Monday, December 27, 2010

After Barren Start, Giroux Back In All-Star Form

In the history of professional sports, there have been many famous duos. In baseball, it was Joe Morgan and Dave Concepcion, in football, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, and in basketball there was Karl Malone and John Stockton. More recently, in the fabled history of the Hershey Bears franchise, no two names are quite as synonymous as the prolific scoring duo of Keith Aucoin and Alexandre Giroux.

In their two years together in the Chocolate and White, this dynamic duo, along with their able-bodied third linemate, tore up the American Hockey League and resided at the top of the AHL scoring list in both campaigns. Yet, despite all that success, even Giroux is still somewhat mystified about why it all clicked with Aucoin.

“I don’t really know, but it all started from the first game together; we just gelled right from the start,” said Giroux, who along with Aucoin and Mink combined for 13 points in their first game together. “Obviously, he’s a very smart player and finds guys when they get open. That made it very easy for me because all I had to do was find the open spot and he would get the puck to me. Also, you can’t forget Andrew Gordon and Graham Mink’s part in it. They were both hard-working guys who would get Keith the puck, and Keith would get it to me and I was the finisher. It turned out to be a good system.”

Giroux, who went to the Calder Cup Finals with the Bears in his first season with the club in 2006-07 where he lit the lamp 42 times, shattered that mark in the 2008-09 and 2009-2010 seasons by scoring 60 and 50 goals respectively in those seasons, and earned back-to-back Calder Cup titles to boot.

“Those were two amazing years in Hershey, and to win two championships in a row, that’s something exceptional,” he said. “We all saw each other at Keith Aucoin’s wedding a month after we won, and we all talked about how fun it was to be together those years and win the Cup each year, especially winning it at home last year.”

However, like those famous combinations mentioned earlier, each of whom were eventually separated after enjoying success together, Giroux and Aucoin’s last official act together in Chocolatetown was winning the Calder Cup last June at Giant Center, as Giroux opted to leave the Hershey/Washington Capitals fold for the Edmonton Oilers even though he said the Caps did make a bid to retain his services.

“I did get a good offer from them, but I also got a lot of good offers from a lot of other teams, and I was also looking at some offers from Europe,” said Giroux. “I decided to stay over here and try to make it in the NHL. It wasn’t about the money in Washington or Edmonton. I made my decision to sign with Edmonton because I knew they were rebuilding and I was just trying to find a team that had a spot for me in the NHL, and I thought Edmonton was the best fit.”

Despite what Giroux thought was a decent training camp, in which he scored one goal in four exhibition outings, he found himself back in the minors to start the current season, skating for the expansion Oklahoma City Barons.

“They decided to go with the younger guys, but it’s not like the guys they kept didn’t deserve to be there. I was hoping for a better result for myself, and I thought it was one of the best camps that I’ve ever had. I wish the outcome would have been a little better for me, but I don’t regret making that decision. I think it was a good decision to try to make the NHL with another organization. I wish I was in the NHL by now, but that’s how life goes sometimes.”

After spending most of the previous four seasons with either the Bears or the Capitals, whose systems mirror each other, Giroux was forced to not only undergo geographical and systemic changes with the move to the Edmonton organization which employs a different attack and defend scheme, but he also found himself in a new role.

“It’s not so much a difference in systems; it’s just what I was used to in Hershey,” explained Giroux. “Keith and I knew what to do, and the coaches knew what to expect from us. Out here, they split the ice time up a lot more. We’re a younger team and they’re trying to build up the younger players, and the way to do that is give them more ice time. That makes it a little harder to produce as much as I did in Hershey, but it also gives me a chance to play a different role than I did in Hershey.”

Another new role that the Quebec-born Giroux found himself in this season in OKC was that of being a frustrated goal scorer, as he endured a 14-game span during which he was unable to net even a single goal, which doubled his longest dry spell with the Bears in the previous two seasons.

“Nothing close to that has happened to me in a long, long time, and it was tough; it was for sure the toughest part of my career,” said Giroux, who managed 10 helpers during the 14 games, and recently became only the 44th player in the 75 year history of the AHL to reach the 600-point milestone. “I tried to stay positive because in a lot of those games I had some good chances, but couldn’t get any goals.”

Giroux, who was never one to make excuses during his Hershey tenures and always made himself available to the media after a game, whether it be an exciting victory or a disappointing defeat, shoulders the blame for his 14 games of futility, despite the fact that the Barons do not have an setup man of Aucoin’s ilk to set the table for him.

“Here, I get a little less ice time than I did in Hershey. In Hershey, Keith and I played a lot of minutes and that obviously helps your goal totals. Here, I don’t get as many good chances, and when I get those chances I have to put those in. In Hershey, it seemed that Keith put the puck on my stick for one or two shots a game where I had a pretty easy shot to score, so I could have a bad game and still get a goal at the end of the night. Obviously, during that streak, I wasn’t scoring goals, but fortunately, I busted out of it and I’m looking to stay on track for the rest of the season.”

For Giroux, one of the benefits of playing for the Barons is that he gets to fly to a good portion of their road games, for the most part escaping the usual mode of transportation in the AHL, the “iron lung” or bus. However, if during some down time in the terminal or on the tarmac, Giroux gets a sudden urge to talk Hershey Bears hockey, he won’t have to look very far as the Barons’ bench boss, Todd Nelson, as well as his assistant coach, Rocky Thompson, are both former Bears.

“Rocky’s a really good assistant coach. He played in this league a long time and he knows what it takes to be successful. We travel a lot by plane, so we have a lot of time to talk about old stories about the old barn in Hershey,” said Giroux. “I actually played against Rocky when he played for the Bears when I first broke into the AHL.”

Although the Barons and Bears are not slated to face each other this season, Giroux will be returning to Hershey in February as the captain of the Western Conference all-stars after recently being bestowed with that honor by the league’s president and CEO, Dave Andrews. Giroux’s all-star appearance will mark the third straight season he has been named to the affair, and his fourth overall appearance in the classic.

“It’s awesome,” said Giroux when asked about the honor. “I knew the game was in Hershey, but that was something I really didn’t expect. I guess you can look at it two ways: I’m old and in this league and not the NHL, or at the same time, you look at it as quite an honor to be named the captain of the all-star team, and especially since I’m going back to Hershey for that honor with all of the success I’ve had there. It’s going to be a fun time.”

No one knows what the future holds for Giroux. Will he get an eventual call up to Edmonton and find a steady place in the NHL? Will he spend the rest of the season in OKC with the Barons? Or, will he be acquired by Bears President/GM, Doug Yingst and the Capitals in an in-season deal, repeating a similar scenario from the 2007-08 season? While all of those scenarios are possible, and Giroux would certainly prefer the NHL to the other possibilities, he wouldn’t mind an eventual return to the scene of his greatest triumphs.

“You never say never in this business. The last two years have been my best years in hockey, and I have a lot of good friends in Hershey. Everyone treated me really well there, and it was a great fit for me. If the chance ever arises for me to go back, without hesitation I would.”

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Shyiak Goes Back To School To Learn Caps' Ways

Anchorage, Alaska is a beautiful place any time of the year, whether it’s in the winter when the average snowfall of 70 inches covers the beautiful landscape, or in the summer where the average temperature is a rather mild 68 degrees.

With factors like that, it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to leave the “The City of Lights”, University of Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves head hockey coach, Dave Shyiak, recently did just that; but only for a week, venturing 3,000-plus miles to steamy Arlington, Virginia for the Washington Capitals’ rookie camp.

“I know a couple of guys in the organization and they gave me a call last year to ask me if I’d be interested in coming in as a guest coach to find out how they run things and build a network with the organization.”

As the native of Brandon, Manitoba sees it, the arrangement was a win-win situation for both him and the Washington organization.

“Being here, I get to know how they run their organization, which is nothing but first class. They have great facilities with outstanding people with the big club and the affiliate in Hershey. It’s given me a unique look at how things are done at the professional level, and I’m certainly appreciative of the opportunity they gave me,” said Shyiak.

“From my personal perspective, I look at it as a form of personal growth and development. I asked a bunch of questions about how they did different things, like special teams, forechecking or what have you, and they took the time to answer my questions. This was a great setup for me for personal growth as a coach to be able to work with professional coaches to see how they do things.”

“For them, now they’ve got a college coach who now knows how they operate in case they need to look at some college free agents out west down the road who knows that league well.”

Shyiak played his college hockey at Northern Michigan University, where he learned a thing or two about overcoming adversity, most notably during the 1991 NCAA championship game where as a senior and co-captain of the Wildcats, his club upset the highly favored Boston University Terriers in the decisive game in triple overtime even though the Terriers’ lineup featured future NHL stalwarts, Tony Amonte, Shawn McEachern, and Keith Tkachuk.

After a year of professional hockey overseas, Shyiak returned to his alma mater in the 1995-96 season where he spent 10 seasons as an assistant coach before being named to skipper the Seawolves on June 14, 2005.

Shyiak’s tenure in Anchorage coincided with the arrival of a name that has become synonymous to fans of the Hershey Bears and Capitals for overcoming long odds, Jay Beagle.

“I was not a part of recruiting him to U-of-A, but at my previous school, I had identified him and liked him as a player,” said Shyiak of the only player from his tenure in Anchorage who has skated in the NHL. “It’s funny how it worked out, because we had used up all of scholarship money and couldn’t get him, and he went to U-of-A, and I ended up being very fortunate to coach him for two years.”

Ironically, it was at Washington’s rookie camp in the summer of 2007 that Beagle was first afforded the chances to show his wares to the Capitals’ brass, and obviously, as evidenced by his recently inked two-year pact, they liked what they saw.

