Saturday, March 27, 2010

Hershey gets even and clinches Conference

Not entirely sure if it is official as technically the Sharks can still tie Hershey...if they win their remaining 9 games and the Bears lose their remaining 9...but in my opinion the Bears clinched home ice through at least the first 3 rounds of the playoffs last night.

After losing in Worcester 6-2 a couple weeks ago this matchup was highly anticipated by the Bears and their fans. For much of the season Hershey dismantled inferior East division opponents in a unusual down year for the division. So when the top two teams in the Eastern Conference met a couple weeks ago a good game was expected.

Unfortunately the Bears were at the tail end of a road 3 in 3 and were visibly tired. But still they got beat 6-2 and weren't particularly happy about it.

Fast forward to last night in the first game of a 3 in 3 the Bears managed to dominate from the opening whistle as they scored 3 times in the first 6 minutes and went on to a 7-2 win over the Sharks.

There were multiple fights and scrums throughout the game and even 2 ejections. This had all the makings of a playoff game going in but turned into a statement game after the goals were scored. The animosity is definitely there on both sides and a possible matchup in the Eastern Conference finals looms.

Neither team is looking to that just yet though. The Sharks have competition for the division right on their heels with the Portland Pirates sitting only 3 games back in the Atlantic. While Hershey is gunning for the overall #1 spot in the AHL playoffs.

Only 2 teams still have a chance to take over that spot. Chicago is mathematically still alive but like Worcester it would take winning all their games and Hershey losing all. Which just isn't going to happen. Hamilton is the more serious competition as they are only 6 points behind Hershey for the spot. However the Bears have 2 games in hand on the Bulldogs with 9 to play compared to just 7 for Hamilton.

Getting the #1 spot would be great but the last 4 (surely longer but that is the stats I can find right now) to get the #1 seed have failed to win the Calder Cup including the 06-07 Bears who finished #1 overall only to lose to Hamilton in the finals.

Home ice is definitely an advantage for the Bears this year though so you would have to think that they would be fairly confident going forward with home ice. They have gone a ridiculous 30-4-0-2 at home this season with a winning percentage of .861. The only team that comes close to that is Chicago who was 27-7-0-3 and a .770 winning percentage. No other team is above .700!

Now that the 'big' game is out of the way this weekend the Bears have to be ready for the next 2 opponents. Wilkes Barre visits tonight and Binghamton on Sunday. While neither team is the caliber of Worcester (by the numbers anyway) they are still dangerous and surely want to win.

Wilkes Barre has jumped Norfolk and taken over 3rd place in the division to secure a playoff spot, for now. But a loss to Hershey would still be damaging to their position.


Monday, March 22, 2010

Bears home winning streak ends at 24

24 straight wins at Giant Center. Amazing!

The Adirondack Phantoms ended the run last night with a 4-3 win. Hershey was up 2-1 after 2 periods but the league's #1 penalty kill wasn't able to keep up as they allowed 3 third period power play goals by the Phantoms.

It was a great streak no matter what though. The Bears hadn't lost since the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Guess who that game was against...the Phantoms.

But the Bears are still in first place in the division, the conference, and the league while the Phantoms are 13th in the Eastern Conference and likely to miss the playoffs.

The weekend had actually gone very well for the Bears up to that point though. It started with a 8-2 win over Albany at home Friday night and continued with a 6-2 win in Syracuse Saturday night. So overall the weekend was a win.

Next weekend is another 3 in 3 with 2 big games. Friday the Bears welcome the Atlantic division leading Worcester Sharks to Giant Center looking to avenge the 6-2 beating the Sharks put on the Bears in Worcester a couple Sunday's ago.

Saturday sees the flightless water fowl from Wilkes Barre make their final visit to Hershey during the regular season. The Baby Pens are currently sitting in 9th place in the conference and are going to have to battle for the last playoff spot over the next 10 games. They do have a game in hand against 8th place Bridgeport as of now.

Sunday sees another home game. This time against the Senators of Binghamton. The Sens are not technically out of the playoffs yet and will absolutely be looking for a big win Sunday. Like the Pens this will be Bingo's last visit to Hershey this season.

After this weekend the Bears will have 7 games left, 5 on the road and 2 at home. And 6 of them are against Norfolk and Syracuse with a trip to Rochester thrown in for good measure. Not exactly a gauntlet but still some tough games against division rivals.

