Saturday, April 28, 2012

Bears win...force Game 5 tonight

I had this whole post written up about last nights game...but then I's over.  It doesn't matter anymore.  One game is left to decide who moves on and who waits until next season.

I know this is NHL footage...but the idea is still the same:

And then there is this one...remember, the Bears are the underdogs tonight...but that doesn't mean anything until the game is done:

And finally...something more from OUR Hershey Bears...a couple of years ago the Bears backs were against the wall in the Calder Cup Finals. Down 2 games to none, headed for Texas. After a couple of victories in games 3 and 4 the Bears needed one more to avoid having to win two at home:

If you are going up to the game loud. Many of us will be listening or watching on AHLLive and we want to hear Bears nation.


Thursday, April 26, 2012

Bears win in OT...Game 4 on Friday

The Bears live to play another day.  Ryan Potulny's goal, 2:57 into overtime, finished off an up and down game for the Bears as they won for the first time March 28.

Hershey skated to a 2-0 lead after the first period on goals by DJ King and Cameron Schilling.  But Wilkes-Barre would get one back in the 2nd and the tying goal about 6 minutes into the 3rd period to make it a 2-2 game. 

The teams traded goals over the final 7 minutes of the 3rd period to force overtime where the Bears actually outshot the Pens 4-0 and picked up the win.

Yes it was a win.  Yes I am excited for game 4 on Friday night. 

But if the Bears intend to make this a real series and go back to Wilkes-Barre on Saturday, this needs to be the first step in the process.

Wilkes-Barre dominated the first few minutes of the game and it was beginning to look a lot like games 1 and 2 sounded.  Hershey couldn't get the puck out of their zone and had to block multiple shots and get saves from Dany Sabourin to stay even on the scoreboard.

The difference between the first 2 games of the series and last night?  Hershey scored first.  You could see the confidence grow when they got that goal and took their first lead of the series.  They started making crisper passes and seemed calmer with the puck. 

Unfortunately the Bears needed to readjust each period.  At the start of the 2nd and 3rd periods it was very similar.  Wilkes-Barre controlled the puck and Hershey couldn't get it out.  Poor clear attempts and hasty moves with the puck led to countless turnovers in their own end. 

In the 3rd period it cost them as Wilkes-Barre only left the offensive zone a couple of times in the first 6 minutes and picked up the tying goal at the end of that. 
But the Bears used the confidence they showed after scoring their first goal after each Wilkes-Barre tally and didn't let the game get away from them. 

It was an impressive performance considering the outcome of games 1 and 2. 

There is still work to be done though.

Today at practice I would have Mike Carman, Ryan Potulny, Andrew Carroll, and Cody Eakin working on faceoffs against each other for the entire practice. 

That was some of the worst faceoff performance I can remember seeing.  The AHL does not track faceoff stats so there is no telling how bad it really was but I would say Hershey won no more than 25% of the draws and that might be a high estimate.

Hershey overcame the problem last night thanks to a ton of blocked shots and Dany making some key saves...but if they continue to perform that poorly then they will struggle to compete in the coming game(s).

The other thing I was seeing involved the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton team speed.  After games 1 and 2 and even during the game last night I heard how much fast the Pens are then the Bears. 

I didn't see it.  Speed in sports is many times overrated. 

The reason the Pens appear faster than Hershey is because they are playing better positionally and executing their schemes better than the Bears are.  If you are lining up and rotating properly every time then you are going to look so much faster than the other team because you are always where the loose pucks are. 

And that's what happened for long stretches last night.  Wilkes-Barre would get the pucks in the zone and then move it with precision and confidence and would keep the puck in the zone for minutes at a time. 

Very rarely did you see the Pens make poor clearing passes or not have someone in the spot where a teammate expected them to be. 

Hershey?  How many times did you see clearing attempts blocked along the Bears or passes that were thrown to empty space as someone was out of position? 

I saw it quite a bit.  Wilkes-Barre's precision made the Bears look extremely disorganized.  Maybe the Bears weren't as disorganized as they looked at times...maybe the Pens were just that efficient.  But any way you look at, the Bears need to improve before tomorrow night.

Overall it was a good win.  An important win (obviously). 

But there is still improvements to be made and work to be done.  Wilkes-Barre's goaltending is not going to win them this or any series.  Hershey can (and did last night) take advantage of that...scoring 4 goals on only 22 shots. 

The Bears CAN win this series.  They just need to slow the game down (mentally) and improve their execution. 

Game 3 was a good first step.  Game 4 needs to go a step further.


Monday, April 23, 2012

Bears head to game 3 with no room for error

I am not sure what to say about the series so far.  Friday morning I was relatively confident that the Bears could win the series.  They were healthier and getting help from Washington leading into game 1.

Then Wilkes-Barre came out and dominated the first period and the Bears found themselves trying to come from behind.

Saturday morning I was still confident that Hershey could earn a split in Wilkes-Barre (which is all I expected from the start), but definitely less confident than I was on Friday.

And then I turned the game on and listened as the game went to 3-0 about 12 minutes into the first period.  I turned off the internet broadcast at that point so I didn't hear the 4th goal...or the 5th, 6th, or 7th either. 

So far the Bears have scored 3 goals to the Pens 10.  Call me crazy, but I don't think the Bears will get it done with numbers like that.

This morning, I am even less confident in the Bears ability to win this series as I was Saturday morning.  I would imagine there are many of you that feel the same way.