“He was a guy who was a free agent coming out of college and spent a little time in the ECHL, which got him noticed and eventually got him an invite to this very camp a few years ago. From there, he impressed them enough for them to sign him, and he’s worked very hard for that.”

Shyiak continued, “He’s the kind of kid who got better and better as he aged, a typical late-bloomer type of player. The thing about him is, he works so darn hard, all of the time. He was an impact type player with us his second year as a sophomore. In that second year, in addition to being a great teammate and locker room leader, Jay was a dominant player down low as well as being an outstanding penalty killer and good faceoff guy.”

By virtue of being the sole NHL skater from Shyiak’s tenure in Anchorage, Beagle now finds himself the poster boy for the Seawolves’ recruitment efforts, a reminder to newcomer recruits that all is possible with hard work.

“In the years Jay played with us, I thought he was our best pro product, and I’m so glad it worked out well for him; he certainly deserves it and has earned every opportunity that he has been given.”

“We use him a lot as an example as to what’s possible. Not only wasn’t he a high draft pick, he wasn’t even drafted and look where he is now. He wasn’t a big numbers guy at the collegiate level either; all it was about him was his work ethic and work habits. He played with passion, played hard, and played with an edge, and that’s what got him here. We talk a lot about him and his story, and hopefully some other guys who come through our program will be able to achieve the goals that he has.”

Although Beagle probably gets top billing in most of the sales pitches that the Seawolves employ trying to entice students indoors to their campus, the many outdoor activities available in Anchorage give him a run for his money in that category. In fact, Beagle has acknowledged in the past that those outdoor activities were a big factor in getting him to commit to UAA, as he signed on the dotted line only three days after his first visit to the campus.

“I call Anchorage the Eighth Wonder of the World when I try to sell our school and program to recruits,” said Shyiak. “A lot of people, when they hear about Alaska, say they want to go there, but to get the opportunity to actually live there like myself, and play there like Jay did, is amazing.”

“You’ve got world-class hunting and fishing, and the skiing is great too. The scenery is beautiful, and Anchorage is a great city. You’ve got the ocean on one side and the mountains on the other. So, you’ve got those things outdoors, and indoors at our school, players have an opportunity to play in the WCHA which is probably the strongest collegiate league in the U.S.”

One of the few potential downsides for students looking to skate with the Seawolves can be the taxing travel the team is forced to endure due to the geographic location, and the travel factor played a big part in accelerating Beagle’s move to the pro ranks despite having remaining college eligibility.

“I really didn’t have much choice but to turn pro,” said Beagle. “I was struggling in school just to make the grades to stay eligible; to travel that much and to play hockey, it’s difficult.”

Shyaik, who was an outstanding student during his time spent in Marquette, garnering All-Academic Team honors, was quick to realize the travel problems that plagued Beagle, so he, along with his staff, has taken the necessary steps to make the road more travel-friendly for his charges.

“You just have to get used to the travel,” he said. “We have a pretty strict regimen that we follow as far as conditioning. Just as the Capitals and Bruce here strongly believe in conditioning, we do also. We tell our guys to make sure they always get a lot of rest and eat properly, but we also monitor them on and off the ice to make sure they are prepared for the demanding travel and schedule that we have. Honestly, though, the travel factor has not been an issue the last few years because the guys have followed the training program closely; we’ve been able to take that factor out of the equation.”

Shyiak and company, after finishing the 2009-10 season with nine conference wins and 20 in-conference points, face the 2010-11 season with holes to fill both on the ice, where both goaltenders have departed, and also behind the bench where the assistant coach’s position is now open due to former assistant coach, Regg Simon, taking a head-coaching position in the USHL.

With so many question marks presenting themselves, it would be easy for Shyiak to sulk and wallow, but he has opted to take a more optimistic approach to the huge challenges ahead for his club.

“We’ve got a young team; in fact we are going to be the youngest team in the league because we lost ten guys and also both goaltenders. I think for us to take a jump in our league, our goaltending has to be very strong. I have confidence that the two guys coming in will be able to stabilize that position for us,” he said assertively.

“It’s going to be an ongoing work in progress this season, but I think we should be able to finish in the top six. This team looks like it’s going to be a young, hungry, quicker team, and who knows what can happen when you combine all of those things?”

Monday, July 26, 2010

Holtby Keeps Rolling With The Changes

By: John Sparenberg

If Braden Holtby is going to top his outstanding rookie season of 2009-10 with the Hershey Bears, it’s going to take some changes from top-to-bottom.

Those changes will not necessarily be in his game, which was very fundamentally sound and resulted in 25 regular season wins with the Bears and included a pair of overtime wins in the playoffs, but in his equipment.

In an effort to increase scoring, the powers that be have mandated that the size of goaltender’s pads be shrunk again this season; however, those changes are not a concern for Holtby, who was still sporting his old duds at Washington’s rookie camp last week. He even still has a little room to grow in his padding.

“I won’t get the new ones until fall camp so I’m still using my old ones,” he said. “I actually have no clue if mine will even change. I don’t use the max size right now, so I doubt if I will even need to change mine-at least I hope not, but we’ll see. It seems like in the last few years we’re getting a new type of pad or size of glove or something. It’s just one of those things you have to adapt to. Everyone is on the same playing field, so it’s not that big of an issue.”

Holtby, a native of Saskatchewan, will also enter the 2011-12 with a new mask, but before he receives delivery of his new head armor, he will have to make a choice of which he will don.

“I’m actually working on two new ones right now with a new painter out of Sweden. They will be two different ones that are kind of similar. One is a Caps one and one is a Bears one. We’ll see how they turn out, and hopefully the fans will like them.”

With the rookie camp now history, Holtby is now focusing on phase two of his off-season training, and he plans to alter his approach from last season’s formula which led to such a successful rookie campaign.

“I think you have to change every year. There are different things that you feel, especially with a different schedule,” said Holtby. “You learn something different every year about what you need to work on. That’s why they have the trainers here to do research on it every year and you learn from them.”

He continued, “I’m learning a bit more of what to do on my own and what not to do. I’m learning how much I can handle and how much I can’t. It’s always a learning process in the gym and hopefully I come into the main camp in shape and we’ll go from there.”

After appearing in 37 regular season contests for the Bears, as well 13 games for the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays, Holtby started game one of the Bears playoff opening series against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers as Michal Neuvirth healed from an injury.

However, after Neuvirth was 100 percent healthy, Holtby was relegated to the bench for the final 13 games of the playoff run. That prolonged period of inactivity was a first for Holtby, who, in addition to his busy 2009-10 regular season, had averaged just under 60 appearances in his three full seasons of junior hockey.

“Coming into last season, I thought I might have to sit on the bench a little more than I was used to, but I was fortunate enough to play quite a bit in South Carolina and with injuries, I was able to play quite a few games in Hershey. It’s definitely fun to be part of the team when we’re winning and being successful like we were this last year, but it’s still not the same when you’re sitting on the bench and not playing, like I did in the playoffs.”

“Sitting for that long was something I’ve never really experienced before. I play hockey to play, not to sit on the bench and cheer. It’s definitely fuel in the fire for me to improve some things and make sure that I’m in a playing situation next year in the playoffs,” Holtby said.

A little over a month after the Bears tossed aside the Texas Stars to capture their 11th Calder Cup, the humble Holtby has not had a chance to take the Cup home to celebrate with family and friends, but instead insists that others get their day in the sun before he does.

“I don’t even know if I’m getting it,” he explained. “I haven’t heard anything yet, and I’m not too worried about it, because the summer is pretty short this year. I’d like to see the main guys who were a huge part of it get it first, and if there is time, I guess I would take it back and share it with my family and friends back home, but I would definitely make sure they got it first.”

Thursday, July 22, 2010

After Briefly Celebrating Championship, French Eager To Repeat Feat

By John Sparenberg jsheynow

It’s been just over a month since the Hershey Bears, under the leadership of bench boss, Mark French, captured the franchise’s 11th Calder Cup Championship; while he was able to briefly rest on his laurels, the Washington Capitals’ recently concluded rookie camp signaled it was time to move ahead and start focusing on going for a three-peat.

“It seems like it’s been the blink of an eye, but it’s been good to enjoy it for a month. The rookie camp is kind of the official opening of the hockey season again for us. All you need is just a little bit of time off and then you’re ready to get it going again.”

With French behind the bench, the Bears have captured back-to-back Calder Cup titles in his two full seasons behind the pine, the first in 2009 as head coach Bob Woods’ assistant and the second in the recently concluded playoffs as the bench boss himself.

For French, whose previous head coaching experience was with the Wichita Thunder of the Central Hockey League, playoff success was not something he was familiar with prior to coming to Central Pennsylvania, as he had never guided the Thunder beyond the first round in two playoff outings.

Entering the 2009-10 season as a rookie head coach in the AHL, French had big shoes to fill trying to follow-up upon Woods successful act, but he thrived upon the pressure.

“Everything’s more highlighted and more intense at this level, and the quality of play is the highest I’ve ever coached at,” he said. “There’s a pressure to win from the organization, and from the fans here, but you find out that’s a really good thing because the organization does an excellent job of providing the players that you need to allow you to win.”

In the past, when faced with the same situation French encountered this season-being an assistant coach with a club one year and then ascending to the head coaching position the next-others have had difficulty making the transition. One of the great challenges of the switch in roles could be the scenario of having to call out a player for sub-par play whom they had to coddle when they were in the assistant’s position; however, thanks to his predecessor, someone who had experience making the same move, French’s transition seemed to be rather seamless.

