Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2nd Period Lifts Bears To Win

In the final home game of the calendar year, the Bears came up with a  big second period (back stopped by Philip Grubauer) to win 2-1 over the last place Norfolk Admirals. This was another one of those games where the teams traded periods out shooting and out playing each other.

The Admirals outshot Hershey 9 to 2 in the first period while getting two power play chances in both the first and second periods each, including a 5-on-3 for 1:50. The Bears would outshoot Norfolk 16 to 8 in the second period and score both goals in that frame. They also had a 5-on-3 for a minute early in a the third but wouldn't be able to capitalize.

In addition to doubling up the shots in the second period, Hershey played tough defensively in front of Grubauer, especially during the 5-on-3 penalty kill. In Tim Leone's PennLive blog post about Garrett Mitchell's first goal of 2014, Troy Mann confirmed that the kill provided a big momentum change for the Bears in the game.

At one point during the 5-on-3, Grubauer came up with three consecutive saves to keep the game scoreless. A point shot lead to a rebound which then provided a wide open chance for Brandon Yip to bury the puck. Grubauer stayed relatively upright and square in the middle of the crease to fight off all three shots. And only diving with his right pad to make the save on Yip.

The expiration of the last penalty would send Garrett Mitchell on a breakaway from the penalty to make it 1-0 Bears. The pump fake and back hand shot past John Gibson puts Mitchell's goal in contention for one of the top highlight reel goals of the year.

While Wellman's goal in the last minute of the second appeared to be a bit underrated, the play leading to the goal displayed Hershey's offensive aggression last night. With about 15 seconds remaining, Kris Newbury skated hard into the right corner to beat the Norfolk defender to negate the icing call.

Newbury threw the puck into the slot where Wellman roofed it over Gibson's left shoulder. Gibson as well as the Admiral defenders were definitely stunned by how quickly the play transpired. Both teams could have been content to get the icing or to let the clock run out but Newbury showed good vision in reading the play. In the past 4 or 5 games both Newbury and Wellman have begun to pick it up offensively again.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The One That Got Away

Well, the Springfield Falcons rolled into town Saturday night and handed the Bears, as well as the fans, some coal in their skate boots with a 2-1 overtime loss. The way the overtime was going and how the goal was scored, I can't remember the last time I've seen almost all those in attendance stay seated with a stunned expression on their faces.

Hershey controlled the pace of the overtime with most of the time being spent the Falcons' zone. Andre Burakovsky was a beast in OT and it seemed like he was playing every other shift. Casey Wellman and Chris Brown both had excellent chances to put the game away. Wellman had a one-timer from the slot while Brown's chance moving left to right across the crease was just stopped by the toe pad of Falcons' goalie Anton Forsberg.

This was one of those run and gun type games but also a goaltenders battle. Both Philip Grubauer and Forsberg put on a display last night that showcased why they're two of the top 10 goalies in the league right now.

The Bears were outshot 10 to 6 in the first period and found themselves down 1-0. However, they would outshoot the Falcons 14 to 8 in the second and tie it 1-1 on a nice goal by Chandler Stephenson. On a rush in the early part of the period, as Stephenson skated over the blue line he received a pass from Byers and, at about the face-off dot, roofed the puck over the right shoulder of Forsberg into the top left corner.

As well as Grubauer played, the overtime goal was a tough one to let in. As Falcons' T.J. Tynan deked to his right, Grubauer moved with him but there was just enough room for the puck to hit the post and then bounce off Grubauer's leg to make it over the goal line.

Overall, the team had speed and were really gunning for the win last night. Unfortunately, the overtime got away from them and the Bears end up 0-1-1 for the weekend.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Lots Of Shots, But No Goals

Amid some controversy, Washington Capitals rookie Andrew Burakovsky has been assigned to Hershey for at least this weekend before the Christmas break. Some see the move as a way for Burakovsky to get more optimum playing time and aid the Bears offensive woes. Others think this is just a step towards his assignment to the Swedish team for the WJC over the holiday break. Either way, the fans in Hershey will be happy on Saturday night and packing Giant Center to see the Caps/Bears newest prospect.

