HERSHEY, Pa. – The Hershey Bears continue to push for a playoff spot in the Atlantic Division, capping off two straight wins at the Giant Center over the division-leading Springfield Thunderbirds with a thrilling Mason Morelli goal in overtime on Sunday
Now, they meet perhaps their most challenging portion of the schedule yet this week. The Bears travel to the PPL Center to take on the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and then face off with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in a potential first-round preview on Friday for the first of two games remaining between two bitter foes at Mohegan Sun Arena.
Those two opponents make up Hershey’s remaining road contests, while a Sunday home game with the Providence Bruins on Easter Sunday keeps the Bears in the thick of the playoff race. The bottom five teams in the Atlantic still have plenty of potential jockeying for playoff positioning, and earning as many points as possible down the stretch will continue to be crucial.
For Hershey, the task at hand is simply to go into Allentown and walk out with two points. Despite sitting in eighth place in the division, the Phantoms have been a thorn in the Bears’ side for much of the season and particularly at home, where Hershey has come up winless in five tries. The two teams play very similar styles of play that often makes a small lead seem insurmountable, and it would be a confidence boost after two big wins at home to get a win out of the way in a place that’s given them difficulties of late.
The Bears haven’t faced the Penguins in quite some time, nearly two months since Wilkes-Barre broke their winless drought at Giant Center with a 3-1 decision on February 22, and have played good hockey leading to them jumping into the playoff picture once again. The Penguins briefly took control of fourth place on Friday with the Bears’ loss in Lehigh Valley via a tiebreaker, but the pair of Hershey wins and a Wilkes-Barre loss on Saturday has moved Hershey ahead.
Wilkes-Barre has two games in hand as a result, and Hershey would like to extend that lead in order for scoreboard watching to be a little easier on them. Hershey has won three of four games at Mohegan Sun Arena this season, although the teams haven’t met there since the middle of January.
The Bears’ pursuit of a playoff berth continues to be a team effort. Although the team has certainly struggled in recent times, winning just once in six straight road games preceding the recent home wins, the team has overcome plenty of adversity to even be in a playoff position. The Bears continue to be without a number of key players including captain Matt Moulson, top scorer Joe Snively, the speedy scoring threat Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, two-way specialist Brian Pinho, 30 goal scorer Mike Sgarbossa, and a top forward in Connor McMichael. McMichael hasn’t played for the Bears so far this season, but the Capitals did make him eligible to join the Bears at the qualification deadline last month, and the question has continued to be when or if he will return. Sgarbossa has been skating in a no-contact jersey during this span, but it’s unknown when he’ll return.
Hershey added NCAA scorer Ethen Frank on an amateur tryout agreement earlier this week, and he will likely make his debut sooner rather than later to hopefully help the Bears put more pucks in the back of the net. The Bears have done an admirable job of overcoming these odds of late, with plenty of skaters reaching new heights such as Mike Vecchione’s single-season numbers in points, Mason Morelli hitting double digits in goals, Garrett Pilon dishing out four assists in his last two games, and Shane Gersich collecting three points in two games to continue smashing his previous bests in points. Hershey’s goaltenders continue to be among the league’s best, with Pheonix Copley and Zach Fucale ranking eighth and 16th in the league, respectively.
Hershey needs to collect as many points as possible down the stretch to not only hold off the Penguins, but several other teams looking to maneuver into better playoff positioning. The expanded playoff field places a higher emphasis on placing in the top four in order to secure home-ice advantage in the first round, and with teams in the AHL, in general, performing better in their own rinks, it means that much more in a best-of-three series. The Bears’ magic number to clinch a playoff spot enters Wednesday at seven, and wins against division opponents trailing them would go a long way toward reducing that number.
Despite earning some separation from the Penguins by taking care of business over the weekend, the Bears can still push to make the lead nearly insurmountable or watch it evaporate depending on how the next few games go with so few on the calendar. Teams like Hartford and Bridgeport are far more concerned with making the postseason at all, but are still far from out of the picture to challenge as high as fourth place. It all starts on Wednesday in Allentown with a key game against the Phantoms with just seven games to play this season.
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