I have been telling anyone who would listen for the last year that this is the deepest team in the AHL and not many teams can compete. And that is still true. Manchester is a good and relatively deep team BUT they don't have the quality of players Hershey has on its 3rd/4th line.
Hershey's 3rd/4th lines consist of players like Jay Beagle, Andrew Joudrey, Ashton Rome, Steve Pinizzotto, and Boyd Kane. Even Kyle Wilson and Francois Bouchard spend time on the 3rd/4th lines on this team. Most, if not all, of those guys would be at least 2nd line players for other teams in the AHL.
Hershey's depth will prove to be an advantage again in the third periods and late next week when the teams get to games 5-7. Game 5 is next Thursday which will make it a 5 games in 9 days for the two teams with 6 and 7 coming back to back next weekend (if necessary). Overall these teams could play 7 games in 12 days.
And Hershey's depth gives them a distinct advantage.
Aucoin, Giroux, Gordon
Is there a more dominant line in the AHL? I don't think so. Not even the MAG line last season was as good as these guys are.
During the playoffs they have combined for 20 goals and 24 assists in 9 GAMES!! Giroux has 10 while Gordon has 9 in the goals department and Coiner has 12 assists by himself. All of these guys are producing better than a point per game with Giroux at almost 2 points per game.
And they are not even the top 3 scorers on the team! Chris Bourque actually has more points than Aucoin.
This line has to figure out a way to beat Bernier for the Bears to win. I think they will.
A Complete and Healthy Defense
For part of the Albany series Hershey was without Patty McNeill, Greg Amadio, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson. Add to that Grant Lewis' injury and Sean Collins being out sick and you see that for the first couple of rounds Hershey has had an issue on the blue line.
Nothing against Dylan Yeo or Johann Kroll but there is a reason they spent most of the 09-10 season in South Carolina. They played well for the games they were in but if Hershey is going to win the Calder Cup they need their defense to be better.
Getting Carlson back is absolutely huge. In my opinion he is one of the best defenseman in the AHL currently. And Karl Alzner isn't far behind him. Neither player will spend much time in Hershey next season and both are critical pieces to the Bears Calder Cup aspirations.
Add to Carlson and Alzner a soon to be healthy McNeill and Amadio and the defense looks much better.
Entering the playoffs Michal Neuvirth had missed substantial time with injuries. And then hurt himself again against Albany. So having 13 days off will definitely help last seasons playoff MVP.
And honestly Hershey needs him because Braden Holtby has been below average in the playoffs so far. Holtby can not be relied on this year so it is Nuevy's job so long as he stays healthy.
So far Neuvy has been average in the playoffs with the exception of record where he is 6-0. But he is giving up 2.42 goals a game and is only stopping 89% of the shots he faces. He needs to be better.
This team has been here before. It's honestly as simple as that. Last year Hershey won the Calder Cup and there surely were challenges along the way including a 7 game series against the Wilkes Barre/Scranton Penguins.
The Monarchs didn't even make the playoffs.
Sure, Manchester has now played (and won) 2 playoff series but the Eastern Conference finals are different. Now you are playing a team that you probably don't know very well (these teams played twice and not since early November) and can only go off of scouting and video.
But Hershey has the advantage of doing this 4 of the past 5 years. They know what they need to do to prepare for a team in the Atlantic division. They understand that it will be different than it was in the first 2 rounds.
They have been here before.
And now for 2 reasons why the Bears could have some trouble...
Okay so maybe I am beating a dead horse here as I keep mentioning the Monarchs young goaltender. But when you put up great numbers in 3 NHL games (3-0, under 2 gaa), a great regular season, and then you put up unconscious numbers in the playoffs you deserve all this respect.
A hot goaltender can do amazing things for a team. Think about it...Cassivi, Price, Neuvirth...they were all playing very well and carrying their teams during their runs. You have to have a goalie who can step up and win you some games.
The question for Bernier is, can he keep up the pace? He has given up 15 goals in 10 games! At some point the ice has to begin to tilt in the other direction. Can he hold up against the Bears attack? Can he win when the pressure is on in an elimination game?
The Monarchs can't answer those questions yet but they will likely need him to do that.
With the 2-3-2 format, the first 2 games become even more important. And with Hershey's long layoff these games could be much closer than they would like. If Hershey were to lose game 1 they would be in almost a must win situation for game 2 which all of a sudden puts all of the pressure on a team that has played one game in 17 days.
Tonight's game is potentially (minus a game 7 anyway) the most important of the series. If Hershey wins they overcome what might be their biggest disadvantage early in the series, rust. Then the pressure is on Manchester because they don't want to go down 2-0 even with 3 straight at home.
If Manchester wins then Hershey will have 4 straight high pressure games before returning to Hershey for games 6-7. They would all but have to win game 2 and then still win at least 1 in Manchester.
In my opinion this schedule absolutely favors the Manchester considering the long layoff and then 3 straight in New Hampshire. BUT they still have to win 4 games before Hershey does which is not going to be easy.
There you go. Hershey is the more talented team in this series. They are favored to win. On paper they should absolutely win.
But you still have to play the games. And a hot goaltender can absolutely level the playing field immediately...just ask the Capitals.
LET'S GO BEARS!!!!