The conference standings see Hershey leading Worcester by 18 points right now. The Sharks have 11 games to go so with a possibility of 22 points they could conceivably win the conference but it would take an epic failure by the Bears.

As for the league standings, the Bears are 8 points ahead of the Hamilton Bulldogs and both teams have 10 games remaining. This race will quite possibly come down to the final few games.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Time to catch up

Lots of news since I have last posted so let's do some bullet points:

  • Caps/Bears signed Keith Aucoin for 2 more years. This honestly surprised me as Coiner surely could have tested the free agent market and possibly gotten lots more money. But he wants to know where he is going to be and is happy in the organization. He is also going to get paid a good bit of money to play in Hershey with the added benefit of knowing the Caps like him as a player and probably will call him up at some point.
  • Bears clinch playoff berth and then division. Last night the Bears clinched the East division for the 3rd time in 4 years. They have a 21 point lead over 2nd place Albany and have a 18 point lead over 2nd place Worcester in the entire Eastern Conference. That makes the Bears magic number 8 to clinch the Conference. Any combination of points for Hershey or lost by the Sharks gives the Bears the Conference Title and home ice through the conference playoffs.
  • Bears struggle last weekend. Hershey went 1-1-0-1 last weekend with their one win coming in OT as well. Springfield (the worst team in the league) and Worcester beat the Bears in their own buildings while the Bears did manage to beat the Phantoms Friday night on the road. Last night they rebounded by beating the bottom dwelling Senators before a second straight 3 in 3 weekend.
  • Osala in Albany. At the trade deadline Hershey/Washington sent LW Oscar Osala to Albany/Carolina and at the time I expected O to get some substantial time in Carolina so they could see what they had. But so far he has played 6 for Albany and only 1 for Carolina. And he is producing for the Rats as well with 4 goals and 2 assists in those 6 games. He will be back in the building this Friday night as Hershey hosts 2nd place Albany.
  • Hershey adds depth to blue line. With John Carlson likely remaining in Washington for the remainder of the season and with multiple injuries (albeit minor) on their own blue line the Bears borrowed a PA native to fill a hole. Grant Lewis is from Upper Sainte Clair in Western PA and was loaned to Hershey from Chicago/Atlanta where he had played in 26 games but was not going to be included on the clear day roster due to a very deep defense in Chicago. Surely he will play but probably not everyday and barring injury not very much in the playoffs either.
  • Next 5 of 6 games at home. Starting tomorrow night the Bears play 5 of their next 6 at Giant Center. The one road trip is Saturday night when they head to Syracuse. It is mainly division rivals with a rematch against Worcester thrown in next Friday night in what could be a Eastern Conference Finals preview.
  • Another signing. Almost forgot this one but it could be huge going into the next 2 seasons. The Caps/Bears signed RW Dmitri Kugryshev (and yes I spelled that correctly without looking it up) to a 2 or 3 year deal (I think 3 but I can't remember). The Russian wing has played the past 2 years for the Quebec Ramparts of the QMJHL where he had 74 points (34 goals) in 57 games and currently has 87 points (29 goals) in 60 games this season. Once his junior season is over he can come to Hershey.
  • Who will Hershey face in the playoffs? Wilkes Barre (4th in East) and Bridgeport (5th in Atlantic) are tied currently for the playoff spot with 73 points and an identical winning percentage. My guess is the next tiebreaker is overall wins which puts the Baby Pens in the playoffs. This is the most important race for Hershey to watch so we will update here regularly.
More to come. Only 13 games left in the regular season. Playoffs are coming soon.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Bears welcome weakened Baby Pens

Hershey opens up a two game home weekend tonight with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins at Giant Center. This will be the first game for Hershey without Oskar Osala after the winger was traded to Carolina/Albany at the trade deadline.

The Pens however lost their leading goal scorer at the deadline. Luca Caputi, who was leading the team with 23 goals and second in points with 47, was traded to Toronto.

That doesn't mean the Pens still aren't a formidable opponent, just one that is a little weaker this weekend. They still have 7 other players with 10+ goals so scoring shouldn't be an issue for the Pens.

This will be the teams second to last meeting of the season as they will play in Hershey 3 Saturday's from now. Meeting number 11 of the season comes tonight with Hershey owning a commanding 8-2 record against the Pens so far this season.

