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Bears, Bruins Collide in Atlantic Showdown

#AHL | Question: which bear is best? @FPHBears breaks down a battle of the bears this weekend as @TheHersheyBears and @AHLBruins get ready for a heavyweight showdown this weekend

Photo via Carl Minieri / Field Pass Hockey

Bears, Bruins Collide in Atlantic Showdown

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Which bear is best? The question, originating from the popular show The Office, takes on a whole new meaning when applied to the American Hockey League’s Providence Bruins and Hershey Bears. Both teams will duke it out in a pair of must-see games this weekend from Amica Mutual Pavilion in Providence, which will most likely end in one team exiting with the Atlantic Division crown.

The two teams have already matched up three times this season, with all three taking place in Hershey, and these latest installments of the games serve as an early look at playoff hockey in March. Providence has taken two of the three prior meetings so far, but with all three games decided by just one goal, it figures to be a measuring-stick game for both clubs.

The last matchup between the two teams took place this past Saturday, where the Bruins tallied the only goal despite firing just 11 shots on Bears backstop Hunter Shepard. The low shot count set a franchise record for the Bears in their 85th anniversary season as the lowest count allowed by the Chocolate and White in a single game all-time, while host Hershey put on 22 shots and couldn’t find the finishing blow on some quality chances. It’s been a running trend at times over the last few months where the Bears do a good job of creating opportunities for themselves but don’t score a goal, whether it be by trying to make the perfect pass or go for the highlight-reel move rather than going for a greasy goal. Hershey’s head coach Todd Nelson is aware of the issue.

“We had two-on-one chances or partial two-on-ones and we tried to get too fancy and we got no shot on net. That’s playoff-style hockey, you want to put pucks, shot volume on the net. We’ve got to learn from this and move on, but I thought we played well enough to win.”

It’s a worrying trend for the Bears, who have been shut out on three separate occasions since the end of January with a similar pattern emerging. As Nelson mentioned, there’s still time for the Bears to make corrections before the playoffs, with one area in particular being the power play.

“I thought we had chances on our power play that we just didn’t bury or didn’t finish,” he said. “We have to finish, there’s a game plan, if the guys follow it, there’s openings to score goals and it’s up to them to execute. I thought our execution was one play off tonight.”

Hershey’s power play sits at 17.3% going into the weekend, third from the bottom in the Eastern Conference despite some hefty scoring personnel available to them. Forward Ethen Frank leads the team with nine power play goals, with Mike Vecchione not far behind at five, and three others at three tallies. The good news for Hershey is that their overall game has been solid, reflected in their plus-23 goal differential tied only with the Toronto Marlies as the top dog in the East in that regard. It’s particularly impressive given the strong competition in the Atlantic Division compared to the rest of the league, and despite their struggles, once the Bears find their finishing touch they’ll be one of the most fearsome teams in the AHL.

The Bruins are looking to get back on track with some recent struggles. Although their win against the Bears on Saturday was an impressive two points to pull off, their own offensive struggles have peaked in recent time. Providence’s last game was a 3-1 loss to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms on Sunday, their fifth loss in their last seven games. The Bruins have been uncharacteristically leaky in that span with losses by a 7-1 count to the Bridgeport Islanders and a 5-1 loss to the Rochester Americans preceding Saturday’s win, being outscored by a 15-4 margin in their last four games. That mark has just one goal scored in each of their last four games. The struggles come on the heels of a six-game winning streak for the Bruins in February, and it remains to be seen if it is only a bump in the road or the start of a larger issue.

Both teams have been making due without some significant personnel. Providence has been without a pair of their top scorers in Vinni Lettieri and Luke Toporowski since the end of January. Both players suffered injuries that have caused them to miss significant time, and despite missing a month’s worth of action already, Lettieri still ranks second on the team in terms of points with 37 (16 goals, 21 assists) in 41 games played. Meanwhile, Hershey is without a plethora of defenders due to their National Hockey League affiliate in Washington dealing with major losses on the back end. The Bears did receive captain Dylan McIlrath back from the Capitals this week for the first time in a month, but remain without outstanding rookie Vincent Iorio and steady plus/minus leader Gabriel Carlsson. The Bears have made due with their current group, with steady depth defenders like Logan Day and Jake Massie continuing to step up. It’s worth pointing out that Saturday’s contest happened without the likes of these players in their respective lineups, and may happen again this weekend.

The Bruins will be in action before the Bears, visiting the Springfield Thunderbirds on Friday while the Bears will already be in town and preparing for Saturday’s game in a similar vein to last week’s set of games. It will be worth watching to see if that has an impact in the back portion of the schedule this weekend. One team that stands to benefit from this head-to-head set will be the Charlotte Checkers, who would love a pair of regulation decisions combined with their wins to try and move closer to second place and a real shot at moving into one of the byes in the first round that comes with it. The Bruins have a five point lead and the Bears a six spot on the Checkers, but a favorable swing could cut that gap entirely should the Checkers form a winning streak down the stretch.

However, it would be foolish for the Checkers to expect the sixth-seeded Islanders to roll over for them as they push for a playoff spot as Bridgeport has upset several higher-ranked teams including Providence in their pursuit of the playoffs. Bridgeport took the first of three games between the teams on Wednesday with a narrow 3-2 decision on home ice. Charlotte still has two head-to-head sets of games with both the Bears and the Bruins before the season’s end. It all adds up to an interesting weekend of hockey with plenty of implications on the standings between two teams that have had their struggles in recent time and are mirror images of each other in their approach to the game.

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