HERSHEY, Pa. – The Hershey Bears are in the midst of a break surrounding COVID-19 concerns that have the team off the ice for about a week. Two games against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms were postponed as a result of this, with make-up dates yet to be determined. It’s a story that has a similar feeling to last season, where the Bears and Phantoms lost a few games due to similar concerns that ultimately were not played, but this season will likely see the games rescheduled eventually. The break gives the Bears and their fans a chance to catch their breath a bit after a few games, and everyone gets a reset before beginning the month of December.
Hershey is looking for consistency when they hit the ice again, coming off a difficult month of November. The Bears went 3-5-1-1 in the second month of the season, a stark contrast to their 4-1-1-1 count in October, and there’s a variety of factors to consider for such a contrast. The team was without key contributors like Brian Pinho and Mike Vecchione, who were both injured in a November 5 game against the Springfield Thunderbirds, and have spent a large amount of time without key players like Mike Sgarbossa, Beck Malenstyn, Brett Leason, and Aliaksei Protas. Combined, the Bears have suddenly lost two lines worth of forwards for the majority of this month and now the season, and it’s taken some navigation to improve upon.
This area has seen better recent results for the Bears, as players once considered depth on the chart have now taken bigger roles and contributed more scoring as a result. Joe Snively is one example of a player that has run away with the opportunity, while others have started to come around like Shane Gersich, Mason Morelli, and Ryan Dmowski, who have all chipped in with goals and points. The top guys have been just that of late, with Garrett Pilon and Axel Jonsson-Fjallby proving they are leaders at this level with strong play. Pilon in particular has six points (three goals, three assists) in his last five games played, including goals in three straight games. Although it’s a mixed group for the Bears, those players have done their part to make up for the lost scoring up front.
— Bears Hockey Nation (@HBHNationBlog) November 25, 2021
Where the Bears have not succeeded, is on defense, which is a large reason why their month of November went sour. The Bears allowed the third-fewest goals against in the AHL a season ago, which went a long way towards Hershey’s first-place finish, and the numbers likely would have favored the Chocolate and White further had the rest of the league played a similar number of games. This season represents the starkest of changes in that regard, as the Bears currently sit at 27th in the league in goals-against despite sitting at a good place in points earned. The Bears allowed 77 goals in 33 games during the 2020-21 season, and this year’s team has allowed 58 in just 17 games played. A similar reflection is found in penalty kill percentages, where Hershey ranked eighth-best a year ago, while sitting 28th in the league as of this writing, having surrendered another four goals while short a man against the Rochester Americans on November 26.
The main issue with Hershey’s penalty kill has mainly been that they’ve been called on far too often in recent times, a strain that would buckle any penalty kill unit. The Bears were on the kill nine times in their loss to the Americans, and with 17 minor penalties in their past two games, it is hard to sustain a lead. Although the blame isn’t squarely on the team’s shoulders, it seems at times that the Bears have gotten away from head coach Scott Allen‘s philosophy of controlling the controllable. The team has run into issues with players who get shorter leashes than others based on reputation, such as Kale Kessy and Dylan McIlrath, who get less mercy from the officials at times but are well-liked and bring their own elements to the table. A healthier Bears lineup has not only taken fewer penalties but kills more as well, particularly with the defensive skills of Pinho a huge boost in that regard. One early example was Hershey’s October 17 win over Lehigh Valley, in which the Bears held the Phantoms empty on eight chances on the kill with Pinho in the lineup.
Those defensive issues have plagued the Bears in a few key games recently where the team tried to put its best foot forward against such foes as the Hartford Wolf Pack or in the game against Rochester, where the team put up solid enough offensive numbers to hang around in both games, but defensive gaffes cost them big time and in large quantities. Hershey’s blue line was the biggest area of change during the summer, with key players like Martin Fehervary graduating to Washington and others like Cameron Schilling, Rob O’Gara, Paul LaDue, and Reece Willcox departing in free agency. Schilling in particular earned league honors for his stellar play and is currently succeeding with the Abbotsford Canucks with seven points in ten games, making the decision not to sign him a bit perplexing. The struggles right now are an overall concern rather than being dropped on any particular player, though.
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember the Bears are still missing those two full forward lines, and that makes a difference. Every team was impacted by a player shortage a year ago, and Hershey has been hit harder than most in the early going this season with not only the number of injuries, but also the quality. There’s plenty of time to make those adjustments, and the team is at a spot in the third month of the season to adjust and make a push to be a top contender in the Atlantic Division. At this point, the team is in a place where it can have success even without those key players, but must tighten up its overall play in December in order to have success.
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