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Important Second Half Ahead for Bears

#AHL | @TheHersheyBears finished off the first half of the season as legitimate contenders in the AHL’s Eastern Conference. What’s coming up next? @FPHBears has your 2nd half outlook

The Bears gather around Head Coach Todd Nelson. Photo Courtesy: Carl Minieri

Important Second Half Ahead for Bears

HERSHEY, Pa. – There are 27 games left on the 2022-23 schedule for the Hershey Bears, and with the All-Star break now in the rear-view mirror, it’s time to look ahead with just about two months’ worth of hockey before the Calder Cup Playoffs get underway. Despite Hershey’s strong start and current first-place positioning in the Atlantic Division, there’s plenty of challenge in the remaining schedule that should test the team’s mettle ahead of the postseason, and earning points along the way will be of utmost importance. With only 11 home games on the calendar, 16 games on the road will prove to be a big test for the team.

The Bears have seen just how difficult holding positioning in the division is, as their recent struggles in their last four games caused their once-larger lead to only a tiebreaker at the All-Star break. It goes to show how even a short period of struggling can prove detrimental to the standings board, and although first place would be a nice mark to hold, Hershey’s focus should be purely on securing one of the two byes in the first round. Most of the team knows how impactful a subpar second half can be, as the Bears narrowly made the playoffs a season ago and were eliminated in the play-in round by a single goal after dropping in the standings during the second half. That season should serve as a cautionary tale to this year’s group to keep their foot on the gas pedal and assert themselves as one of the league’s top teams.

Hershey has some stiff competition in the push to the playoffs. Most interesting is that the Bears have four games left against the Charlotte Checkers, who hit the break on a five-game winning streak and cut the lead between second and third to nine points, once considered an insurmountable lead. With eight points on the table in terms of head-to-head action, there’s just enough room for the Checkers to cut down that lead. The Bears have historically struggled at Bojangles Coliseum since the Checkers joined the American Hockey League. Hershey lost both games in that building early in the season, and only has one win in the last two seasons there. Hershey visits there on February 18 and 19 for the last time, and a similar trip in April of last season was another blow to the team’s place in the standings. It’d be a great way to build some momentum by bucking that trend in this set, as Hershey hasn’t visited Charlotte since the second weekend of the season as the team was still building together at that time.

Although the Bears only play teams from the North Division twice, an easy highlight of the schedule will be the two times that Hershey meets up with the Toronto Marlies. The two teams have been duking it out by trading leads for the Eastern Conference in recent time without meeting up for a direct matchup yet this season, which will change in March. Although there’s no possibility for the teams to match up in the postseason before the Eastern Conference Finals, it should still serve as a measuring stick as to how the Bears stack up with top competition from outside their division. Hershey has only had a couple encounters with foes from outside their division each season, and their pair of games with Toronto is among a handful left on the slate and should serve as great hockey theater as both teams boast excellent goaltenders in Toronto’s All-Star Joseph Woll and Hershey’s All-Star snub in Hunter Shepard.

Other key matchups include four more matchups against the Providence Bruins, three of which come on the road where the Bears haven’t played at yet this season, five more matchups with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, and two more with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. All that adds up to 17 of the remaining 27 games, and that doesn’t include games against teams pushing for playoff spots like Hartford, Springfield, Rochester, Bridgeport, Syracuse, Utica, Belleville, and Cleveland, who comprise the remaining ten games. The parity in the AHL is incredibly strong, which makes any first-place team by any margin all the more impressive that they’ve kept up their strong play. The second half of the season tells an interesting story of how a roster has been bolstered or reduced by their National Hockey League affiliates, with teams like Lehigh Valley being an example of one being boosted while Wilkes-Barre has seen issues in recent times contributing to their recent trajectories, and it makes for very different matchups than even a month or two prior.

Hershey is in a pretty stable position in contrast to a season ago. The influx of talent from the beginning of the calendar year is still there, with players like Connor McMichael, Aliaksei Protas, and Joe Snively paying dividends alongside their strong top line with Ethen Frank, Mike Sgarbossa, and Mike Vecchione. Hershey has benefitted from increased stability from the Washington Capitals since they’ve been healthy in stark contrast to a season ago, even to the point where the long-term loss of forward Sam Anas to abdominal surgery on January 6 still leaves the team with an excess of healthy forwards.

Hershey has hit a snag in recent times, having lost three of four going into the All-Star break, but the team has the personnel to turn the ship around and stay atop the division. Little snags are bound to happen over the course of the 72 game season, and it will be interesting to see how the team bounces back with the break perhaps giving some time for a reset. Even in their recent struggles, the Bears have been right there in these games that very easily could have gone in the win column, which speaks to a temporary struggle rather than anything long-term to be worried about.

This June will mark 13 years since the Bears last hoisted the Calder Cup. The league’s most senior franchise, celebrating its 85th anniversary, has seldom gone a decade between championships in its history and the current gap reflects how difficult it is to win it all in the current landscape of the AHL. This current Bears group has a great mixture of youth and veteran leadership to do some damage, with the incredible heroics of Frank, McMichael, Hendrix Lapierre, and Vincent Iorio alongside Sgarbossa, Aaron Ness, Garrett Pilon, and Dylan McIlrath, just to name a few. This Bears group will go through some testing to see if they can bring home the franchise’s 12th Calder Cup in the spring.

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