My question is why they didn't use Burakovsky on a line with Tim Kennedy. I realize Troy Mann wants to put him on a top line so he'll get a lot of playing time, but playing with the Newbury, Casey Wellman and Dane Byers doesn't seem to be the wisest choice. There's a reason Kennedy has the most assists on the team and is second in the league. Although Burakovsky did play with Galiev at times, to spark Burakvosky's scoring prowess he should really be playing with Kennedy.

Anyway, the Bears came out on Friday night firing on all cylinders against LeHigh Valley. That translated into the Bears outshooting the Phantoms 16 to 1 in the first period. Unfortunately, they didn't plan on Phantoms' goalie Anthony Stolarz giving an outstanding performance for his second shutout of the season.

Except for not scoring, Hershey's offense was as good if not better than the wins over Binghamton and Bridgeport on the 13th and 5th of the month, respectively. Their passing was crisp and got shots on Stolarz from different areas of the ice. While the Bears only received two power play chances, they made the most of the opportunities with plenty of point shots and passes to the slot from out of the corner.

At the end of the night Burakovsky and Wellman recorded 4 shots a piece while Galiev and Byers had each.

Regarding goaltending, I've always liked the comparison to baseball. No matter how good a team is playing, if you run into a hot pitcher there's nothing you can do about it. The same with goaltending. When a goalie is on, he's on. Of course, I prefer it when that goalie is Philip Grubauer.

Not taking anything away from him, though he faced 18 total shots Grubauer played just as strong in keeping the score 1-0. The Phantoms had two power plays in the third period and could have gone up 2-0. But Grubauer came up with some big saves to keep Hershey in it.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Bears, Pens and Overtime

Of the seven games between the Bears and Pens so far, three have gone to overtime with the Bears winning one and the Pens two (including last night). I've about had my fill of Wilkes-Barre so far this season. After the New Year's Eve game, the new year can't come soon enough.

With the third game of the 3-in-3 scheduled for 4 PM on Sunday afternoon, you know the Bears weren't going to be able to bring the same intensity as they did Saturday night. That's not to say the game against the Pens was routine. Nothing with these teams ever is.

Instead, this meeting between the Bears and Pens was one of those quirky games where the first half completely different than the second and a bunch of odd things happened that no one expected.

Another low scoring game, the first period was again strategic and tight checking with both teams only recording about a hand full of shots a piece. Since Hershey and Wilkes-Barre have trended to these types of games this season, this Sunday game seemed like it was going to be tough to slog through being scoreless after one.

Making it 1-0 with a one-timer point shot from Conner Carrick on the power play early in the second, the Bears played evenly against Wilkes-Barre despite being outshot in the period 13-8.

Taking 4 penalties in the second, Hershey's penalty kill looked outstanding and Grubauer came up with some big saves on an extended 5-on-3. Unfortunately, the Bears took one too many as the Pens finally capitalized on their 6th power play chance.

To make matters worse, the Pens came right back and scored less than a minute later when the puck found Dominik Uher in the slot. And just like that it was 2-1 Wilkes-Barre.

The end of the third period showed how an odd bounce at one end of the ice can lead to another at the opposite end. With less than a minute to go and Grubauer pulled, the Pens came through the neutral zone on a two on two but missed the empty net. The Bears came back the other way and with 2.7 seconds remaining, Chris Brown, skating over the Pens' blue line, blasted a shot past Jeff Zatkoff.

Heading to overtime, it seemed like the Bears might be able to squeak out a win. Unfortunately, Wilkes-Barre would score off the rebound of a 3-on-1. After the initial shot and an excellent save by Grubauer, the trailing Bears' defenseman wasn't able to handle the puck. Conor Sheary re-corralled the puck and shipped it to Adam Payerl, who was standing to the right of the net.

The Bears captured 3 of a possible 6 points for the weekend. There are now two more games next weekend before the Christmas break.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Fights, Shots & Goals

With two fights within the first 3 minutes, Saturday night's game against the Binghamton Senators looked like it was going to be one of "those" games. By the end of the 5-2 win, Hershey would out shoot Binghamton 32 to 20 and combine for a total of 28 individual penalties.

