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Hershey Bears

Bears Midseason Grades

HERSHEY, Pa. – The Hershey Bears’ 2021-22 season is officially at the halfway point following this weekend’s pair of games, sitting at 21-13-3-2 through 39 games played and currently good for third in the tight Atlantic Division standings. Their 47 points are tied for the most in the division, but since the standings are decided by points percentage with an uneven amount of games played between the teams, the Bears are only out of first place by a slim margin. Hershey has done a remarkable job contending in unusual circumstances that will surely continue through the rest of the season and improved its play over the past few months to keep their contention for the Calder Cup at hand.

The Bears flew out of the gate to start the season in October with points in six of seven games, going 4-1-1-1 in that span. However, some of the adversity kicked in around the same time when circumstances in Washington necessitated the recall of Brett Leason, Aliaksei Protas, Beck Malenstyn, and Mike Sgarbossa, an entire line’s worth of players suddenly unavailable. Factor in the prolonged losses of Brian Pinho and Eddie Wittchow due to injury, and suddenly the Bears were without a large group of their projected top players for an extended period of time. Hershey had a few ugly losses in November, with penalty trouble playing a factor in losing to Hartford and Rochester, the latter of which was the last game the Bears played for a pair of weeks due to a COVID-19 shutdown.

Although the Bears struggled during that time, a few players stepped up to fill the important roles left behind. Depth players like Mason Morelli went from watching the season-opening weekend to a steady regular in the team’s lineup, and no player took a more significant step than Joe Snively, who started his incredible scoring run during the month with the Bears looking for a hero. A hat trick against the Springfield Thunderbirds on November 7 seemed to kick off Snively’s scoring drive, and he has seldom been left off the score sheet since. Consistent and improving performances from Garrett Pilon, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, and Shane Gersich have filled the void and minimized the impact of those losses. Captain Matt Moulson and veteran defenders Cody Franson and Dylan McIlrath have made enormous contributions during those times, with a new hero emerging each week.

The Bears came out of the COVID pause strong with a 3-2 overtime win over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on December 11 and got their game together with six wins in nine games. During a postgame interview, head coach Scott Allen mentioned that the team worked on the penalty issues coming out of the pause and did some work to improve their all-around play after leading the league in penalty minutes at one point this season. Hershey’s success included big wins over their I-81 rival, winning seven straight games over Wilkes-Barre for the first time in the storied rivalry.

Hershey capped off a home-heavy portion of its schedule in January, with ten of 13 games played within the friendly confines of the Giant Center. The Bears won four of five games to start the new year and seven of eight with at least a point in that span, leading up to a historic Teddy Bear Toss event that saw the team’s previous world record in 2019 get overtaken handily with 52,341 stuffed animals thrown before a capacity crowd in Hershey. The Bears would cap the month off with wins in three of its last five games, including some tough one-goal decisions to division rivals Hartford and Lehigh Valley.

Allen was asked about reaching the halfway point after the midway mark on Saturday.

“I’m fairly pleased with our first half of the season. I know we have work to do and it’s still a long way to go, and that’s not a slight on any of our players, but we want what’s best for everybody and we’re going to continue to strive to be a better team each and every time we’re on the ice.”

The road ahead in the back half of the season will not be easy for the Bears, who transition into playing more away games than they have in quite some time. Hershey will look to get back on track away from Giant Center after losing all three of its road games in January and have some roster turmoil after more injuries set in from Saturday night. Pilon, Sgarbossa, and top defender Alexander Alexeyev were all injured in the same game. Allen remarked their early status as worse than day-to-day after the game. With Snively currently in Washington and two-thirds of the team’s top line on the injured list as it is, the Bears will have a major scoring question, at least for the time being. Sunday’s game saw a lot of offense from forward Mike Vecchione, who has been an excellent free-agent pickup when healthy with 25 points (nine goals, 16 assists) in 25 games played this season. The Bears will likely play most of the season without their captain, as Moulson was sidelined indefinitely with a back surgery earlier in the year.

The Bears have also done a tremendous job finding valuable depth players to fill roles this season. Marcus Vela and Drake Rymsha recently signed AHL contracts with the team for the remainder of this campaign after impressing in extended professional tryout agreement stints, players like Jake Massie have filled in seamlessly to the lineup. They have bought into what Allen is preaching to minimize such key losses. With losses on the blue line like Franson, skilled defender Bobby Nardella, and depth defender Macoy Erkamps, it would be hard to say the Bears would be where they are without great seasons from Lucas Johansen and Tobias Geisser, who have both struggled to find a consistent spot in the past but have been irreplaceable this season.

Hershey has gotten strong contributions from their goaltenders, with Pheonix Copley leading the way with another stellar season among the league’s best. Zach Fucale made a big statement earlier this season with a shutout in his NHL debut game, and although it hasn’t been quite up to his out-of-this-world numbers of the 2020-21 campaign, has still been strong for the team. Hunter Shepard has made the most of his time in Hershey and has been on the Washington Capitals’ taxi squad for an extended period most recently.

For the remainder of the season, staying healthy and getting some more contributions on the score sheet will be key if the Bears are to be without Snively for an extended period of time. Getting Pinho back from injury has certainly helped, as the former 20 goal scorer from the 2019-20 season has found his form, but seeing some additional scoring from players who have demonstrated that ability at times this season will help. Strong players like Morelli, Malenstyn, Riley Sutter, and Kody Clark have all lit the lamp at times and can step up for more with elevated roles. As a group, the Bears have done an impressive job of minimizing personnel losses in a way that’s not seen in many past seasons, which is a great achievement and will need to continue as the year progresses.

 

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