First off, it was great to be back in hospitable Hershey for a weekend of meaningful hockey. Since the Bears claimed the Calder Cup last June, I had been back in town for the Caps’ annual summer rookie camp and a couple of days of training camp in September. I also took in a weeknight Bears game with my wife and kids late in November, but there’s something special about heading up for the weekend and seeing a couple of games, talking to some of the guys and seeing and hanging out with the many good people up there.
Great to hear Tim Leone’s take on the recent Giant Center gig by The Who, and it was enjoyable to share the musical wonders of some of hockey’s greatest musical hits with my pals John Walton, John Sparenberg and Chris Poisal. Before Sunday’s game we queued up The Hextalls’ “I’d Take An Al MacInnis Slapshot to the Balls For You” and the late Warren Zevon’s “Hit Somebody,” which was co-written by Mitch Albom. Good stuff that, and sadly underexposed in the hockey barns of North America. We’re such a cultured bunch.
The Giant Center is one of the best buildings in the league, and the fans up there are loud, passionate and involved. And you have to love the “B-U-L-L-S-H-I-T” chant, it’s one of the great spontaneous things you’ll ever see from the fans in a North American sporting facility. Some of us were discussing this at dinner before Sunday night’s game, but the guy who leads that cheer has a tremendous sense for when to do it. He doesn’t overdo it, like when you sign up for some occasional e-mails from some company or another only to have them inundate (spam) your e-mail transom with several missives a week. You can be sure that when the B.S. guy starts the B.S. chant, it’s because there was a B.S. call made on the ice. He doens’t water it down in the least; no crying “wolf.” We got the B.S. chant once on Saturday night, though I can’t tell from my notes which call or non-call brought about its necessity.
I’ll have a few features on players and a long conversation with Bears coach Bruce Boudreau that will evolve into content for washingtoncaps.com after the transcription process. In the meantime, I wanted to share some thoughts and observations on the Bears. I got several comments and some e-mails from people wondering about certain players on other Bears items of note over the weekend, so here are a few impressions from the admittedly small sample size of Hershey games I’ve seen this season.
Last year’s Bears defense was a veteran bunch, and the lone rookie was Mike Green, one of the best rookie defensemen to come through town in quite a while. There are nine defensemen listed on the Bears’ current roster, and three of them are rookies. One of those (2005 first-rounder Sasha Pokulok) is injured and has only appeared in one game. The others are Jeff Schultz (a first-rounder from 2004) and Jamie Hunt (signed as a free agent last April). Both played well over the weekend, but really the entire Hershey defense deserves kudos for its play in the three-game series against Norfolk (the two teams also played in Norfolk on Wednesday).
The Bears won all three games against the Admirals, with veteran goaltending stalwart Frederic Cassivi in goal for all three. Hershey needed overtime to win the first two tilts. Cassivi saw a total of just 47 shots in those first two games, and just one in the final 21-plus minutes of Saturday’s 3-2 overtime winner. The Admirals managed only two even strength goals in the three-game set, and just five goals altogether. Cassivi faced 42 shots on Sunday, but as one veteran observer noted, it was a “quiet” 42 shots. Twenty of the shots came in the first period, and Cassivi answered all of them. Norfolk’s lone goal came on a power play, and it came as Bears penalty killer extraordinaire Dave Steckel was staggering to the bench after taking a spear to the um, grapes, from Norfolk’s Dave Bolland. It was Bolland who scored the goal.
Bears captain Lawrence Nycholat spearheads the defense, and he is simply one of the best in the league. Nycholat plays in all situations and likely logs about 30 minutes a night. He leads all AHL defensemen in points (26) and assists (23), and he has seven more points than any other blueliner in the circuit. He’s also a good choice to captain this team, a no-nonsense guy whose play and demeanor on the ice speaks volumes. In a recent game (Nov. 29) against Manitoba, Nycholat went after an opposing player who had freight-trained him behind the Hershey net. He dropped his gloves and prepared to unload on him, but relented when the player told Nycholat that he could not fight because of a wrist injury. There are some players in the league who would have unleashed a fistic fury anyway, but not Nycholat. He took his two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct (the penalty for dropping his gloves) and let it go. Good to see some respect for the code.
Minutes later, a different Manitoba player crushed Hershey’s Joey Tenute into the boards, leaving him flattened on the ice. Nycholat immediately charged after the player and fought him, sending an important message in the process. At 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, Nycholat is not cut out for pugilism. The fact that he is still willing to drop them when necessary is not lost on his teammates.
Fellow veteran blueliner Dean Arsene continues to be a defensive stalwart for Hershey. He has played in 22 of Hershey’s 26 games (only Nycholat and Schultz have played more among Bears defensemen) and is plus-3 on the season. Arsene is quietly efficient at even strength and is a staple of Hershey’s excellent penalty killing corps.
Schultz and Hunt are two different types of defensemen, and both are learning the ropes with the Bears. Schultz is big, but not overly physical and aggressive. He is learning how to best make use of his large frame to compensate for mobility that does not rank with that of Hunt. Hunt is a wonderful skater whose gifts translate toward moving the puck, making a good first pass and contributing at the offensive end of the ice. As was the case with Green last season, you should expect both players to be better in March than they are in December.