And I am not going to lie to you...there aren't many positives to take away from the two games in Wilkes-Barre. 

Special teams...the Bears are 0-7 on the power play while the Pens are 4-11.  That's a 36.4% conversion rate for anyone keeping track at home.

Shots...Hershey has managed 36  The Pens have a much more normal 56 in two games.

Goals...we already talked about that.

Honestly, there are only 2 positives or maybe more accurately, 2 possible bright spots for the Bears as they head into game 3.

One...things can't get any worse.  Hershey has sustained little offense and hasn't been able to slow down the Pens at all. 

Two...the Caps are headed to a game 7.  Should they lose on Wednesday and the Bears win then Hershey would likely see reinforcements for game 4 on Friday.

But the Bears have to win game 3 first.  And they aren't alone.  6 of the AHL's first round series have started off 2-0.  Two of those series have played their 3rd game with Connecticut winning and sweeping Bridgeport out of the playoffs and Houston pulling out a game 3 win to make their series 2-1 with two to play.

Maybe we shouldn't be surprised.  Cody Eakin and Jacob Micflikier hadn't played in weeks and Dany Sabourin hadn't played in a while either.  Consider too that numerous Bears, including Chris Bourque and Ryan Potulny, had at least taken a maintenance day within the week to rest. 

Some Bears were rusty while others were banged up.  Had this been during the regular season we likely would have written it off as a couple games to get their legs back. 

Maybe when the Bears come out on Wednesday they will be healthier and more ready to play.  The players that haven't played have no gotten two games under their belt and will likely have a few more practices coming up.  For those Bears who have been banged up, they now have a few days to rest up before the next game.

Can the Bears do it?  Can they come out on Wednesday with a renewed energy and focus?  Can they extend the series and put some doubt in the minds of Pens players?

I think they can.  One game at a time.  Win on Wednesday.  That's it...nothing else to consider.

Come on out on Wednesday and cheer on the Bears.  There will surely be plenty of Pens fans in attendance so let's make sure they are seen and not heard. 


Saturday, April 21, 2012

Bears drop game 1

3 shots in the first period.  That's what the Bears managed last night in Wilkes-Barre. 

Down 2-0 entering the third and the Bears managed.....5 more.

Combining the second period you get a 20 shot total for the Bears.  

You aren't going to win many games with those kinds of shot totals.  The fact that the Penguins didn't allow many shots probably shouldn't come as a huge surprise...they finished #1 in the AHL in shots allowed per game.

But this is the playoffs.  Shots are going to be hard to come by and you have to make the most of them.  The Bears didn't do that last night as they went 0-3 on the powerplay and based on Scott Stuccio's call I never got the feeling that the Bears were even threatening the Pens in the offensive end.

It was the type of performance you would expect from a team riding an 8-game losing streak...not from one that hopes to play late into Spring.

The return to the lineup of Cody Eakin and Jacob Micflikier has given every Bears fan hope that they can win some games and move onto the next round.  It didn't happen last night, but maybe that was to be expected as guys were out of the lineup for a little while and it takes a little time to re-adjust.  Tim Leone said that after the first 30 minutes the Bears played maybe that is a good omen.

And they are saying the right things...
“We can’t sit back and wait for them to kind of dictate how the play is going to go,” Bears defenseman Sean Collins said. “We have to be the ones dictating the play. Once we started playing the right way and doing the right things, keeping things simple, getting pucks deep, then we started putting some pressure on them.”
Hopefully game 2 is different.  Game 2 NEEDS to be different.

First things first...the Bears need to get more than 20 shots on goal.  They finished the regular season averaging a little over 30 per game.  And they were #2 in the AHL in shooting percentage at 10.3%.  So if they get 30 shots a game...they should get 3 goals.

That would have been good enough to more than likely force overtime and then who knows.

But the shots total are only the first stat that Hershey needs to change.

The Bears and Baby Pens have played 5 times previously in the Calder Cup playoffs....the winner of game 1 has won each of those.

It's time for the Bears to keep that streak at 5.


Thursday, April 19, 2012

Bears vs Penguins...first one to 3 wins series


Typically in sports, questions about teams are answered during the regular season.  Unfortunately, in minor league sports, things don't always work out the way they are expected to.  With recalls, loans, and trades, sometimes teams never get 'answers'. 
At the beginning of the season the Bears looked like a legitimate Calder Cup contender.  They had 2 goalies who would start for most teams, a defense that, while not exceptional, was definitely strong enough, and an offense that most considered the best in the league. 

Now, the Bears have two goalies that have combined for 7 starts in the AHL this season.  Those 7 starts have resulted in 7 losses by the way. 

The offense has been decimated by recalls and injuries the past month or so.  Keith Aucoin and Cody Eakin remain on recall to Washington and it is unlikely that either will be back until at least game 3 next Wednesday night...if then.  Young Eakin hasn't been in the Caps lineup so far this postseason so the option is there to send him back to Hershey for the playoffs.  However, I think that is unlikely. 

In addition to those two, Jacob Micflikier hasn't played since March 9 and Boyd Kane, DJ King, and Graham Mink have missed games the past few weeks with injuries.  Ryan Potulny has also been banged up in some games and hasn't been practicing 100% of the time either.  And Christian Hanson was injured in a game on February 18 and I don't believe he has done anything since then.

The Bears roster of late has looked more like a college team than an AHL team as a number of players were signed to amateur tryout agreements and were given a rare opportunity at playing time with meaningful games left to play.  Some of the guys have looked good...others have struggled. 

