Hershey's loss to Syracuse Tuesday night is really insignificant as far as first round opponents go. But with Norfolk's win over Wilkes Barre it really creates even more problems in determining the Bears first round opponent.
There are 4 possible matchups, Wilkes Barre, Norfolk, Lowell, or Bridgeport. With the remaining schedules I would say Norfolk has the toughest road, while the Pens probably have the easiest. Lowell and Bridgeport have tough schedules but they are manageable.
Let's take a look at the 4 possible matchups:
Currently sitting in 4th in the East with 82 points and 2 games to play. The remaining two games are in Norfolk against the Bears. While they are currently tied with Bridgeport for the final spot they have one fewer game than the Sound Tigers.
Sitting 4th in the East would usually be a good place to be but with the Atlantic having 8 teams the 5th place team from that division would make the playoffs. With 1 fewer game remaining than the other teams they will likely need to win both games to have a shot.
This season the Bears have dominated Norfolk. They are 7-1 against Norfolk and have outscored the Ads 34-20 in those 8 games with 2 games yet to play.
Offensively they have only one 20 game scorer (Brandon Bochenski would make 2 but he is in Tampa) and only 6 scorers even in double digits. Their top point producer, Ryan Craig, has a whopping 43 points. Not exactly an offensive juggernaut here.
Defensively and goaltending would appear to be somewhat weak as well. Although Jaroslav Janus does have solid numbers in net in his 13 games, 2.07 gaa and a .922 save percentage. But he is only 7-6 which means the offense just isn't producing enough.
Norfolk does not appear to be getting much help from Tampa Bay either. Bochenski would be a big addition but he does not appear on their clear day roster so I am unsure if he is even able to be sent down.
The Admirals would be a favorable matchup for the Bears in the first round but in order for that to happen Hershey likely has to lose their last 2 games to them AND get help from the Atlantic division.
Wilkes Barre/Scranton Penguins
Currently positioned as the 3 seed in the East division, but just one point ahead of Norfolk. 3 games remain for the Baby Pens, home for Albany Friday night, at Binghamton Saturday, and home for the Sens on Sunday.
Hershey and the Pens squared off 12 times this season with Hershey winning 10 of those games. Overall the Pens were outscored 48-29 in those 12 games.
While this years Pens aren't quite the offensive force of last years team they can still score goals. They have 3 20 goal scorers and 7 players with double digit goals. Dustin Jeffrey leads the team in goals and points with 23 and 70.
Neither of their goaltenders, John Curry or Brad Thiessen, have had good years. Neither is below 2.50 in goals against and Thiessen is barely above .900 in save percentage while Curry is actually below that mark.
Even if the Pittsburgh Penguins were to lose early in the playoffs there likely isn't much help coming down to Wilkes Barre. There are no players currently in Pittsburgh that appear on the Baby Pens clear day roster.
I would be surprised to see the Pens fall to 4th in the East. They would have to lose a couple games and then have to see the Bears fall twice to Norfolk. Can it happen? Sure. Will it happen? Not likely.
Bridgeport Sound Tigers
Last year the Bears and Tigers met many times while playing in the same division. This year the Tigers were moved to the Atlantic and Hershey only saw them twice. And those games weren't exactly competitive with the Bears winning both games, 9-2 and 6-3.
The Tigers currently sit in the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Tied in points with Norfolk (ahead in winning percentage) and 2 points behind Lowell for the 4th spot in the Atlantic. Hartford is 5 points back and while mathematically alive it isn't going to be a problem.
They are a deeper offensive team than Norfolk with 8 players on the active roster having double digit goals and 1 more player, Mark Flood, likely to return with 10 goals as well. Their top point producer is Greg Mauldin with 51 points. They have 4 players with more points than the leading point getter for Norfolk. But at the same time they are still tied for second fewest goals scored in the AHL this season.
There have been a few goaltenders through the roster this year for the Tigers but it will be either Scott Munroe or Nathan Lawson in the postseason and neither is overly wonderful. Both have goals against averages over 2.5.
Unlike Norfolk and Wilkes Barre though, the Sound Tigers are going to get at least 4 players back from the Islanders. 4 defensemen as well which should definitely help them out. Mark Flood, Dustin Kohn, Dylan Reese, and Andrew MacDonald are all on Bridgeport's clear day roster and all will surely be returning once the NHL regular season ends.
While the Bears dominated the 2 games against Bridgeport so far I would not be excited to see them in the first round considering the players returning from New York. Still though the Bears offensive firepower is probably too great for the goaltending it would make the situation a slight bit tenser.
Lowell is more than likely in the playoffs. They are 2 points ahead of Norfolk with a game in hand so barring a collapse in their final 3 games they will be in but it could still be as the 5th place Atlantic division team.
The Bears and Devils faced off twice this season with the Bears winning both games 5-2.
Their schedule is favorable but not easy. Starting Friday they host Lowell, then a trip to Portland on Saturday, and then they host Providence Sunday. Honestly if they win Friday they likely wrap up the 4 seed in the Atlantic division and will face the division winner in the first round.
Offensively they are the deepest of any Bears first round opponent there are 11 players with double digit goals. Their top point producer is Ben Walter with 20 goals and 53 points. He is second in goals and first in assists with 33. The problem with Lowell is the depth, with no true #1 scorer they have 10 players with at least 30 points. Compared to the Bears this is no depth at all but compared to the other potential opponents this is a higher number.
Mike McKenna is likely the #1 goaltender for the playoffs and while he hasn't been exceptional he has been steady and strong enough. He has gone 23-16-6 this season with a 2.42 goals against and a save percentage over .920.
Like Wilkes Barre, Lowell is unlikely to see help from the NHL for the playoffs. There are no players on their clear day roster currently in the NHL. In addition to that the NHL Devils aren't likely to be headed for a quick playoff exit.
Overall I would prefer to see Norfolk in the first round but unless the Bears lose their final 2 against them there is no chance of that happening. So considering that I would say Bridgeport is an okay opponent although the return of 4 defenseman is a concern.
Either way it will be interesting to see how the Bears perform in the postseason. This season has been very uneventful as far as the standings goes. Last year the division race came down to the final weekend, this year it was over in October.
Hershey has yet to face significant adversity and the playoffs always bring that. Luckily much of last season's team is still here so they should be able to pull from that experience and be ready to go.
2 meaningless games (for Hershey anyway) Friday and Saturday before the prep for Wednesday's first playoff game begins this weekend. A win Friday combined with a Wilkes Barre win and a Bridgeport win would eliminate the Pens and Admirals from first round consideration.
LET'S GO BEARS!!