HERSHEY, Pa. – The Hershey Bears are back in action this weekend for a trip up to Syracuse to take on the Crunch, followed by a visit from the Charlotte Checkers on Sunday evening.
This weekend’s story will be the incredible test the team faces playing without a number of lineup regulars and finding a way to score goals in their absence. While the Bears sit at 5-3-2-1 through 11 games played, earning points in November makes life easier for teams down the stretch in March and April, and this situation is no different.
The Bears are missing key players in almost every fashion imaginable in the AHL. The biggest absences are Brett Leason, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Aliaksei Protas, and most recently goaltender Zach Fucale, who impressed in his NHL debut on Thursday with a 21 save clean sheet for the Washington Capitals. While seeing first goals and first wins is what the Bears and their fans love to see, it does present a glaring hole in the team’s lineup and create a question of where the goal-scoring will come from in their absence. In many ways, Hershey and their NHL affiliate in Washington are going through similar problems, as the Caps look to find scoring in different areas with a number of their big guns on the shelf, none bigger than Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie.
Hershey is in a similar situation, missing key players like Brian Pinho, Cody Franson, Mike Vecchione, and Eddie Wittchow, all on the shelf with injuries. All of those players have come through in scoring at different points and are play drivers for the team. Similarly, defenseman Dylan McIlrath will serve the second of a two-game suspension doled out by the AHL over the weekend. On Wednesday, the Bears found out the hard way what happens when they give up too much, seeing an early lead go by the wayside en route to a 4-1 loss to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. The team has lived by a “next man up” mentality that’s gotten them through some similarly tough times over the last couple of years, but in a full season, it’s a situation that would ideally be as short term as possible.
The good news is that the big guns have lived up to their reputation so far, but the heroics of Mike Sgarbossa and Garrett Pilon will only carry the team for so long. Both players are nearly point-per-game paces to start the season and connected for the lone Hershey tally on Wednesday. The Bears arguably have some potential that’s yet to be tapped throughout their lineup, and it would be Hershey’s benefit to get a few goals up and down their lineup, much in the way Joe Snively’s hat trick and Kale Kessy’s tally boosted the team to a win over the Springfield Thunderbirds a week ago. Players who fit this bill are players like Snively, Beck Malenstyn, and Shane Gersich, who have provided key goals in their tenure as Bears, but play specific roles throughout the game. When Hershey is at their best in all areas, these players will get opportunities to put the puck in the net.
— Bears Hockey Nation (@HBHNationBlog) November 11, 2021
The Bears will have to continue to rely on Pheonix Copley in goal who has been stellar, but much in the same way Fucale was thrust into the spotlight in Washington, so too will Hunter Shepard be relied on in Hershey’s net this weekend while the team plays on consecutive nights. Shepard has been up and around the team on a couple of instances but hasn’t seen game action yet. Shepard went 3-0-0-0 in action last season and was part of a tandem that brought the South Carolina Stingrays to the Kelly Cup Finals that season. Shepard, who was signed to an NHL contract over the summer, could be the future in goal in Hershey, and it’s an early chance for him this season after a lot of optimism a year ago.
Another area for optimism is that, although the 4-1 loss on Wednesday was certainly not the team’s best display, head coach Scott Allen was correct in his assessment that the span of three-plus minutes doomed them in the second period, the Bears did play a much healthier Phantoms team evenly. The Bears had a 32-22 edge in shots on goal and a 15-7 third-period lead, but the issue is that they could not get any goals. With offense at a premium, the key will be for Hershey to win games through strong defense against many offensively potent teams in the AHL this season and hope for a return to health sooner rather than later.
Responding well to Wednesday’s loss will be important, and playing a solid 60-minute effort will be the top priority for the Bears on Saturday night in Syracuse. While the team is by no means in a bad spot right now, sitting third in the Atlantic Division despite playing one of the fewest amounts of games early this season, gutting out some wins in this tough time is perhaps the biggest early test of the season. The team will be able to prove themselves in the process.
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