Before the 10 minute mark of the first, Hershey was up 2-0 and would eventually outshoot the Senators 13 to 3 in the period. The second period would shake down the same way with the Bears out shooting Binghamton 14 to 8 and notching two more goals to lead 4-1.

The Bears passing and cycle game along the boards and in the corners were on point. In Tim Leone's post game Penn Live article, coach Troy Mann is quoted as saying the team took advantage of the Senator's vulnerability to cycling in certain areas. I've noted throughout the season so far that this Bears teams plays its best offensive game when it gets the cycle game going. It's not going to beat teams with plays off the rush.

Another area that the Bears excelled in last night was the back check. There were at least half a dozen instances when Hershey back checkers caused the Senators, coming out of their own end, to turn the puck over before they got to the red line. Because of Binghamton's aggressive offense, this led to quite a few 2-on-1's of the Bears.

Receiving the CCM Player of the Week award before the start of the game and then going on to be the game's number one star, Chris Conner continues to pile on the points. It's good timing that Conner and Stan Galiev have started to come on strong offensively just as Kris Newbury and Casey Wellman have tapered off. Once the Newbury, Wellman and Byers line gets rolling again, the Bears will be able to use two solid offensive lines interchangeably against an opponent's top lines.

Tim Kennedy finally notched only his second goal of the season but recorded his team and league leading 23rd assist.

Liam O'Brien was once again in the thick of it last night. Less than 2 minutes after the Joel Broda and Shane Prince fight to start the game, some post whistle activities involving O'Brien, Tim Spencer, and Michal Cajkovsky and Binghamton players broke out. In this go round, Spencer jumped in protect O'Brien and ended up fighting Darren Kramer.

Late in the second period, another skirmish would break out in the corner of the Senator's zone and O'Brien would face-off against Brad Mills while Cajkovsky squared off against Max McCormick. Luckily for both O'Brien Cajkovsky, both only received unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in the first period or they would have kicked out of the game for their second fights.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Third Period Goals Sink Bears

And so it continues. Another stellar performance by Philip Grubauer. Another goal by Stan Galiev, yet an overall lack of team offense. Despite being evenly matched against the Crunch last night, 3 goals in the last 5 minutes of the game were Hershey's undoing. Oh yeah, and Syracuse only had 4 total shots in the third period. So far this season, the Bears are 0-3 against Syracuse and have been outscored 13-3.

Stan Galiev now has 8 goals on the season and is second on the team behind Kris Newbury's 10. It seems like Galiev is becoming Hershey's version of Ovechkin. Just as long as he keeps putting up goals like he's has. On the power play setup, Troy Mann has plugged Galiev into the "Ovi spot".

And it payed off with the Bears only goal last night. Galiev's one-timer from right above the left face-off dot powered its way past the Syracuse goaltender's glove to make it 1-0 Bears.Philip Grubauer was again superb in net once more facing at least 30 shots in a game. Even though he gave up 3 goals and an empty netter, Grubauer was especially sharp in the 2nd and 3rd periods when the Crunch held extended offensive pressure in the Bears' zone.

The second period saw Grubauer fight off 14 shots by the Crunch including a late period 2-on-1 in which the rebound just rolled past the left post to keep it tied 1-1.

The effort of the night came from Liam O'Brien who fought Dalton Smith early in the 3rd period. Both are pretty evenly matched in size and weight. While O'Brien got in some really good shots, he took a couple big hits from Smith and was bloodied up quite a bit. About half way through you could tell O'Brien was dazed from a few punches from Smith, but O'Brien battled and threw some good ones of his own.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Bears Drop to Pens 3-2

With Steve Oleksy's goal coming just 39 seconds into the game to ignite the annual Teddy Bear Toss, it seemed like the excitement in the building would continue with the end-to-end action the Bears and Pens showed in the first period. However, no one expected the game to become a display of Hershey's outstanding penalty killing ability.

