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.

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