“No, I don’t think there was (a period of adjustment), but the players might be the ones to ask,” chuckled French. “You do find that the losses probably hit you a lit bit harder when you are the guy making the final decisions, but I didn’t feel uncomfortable moving positions, and I give a lot of credit for that to Bob Woods for giving me so much responsibility when I was his assistant.”

Just as French’s move behind the bench went off rather smoothly, his new assistant, Troy Mann, managed to find comfort quickly behind the Hershey bench, with the two gentlemen rapidly finding a rapport with each other although they had never had a face-to-face meeting prior to the 2009-10 season.

“It’s funny because there wasn’t (an adjustment period),” commented French. “We had talked to each other on the phone before about hockey-related matters, but our paths had never really crossed. You take the recommendations of Bruce (Boudreau) and Bob (Woods) and they both thought that we would have good chemistry together and they were right. It didn’t take long for us to develop a good relationship and I thought he did an outstanding job this season.”

At Washington’s training camp prior to the beginning of the 2009-10 season, French told me, “You find out a lot about yourself in adverse situations. Everybody’s a good coach when things are going well and you have great players, but you truly find out a lot about your character and intestinal fortitude when things don’t go well.”

Those words certainly proved prophetic in the Bears’ Calder Cup matchup with the Texas Stars when the heavily favored Bears trailed the series, 2-0, after dropping a pair of home games at Giant Center where they had been practically invincible all season.

“ I had never seen our dressing room as low as it was after the second game, but it was a different mood the next morning where we met quietly as a group before leaving for Texas,” revealed French. “After that meeting, everything was positive and we were feeling very good about our chances of winning the series.”

After arriving in Texas, French said the players took it upon themselves to have a meeting of their own, with no coaches allowed, and although he did not name the player responsible for organizing the get together or what was said in it, French liked the ensuing results of the gathering.

“I don’t know what was said in that meeting, but I do know who held it, and he was the right person to do it. I believe a lot of the right things were said at that meeting, because there were a lot of things that changed after that point in time.”

In game three in Texas, even with the meetings that came after game two, the Bears found themselves trailing 3-1 midway through the game. At that point, French made what turned out to be a brilliant decision by dropping Alexander Giroux off the top line and onto a line with Jay Beagle and Mathieu Perreault, and elevating Chris Bourque to Giroux’s spot on the top line with Keith Aucoin and Andrew Gordon.

Those line changes had a dual effect, alleviating some of the pressure from Giroux’s shoulders, and also spreading out the Stars’ defense which had been so effective up until that point of shutting down the top line. The Stars defense never fully adjusted after the line juggling, and Giroux went on to score goals in each of the next two outings in the Lone Star State, including the overtime winner in game five, but in true French fashion, he refused to take all of the credit.

“I thought there was more than one turning point in the series; certainly the meetings played a part, but you could also say when we were down 3-1 in game three. Even as dire as the situation looked, you could not feel a sense of panic on the bench. When we came back in that game, we really gained a lot of confidence. If I had to pinpoint one thing, it would be battling back from that adversity of being down 3-1.”

If the Bears are to three-peat in the 2010-11 season, it will be without at least eight players, including goaltender, Michal Neuvirth, who were in the lineup for the clincher against Texas. However, French is quick to realize that for the most part, the player personnel decisions are out of his hands and in the very capable hands of the Bears/Capitals brain trust, who have made some quality additions to organization to compensate for the players that have moved on.

“Doug Yingst deserves a lot of credit, but honestly also guys like Brian MacLellan, the assistant GM in Washington and George McPhee (Washington’s GM), also do a great job of evaluating players. I think everybody knew that there would be a sizable transition of players this year, but it’s nice to see that we have gotten some quality individuals as well.”

“As a coach, we don’t get too involved in the player acquisition part of it. Other people do that, so as a coach you can refresh. You’ve got mixed emotions with some of the guys who are leaving, but also very motivated to do it again with another bunch of guys.”

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Playoff Numbers Breakdown

99-Combined points total for Aucoin (25), Bourque (27), Giroux (27) and Gordon (20).

94-shots on goal by Chris Bourque (LL).

82-number of combined third period and overtime shots faced by Neuvirth in the Texas series after allowing the game-winning goal late in the third period of game two (81 saves).

75-number of goals scored by Bears.

41-number of multi-point games registered by Bears players.

20-different players registered at least a point (Alzner, Amadio, Aucoin, Beagle, Bouchard, Bourque, Carlson, Collins, Giroux, Gordon, Helmer, Joudrey, Kane, McNeill, Miskovic, Perreault, Pinizzotto, Rome, Wellar, Wilson).

22-number of overtime shots faced by Neuvirth (21 saves).

23-players who finished with an even or better +/- rating (Alzner +7, Amadio +4, Aucoin +1, Beagle +6, Bouchard +9, Bourque +7, Carlson +7, Collins +2, Eakin E, Giroux +2, Gordon +2, Helmer +12, Joudrey +2, Kane +5, Kroll E, McNeill +4, Miskovic, Perreault +14, Pinizzotto +6, Rome +1, Wellar, Wilson +9, Yeo +2).

20-goal differential for Bears in third period and overtime combined (38-18).

17-number of players who scored at least one goal (Alzner, Aucoin, Beagle, Bouchard, Bourque, Carlson, Collins, Giroux, Gordon, Joudrey, Kane, McNeill, Miskovic, Perreault, Pinizzotto, Rome, Wilson).

16-number of players who scored at least a goal at GC (Alzner, Aucoin, Bouchard, Bourque, Carlson, Collins, Giroux, Gordon, Joudrey, Kane, McNeill, Miskovic, Perreault, Pinizzotto, Rome, Wilson).

14-number of goals scored by Alexandre Giroux (tied for LL) & +/- number for Mathieu Perreault (LL).

12-number of games the Bears allowed two or less goals against.

11-number of Bears players that earned first star honors (Beagle, Bouchard, Bourque, Carlson, Giroux, Gordon, Joudrey, Kane, Neuvirth, Pinizzotto, Wilson).

10-number of PPAs registered by Chris Bourque (LL).

9-number of different players who scored the 11 first goals of the game (Alzner, Aucoin, Bouchard, Bourque, Carlson, Collins, Giroux, Gordon,Rome) & 9 different players scored the 9 GWGs at GC.

8-number of different players who earned first star honors in the nine wins at GC (Bourque, Giroux, Gordon, Joudrey, Kane, Neuvirth, Pinizzotto,Wilson-2.

6-number of PPGs scored by both Alexandre Giroux and Andrew Gordon (tied for LL) & number of different players who scored the GWG in the 7 road wins.

2-Penalty minutes for Keith Aucoin in the 21 playoff games & number of GWGs scored by John Carlson in Calder Cup Finals.

1-Number of Bears who scored at least one goal, but did not light the lamp at GC (Beagle).

0-number of games the Bears yielded more than one PPG against at GC.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Bears Beneficiaries of Neuvirth's Net Gains

If there is one word to describe the career of goaltender, Michal Neuvirth, it would be resilient. Seemingly in one situation after another, he has been able to bounce back into his game, even after facing long odds.

In fact, one can trace the beginning of the pattern back to his junior career when he played for three teams in two years, and ironically, was once traded for a guy with the same name as one who is known for his bouncing abilities, Michal Jordan.

Selected by the Washington Capitals with the 34th pick in the 2006 draft, eleven slots behind Semyon Varlamov, Neuvirth has had to battle for ice time with the Capitals ever since. Though Varlamov has played more games in the show than Neuvirth, and has also appeared in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Neuvy has spent the majority of his time backstopping the Hershey Bears to back-to-back Calder Cup championships.

With the Caps unsettled goaltending situation heading into next season, Neuvirth seems poised to give Varlomov a run for his money to be the number one man in the district to start the 2010-11 season.

“You never know because it’s a crazy business,” he said. “I don’t really know what’s going to happen, but I have nothing left to prove in this league. My goal is to play in the NHL and that’s where I want to play next year. I’ll do whatever it takes to get there.”

Neuvirth continued, “I feel good about my game, but maybe I can improve something. I definitely want to get stronger. I’m feeling exhausted right now, and if I want to play 60 or 70 games in a season, I have to get stronger and get in better shape. I’m going to take a few weeks off and then start working out and getting ready for next season and hopefully I’ll be in the NHL.”

Heading into the playoffs as the reigning MVP of the Calder Cup playoffs where he had set an AHL record with a glittering 1.92 GAA, Neuvirth shouldered the pressure gracefully and rose to the occasion.

“I was coming back from a tough injury during the regular season and I was just coming back from that,” said Neuvirth. “I had the good playoffs last year, so I didn’t think about the pressure. I knew that I had already done it last year, and I was just focused on playing my game.”

After giving up a soft game-winning goal in the closing moments of game two on home ice against the Texas Stars, Neuvirth buckled down through the rest of the series and stopped all 46 shots he faced in the third periods and overtime, and allowed only six goals through the remainder of the playoffs.

“It was just a lucky bounce; crazy bounces happen all the time,” he said of allowing the game-two winner. “I felt bad we lost, but I still believed we were a better team than them. It was a huge win for them, but we came back and made sure we won three games on the road and clinched it at home, which was something special.”

At the Bears’ Calder Cup Championship celebration where the players saluted their fans on home ice, the Czech native couldn’t help but talk about his home.

“I haven’t seen my mom in 10 months, so I’m going to visit my family right when I get home. When I get home on Friday night and I’ll go downtown and see my buddies and hang out. I’m really pumped about going home.”


Monday, June 21, 2010

Another Banner Year for Helmer

Hershey Bears captain, Bryan Helmer, may never see his name and number hanging from the rafters of Giant Center like Mike Nykoluk and Ralph Keller, each of whom captained the Bears to a Calder Cup Championship; but in his two year tenure at the helm, Helmer has accomplished something that neither of them will ever accomplish: leading his club to back-to-back titles.

