Friday, October 31, 2014

4 Thoughts on the Bears in the Early Going

Don has written nice postgame pieces of each Bears game so far (you can find this past weekends write-ups here here and here).

But I haven't given any thoughts on the matter yet as I was waiting to see the team in person (and then waiting to find the time to write it).  So here it goes:

Bears vs Penguins, picture courtesy of Kyle Mace and Chocolate Hockey

In watching the Bears live twice last weekend I think 4 things jumped out at me:

1. Team Speed

It isn't that the Bears are lightning fast and just skating circles around the opposition...they aren't that fast.

But the other teams aren't either.

In recent years you could sit down at Giant Center and immediately the speed discrepancy between the Bears and the opposition was apparent.  It wasn't that the other teams were unusually fast...the Bears were just slow.

A lack of prospects in the system will do that as Hershey filled their roster with slightly older legs and hoped that the veteran positioning would counter the speedier teams.

It didn't.

But this year looks different so far.  The Bears are just as fast as the other teams and a lack of speed will not be the problem it was for the Bears in recent years.

2.  Depth

We kind of suspected this coming in to the season, but after seeing it live it is obvious.

What is the Bears best line?  Go ahead, try and convince me of one.

You can't.  Why?  Because there is little difference between the 1st and 12th forward on this team.  Seriously.

Sure, some players struggle with certain things and consistency for the young guys is sometimes lacking, but ultimately this team runs 4 very good lines that others have to account for.

The saying goes, you are only as good as your weakest link.

If that is the measurement model...these Bears are pretty darn good.

3.  Focus in the Moment

Last season was probably the worst for this.  The Bears would score a goal and almost immediately the opposition would come down and score as well.

It happens.  When one team allows a goal they are going to have new found motivation to get one of their own.

We saw during both games this weekend.

Hershey went up in both games.  They scored 7 goals in the 2 home games and only gave up 1.  And that one came at the start of a period...never right after a Bears goal.

I noticed it right away Saturday night.  Wilkes-Barre came hard after the Bears scored 2 midway through the 1st, but the Bears were focused and ready for it.

This is a credit to the new coaching staff.  They have them ready to play in situations where last years team seemed to be lacking.

4.  Aggressive Pinching by the D

I have noticed this both in Hershey and Washington and it brings memories to the Bruce Boudreau days.

Any time the puck is headed up the boards the Bears d-men were pinching in aggressively to keep it in.

The Phantoms and Penguins had few easy clears out of the zone.

Now, this style play can obviously lead to odd man breaks and while that didn't happen this weekend it surely will.  BUT, in order to create opportunities for your forwards the defensemen have to be willing to step up and keep the puck in the zone.

These kinds of plays often go unnoticed on the scoresheet, but they are critical to winning games and the entire organization seems committed to this system.

Obviously there were other thoughts (including what seemed to be better success in the faceoff circle) but those 4 things really stuck out to me after seeing the Bears for one weekend.

Do you agree?  Did you see anything else that stuck out to you?  Share in the comments.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Copley's Second Consecutive Shutout Powers Bears

Sometimes I like the third game of these three game weekend stints. Usually you'll hear that the teams are extra tired, the play isn't as crisp and more mistakes are made. This all can be true. But occasionally that's a good thing.

The less structured play can allow players to be more creative against a team than say on Friday or Saturday night, when the opposition might be on its defensive game. And sometimes that additional creativity is rewarded more in a Sunday night game. Which can make for a more overall exciting game.

This is one of my biggest complaints about the current progression and state of the NHL. The systems employed by NHL teams in general are so structured (both offensively and defensively) that players are always in position and major errors rarely made. It has lost some of the "chaotic creativity" that comes from a looser system and play.

The tiredness was evident for both the Bears and Phantoms. But the Bears had one of their nicest goals of the young season when Kennedy skated into the left corner and threw a pass out to Philip Cornet in the slot. While a pass like that might have been intercepted on a Friday or Saturday night game, Cornet was able to handle the pass and, as he was being tripped up and falling to the ice, chipped the puck past Lehigh Valley goalie Anthony Stolarz. As Scott Stuccio mentioned during the broadcast, Cornet was falling and in the air when he knocked that puck in. Nice highlight reel goal.

However, it was Pheonix Copley who would end up being the star of the game with his second consecutive shutout. Copley wasn't overly tested as the Phantoms were once again held to only single digit shots in each period. But the Hershey goalie was sharp when Lehigh Valley had some good chances late in the third. Most notably the glove save on Darroll Powe's semi-breakaway and left pad save on Scott Laughton right in around the goal.