The good news is that the players in Hershey seem to be getting healthy and fewer of the college guys are expected to play meaningful minutes in the postseason.  Micflikier has practiced recently and King, Mink, and Kane all played in games this past weekend.  Hanson is another story, but apparently a return has not been ruled out.  As of Tuesday, he is officially out for games 1 and 2...anything after that is a guess I would imagine.
So the question is...are the Bears good enough to challenge for their 12th Calder Cup this spring? 
As it stands  The roster as of right now is definitely not good enough.
How about when all the players in Hershey are healthy and a goalie returns from Washington?
I think the Bears can give the Baby Pens a run with the roster they have now.  As long as they get healthy and a goalie returns.
But you can't convince me that they will get through round 2 without reinforcements from Washington.
That isn't happening until game 3 at best.  So let's not get ahead of ourselves.  The immediate concern is the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.  The first round, best of 5 (still think that is stupid) series begins this Friday.  In case you haven't seen it, here is the schedule:
  • Game 1 - Friday, April 20 - 7:05 - in Wilkes-Barre
  • Game 2 - Saturday, April 21 - 7:05 - in Wilkes-Barre
  • Game 3 - Wednesday, April 25 - 7:00 - in Hershey
  • Game 4 - Friday, April 27 - 7:00 - in Hershey (if necessary)
  • Game 5 - Saturday, April 28 - 7:05 - in Wilkes-Barre (if necessary)
The Bears and Pens played 12 times during the regular season.  Wilkes-Barre won 7, the Bears 5.  Some of those were overtime or shootout, but honestly...who cares.  A loss is a loss.
It was a pretty even series too.  4 of the games went to extra time and 9 of the games were decided by 2 goals or less, with 6 being decided by 1 goal.
Both teams scored 38 goals, 3.2 per game.  Scoring was higher in Hershey than in Wilkes-Barre but again scoring was even...the Pens scored 22 to Hershey's 21 while at Giant Center, but the Bears scored 17 to the Pens 16 in Wilkes-Barre.
So now the differences:
Hershey was the stronger team in the first period...outscoring the Pens by 5 overall (2 in Hershey, 3 in WB).  But the Penguins were the stronger team in the second period...outscoring the Bears by 4 (all in Hershey).  The third period was pretty even with 14 Bears goals to 15 Wilkes-Barre goals....both teams were better on their home ice in the third period.
And special teams was definitely different.  Hershey converted on 31% of their power plays on home ice but only 17.1% on the road.  Wilkes-Barre only went 11.1% at Giant Center and a slightly better 17.6% on home ice.
That's the season series in a nutshell.  It was closer than it felt because of Wilkes-Barre's domination the past couple of seasons.  Up until February 5 the Bears hadn't beaten the Pens in Hershey in multiple seasons.  Then they won the last 2 home games against the Pens including a 5-1 beating on February 12 (after Aucoin's recall). 
Let's dig a little deeper and figure out which team has the upper hand going into the series:


Wilkes-Barre has their top 2 goalies ready to go.  Scott Munroe went 19-10-3 on the season with a 2.52 goals against average and a save percentage of .907.  Brad Thiessen went 23-15-2 with a 2.82 gaa and .887 save percentage. 
Thiessen played in 9 of the 12 games against Hershey this season going 5-3-1 with a 2.86 gaa and .884 save percentage.  Pretty similar to the rest of his season.  He was in goal for both of Hershey's blowout wins as well.
Munroe only played in 3 games and went 2-0-1.  But his measurables were worse then Thiessen's...3.48 gaa and .878 save percentage. 
The expectation is that Thiessen will get the first chance, but who knows for sure.
In Hershey things are a little bit of a question mark.  Obviously.  But we aren't going to consider anything except for Dany Sabourin and Braden Holtby.  Neuvy practiced in full yesterday so there is a good chance he will be ready to back up Holtby tonight against the Bruins which would allow Sabs to come back to Hershey.
Dany went 18-12-5 with a 2.76 gaa and .909 save percentage on the season.  Unfortunately he was weaker against the Pens...6 games played, 5 started...4 of those were losses (one in a shootout) and only one was a win...that was the first game of the season.  His measurables?  4.07 gaa with a .855 gaa.
Now, Dany has been better of late.  In March and April he was 8-3-2 with a 2.17 gaa and .926 save percentage.  Those are good numbers.
Obviously Dany is capable of being the guy...but Braden has been a stud against the Pens this year. 
Should Braden come back for game are his numbers against the Pens:
7 starts...4-3...gaa of 2.00 and a save percentage of .926.  And he was exceptional in 3 starts in Wilkes-Barre...1.44 gaa and a save percentage of .939.
Unfortunately Braden won't be in Hershey for games 1 and least.  So...


