In a “normal” season, the Hershey Bears would have reached the season’s halfway point by now. However, with COVID postponements the team is still four games shy of the midway point this season. Nevertheless, with a short break in their schedule, it’s a good time to take a look at the season, thus far, for the chocolate and white.
The first 34 games of the 2021-22 American Hockey League (AHL) season have been a bit of a whirlwind for the Bears. The team faced multiple obstacles with COVID, a jammed-packed schedule and roster disarray caused by callups, injuries and illness.
Despite all of the adversity, Hershey is actually in a pretty solid position, standings wise. The chocolate and white sit in third place of the Atlantic Division with a points percentage of .603. They have a record of 18-11-3-2, good for 41 points. The Bears have the most points in the division, but the two teams ahead of them, Providence, and Springfield, have played fewer games.
Fast Starts Relinquished
Getting an early lead is something Hershey has done quite often this season, but holding that lead has been an issue, especially in the past few weeks. On January 5, the Bears surrendered a three-goal advantage to an undermanned Lehigh Valley Phantoms team before winning in overtime. Against the Bridgeport Islanders on January 12, the chocolate and white jumped ahead 2-0 after a period and then proceeded to give up the next three goals in the game. They did manage to force overtime by scoring late, but ended up losing in the shootout. In their next game, Hershey had leads of 1-0 and 2-1 against the Toronto Marlies, but could not hold either of those advantages and lost in overtime.
These blown leads have forced the Bears to play longer by going into overtime or shootouts and this is a problem with a schedule that is compact and busy due to COVID postponements. Extra hockey adds to the fatigue of playing so many games in a short period of time. Granted, the schedule creates a level fatigue on its own, but it’s not going to get any easier with three and four game weeks on the docket, going forward. The chocolate and white need to find a way to hold leads and conserve as much energy as possible.
The ability to rotate players in and out of the lineup would help with the fatigue issue, but the Bears have not had a consistent group of players on their roster due to a number of the aforementioned factors. Hershey’s lineup looks a lot different now than it did at the start of the season.
Gone are Aliaksei Protas, Brett Leason, Michal Kempny and Mike Sgarbossa. All of those players are in Washington with the Capitals. Captain Matt Moulson is out long term after undergoing back surgery on December 30. Eddie Wittchow and Bobby Nardella are the latest Bears on the injury list. In all, Hershey has used 32 different skaters and not a single Bear has suited up for every game. But to their credit, the Bears have dealt with the “revolving door” quite well.
Snively Steps Up
With the significant roster turnover, other players have been forced to step into bigger roles. No player has stepped up more than Joe Snively. The Herndon, Virginia native has emerged as the team’s biggest offensive threat, has already surpassed his career high in points and is averaging a point-per-game. Snively has amassed a team-high 32 points in 32 games.
— Jon Sorensen (@jon_m_sorensen) January 6, 2022
In October, the winger only had three points. Starting with a hat trick against Springfield on November 7, Snively has compiled 29 points in his last 23 games. He ranks seventh in the AHL in scoring and is tied for fourth in the league in assists with 21.
In addition to points and assists, Snively leads the Bears in plus/minus with a +16 rating and is tied for the team lead with three game-winning goals. He is also tied for second on the team in goals with 11.
The Axe Man Cometh
Another forward who has taken his game up a notch is Axel Jonsson-Fjallby. The speedy Swede has always been an excellent penalty killer and responsible in his own end. This season, he has improved offensively and is currently playing on the team’s top line. Jonsson-Fjallby has already equaled his career high in assists with 11.
— Jon Sorensen (@jon_m_sorensen) January 16, 2022
Jonsson-Fjallby has 10 goals so far this season, which is tied for third on the Bears. The Stockholm, Sweden native’s three game-winning goals is tied with Snively for the most game-winning goals on the team. The total is two off of his career best total. Jonsson-Fjallby is also tied for third on the team in scoring with 21 points and is on pace to blow past his career high point total of 23.
Unfortunately for the Bears, but deservingly for Jonsson-Fjallby, he was recalled to the Capitals taxi squad on January 19.