Overall, this was a fine ending to the up and down weekend for the Bears. And to get the first two wins at Giant Center this season is extra special in ushering in this new era of sorts to the hometown crowd. Hershey now heads back out on the road and won't be home until the weekend of November 8-9 when they'll face the Hartford Wolf Pack.

Big 2nd Period In Home Opener

During the first 5 games of the season so far, the Bears played their best in either the first or third periods. The majority of their goals have come in the first period. In Saturday night's home opener against the Pens, it was all about the second period.

The first and third periods displayed a pretty evenly matched yet scrappy game with both teams getting a few chances at both ends. However, it would be the Bears who would take period one with Tim Kennedy and Dane Byers scoring quick back to back goals. Philip Grubauer was tested a bit and his best save came on a breakaway by Jason Megna early on.

Ending the first period, the Bears were definitely in control. And Bobby Farnum and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond tried to get Hershey off its game by chirping at Olesky and Mitchell. These tactics would set the pace for the rest for the second and third.

The Pens came out more poised in the second and got a quick goal less than minute into the period. Wilkes-Barre controlled much of the period in what became choppy play with a bunch of penalties and starts/stops. In addition, the Pens had some really good chances in close around Grubauer and he had to be tough to fight them off. There was certainly some tension with the Bears' play considering what happened in last night's game versus the Phantoms.

But the Bears grabbed the game back with about 5 minutes left in the period when Casey Wellman scored on the power play with a nice tip-in from the slot. It has been mentioned before but Hershey's power play looks really good so far this season. The tape to tape passing is excellent and they're not afraid to move the puck to different areas of the ice to open up different opportunities.

Then with a  couple minutes left in the second, Gazley scored on a penalty shot where he turned Pens' goalie Matt Murray inside out with some great stick work. At that point, Giant Center erupted and the Bears went into the third period up 4-1.

The third period was another lesson in discipline for the Bears. Not much happened in the offensive category as Hershey didn't record their first shot of the period until there was only about 3-4 minutes remaining. But the Bears limited Wilkes-Barre's chances and the Pens never really had a chance to get back into the game.

Granted, the chippy-ness all game long finally boiled over when Steve Olesky fought Dominik Uher after Olesky put a big hit on Bobby Farnum behind the Bears' net.

A great home opener to be sure. Now the Bear's will face the Phantoms again and try to get some payback for Friday night's game.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Test In Holding A One Goal Lead

During the first half of the 3rd period, I thought to myself how this was a good early season test for the Bears in holding onto a one goal lead. By the time there was 5 minutes left in the game, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms were up 4-2 and would go on to win the game.

Hershey had the better overall play throughout the game up until that last half of the third period. Continuing to use their speed, cycle game and excellent passing, there were times when the Bears overwhelmed the Phantoms and pinned them in their own end. But the Phantoms kept hanging in there and just wouldn't go away. So how did the Bears let the game slip away?

As Coach Troy Mann is quoted in Tim Leone's post game Penn Live blog post, the Bears ended up playing too much in the neutral zone and there were too many turnovers. The worst turnover came on the Phantom's third goal when Andrew Gordon stripped the puck from the Hershey defender trying to skate out of the corner. Gordon then spun around, got a quick shot off and Darroll Powe put in the rebound for his second of the game. This was about a minute after Lehigh Valley had tied it 2-2.

Physicality and fights were also prevalent. The Phantoms used their size well and doled out some big hits. The most notable was Jay Rosehill lining up Patrick Wey along the far boards near the Phantom's blue line. Wey didn't return and no penalty was called on the hit. Now, while I saw the hit coming, it was difficult to tell to what degree Wey had his head down and how much control of the puck he had. So it could have been just a bit of a late hit. Either way, it lead to a fight between Rosehill and Tim Spencer.

The third period saw a huge fight between Garrett Mitchell and defenseman Steven Delisle. I got to hand it to Mitchell. He was outmatched in overall size and took a pounding in the process, but he really hung in there against Delisle. Mitchell is listed as 5'10", 188lbs. while Delisle goes 6'6", 209lbs. But Garrett seemed to be wound up and ready to go last night as he previously got a roughing penalty (basically an instigator) in the second for going after Rosehill before Spencer got involved in that fight.

This Phantoms team played a lot better than I expected and definitely had the backing of their boisterous hometown crowd. However, this loss is a good early lesson for the young Bears. As Mann further stated post game, "you've got to buckle down and play the right way." A tough lesson to be sure, but next time they'll be ready when another game like this arises.

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.