What is wrong with Hershey? After a solid start to the season, the Bears have been limping out of the gates in 2017. They have lost six of the seven games they have played so far this January, including last night’s 5-3 loss to the Penguins after they stormed back to tie the game in the third period. Additionally, in the last seven games, they suffered back-to-back overtime losses to Utica and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Ironically, those two points they earned for getting to overtime have kept them in fourth in the Atlantic Division.
But it’s not just a new problem. The Bears started out the season with back-to-back road losses and have yet to put together a winning streak any longer than five games (October 29-November 6). At the midway point in the season, we’re taking a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of Hershey’s 2016-2017 campaign.
- Special Teams – Hershey is top-ten in both power play and penalty kill. Hershey’s PK usually is among the best in the league, but for some time fans have referred to the man-advantage as the “Powerless Play” as Hershey struggled in recent seasons. The Bears currently rank 7th at 22.5% while the PK is 10th at 83.1%.
- Second-year forward Travis Boyd is currently leading the team in points as well as +/-. The center has 33 points in 38 games. His ten goals is fourth on the team and his 23 assists is a team-best (tied with Chris Bourque). He’s +13.
- New for 2016-2017 addition Christian Thomas has been a pleasant surprise. Thomas leads the team in goals with 16.
- Paul Carey – he had a heck of a streak going (19 games with at least a point), sandwiched around a recall to Washington. In 31 games for the Bears, he has 11 goals and 17 assists. He’s a +9 too, which also helps.
The Bad (and the Ugly) – There is a proverbial laundry list of issues in Hershey.
- Injuries – Madison Bowey will possibly miss the remainder of the regular season with an injury that thankfully is not seen often in hockey. The defenseman suffered a cut to his ankle that cut a tendon and required surgery. He’s projected to make an April return. Add in long-term injuries to Riley Barber and Dustin Gazley, two of Hershey’s speedier forwards. At any given time this season, a number of players missed multiple games, which really doesn’t help with team chemistry on the ice.
- Chris Bourque – Although the beloved Bear has 32 points, he is near the bottom on the team with a -5. Aside from 2011-2012 where he was -1, the only other time he ended with year below 0 was his first season back in 2005-2006. Additionally, he has taken 114 shots, connecting just nine times. For a struggling Hershey team, their assistant captain needs to step up in more ways than scoring. With all of the milestones he’s passed this season, he just doesn’t seem himself lately, and that’s not a good sign.
- The Defense – As potentially shaky as the defense should have been last year with three or four rookies, this year has proven much worse. In Sunday’s game, there were mental errors leading to two goals for Binghamton (one was a 2-on-1 and the other a 2-on-0). Hershey’s problems start with the mental errors that end up with their goalies being hung out to dry more times than not.
- Goaltending – Rookie Vitek Vanecek’s record is certainly not what he would want, but as mentioned, much of that is not truly his fault. The coaching staff really wanted to bring him along a little more slowly, but Joe Cannata has not been the rock that the Bears need in goal. Hershey fans, used to goaltenders like Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer, are quickly losing patience.
- Penalties – Tyler Lewington is the most-penalized player in the AHL with 105 minutes, and his captain, Garrett Mitchell isn’t far behind in fifth with 79 minutes. Although many times they are coming to the aid of a teammate, penalties at inopportune times have put the team at a disadvantage countless times.
- Overtime – Overtime has been the bane of Hershey’s existence this season. The Bears are 1 for 7 in overtime, but ironically those points are all that’s keeping them in fourth in the Atlantic Division. Hershey needs to solve this 3-on-3 issue quickly.
The Quick Fix
- If it was that easy, Mann and company would have already done it. Mann has been open about the need for some help on the defensive end. With Bowey’s long-term injury and injuries to Deitz, Djoos, and Leach, Hershey was forced to sign Colton Saucerman to a PTO. Mann is hopeful the need will be addressed by the Capitals before the trade deadline.
- Discipline, discipline, discipline – cutting back on mistakes and penalties would serve Hershey well. Getting back to the basics (tape-to-tape passing) and learning to play with the lead to avoid those overtime games would help too.
- And speaking of OT, figuring out how to put those games away is something the Bears are going to have to accomplish if they have any kind of aspirations of a long post-season run
The Bottom Line
This team, with all of its offensive fire-power, is underachieving in a highly competitive Atlantic Division and isn’t winning the games they need to win to keep pace with the Penguins and Phantoms. At the halfway point, there is still time to “right the ship” but the Bears have a road-heavy second half.
By Julie Beidler