Like the Caps, the Bears are very deep on the left side. Alexandre Giroux is coming off consecutive 30-goal seasons in the AHL, and he tied for the AHL lead with six short-handed goals in 2005-06. Giroux has already potted 20 goals in just 25 games in 2006-07, including four short-handed tallies. Tomas Fleischmann — Hershey’s top forward throughout its Calder Cup championship run last spring — gives the Bears as good a 1-2 punch on the left side as any team in the league. Personally, I’d like to see both Giroux and Flesichmann get a shot at cracking the NHL somewhere, if not in Washington.
With centers Kris Beech, Brooks Laich, Boyd Gordon and Jakub Klepis all having graduated to Washington, the Bears have been a little thin up the middle this season. Steckel continues to be a stalwart as a face-off, checking and penalty killing specialist, and he is the team’s best middleman. But Hershey lacks the big rig pivot who can control the game down low in the offensive zone, and who can create and finish. Matt Hendricks and Kyle Wilson have both surprised pleasantly and have played well, but neither figures to make anyone forget the job done by Beech and Laich as Hershey’s top two centers during their 2006 championship run. Tenute has been injured, and he doesn’t have the size to play the style of game that Beech and Laich brought on a nightly basis last spring. If this team has a need, this is where it could use some help.
Wilson has been an intriguing addition. He was Minnesota’s ninth-round (272nd overall) pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft; Buffalo took Dale Hunter’s son Dylan with the very next pick. A kid who played his collegiate hockey at Colgate, Wilson blossomed as a senior in 2005-06, scoring 23 goals and totaling 41 points. The Wild elected not to sign him, but he did draw a training camp invitation from the Phoenix Coyotes this fall. Wilson was subsequently signed by the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage, but was released a month later after recording a goal in his seven games there. A five-game stint with the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays produced three goals and five points, and that’s when the Bears came calling. With Tenute on the sidelines, the Bears needed a center. They inked the righty-shooting Wilson on Dec. 2, and he was in the lineup against Manitoba that night. He scored twice and was the game’s third star. He picked up a goal and an assist in Saturday’s win over Norfolk, and was the second star. He had an assist in Sunday’s game. With three goals and five points in four games, Wilson is making a case for more than a mere transient role in Chocolate Town.
Holdover wingers Chris Bourque and Jonas Johansson are both playing well and showing improvement. Bourque in particular shone over the weekend, drawing penalties with his speed and showing a willingness to get his nose dirty. He scored a pair of goals in Sunday’s win, and is now fourth on the team with eight. It has taken him just 25 games to match the total he recorded in 52 games as a freshman in the league in 2005-06. Offseason pick-up Quintin Laing replaces some of the grit lost when last year’s captain Boyd Kane departed for Philadelphia. Laing had an impressive weekend showing against his former Norfolk teammates.
Volatile winger Louis Robitaille is his usual self, which means he is as irritating as insecticide sprayed directly into your eyes. And if that’s how his teammates feel, just imagine how the opposition feels. Louis knows I’m kidding. I love watching him work his unique brand of aggravation. Everyone knows it’s coming, but few opponents seem to be able to stop themselves from taking the bait. It’s uncanny.
With Steady Freddie in goal and Maxime Daigneault effective (5-1) in spot backup duty, the netminding has been strong. Cassivi’s win over the Admirals on Dec. 6 was the 200th of his AHL career. He is the 11th AHL netminder to reach that plateau, and the eighth of those 11 to have worn the chocolate and white sweater at some point during his career.
Boudreau and assistant coach Bob Woods have done a good job of keeping everyone involved and building a good room. And like last spring and last season, they’ve got the special teams clicking on all cylinders. The Bears’ power play has the third best success rate and the third highest total of goals scored in the AHL. Hershey’s penalty killing unit ranks seventh in the league, but also leads all AHL clubs with a dozen shorthanded goals. That’s five more than any other team in the league has scored. Also, the Bears are the only one of the 27 AHL teams that has yet to allow a shorthanded goal. Fourteen different players have scored power play goals for Hershey, while eight different skaters have tallied shorthanded strikes.
Boudreau has a lot of bodies at his disposal, and he agonizes over the difficult personnel decisons he must make on a nightly basis. Forwards Steve Werner and Matt Stefanishion were recently reassigned to South Carolina, giving Boudreau a bit of relief. Werner netted three goals in two weekend games for the Stingrays while Stefanishion, who played a few games for South Carolina earlier this season, maintains his point-per-game pace at that level.
The AHL’s East Division is as tough and competitive as any in pro sports. It’s also top-heavy. Although the Bears boast the league’s best record at 17-3-3-3 (40 points), they are only a point ahead of second place Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and three ahead of third place Norfolk. (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Norfolk are the only two teams in the league with a better power play success rate than Hershey’s.) The Bears ousted both the Admirals and the Baby Pens in four straight in last spring’s Calder Cup playoffs, but it will likely be much more difficult for the Bears — or any other club, for that matter — to come out of the East in the 2007 Calder Cup playoffs.
After taking three straight from Norfolk, the Bears get the next four days off. They head to Philly on Friday for their next game, but the rugged stretch of schedule comes later in the month. Beginning on Dec. 22, the Bears must play seven games in a span of 10 nights. Two of those three off nights are Christmas Eve and Christmas. Six of the seven are against divisional foes and two of those are against a Norfolk team that will be bent on revenge after the developments of the last week.
Hershey’s goal is to win the division. Despite a marvelous start, the Bears have not been able to open up any breathing room. With the rugged schedule that lays ahead, the Bears will bear watching over the rest of the month. They’ll play five times on Giant Center ice between now and the start of calendar 2007, and they are well worth the trip to see live.