Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Weekend of Shutouts

While the Bears got the shutout last night against Worcester, tonight it would be the St. John's Ice Caps who would roll into Giant Center and blank Hershey 2-0. Notwithstanding the shutout, the Bears actually played better on Sunday than they did in their win. Unfortunately, Ice Caps goalie Conner Hellebuyck came up with some big saves during Hershey's power plays in the second and third period.

Chris Brown, Kris Newbury and Conner Carrick were all notable throughout the game. In the first period, any time these guys were on the ice the Bears had some good drives to the net. Brown and Newbury really got in around the blue paint and caused some scrums in front. At one point Newbury went after one of the Ice Caps' defenders because of a behind the play shot he had given him. There were times when it seemed like the game would delve into more outright physical play after the whistle but it never did.

Hershey started the second period on a penalty kill but found themselves on the power play shortly thereafter. Despite good passing on a power play at the beginning of the period and another at the end, the Ice Caps collapsing defense kept the Bears' shot to the perimeter.

While the Bears played a strong game in the second and outshot St. John's 16-11, a defensive breakdown half way through the period left Ice Cap Chase Bailey alone in front of Copley. Bailey only needed moment to snap a quick shot over Copley's right shoulder to make it 2-0.

The Bears came out flying in the third period but frustrations set in early with Newbury and Byers battling in front of Hellebuyck. Newbury would end up taking his second penalty of the game. It was clear a lack of offense this weekend was wearing on Newbury.

Hershey had some good opportunities in the back half of the third when Dane Byers caught a rebound off Hellebuyck's pad but failed to bury the puck. Likewise, Conner Carrick had Hershey's best chance to get on the score board but his heavy shot from the point hit off the post to the right of the Ice Caps' goalie.

The Bears were 1 for 8 on the power play this week which includes the game Wednesday against the Phantoms. The puck movement and shots are there, but Hershey has to get the power play clicking more consistently. A couple power play goals in each game and the Bears could have come away with a much needed "w".

Grubauer Gets Much Deserved Shutout

Coming up on the quarter way point of the season, it can be argued that perhaps Philip Grubauer has been the Bears' best player so far. With Hershey's 1-0 win against the Worcester Sharks at Giant Center last night, Grubauer notched his second shutout of the season. Starting the last four games, he has faced 119 shots and made 111 saves. The one aberration being the 5-1 loss to Syracuse on November 14th.

Granted, Kris Newbury has 21 points and leads the AHL in scoring but Grubauer has been more instrumental in keeping Hershey in games. Like the game this past Wednesday against Lehigh Valley in in which the Bears found themselves down 2-0 in the first. Grubauer's 37 saves gave Hershey the opportunity to climb back into the game despite eventually losing in overtime.

The same can be said about Saturday night. The Bears came out with more speed in the first period than they have in prior games and executed breakouts more effectively despite a strong Worcester forecheck. There were even moments when Hershey's cycle game had the Sharks running around in their own end.

But leading 1-0 at the first intermission, Grubauer would give the team at chance to win as the Bears would be outshot 27-12 through the second and third periods. However, the save of the game would come in the first period as Grubauer made a diving split toe save with his right pad on Daniil Tarasov. With the puck in the corner, Tarasov snuck into the slot and found himself all alone to the right of Grubauer. His position was steady and push-off from the post was strong as the cross crease pass was close in.

Notwithstanding being outshot again by a wide margin, the Bears' overall play last night against Worcester showed that they may be turning a corner and digging themselves out of this rut of inconsistency.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Bears Lose in OT Despite Comeback

Wednesday night's game in Allentown against the Phantoms continued the current trend of the Bears inability to generate sustained pressure in the opponents end for any length of time. At least in the past few weeks. In Tim Leone's Penn Live Blog Post after last weekend's 3-2 win over Wilkes-Barre, Troy Mann perfectly sums up the Bears' current predicament:

"We were wondering, Well, maybe did our team jell a little bit too early, because things came together so quickly those first three weeks. We were very good defensively. From a systems perspective, we were excellent. But then you start winning some games early. A rut and a groove, there's a fine line there."

