Almost written off twice by just about everyone, but themselves, the Hershey Bears (43-22-8-3) responded in a big way the second half of the season, finishing with 97 points and earning the #3 seed in the Atlantic Division. They will open their 2017 Calder Cup playoffs at #2 seed Lehigh Valley (48-23-5-0) who finished with 101 points.
Lehigh Valley is the first Flyer affiliate to make the postseason since 2009, and the Phantoms boast a very young and extremely talented team that has given Hershey fits this season. In 12 games against their in-state rivals, the Bears won just 5 times, but half of the 12 games were decided by a goal with three going to extra time.
Add to the mix that Hershey is finally healthy. After a season full of a handful of major injuries that resulted in many missed games for some key players, it’s good to have everyone available at the right time. Well, unless you are Troy Mann and have to try and figure out who gets scratched.
Hershey in Goal – Since his return, Pheonix Copley has been the workhorse in net for the Bears, but Vitek Vanecek earned a shutout victory over the Providence Bruins in the regular season finale, his first start since March 18. On average, the duo allows just over 2 goals per game.
Lehigh Valley in Goal – Rookie Alex Lyon will be the go-to with Anthony Stolarz out for the remainder of the season. Martin Ouellette should be his back-up. Lyon allows 2.74 goals per game.
Hershey on Defense – All of the Bears defenders are back – Christian Djoos leads the d-men in scoring with 58 points. Meanwhile Tyler Lewington led the D at +16. Tom Gilbert’s arrival has sparked Djoos, while the addition of Jonas Siegenthaler and Mattias Backman have left Mann with three healthy scratches, a far cry from earlier in the season when the Bears were signing players to PTOs left and right. Of Lewington, Siegenthaler, Djoos, Gilbert, Backman, Madison Bowey, Colby Williams, Hubert Labrie, and Aaron Ness, Mann should be able to roll out fresh legs in back-to-back games.
Lehigh Valley on Defense – The Phantoms have 9 on their roster per the AHL’s website. TJ Brennan led the AHL in scoring for defensemen with 60 points. Robert Haag led their defenders at +10.
Hershey Forwards – Hershey boasts three forwards over 50 points (Djoos makes it four skaters for the team) with leading goal scorer, Christian Thomas, just one point away. Thomas was a healthy scratch in five of the last six, showing just how much depth and talent the Bears have at the position. Stan Galiev leads the team with a +21 on the season, while Travis Boyd led the team in points with 63. Centers should be Boyd, Stephenson, Sill, and Gustafsson. Left wingers include Vrana, Walker, O’Brien, Chris Bourque, and Ryan Bourque. Right wingers include Galiev, Barber, Gazley, Thomas, and Mitchell.
Lehigh Valley Forwards – Andy Miele, former Bear Chris Connor, and Greg Carey were Lehigh Valley’s three forwards over the 50-point mark, but none of them surpassed teammate Brennan’s 60 points on the season.
The bottom line – This one should be an all-out dog fight between two in-state rivals with the winner getting either Wilkes-Barre/Scranton or Providence in the second round. Any way you draw it up, there will be two excellent teams going home after Round 1 out of arguably the best division in the playoffs.
By Julie Beidler
— Beids (@juliebeidler) April 16, 2017