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Hershey Bears

Morelli, Vela Helping Bears in Crucial Juncture

HERSHEY, Pa. – Depth has been the story of the season for the Hershey Bears over the majority of the new season, as roster complications have come in many forms for the team entering the fifth month of the season.

The Bears have not had a single player participate in all of their 45 games played so far in the 2021-22 campaign, and have had to rely on contributions far and wide to be contending for the top spot in the Atlantic Division. With a lot of their top players either in Washington or on the shelf with injury, the Bears have gotten important points from two players on AHL contracts of late in Marcus Vela and Mason Morelli, who have chipped in big as of late.

For most AHL teams, struggles may have started with losing a top forward like Connor McMichael like the Bears did in the fall. It didn’t seem to be a done deal that McMichael would stay in the NHL full time this season, and after leading the team in goals and points last season (14 goals, 13 assists), it seemed like the loss could cripple the team. After a period of roster devastation during the COVID protocol issues and taxi squads in December and January, it seemed like the Bears were getting to a stable roster until a major blow on January 29 saw top scorers Garrett Pilon, Mike Sgarbossa, and top defender Alex Alexeyev lost to injury all in the same game. Add in the extended loss of Brett Leason and Aliaksei Protas, the latter of whom rejoined the team this past weekend, and that’s over two lines’ worth of players off the active roster. The Bears had just gotten Sgarbossa back on a player swap with leading scorer Joe Snively prior to that contest, and Pilon’s comeback lasted just a game after being injured again in Cleveland the following weekend.

In addition to losing Snively, Pilon, and Sgarbossa, the Bears continue to be without captain Matt Moulson who was lost to back surgery in late December as well as top defensive prospect Bobby Nardella. Nardella hasn’t played since being lost to injury in Syracuse on January 7, and the recall of NHL veteran defender Michal Kempny seems to be for good. With all of that scoring out for the foreseeable future, the Bears have had to come together and pull on the rope collectively to stay in the hunt for the coveted top two spots in the Atlantic Division, and without the contributions of Morelli and Vela, it may be a different story.

Morelli is a known quantity for the Bears’ coaching staff in his second season with the club, and seems to be carving out a niche with the team. More recently, the feisty forward has taken some of Moulson’s net front duties on the power play and has started to be rewarded for his efforts. Morelli scored three goals in three games for the Bears over the past weekend, adding up to a five-game point streak and moving up to seventh on the team in scoring with 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists) in 37 games played. Morelli moved from being an odd man out in the season-opening weekend to irreplaceable for his work at both ends of the ice, and has well over doubled his points production from his top AHL season in 31 games with the Stockton Heat during the 2019-20 season. His goal on Saturday night versus Belleville tied the game at four, with him parked in front of the net and tucking in a loose puck. The play is reminiscent of a goal that Moulson might have scored earlier in the season and shows Morelli taking on a new role for the team.

Vela is coming off of honors as the Bears’ Player of the Week after notching four points in his last two games. The forward joined the Bears on a professional tryout agreement and scored his first AHL goal on December 29 and has had three multi-point games in Hershey, and was quickly signed to an AHL contract for the remainder of the season. He’s shown great hands during last weekend’s set of three games, scoring twice on nice deflections using his net-front presence, and adds some grit with his scoring. His production has been essential, and it reflects well on Hershey’s front office staff for finding another diamond in the rough so far into the season. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him return to Hershey in the future if his good play and production continues.

Although Hershey had two losses in three games this past weekend, these two players provided bright spots on a weekend where the Bears were missing so many regulars, and can only hope to gain some more players ahead of a very important weekend series with two games against the fourth-place Providence Bruins and one with the Bridgeport Islanders on the road. The set represents a chance for the Bears to climb back into the top two spots in their division, but losses will set them back closer to the fourth spot, and they will be counting on Morelli and Vela to continue their strong production in these big regular-season games.

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