Thursday, October 6, 2011

2011-12 Bears Preview: East Division

For a long time I said that one way to boost interest in the NHL was to go to a division based schedule and playoff format much like the AHL has done recently.  Playing the same teams in the playoffs year after year helps to build animosity and rivalries which fuel hockey. 

So it is kind of funny that with the NHL finally considering this approach (realignment is coming after the current season) the AHL has switched to the current NHL model of 6 divisions with 5 teams in each. 

Yes the new format allows for more "fairness" as the best teams from each conference will get in and it won't be so weighted to a teams divisional strength. 

But you could lose some of the animosity that highlights the local rivalries.  Due to the shear number of games you still play against your divisional opponents this should be avoided for the most part but rivalries are built in the playoffs.  Would we care about the Baby Pens games as much if the two teams never faced off in the playoffs?  No.  It would be more like the Bears/Admirals rivalry...sometimes intense but in the end just another game.

Even the Bears/Phantoms rivalry has subsided in recent years due to the teams rarely facing off in the playoffs. 

Obviously that kind of situation can occur even with 8 team divisions due to teams struggling to compete (as the Phantoms have of late), but going to the conference format instead of the divisional format will help to diminish some rivalries.

There is a legitimate possibility that the Bears and Baby Pens will go multiple seasons without playing in the playoffs.  Hershey could play series against the hated Whale or the rival Monarchs. 

Doesn't have quite the same intensity, does it?

In the same breath however you can always say this...the Bears could face the Baby Pens in the Eastern Conference finals now with a trip to the Calder Cup finals on the line.  Previously they could only meet in the Division Finals. 

So that would make up for it a little bit. 

Anyways, I understand the move I just think it is funny that the NHL is going to the AHL set up while the AHL is adapting the NHL set up. 

Ok, now that I got that off my chest, let's take a brief look at the teams Hershey will see the most this season...their East Division Rivals.

Syracuse Crunch - 6 games

The Bears will play the Crunch only 6 times which is the fewest of any team in the division.  Last year the Crunch finished the season 6th in the East Division with a record of 35-38-3-4 (77 points) and missed the playoffs for the 3rd straight season. 

Home games are played at the War Memorial at Oncenter in downtown Syracuse, which seats a little over 6,000 fans.

The Bears and Crunch played 6 times last season and were very even in those games.  Each team won 3 games (road team won every single game) and each team scored 17 goals in the season series.  The interesting part is that the games weren't that close.  Syracuse outscored Hershey 13-5 in their wins while the Bears outscored them 12-4 in theirs.  There was a single one goal game which Hershey won and the rest were all 2 or more.

The Crunch are affiliated with the Anaheim Ducks which is the new home of Andrew Gordon.  Good news for Gordo...he made the Ducks out of camp and is expected to play on their 3rd line. 

Last season the Crunch had 8 players with double digit goals during the regular season.  Of those players 5 or 6 are anticipated to see time in Syracuse, including Patrick Maroon and Kyle Palmieri who combined for 50 goals while they both played for the Crunch last season (Maroon started the season in Adirondack).

Binghamton Senators - 8 games

The Binghamton Senators finished last season 5th in the East Division with a 42-30-3-5 record and 91 points.  While they didn't make the East Division playoffs they did finish with more points than the 3rd place team in the Atlantic and crossed over to play in the Atlantic Division playoffs as the #3 seed.

Eventually they made it all the way through and won the Calder Cup over the Houston Aeros.  They had missed the playoffs the previous 5 seasons. 

They play their home games at Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena in downtown Binghamton which seats a little over 4,000 fans for hockey games.

Last season the Bears and B-Sens played 8 times with Hershey winning the season series 5-3-0-0.  Hershey went 3-1-0-0 on home ice and the teams split 2-2-0-0 when playing in Binghamton.  Hershey outscored the Sens 34-18 on the season and of the 3 one goal games Hershey went 2-1-0-0.

The Senators are affiliated with (surprise) the Ottawa Senators and is the previous home to current Bear Ryan Potulny.  The B-Sens had 10 players that scored 10+ goals while playing for the team last season (Potulny only scored 3 during the regular season for the Sens).  Leading point producers Corey Locke (86 points in 69 games) and Jim O'Brien (24 goals and 56 points) are both expected back in the AHL this season. 

Norfolk Admirals - 10 games

The Admirals finished 4th in the East Division last season and made the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07.  They compiled a record of 39-26-9-6 (93 points) during the regular season last year.  They proceeded to win the first 2 games against the East Division Champion Baby Pens but dropped the next 4 to end their season.

They play their home games at Norfolk Scope which seats a little about 8,700 fans for hockey games.

Like the Sens, the Admirals played 8 games against the Bears last season.  And similarly, they lost the season series...although it wasn't as close.  Hershey won the season series 6-1-0-1.  Surprisingly though the games were closer or at least the goals scored were.  Hershey outscored the Admirals 24-20 overall but the games in Norfolk were split 14-14 despite Hershey winning 3 of the 4.  Like Bingo, 3 of the games were one goal games with Hershey winning 2 of them.

The Ads are affiliated with the Tampa Bay Lightning.  10 different players scored double digit goals last season for the Ads.  Of those 10 it appears that only 3 will be Admirals for 2011-12.  James Wright, Matt Fornataro, and Mike Angelidis will be in the lineup.  Also joining the Ads this season is Dana Tyrell, who spent the entire 2010-11 campaign with the Lightning (scored 6 goals and added 9 assists) and 2009 1st round pick Carter Ashton, who begins his first pro season this weekend.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins - 12 teams

The Baby Pens finished #1 in the AHL during the regular season last year only to lose to the Charlotte Checkers in the East Division finals.  The Bears and Pens will play a ridiculous 12 games against each other this season. 

Last year the Pens finished with 117 points after a 58-21-0-1 regular season.  The made the playoffs for the 9th consecutive year.  During that span they have made 2 Calder Cup finals (winning neither) and have only been eliminated in the 1st round one time.

The Bears and Pens played 10 times last year and most Bears fans would just as soon forget them all.  Hershey finished the season 2-6-1-1 against the Baby Penguins including a record of 0-4-1-0 in Hershey.  Overall the Pens outscored the Bears 36-19 including 21-10 at Giant Center.  The only saving grace is that 6 of the games were decided by one goal and Hershey managed to go 2-2-1-1 in those games.

The Baby Pens are affiliated with the Pittsburgh Penguins (I am sure you didn't know that) and are again prepared to make a run at the Calder Cup.  Last season the Baby Pens had 12 different players score 10+ goals and 7 of those players return.  However, only 2 of the top 5 point producers from last season are still in the organization and only 1 of those (Ryan Craig) is expected to start the season in Wilkes-Barre. 

They did add some other scorers though including Alexandre Giroux's former teammate Colin McDonald who scored 42 last season for the Oklahoma City Barons. And just today the Penguins signed Niko Dimitrakos to a professional tryout. Dimitrakos has spent the last 2 seasons playing in Europe where he has scored 34 goals over those seasons. In his most recent AHL seasons (06-07 and 07-08) he totaled 39 goals and 43 assists.

So there you have it. The divisional race will be a little less interesting this season as the top 8 teams from the overall conference will make the playoffs. The 3 division winners are locked in and then it is the next best 5 based on points and a series of complicating tiebreakers.

Hershey plays a combined 36 of their 76 games against their divisional opponents so we will get to know these teams more. In fact the first 3 games of the season (all on the road) are against Binghamton, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and Norfolk. And the fist game against Syracuse is later this month.

The season is almost here...

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