If you lose one or two games in a row, that's one thing. But patterns have been emerging recently and this is Hershey's first taste of adversity in the 2014-15 season. The question is how they will dig themselves out of this current "rut".

The Bears certainly didn't start the game appearing as though they have an answer. In their worst first period so far, the Bears were outshot in the period 20-9 and down 2-0 within the first seven minutes. It took almost that long for Hershey to register it's first shot of the game.

Granted, the Bears were able to claw back into the game with a goal in each of the second and third periods while limiting the Phantoms to 5 and 7 shots per period, respectively. However, Hershey wasn't able to control the play in either the offensive or defensive zones. The main difference compared to earlier in the season that keeps coming up is the absence of the great passing and cycle game.

Perhaps it's in reaction to their struggles, but Hershey has been playing the dump and chase game while trying to get chances off the rush. Other than Dane Byers power play goal, the Bears' best opportunities and Newbury's goal came off the rush.

The game appeared to become equitable when both teams devolved into a run and gun style the last half of the third period. Chandler Stephenson had the best chance in the last 10 minutes when he blew down the left wing past the Phantom's defenseman for a partial breakaway. Stephenson made a nice deke for a backhand shot but Rob Zepp just got a piece of it with his glove.

At the start of the overtime, Connor Carrick somehow gets called for tripping that no one saw except for the referee. Despite the bad call, Joel Broda found himself on a breakaway right off the face-off and could have ended the game but unfortunately shot the puck wide and missed the net.

So now to the 3-on-3 overtime. You've no doubt read my previous post about this. And watching this extended 3-on-3, the following came to mind: this is pond hockey. During the NHL's Winter Classic they always make such a big to-do about playing outside on the frozen pond. Well, the 3-on-3 overtime is the perfect representation of that. So much for a structured and professional game.

Also, both teams attempted to hold back and play the zone to limit the 2-on-1 chances. The thing about the 3-on-3 overtime is that because there are so few players on the ice an abundance of offensive chances are inevitable.

Chris Conner had a breakaway and almost won the game with a Peter Forsberg move but Zepp made an outstanding left toe save. Likewise, Lehigh Valley forward Kevin Goumas had a breakaway in the final seconds of the overtime.

So apparently the AHL has shifted from 5 shooters to 3 in the shootout. After newcomer Blair Jones scored the Phantom's only shootout goal, Dustin Gazley stick handled himself out of a shot and the game was over. However, no one on the ice  knew it; not even the refs. Everyone stood around for awhile until they figured it out. The only person who did know was the Phantom's broadcaster, Steve Degler. To quote, "The Phantoms have won the game. I might be an idiot, but at least I know the rule change and there are only 3 shooters instead of 5".

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


A few weeks ago in the Bears' first meeting against the Hartford Wolf Pack, we got a brief look at the new 3-on-3 overtime rule change. While the teams only played 3-on-3 for a couple minutes before the Bears scored, seeing so much open ice was a bit discomforting. Scott Stuccio even commented during the broadcast that it looked odd.

Before commenting on the new overtime, I wanted to wait and see if Hershey would get into any more 3-on-3 situations to determine if my first impression was correct. Well, it's been a couple weeks and the only overtime game has been against Wilkes-Barre this past Friday night and it lasted about a minute.

However, on Monday James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail just so happened to post an article about 3-on-3 situations occurring in overtime. So I'm glad I waited because now I at least have another reference point. The articles discusses both the AHL and NHL in regards to overtime and 3-on-3 play. Likewise, my perspective floats between the two.

So first off, I'll admit that I have always been (and still am) a big fan of the tie. It has historical significance for both leagues and uniquely separates itself from the winner take all mentality of the other major American sports leagues. And just because the New Jersey Devils made the playoffs and won the Stanley Cup in 1995 by having the most ties and notably "playing to tie," a backlash started against this aspect of the game. This would essentially cause the AHL and NHL to move to a 4-on-4 overtime format and eventually the shootout in 2004-05 and 2005-06, respectively.

