Photos: Tori Hartman
Sunday night’s 3-0 victory over the Charlotte Checkers was the 37th game of the season for the Hershey Bears. They will hit the midway point of their 76 game schedule on Wednesday night. The Bears still have work to do in order to make the Calder Cup Playoffs, as they currently sit in sixth place Atlantic Division with a .514 points percentage (trail Charlotte by five points, but standings are based on points percentage).
Despite their standing, Hershey has had their share of standout players. Here is a look at the players who would win the awards if the season ended today.
Most Valuable Player: Vitek Vanecek. Rarely does a player who has only played in 12 games rate as a team’s most valuable player. However, the Bears playoff chances would almost be extinguished without Vitek Vanecek’s strong goaltending. The second-year Czech goalie entered the season as the clear backup to Pheonix Copley. Then, both he and Copley missed the start of the season due to injury. Vanecek made his season debut on November 12 and promptly gave up four goals on 12 shots in a 5-1 loss to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Hershey head coach Troy Mann said after the game that Vanecek would be fine and the coach was dead on. In his next three starts, Vanecek went 3-0 and gave up a total of three goals. He stopped 72 of the 75 shots he faced. Between November 25th and December 28th, Vanecek was responsible for five of the six Hershey wins. While Copley struggled to find his game, Vanecek rose to the occasion and allowed the team to earn points. He stopped 14 shots in the third period in Charlotte on December 20 as the Bears held on to beat the Checkers 5-4 after leading 5-0. He single-handedly stole a point on December 30 against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He stopped all 16 shots he faced in a third period where the Bears were outshot 16 to 3. Hershey lost 2-1 in overtime, but Vanecek is the only reason the Bears got a point. Sunday night, Vanecek made 29 saves and recorded his second shutout of the season in a 3-0 win over Charlotte. That shutout tied him for the American Hockey League (AHL) lead. He also ranks fifth in the league with a 2.18 goals against average.
Top Defenseman: Tyler Lewington. The Bears have a young defense that has seen its share of ups and downs. One player that has been a steadying presence on the blue line all season, is Tyler Lewington. The third-year player owns the best plus/minus among Bears blue liners this season with a +5. In his last 15 games, Lewington is a +7. He’s the only Hershey defenseman who has played in more than half of the games, Lewington has played all 37, that is a plus player . He has achieved that by often playing against the other team’s top players. Also, Lewington has been a key cog in a Hershey penalty kill that has killed off 85% of the power plays they have faced. That ranks them eighth in the league in that category. Offensively, he has chipped in with one goal and six assists.
Top Forward: Chris Bourque. One of the top scorers in AHL and in Hershey history has done just that. Chris Bourque leads Hershey in scoring with 40 points. He is tied for the AHL lead in scoring with that total. He also leads the team with 29 assists. His 11 goals are tied for the team lead with Riley Barber. Bourque’s five power play goals are the most on the Bears and his 12 power play assists tie him with Travis Boyd for the top spot. His production has moved Bourque up the Hershey all-time scoring lists. He has moved past Mitch Lamoureux, Roger DeJordy, Dunc Fisher and most recently Willie Marshall this season to sit fifth in Hershey history with 573 points. The 11 goals have elevated him to eight on the Bears all-time goal scoring list with 190. Also, he moved into fourth place on the all-time assists list with 383. He trails Gil Gilbert by six assists for third place. Bourque has received recognition for his play. On January 1, he was named to the United States Olympic hockey team. Three days later, he was named to Atlantic Division All-Star team.
Top Rookie: Mathias Bau. The Bears have had a few rookies contribute during the first half of the season. Jonas Siegenthaler has been one the team’s best defensive defensemen and has been a very good penalty killer. Fellow blue liner Lucas Johansen has been the team’s best offensive defenseman. However, winger Mathias Bau is the stands out in the group and it is not just because he is 6`7. The Dane is third on the team in goals with nine. Four of those goals were game-winners. He trails only Riley Barber, who has five, in that category. He also is only one of the AHL lead for most game-winning goals. Bau has netted three power play goals as well. He has added five assists for 14 points on the season. He has stepped up to give Hershey some secondary scoring.
Unsung Hero: Dustin Gazley. There is nothing fancy about Dustin Gazley’s game. He is not likely to make a highlight reel, but team’s don’t win without players like Gazley. The Bears know exactly what they are going to get out of him every night: heart and hustle, speed and grit. He is a heart and soul type player and those players often go unnoticed. Gazley leads the team in plus/minus with a +7. Lewington is the only player close to him in that statistic. After a slow start, the winger has picked up his offensive production as well. After having no goals and two assists in his first 13 games, Gazley has tallied three goals and dished out nine assists.
These are the top players for the Hershey Bears for the first half of the season. A lot can change in the second half of the season. The Bears will need players to step up to get into the playoffs. This is especially true when the team will lose leading scorer Chris Bourque for a few weeks due to the Olympics. Who will rise to the occasion in the second half? Who will be Hershey’s best when the season is done? Only time will tell.
By Eric Lord