The Hershey Bears hit the midpoint of their season Friday night after defeating their rivals Wilkes-Barre/Scranton 2-1, winning on Shane Gersich’s goal in the sixth round of the shootout. After topping Cleveland 4-2 on Saturday, the Bears have earned 51 points in 39 games. They sit just two points behind first place Hartford in the American Hockey League’s Atlantic Division and have the second most points in the Eastern Conference. Here are the “pluses and minuses” for the first half of the season.
Plus: The Penalty Kill. The Hershey penalty kill has been excellent. The Bears are second in the AHL with a kill percentage of 87.9%. The team has been shorthanded 147 times, but have surrendered only 18 power play goals. The unit has employed a one-three neutral zone trap setup to make it harder on the opponent to enter the zone. A forward puts pressure on the puck-handler up high and his three fellow penalty killers are in a line behind him. This formula has prevented the opposing power play from entering the zone cleanly. Hershey is also is excellent at blocking shots. Rookie defenseman Alex Alexeyev has emerged as one of the best at this skill. Finally, the unit is strong positionally and consistently puts pressure on the opponents.
Minus: The Power Play. The power play has improved lately, but it still is a work in progress, and still the weakest part of this Hershey team. At the end of November, it was the second worst power play in the AHL with a conversion percentage of 9.1. Since the return of Bobby Nardella, the unit has improved to 24th in the league with a 14.5% efficiency. Nardella has done a good job of getting shots through to the net to create scoring opportunities and that has helped the unit to play better. The power play still has some issues. The unit is still too deliberate at times and when that happens, it is easy to defend. Also, while Nardella has aided with zone entries, the Bears sometimes try to skate through the penalty killers at the blue line and this makes it harder to enter the zone. Recently, the unit has been hindered by the loss of leading scorer Mike Sgarbossa to injury. When Sgarbossa comes back, the hope is the unit will continue to improve and make the power play a positive aspect of Hershey’s game.
Plus: The Goalies. The goaltending for the Hershey Bears has been excellent. Vitek Vanecek and Pheonix Copley form one of the top tandems in the entire AHL. Both goalies give the Bears a chance to win every time out. They are stellar when they need to be. Vanecek is seventh in the league with a goals against average of 2.30, while Copley is 10th on that list with an average of 2.42. Milwaukee is the only other team to have two goalies in the top 10. Vanecek has won 12 games, Copley 10. Vanecek has a save percentage of .911. Copley’s save percentage is .907. Both have one shutout on the season. Hershey’s goalie depth does not stop there. ECHL goalie Parker Milner got one start on December 29 at Lehigh Valley when Copley was out with an injury and the Bears playing their third game in three nights. Milner stopped 19 shots and shut out Lehigh Valley 3-0.
Minus: Lucas Johansen, Connor Hobbs, Colby Williams. To be fair, Johansen, Hobbs and Williams have not been horrible. They all have had their good moments and their bad. The problem is that none of the trio have taken the step forward that was hoped for. The trio has been overshadowed by Hershey’s trio of rookie defensemen and by ECHL callup Eddie Wittchow. With the return of Christian Djoos from Washington, Johansen, Hobbs and Williams now have seven defensemen ahead of them on the depth chart. That’s not a good spot for any of them. Johansen, Hobbs and Williams are all in the last year of their contracts and face an uncertain future in the organization. They need more ice time to try to make an impression on the Capitals but face an uphill battle with Hershey’s depth on the blue line.
Plus: The Rookie Defensemen. Martin Fehervary, Alex Alexeyev and Bobby Nardella have emerged as mainstays on the Hershey blueline. Feherevary has the poise of a veteran. The Slovak rarely panics and almost always makes a good decision. He knows when to jump into the play and when to stay back. He plays in all situations and is a steady presence. Fehervary leads the team with a +10 rating and has 12 points on the season. Alexeyev is a dynamic skater, who still has his growing pains defensively. However, his defensive game has improved since being paired with veteran Tyler Lewingon. Alexeyev is an excellent shot blocker and this has been especially evident on the penalty kill. Offensively, the Russian is tied for third on the team with 13 assists and has one goal as well. Nardella struggled to get into the lineup early in the season, but has played in every game since returning from injury on December 7. The Notre Dame product now quarterbacks the Hershey power play and has been instrumental in its improvement. He is a smooth skater and has amassed 14 points in just 18 games. The last time the Bears relied heavily on three rookie defensemen was 2016. The team advanced to the Calder Cup Finals that season.
