Monday, January 19, 2015

Bears Increase Division Lead

This was a relatively light weekend for the Bears in comparison to the other teams in the division. Both the Albany Devils and LeHigh Valley Phantoms played 3-in-3 (plus traveling) while the Hershey was at home for just two. Looking back, the road trip to start the season and how well the Bears played is now paying off with more home stands and a less rugged schedule. This combination can definitely be seen as favoring the Bears' climb into first place in the division.

Last night, Hershey rolled over LeHigh Valley 5-2 and outshot the Phantoms 37-30 including putting up 17 shots in the second period alone. In addition, while the penalty kill faltered a bit last night against Albany (allowing 3 PP goals in 5 chances), tonight the Bears killed off all 8 power plays for the Phantoms.

Another benefit of the lighter schedule is slowly getting Grubauer and Copley back into the consistency of play. With Grubauer being out injured and Copley on recall last weekend, neither goalie has played a game in about two weeks. In Tim Leone's Penn Live bullet points from the weekend and in the broadcasts, it was noted that at times both goalies struggled a bit to fight off shots.

Hershey will continue this schedule trend with a game in Allentown on Wednesday and one in Hershey on Saturday against the Binghamton Senators. I would expect Grubauer and Copley to each get a game. This takes the Bears into the final weekend of the month and February where they'll have a whole month of 3-in-3's. Getting both goalies back up to game speed and splitting time will be paramount for a successful February.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Bears 1st in East with OT Win

Heading into overtime last night against the Albany Devils, the Bears achieved the one point minimum they needed to take over first place in the East Division. With Stan Galiev's game winning goal on the power play (his second of the game), the Bears got the full 2 points from the win and are now one point ahead of Wilkes-Barre for the division lead.

In hindsight, this one seemed primed to be a barn burner. What with Casey Wellman scoring 10 seconds into the game and Tomas Kundratek making it 2-0 a couple minutes later. The rest of the way would see Albany always climbing back to tie the game every time Hershey would take the lead.

Special teams were on display though it was rough time for the penalty killers of both teams. Overall, the Bears ended up 3 for 7 on the power and play and the Devils 3 for 5. Hershey has now dropped to 5th overall in the league with an 86.9 penalty kill percentage. Despite this slip they're still first overall in the Eastern Conference.

A few games/posts ago I mentioned the need for the Bears to better learn "timeliness" and "strategy". Last night's third period was another one of those situations. With Albany's Dan Kelly's elbowing (though I'd considered it boarding) of Garrett Mitchell head first in the boards along the benches, the Bears found themselves with a 5 minute power play with about 9 minutes left in the game.

Going into the third period tied 4-4, this was the key moment of the game and the Bears needed to come through and score at least once on this power play. Unfortunately, even though they had plenty of great chances, Hershey wasn't able to succeed in scoring on the power play.

With anything happening in overtime, especially on the three-on-three, the Bears have to recognize the timeliness of opportunities. And they would come through on the second opportunity. Just as the OT was going to 3-on-3, Albany took a slashing call and Hershey got a 4-on-3 power play.

Unlike the 5-on-3 in the third, on this power play Stan Galiev was not to be denied. Right before the game winner, Galiev had two or three shot attempts from the point area; first from the right side of the ice and then cycling to the left face-off dot.

The Bears play LeHigh Valley tonight at Giant Center. Hershey is two points up on the Phantoms but overall LeHigh Valley has one game in hand.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Bears Fall 4-2 In Fight Filled Game

This was probably the nastiest game of the year so far for the Bears. The first and second periods featured 3 separate fighting majors and borderline scuffle between Conner Carrick and Nic Kerdiles. Norfolk defenseman Nathan McIver was ejected from the game less than a minute into the 2nd period for his second fight of the game.

Where Nate Schmidt was the hero last night for the Bears, Emerson Etem was tonight for the Admirals with 2 goals and an assist. In the end, too many penalties cost the number one penalty kill in the league as both of Etem's goals were on the power play.