Defense is such a hard thing to judge.  They have so much influence over the goaltending numbers and yet, there is really no way to truly judge a defenseman at this level without looking at every single game and every single shift. 
Wilkes-Barre is expected to run with a group of defensemen that looks like this:  Alexadre Picard, Robert Bortuzzo, Cody Wild, Alex Grant, Joey Mormina, and Philip Samuelsson.  Simon Despres would be in the lineup but he was just recalled to Pittsburgh and may or may not be back. 
Combined those 6 players (not counting Despres) played 47 games against the Bears this year, scored 4 goals, added 11 assists, and finished a combined +2.  Individually, Alex Grant was the best with a +7 rating and 6 assists in 9 games against the Bears this season.  Bortuzzo played in only 6 games and finished with 1 assist and a -3 rating. 
There isn't an offensive stud among them and the Pens finished the season middle of the pack (15th) in goals against per game.  An average group I believe.
Hershey is a different story.  We are going to look at the Bears top 5 defenseman as those are definitive.  Patrick McNeill, Kevin Marshall, Sean Collins, Julien Brouillette, and Tomas Kundratek.  The 6th will probably be Cameron Schilling, but I could see Patrick Wellar get a chance as well. 
Looking at the top 5 though...47 games played against the Pens...8 goals, 13 assists and a combined +1 rating.  McNeill is actually the teams 3rd leading scorer against the Pens this year with 1 goal and 9 assists in 12 games.  But he was a -6 and 8 of those points were on the power play...which tend to shrink in the playoffs.
Kundratek was pretty solid as well with 4 goals and a +6 rating in 8 games against the Pens in 2011-12.  Wellar, should he get a jersey, was a +3 with 2 assists as well so he did well. 
Overall, the Bears defense...I better than Wilkes-Barre's.  Especially when you consider the more aggressive system in place that calls for the defensemen to pinch more often. 


The Baby Pens leading scorer on the season was Ben Street who had 27 goals and 30 assists and averaged .80 points per game.  The Bears had 5 players (including Aucoin) who averaged .88 or better per game.  So keep that in mind when looking at the numbers below...Hershey is a bit more top heavy than the Pens.
Wilkes-Barre saw 9 different forwards play in 10 or more games against the Bears this season.  All 9 of them are expected to get jersey's during the playoffs as well.  The anticipated line combinations for the Pens are (the names listed in italics are the 9 who played in 10+ against Hershey):
Nick Petersen - Ben Street - Geoff Walker
Bryan Lerg - Cal O’Reilly - Paul Thompson
Jason Williams - Brian Gibbons - Colin McDonald
Ryan Craig - Zach Sill - Brandon DeFazio
Eric Tangradi is a candidate to return should the big Pens get eliminated this weekend, but he surely won't be in the lineup for game 1.
11 of the 12 players mentioned above scored at least one goal against the Bears this season.  Only Cal O'Reilly, who only played 1 game against the Bears this season, didn't score. 
No player had more than 3 goals but 7 of the 12 had 3 goals (Peterson, Street, McDonald, Walker, Williams, Lerg, DeFazio). 
The leading scorers against the Bears were Street (3g, 8a), McDonald (3g, 7a), and Lerg (3g, 8a). 
Just a note...Tangradi scored 3 and added 3 assists in only 7 games against the Bears. 
The Pens have had a very similar lineup and has gotten production from all of them against the Bears this season. 
Hershey on the other hand has seen many different players make appearances.  But there has been some consistency as well as 7 players have appeared in at least 10 of the games between the teams.  Although one of those players is Christian Hanson...who isn't going to play in games 1 and 2.
Hershey's anticipated lines...keep in mind that this is my interpretation based on practice sessions...are (again, players with 10+ games played in the season series are in italics):
Kyle Greentree - Ryan Potulny - Graham Mink
Boyd Kane - Jacob Micflikier - Chris Bourque
Barry Almeida - Mike Carman - Matt Pope
DJ King - Andrew Carroll - Garrett Mitchell
Hershey does not have the scoring balance of the Pens though.  Only 8 of the above players have scored a goal against the Pens in 2011-12 and only 3 of them (Greentree, Micflikier, and Potulny) have 3 or more goals.  And Greentree got 2 of his in the last game between the teams.
Leading scorers in the series (among forwards) are Bourque (2g, 10a) and Potulny (6g, 6a).  Kane, Micflikier, and Greentree all have 6 points.
Just a note...Aucoin had 2 goals and 5 assists in 8 games and Eakin had 3 goals and 1 assist in 7 games this season.  Should they return.

Random Stats and Thoughts

Scoring Margin:

Team1st2nd3rd OvertimeOverall

This is a bit different than the season series between the teams which saw Wilkes-Barre play much better in the 2nd period and Hershey was actually better in the 3rd than their season overall. 
What to take from this...minimal...but keep it in mind if/when the Bears jump out to a first period lead.  They do that often and many times fail to hold on.
Special Teams:

TeamPPPKPP vs PK vs

The first two columns are overall for the season.  Last 2 are for the season series.
The Bears had the #1 ranked power play during the season and their penalty kill was #4. The Pens had the #10 power play and #22 penalty kill.
So you would think that the Bears would have a large advantage here...right?  Well...check out the numbers for the last 10 games:

Of late the Pens have been very good both a man up and a man down.  In fact, it gets even better for the Pens.  On home ice (which they get 3 times, if necessary, this series) they have faced 22 short handed situations over the past 5 home games...they have killed off 21 of them.  That's 95.5% kill rate.  Pretty good.
More bad news for the Bears?  They are only scoring on 16% of their power plays at home in the last 5 home games and are allowing power play goals on 25% of the allowed chances on the road in their last 5 road games. 
Obviously you can throw many of these numbers out the window when the goalie situation calms down in Hershey and (if) guys like Aucoin return from Washington.
But it is something to keep in mind.
Record When Scoring First:

Team# FGRecordWin %

Nobody scored the first goal more than Hershey this season.  And no one had more losses (including SO and OT) after doing so than the Bears.  Wilkes-Barre, meanwhile, was top 5 in winning the games where they scored the first goal.
In the season series the Pens scored the first goal 5 times and won 4 of those games.  The Bears scored the first goal 7 times and won only 4 of those.  So the season averages pretty much held up.
Home vs Road:

TeamHomeRoadHome VsRoad Vs

Here is the great equalizer for the Bears in my opinion.  The Pens are simply put...not good at home.  Most teams are great at home, average on the the Bears.  But the Pens are not.  Under .500 winning percentage at home on the season and only .500 vs the Bears this season.

