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AHL’s Pennsylvania Rivalry Series Wasting Little Time In Heating Up

AHL’s Pennsylvania Rivalry Series Wasting Little Time In Heating Up

HERSHEY, Pa. – In the AHL’s Atlantic Division, the road to being the top team goes through the Keystone State, home of the Hershey Bears, Lehigh Valley Phantoms, and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Not only does the division represent a trio of fierce rivalries in the NHL with the Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers, and Pittsburgh Penguins, but proximity breeds hatred, and with each team set to face each other in double-digit figures again this season it’s sure to be another big season in 2022-23. Each team’s record against the others often hinges on their playoff fates as well, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one combination as a matchup in the Calder Cup Playoffs when the spring rolls around.

The two teams play an imbalanced number of games with the Penguins playing 24 games against their in-state rivals, while the Bears and Phantoms play 26 games thanks to a 14-game slate between the two clubs this season. It was the same a year ago in the 2021-22 campaign, where the teams played each other early and often in large stretches and were contending for playoff spots nearly down to the final days of the season. Below are the records against each other throughout the 2021-22 campaign:

Bears: 14-11-1-0

Phantoms: 14-10-2-0

Penguins: 10-12-1-1

As expected, the parity between the three teams is reflected in their relatively close proximity in the standings. Despite earning the most points of the three, the Phantoms missed the playoffs, while the Penguins suffered the most from a scheduling disadvantage during the time when they were most impacted by personnel losses related to COVID-19 in December and January, losing a number of games notably to the Bears before going on a hot streak in the second half of the season.

Conversely, Hershey started off well, but its own roster struggles resulted in a disappointing second half of the campaign. The Pennsylvania series ultimately culminated in Wilkes-Barre’s Game 3 overtime win off the stick of Alex Nylander in the AHL’s new first round to get them past Hershey before being swept by the Springfield Thunderbirds in the next round.

All three teams are loading up on personnel to make this season as interesting as ever. The Phantoms landed some veterans like Troy Grosenick in goal, Louie Belpedio on the back end, and young forwards like a healthy Tyson Foerster and Jackson Cates will no doubt push the Phantoms back into the playoff conversation. The Penguins are fielding a much younger lineup to compliment their budding stars like Nylander, Sam Poulin, and Valtteri Puustinen. A healthy battle is shaping up in the crease with Filip Lindberg fully healthy alongside veteran Dustin Tokarski and rookie Taylor Gauthier. Nathan Legare and Drew O’Connor continue to push for spots in the big club as well. The Bears had young prospects Hendrix Lapierre, Henry Rybinski, and Vincent Iorio join the professional ranks alongside the free agent acquisitions of Aaron Ness and Sam Anas to supplement their core group as they look to quickly reload into a playoff run. Most of these players are joining Pennsylvania teams to experience the rivalry firsthand.

It’s a bit unsurprising that the Pennsylvania series will be a large feature of the AHL’s opening weekend, with the Phantoms making the trip to Mohegan Sun Arena to take on the Penguins on Saturday night before making the trip to Giant Center to play the Bears the next day. The series will hold intrigue all the way down to the final weekend of the season where the Bears and Phantoms will meet for the 14th and final time in the Sweetest Place on Earth to cap off each team’s season with the final installment of the series. Each Atlantic Division team has to make the trek through the Keystone State at some point with key points on the line, and the new year will be no different with plenty of exciting hockey to watch.

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