A team cannot win a championship in the first 18 games of the season. However, a slow start can hinder a team’s chance at making the playoffs. The Hershey Bears started the 2018-19 season winless and pointless in their first five games and were in danger of digging themselves a big hole in the playoff race. However, the Bears have gone 8-4-0-1 since and have clawed their way back into the playoff hunt. They are currently only four points out of a Calder Cup playoff berth.
To start the season, Hershey struggled on the penalty kill. They gave up four power play goals in the first two games and surrendered at least one power play goal in their first five games. During that same stretch, the Bears were 1-for-15 on the power play. The special teams really hurt the team early on and contributed greatly to the five-game losing streak.
The Bears finally got into the win column with a 3-2 win over their rivals from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in game six of the season. They then lost to of their next three games and their record stood at 2-6-0-1.
This is the point where Hershey’s season took a turn for the better. The Bears won five of their next six games. The penalty kill did not give up a single power play goal in that six game stretch, killing off all 23 chances. The offense also woke up during those six games. Hershey scored 17 games in those six games after tallying 18 goals in the first nine games.
What was the reason for the turnaround? Much of the credit goes to the new coaching staff led by head coach Spencer Carbery. The coaching staff has given the Bears an identity. They have an identity as a team that plays an uptempo style of game and as a team that plays hard. They shoot from all angles in an attempt to create rebounds. Last season, Hershey did not have an identity all season and definitely did not play with speed. They passed up shots in attempt to get a better opportunity. Last year’s team was not fun to watch. This year’s team is. The uptempo style of game suits the young Bears and determination the team shows is a welcome change.
Another reason for the turnaround is the play of the goaltenders. Vitek Vanecek, Ilya Samsonov and Parker Milner have all played well and have given Hershey a chance to win almost every time out. Vanecek earned AHL Player of the Week honors for the week ending on October 21. He posted a 2-0-1 record in three road starts. He stopped 94 of the 99 shots he faced with a .949 save percentage and a 1.62 goals against average. He currently sits eighth in the league with a 2.41 goals against average. His .918 save percentage also ranks eighth in the AHL. Vanecek’s strong play was interrupted by an upper body injury. Samsonov’s numbers are skewed by a 7-2 loss at Syracuse on November 11 in a game that the entire Hershey team would like to forget. Prior to that, his game was improving. He had won three of his previous four starts, including a 34 save performance in a 4-2 win at Rochester on November 2. Milner stepped in when Vanecek got hurt and proceeded to win two of his three starts. He saved 32 of the 33 shots he saw and then stopped seven more in the shootout in a 2-1 victory of Hartford on November 4. Milner then made 30 saves in a 6-1 triumph over Cleveland on November 16.
Other reasons for the team’s turnaround are the above mentioned improved penalty kill (including a nine-for-nine performance against Cleveland last Friday) and strong offensive play from Riley Barber, Mike Sgarbossa and Liam O’Brien. The overall improvement of defenseman Connor Hobbs has helped as well. He has 10 points in 18 games after totaling 16 in 44 games last season. He leads the team with nine assists. His defensive game has also improved as his decision-making process has been a lot better. He is not forcing plays and now makes the smart play.
IMPROVING FOR THE RUN FOR #12
While Hershey has turned around their play since their 0-5 start, there are still areas (and players) that need to improve in order to make the playoffs. First, the Bears need to be better at even strength. They do not have a single player who has played in at least 10 games that is a plus player. Defenseman Aaron Ness leads the way with an even rating and Sgarbossa tops the forwards with a -1 (Derek Hulak is +2, but has only played eight games). Plus/minus is a divisive stat and can be misleading at times. However, when the pretty much the whole team is a negative, that is a clear indication of play five-on-five.
Another area in which Hershey needs to improve is the power play. The unit has shown signs of life recently, but needs to be more consistent overall. The power play did account for all three goals in a 3-2 win over Springfield on November 10 and netted two goals in a 6-1 win over Cleveland on November 16. Still, the unit sits 12th in the Eastern Conference with a power play percentage of 17.9 and has only converted on 15 of their power play chances. If the Bears can build off of some of their recent power play success and make the unit more potent, it will help the team overall.
Secondary scoring is also an area of improvement. Barber, Sgarbossa and O’Brien have combined for 22 of the team’s 45 goals. Hershey needs more players to find the back of the net. Nathan Walker has two goals in four games and can be one player who can help with the secondary scoring. Mattias Bau has yet to see the ice as he continues to recover from a ruptured spleen he suffered at last summer’s World Championships. If Bau gets into a rhythm when he gets healthy, he will give the Bears more offensive depth. The team also needs more goals from their rookies. Sergei Shumakov potted two goals in five games, but is out with a right hand injury. He should help when he gets healthy. Beck Malenstyn has been a goal scorer during his days in junior hockey, but only has one goal in 18 games. Juuso Ikonen and Brian Pinho also have only one goal to their name. Shane Gersich has two goals, while Garrett Pilon and Maxi Kammerer have yet to find the back of the net. It is unrealistic to expect the rookies to carry the team, but the Bears do not need them to do that right now. They just need them to find a few more goals to help supplement the offense of Barber, Sgarbossa and O’Brien.
Finally, Hershey needs better overall play from a few players. Defensemen Lucas Johansen and Jonas Siegenthaler (currently on recall to Washington) have been disappointments. Johansen’s defense has taken a step back from where he was at the end of last season. He is a team worst -12 on the season. His positioning has been poor and his decision-making has not been good. He simply needs to be better. Siegenthaler, who will likely be sent back to Hershey at some point, has to play at the same level that he did in training camp with Washington. He had a great training camp and nearly made the NHL roster. He came down to the Bears and his level dropped significantly. He took bad penalties. He let guys go by him and he made poor passes. When he comes back down, Siegenthaler has to play with the drive and smarts that he does with the Capitals. He needs to play with the attitude that he is going to force the parent club to bring him back up. If Johansen and Siegenthaler pick up their play, it would be a big lift to the Bears.
Improving these areas would greatly help the Hershey as the season goes on. However, the progression the team has made since the 0-5 start is evident. If Carbery and the rest of the coaching staff are able to keep the team moving forward, the Hershey Bears will find themselves pushing for an unexpected playoff berth.
By Eric Lord
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