With a strong cast from the 2009 Cup winning team returning for the 2009-10 season, the Bears were heavily favored to repeat, but Helmer said that he did not feel the heat to repeat, thanks to the returning players, and specifically to a player returning after a three-year absence, Boyd Kane.

“I didn’t feel the pressure at all," said Helmer. “When you bring in a guy like Kane, who is a proven winner, that obviously helps a whole bunch. Keith (Aucoin), Chris Bourque and Andrew Joudrey were all big helps too, because they are all good leaders in the dressing room. We had so many guys that stepped up as leaders and it made my job really easy.”

From the podium at Giant Center last week during Hershey’s championship celebration, Helmer also took the time to publicly thank some of his other helpers, the faithful fans who pack Giant Center every night, and who set another attendance record this
past season.

“One thing that we said all along every game is, ‘let’s do it for our fans’. Every single time we said that because you guys are unbelievable. Give yourselves a hand.”

Although he is the ultimate “team” player during the season, it didn’t take him long to snap into “selfish” mode after thanking the fans, repeating last year’s public lobbying to Bears President/GM Doug Yingst for another contract.

“Two years ago, Doug, I’m so glad you signed me," said Helmer. "I’m glad you signed me last year and I’d like to play here for one more year.”

The young-at-heart Helmer, who just completed his 17th professional season in fine fashion, finished the campaign with a +/- rating of +12, second in the league, but also finished the season with the warning light illuminated on his gas gauge.

“It’s funny, I was talking to Manner (Bears assistant coach, Troy Mann) on the bench there towards the end of the game of the game six. I told him I was very tired. I probably would have had enough energy left to play one more game, but I’m glad we got it over when we did.”

As a result of being involved in pro hockey for nearly two decades, Helmer has seen many changes on-ice with the advent of new equipment. Those changes also apply off of the ice, with new training methods always being sought by players looking to stay “a step ahead”, even those who will soon to be 38 years of age, like Helmer who will soon start training for what he hopes will be his 18th season in the pro ranks.

“When I was younger, I used to a lot of heavy lifting, and now I’m just trying to do a lot of quick feet stuff and keep myself going. I think as you get older, you tend to lose a step here and there, and I’m just trying to maintain it," he said. "I’ve been doing a skating treadmill for the past few years, and it’s helped me out a lot and I’ll do it again this summer.”

Retirement is in the not-too-distant future for Helmer, but if he has his way, he would like to postpone that thought for at least another year and pursue chance to attain a “three-peat” in the best city in the American Hockey League.

“It kinda hard to top that (back-to-back titles); maybe I should retire while I’m on top," joked Helmer. "But seriously, I’d love to play one more year and finish my career here. It’s a great hockey town. I’ve got some individual goals I’d like to reach and I’d love to have a chance to make it three in a row.”

**Photo courtesy of JUSTSPORTS PHOTOGRAPHY**

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Bears Shoot by Stars to Capture Crown

For the Hershey Bears, it was all about defense on Monday night at Giant Center in game six of their Calder Cup Finals matchup against the Texas Stars.

After their defense, backstopped by Michal Neuvirth, weathered an early Texas Stars storm in the first minute of the game, the defense turned offensive, scoring all four goals as the Bears finished off the Stars and captured their league record 11th Calder Cup Championship by emerging with a 4-0 win.

The Bears, after surviving Texas’ initial surge, found their offensive groove and started pecking away at Texas’ starter in the cage, Brent Krahn,who was making his first start of the series.

Krahn, who had not played since game six of Texas’ West Division Finals matchup against the Chicago Wolves, a game in which he departed late in the first period after suffering a concussion resulting from a collision with a goalpost, was under a constant first period barrage of shots from the Bears after Boyd Kane put the first shot on net at 2:47.

Although Krahn was able to make several quality saves, the Bears eventually were able to cash in on the power play with their 13th shot on net which emanated from the stick of John Carlson, lighting the lamp at 12:29.

Carlson, who scored the game-winning goal in game four on the power play, had drifted down to from the point and stationed himself between the hashmarks where he converted the rebound of Alexandre Giroux’s shot for his second strike of the post-season.

“We wanted to keep the momentum that we were able to get by winning the three games down there. That was a huge goal for us, getting that first one,” said Carlson.

The Bears doubled their lead less than two minutes after Carlson’s caper, when Karl Alzner, Carlson’s companion on the blueline, authored home his third goal of the playoffs, beating Krahn low to the short side with a shot from high along the boards at 14:23.

“Those are tough shots to take when they come off of the wall because they usually have a lot of spin,” said Alzner. “There was also a guy coming in the shooting lane, so I just tried to get it by him. My stick felt good in warm-ups and it felt real good after that goal.”

The duo of Carlson and Alzner, both expected to contend for full-time duty with the Washington Capitals next season, were not only able to provide a combined eight points in the series against the Stars (4 goals, 4 assists), but were also able to shut down the Jamie Benn line, limiting Benn to only a pair of helpers in the series.

“We talked about shutting that line down throughout the series” said Alzner. “The guys were calling us “Karl and Sons” and that was our identity I guess you could say. Me and Carly split things up, he played most of the offense and I tried to play the defense. Carly did an unbelievable job of shutting him down on the right side, and I don’t think we could have done any better job than we did on his line.”

The Stars, who were substantially outshot in the first period, 17-10, evened those numbers up a bit in the second period, but in the latter stages of the frame, defenseman, Patrick McNeill, converted another Giroux shot for a goal at 14:47 giving the Bears a 3-0 lead.

“I saw an opportunity to jump in the play, and maybe create an odd-man rush,” McNeill said. “G made a smart play by throwing the puck on net and luckily, the rebound came right to me.”

A full period and five seconds after his second period goal, McNeill was at it again, launching a low laser of a wrist shot by a screened Krahn that gave the Bears a 4-0 lead and essentially squashed any hopes of a Texas comeback.

After the game, McNeill, who returned to the Hershey lineup late in the Manchester series after being felled by an injury in the Bears’ round one match-up with Albany, said from a personal standpoint, this year’s title triumph trumps the last one.

“Because I played a bigger role, and had to come back from an injury to do so, this one is definitely more special to me than last year.”

Monday, June 14, 2010

Bears pre-game skate notes from game six

As the Bears make final preparations for tonight's potential Calder Cup winning game, here are a few notes from the pregame skate. The Bears had an upbeat, up-tempo skate that saw them take care of business, but also has some fun in the process. An example of the team having fun was defenseman, Sean Collins and Zach Miskovic engaging in a game of rock paper scissors while the team was taking a water break.

The forward lines (subject to change and my interpretation): Keith Aucoin centering Andrew Gordon and Chris Bourque; Mathieu Perreault centering Jay Beagle and Alexandre Giroux; Kyle Wilson centering Francois Bouchard and Cody Eakin/Ashton Rome; Andrew Joudrey centering Steve Pinizzotto and Boyd Kane

The defensive pairings (subject to change and my interpretation):Karl Alzner and John Carlson; Patrick McNeill and Bryan Helmer; Greg Amadio and Patrick Wellar; the spares were Sean Collins and Zach Miskovic

Giroux, commenting on the changes that the Bears made that resulted in success in Texas.

"They were playing a very disciplined system that clogged up the neutral zone, and it took us a couple of games to adjust. We had to figure out how they played, and adjust to the way we play. When we went down there, we made things a little simpler and in turn, made it easy on ourselves. Instead of trying to make the extra pass, we just puck the puck on net and got some rebounds, and it’s paid off so far."

Giroux, commenting on whether the line juggling by the Bears coaching staff, which saw him shifted to line with Jay Beagle and Mathieu Perreault, and Chris Bourque taking his spot on the line with Keith Aucoin and Andrew Gordon, removed some of the pressure put on him to produce.

"Not at all. It’s the same type of pressure, the change was made to give us a little more depth on each line. Bourqie can finish on his line and I can still finish on my new line. Gordo and Beagle both work really hard and go get the pucks, and Perry and Coiner can make the nice passes. It was just a case of sometimes things don’t click, and you try a different thing to give the team a spark. I think everyone has the same pressure to do their jobs, it’s just with different people.”

Helmer, on he and his teammates making the necessary changes in their game, the changes that head coach, Mark French, alluded to after game two, to reel off the three wins in Texas.

"Obviously, we got our game back down there by doing the little things that are so important. I think the last two games we’ve been at our best, but you've got to give them credit though, they’ve played us real tough."

Helmer, on the Bears, who failed to close out Manitoba last year on home ice when faced with a clinching game, using that to their advantage tonight.

"I’ve said this before to someone else, but, if you go back to game five last year in the finals when we had a chance to win it here and didn't, maybe our emotions got the better of us. Hopefully, tonight we can draw from that experience and keep our emotions in check, and do what we do best. The toughest thing to do in the playoffs is to close out a series, but if we we play the way we have been playing the last few games, we should be in good shape."

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Telling Stats Against Texas

After dropping the first two games of their Calder Cup Finals series at Giant Center against the Texas Stars, the Hershey Bears now must hit the road to continue the series, and if the Bears don’t reverse a few detrimental trends, they could very well meet their Waterloo in the capital city of Austin, Texas, which incidentally was originally named “Waterloo”.

Among the Bears’ disturbing data, the third period facts are the most telling.

•In the previous three series, the Bears had pulled out a victory in five contests in which they did not lead entering the third period. Both of Texas’ game-winning goals have been in the third period.

•Only four times in seventeen games have the Bears carried a lead into the third period.

•The Bears are in a 0-for-21 skid on the power play. They haven’t scored a power play goal since the third game of the Manchester series.

