HERSHEY, Pa. – It’s been the story of the season for the Hershey Bears. How much could the team’s opening-night roster change and still find a degree of success?
There were still lingering issues in December and parts of January, but it seemed like the Bears got through it and were on the mend back towards their regular roster. At the time, Hershey was among the top teams in the Atlantic Division and was consistently vying for first place in a close race that saw teams playing musical chairs with very close points percentages. Then, suddenly, an innocent player swap and two crucial injuries have crippled the Bears to the point where the team needs to put together a very good last two months of the season to regain their previous playoff positioning.
However, to tell this story correctly, it’s important to start at the beginning. The Bears have played without their full lineup of players essentially since the beginning of November when injuries to the Washington Capitals necessitated the recall of forwards Brett Leason, Mike Sgarbossa, and Aliaksei Protas. Meanwhile, the Bears lost reliable forward Brian Pinho to injury alongside Eddie Wittchow for some time, leaving some holes in their lineup, but heroes emerged to fill the holes. Joe Snively, Garrett Pilon, Mike Vecchione, and Shane Gersich all did their part to fill the void, while captain Matt Moulson’s veteran guidance was essential in keeping the Bears on track during that difficult time. Moulson’s season has been effectively ended, as head coach Scott Allen confirmed after the Bears’ 3-1 loss on February 22.
The Bears stayed afloat despite the loss of their captain, but the latest fiasco in late January has caused a snowball effect. The Washington Capitals swapped players with the Bears, taking Snively and re-assigning Sgarbossa to the team. Although the Bears would certainly miss Snively and his incredible scoring, as he was one of the AHL’s top players at the time of his recall, Sgarbossa is a core player and welcome addition, having previously surpassed 30 goals with the team during the 2018-19 season. Unfortunately, in his first game back with the Bears, Sgarbossa would exit during a January 29 game after a hit that hurt his shoulder. In the same game, both Pilon and Alex Alexeyev would also exit with injuries in the same game, with the former returning to play before getting injured a second time a week later in Cleveland. Alexeyev has since returned to active duty, but it’s essentially a double whammy of a blow to Hershey’s already depleted forward group. Hershey has even been without starting goaltender Pheonix Copley due to health issues with former Bear Vitek Vanecek in Washington, and some struggles from Zach Fucale have exacerbated the struggles a bit with overall scoring down.
Although the Bears have received Protas back from the Capitals in the time since those unfortunate injuries, it’s a tall order that the players have been tasked to fill. Even though the team has gotten contributions from depth players like Mason Morelli and Marcus Vela, it’s become especially apparent after the conclusion of the NHL’s taxi squad rule that even the best engines can’t run on a half tank of gas. Simply put, the Bears need those high-end players from Washington to be fully healthy to contend for the Atlantic, and it’s affecting their season right now. Allen was not able to specify any other injured player statuses after Tuesday’s game, but it didn’t seem likely that there’d be anyone coming back in time for a big set of games this weekend with the Utica Comets. It’s worth noting that a reset may come in handy for the Bears, who played their fourth game in five nights on Tuesday thanks to a rescheduled game from December.
It’s also important to appreciate players who have performed well in tough circumstances, which includes the current top line of Protas with Vecchione and Axel Jonsson-Fjallby. Vecchione remains near a point-per-game pace and is well on his way to eclipsing his single season-best in terms of production from his rookie season in Lehigh Valley, only seven off of that season’s 40 points in 30 fewer games. Jonsson-Fjallby’s performance has earned him a stint in Washington over the course of the season, and he continues to elevate his game and set new bests in terms of goals, assists, and points as well as leading the team with four game-winning goals. Kody Clark and Shane Gersich are chipping in their best seasons yet with the club as well, setting new career bests in points, but those players need help to continue their successful seasons.
It’ll be worth keeping an eye on this situation, particularly as the Capitals continue to get healthy and make roster decisions. Most notably, the team had the first complete practice all season, with even the injured Anthony Mantha getting time with the main group in a non-contact jersey. Should key players like him and TJ Oshie return to the lineup, it’ll leave the Capitals with some important cap decisions to make and possibly force players to be assigned to Hershey in whatever fashion they elect to do so. Bears fans can only hope that happens quickly, and it may be a situation to be addressed as the trade deadline looms.
- PHOTOS: Sarah Pietrowski’s Best Photos from the 2021-22 Season (Part Two)
- PHOTOS: Hector Urcia’s Best Photos of the 2021-22 Season (Part Two)
- Inside The SPHL Podcast Episode 34: Joel Silverberg
- Cates Brothers Looking to Take NHL By Storm
- Prospects Shine in Caps Preseason Opener
- PHOTOS: Andrew Fielder’s Best Photos from the 2021-22 Season (Part Two)
- Syracuse Speaks Podcast Episode #79: All Together On This (with Jim Sarosy)
- Inside The SPHL Podcast Episode #33: A Chat With Craig Simchuk
- PHOTOS: Sarah Pietrowski’s Best Photos from the 2021-22 Season (Part One)
- New faces joining building nucleus for Mayhem