Alex Nylander brought the Hershey Bears’ season to a crushing end when he roofed his shot over the glove of Pheonix Copley in overtime of the decisive game three, sending the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on to the next round of the Calder Cup playoffs. The opening round exit was a disappointing end for a team who had high expectations coming into the season, and for a team that was battling for first place in January.
How did a season of such promise go off the rails after being in contention for more than half of the campaign? Several factors played a part in Hershey’s demise as the season went along. Some of the challenges were out of their control, but others stemmed from an inability to adjust and a lack of attention to detail.
Even when Hershey was having success, there were hints of the troubles to come. The season can really be broken down into two segments, before the Snively recall and after the Snively recall.
The Bears kicked off their 2021-22 American Hockey League (AHL) campaign with a strong October. The chocolate and white earned home wins over the Charlotte Checkers and the Lehigh Valley Phantoms during opening weekend and finished the month with a commendable record of 4-1-1-1.
Hershey was paced by a balanced attack with 10 players tallying goals and 15 players recording points. Defensively, there were a few breakdowns that led to goals for the opposing team. At the time, these did not seem to be as big a deal because the team was getting results. In hindsight, the breakdowns were a preview of things to come.
November would be a month that showcased many of the issues that would plague Hershey down the stretch. Injuries in Washington led to the chocolate and white losing Brett Leason and Aliaksei Protas to the NHL for most of the month. The Bears also dealt with their own injuries to players such as Brian Pinho, Mike Vecchione and Tobias Geisser. Hershey lost three of four games on the road, a glimpse of a problem that would revisit the team late in the season.
A big issue for Hershey in November was defensive structure, allowing 44 goals in the month. Defensemen chased the puck and got out of positioning, leaving the net open. Clearing passes were also problematic.
These elements were all seen on a goal scored by the Providence Bruins on November 6. Both defensemen chased the puck into the corner. Then, Protas attempted to clear across the middle, but instead sent the puck right to Providence’s Oskar Steen in the left circle. Steen fed the puck to Steven Fogerty, who was wide open because the defensemen were out of position, and Fogerty buried his chance. These mistakes would become more frequent as the season moved forward.
Hey Joe (Snipely)
Everything was not all doom and gloom in November, despite the struggles for the Bears. Joe Snively emerged as an offensive threat. He registered a hat trick against Springfield on November 7 and added two more three-point games in the month.
The Herndon, Virginia native went from three points in October to leading the team in scoring after amassing 14 points in November. He teamed with Axel Jonsson-Fjallby and Mike Sgarbossa to pace the Hershey offense through the season’s first two months.
Defenseman Lucas Johansen was also a bright spot. Despite the team giving up 44 goals in the month, he was a plus seven and was the most reliable defenseman on the team.
December And January
The chocolate and white posted back-to-back winning months in December and January. The skaters from Chocolate Town went 6-3 in 2021’s final month, despite dealing with two COVID pauses.
Mike Vecchione and Ryan Dmowski tallied nine points in the month, with Dmowksi leading the way with six goals. Defenseman Bobby Nardella added eight points, as did captain Matt Moulson. The captain produced a three-point game, including the game-winning goal, in a 4-1 victory of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Unfortunately for the Bears, those would be the last points Moulson tallied for the season. He underwent back surgery in on December 30 and missed the rest of the campaign.
Jonsson-Fjallby and Snively led the charge in January, with 15 and 14 points respectively. Hershey played 13 games, earning points in nine of those games with a 7-4-1-1 record. The Bears spent time in first place during the month and were right in the mix for the Atlantic Division’s top spot when January concluded.
Snively’s January capped an incredible hot streak. In his last 26 games, the winger recorded a point in 22 of them. He netted 15 goals and had 20 assists in the 22 games he scored in. The Virginian registered a point in his last 14 home games. The streak is tied with Alexandre Giroux for the longest home scoring streak in franchise history. On January 28, Snively received his second NHL recall. The day would be a major turning point in Hershey’s season.
After Snively’s departure, the Bears became an offensive deficient team. His production masked underlying problems within the structure of the team in all areas of the team. Hershey netted 31 goals in February, but 21 of those came in five games.
Mike Vecchione did his best to carry the load offensively with 10 points and the chocolate and white also received nine points each from Johansen and Pinho. In the seven games they lost in the month, the Bears were held to two or fewer goals in six of them and were shutout for the second time by Providence on February 18.
The losses also brought the team’s defensive issues to the forefront. Hershey struggled with zone exits and that caused them to get hemmed in their own zone. Defensive zone turnovers also increased. Both of those elements were caused by a lack of attention to detail. Players would try blind clearing attempts or force a pass where an opponent was. Players would drift out of position, leaving opposing open in prime scoring positions. The players and coaching staff struggled to make the necessary adjustments in these areas. All of this led to the Bears surrendering 35 goals in 13 games in February.
The offensive woes increased in March. The Hershey depth was hurt once again when Jonsson-Fjallby was recalled to Washington on March 4. The loss of Jonsson-Fjallby deprived the Bears of not only one of their top weapons, but also their best two-way player.
The chocolate and white were shutout three times in the month and tallied two or fewer goals in eight of their 12 games. The main culprit of the lack of production was the power play. Hershey started March 0 for 25 with the man advantage and ended the month with just four goals in 43 power play attempts. The Bears had a hard time winning the initial faceoff on the power play, which allowed the opposing team to clear the puck out of the zone. Then, the unit had a difficult time gaining entrance to the offensive zone and the inability to enter the zone cost them valuable power play time.
