Photo: Tori Hartman
Pheonix Copley is one of the best goalies in the American Hockey League (AHL) and is the clear number one netminder for the Hershey Bears. Lately, Copley’s understudy has been shining brightly in net. After a rough start to the season, Vitek Vanecek has elevated his game. The play of the Czech goalie is bound to force Hershey head coach Troy Mann to give him more starts.
The season could not have started worse for Vanecek. He was hurt in training camp and missed the entire month of October. Then, his first start for the Bears was a nightmare, as he surrendered four goals on just 12 shots against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on November 12. Two of the goals were weak goals and Vanecek struggled to pick up the puck. It was not a start that instilled confidence in the coaching staff.
Mann stuck by his goalie in the post-game press conference and told the press that Vanecek would be just fine. Mann was right but it would take 13 days and five games for Vanecek to get his shot at turning things around. The Czech netminder stopped 27 of the 28 shots he faced, including 15 in the third period, in a 4-1 Hershey win at Hartford. His shutout was spoiled with 2:47 remaining in the game. For his play, Vanecek was named the game’s third star.
A week later, Vanecek would deliver another excellent effort, turning away all 21 shots the Milwaukee Admirals fired his way and recorded his first shutout of the season. He was named the game’s first star.
Vanecek was a hard luck loser in relief against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in his next appearance on Friday night. The Bears never led in the game, but Vanecek was tagged with the loss because he gave up the fifth Phantoms goal and the Bears rallied from a 5-1 deficit to make it a 5-4 game.
The loss did nothing to slow down Vanecek’s momentum. On the very next night, he stepped up and came through with Hershey’s only win of the weekend against those same Lehigh Valley Phantoms. He made nine saves in a first period where the Bears were outplayed, including a breakaway and a 2-on-1. He also came up with a couple of key saves as the Bears killed off a lengthy 5-on-3 Lehigh Valley power play. As a result, Hershey headed to the locker room with a 1-0 lead after the one period, when they should have been behind by a few goals. The Phantoms got to Vanecek for two goals in the third period, but the goalie made several big stops and allowed the Bears to come away with a 4-2 win. Once again, Vanecek was named the first star of the game.
In his last three starts, Vanecek has surrendered a total of three goals. He’s also stopped 72 of the 75 shots he has faced. Those are good numbers in any league. Vanecek’s strong goaltending is pushing the coaching staff into a position in which he should be getting more starts.
Giving Vanecek more starts does not mean he has surpassed Copley as the number one goalie. Clearly, Copley is the team’s top option in net. It is never a bad thing to have two strong goalies. It also is not a bad thing to keep both goalies fresh. Copley suffered a major injury in the playoffs last season and then aggravated that injury in training camp. The ability to give him a few more nights off helps keep Copley healthy. Also, it rewards Vanecek for his strong goaltending and the Czech netminder’s play deserves to be rewarded.
By Eric Lord