In the second period alone, Hershey had 5 penalties within twelve minutes including a 5-on-3 kill for two minutes. By the end of the second, the Bears had killed off all 7 penalties of the game while the Pens were 1 for 5 on theirs.

The frustration of the calls appeared to have gotten to the Bears when Chris Brown was called for a rather suspect tripping penalty. Brown was clearly not pleased with the penalty and even less so when Wilkes-Barres scored to take a 3-2 lead. Exiting the penalty box, Brown made his frustration known to referee Dave Lewis, who sent Brown right back in for an Unsportsmanlike Conduct penalty.

The Bears would get a few more calls in their favor but unfortunately weren't able to capitalize on them. The end of the game saw Hershey 1 for 8 on the penalty kill and Wilkes-Barre 1 for 7.

Another bright spot in the game was Stan Galiev continuing his torrid goal scoring pace. Three minutes into the second period and with the teams grouped in the left corner, Chris Conner found Galiev skating all alone down the slot. Taking a few strides, Galiev fired the puck into the top right corner over Zatkoff's glove hand. As Scott Stuccio commented during the broadcast, Galiev's goal was of NHL caliber. Indeed, his shots and goals recently have been hard and accurate in the way of NHL players.

While it would have been nice to see Hershey go 3-0 for the weekend, their overall play in each game shows that they're starting to turn the corner on the offensive struggles.

Next weekend sees the Bears up and down I-81 with Friday night in Syracuse, Saturday back in Hershey against Binghamton and Sunday up in Wilkes-Barre.

Bears Win Chess Match Against Pens

For most of the first period when it was scoreless and in the second with it 1-0 Hershey, I couldn't help but get the feeling of the Bears possible reversion to the struggle for offense. While last night's game against Wilkes-Barre was another low scoring affair, both teams battled strategically as was evidenced with the amount of board play along the half wall and in the corners. The Bears and Pens would get equal amounts of shots while Pheonix Copley and Matt Murray would each have to fight through extended pressure by the opposition in their respective ends.

Luckily, Chris Conner would exact some revenge on his former team by scoring the Bears' two goals in the 2-1 win. This was Conner's best game since returning from injury a few weeks ago. He's played well in prior games and recorded some assists, but last night it seemed like his speed and stick handling returned to form.

Conner's second goal and ultimate game winner displayed his precise shooting ability, which we haven't been able to see much of this season. Because of his injury, Conner only has 2 goals in 8 games coming into Saturday night's game. On the rush and skating down the right side of the ice, Conner took a pass from Kennedy and ended up with some extra room as he entered the Pens' zone.

Taking a shot from around the right face-off dot, Conner hit the top left corner of the net just over Murray's shoulder and knocked the water bottle off the top of the net.

Pheonix Copley continued his excellent play and was strong all game. Heading into the backend of the third period, it looked like Copley might get his third shutout of the season. Unfortunately, Bryan Rust fanned on a shot attempt which left Copley out of position when Rust buried the puck on his second try.

Even still, with his record now 4-3-0 Copley has a 1.84 GAA and .929 SAA. Those are very solid numbers considering that he's played sparingly in the past few weeks. And with Hershey playing so well defensively, his numbers should continue to improve once he gets another 5-10 games under him this season. With where things sit so far, that says quite a lot about not only the team's overall play but Copley's as well.

Which brings to mind: with so much talk about the Bears' current offensive struggles, are we seeing Barry Trotz's defensive influence now starting to show up in Troy Mann's coaching style? Before the start of the season I mentioned that Mann has now been mentored under quite diverse coaching styles. He learned the offensive game from Boudreau and French. Now he's learning the defensive side from Trotz. The fact that they're winning games through solid defensive play might show that those weekly conversations between Mann and Trotz is paying off.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Bears Bust Out With 6 Goals

It's a bit disheartening to see the depth of the Northeast Division. The Bridgeport Sound Tigers have more points than the Bears but are next to last in their division. The Bears have the same record as the Hartford Wolf Pack and they're in last place in the Northeast. As the conference grouping currently stands, the Bears sit in eighth place. It's a good thing Hershey has had success against the Wolf Pack so far this season.

