Rookie Brian Pinho sent the Hershey Bears into the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs with his overtime goal in game five against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Their reward is a meeting with the top team in the American Hockey League (AHL), the Charlotte Checkers. The Checkers finished with 110 points, 16 more than the Hershey’s 94. Despite the point differential, the Bears won the season series with a 3-0-0-1 record. Wining the series will give Hershey confidence heading into the series, but the Bears will have their hands full with a deep Charlotte team.
The one area where Hershey likely has the advantage is goaltending. Charlotte just lost their number one goalie, Alex Nedeljkovic, to the Carolina Hurricanes. Nedeljkovic was named the winner of the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL’s outstanding goaltender for this season. Nedeljkovic led the AHL in victories with 34 and in goals-against average (2.26). He played every minute in the first round series win over the Providence Bruins, going 3-1 with a 2.00 goals-against average and one shutout. With Nedeljkovic in Carolina, the Checkers will rely on veterans Dustin Tokarski and Scott Darling. Neither of those goalies saw action in the first round.
Meanwhile, the Bears continued to roll their two number one goalies in Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek. Samsonov went 2-1 with a 1.61 goals-against average and made a key save on Chris Bourque late in game five. Vanecek posted a 1-1 record with a goals-against average of 1.49. He recorded a shutout in a 2-0 game two win over Bridgeport. Both goalies suffered overtime losses, but both were stellar in those losses. Each goalie gives the Bears a chance to win every game and both are playing with a lot of confidence.
Offensively, the Checkers are led by right wing Andrew Poturalski. In the first round, Poturalski led the way with five goals and nine points in four games. He put up points in all four games of the series and netted goals in the final three games. It is not a surprise that Poturalski was the top scorer for Charlotte, as he was their leading scorer in the regular season with 70 points. He also was their top assist man with 47. He finished 5th in the AHL in scoring and was seventh in assists. Poturalski is not the only weapon the Checkers have. They had seven players score 40 or more points and 11 players tallied 12 or more goals. Aleksi Saarela topped the goal scoring list with 30, followed by Julien Gauthier with 27 and Poturalski with 23. Morgan Geekie netted 19 goals in the regular season and added four more in the first round.
As a team, Charlotte scored 14 goals in four games in the first round. That is three more goals than the Bears scored in five games against Bridgeport.
Hershey’s offense was limited through much of the first round and will need to score more in this series. Three players scored two goals in the series, Ryan Sproul, Jayson Megna and Riley Barber. The Bears need to get goals from players like Nathan Walker, Shane Gersich and Garrett Pilon. Also, they will need more than a goal and two assists from regular season scoring leader Mike Sgarbossa to beat Charlotte.
On the back end, Charlotte has several defensemen who contribute offensively. One of them, Jake Bean was recently recalled to Carolina to replace the injured Trevor Van Riemsdyk. Still, the Checkers are deep on defense. Trevor Carrick finished sixth on the defensemen regular season scoring list with 47 points. He was 4th among AHL defensemen with 38 assists. Roland McKeown and Dan Renouf both had more than 20 assists in the regular season. Renouf and Bobby Sanguitti each netted a goal in the opening round.
For the Bears, Sproul was the top guy for the Bears in the first round. He potted two goals, including the third period game-winner in game three. He was the only Hershey defenseman to score a goal and Lucas Johansen is the only other Bear defenseman to record points (two assists). Hershey will need more production from the blue line to beat Charlotte. The return of AHL defensemen scoring leader Aaron Ness from injury should give the Bears a boost in that area. Ness missed games two through four in the Bridgeport series after suffering a scary crash into the boards in game one. He returned to the lineup in game five and should provide a boost going forward. The team could also use some offense from other defensemen like Connor Hobbs.
One area where the defensemen, and the forwards for that matter, can increase their output is on the power play. The Bears were a woeful 1 for 18 in the opening round. However, that one proved to be important as Barber’s power play tally tied game five in the second period. The unit has to be better. In the regular season, Hershey tallied five power play goals in four games with Charlotte. They will look to continue that success in this series. A productive power play would go a long way to helping the Bears pull off the upset.
Charlotte, based on their regular season, is the clear favorites in this series. However, as the Tampa Bay Lightning showed, the regular season means little in the post-season. Hershey winning the season series also means little at this time of year. Can the Bears win the series? Absolutely. It is going to take a total team effort in all aspects of the game for Hershey to knock off the Checkers, but the talent is there and the goalie tandem of Samsonov and Vanecek can carry the team on to the next round.
By Eric Lord