Despite the fights and being genially outplayed by the Admirals in this game, the Bears can take away the following lessons as they begin to prepare for the second half of the season: strategy and timeliness.

With Kris Newbury scoring around the 12 minute mark of the third to get within a goal, Hershey had an opportunity to get back into the game. And the Bears did start to press the Admirals. Then, with about a minute and 15 seconds left in the game, the Bears would find themselves on a 5-on-3 power play. Justin Peters pulled; 6-on-3.

They used their timeout and with the face-off in the Norfolk end, the timing was set for the Bears to tie the game. Unfortunately, the Admirals killed the brief 6-on-3 and hit the empty netter with 30 seconds left in the game.

For the most part, the setup on the power play was completely ineffective. I've seen it too many times when a team is on a two man advantage and everyone just stands around passing the puck and hoping to get the perfect shot. To do that, not only is quick passing needed but player movement as well. The Bears did neither of those.

In the future, when an opportunity like this arises for the Bears to tie the game with a man advantage, they need to have a better strategy. Being presented an opportunity and knowing how to execute is what separates a team that tries to win with one that knows how to.

Nate Schmidt Leads Bears In Win Over Admirals

So, Steve Oleksy goes up to Washington and Nate Schmidt comes down to Hershey. And continuing with this odd weekend of hockey, a Washington Capitals' regular leads the Bears to a win. Saturday night was Nate Schmidt's opportunity to get some extended playing time and he wracked up 2 goals and an assist in a 3-1 win over the Norfolk Admirals.

What a difference one year of NHL experience makes. Schmidt had as many goals in one game back as he did in 38 games last season. It's amazing to see how much his skill level has increased in comparison to other AHLer's. There were moments last night when Schmidt skated the puck up the ice and just blew by everyone like they were standing still.

Also, the other Hershey defensemen should take note of his shot from the point. He has a quick release that is powerful and accurate, which were key contributors for his 2 goals. In fact, it didn't seem like any of his shots were blocked. And by the end of the game, Schmidt, along with Chris Brown, led the team with 5 shots a piece.

Credit should also be given to Brandon Anderson as he made his first career AHL start and only allowed 1 goal on 30 shots. While he didn't have to be spectacular, Anderson played consistently solid throughout the game and fought off some very good chances by the Admirals.

On a side note, I knew that Dany Heatley was picked up by the Anaheim Ducks in the off-season but wasn't aware that he was sent to Norfolk in early December and then placed on waivers. He's played about a hand full of AHL games so far. As is usually the case when a high profile player is down in the minors, everyone wants to take a piece and put him in his place. Heatley came out playing physical and got into a brief scrap with Kris Newbury early on. For the most part, Heatley was quiet last night with only 1 shot.

Both Justin Peters and Nate Schmidt will play in this afternoon's part two against the Admirals. Afterwards, it appears everyone will be re-assigned to their respective teams. Let's hope to make this a 3-for-3 weekend.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Justin Peters Leads Bears In Shutout

Well, the setup to the first game between the Bears and Devils ended up being more interesting than usual. The Albany fans were treated to not one but two NHL goaltenders as the starters last night. I don't follow either Albany or New Jersey but I was surprised to see Scott Clemmensen starting and that he's played more games in the AHL this season than the NHL. A perennial backup, I figured Clemmensen would be past this point in his career. Especially with the opportunity he had in Florida the past couple of years to take on more responsibility.

For Hershey, it was rumored earlier in the week that Justin Peters might be sent down to get some games in since he hadn't played since November and Holtby has taken over as an iron man starter in Washington. It was announced Thursday night that Peters would indeed join the Bears in Albany and start in goal Friday and Sunday. I also think the push to get Peters in goal Friday was because of the years he spent playing in Albany. This was a treat not only for the fans but for him as well.

