies who seemed to split the games pretty evenly most of the year.  Aaron Dell got into 26 games while Troy Grosenick played 36.

Based on the recent usage and the numbers, I fully expect Dell to get the nod.

Dell went 15-8-2 with a 2.06 goals against average and a .927 save percentage on the year.  Those are mighty fine numbers.

He struggled of late though, losing his last 3 games while going 3-3-0 in April with a 2.62 gaa and .917 save percentage.

Dell played both games in Hershey this season allowing 3 goals on 38 shots and going 1-1-0.

8.  Cold Streak:

They come in having lost 5 of their last 6 games, which isn't the way you want to be headed.

However, keep in mind that this poor stretch is on the heels of an 8 game win streak that included a win over Hershey.

That's all I got.

Time for the games to start.


If you want some more analysis you can check out the articles Tim Leone wrote.  Just head over to the Bears PennLive page to see them.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Bears Increase Division Lead

This was a relatively light weekend for the Bears in comparison to the other teams in the division. Both the Albany Devils and LeHigh Valley Phantoms played 3-in-3 (plus traveling) while the Hershey was at home for just two. Looking back, the road trip to start the season and how well the Bears played is now paying off with more home stands and a less rugged schedule. This combination can definitely be seen as favoring the Bears' climb into first place in the division.

Last night, Hershey rolled over LeHigh Valley 5-2 and outshot the Phantoms 37-30 including putting up 17 shots in the second period alone. In addition, while the penalty kill faltered a bit last night against Albany (allowing 3 PP goals in 5 chances), tonight the Bears killed off all 8 power plays for the Phantoms.

Another benefit of the lighter schedule is slowly getting Grubauer and Copley back into the consistency of play. With Grubauer being out injured and Copley on recall last weekend, neither goalie has played a game in about two weeks. In Tim Leone's Penn Live bullet points from the weekend and in the broadcasts, it was noted that at times both goalies struggled a bit to fight off shots.

Hershey will continue this schedule trend with a game in Allentown on Wednesday and one in Hershey on Saturday against the Binghamton Senators. I would expect Grubauer and Copley to each get a game. This takes the Bears into the final weekend of the month and February where they'll have a whole month of 3-in-3's. Getting both goalies back up to game speed and splitting time will be paramount for a successful February.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Bears 1st in East with OT Win

Heading into overtime last night against the Albany Devils, the Bears achieved the one point minimum they needed to take over first place in the East Division. With Stan Galiev's game winning goal on the power play (his second of the game), the Bears got the full 2 points from the win and are now one point ahead of Wilkes-Barre for the division lead.

In hindsight, this one seemed primed to be a barn burner. What with Casey Wellman scoring 10 seconds into the game and Tomas Kundratek making it 2-0 a couple minutes later. The rest of the way would see Albany always climbing back to tie the game every time Hershey would take the lead.

Special teams were on display though it was rough time for the penalty killers of both teams. Overall, the Bears ended up 3 for 7 on the power and play and the Devils 3 for 5. Hershey has now dropped to 5th overall in the league with an 86.9 penalty kill percentage. Despite this slip they're still first overall in the Eastern Conference.

A few games/posts ago I mentioned the need for the Bears to better learn "timeliness" and "strategy". Last night's third period was another one of those situations. With Albany's Dan Kelly's elbowing (though I'd considered it boarding) of Garrett Mitchell head first in the boards along the benches, the Bears found themselves with a 5 minute power play with about 9 minutes left in the game.

Going into the third period tied 4-4, this was the key moment of the game and the Bears needed to come through and score at least once on this power play. Unfortunately, even though they had plenty of great chances, Hershey wasn't able to succeed in scoring on the power play.

With anything happening in overtime, especially on the three-on-three, the Bears have to recognize the timeliness of opportunities. And they would come through on the second opportunity. Just as the OT was going to 3-on-3, Albany took a slashing call and Hershey got a 4-on-3 power play.

Unlike the 5-on-3 in the third, on this power play Stan Galiev was not to be denied. Right before the game winner, Galiev had two or three shot attempts from the point area; first from the right side of the ice and then cycling to the left face-off dot.

The Bears play LeHigh Valley tonight at Giant Center. Hershey is two points up on the Phantoms but overall LeHigh Valley has one game in hand.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Bears Fall 4-2 In Fight Filled Game

This was probably the nastiest game of the year so far for the Bears. The first and second periods featured 3 separate fighting majors and borderline scuffle between Conner Carrick and Nic Kerdiles. Norfolk defenseman Nathan McIver was ejected from the game less than a minute into the 2nd period for his second fight of the game.

Where Nate Schmidt was the hero last night for the Bears, Emerson Etem was tonight for the Admirals with 2 goals and an assist. In the end, too many penalties cost the number one penalty kill in the league as both of Etem's goals were on the power play.

Despite the fights and being genially outplayed by the Admirals in this game, the Bears can take away the following lessons as they begin to prepare for the second half of the season: strategy and timeliness.