When Hershey did get the power play set up, the unit did not move the puck quick enough, not moving the penalty killers enough. On top of all that, the power play, especially the unit, too often passed up open shot. These factors were an issue the entire month, but the coaching staff stuck with the same players on the top unit for far too long and instead hoped the players would figure it out instead of making the necessary adjustments.
Another big problem for the Bears in March was their play away from home. Eight of their 12 games in the month were played on the road due to the Pennsylvania state wrestling and basketball championships taking place at the Giant Center. Hershey won one of those eight games, a 2-1 victory in Bridgeport on March 11. The Bears were shutout twice on the road and were held to a single goal in two of their other road losses.
The chocolate and white wasted solid goaltending for most of March. Zach Fucale started the month with two straight shutouts to run his shutout streak to three. He lost twice when the Bears failed to score a goal. Copley made several high-end saves and gave up one goal in Charlotte on March 2, but the Hershey offense was missing in action. He lost four games in the month and three of them were beyond regulation.
The goalies were again victims of the lack of offense in April, as the Bears were shutout three more times in the regular season’s final month. Copley was top five in the AHL in goals-against-average for much of the month, but did not have the wins to match his numbers.
In the end, he finished ninth in the league with a 2.38 goals-against-average. In a pair of games on April 13 and April 17, the veteran netminder made 63 saves. Unfortunately for Copley, his teammates did not provide any offensive support.
Copley stopped 36 shots at Lehigh Valley on the 13th. He had 23 saves in the first two periods and was the reason the Bears led 1-0 after 40 minutes. Copley denied Adam Johnson from in close with a right pad save in the first and then got a glove on Max Willman’s attempt from the doorstep in the second.
On the 17th, Copley turned aside 27 of the 28 shots he faced versus Providence. He did not surrender a goal through two periods and Providence’s only goal came after Copley made the initial save in the third.
The power play continued to be an issue in April and again the lack of adjustments was costly. Sgarbossa struggled on faceoffs after returning from an upper body injury on April 13. Head coach Scott Allen and assistant coach Steve Bergin consistently sent Sgarbossa out to take the opening faceoff on power plays. Not surprisingly, Sgarbossa had difficulty winning those draws. Yet, the coaching staff kept sending him out there to lose the faceoff and watched the top power play unit found it difficult to get set up.
Another issue the top unit experienced was not having a shooting mentality. Sgarbossa, Vecchione and Garrett Pilon were all on the top unit. Each of those players looked to pass first, even when there was an open opportunity to shoot. Instead, there were too many forced passes that were easily broken up by the penalty kill. The logical move here would be to take one of the three players off the top unit and replace with a shooter or at least someone who would go to the front of the net. The second unit did that and had better success than the top unit, but the coaching staff stubbornly went with the same combination on the top unit.
On The Road…Again
The road struggles also continued in April. The Bears went 2-5-1-0 in eight games away from the Giant Center during the month. The victories were both important. A 4-3 overtime triumph in Bridgeport on April 5 was the Hershey’s 3000th win in franchise history, making the Bears the first AHL team to reach that milestone.
The other road victory came against Lehigh Valley in the team’s last road game of the campaign on April 22 and it clinched a Calder Cup playoffs berth for the Bears. The two road wins brought the chocolate and white’s season total to 13. That is the same number of wins Hershey had during the 2017-18 season when they finished dead last in the Atlantic division.
The Bears finished the regular season in fifth place of the AHL’s Atlantic Division, with a points percentage of .513. They ended the regular season with a record of 34-32-6-4. Their road record and their inability to score cost them home ice advantage in their opening round Calder Cup playoff series against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Hershey needed only one point more to earn home ice and being shutout seven times after Snively was recalled to the NHL did not help their cause.
Home-ice advantage was the difference in the first-round playoff series. The Penguins won game one at home 3-0, as the Bears’ offense remained in hibernation. The chocolate and white responded at home in game two with a strong effort in a 2-1 victory. Game three was a microcosm of the entire season for Hershey. They started well and scored the first goal, but a pair of defensive lapses preceded the tying goal. Then, the offense disappeared in the third as the Bears got stuck in their own zone and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton went in front by two. Hershey then had a miraculous comeback by scoring two goals in 42 seconds to force overtime. The two goals gave the fans of the chocolate and white hope, but as had happened much of the season, that hope was dashed when the Bears allowed the Penguins easy access to the offensive zone and Nylander converted his chance to win the series.
Being truthful, Hershey got what they deserved in the end. Championship quality teams do the little things well. They pay attention to detail and make the adjustments that are needed.
As a minor league affiliate, roster turnover is inevitable. Good teams find ways to overcome adversity. This team did not handle adversity well, especially after losing Snively. They could not fight their way through injuries and callups.
Former Bears head coach Spencer Carbery always talked about taking advantage of the time you had together as a team and the need to make the most of that time. He pushed his team to get better with the time they had and as the season progressed, they usually did just that.
This version of the Bears did not do that. The 2021-22 rendition of the chocolate and white got worse as the season went along, not better. Mistakes that should be eliminated early in the season became more prevalent as the campaign went along. The adjustments that were needed on the power play and in other areas such as defensive structure, were not made. That is on both the coaching staff and the players.
By Eric Lord