The purpose of these changes was to open up the ice in hopes of generating offense and if not then the shootout would be an exciting way to decide a game with a 1-on-1; player versus the goalie. Well, here we are again. Discussing how to open up the ice so that more games are decided in OT instead of the shootout. And 3-on-3 is what the NHL/AHL powers that be came up with?

Some say the most exciting play in hockey is the penalty shot. I beg to differ. The most exciting play is the 2-on-1. And that's because of the possibilities. In that brief moment a 2-on-1 contains all aspects of the game that makes hockey great. Offense, defense and goaltending. Does the player with the puck pass or shoot? If he shoots, does he shoot for a goal or a rebound? If he passes, does the defense break up the pass? If not, does the other offensive player take the shot (for goal or rebound) or attempt a pass back? And through all that, what does the goalie do?

From the little bit we've seen, because of so much open ice and so few players, the new AHL overtime format is basically just 2-on-1's back and forth. That may sound like a good idea on paper but in reality it is definitely a case of too much of a good thing. In the same way a penalty shot can be exciting, a 2-on-1 is exhilarating because it doesn't happen all the time. The scarcity of it drives demand which makes it that much more intense when it occurs.

But this is where we're at; this is what the decision makers have come up with. With the way things are going, I predict that by the 2019-2020 season the overtime format will consist solely of the two goalies on the ice just shooting the puck at each other.

The shootout was supposed to be an exciting way to decide a game. Now that's not viewed as proper so they're going to 3-on-3 overtime to try and move away from the shootout as much as possible. This speaks volumes about where both the NHL and AHL are at and how they got here since the 2005-06 lockout (which is coming up on the 10 year anniversary next season).

Instead of focusing on overtime, how about the decision makers figure out how to get the game back to the way it was coming out of the 05-06 lockout. No one can deny that the most exciting hockey (offensively speaking) of the past 20 years happened between 2005-06 and 2010-11. But 3-on-3 overtime is what they think is the most important in creating more offense in the game.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Bears Hang Tough Despite Loss

Some overarching issues from this past weekend's games can be seen as insufficient passing and problematic breakouts, thus leading to a multitude of turnovers. But despite being mostly outplayed and outshot in all three games, the Bears were able to hang around in them all and accrue 3 out of a possible 6 points.

The loss to the Hartford Wolf Pack on Sunday 3-2 wasn't as disappointing as Friday night's game and Sunday appeared to be the Bears' better overall, albeit subdued, effort even though they were outshot 13-2 in the first period. Down 3-2 late in the third period Hershey pushed hard, with even a 6-on-4 in the final minute, to try and tie the game. But these late in the game heroics didn't work like in Saturday night's game.

In Tim Leone's "Morning Takeaways" blog post, Coach Troy Mann referred to Sunday's game as a "trap game" since the Bears were playing 3 in 3 while Hartford only had the two games in Hershey. Granted, the extra game should be taken into consideration but there seems to be larger trends at play here.

The main characteristic of all three games has been that the Bears are not playing a full 60 minutes. In each game the Bears struggled in at least 2 if not all 3 periods. For all three games combined, Hershey was outshot in five of the nine periods (the overtime wasn't included since it only lasted a minute). In addition, the Bears were 1 for 12 on the power play with six of them coming in the third game. If there was any time where the power play needed to succeed it was Sunday.

Considering all that, the Bears were still able to hang around in all three games with each being tied 2-2 at some point in the third periods. The forwards and defense should thank both Philip Grubauer and Pheonix Copley for keeping the team competitive as they had to come up with some big saves to keep the games close. Grubauer was especially the Bears' best player.

The question is how Troy Mann is going to get things turned around. It's not like the Bears are facing adversity with injuries and/or call-ups. Passing and the cycle game has to get back to the way it was at the start of the season. The Bears had been dominate in their cycle game in the opponent's zone and this generated a lot of their offense.

And as mentioned previously, the power play has to start clicking again. Through the first 6 games, the power play was 7 for 34. Since then in the next 7 games (including Sunday night), it has been 2 for 24. The passing on the power play has been good but there needs to be more player movement and shots.