So it really is strength vs strength and weakness vs weakness in this series as far as home/road performance goes.  Hershey is strongest at home, Wilkes-Barre strongest on the road.  Hershey is weaker on the road, WB is weaker at home.

I honestly think that this helps the Bears more than anything else.  Knowing that they can win in their building will definitely help heading into the series. 

Will it be the difference?  Maybe.

My Pick

Tim Leone is a true journalist so he has to keep a somewhat subjective view of the team and the league.  He picked the Pens to beat the Bears in 5 games. 

I am not a journalist and don't have to keep a subjective view.  I am picking the Bears in 4.  And here is why...

The Caps will lose 2 of their next 3 and will be eliminated from the NHL playoffs by the end of the day on Sunday.  This is not necessarily what I want (I am rooting for the Caps every second), but without Nicky Backstrom tonight and with the Bruins capitalizing more often on the Caps defensive and goaltending lapses, I don't see this series going 7 games.  And I don't see the Caps winning it.

So, Hershey would split the games in weekend with Jacob Micflikier playing 2nd line center (definite offensive improvement over what the other options have been) and then Aucoin and Eakin will return for games 3, 4, and if necessary, 5.

Earlier this week I said that Hershey's biggest problem was at 2nd line center...not anymore in my opinion. The last time Hershey had a offensively gifted 2nd line center...the Bears won 7 straight. 

Now, if the Caps at least force a game 7 or should they win the series outright, I think the Bears would need the 5th game just to have a chance at the series. 

The Bears are a much better team then they have been the past couple of weeks.  They will show it in round 1.


Monday, April 16, 2012

Bears entering playoffs in need of help

8 straight losses.  The last 4 in regulation. 

Outscored 14-7 over the weekend.

On Sunday, the starting goalie for the Bears was Scott Greenham.  Greenham was recently known as the starting goaltender for the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.  He recently completed his senior season, during which he played in 33 games going 11-18-4 with a 2.47 goals against average and a .905 save percentage.

Obviously the record and stats are as much about the team as they are the goalie, but did you really think that this could be the goalie for the first round of the AHL playoffs?

At the beginning of the season I felt as though the goaltending would be the Bears biggest question for the playoffs.  I didn't realize I was such a prophet.

Braden Holtby is the new #1 goalie in Washington and Dany Sabourin is the current #2. 

But the goaltending issues are very possible to be resolved by the time game 1 rolls around on Friday.  Michal Neuvirth is getting better and seems likely to be able to at least back up the apparently 'unflappable' Holtby by then.

Which means Dany will be back in Hershey and the goaltending isn't as much of a question anymore.

Does that make you feel better though?

Based on the last 8 games I would say the Bears problems rest somewhere other that between the pipes.  Sure Daren Machesney was brutal this past weekend, but Dany played in 4 of the last 8 games...and remember, they were all losses.

So the Bears problem is located somewhere in the remaining 5 guys on the ice. 

The defense is healthy.  Kevin Marshall returned to the lineup this weekend after being disciplined by the coaching staff for some questionable behavior.  Which means the defense is pretty much at full strength.  While not perfect, not really a problem either.

So that leaves the forwards.  Graham Mink, Boyd Kane, and DJ King returned to the lineup this weekend after missing time.  Minker was out for a while and getting him back is definitely a big deal. 

But it didn't exactly lead to offensive production this weekend.  Mink recorded no points and finished the weekend a -1 with 7 shots.  Kane and King, more role players than Mink, weren't much better.

That leaves Jacob Micflikier as the only Bear who is looking to make his return to the lineup in the first round.  He practiced fully last week but did not make the trip over the weekend.  More than likely that was a precautionary measure more than anything and he will likely be ready to go for Friday night.

Does that solve the problem? 

Not in my eyes.  Getting Miclikier back is definitely a big deal and will absolutely help, but Hershey's problem right now is down the middle.

Currently there are 3 centers on the Bears roster, according to the team roster on  They are Ryan Potulny, Mike Carmen, and Andrew Carroll.  David Civitarese has been playing 4th line center of late so he would be the 4th center for the sake of this argument.

Carroll played in 68 games this season for the Bears and he was absolutely a key member in many regards.  He is a good defensive player who kills penalties and brings a high energy game to the lineup.  But he scored 1 goal and added only 5 assists in those 68 games.  He is currently the 3rd line center. 

At the beginning of the season Christian Hanson and Cody Eakin were playing 3rd line center.  No offense to Carroll...that is a downgrade.

Carmen joined the team in February and played 32 games for the Bears.  He has 7 goals and 5 assists in those games.  Solid for a 3rd line center.  But he is currently the 2nd line center.

At the beginning of the season the centers were Keith Aucoin, Potulny, Eakin/Hanson, and Carroll.  Obviously Potulny and Aucoin are in a different class so I won't even discuss them, but let's take a look at what Christian and Cody did while they were with the Bears. 

