HERSHEY, Pa. – The Hershey Bears sit at 14-5-2-0 through 21 games played this season, good for second in the North Division (first if factored by points) and have had a pretty good season so far. Hershey’s depth has been tested often so far in the season at all positions and has, by and large, excelled at the opportunity. With reinforcements continuing to trickle in, the Chocolate and White have built a very strong roster that deserves to be at its current placement in the division. There are a few key areas the Bears need to improve upon to be among the AHL’s elite, but it’s hard to deny the strength the team has built this season.
Hershey has scored 66 goals in 21 games, 12 of which have come on the power play and four with a man down. Although Hershey’s penalty kill percentage ranks second in the North Division, the power play has been a sore spot at 15% that ranks at the bottom of the division when compared with its foes. Hershey has also been the most penalized team in the North Division, having been shorthanded 94 times to the most comparable foe in terms of games played, being Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s 74. Although one could point to plenty of individual times in recent memory where a player was penalized for something circumstantial (like the numerous roughing or instigating minors for sticking up for a teammate). Fortunately, the excellent penalty kill has bailed out the Bears most of the time this season.
Regarding the power play, it’s certainly worth mentioning that Hershey’s unit has deserved a bit of a better fate than the numbers would tell. The Bears have often run with Connor McMichael in a similar position to Alex Ovechkin, taking shots from the wing and looking to finish sweet passes, but it simply has not executed so far this season. Having skill players like Matt Moulson in the lineup is a big boost as he leads all Hershey skaters with four power-play markers. Still, the Bears no doubt miss Bobby Nardella in this regard as the offensive-defenseman had Christian Djoos-like numbers in his rookie season last year. Nardella’s season overseas in Sweden recently came to an end on April 8, and although a move to bring him back to Hershey has not yet been made, his presence would be a big help in that regard for the Bears.
One area the Bears have had success with has been defensively, as the team has the fewest amount of goals allowed amongst teams with 17 or more games played in their division at 50. A good portion of that success can be attributed to the fantastic play of Hershey’s goaltending duo of Pheonix Copley and Zach Fucale, who have inspired confidence in their group and are proving their mettle as more than AHL goaltenders. Fucale’s 1.75 goals against average is still tops in the AHL (although it is skewed a bit with only eight games played to Logan Thompson’s 15), and Hershey’s tandem remains one of the best in the league. Although this season has been different from most in that there’s not as much need to rotate goaltenders for the usual extreme situations the AHL often has, the workload has been split evenly. Both netminders have been excellent this season.
Right along with the goaltending has been the outstanding defensive play of the Bears. Hershey boasts one of its most sizeable defensive units in recent memory, with every player on the blue line standing at least 6-foot-2 or taller. Aside from a scoring defender like Nardella, the Bears are poised to insert Alexander Alexeyev back into the lineup after the defender went through quarantine to return to Hershey. Alexeyev is a great player to have in the lineup and quickly became a cornerstone of Hershey’s group last season. Many of the major questions about this season were how the Bears would survive without Nardella and Alexeyev this season. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound defender scored three goals and 18 assists and posted a plus-eight rating through 58 games played in his rookie campaign, and Bears fans are no doubt eager to see him get in the lineup this week.
Offensively, the Bears have gotten solid contributions amidst some changes. The biggest obstacle was the midseason swap for leading scorers that saw Garrett Pilon and Mike Sgarbossa trade places with Brian Pinho and Phil Maillet on the Washington Capitals’ taxi squad. Despite having last played in Hershey on March 21, Pilon’s 16 points still rank atop the Bears’ roster in terms of scoring, although Pinho and Maillet both have eight points and are point-per-game players since joining the lineup. It’s easy to imagine how much more potent the Bears might be in a normal season with all four players plus Daniel Carr available to them, as the trio of players are lethal at the AHL level and would elevate Hershey another step as an elite team.
Having those five forwards available would go a long way towards fixing the power play, too, as Carr tallied 12 power-play goals during the 2018-19 season that was coincidentally his best year at the AHL level, earning him the nod as the AHL MVP that season. Pilon scored five power-play markers last season, and Sgarbossa tallied a career-best 14 tallies on the man advantage his first year in Hershey during the 2018-19 season. Although Carr hasn’t dressed in a Hershey uniform yet this season and is the only player who has been unable to do so, the potential in a normal season among the players available is certainly tantalizing.
The gap in the roster has allowed for more players to step up and fill the void. Rookies Connor McMichael and Damien Riat have chipped in offensively with elevated roles (McMichael has eight goals and five assists while Riat has two goals and five assists), and second-year players Riley Sutter and Kody Clark have enjoyed increased ice time alongside Brett Leason, who has arguably been Hershey’s most improved forward so far this season. The addition of Aliaksei Protas helped create a solid second line for the Bears in recent time, and the big forward tallied his first AHL goal on April 11 vs. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The presence of one more sniper, possibly a right-handed shooter in the role that Daniel Sprong was brought in to fill last season, would be perhaps the last missing piece for the Bears.
Overall, the depth in Hershey has performed admirably, and there’s not much that needs to be tweaked ahead of the AHL trade deadline this coming Monday.
The Bears have put together a very solid group in extraordinary times, and the staff working behind the scenes are to be commended for the effort.
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