In a seven game playoff series, it technically is not a must win game until a team is facing elimination. The Hershey Bears are not quite at that point in their second round Calder Cup playoff series with the Charlotte Checkers. Nonetheless, the Bears are facing a must-win situation when they host game three on Tuesday night, trailing 2-0 in the series. The Checkers are the best team in the American Hockey League (AHL). A game three win is essential if the Bears want to win the series.
How does Hershey earn a game three win? First, they need to play a full 60 minutes. In game one, the Bears were not ready to play and surrendered four goals before the game was 12 minutes old. Charlotte won that game 4-1. In game two, Hershey trailed 3-2 after two periods, but then gave up four goals in the third en route to a 7-3 loss. The Bears have played well in stretches, but have not been able to sustain it. The Checkers can come at you in waves and the level has to stay high in order to beat them.
Second, the Bears have to tighten up defensively. On the opening goal of the series, Charlotte’s Julien Gauthier skated right past the Hershey defense and came in all alone. Aleksi Saarela was wide open in front of the net on the third goal. It was not any better in game two. Zach Nastasiuk was left uncovered near the goal on the first goal. Gauthier went coast-to-coast and split the defense for Charlotte’s fifth goal. There have been far too many open looks for the Checkers and a team of that quality is going to make you pay. As a five-man unit, the Bears have to make sure they have their assignments and be positionally strong. They cannot get running around and have to stop allowing Charlotte players to split them.
A third area in which Hershey needs to improve is in offensive pressure. The Checkers are a strong defensive team and have smothered the Bears at times. Hershey had a combined total of 11 shots in periods two and three of game one. In the third stanza of game two, Charlotte held the Bears to a single shot on goal until Hershey mustered four late shots to finish the period with five. The Bears have to create more offensive chances. Hershey really misses regular season scoring leader Mike Sgarbossa, who has been out with an undisclosed injury. Sgarbossa is the team’s number one center and allows the rest of the centers slot into roles they are more suited for. His absence has thinned the forward lines and the Bears have not been able to generate offense on a consistent basis. With Sgarbossa out, other players have to contribute offensively. Hershey does not have anybody to replace Sgarbossa. That means they have to score any way possible. They do this by putting shots on net that generate rebounds. Put traffic in front of the net and try to score ugly goals. The ugly goal counts as much as the highlight reel goal. The Bears are not going to win if the do not put more pressure on the Checkers.
Finally, Hershey may need their goalie to steal the game for them. The series deficit is far from the fault of the goalies. Vitek Vanecek made 34 saves in game one and stopped the last 30 shots he faced and could not be faulted on any of the Charlotte goals. Ilya Samsonov was responsible for a few of the goals in game two, but he got little help from the team in front of him and he did make some high quality saves in the first two periods. Vanecek likely will get the start in game three and needs to be as sharp as he was down the stretch in game one. He is capable of carrying his team to victory. Of course, he will need his teammates to limit the grade A scoring chances for the Checkers.
Overall, the Bears need to be better in all areas to win game three. If Hershey does that, they will be right back in the series. If they do not, locker clean outs will be looming.
By Eric Lord