While the Bears are all but in the playoffs (4 points from clinching) the Pens are still in a dog fight for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Because of the unbalanced divisions IF the 5th place team in the Atlantic division has more points than the 4th place team in the East division they would get the spot and (more than likely) play Hershey in the first round.

So the Pens, who are currently in 4th in the East, are fighting with Adirondack and Syracuse in the division AS WELL AS Providence, Hartford, and Bridgeport in the Atlantic. Currently the Pens are in as they have a better winning percentage than the other teams.

But they have their work cut out for them. Luckily for them they are almost done with the Bears and they have 4 games left against the bottom dwelling Binghamton Senators and Springfield Falcons. Unlucky for them they have many of their games remaining against the teams ahead of them in the East division and the teams just better than them in the Atlantic.

It won't be an easy road for the Pens especially after losing their leading scorer.

For the Bears they can actually clinch a playoff berth this weekend. A full month plus before the end of the season and the Bears can clinch a playoff spot. But complacency is a risk if that were to happen. Last season the Bears were in a fight for the division until the last weekend which might have prepped them better for the postseason which resulted in the amazing Calder Cup run.

This year a clinch this early could present some problems, especially since clinching the division won't be far behind the playoff spot. Coach French is going to have to keep the team focused so that they do not become complacent and struggle going into the playoffs.

The veteran leadership on this team should help tremendously but you have to wonder how many of them have even been in this kind of position. It is unique position the team finds itself in and the biggest challenges are surely yet to come.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Trade Deadline Thoughts

So the NHL trade deadline passed earlier this afternoon and the Capitals were one of the more active teams in the league. But while active it was still quiet as no big name players were on the move.

What did the Caps do?
  • Received RW Scott Walker from Carolina for a 2010 7th round pick.
  • Received C Eric Belanger from Minnesota for a 2010 2nd round pick.
  • Received D Milan Jurcina from Columbus for a 2010 6th round pick.
  • Received D Joe Corvo from Carolina for a 2011 2nd round pick, D Brian Pothier, and LW Oskar Osala.
I am not sure the years of all those picks is correct as I think a couple are conditional and depend on different outcomes.

Either way the Caps gave up 4 picks, Oskar, and Pothier for 4 players. Not too bad honestly.

Personally I think they did the best they could but I don't think they upgraded all that much. Walker and Belanger will surely help the penalty kill and defensive end play but they are limited in what they can achieve.

Jurcina was already traded from Washington this year and I think it speaks volumes on the quality of player available at the deadline that they brought him back. Sure he is solid but lets face it he is at best a 5/6 defenseman on a team with plenty of those types.

Corvo is solid but is he a top 4 defenseman like they needed? I don't know about that. I would say he could be a top 4 guy but barely. And is he really better than Alzner or Carlson...not sure. I think they now have 8 defenseman with only 1 that could truly be considered a top 2 guy (Mike Green) and 7 that are more 4-6 guys.

Now I say that but considering what was available I don't think they did badly.

I was emailed for my opinion earlier about how this will effect the Bears going forward and I think it is going to be more than some people think.

Immediately it will help the Bears.

1. The Caps now have 15 forwards so Quintin Laing could be headed back to Hershey for the stretch run and playoffs. Not to bad.
2. With 8 defensemen on the roster I don't think Alzner or Carlson will be headed to Washington for any considerable amount of time barring injury.

But in the future I think it will hurt the Bears. While 2nd round picks are rarely consistent NHL stars they are regularly AHL guys (Bourque and Bouchard were both 2nd rounders) who could bring a couple years worth of value to Hershey. And 6th/7th round guys are many times AHL lifers who contribute immensely. (Kyle Wilson was round 9, Perreault - round 6, Gordon - round 7, Giroux - round 7)

All those picks WILL be missed. Maybe not in the next 2-4 years but eventually the cupboards will thin out. One year is okay but the Caps can't turn around next year and do something similar.

Overall I would say the Caps did okay at the deadline. Nothing that stands out but I think what they did will help come playoff time.

How much it will effect Hershey is yet to be determined and won't be for years to come but I do think at some point there will be one.

All in all it could have been worse for Hershey. The roster remains relatively unchanged and might actually get better in the coming weeks.