Or perhaps the overall play of this past weekend has been just an aberration that is typically seen at the end of a long road trip. It's a good thing that in the last 8 games in November, 6 of them are at Giant Center.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Amazing Comeback in 3rd Period

Saturday night's game at Giant Center against the Hartford Wolf Pack was definitely a "tale of two games" for the Bears. The first 50 minutes saw the Wolf Pack dominate the Bears both in overall play and on the score sheet as the Bears found themselves down 2-0. However, at the 10 minute mark of the 3rd period Hershey would overtake Hartford and score 4 unanswered goals in route to a 4-2 win.

While Hershey came out skating better than they did Friday night, the team continued to struggle with passing and break outs of the defensive zone as was also apparent in the Wilkes-Barre game. This breakdown in the basics of the game is a bit disconcerting as passing and the cycle game in all zones of the ice has been one of the Bears strongest points so far this season.

Despite being outshot in the first period, it appeared like we might be in for a goaltenders battle as both Grubauer and Desjardins had to come up with some big saves early on. Most notable was on a Wolf Pack power play when both Ryan Bourque and Chris Mueller found themselves alone in front of Grubauer who had to make two quick saves (the one on Mueller with a lunging right pad and blocker) to keep the game scoreless.

Hartford would make it 1-0 in the back end of the first period and 2-0 about midway through the second. At that point the energy seemed to be gone from the Bears in much the same way it was in the prior night's game against the Pens. The tension with the fans in attendance was noticeable.

A bright spot came towards the end of the second when Conner Carrick plastered Ryan Potulny in the right corner behind Grubauer. This would prove to be one of the turning points in the game as it got the Bears more physically engaged in the game and put some energy back in the crowd. Tim Leone has a good write-up on Penn Live about the hit and the overall play of Conner Carrick last night. I actually thought the Carrick hit would be the Crunch of the Game but that honor went to Steve Olesky who lined up Ryan Bourque who had his head down as he had just crossed the Bears blue line along the boards.

The Bears struggled on the power play all game long going 0-4 until around the 10 minute mark of the third when Casey Wellman would notch a power play goal to get the Bears on the board. It should be noted that the Bears' fifth power play opportunity is owed to Dustin Gazley who blew by Wolf Pack defender Dallas Jackson and then was blatantly hooked down. Gazley was clearly far enough ahead of Jackson that it should have been a penalty shot. Either way, Hershey was back in the game now only down 2-1.

At that point the whole game turned on a dime and the Bears controlled the play. A little more than a minute later Conner Carrick, while cutting to the middle of the ice just above the hash marks, would put a long wrist shot between the pads of Desjardins to tie the game at 2. Then with about 4 minutes left Kris Newbury would tip in a huge slap shot from Wellman standing along far side wall and to make it 3-2 Hershey. Upon replay, it was tough to tell if anyone touched that shot or if Wellman just blew it right by the Wolf Pack goalie.

Newbury would add an empty netter to seal the win 4-2 and the Bears' comeback was complete. Watching the first and second periods of last night's game I don't think anyone expected Hershey to pull off that win in the last 10 minutes. However, going into the third Scott Stuccio kept commenting on how the Bears could spark a comeback like the Pens did the night before.

The two games the Bears have played against the Wolf Pack this season have been Hershey's most exciting so far. The 1-0 overtime victory for Pheonix Copely's first career shutout and last night's comeback have provided the kind of action a fan likes to see in a hockey game. Let's hope that the third game against Hartford tonight at Giant Center continues that trend.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Listless Bears Fall to Pens in OT

Friday night's game against the Penguins was definitely an odd one for the Bears. Despite being outplayed and out shot throughout the game, the Bears led 2-0 after two periods and then lost 3-2 in overtime. No one really stood out for Hershey except for Philip Grubauer, who faced 34 total shots and kept the team in it until the end.

The first period was all Wilkes-Barre as the Pens dominated the Bears. The Pens controlled the majority of the play and at times kept Hershey stuck in its own end. The Bears had some good rushes but were unable to get any sustained pressure on goalie Matt Murray. In fact, the Bears were only able to register 2 shots in that first period.

