The 2018-19 American Hockey League (AHL) season did not start well for the Hershey Bears. The Bears began the season 0-5 and by the time 2018 ended, the team was mired in last place with a record of 14-18-0-2. The playoffs seemed like a long shot, but the new year brought a new team. The Bears took-off and rebounded with a strong finish in their 81st campaign to return to the Calder Cup Playoffs, after a one-year absence. Hershey will begin their five-game, opening round series at Bridgeport on Friday, April 19. Here’s a look back at how the Bears got to the playoffs.
The season began with back-to-back home games against Syracuse and Bridgeport. The Bears dropped both of those games by a single goal, 3-2 and 2-1. In those two games, Hershey outscored their opponents at even strength 3 to 1, but surrendered four power play goals. The team then embarked on a three-game road trip to Grand Rapids, Milwaukee and Rockford. The trip did not go well and the Bears lost all three games by a combined score of 16-6. Hershey finally got in the win column by beating their rivals Wilkes-Barre/Scranton 4-3. The victory sparked a good stretch as the Bears won three more times in the month and gained a point in a shootout loss. The team finished the month with a 4-6-0-1 record. Goalie Vitek Vanecek was a key in the run, going 2-0-1 with a 1.62 goals–against average and a .949 save percentage in three games during the week ending October 21 and was the named the AHL Player of the Week.
Hershey started November 3-1, including a win 4-2 over Rochester behind a 31 save performance by Ilya Samsonov. The Bears then ran into goalie issues. Both Samsonov and Vanecek battled through minor injuries. Samsonov came back and was called up the Capitals to back up Pheonix Copley. Parker Milner filled in admirably by going 2-1 with a save percentage of .931 and a goals-against-average of 2.28. Hershey went 2-4 the rest of the November to finish the month at 5-5. Riley Barber and Mike Sgarbossa each netted five goals in the month to pace the team offensively.
December was not kind to the Bears. They went 5-7-0-1 in the month and sat seven points out of a playoff spot. They were in last place in the Atlantic Division with 30 points. During the month, the Hershey defense was decimated. Connor Hobbs, Kris Bindulis, Lucas Johansen and Tobias Geisser all got injured. Tyler Lewington was recalled to Washington and Logan Pyett left the organization. The Bears were forced to employ four ECHL defensemen at times. The offense scuffled. In five of their seven losses, the team scored one or fewer goals.
The dawn of 2019 proved to be a positive thing for Hershey. The team put the mess of 2018 behind them and produced their best month of the season up to that date. The goaltending duo of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek each won five games in the month and often made saves when there were breakdowns. Vanecek represented the Bears at the AHL All-Star Classic in Springfield, Massachusetts. He made six saves and allowed no goals for the Atlantic Division in the Championship game, but was pulled for the deciding shootout (his replacement gave up two goals and the Atlantic lost to the shootout 2-1 to the North Division). He played in all four games, surrendering only two goals.The defense played with more structure and the defense pairings played well together for most of the month. Bears went 7-2-0-1 and finished January on a seven-game point streak (6-0-0-1). The run lifted them out of the basement. One of the keys for the turnaround was the play of Samsonov. The Russian netminder went 4-0-0-1 in his final five starts of the month with two shutouts. Sgarbossa and Barber finally received help offensively as Nathan Walker, Jayson Megna, Aaron Ness and Ryan Sproul provided secondary scoring. Barber was named the AHL Player of the Month after potting seven goals and dishing out seven assists in the January.
Hershey carried their January momentum into February and rattled off 10 consecutive wins (11th overall) to start the month to run their franchise record point streak to 17. Both streaks ended with a 5-1 loss to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers on February 24. The Bears concluded the month with an 11-1 record. The February success vaulted Hershey into third place in the Atlantic Division and into a playoff spot. The goaltending duo of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek ceach won five games in the month and often made saves when there were breakdowns. The defense played with more structure and led by the top pair of Ness and Tyler Lewingotn, the defense pairings played well together. Barber continued his hot streak, tallying eight goals and three assists. Sgarbossa and Ness each added nine-point months.
The Bears started slowly in March, losing their first four games. Fortunately, they were able to pick up three points during that losing streak. Hershey finished the month strongly, going 6-2-1 after the four-game skid. As March came to a close, Hershey sat in third place in the Atlantic Division with 83 points. Sgarbossa led the team in scoring in March with five goals and eight assists. Barber continued to play well, netting five goals and recording five assists. The Bears also got big offensive months out of Devante Smith-Pelly (six goals and five assists) Megna (four goals, seven assists), Walker (one goal, nine assists), Ness (one goal, 7 assists) and Garrett Pilon (five goals, three assists). Vanecek and Samsonov continued to play wellin goal, both winning three games in the month.
The season ended on a better note than it started. Hershey went 5-1-1 in the month. They clinched a playoff berth on a day they were not even playing. They secured the berth thanks to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms victory over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on April 7. After losing to the Phantoms in overtime on April 9, the Bears concluded the season with a three-game winning streak. Hershey finished in third place in the Atlantic Division with 94 points and 43 victories. That is an improvement of 25 points and 13 wins from last season. Ness led the AHL in defensemen scoring with 55 points. His 50 assists were the most by an AHL defenseman and the fifth most of overall. Barber finished seventh in the league in goals with 31 and Sgarbossa was ninth with 30. Sgarbossa was tied for the fourth most power play goals in the AHL with 14 and Barber was tied for ninth on that list with 13. Sgarbossa ended the season 10th in the AHL in scoring with 65 points.
The regular season turnaround for the Hershey Bears is complete. Now, it is time to see if the can continue the run in the Calder Cup Playoffs. Next Stop: Bridgeport.
By Eric Lord