Granted, things will change and some of those Northeast teams will drop out of playoff contention (hopefully). But it's going to be a tough slog in the back end of the season. Depending on how things pan out, it could eventually be a fierce battle for playoff position down the stretch.

Anyway, back to the game at hand. It looks like the changes Troy Mann has made in the past week might have paid off as the Bears defeated Bridgeport 6-3. This was a much more open and looser game. Both teams brought speed and there was continual end to end action that both goalies needed to be sharp.

Through the first and second periods, it appeared as though the Stan Galiev Show was going to continue as he notched 2 goals (5 total in 4 games). Most impressive was his power play goal late in the 2nd. With a lateral, cross crease pass from Chris Conner, Galiev one-timed the puck just over David Leggio's right. That's an NHL type shot that isn't seen much in the AHL. Not many guys can hit the 4 to 5 inch spot just above the goalie's shoulder at that speed.

With the Bears up 2-1, the Sound Tigers would end up taking a delay of game penalty at the close of the second and Hershey started the third on the power play. While not converting on the power play (going 2 for 7 in the game), shortly after the Bears would make it 3-1 with some incredible passing off the rush by the Broda-Mitchell-Gazley line. I don't know what was better: Broda's backhand shot to hit the top left corner of the net or Mitchell's backhand pass between the legs of the Bridgeport defender to Broda.

A few minutes later Chris Brown would make it 4-1 and it appeared as though Hershey had gotten over its offensive slump. With all the talk of Galiev's two goals, Brown scored 2 himself and was the game's number #2 star. But the Sound Tigers would climb back to make it 4-3 with around 11 minutes left in the game.

With the clock ticking down, it seemed as though it was going to be a battle to the end and Bridgeport would pull its goalie. But Brown would score his second with about two minutes left to make it 5-3. Less than a minute later Chris Brown scored on the power play and it was lights out Bridgeport. Hershey never gave the Sound Tigers a chance to pull Leggio. Which I think will give the Bears much needed confidence not having to eek out another one goal game.

Finally, Dane Byers was all over Bridgeport defenseman Mark Nemec. Byers had at least two highlight reel checks on Nemec in the third. Both times as Nemec was trying to skate out of his zone, Byers dumped him with a hip check in the left corner and drilled him with a stand up open ice hit in the right corner. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Bears Experiencing Scoring Woes...Solutions?

Editors Note - Sorry in advance, I got a little long-winded.

In the Bears first 9 games this season they scored at least 4 goals in a game 6 times.  Combined they scored 31 goals in those 9 games.

In their last 12 games they have scored 4 goals in a game only once.  Combined they have scored 19 goals.

First 9 games...32 goals.

Last 12 games...19 goals.


And that doesn't even tell you how bad it as been.

In the Bears last 5 games they have failed to score more than 1 goal in regulation.  Seriously.  In their last 5 games the Bears have scored a total of 4 goals.

The amazing part is that in those 5 games they are 3-2-0-0.

Yeah, I know.  The Bears have won 3 of their last 5 despite only scoring 4 goals in those 5 games.

There is little chance that many other AHL teams have ever acomplished that feat.

Alright, more than likely you already knew all of this.  But let me say that I believe this is good for the Bears.  This stretch tells us two things:

1. The defense and goaltending are really good.
2. When the playoffs come and games typically get tighter and lower scoring, the Bears will be experienced in that.

However, I would feel a whole lot better about their playoff chances if they could score some goals.

While waiting in line for the turkey shoot last Wednesday (I scored by the way) one guy made a pretty accurate comment to me.  He said that after the first 2 home games this season he was ready to send in his money for the playoff tickets.  But after this recent stretch he said he will hold on to his money for a while.

I completely agree.

So how do the Bears fix it?

Before the season even started I mentioned that there were no true go-to scorers on this team.  And that has proven true.

Sure, there is a ton of talent.  But 2 things stand out to me:

1. There seems to be no difference in how each line plays in the offensive zone.
2. The best offensive weapon is stuck with less talented line mates.