Eakin had 13 goals and 14 assists in 43 games.  Hanson had 10 goals and 11 assists in 51 games.  As I said, Carmen's numbers aren't terrible...for a 3rd line center.

Unfortunately for the Bears they are going to have to figure out some way to get through at least the first 2 games against the Pens without a true 2nd-line center.  With the Capitals win over the Bruins on Saturday it guarantees that the series will now go through at least Saturday.  Hershey visits Wilkes-Barre this Friday and Saturday for games 1 and 2.

It would be nice if the Caps would send Cody Eakin back for the Bears games.  He isn't playing for the Caps and while it would surely be nice to have him for practice, I can't imagine there will be much practicing for the Caps during those couple of days.  But I am sure as hell not going to hold my breathe.

I am pretty sure that Coach French also recognizes the problem as last week, according to one of Tim Leone's practice updates, Jacob Micflikier was working as the 2nd line center. 

That might work out as well as Micflik can surely play a Cody Eakin like game.  But it would just be a short term solution.

You could make the argument that the center problem is just a minor hiccup.  But just so everyone is aware, the Bears are 1-6-0-2 since the Bears last had a legitimate 2nd line center in the lineup.  That was Eakin and the only win came against the AHL's cellar-dwelling Binghamton Senators. 

The Bears are going to have to buckle down defensively and play a solid all around game while capitalizing on their opportunities.  I fully expect the Pens to outshoot and out-chance the Bears on Friday and Saturday.  Hopefully the Bears can make the most of turnovers and power plays and get a few lucky bounces.

It's going to be a tough series considering the Bears personnel limitations currently.  But I still have confidence.  Bears in 4.

I will have a full blown series preview (or multiple maybe) later this week so definitely check back often. 


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Final 3 Games Coming Up

The Bears have 3 games left in their regular season.  This Friday they visit Portland, Saturday at Manchester, and the final regular season game is Sunday at Worcester.

After that the playoffs will begin.  The Bears first round opponent has not yet been determined though.  Everything seems to be setting up for a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton - Hershey Bears first round matchup, but it definitely is not set in stone.

Considering how the Bears have played of late (5 straight losses) there is no way you can definitively say that the Bears will get the #5 spot in the Eastern Conference. 

Currently the Bears sit there in 5th.  5 points behind Wilkes-Barre and 4 points ahead of Connecticut.  The chances of the Bears getting the 4th seed are slim to none.  They would have to win out and have Wilkes-Barre lose the rest of their games.  The Baby Pens are 7-3 in their last 10...I don't expect them to go on a 3 game losing streak to close the season.

The Bears falling to 6th seems more possible, although still not likely.  The Whale would need to win their last 3 while the Bears would need to lose their last 3.  The only reason this is more possible is because the Bears haven't exactly been playing well of late. 

And if they run the same lineup that they did on Sunday, for the rest of the season, no one will be surprised if they lose all three games.  (Just a note...I don't hate that lineup, its just that you aren't going to see a lot of scoring from a lineup featuring half a dozen recent college graduates.  They hustle and play hard, but the skill isn't quite there.)

Sure, there is a possible benefit to dropping to 6th for Hershey.  They would get the winner of the Northeast division, currently the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (although Connecticut still has a shot too) instead of the rival Penguins.

Obviously, at first glance you would think this is a good thing.  Both Bridgeport and Connecticut will finish with fewer points than the Pens and not many people would mistake either the Tigers or Whale for a better team than Wilkes-Barre.

But, there are three things to keep in mind here...

1.  Hershey only went 1-3 against Connecticut this season.  And if Hershey does fall to 6th, behind the Whale, there is the distinct possibility that the Whale also passes Bridgeport for the division crown and the 3rd seed.  Hershey is 2-1-0-1 against Bridgeport so should the Tigers hang on to the division lead this would likely be a better matchup for Hershey.

2.  If Hershey does finish as the 6-seed and gets by the Northeast champ in round 1 it would likely set up a Norfolk-Hershey 2nd round.  Personally, if I am the Bears and I was confident in a Calder Cup run I would prefer to wait until the Eastern Conference finals to play the team that hasn't lost in over 2 months. 

Sure, as the 5-seed the Bears are also in line to get the Admirals in round 2, but the chances of a lower seed winning grow substantially if the 6th seed is someone other than Hershey.  Meaning, I expect that the Whale's chances of beating the Tigers in the 6/3 matchup are much better than any 7-seed beating the St. Johns IceCaps. 

3.  Is Wilkes-Barre really that tough of a matchup?  Sure the rivalry is intense and the Baby Pens have had the Bears number for much of the last 2 seasons, but are the Pens good enough to win a best of 5 series?  Hershey went 5-5-1-1 against the Baby Pens this season.  That includes last weekends loss when the Bears were a shell of their true selves. 

When the Bears are healthy, which they will be much closer to 100% healthy by the time the playoffs start, things are much different and the Bears are capable of beating anyone.

In addition, the Pens are a bad home team.  So for them to get home-ice is not that much of a disadvantage for the Bears.  The Baby Pens are 25th in the AHL in winning percentage at home this season, winning only 47.2% of their home games.  The Bears were the AHL's 10th best team in regards to winning percentage on the road this season, winning 51.4% of their games. 

It is true that Hershey is better at home and the Pens are better on the road, but all I am saying is that Hershey is a better road team than the Pens are a home team.  So, considering that 3 of the first round games are likely to be played in Wilkes-Barre, the Bears are in good shape there.