•Stumbling Starts: only three times in seventeen games have they carried a lead into the first intermission.

•Alexandre Giroux is pointless and only four shots on goal in the series.

•Keith Aucoin has notched just one assist and three shots on goal.

•Chris Bourque, who had eight points in the Manchester series, has failed to find the scoreboard, but not for lack of opportunity, registering eight shots on goal against Texas.

•John Carlson, expected to be the offensive catalyst on the Bears’ blue line has only two points (both assists) in nine games, and has not scored a goal in a Hershey uniform in 17 games, dating back to the regular season.

On the brighter side, there are signs of hope.

•Francois Bouchard, who was mired in a Texas-sized one goal in fourteen games goal scoring drought entering this series, has found the back of the net in each game.

•After missing four games due to injury, Andrew Gordon has managed eight shots on goal, including a third-period tally in game two.

•Bourque, Giroux and Gordon have each scored five goals away from the cozy confines of Giant Center, while Aucoin has chipped in with nine helpers.

•Bears’ PK has been stellar, allowing only one fluky goal in ten chances in the Texas series.

Bears Vexed By Texas Again on Home Ice

The Hershey Bears have found themselves in a couple of trenches during this post-season, but if they are going to repeat as Calder Cup Champions, they are going to have to dig themselves out of a huge, Texas- sized hole after dropping their second straight home game to the Texas Stars at Giant Center on Saturday night, 4-3.

Facing the sizable 0-2 series deficit, the Bears must now win two of the next three games in the series, all slated to be contested in Cedar Park Center, the home of the Stars, if they are to bring the series back to Giant Center for another game.

With the vocal sellout crowd of 10,872 still settling into their seats, the Stars took a 1-0 lead only a minute into the contest when Aaron Gagnon’s breakaway bid slithered through the pads of Bears netminder, Michal Neuvirth.

In a repeat of game one’s first period performance in which they could only muster two shots on net, the Bears struggled in that department in the early portion of the period, only getting one shot on net before Steve Pinizzotto’s short-side, shorthanded slapshot buzzed by Stars’ stopper, Matt Climie, at 7:40 to knot the score at one.

Late in the first period, the Bears came within a whisker of taking a lead into the intermission, but Andrew Gordon’s rebound attempt of an Alexandre Giroux shot clanged off the post and stayed out of the net.

After Neuvirth foiled quality scoring chances by Francis Wathier and Raymond Sawada in the first half of the second frame, the wily Stars struck for their second goal of the game at 11:03 when Garrett Stafford’s weak power play point shot took on a chaotic life off its own, first bouncing off of Andrew Joudrey and then Bryan Helmer before finding a resting place in Hershey’s net at 11:03.

“I hit the puck, and then it went off of my shin pad and into the net,” explained Helmer. “It’s unfortunate and obviously I was peeved, but what can you do? The important thing is that we responded quickly to it.”

Francois Bouchard was the responder that Helmer spoke of, striking for his fourth goal of the playoffs from just inside the blueline at 11:49.

The Stars’ transition game, combined with some shoddy checking by the Bears’ defense, led to Texas regaining the lead in the opening stages of the third period, with former Bear, Mathier Beaudoin, doing the lamp-lighting honors at 3:18.

Beaudoin, who played seven games with the Bears in 07-08, had an easy tap-in to net his seventh goal of the post-season, after forward Perttu Lindgren, managed to elude a trio of Hershey defenders before putting a perfect pass on the stick of the unattended Beaudion.

According to Stars head coach, Glen Gulutzan, Texas’s transitional game, which has given the Bears fits thus far in the series, has not been such an asset all season long.

“We were anchored by our defense and goalie (earlier in the year), but as our forwards got a little more mature and some guys got an opportunity (like) Travis Morin, and Greg Rallo, guys who had played limited at this level got better, our forwards got better,” said Gulutzan after the game.

Facing third period deficits is nothing new to the Bears in this post-season, and they responded favorably to the task at 10:44, when Andrew Gordon whistled the rebound of a Patrick Wellar shot into the Texas cage at 10:44.

Just past the midway point of the third period, with Jamie Benn already in the penalty box serving his cross-checking sentence, Matt Stephenson clipped Giroux with a high-stick at 13:16, resulting in a four minute double minor penalty to Stephenson.

The Stars survived the five-on-three situation and just about all of the first half of Stephenson’ sentence before Bears’ alternate captain, Boyd Kane, was whistled off of the ice for a double minor spearing penalty at 15:03 which short circuited the Hershey power play.

“In playoff hockey, sometimes the emotions run high. Tonight, I thought our team kind of was on the officials too much. That has been a problem at times this year, but we have tended to get away with it in the regular season; but, in the playoffs it can be another story and we paid the price for it tonight,” said Helmer.

After Stephenson was released from the sin bin, the Bears’ penalty killing unit did their job and avoided giving up the game-winning goal on the power play, but just seconds after Kane was able to leave the penalty box, former Bear, Travis Morin, managed to chip a shot over Neuvirth and into the net at 19:-14 to give the visitors the win.

Helmer, who captained the Bears to the Calder Cup last season when they faced down the Manitoba Moose on foreign ice to capture the title, has faith that this year’s club can pull things together on the road and bring the series back to Giant Center.

“We’ve been through adversity before and responded favorably, so we know that we can do it. We have a lot of character on this team and we still believe in each other, but we have to play a team game to win.”

Friday, June 4, 2010

Stars Slide by Bears in Game One

The “Texas two-step” is a popular dance in country/western circles in the state of Texas, and on Thursday night at Giant Center, the Texas Stars slowed down the normally high tempo Hershey Bears offense to a slow waltz and left the dance floor with a 1-0 series lead.

By virtue of their defeat, the Bears dropped their first game one of the 2010 playoffs, and now find themselves trailing in a series for the first time in this current post-season.

Coming off an elongated layoff after punching their ticket to the finals with a victory over the Manchester Monarchs on May 22, the Bears crawled out of the gate in the first period and registered only two shots against Texas goaltender, Matt Climie. The single-digit shot total in the first period marked the 26th regulation period that the Bears had failed to reach double digits, with 10 of those occurring in a first period of action.

“Especially in the first period, we seemed to get some opportunities where we brought the puck into scoring areas, but we tried to be too cute and make that one more pass, instead of one less pass and one more shot,” said Hershey coach, Mark French.

Hershey’s leading goal scorer, Alexandre Giroux, who recorded only two shots on goal in the game, and none in the first period, said the Bears anemic first period shot total was a combination of their own ineptness and the Stars’ defensive prowess.

“They play their system really well and they are really patient. We would have liked to come out a little harder, but they were blocking a lot of shots and when the shots weren’t going up, we tried to do some things that made it too hard, but we settled down and got it going later,” said Giroux.

Meanwhile at the other end of the ice, Hershey netminder, Michal Neuvirth, faced a dozen first period shots with the last one being the best of the bunch. Neuvirth, who is the league’s reigning playoff MVP, denied Jamie Benn’s point-blank bid in the final fifteen seconds of the frame. Benn, the AHL’s leading playoff point producer entering the contest, was sent in alone on Neuvirth by former Bear, Travis Morin, who intercepted Karl Alzner’s attempted clearing pass just inside the blueline late in Texas’ second power play of the game.

Early in the second period, Hershey’s sensational sophomores, Mathieu Perreault and Francois Bouchard, pooled their collective talents to give Hershey the first goal of the game at 4:23. Bouchard, after receiving a pretty pass from Perreault, who deftly threaded a pass between a pair of Texas defenders to get the puck on his stick, looked to be headed towards the corner with the biscuit, but banked hard to the left when he realized the Stars were giving him plenty of real estate to work with.

“Willie was crashing the net and Perry gave me a nice pass behind their defense. They gave me some room and I just cut hard to the net and slid it in the net,” said Bouchard.

Less than a minute after the Bouchard goal, Neuvirth made another high quality save, this one against Mathieu Beaudoin, but eventually yielded the tying goal at 9:57 when Greg Rallo rifled a wrist shot by his glove hand.

Although the two teams entered the third period deadlocked at one, Hershey’s chances didn’t look all that bad considering the fact that the Bears had outscored their opponents 13-3 in that frame at Giant Center in this playoff year; however, a costly Chris Bourque turnover early in the period culminated with the Stars getting the game-winning goal, an unassisted march by Scott McCulloch at 2:10.

“It was a bit of a high roll play with Chris Bourque and Sean Collins and it certainly didn’t work out the right way,” said French. “We gave them a break and he certainly made a nice play on the two-on-one.”

With the Bears facing the grim prospect of going down 2-0 in the series if they allow the Stars another victory in the next meeting between the clubs on Saturday night at Giant Center, Giroux says the key to not allowing that scenario to unfold is for his club to get out a fast start and then maintain that pace.

“We need to push the play for sixty minutes, not forty, and not beat ourselves. They play the same from the first minute to the last and they are very well coached. We need to throw more shots on net, and keep them on the defensive.”

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

With Captain Helmer at the Helm, Bears Continue Smooth Sailing


The Hershey Bears not only are the longest-tenured team in the American Hockey League, but they are also unquestionably the most successful, as they currently find themselves only four victories away from capturing their league record 11th Calder Cup.

One of the major factors in Hershey’s success throughout the years has been their ability to draw top-ranked talent to Chocolatetown, and mixed in among that “cream of the crop” talent has been a host of leaders.Current captain, Bryan Helmer, who also served in that role in last years Calder Cup winning season, has to be considered on of the best, as he is on the verge of leading the Bears to a second consecutive title.