Hershey came out looking a little better in the second period as it seemed like they had gotten their legs under them. The play was a bit more even as Hershey tried to keep pace even though they were outshot by Wilkes-Barre 11-7. And with goals by Jon Landry and Casey Wellman it appeared the Bears might be able to squeak out a win.

The third period tilted decidedly in the Pens favor as they out shot the Bears 13-6. The Pens made it 2-1 about halfway through the period on a goal by Taylor Chorney. He would factor into the game tying goal with 47 seconds left as his point shot was deflected by Jason Megna.

Interestingly, late in the third when it was still 2-1 Bears, Nathan Walker had a breakaway and could have made it 3-1 with his first goal of the year but shot the puck wide. It ended up being big missed opportunity.

The Pens would win a minute into overtime on another goal by Megna from a nice cross crease pass by Derrik Pouliot. Beau Bennett of the Pittsburgh Penguins appears to be in Wilkes-Barre on a conditioning stint. The line of Bennett-Megna-Andrew Ebbett was dominate for the Pens and at times looked to be on the ice every other shift.

Regardless, the Bears just didn't seem to have any life and even Troy Mann (per Tim Leone's Penn Live post game blog post) stated that this was Hershey's worst game so far. However, had Hershey hung on to win 2-1 or 3-1, today everyone would be saying that the Bears won a game they didn't deserve to win. Or that it was a game stolen by Gurbauer.

Let's hope Saturday and Sunday's games at Giant Center show a better effort and outcome.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Some Lucky Bounces, Some Unlucky Bounces

One couldn't help but think that things weren't going to go the Bears' way when the Monarchs received a penalty shot less than 2 minutes into the game and went up 1-0. It was just one of many bounces that didn't go Hershey's way Sunday afternoon in Manchester.

The teams skated pretty evenly throughout the first period but the Monarchs controlled most of the play and got 4 power plays to Hershey's 1. It took at least 6-7 minutes before the Bears even registered a shot on goal. Soon after, Kris Newbury got his sixth goal of the year when, with a one handed stick sweep, he chipped the puck over Manchester goalie Patrik Bartosak's catching glove.

Coming out in the 2nd, the Bears showed some speed and were able to keep sustained offensive pressure in the Monarchs' zone. Their best chance was when Stan Galiev skated out from behind Manchester's net completely untouched for a nice wraparound.

Hershey's best save and luckiest bounce of the game was owed to the reactions of the left goal post. A Monarchs' point shot found its way through Grubauer's blocker side and slowly bounced off the bottom of the  post. The puck bobbled toward the goal line where it was pretty much half on the line and half in the goal. After a lengthy review, it was deemed no goal. Good call, good break for the Bears.

However, the good fortune wouldn't last long. Failing to capitalize on only their second power play of the game, the Bears then gave up a breakaway to Nick Shore, who would score the first of his two highlight reel goals of the game. Grubauer did keep Hershey in the game when defenseman Jamie McBain, of all players, had a breakaway late in the second.

Most of the third period appeared to be the Bears' strongest both offensively and defensively. They had quite a few scoring opportunities throughout, registering 9 shots while limiting the Monarchs to just 3. Unfortunately, one of those three shorts was enough to put the game out of reach.

While on the power play for a Monarchs' too many men penalty, Hershey was moving the puck well and it looked like they might tie the game. But Nick Shore would notch his second goal as he split two Hershey defenders, got a shot away and put in his own rebound past Grubauer's blocker to make it 3-1.

A tough loss to be sure. But the bounces just didn't go Hershey's way. Some of the outcomes of this weekend have been a bit of a letdown Hershey considering how well they have play even in the games they lost. The games against the Wolf Pack next Saturday and Sunday at Giant Center will be very welcome.

Bears Left in Sharks' Wake

The aggressive forecheck of the Worcester Sharks was too much for the Hershey Bears on Saturday night as the Sharks held on to win 5-4. The Sharks were all over the Bears' defensemen in the defensive zone and really made them have to move the puck quickly. Likewise, Hershey's offense found it tough to even get through the neutral zone and sustain pressure in the Sharks' end.