No matter what though the Bears will only be competitive in the playoffs if they are healthy.  And there is definite good news on that front.  Graham Mink, Jacob Micflikier, Boyd Kane, and DJ King all practiced on Tuesday.  Whether they play this weekend or not is not clear as of right now, but they should all be ready for the playoffs which is where the real importance lies. 

In addition to that, Michal Neuvirth is expected to be ready for the NHL playoffs and will make the trip to Boston with the Caps.  That means that Dany Sabourin will be back in Hershey for the AHL playoffs.  The chances of Braden Holtby returning before either the Caps are eliminated or the second round, should the Caps eliminate the Bruins, are slim to none as Tomas Vokoun is still a ways off from returning. 

As for Keith Aucoin, Cody Eakin, and Dmitry won't see them in Hershey until the Caps are eliminated.  The first round series with Boston goes like this...Thursday, Saturday, Monday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday.  That means the earliest the Caps could be eliminated is next Thursday night. 

Since an opponent for the Bears first round series is still undecided there is no word on a playoff schedule either.  My guess is that the Bears/Pens season would either start next Wednesday or Friday, at the latest.  So, chances are Coiner, Eakin, and Orlov won't be in Hershey for the start of the series.  However, they could be back for the end depending on the success that Washington has.

I really believe the Bears have the talent to win the Calder Cup.  The first step is to get the guys in house healthy, which is occurring.  That is priority 1.  No matter what happens with Washington, the Bears can be successful in the playoffs with the guys they have in house.

However, I think the Bears will fail to advance too far in the Calder Cup playoffs without another center in the lineup.  Right now the depth chart at center looks like this Ryan Potulny - Mike Carmen - Andrew Carroll.  While I love what Carmen has done recently and I love the hustle Carroll displays...neither are going to provide enough offense to carry the team in the playoffs.

Don't think for a second that it was a coincidence that Hershey's 7 game winning streak ended and their 5 game losing streak started as soon as their #2 center, Cody Eakin, was recalled to Washington a couple of weeks ago.  The items are directly related.

Until Hershey sees another center return to the lineup they will struggle to get past a team such as Norfolk.  So, if you are hoping to see the Bears win their 12th Calder Cup, you should be hoping for Christian Hanson to return from his wrist injury (reportedly mid-May as of now, by the way) or a early exit for the Caps and a return to Hershey of Eakin and Aucoin.

If either of those happens...even Norfolk will have had a hard time beating the Bears.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Final Home Regular Season Game

The Hershey Bears will host the Connecticut Whale at 5:00pm tonight in the final regular season game at Giant Center in 2011-12.  There will be at least one home playoff game, but the final 3 regular season games are in New England.

This evening's game against the Whale could seal the Bears first round opponent.  If the Bears win, whether in regulation or after, the Bears would finish no worse than 5th in the Eastern Conference and would play the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the 5-game first round series.

Should the Bears lose, the Whale would be only four points back with 3 games to play.  As luck would have it the two teams play similar teams the rest of the way as well.  Both the Bears and Whale play Portland and Manchester.  But we will worry about that tomorrow....if necessary.

Unfortunately for the Bears the recent past has not been promising.  Four straight losses has followed a 7 game winning streak.

The scratches and lineup changes, announced before the opening faceoff, takes a little longer and is a who's who of AHL talent. 

And with the games becoming more physical as the playoffs grow near, that list is as likely to grow as it is to shrink.  Both Ryan Potulny and Boyd Kane departed games this weekend after big hits.  Both did return, but the game is taking its toll on guys.

If things weren't bad enough....there was this in the paper this morning:
French banished defenseman Kevin Marshall during the game. “It was a team-related matter,” French said.
That is from Tim Leone's write-up for the paper this morning.  I have no idea what happened, but when a respected beat-writer like Leone uses the word "banished" it definitely raises some eyebrows.  It will be interesting to see if Marshall has a jersey for tonight's game.

So, add disgruntled employee to the list of problems for the Bears at a critical moment in the season.

Dany Sabourin was expected to return to Hershey for the game tonight and will likely get the start.  The Capitals don't play until at least Wednesday so they don't need Dany there for the time being.

If Michal Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun's injuries keep them out for an extended period it will be interesting to see how the goalies are handled between Washington and Hershey.  It isn't out of the question that Dany could just yo-yo between the teams if the schedules work out for that.

For example, if the Caps play Thursday-Saturday next weekend, Dany could play Friday and Sunday for the Bears.  Especially since the Caps will be in Boston for the first 2 games anyhow. 

That kind of rotation could continue for Dany if the Bears playoff schedule fits into the Caps schedule.  If the schedules don't work out you can be assured that Dany is Capitals property first and Bears second.  

More will be known later today I am sure.  Hopefully Neuvy or Vokoun can recover enough to at least serve as a backup which would allow Dany to return to Hershey full time.  I wouldn't expect both goalies to recover in time so the likelihood of Braden Holtby returning to Hershey is unlikely until the Caps are eliminated, if they would be.

Have a Happy Easter and enjoy the regular season home finale tonight!


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Caps or Bears...who are you rooting for?

A friend of mine asked me last night if I was rooting for the Caps to make the playoffs.  My response was yeah, I am.  But if they don't make it, it won't bother me at all.  I am honestly split 50/50 on it.  Yes, I hope they win their last 2 games and get in as the 8 seed.  At the same time, if they don't make it, I will be happy that the 'Bears' players on the team will be returning to Hershey for a Calder Cup run.