Recently, Shane Gersich’s contribution to the offense has increased tremendously. The North Dakota product struggled to start the season with just two assists in his first 12 games. He finally scored his first goal of the season against Providence on November 24. Gersich’s game started to take off in the last game of 2021 and he has been on a hot streak ever since.
— Jon Sorensen (@jon_m_sorensen) January 16, 2022
Gersich dished out three helpers against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on December 29 to start his hot streak. The Chaska, Minnesota native followed that up with a pair of goals, including the game-winner, against Bridgeport on January 2. In his last nine games, Gersich has tallied eight goals and added four assists. The offensive production has helped Hershey make up for the loss of Moulson and Sgarbossa.
Peels And Veck
Garrett Pilon and Mike Vecchione have lived up to their expectations. Pilon tops the team’s goal scoring list with 12 and sits second in scoring with 24 points. He has been a steady presence in the lineup. After starting the season on the right wing, the native of Mineola, New York is now the pivot on the team’s top line.
— Jon Sorensen (@jon_m_sorensen) January 16, 2022
Vecchione has been a strong contributor when he has played. The problem is he has missed 14 games due to injuries and COVID protocol. The Union College alum is averaging 1.05 points-per-game and has 21 points on the season, tied for the third on the team. His 16 assists are the second most on the Bears. The pivot is strong on faceoffs and gives Hershey a veteran presence down the middle.
Morelli And Dmowski
The Bears have also seen contributions from Mason Morelli and Ryan Dmowski. Morelli was a healthy scratch to start the season, but is now a key part of the team. He has played up and down the lineup and brings a physical presence. He has also chipped in with four goals and six assists. Dmowski was on fire in December, netting six goals in the month. He also has 10 points on the season.
The Need For More
Going forward, Hershey needs more offense from players like Brian Pinho, Kody Clark and Beck Malenstyn. Pinho recently returned from a lengthy injury absence and has two points in the four games he’s played since his return. As he plays more, the Providence College product should provide more scoring.
Clark has been inconsistent offensively. He is currently in the midst of an eight-game scoreless drought and has a single assist in his last 10 games. The son of former NHL winger Wendell Clark gets chances, but needs to convert more.
Malenstyn is still trying to find his game after missing all of last season with an Achilles injury. He helps the team with his physical game and his penalty killing, but his offensive game is almost non-existent. He has two goals and two assists in 23 games. If the Bears had the season-opening lineup, this would not be an issue. However, with all the players they are missing, more offense is needed from Malenstyn.
Defending The Chocolate And White
Moving to the other end of the ice, Hershey has surrendered 98 goals this season. Nearly one third of the 98 goals have been the responsibility of the special teams. The Bears have given up 27 power play goals, as well as five shorthanded tallies. Only one team in the Eastern Conference has a higher total. By contrast, first place Providence has given up 19 goals total via their special teams. Hershey has to change this trend and be sharper and smarter on special teams.
When the Bears get in trouble defensively, it’s usually caused by one of two things. First is poor decisions with the puck. For example, Michal Kempny passed a puck from behind his own goal on December 19, right to Rochester’s Sean Malone on the side of the goal. Malone quickly fed Ryan MacInnis for a tap-in goal. If this were a one-off play, it would not be a problem. Unfortunately, it is a play that has happened on multiple occasions. There have been too many attempted clearing passes that have been sent into danger areas.
The other item that causes defensive problems for the chocolate and white is being caught out of position. When a puck is behind the net, both defensemen sometimes vacate the front of the net and leave the front of the goal uncovered. This happened on the first goal by the Lehigh Valley Phantoms on January 5. Both defensemen followed the puck below the goal line. Lehigh Valley’s German Rubstov moved the puck quickly around the net from the right side to Matthew Strome on the left side below the goal line. Strome fed the puck out in front to an open Linus Sandin for the goal. If one defender stayed home in front, Sandin would have been covered.
Johansen And McIlrath
Individually, Hershey’s best defenseman has been Lucas Johansen. Beset by injuries the past few seasons, little was expected from Johansen entering this season. The former first round pick looks like a completely different player and is playing with a confidence he has lacked in other seasons. Johansen plays in all situations and makes good decisions with the puck. He moves the puck out of his own zone well. The Vancouver, British Columbia native breaks up plays with his stick and is usually in the right position. Johansen leads all Hershey defensemen in plus/minus with a +10. Offensively, he has potted three goals and dished out seven assists.