With Kris Newbury scoring around the 12 minute mark of the third to get within a goal, Hershey had an opportunity to get back into the game. And the Bears did start to press the Admirals. Then, with about a minute and 15 seconds left in the game, the Bears would find themselves on a 5-on-3 power play. Justin Peters pulled; 6-on-3.

They used their timeout and with the face-off in the Norfolk end, the timing was set for the Bears to tie the game. Unfortunately, the Admirals killed the brief 6-on-3 and hit the empty netter with 30 seconds left in the game.

For the most part, the setup on the power play was completely ineffective. I've seen it too many times when a team is on a two man advantage and everyone just stands around passing the puck and hoping to get the perfect shot. To do that, not only is quick passing needed but player movement as well. The Bears did neither of those.

In the future, when an opportunity like this arises for the Bears to tie the game with a man advantage, they need to have a better strategy. Being presented an opportunity and knowing how to execute is what separates a team that tries to win with one that knows how to.

Nate Schmidt Leads Bears In Win Over Admirals

So, Steve Oleksy goes up to Washington and Nate Schmidt comes down to Hershey. And continuing with this odd weekend of hockey, a Washington Capitals' regular leads the Bears to a win. Saturday night was Nate Schmidt's opportunity to get some extended playing time and he wracked up 2 goals and an assist in a 3-1 win over the Norfolk Admirals.

What a difference one year of NHL experience makes. Schmidt had as many goals in one game back as he did in 38 games last season. It's amazing to see how much his skill level has increased in comparison to other AHLer's. There were moments last night when Schmidt skated the puck up the ice and just blew by everyone like they were standing still.

Also, the other Hershey defensemen should take note of his shot from the point. He has a quick release that is powerful and accurate, which were key contributors for his 2 goals. In fact, it didn't seem like any of his shots were blocked. And by the end of the game, Schmidt, along with Chris Brown, led the team with 5 shots a piece.

Credit should also be given to Brandon Anderson as he made his first career AHL start and only allowed 1 goal on 30 shots. While he didn't have to be spectacular, Anderson played consistently solid throughout the game and fought off some very good chances by the Admirals.

On a side note, I knew that Dany Heatley was picked up by the Anaheim Ducks in the off-season but wasn't aware that he was sent to Norfolk in early December and then placed on waivers. He's played about a hand full of AHL games so far. As is usually the case when a high profile player is down in the minors, everyone wants to take a piece and put him in his place. Heatley came out playing physical and got into a brief scrap with Kris Newbury early on. For the most part, Heatley was quiet last night with only 1 shot.

Both Justin Peters and Nate Schmidt will play in this afternoon's part two against the Admirals. Afterwards, it appears everyone will be re-assigned to their respective teams. Let's hope to make this a 3-for-3 weekend.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Justin Peters Leads Bears In Shutout

Well, the setup to the first game between the Bears and Devils ended up being more interesting than usual. The Albany fans were treated to not one but two NHL goaltenders as the starters last night. I don't follow either Albany or New Jersey but I was surprised to see Scott Clemmensen starting and that he's played more games in the AHL this season than the NHL. A perennial backup, I figured Clemmensen would be past this point in his career. Especially with the opportunity he had in Florida the past couple of years to take on more responsibility.

For Hershey, it was rumored earlier in the week that Justin Peters might be sent down to get some games in since he hadn't played since November and Holtby has taken over as an iron man starter in Washington. It was announced Thursday night that Peters would indeed join the Bears in Albany and start in goal Friday and Sunday. I also think the push to get Peters in goal Friday was because of the years he spent playing in Albany. This was a treat not only for the fans but for him as well.

This turn of events makes an interesting scenario for Pheonix Copley. He's played great in his 11 starts so far but has seen limited action recently because of how well Grubauer has been performing. But with Grubauer out with a lower body injury, now would be the time for Copley to show what he can do with the starting position. Much the way Holtby did in 2009-10 when Neuvirth went down with injury late in the season.

Indeed, before the announcement was official, it was figured that Copley would start two games this weekend and Peters might play Saturday night. Now, Peters is slated for Friday/Sunday and Copley is recalled to backup Holtby in Washington. The question now is, who's going to start in goal for Hershey on Saturday night?

This makes you wonder about the timing of opportunities. Copley went from finally getting the chance to get some consistent starts to sitting on the bench in Washington where he most likely won't see any ice time.

As for the game, Scott Stuccio's Penn Live post game blog post sums up the main highlights perfectly. Neither team played particularly aggressive and there was limited physicality. But they both played an open style last night which lead to great end to end play, especially in the third period.

The first period goals by Brown and Galiev less than a minute apart were both NHL caliber plays and the second period shorthanded disallowed goal by Stephenson was the main turning point of the game. The Bears lose the chance to go up 3-0 and then have to kill a 5-on-3 for almost a minute. If the Devils score there, it's a one goal game or maybe tied and the game goes in a different direction.

Hershey would it make 3-0 early in the third period on the power play as Brown would get his second goal of the game. That power play goal really highlighted the Bears' excellent ability for passing and cycling the puck in the corner and along the wall. The play perfectly setup Brown in the slot.

The Bears are back in Hershey Saturday and Sunday in back to back games against the Norfolk Admirals.