This turn of events makes an interesting scenario for Pheonix Copley. He's played great in his 11 starts so far but has seen limited action recently because of how well Grubauer has been performing. But with Grubauer out with a lower body injury, now would be the time for Copley to show what he can do with the starting position. Much the way Holtby did in 2009-10 when Neuvirth went down with injury late in the season.

Indeed, before the announcement was official, it was figured that Copley would start two games this weekend and Peters might play Saturday night. Now, Peters is slated for Friday/Sunday and Copley is recalled to backup Holtby in Washington. The question now is, who's going to start in goal for Hershey on Saturday night?

This makes you wonder about the timing of opportunities. Copley went from finally getting the chance to get some consistent starts to sitting on the bench in Washington where he most likely won't see any ice time.

As for the game, Scott Stuccio's Penn Live post game blog post sums up the main highlights perfectly. Neither team played particularly aggressive and there was limited physicality. But they both played an open style last night which lead to great end to end play, especially in the third period.

The first period goals by Brown and Galiev less than a minute apart were both NHL caliber plays and the second period shorthanded disallowed goal by Stephenson was the main turning point of the game. The Bears lose the chance to go up 3-0 and then have to kill a 5-on-3 for almost a minute. If the Devils score there, it's a one goal game or maybe tied and the game goes in a different direction.

Hershey would it make 3-0 early in the third period on the power play as Brown would get his second goal of the game. That power play goal really highlighted the Bears' excellent ability for passing and cycling the puck in the corner and along the wall. The play perfectly setup Brown in the slot.

The Bears are back in Hershey Saturday and Sunday in back to back games against the Norfolk Admirals.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Copley/Cornet Lift Bears In Shootout 2-1

During the broadcast last night at the end of the overtime, Scott Stuccio exclaimed that the Bears owned the additional seven minute frame. And indeed they did; outshooting the Pens 4 to 2 and keeping the puck in the offensive end for the entirety of the 3-on-3 portion.

The first period saw the Pens outshoot the Bears 12 to 4 and get a chance to score the games'  first goal with a 5-on-3 for a minute and a half. However, Hershey would kill off the two-man advantage and progressively take control of game as it worn on; outshooting the Pens 10 to 8 in the second and 11 to 4 in the third.

In a bullet points PennLive post game blog by Tim Leone, Dane Byers' "crushing" hit on defenseman Taylor Chourney about a minute in set the pace for how the rest of the game would play out. Even with fewer penalties than usual, this game was still a bit grittier than the prior ones though the emotion didn't boil over beyond the Byers' hit.

After being a healthy scratch in the NYE game, Philippe Cornet responded nicely by providing a screen for Erik Burgdoerfer's and then tallying the only shootout goal. I thought that he should have been named of the game's three stars but I understand they'd give it to Burgdoerfer for his first AHL goal.

Late in the third, the Bears had prime opportunities to get the go ahead goal but just were't able to capitalize. With less than two minutes remaining, Stan Galiev was tripped as he flew down the left side wall entering the Pens' zone. Unfortunately, the power play would only last 30 seconds as a fumbled pass on the blue line caused Galiev to hook one of the Pens' penalty killers.

However, in that 30 seconds Chris Brown had an excellent chance from the slot as he one-timed a pass from behind the net. Brown's shot was only overshadowed by Jeff Zatkoff's more impressive quick glove save. The Bears and Pens played 4-on-4 into the OT before a brief and ineffectual Wilkes-Barre power play. From there, it was all Hershey.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Former Bear Update - Mathieu Perreault

This is something I've been wanting to do for a while now, but time has just not permitted it. However, with the way the seasons are progressing in both the NHL and AHL I thought now might be a good time.

I'm a HUGE Mathieu Perreault fan and have followed him since his first game in Hershey. It was great to see that he was one of the few players from the Calder Cup teams to make it to the Caps full time. And it was disappointing that he got traded to the Ducks last season. But I was hoping he'd find a spot in Anaheim since Perreault was always so touted by Bruce Boudreau. Unfortunately that didn't work out either.