This is not to say that the Sharks dominated the Bears. Every time Hershey tied the game or got close the Sharks would just pull away. However, the Bears clawed their way back into the game late in the third period but it was too little too late.

The Sharks scored a minute and a half into the game but Joel Broda tied in less than 15 seconds later. Former Penguin (Wilkes-Barre and Pittsburgh) Tyler Kennedy, who's in Worcester on a conditioning stint, made it 2-1 around the midway point of the period. There were no penalties in the first period as the referees just let the guys play.

Five minutes into the second Cameron Shilling lasered a nice one-timer that found a way through Worcester goalie Troy Grosenick to make it 2-2. However, a minute later Freddie Hamilton would score to give the Sharks another lead 3-2. From there and into the third period Worcester would add two more goals to make it 5-2.

A few minutes after the Sharks took the 3 goal lead, Kris Newbury continued his torrid point streak by deflecting a Tomas Kundratek point shot. This goal gave Hershey some life and they kept the pressure on Worcester. It looked like the Bears might get back in it and tie the game when in the last two minutes, and with Pheonix Copley pulled, Steve Olesky fired a bomb from the point to make it 5-4. But the Sharks' defense held tough around Grosenick to get the win.

Pheonix Copley sustained his first loss of the season and this was definitely his hardest test so far. Some bounces didn't go his way but he also let a couple goals get by him that he probably should have had. Notably, the goals by Freddie Hamilton and Daniil Tasarov in which both players had clear chances in the slot and around the net. At the same time, Hamilton and Tarasov were wide open with no Hershey defender even close enough to get a stick on puck. There were many instances of defensive breakdowns by the Bears so Copley certainly cannot be held solely responsible.

The Bears head back to Manchester, NH for an afternoon game against the Monarchs in hopes of finishing the weekend 2-1-0.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Sparse Crowd Watches Bears Gnaw on Monarchs

I realize it was Halloween night, but I expected a better turnout by the fans in Manchester, NH. There were what looked like maybe 500 people in attendance. Probably more fans watching on AHL Live. Regardless, they missed a well fought game between the Bears and Monarchs. It wasn't an overly physical game and there was no after the whistle activities or fights, but it was well played offensively and defensively by both teams. However, the Bears would end up rolling over Manchester 4-0.

For the first period and most of the second, it seemed like it was going to be one of those back and forth defensive affairs with neither team giving ground. Manchester controlled the majority of the play in that time. There was even a stint in the middle of the first period when the Monarchs had the Bears pinned in their own end 5-on-5. And it seemed like the Monarchs always got a stick on Hershey's passes and scoring chances.

The second period started out the same way until Kris Newbury, behind the Monarch's net, quickly fed the puck to Dane Byers in the slot and made it 1-0 Hershey. The assist gave Newbury his 500th AHL career point.

The play of Newbury and Casey Wellman has really been impressive in the first month of the season. These two have just clicked and they're putting up a lot of points. Obviously it's early in the season but to a certain extent Newbury and Wellman seem like the new Aucoin/Giroux tandem. They're not as offensively gifted and flashy as Aucoin and Giroux, but Newbury and Wellman know where to find each other on the ice and how to put the puck in the back of the net.

Newbury's goal tilted the ice in the Bears' favor as they now controlled the play and would put in two more goals before the end of the period to make it 3-0 going into the 3rd.

Casey Wellman made it 2-0 on the power play with a perfectly placed tip in off Tomas Kundratek's shot pass. It's good to see the Hershey defense utilizing different types of shots. Everyone always wants to wind up for the slap shot on the power play and typically a snap shot is mostly used for the shot pass. But Kundratek placed a hard wrist shot right on the tape of Wellman's stick.

Philip Grubauer got his first shutout of the season and should be commended for keeping Hershey in it for the first half of the game. Even though the Bears kept the Monarchs to the outside of the ice, Grubauer had to be sharp during the three penalty kills. The third period was mostly uneventful and Steve Olesky got the empty net to make it 4-0.

Hershey, with two consecutive shutouts going, heads up to Worcester, MA to face a Sharks team that is 4-2-1 so far. The Bears will be back in Manchester on Sunday to closeout the weekend.