“Hershey is the oldest franchise in the AHL so it’s got a lot of history and when you have that, it’s a good spot to play,” said Helmer. “The fan base here is unbelievable. The people support their team, and they expect a lot of their team. It’s good to have that little pressure on you.”

Although Hershey’s road to the finals has been a fairly smooth ride, they have had to overcome third period deficits on numerous occasions and have worked overtime to achieve seven of their triumphs, including Boyd Kane’s overtime winner against Manchester that propelled the Bears to the finals.

“It just shows how much character we have coming back in the third period like that. There wasn’t one guy in here after the second period tonight that thought we were going to lose,” said Helmer after the clinching game against Manchester. “We stay positive and it shows the character that we have in here, and it shows how much firepower we have in here.”

Boyd Kane, who returned to Hershey this season after departing for the Philadelphia Flyers organization after leading the Bears to the 2006 championship, has helped Helmer out in various ways this season, including a way that probably comes as a surprise to a majority of Bears’ fans.

“He leads by example, but he’s a vocal guy in the dressing room,” said Helmer of Kane. “He’s led two teams to the Calder Cup, and he has two rings to prove it. I always say there could be five or six guys on this team that could have the captaincy and he’s definitely one of them. He brings a lot and helps me a lot.”

It’s often said in sports, especially in hockey, that the toughest thing to do is not to win a championship, but to repeat as champions, and the Bears find themselves on the cusp of doing just that. According to Helmer, the key ingredient in that formula is the returning core of players from last season.

“If you look at the guys we have and the guys we got back, we got most of our team back from the Calder Cup team; when you can do that, you’re in pretty good shape. Things have worked out this season for us in the regular season and now in the playoffs. We’re right where we want to be, but we also know that we’ve got a little work ahead of us to accomplish that feat.”

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Bears Annoint Themselves Kings of the East

Throughout the course of history, many great leaders have motivated their troops with inspiring speeches as they go into battle, but in this current playoff season in which the Bears have overcome their adversaries seven times in overtime fashion, their head coach, Mark French, has employed a revolutionary “silent speech” tactic.

“…We play with a different swagger in overtime, and I don’t know quite what it is. I often go in between periods and give them a little bit of lip service for 30-40 seconds, but I don’t go in during the overtime intermission because I figure they know what they’re doing. They’ve proved me right…” said French of his strategy.

French’s charges, which by virtue of their record-setting seventh overtime triumph of the playoffs on Saturday night at Giant center, a 3-2 verdict, have advanced to the Calder Cup Finals for the fourth time in five years while flying under the flag of their parent club, the Washington Capitals.

Despite enjoying a big territorial advantage in the opening period, the Bears could only get five shots through on Manchester netminder, Jonathan Bernier. Bernier stopped four of the shots, and a fifth, a deflection by Boyd Kane, bounced off of the crossbar and away from the net.

“Some of the guys in the dressing room mentioned not to worry about the numbers on the shot clock because we were in their zone a lot, but just not getting the pucks on net,” said Alexandre Giroux, who gave the Monarchs credit for their ability to block so many shots in the series. “We knew we believed in ourselves, and if we kept getting shots, we would get some rebounds and have some luck.”

With less than a minute remaining in the first period, and just seconds after an apparent whistle resulting from Hershey defenseman’s Karl Alzner’s touch-up of an icing call was waved off, the Monarchs netted the only goal of the first period with 16.9 seconds left on the clock when John Zeiler struck.

The Bears had an excellent chance to tie the game less than a minute into the second period with Keith Aucoin had the puck on his stick right in front of Bernier, but Bernier was equal to the task, snuffing out Aucoin’s bid.

The Monarchs were also in offensive mode early in the second, and would have had the second goal of the game at 2:55, but were thwarted by Patrick McNeill’s sweeping effort which saved the day just as the puck was about to cross the goal line.

“Me and Helms were having a rough shift there and I just saw it sneaking through Neuvy’s five-hole, and I just happened to be the guy standing there,” said McNeill. “It was just a reaction play; anybody would have whacked it out of there, but luckily I was right there.”

Zeiler missed a golden opportunity in the latter stages of the second period, somehow missing an open net on a 2-on-1 foray into the Hershey zone with Bud Holloway, but the Monarchs managed to maintain puck possession in the Hershey zone after Zeiler’s misfire, with Joe Piskula eventually potting a rebound goal at 17:44 to give the Monarchs a 2-0 lead.

Entering the third period facing a familiar situation, trailing, the Bears started their climb back when Giroux backhanded home his 12th goal of the playoffs, pouncing upon an Aucoin rebound, after defenseman, John Carlson, had kept the play alive by intercepting a clearing attempt by the Monarchs.

“He’s such a good goalie, one of the best in the league,” said Giroux of Bernier. “It’s hard to beat him with a clean shot. We use traffic, and I think tonight we did a little better job getting rebounds and second chances, and that goal was a good indication of that.”

Patrick McNeill’s first career playoff goal as a Bear tied the game at two at 14:09. McNeill, after gathering in a Chris Bourque pass, drifted laterally along the blue line before launching a wrist shot that eluded Bernier.

“I just wanted to get more to the center of the ice just to give myself a better angle and give myself a little more time to see what was going on,” explained McNeill. “Once I saw that Perry and Bouch were creating traffic in front of the net, I put it on net.”

After neither team was able to get another puck into the back of the net in the final five minutes of regulation play, the teams headed to overtime for the fourth time in the series.

One essential key to Hershey’s success in overtime sessions has been their ability to not only outscore, but to outshoot their opponents, as evidenced by 51-18 shot advantage coming into this 7th overtime.

In the extra session, the Bears had the first quality opportunity to end the series, but Kane, after receiving a pass from Steve Pinizzotto, was denied by Bernier at the doorstep at 4:43. However, Kane would not be denied at 7:06, denting the twine for his first goal of the playoffs.

“Pinner made a great play coming down the wall (going low to avoid a tag-team effort by a pair of Monarchs), and got it back to me. I got it back to the point to P-Mac and he took a shot, and Willy picked it up behind the net. I was going to the net, and he put it right on my stick,” said Kane.

Although Kane has registered a modest six points in the playoffs (1 goal, 5 assists), he certainly has made the points count, counting four game-winners among his five helpers.

“We have a lot of guys who can score and we need everybody pitching in, but I have to be playing physical and grinding it out. If the points come for me, that’s a bonus,” said Kane, who became the eighth different Hershey player to score a game-winning goal at Giant Center this playoff season.

**Photo courtesy of JUSTSPORTS PHOTOGRAPHY**

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Bears Work Overtime to Dethrone Monarchs

With the Hershey Bears playing their final home game before departing for New England where they will battle the Manchester Monarchs in three more games, Boston native, Chris Bourque, finally brought his traveling road show to Giant Center by leading the Bears to their 3-2 overtime win.

Bourque, who scored his only four goals of this season’s playoffs on the road in Albany, a pair of goals in two games, netted two home-ice goals, including the game-winner.

The Bears struck first when Bourque benefitted from Jay Beagle’s clean faceoff win against Manchesters’s Andrei Loktionov by quickly blitzing a shot by Manchester netminder, Jonathan Bernier at 3:07.

“That was a great play by Beags, and he drew that play up and he was going to win it to me,” said Bourque. “There’s a big screen there if he wins it cleanly. If it goes on net, there’s going to be a good chance it’ll go in, and it did.”

The Bears ran into penalty trouble later in the period when Andrew Joudrey was sent to the penalty box for high-sticking, and while he was serving his sentence, Bourque was whistled off the ice for delay of game after shooting the puck into the stands in the Bears defensive zone.

Although the Bears survived the five-on-three advantage unscathed, they eventually yielded the equalizing goal when Gabe Gautheir gathered in a loose puck and then beat Hershey goaltender, Michal Neuvirth, from close range.

The Monarchs took their first lead of the series early in the second period when Neuvirth allowed a long rebound of Drew Bagnall’s point shot, and the opportunistic Gautheir pounced upon the puck and potted his second goal of the game at 1:07. Gautheir’s goal proved to be the only tally in the second period.

Bernier, the winner of the Baz Bastein Award symbolic of the league’s best goaltender, was spectacular throughout the second frame, stopping all 17 shots that the Bears put on net, a handful of which were of the high-quality variety.

Steve Pinizzotto, who entered the post-season with only three goals in 26 games, potted his fourth goal of the 2010 playoffs at 3:35 of the third period. Pinizzotto finished off the sequence from the doorstep after converting a pretty pass from Francois Bouchard, who in turn had received a beautiful bank pass from Keith Aucoin that emanated from the Hershey defensive zone.

Aucoin, who has had a point in every game in the post-season, was paired with unlikely combinations throughout the game after Andrew Gordon’s injury incurred during the first period and said that he relished the challenge brought on by the line-shuffling.

“Anytime I can play a little more, I’m not going to complain,” said Aucoin. “I always think that when you play more, you get more into the game and you stay warm. I’m used to playing a lot anyway. The guys stepped up tonight with a little more ice time and we came up with a big win.”

After Pinizzotto’s goal, Neuvirth and Bernier shut their respective doors on any further goal-scoring attempts, sending thee game into overtime tied at two.

Just past the midway point of the first overtime period, Boyd Kane chipped the puck along the boards in the Bears’ defensive zone, springing Aucoin and Bourque on a 2-on-1, which concluded in Bourque’s game-winning goal from a difficult angle.

“I kind of had to settle it down because the ice wasn’t that good. Keith made a really nice pass, and I had to make sure I caught the puck first before shooting it. I just put it towards the net and it went in, and I’m pretty happy about it,” said Bourque, who became the 7th different player to score the game-winning goal at Giant Center in these playoffs.

Hershey’s victory gave them a 2-0 lead in the series against the Monarchs, with the next three games slated to be played at Verizon Wireless Arena on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday.