Now signed with Winnipeg, I decided I'd start following the Jets more closely this season and watch Perreault's progress. First off…WOW are the Jets a really fun team to watch. I know they've struggled since making the move from Atlanta but it looks like things are clicking this season. I could go on and on about how exciting they are to watch and they're possible playoff chances.

The Jet's offense has used its speed, passing and cycling game to its advantage game in and game out this season. And Perrault has become a big part of that as he's finally rounded into a top six regular. When he was with Washington and Anaheim, Perreault always seemed to be a step behind and needed to skate twice as hard just to keep up with the play (especially the end to end rushes).

Now, whether through better conditioning or just becoming a more mature player, Perreault does't seem to have those issues anymore. He keeps up with the play more easily and has been getting to the open areas for a pass or goal.

The season didn't start out that way though. Perreault's first "goal" of the season didn't occur until his shootout winner against the Ottawa Senators on November 8th. He wouldn't get his first official goal until 10 days later in a 3-1 win over the New Jersey Devils on November 18th. Since then he's moved to 5th on the Jets in scoring with 9 goals and 10 assists. With a bit more than half the season to go, Perreault is on pace to at least match and probably exceed his stats from last season.

Check out the highlights of the Jets' wins against Chicago right before and Minnesota right after Christmas. Perreault seems to have the hot hand lately and put up some really nice goals.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

One Penalty Too Many

Maybe it was because both teams wanted to maneuver into first place in the East Division. Maybe it was because both teams have become more strategic in their play against each other (both offensively and defensively). Maybe it was because Bobby Farnum has been up in Pittsburgh on recall for a couple weeks now.

Whatever the reason, what we got was another tightly played, low scoring game with little fighting or physicality between the Bears and Pens that led to another shutout. Despite killing off three straight penalties in the first period, Hershey would take a fourth late in the second the Penguins would capitalize in the final minute. Likewise, the Wilkes-Barre knocked in a turnover in the last minute of the third to make it 2-0.

Win or lose; goals or shutout, I never thought it would be this exciting and fun to follow a team when it's best player is the goaltender. Most of the teams I watch (NHL/AHL) are well balanced but are specifically offensively talented/minded (Pens/Caps/Avs). It appears the 2014-15 Bears is becoming a team lives and dies by its goalie.

I imagine this is what it was like to follow the New Jersey Devils with Martin Brodeur or currently the Nashville Predators with Pekka Rinne. While the lack of goals can be frustrating, watching Grubauer's superb play night in and night out is reassuring that this Bears club will have the opportunity to try and take the division this season.

The Bears are lucky to have been flush with high quality goaltenders the past 6-7 years. Varlmov, Neuvirth, Holtby; all are now starters for their respective NHL teams. When Neuvy was still with the Caps and Holtby was getting regular call-ups, many of the TV commentators said that Holtby, because of his skill and talent, was the future goalie of Washington.

That being said, Philip Grubauer may actually be the best goalie of that entire group. Varlamov, Neuvirth and Holtby all had better offensive teams in front of them and in some cases better individually talented defensemen. Grubauer has an overall more defensive-minded team in front of him and the team stats prove it. Hershey has the best penalty killing % in the league and is 3rd/4th best in GA. Also, Grubauer is single-handedly winning games for the Bears by keeping the team in the low scoring games.

While Grubauer left the game early in the third period after making a diving split save with his right pad, the apparent injury didn't appear to be too serious and is mostly likely just a leg strain or groin pull. The Bears play the Pens for the 10th time this season on Saturday night in Hershey. No matter the seriousness of the injury, Pheonix Copley will most likely get the start as he's been used sparingly recently. That's the only game of the weekend and then Hershey will get a week off which should give Grubauer plenty of time to rest.