HERSHEY, Pa. – The Hershey Bears and the Bridgeport Islanders are set to square off in a pair of games at Giant Center on Friday and Saturday for the first time this season, and this series represents a unique test for both teams at this early stage of the 2022-23 season. Bridgeport currently sits at second in the Atlantic Division, while Hershey is nipping at their heels at fourth place, with the teams separated by three points in the standings. The battle is far more than an early struggle for positioning, though, as the styles of both teams are essentially opposite as to how they’ve gotten to this point early in the season.
Of all the teams in the AHL, none have scored more goals than the Islanders this season. Bridgeport has filled their opponent’s net with 40 goals in just ten games, averaging four goals per game and have been held to fewer than three goals in just two games this season. One of those games was the Islanders’ most recent game, a 1-0 loss to the division-leading Providence Bruins, and entering play on Friday, it serves as the team’s biggest challenge to see if it’s a flash in the pan or any new struggles for the team.
Bridgeport’s leading scorer is Ruslan Iskhakov, who has four goals and ten assists in ten games as the league’s top scoring rookie at this point in the season and is tied for first in the league in points. Veteran forward Andy Andreoff leads the team in goals with six.
An early storyline for the series will be if scorer Chris Terry plays as he was sidelined with an injury last weekend. Terry has been a big time AHL scorer in his career and has always found a way to light the lamp against Hershey.
However, if there has been any area of concern for the Islanders early in the season, it’s the number of goals they’ve allowed as they sit tied for second-most at 30 goals against. The Islanders have managed to fill their opponent’s goal far more often than they’ve had it come back to bite them, but three of their next four games are played against two of the stingiest teams in the league in the Bears and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
The two Pennsylvania rivals are coming off three games in rapid succession against each other, with Hershey scoring a collective seven goals in that span to Wilkes-Barre’s six. The Penguins lead the league with only 19 goals against in nine games while the Bears have allowed 21 goals in the same span, making this stretch represent a big test for the Islanders’ ability to win by scoring more goals.
The Bears have managed to parlay some success against the Penguins into a four-game point streak to move up the field in the early Atlantic Division race. Hershey’s success has not come without its own fair share of areas to improve upon as Sunday’s game evidenced, where the team let a 4-0 lead whittle down to 4-3 on home ice against Wilkes-Barre, something that head coach Todd Nelson was very displeased by. It put a sour note on what otherwise was a solid weekend, with goals from a number of new faces as well as top scorers like Mike Sgarbossa.
Hershey would love to have an offensive outburst against a team that allows goals like Bridgeport has, as the Bears sit tied for 27th in the league in goals for and have had no more than four goals in a single game.
Hershey’s defense and goaltending certainly have the ability to steal games between Zach Fucale and Hunter Shepard, who both rank among the league’s top netminders, and it’s up to the offense to start clicking in order for the Bears to continue their climb in the standings.
It all builds up to a very interesting set of games on the AHL’s calendar. The Islanders are looking to keep their foot on the gas pedal by finding more scoring, but it’s always easier said than done against the Bears at Giant Center, where the Chocolate and White have always historically found success. The Bears are looking to find their offensive groove while continuing their strong defense and bringing a full sixty-minute effort against one of the division’s top teams. The two teams only match up six times across the 72-game slate this season, making each contest a must-watch as a potential playoff preview should their seasons remain strong.
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