“It’s a tough barn to play in, but we play really good on the road. The key to our success on the road is we keep it simple. Hopefully, Gordo can play, but if not, somebody else will have to step in and do the job,” said Aucoin.

**Photos courtesy of JUSTSPORTS PHOTOGRAPHY**

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Hershey Races Past Manchester

When describing the playing style of Hershey Bears’ defenseman, Sean Collins, one word that would likely be missing would be quick, but on Wednesday night at Giant Center, a quick goal by Collins only sixteen seconds into the Bears matchup with the Manchester Monarchs propelled his club to a 4-2 win and 1-0 series lead in the opening game of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Entering the contest, there were concerns about Hershey’s ability to shake off nearly two weeks of rust in the first game of the series against the Monarchs, who were only five days removed from their series against the Worcester Sharks; however, Collins’ goal quickly erased those concerns.

“It was huge,” said Chris Bourque. “We said before the game that we wanted to get things going right off the bat there and have a good start. We wanted to get the crowd into and get the boys into it. There’s nothing better to get everybody going than to a score a goal on your first shift to give everybody a positive feeling.”

Only eleven seconds after Collins’ goal, the Bears were afforded a power play and looked to have a glorious chance to extend their lead, but their anticipated sluggish start kicked in at that point as they squandered the opportunity, and managed only one more shot on Bernier for the next 8:27 of play before Bourque registered a wrist shot on net at 8:43, which turned momentum back in Hershey’s favor and narrowing the shot differential to 5-3, Manchester.

In the ninth minute of the period, the Bears went on their second power play of the contest, and judging by the early stages of it, it looked like it would end just like the first one when Manchester defenseman, Drew Bagnall, had the puck on his stick for an apparent easy chance to ice the puck the length of the ice.

However, Bourque shagged down Bagnall’s attempt at center ice and started a sequence that quickly culminated in Andrew Gordon converting the rebound of Alexandre Giroux’s shot into his 10th goal of the post-season and sixth on the power play at 10:02.

“The guy tried to clear it down and pretty much put it on my stick,” said Bourque. ” I skated backwards, and Gordon got open and I gave it to him. Coiner then made a nice play to Giroux, and it was kind of tic-tac-toe from there.”

The Monarchs came out strong in the early stages of the second period, enjoying a substantial territorial advantage, but only managing a couple harmless shots on goal despite their efforts, before Steve Pinizzotto’s unassisted goal at 7:25 gave the Bears a 3-0 lead.

Pinizzotto, know more for his ability to get under the opposition’s skin than his goal scoring abilities, showed a goal-scorer’s touch by putting a beautiful shot into the upper portion of the net after pick- pocketing Manchester defenseman, Viatcheslav Voynov, in the neutral zone.

“Whenever you can score, it’s definitely an upside,” said Pinizzotto, who has now scored a goal in every series of the playoffs. “We usually score pretty good goals here, and I just have to wait my turn and work hard every shift.”

After the Pinizzotto goal the only thing that stopped the Monarchs from getting a goal and cutting into the Bears lead was the goaltending heroics of Michal Neuvirth, who, within the space of about a minute, corralled Corey Elkins point-blank bid and then locked down Andrei Loktionov’s bid to beat him through the five-hole.

“I haven’t played in a while, but I have been practicing really hard. I got healthy over the break, and I want to keep getting better.” said Neuvirth.

Starting the third frame, Neuvirth had to be in top form once again to repel Oscar Moller’s breakaway attempt after the Manchester forward found a huge seam in the Bears’ defense and walked in all alone on him.

“That was a nice old-school save,” said Neuvirth, describing the stacking-the-pads strategy that he employed. “I don’t even know why I did it. I’ve never used that kind of move, but I saved it, which is the point.”

Neuvirth made another spectacular save later in the third period, denying another Manchester breakaway attempt, this one by Bud Holloway, before Loktionov finally found a way to beat him at 12:32, making it a 3-1 Hershey lead.

Less than two minutes after the Loktionov goal, Hershey defenseman, Karl Alzner, finished off a two-on-one sequence with Boyd Kane by netting his second goal of the playoffs at 14:18.

Alzner started the scoring sequence off in his own zone by stopping Holloway’s advance into Hershey territory and then turning on the jets and blowing by the Manchester defense through the neutral zone.

“It helped that I did get my stick on the puck because when I did, I stopped going backwards. I was in a good position to go forward. Kaner picked it up, and I took a quick look and saw that no one was around. I was at the beginning of my shift, so I had a lot of energy. Kaner put it right where I wanted it, and I was just lucky to slide it in,” said Alzner.

The Monarchs made it a little interesting in the latter stages of the period when Gabe Gauthier found himself all alone on Neuvirth’s doorstep and dented the twine for the fourth time in the playoffs to make it a 4-2 game at 16:10, but the Hershey defense drew a definitive line in the ice and shutdown the Monarchs for the final three plus minutes to skate away with the victory.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Gordon's Gameday Goals

Hershey Bears' forward, Andrew Gordon, has no personal association with Manchester Monarchs goaltender, Jonathan Bernier, other than the limited time they spent hanging out at this year’s AHL All-Star event in Portland.

However, as the Bears and Monarchs prepare for to open up their Eastern Conference Finals series tonight, the the two figure to have more than ample opportunities to get to know each other, with Gordon taking up his customary spot in front of the net, particularly when the Bears are enjoying a power play.

“My game on the power play is pretty simple. I stand in front and the puck is eventually going to come there, and sometimes I’ll scoop up some rebounds or come in on the back door for a quick tap-in,” said Gordon, who led the league in power plays goals in the regular season.

“For the most part, I just try and stand my ground and create a little havoc in front of the crease. If that opens up Giroux or Aucoin or Carlson for a shot, that’s perfect, but if I get a rebound, that’ll work, too.”

Giroux, who along with a huge helping hand from linemate Keith Aucoin, has led the league in goals the last two seasons, says the key to Gordon’s glittering goal scoring count this season has been patience.

“He’s a little more patient playing on our line now. In the beginning of the year he was a little bit nervous to make plays with us. His style is so up and down the wing and he works so hard and that hard work helps get me and Coiner the puck. When he gets up the puck, the other team focuses on me and Coiner and that gives him a little more space to work with,” said Giroux.

Thanks to their second round sweep of the Albany River Rats and the Manchester-Worcester Sharks series going to six games, the Bears have not seen any game action for nearly two weeks, a fact that has some people worried, but according to Gordon, is a potential problem that was amply addressed by the Bears’ coaching staff.

“I think we did a pretty good job balancing that rest versus rust theory. Whenever you come to the rink, you have to remember there is going to be more hockey played and it is important hockey, and the later the season goes, each game gets more important. Tonight, we just have to keep mentally focused and work hard and not expect to turn it back on right away after the long layoff.”

Although he was a member of Hershey’s “Black Aces” squad in the 2007 Calder Cup Finals against the Hamilton Bulldogs and did not see any game action, Gordon notes the similarities between that matchup and this one against Manchester, and has learned a lot from the experience.

“It was great to see the team go that far, but it was heart-breaking to see them lose in the end. That’s a team who finished first all year and set records, and they deserved a better fate, but in the end, they played a good team with a good goaltender, and they ended up hitting a wall and losing.”

“Just to see the look on those guys’ faces and the emotion they displayed after the game was tough to see and something you don’t want to experience for yourself. We’re in a similar situation as a team that’s been rolling through pretty well all season, and you don’t want to end up with a frown on your face at the end of the season.”

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

News and Notes on Manchester Matchup

Hershey players who lead the league in playoff scoring in particular categories:

Goals:Alexandre Giroux-10; Points:Alexandre Giroux- 17; Assists: Keith Aucoin-12; PP Assists: Chris Bourque-7; Shots: Chris Bourque-52

Streaking Bears: Giroux has at least a goal in three straight games (4). Aucoin has at least a point in all 9 of Hershey’s games, and Bourque has collected at least one assist in five straight games (8).

Manchester has averaged only 8.30 penalty minutes per game in the playoffs, the least amount of minutes per game in the league. Hershey meanwhile has averaged 17.44 minutes per game, the fifth highest total.

Both teams are undefeated when outshooting their opponents in the playoffs: Hershey is 7-0 and Manchester is 3-0. During the regular season, Hershey was 39-12-0-2 and Manchester was 13-10-1-2 under the same circumstances.

Hershey is third in the league on the power play in the playoffs (13-for-52, 25%) and Manchester is 12th on the PP (7-for-43, 16.3%). The Bears have scored at least one power play goal in seven of their nine playoff encounters, including three occasions when they have netted three extra man strikes in the same game. Andrew Gordon, who led the AHL in power play goals in the regular season with 19, is second in the post-season with five, one behind Chicago’s Anthony Stewart.

The Monarchs, who allowed 200 goals against in the regular season (2.5 per game), have allowed only 15 goals against in 10 games playoff action (1.5 per game), including six contests where they have limited their opponents to a goal or less (2 shutouts).

The Bears, who scored a league leading 342 goals in the regular season (4.3 per game), also lead the league in post-season goals with 40 (4.4 per game).Hershey allowed 198 goals against in the regular season (2.5 per game), have yielding 27 goals against in their 9 playoff outing (3.0 per game).

The Monarchs played five games in their series against Worcester that were decided by a goal, going 4-1 in those five contests, and have been involved in seven games in the playoffs that have been decided by a goal (5-2, including 3-0 in overtime).

The Bears played three games in their series against Albany that were decided by a goal, winning all three games in overtime. Overall, the Bears have been involved in five playoff games that have been decided by a goal, winning all five, including four in overtime.