Plus: Mike Sgarbossa and Matt Moulson. Hershey’s leading scorer from last season, Sgarbossa has picked up right where he left off. The Bears’ number one center is once again at the top of the team scoring list with 35 points. The pivot leads Hershey in assists with 24, in game-winning goals with four and in power play points with 11. His 11 goals are second on the team and he is also second with six power play goals. The Campbellville, Ontario native is part of the team’s leadership core. Sgarbossa was selected to the Atlantic Division All-Star team. With 650 games in the NHL under his belt, Moulson brings a ton of experience to the Bears and that experience has been a big help to Hershey’s young forwards. He has netted a team-leading 13 goals. Seven of Moulson’s goals have come on the power play and that total also is the most of on the team. He is tied for third on Hershey with 13 assists. The North York, Ontario native serves an alternate captain for the Bears and will serve as captain for the Atlantic Division in the AHL All-Star game.
Even: Phillipe Maillet. Brought in to provide secondary scoring, Maillet got off to a very slow start and would have been considered a disappointment at the quarter point of the season. He had six points through November. When December rolled around, Maillet turned up his game. He equaled his point total from the first two months by posting six points. January has been even better for Maillet. He has three goals and four assists in six games in the month and is now tied for fourth on the team’s scoring list with 19 points. One of the keys to his turnaround was having Moulson put on his wing. The duo played together with success last season in Ontario and they have found that chemistry again in Hershey.
Plus: Second Year Forwards. Brian Pinho, Garrett Pilon, Beck Malenstyn and Shane Gersich are all in their second AHL season and all four have been contributors to Hershey’s success thus far this season. Pinho has already surpassed his offensive totals from last season. Last season, the Providence College product tallied four goals and dished out eight assists in 73 games. This season, Pinho has nine goals and 11 assists in 39 games. He plays with more confidence in the offensive zone than he did last season. The North Andover, Massachusetts native is third on the team in scoring. He is also a key component of the Bears’ stellar penalty kill. He often is one of the first forwards over the boards on the penalty kill and does a good job of shutting down the other team’s power play. He has seen time at both center and on right wing.
Pilon is right behind Pinho on the scoring list and has also played both center and right wing. He is tied with Maillet for fourth in points with 19. The native of Mineola, New York has scored eight goals this season and is on pace to blow past his total of 10 from last season. He is also on pace to top his point total of 33 from his rookie campaign. His two-way play has improved as well. He was -5 through November, but has been a +6 since.
Malenstyn continues to do what he does best. He kills penalties. He hits and blocks shots. The winger is the quintessential glue guy. He does all the little things that helps teams win. Malenstyn remains one of the team’s best penalty killers and shot blockers. The Delta, British Columbia native earned his first recall to the NHL earlier in the season. The recall and an upper body injury has limited Malenstyn to 24 games thus far. He had potted five goals, which is on pace to surpass his seven-goal total from last season. Two of his goals are game-winners.
Gersich has transformed himself into a solid two-way forward. He is a quality penalty killer and uses his speed and smarts to harass the opponents’ power play. The North Dakota product leads Hershey with two short-handed goals. The Chaska, Minnesota native has gone 24 games without being a minus player.
Minus: Riley Sutter. Sutter suffered an injury in Washington Capitals rookie tournament and the injury forced him to miss the entirety of Hershey’s training camp. As a rookie, this was not an optimal situation for Sutter. Since he returned from injury, he has found it difficult to get into the lineup on a consistent basis. Sutter has played in 10 games this season and has one assist. The Calgary, Alberta native has been a healthy scratch more times than not. Right now, the Bears have three forwards out with injuries, but Sutter is still is not getting into the lineup. He needs ice time to find his game and he is struggling to find that ice time. Perhaps a trip to South Carolina in the ECHL would benefit Sutter. A move down would allow him to play top six minutes and give him a chance to get into a rhythm.
Plus: Axel Jonsson-Fjallby & Joe Snively. The two rookie forwards have provided the Bears with much-needed secondary scoring. Jonsson-Fjallby left Hershey for his home in Sweden last season after playing 16 games. He returned this season and has been a revelation. He plays with speed and smarts. The Swedish winger plays in all situations. He has netted 10 goals this season and added five assists. Jonsson-Fjallby has scored at even strength and on the power play. He has scored shorthanded and he has scored an overtime game winner. The Swede sees a lot of the time on the penalty kill and is a big reason for the unit’s success.
Snively started the season on the top line and struggled out of the gate. He was dropped down in the lineup and started to play better. The Yale product earned his way back to the top line by producing five points in November, a month where the Bears struggled as a team. Snively added four goals and three assists in December and had two assists in three games in January before being injured on a check against Bridgeport on January 5. The Herndon, Virginia native is second on the team with three game-winning goals, including an overtime winner against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on December 8. Unfortunately, Snively is out for a few weeks with an upper body injury.
By Eric Lord