Photo: Bridgeport Sound Tigers
It was only a year away from the playoffs, but in “Bear years”, that’s equivalent (seemingly) to two decades, and one year too many. Spoiled? No. High standards? No doubt. It’s taken 81 years to set those standards. Regardless of expectations, the last 24-months have seen trying times and an impressive turnaround in the Bears den.
A Momentary Lapse Of Reason
The 2017-2018 season was a punch to the gut and gut check for Bears Nation. The team struggled from start to finish, and missed the post season, all after reaching the Calder Cup final just two seasons prior. Quite a fall from grace, but something we are familiar with in the DC area.
A Return To “Normal”
Sure, the first 35 games of the Bears season where a general disappointment as far as game scores were concerned. But in all likelihood, the fumbling in the fall was a necessary condition for the turnaround the team demonstrated in the second half of the season. “On-the-job training”, if you will. Credit the team, Spencer Carbery and his coaches, and the Bears and the Capitals for sticking to the script, and staying the course. Also credit the fans, who had faith and understood that the season was a process that required a steep learning curve at the start.
But the Bears turned the proverbial corner about the same time the ball dropped in Times Square. One could argue no corner has been turned more sharply than the Bears effort in the second half of the 2018-2019 season. Almost resembling the functionality of a household light switch, a new day dawned in Chocolate Town, and winning ways returned.
The Bears would win 11-straight games and reel-off 17-straight games with points by late February, and serious post season talk had returned to Hershey. Ilya Samsonov ditched his #1 sweater for #35 (the number was bad luck, according to Sammy). And he went on an impressive run of his own. (More here)
The rookies began to find their way at the “next level”. Forwards Garret Pilon, Beck Malenstyn and Brian Pinho (of late), began to figure out how to play at the AHL level, and ultimately became important components in the Bears starting lineup. The vets were also crucial to the second-half run. Riley Barber, Mike Sgarbossa and Jayson Megna had career years, in one form or another. Defenseman Aaron Ness may have had the most impressive season of all the Bears.
Additionally the Bears made the second half run turnaround on the backs of a two-headed monster in goal. Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek have been consistently rotating starting duties, with both turning in excellent seasons to this point. If merit was the sole creiteria for selecting the Bears starting goaltender, we might need a week to decide.
Todays Bears are not without fault. The power play has struggled mightily during the season, and in their first round series with Bridgeport. They went 0 for 16 in the first four games before Riley Barber ended the drought in game 5. Penalties have also plagued the team at times, causing the Bears to lose a game in the first round series. But make no mistake, this edition of the Hershey Bears team is for real.
Saturday night’s overtime victory over Bridgeport in a deciding Game 5 was just another sign that winning ways have truly returned. The Bears dominated in the winner-take-all extra frame. As a fan, it felt like it was a matter of time before the Bears would net the series winner. Capitals prospect and Bears rookie Brian Pinho would do just that, 10:27 into the extra frame.
— AHL (@TheAHL) April 28, 2019
Note: The top photo to this post is of Pinho’s series-winning shot Saturday night in Bridgeport, with eyes closed and all.
The Bears have been on an uptick since the beginning of 2019. Because of that, it’s difficult to determine just how good this team really is – they haven’t plateaued yet. This team can certainly beat the Charlotte Checkers in a seven game series. One could argue the Bears have been the better team as of late. Either way, the round 2 series should be a good one. (We’ll have plenty more on the series in the coming days.)
Regardless, winning ways have truely returned to Hershey.
By Jon Sorensen