Manchester netminder, Jonathan Bernier, who led the league in shutouts (9), saves (1,707), and save percentage (.936) in the regular season, has kept up his stellar play in the playoffs, leading the league in wins (8), shutouts (2), saves (296), goals against average (1.48), and save percentage (.952).

Michal Neuvirth, last year’s playoff MVP, who led the Bears to the title with a stellar post-season where he posted a sparkling numbers in the goals against (1.92) and save percentage categories (.932), has struggled to keep up that pace in those categories in the current playoffs. In the current playoffs, Neuvirth has posted a 2.42 goals against average and a .890 save percentage, yet despite those somewhat bloated numbers, the native of the Czech republic still sports an unblemished record (6-0) entering the matchup against Manchester.

The Monarchs leading regular season goal scorer was Corey Elkins, the rookie out of Ohio State. Elkins was a college teammate of Sean Collins and Johann Kroll with the Buckeyes.

Bud Holloway, the native of Wapella, Sask., the same hometown as former Bear, Brett Clark, was Manchester’s leading regular season point producer with 47 points (19g, 28a), including five game winners. Holloway has continued that trend into the post-season, leading the Monarchs with 11 points in 10 games (6+5), all six of his tallies have been game winning goals.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Bears Drown Rats in Third Period Flood

The Hershey Bears took a commanding two games to none lead in their East Division Final matchup with the Albany River Rats on Sunday evening at Giant Center, rallying from an early third period deficit and leaving their den with a 6-3 win.

With the triumph, the Bears improved to 4-0 in the post-season at home, and combined with their regular season record, the Chocolate and White are an ultra-impressive 38-4-0-2 on home ice.

In the second minute of the opening period, the teams traded three quality scoring opportunities, with Albany’s Steve Goertzen and Hershey’s Andrew Gordon and Keith Aucoin all being denied on their efforts.

Those three early bids would be the only ones of the period until just past the midway point. Hershey’s Ashton Rome rifled home the first goal of the game at 10:48 by wristing a short side shot past Albany netminder, Justin Peters.

“It was just off the faceoff,” Rome said. “We had a good forecheck and Wilson came around the wall and read the play very well. I saw him look at Bouch, and I yelled at him and he slid it right under their defenseman’s stick. I just caught the goalie sliding away from the post.”

Drayson Bowman, who netted Albany’s first goal of the game on Saturday night after the Bears had skated out to a 1-0 lead, duplicated that feat again by converting a Hershey turnover behind the goal line into his second goal of the series at 15:37.

Albany’s power play unit, which emerged from a playoff-long slumber with an extra man marker on Saturday night, struck for another only seven seconds into a Mathieu Perreault penalty when Zac Dalpe’s impressive long distance tip from the high slot eluded Neuvirth at 3:35.

Albany’s lead lasted less than two minutes before Alexandre Giroux generated the red light behind Peters, gathering in his own rebound and backhanding his seventh goal of the post-season into the cage at 5:15.

After Albany’s Goertzen took an interference penalty at 19:40 of the second stanza, the Bears were presented a chance to take the lead early in the period with a power play strike, but those plans took a wrong turn when Nick Dodge’s shorthanded goal gave the Rats another lead at 3-2.

With his power play unit sputtering of late, and with Dodge’s strike fresh in his mind, Hershey coach, Mark French, considered dismantling his high powered group when Bryan Rodney was assessed a penalty at 2:15. However, he elected to ride it out and the unit responded in positive fashion, reeling off three consecutive power play goals.

“We were sort of frustrated as a power play unit,” admitted Gordon. “When we let that short-handed goal in, we felt like we let the boys down. I remember Giroux saying ‘we’ve got to get it done’.”

And get it done they did by simply, well, simplifying things.

“We started shooting the puck a little more than usual instead of looking for backdoor plays and tic tac toe stuff; it’s pretty simple when you get down to it with the power play situations. You have more guys than they do and you just need to shoot the puck,” said Gordon.

After the succession of power play goals, Hershey’s defensive corps, which was without the services of Greg Amadio and Sean Collins and consisted of relative newcomers Dylan Yeo and Johann Kroll, put the clamps on Albany’s offense, allowing Albany only three shots on net in the final half of the third period.

“It was definitely interesting. We found out they were both out late tonight and remembered that whatever happens in the playoffs, you have to be ready for it. Kroll and Yeo did a great job tonight. They didn’t miss a beat and they really contributed.” said Wellar who was teammates with Yeo earlier this season in South Carolina.

Wellar and Kroll also share a playing history that most likely made Sunday’s last minute changes a little bit smoother off a transition.

“Last year, we were D partners for the entire Kelly Cup winning playoffs, so there’s a lot of familiarity there. He’s a great player and it’s sad that he hasn’t been at this level all year because he’s a talent,” Wellar said.

Rome, a late season addition to the lineup from the ECHL, and whose brother, Aaron, won the Stanley Cup in 2007 with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, is giving everything he’s got with the chance he’s been given in Hershey.

“I’m just grateful for the opportunity; I just tried to work hard all year because I thought I might get an opportunity. I got a little bit of an opportunity up in Toronto, but then Hershey called me. They told me there might be a chance of staying for the season, so I’ve just worked hard and did what I do best.”

Bears Poison Rats in Overtime

The Hershey Bears opened their East Division Finals series against the Albany River Rats on Saturday night at Giant Center in the same manner as they opened up their first round matchup against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, overcoming a third period deficit and then prevailing in overtime in dramatic fashion.

Hershey centerman, Andrew Joudrey, who scored the game-winner in overtime against Bridgeport, was once again at the forefront of the overtime heroics, this time picking up the primary assist on Kyle Wilson’s game-winning goal which gave the Bears the 4-3 overtime triumph.

Andrew Gordon struck for the first goal of the series when he guided Keith Aucoin’s centering pass behind Albany netminder, Justin Peters, at the four minute mark of the opening period.

“Their winger up high collapsed on me and that left Helmer open,” said Gordon. “Helmer rimmed it around Coiner, who was open behind the net. As is my habit, I curled right in front of the net and no one picked me up.”

The River Rats squared the score at 8:25 when Zac Dalpe bested Wilson on a Hershey defensive zone draw, and Drayson Bowman’s bad angle shot from the wall, which resulted from the faceoff win, eluded Bears backstopper, Michal Neuvirth.

Although the Bears only scored one goal in the first period, Gordon scored a knock down when he put Zach Boychuk on his backside with a solid body check.

“It was just a self-defense mechanism. If you have the opportunity to hit someone before they hit you, I’ll do that every time instead of taking a blow,” Gordon said.

A controversial double minor high-sticking infraction assessed to Hershey defenseman, Greg Amadio, for clipping Albany defenseman, Tim Conboy, at 5:06 of the second period, gave the visitors a chance to break their 0-for-22 playoff drought. That’s exactly what they did when Jerome Samson sizzled a shot by the glove of Neuvirth at 6:40.

Later in the period, with the Bears on a 5-on-3 power play, Mathieu Perreault’s slashing penalty cut the advantage down to a 4-on-3 and forced the Bears to take a faceoff in their own zone. Faced with that situation, Bears’ coach, Mark French, made the tactical decision to put four forwards on the ice that paid off handsomely, ultimately resulting in another Gordon goal at 15:47.

“It’s a bit of a risk, but we think to have Chris and Alex on the point gives us an opportunity,” said French. “It might hurt us defensively the odd time, but you’ve got to capitalize on those opportunities and it wasn’t traditional. It was off a bit of a broken faceoff, and a great play by Chris and Alex to get it to Gordo.”

The Bears started off the third period with a rush when the line of Bourque, Perreault, and Jay Beagle buzzed the Rats’ zone for an entire minute, putting three shots on net; however, Peters and his mates were able to weather that early storm.

The Bears kept up the pressure after that impressive shift by pelting Peters with four more shots, but Samson’s long range wrister on Albany’s first shot of the period at 7:13, found an opening and beat Neuvirth to give Albany another one goal lead at 3-2.

The former Rat, Keith Aucoin, who absorbed a bone-rattling neutral zone check from defenseman, Jamie McBian, midway through the frame, tied the game at 3-3 when he potted a rebound goal, his first tally of the post-season.

Aucoin’s goal turned out to be the last of regulation, and the Bears entered the overtime session with a 1:14 power play, courtesy of Jay Harrison’s hooking penalty incurred in the last minute of third period.

The River Rats were able to thwart Hershey’s power-play bid and nearly ended the game shortly after Harrison was released from his sentence. Luckily, Neuvirth saved his best work for the overtime session and repelled Bryan Rodney’s breakaway bid by kicking off his last pad to make a splendid save.

“I was not feeling really good about my play, and I told myself that I had to be better,” Neuvirth said. “That was a big save. I hope that when I made that big save on the breakaway that it gave the guys some confidence that I’m back.”

Wilson’s game-winning goal start with a simple dump-in by Wilson himself after the puck went behind the net. Boyd Kane’s impending body belt on Brett Bellemore forced the Albany defenseman to release the puck quickly. Bellemore’s clearing attempt was intercepted along the boards by Joudrey, who launched the puck in the direction of the net.

Joudrey’s shot was deflected by Kane, with Peters making the original save, but the wily Wilson who was waiting in the wings, pounced upon the rebound and the celebration ensued for the defending Calder Cup Champions.

“I was able to read the play and pick it up along the boards,” said Joudrey. “Kane always goes to the front of the net, so I just tried to put it in that direction. Kane made a great tip and Willy was in the right position.”

“In overtime, anything can happen when you keep it simple,” continued Joudrey. “I’m just trying to help the team out any way I can, and the only reason we won that game is that 20 guys were working at it.”