Johansen has often been paired with veteran Dylan McIlrath to form the team’s top pairing. McIlrath is a mix of leadership and ruggedness. He is always there to stand up for his teammates and is not afraid to deliver a big hit. The former number 10 overall pick has only missed two games in November due to a suspension. McIlrath is known for his defense and has the second best plus/minus among the team’s defenseman with a +8. He has compiled five of his six points since December 29.
A defenseman who has improved as the season as gone along is Tobias Geisser. Last seen in Chocolate Town in the 2019-20 season, the Swiss-born blue liner spent last season in his native Switzerland. Geisser was still slightly tentative to start the season. He hesitated to take shots and did not always use his body when presented the opportunity. The native of Stans, Switzerland now looks for his shot. He tied the game on January 15 against Toronto by firing a rebound in.
— Jon Sorensen (@jon_m_sorensen) January 16, 2022
Geisser has also started to deliver more hits. He still makes some mistakes defensively, as young defensemen do, but strides are visible in his game.
The rest of the blue line needs to improve in certain areas. Cody Franson has been a leader and has 17 points (most among Hershey defensemen), but he is a minus five and makes poor plays in his own end. He is a veteran of over 900 professional games and should make better decisions with the puck.
Alex Alexeyev’s defense has progressed as the season has gone on, but his offensive game has mostly been missing. He tallied nine points in 12 games last season. During the 2021-22 campaign, the Russian has netted a single goal and added five assists in 31 games. The Bears need more offense out of Alexeyev.
Bobby Nardella has had trouble staying on the ice. He missed the start of the season while recovering from an injury suffered while playing in Sweden last season. When he returned, the Notre Dame product helped the power play and compiled 11 points in the 20 games he played before being injured again. Hershey needs Nardella to stay healthy. He is the best puck moving defenseman that the Bears have and the team’s ability to exit the zone is hurt by his absence.
Hershey’s goaltending has seen its ups and downs so far this season. Pheonix Copley has played well since surrendering seven goals in a total team debacle at Rochester on November 26. The North Pole, Alaska native was especially strong during a three-game stretch from December 14 to December 18. On December 14, Copley made 18 saves in a 4-1 win over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, losing his shutout bid with two minutes and 42 seconds left. He blanked Springfield in his next start, turning aside 28 shots in a 2-0 Hershey victory. The veteran netminder had 10 saves in both the first and third periods. Then on December 18, Copley stopped 33 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton shots in an 8-3 triumph for the Bears. He had a 24 total saves in the last two periods.
Copley’s running mate, Zach Fucale has seen more success in the NHL than he has in the AHL. Fucale’s season started well, giving up a total of three goals in his first three games. In his next eight starts as a Bear, the Laval, Quebec native has had only one game where he gave up fewer than three goals. Hershey will need steadier play from Fucale in the second half of the season.
Fortunately for the Bears, they have a strong third goaltender in their system. Hunter Shepard is 3-1 in four starts for the chocolate and white. The two-time national champion at Minnesota-Duluth shutout the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins 3-0 on January 8. He stopped all 20 shots he faced. That was his third straight win over the Penguins after beating the flightless birds on December 27 and December 29. Shepard gave up a single goal in each of those starts. For the season, he has a 1.75 goals-against-average and a save percentage of .923. Shepard will likely see more starts in the second half of the season with the compact schedule the Bears have.
The Second Half
The schedule will see Hershey play 42 games between January 22 and April 24. The level of success that the Bears achieve depends on a number of factors. The team needs healthy bodies, both in Hershey and Washington. The Capitals being at full strength means the Bears will have more players to navigate their schedule. If this does not happen, the organization will have to continue to find capable players to fill in to keep players fresh.
Hershey’s players who are playing well need to continue to play well. The ones who can step up their games, need to step up. Even with all of the roster turnover, the Bears have enough talent to make a run at the Atlantic Division title in the second half. Whether they do or not is up to them.
By Eric Lord