He felt differently.  While he isn't actively rooting against the Caps, he sure as hell isn't rooting for them either.  And I am guessing there are many in Bears nation who feel the same way.  And with good reason.  Should the Caps miss the playoffs the Bears team would get immediately better with the additions of Keith Aucoin, Dmitry Orlov, Cody Eakin, and Braden Holtby. 

Obviously, considering the injuries in Hershey right now, an influx in talent like that could be a difference maker.  Especially when you are likely facing the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the first round.

Now, he also said to me that if he felt the Caps had a legitimate chance at the Cup he might feel differently, but in his opinion they are basically playing for an early exit. 

This is where I guess him and I disagree the most.  Despite their uninspired play at regular intervals during the season, including as recently as Monday in Tampa, I believe that they have as good a chance at the Stanley Cup as any other team in the league. 

Is that crazy?  Probably.  But with a healthy Nicklas Backstrom this team is mostly the version that the Capitals envisioned when they put it together last summer.  And remember, this team was healthy at the beginning of the year as well...and they went 7-0 to open the season. 

But let's forget about that for a second.  Obviously I am a nut-job if I think the Caps have as good a chance at the Stanley Cup as the Flyers or Penguins or Rangers.  Obviously.

So, the question is...what are the Bears chances at winning the Calder Cup?

Healthy?  Pretty damn good. 

Current state?   Not likely.

That means that if the Caps are eliminated the Bears chances would skyrocket...right?

I don't think so.  The Bears need to be healthy to compete with the top teams in the league.  Jacob Micflikier, Graham Mink, Christian Hanson, and Patrick McNeill are all injured and are either barely practicing (Mink and McNeill), not practicing (Micflikier), or OUT for at least the rest of the regular season (Hanson). 

Add to that list Boyd Kane, DJ King, and Ryan Potulny who sat out practice on Tuesday for a 'maintenance day'.  Nothing to be alarmed about, but when guys start missing any practice time you start to worry a little.

Will adding Aucoin, Eakin, Orlov, and Holtby really make up for all the other injuries? 

I don't think so.  Yes, getting a healthy Aucoin (still #4 in the league in scoring, 2nd in assists) would be huge.  But would it make the Bears better than Norfolk?  A team that hasn't lost since February 4?  Doubtful. 

Who knows what Orlov will be like in Hershey.  I am sure he will play hard, but he hasn't been a Bear since before Thanksgiving.  Will his return cause more issues on the blueline then help?

Eakin is a stud and definitely makes the team better...but he isn't going to win games on his own. 

And Holtby...let's just say there are still huge questions about his playoff ability.  He has played 9 playoff games and his goals against average is well above 3.00 and his save percentage is well below .900.  And he wasn't exactly setting the league on fire before his recall to Washington. 

So, yes.  If the Caps miss the playoffs the Bears would be in better shape.  But unless they get the rest of their players back from injury, they aren't legitimate title contenders. 

So...again...I am rooting for the Caps to win their last two...but I won't be disappointed if they fail to show up in those games too.

How about you, are you rooting for the Caps to win or to do what they have been doing for most of the season, fall flat on their faces?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Bears struggle...back to 5th

Hershey entered the weekend on a 7 game winning streak and were in position for home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Then the Bears forgot how to win games.  First the St. John's IceCaps beat the Bears on Saturday, 3-2, in a game which wasn't really that close.  Hershey jumped out to a 1-0 lead and then proceeded to watch the IceCaps score 3 before Ryan Potulny scored his first of 4 on the weekend with only 14 seconds to go.

St. Johns is a solid team, locked in at #2 in the Eastern Conference, so considering the quantity and quality of scratches for the Bears, the outcome wasn't entirely surprising.

Sunday saw the cellar dwelling Binghamton Senators visit Giant Center for the final time in 2011-12.  Entering the game Binghamton had scored 2 goals at Giant Center all season.  2.  In three games. 

Well they fixed that average by scoring 6 (one because of the shootout victory) on Sunday.  Due to illness I was unable to attend, but from what I heard it was another lousy game from the Bears as a team.  Potulny was a bright spot though as he recorded what I believe is the Bears first hat trick of the year (am I wrong on that?) to bring the Bears back from a 3 goal deficit in the 3rd period.

13 shootout rounds later, the Sens had a victory and the Bears complete a 1 point weekend. 

To make matters worse for the Bears, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins won both of their games this weekend. 

So, once again the Bears find themselves in 5th place in the Eastern Conference, 2 points behind the 4th place Penguins.  Friday's game in Wilkes-Barre is obviously very important, but I believe the Pens own the tiebreaker over the Bears which means Hershey would need more than just a win Friday to move back into 4th.

But the Bears also need to be concerned about the Connecticut Whale who currently sit in 6th with 80 points, just 7 behind the Bears.  The Whale visit Hershey on Sunday in another important game this weekend.  Considering the way the Bears played this past weekend, a slip to 6th in the standings is not inconceivable.

While a first round matchup from the 6-seed (currently against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers) definitely sounds more appealing/winnable than a matchup from the 5-seed against the Baby Pens....the 2nd round matchup for the 6-seed would likely come against the Norfolk Admirals. 

Norfolk has won 22 straight.  I don't think any team in the league (and some NHL teams) want to play the Admirals anytime soon.