That player is Stanislav Galiev.  Everyone has known about his talent for a while now.  And damn, we have seen his skills in flashes this season.

In fact, he is the only Bear to score in the last 3 games.

So what's the problem?

The problem is all of those goals have come on the power play.

That's important, sure.  But what the Bears need is production at even strength.  Yet Galiev is playing with Chandler Stephenson and Nathan Walker.

Now let me stop and say this...I think Stephenson was the BEST forward on the ice (all-around) for Hershey the last few games and Walker is definitely fun to watch.

But neither are offensive stars in the making.  They aren't playmakers.  They are energy line guys.  There is nothing wrong with that.

Except when the 3rd guy on that line is also the best offensive weapon the Bears have.

Which brings me to point #1 from above, there is no separation of lines in Hershey.  Thanks the incredible depth the Bears seem to be running 4 scoring lines.

That sounds terrific...4 lines that can produce and score goals.  Awesome. is that working out?

What the Bears NEED are 2, maybe 3, scoring lines, and 2, or at least 1, energy line.

What is the difference?

For starters, the style is different.  Scoring lines enter the zone and try to create.  They move around, try to get open, and make extra passes trying to get the best shot.

That's a fine strategy.  It leads to goals because over the course of a game, the energy lines are tiring out the defense with a different style.

Except the Bears don't have an energy line.  They don't have a line that comes out, cycles the puck down low, and makes the defense really work to get the puck away from them.

So, in turn, the scoring lines don't have the luxury of space when the come on the ice.  Which results in stolen passes or never seeing a good look at the net.

Truth be told, Hershey's roster isn't constructed with a ton of energy line type guys.  Or checking line type guys.  It's a smaller roster overall, laden with playmakers.  But there are guys that can serve the role.

Here is what I want to see:

Brown - Newbury - Galiev

That would be my top line intially.  Brown is listed as a RW but I am sure he could make the switch.  You have the playmaking of Newbury with the scoring of Galiev and a guy in Brown that is big enough (and seemingly willing) to get dirty in front of the net.

Plus you know Galiev will be protected against physical defenseman since Newbury seems to be a rather angry person and Brown will stick his nose in as well.

Next up:

Cornet/Conner - Kennedy - Wellman

There is my second line.  Cornet would move to the press box when Conner is healthy, but both guys need to step it up a bit.  A smaller line, but some good offensive potential here.  If Wellman could play LW I would consider him for the top line.

So there are our two scoring lines.  Notice that Dane Byers hasn't been mentioned.  I love Dane.  Think he is a TERRIFIC player.

But he isn't an offensive weapon.  Not like the other guys. up:

Byers - Stephenson - Herbert/Mitchell

This is Garrett's spot when healthy, but Herbert's for now.  The old guy with the young guys.  An energy line.  Get the puck down low and start cycling.  Keep it moving and make the defense work to earn it.

And score a goal or two.  This would also be the line you want out against the other teams top scoring line since all these guys can play in their own zone.

And finally:

Walker - Broda - Gazley

Another energy line.  Throw this line out there and watch the speed take over.  Broda isn't fast, but the other two are and they will cause problems when they are out there together.

I personally believe if the Bears would create true scoring and energy lines they would be a better team going forward.

Unfortunately it does not appear that the coaching staff feels the same way.  The lines they were running at practice this week were the following:

Conner - Kennedy - Brown
Cornet - Wellman - Gazley/Herbert
Byers - Broda - Mitchell
Walker - Stephenson - Galiev

Newbury was sidelined with a back injury so he didn't practice, but I would expect him back at C on line 2 if he was healthy with Wellman moving to right wing.

The top 2 lines aren't terrible...but they still have the most talented offensive player Hershey has playing with 2 guys that aren't going to help him create.

Personally I think that this team will always be performing below their potential until they make room for Galiev to play with the top offensive playmakers like Wellman, Newbury, or Kennedy.

But hey, what do I know.

Hopefully the drills Mann is running and the (slightly) adjusted lines will do the trick.