Saturday, October 22, 2011

GameDay Preview: Bears vs Pens

Last night in Albany the Bears came away with a 4-1 victory over a team they have dominated for the past year or so.  Braden Holtby made 18 saves while the Bears managed 23 shots and got goals from Cody Eakin (3rd), Matt Ford (3), Christian Hanson (2), and Boyd Kane (1). 

That's a win when you are expected to win. Exactly what good teams are supposed to the games you are supposed to win.

Now the Bears return home to face a team that dominated them for the past year or so, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. 

These teams have already met once this year when Hershey won 3-2 two weeks ago up in Wilkes-Barre Township.  This is the second of 12 meetings this season. 

Like the Bears, and most AHL teams, this Baby Pens team will look a little different than they did last year.  Last season they finished as the #1 seed in the AHL and were considered a top contender for the Calder Cup.  As we all know, they came up short losing to Charlotte in the East Division Finals (2nd round), but they had a good campaign leading up to that.

But some things changed up in Northeast PA.

Gone are leading scorer Brett Sterling and 20 goal scorers Tim Wallace and Nick Johnson.  Dustin Jeffrey and his 17 goals also left Wilkes-Barre, but he didn't go far and could return depending on Pittsburgh's health (he has only dressed for 1 NHL game this season). 

Otherwise many of the top names return.  Ryan Craig, Keven Veilleux, Eric Tangradi, Bryan Lerg, Geoff Walker, Zach Sill, and Ben Street were all double digit goal scorers for the Baby Pens last year and all are back with the team this season.  Veilleux hasn't played yet this season due to injury though.

The offense also gets some help in the form of Colin McDonald, rookie Brian Gibbons, and NHL veterans Jason Williams and Niko Dimitrakos.  McDonald scored 42 goals last season playing alongside Alexandre Giroux in Oklahoma City.  Jason Williams played in his first game of the season last night while the other 3 have combined for 4 goals and 6 assists in 6 games.

The defense will look similar as well.  Gone are Andrew Hutchinson, Robert Bortuzzo, and Corey Potter.  Bortuzzo, like Jeffrey, is up in Pittsburgh, but he hasn't seen any game action to date so he could return in the future.

Joining the club on the blueline are NHLer Alexandre Picard (played for Montreal last season) and rookies Philip Samuelsson and Simon Despres.  Picard hadn't played in the AHL since 2007-08 before this season started.

They lost some veteran players on the blueline, but kept a talented bunch in place.  The likely won't allow a ton of easy goals this season.
The strength of the 2010-11 Baby Pens team was the goaltending. John Curry and Brad Thiessen both had great seasons for the Baby Pens.  Thiessen was particularly stellar posting a record of 35-8-1 with a goals against average below 2 (1.94) and a save percentage of .922. 

Curry moved on but Thiessen returns.  So far he isn't having as much success this season as he has a save percentage under .900 and a gaa over 2.50.  But he is always a threat to steal a game away.  He will be joined this season by AHL veteran Scott Munroe who spent last season in the KHL.

In many of the previews I have read it mentions the Baby Pens as one of the teams moving downward in the division.  Much of that talk has to do with teams in Norfolk and Syracuse getting that much better, but until I see it I have a hard time believing it.  This is a very talented team that could easily make a run for another division crown.

The Pens will still be in every game they play and once the big Penguins get healthy the Baby Pens could see a return of some very talented players.  Considering all the callups they had last year that team could have been even better.  I remember the game they destroyed Hershey (7-1 I believe), the top 7 scorers on their team were ALL recalled to Pittsburgh. 

Tangradi only played 42 games for Wilkes-Barre while Jeffrey (40), Johnson (48), and Street (36) didn't play full seasons in the AHL either.  The Pittsburgh Penguins were decimated by injuries last year...making what the Baby Pens did (with a recall depleted lineup many nights) even more impressive.

So far the Pens have recorded 6 points in 6 games.  They are 2-2-1-1 (they didn't lose in OT, the third # in that record, a single time last year) and have scored 18 while giving up 17. 

Tonight they visit Giant Center for the first time in 2011-12.  Fresh off a road win in Springfield.  They have been better on the road than at home in the early going.  2 road games, 2 road wins, outscoring their opponents 8-1 in those games. 

Should be a good one tonight at the GC.

Hershey Bears
record ~ 4-0-1-0 | 9 points
standings ~ 1st in East Division
most recent game ~ 4-1 Win @ Albany, 10/21
last 5 games ~ 4-0-1-0
home record ~ 0-0-1-0
goals for ~ 22
goals against ~ 16
power play ~ 30.8% (3rd)
road penalty kill ~ 87.0% (8th)

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins
record ~ 2-2-1-1 | 6 points
standings ~ 4th in East Division
most recent game ~ 3-0 Win @ Springfield, 10/21
last 5 games ~ 2-1-1-1
road record ~ 2-0-0-0
goals for ~18
goals against ~17
road power play ~13.8% (23rd)
home penalty kill ~ 85.2% (10th)

last time teams met - The Bears won 3-2 in Wilkes-Barre on October 8th.  It was Wilkes-Barre's first game of the season and home opener.

Players to watch:

C Cody Eakin (14) - took pretty well to the line shuffle as he had a goal (on the power play) and an assist last night in Albany.
RW Matthew Ford (23) - also scored (and assisted) last night and is tied for 2nd on the team with 3 goals already this year.
C Keith Aucoin (11) - always the engine that makes this team go he had an assist last night giving up 7 on the young season to go with 2 goals.
F Bryan Lerg (19) - leading the Pens in goals and points in the early going with 5 and 8 as he picked up a goal and an assist last night. 
F Eric Tangradi (25) - second on the team in goals (3) and leading the team in assists (4), he picked up goal #3 last night.
RW Geoff Walker (17) - tied with Tangradi for 2nd with 3 goals, he also scored in the win last night.

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