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.”

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Bears Bring Down Curtain on Bridgeport

The Hershey Bears saved their best for last in the East Division Semi-final matchup against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers on Wednesday night at Giant Center by totally taming the Tigers attack, allowing only seven shots on goal, and prevailing 4-1 and winning the series in the process.

After a disappointing loss in Bridgeport on Sunday, the Bears jumped out to a 1-0 lead 3:25 into the contest when Karl Alzner’s point shot caromed off the body of Bridgeport defenseman, Dustin Kohn, and then behind goaltender, Mikko Koskinen. Alzner’s goal was the first first-period goal that the Bears scored in the series, and was also his first professional playoff goal.

“I was wide open there. I’m not sure exactly where their forwards were, and Colly knew I was there and gave it to me,” Alzner said. “I was ready to shoot it and there were two guys coming in on me and I tried to get it between them, and I must have hit one of them. I don’t think I could pick a corner like that.”

Hershey’s defensive corps, which was shutout in the first four games of the series, while watching Bridgeport’s backliners light the lamp five times, netted another goal when Zach Miskovic rang a shot off the post and then behind Koskinen at 9:29.

“It’s tough to see the other team’s D men chipping in and with goals, even though they have an unbelievably talented defensive unit with guys who have played a lot of NHL games,” commented Alzner. “For us, we just want to help the team out. It doesn’t really matter what the other team is doing, but the teams who are successful are the teams who have everybody working together.”

Bridgeport, although limited to one shot in the opening frame, made it count when defenseman, Dylan Reese, converted Chris Bourque’s blueline giveaway into a shorthanded goal at 12:42.

Kyle Wilson quickly countered the Reese goal when he willed home his second goal of the series, beating Koskinen with an unassisted goal through the seven-hole at 14:51 to close out the first period scoring.

“Not a chance,” said Wilson on whether he was trying to put the shot under the goalie’s arm. “It was one of those things where you’ve got to screen because the defenseman stepped up on you. It gives you an opportunity to shoot through them, and you take it by picking a side of the net and shooting there and hoping that you got a quick shot off that the goalie wasn’t ready for.”

Only a dozen seconds into the second stanza, the Bears found themselves the recipients of a five-on-three power play when Bridgeport’s Robin Figren (late first period) and Andrew MacDonald took minor penalties.

Koskinen temporarily held the home team at bay in the early stages of the advantage, stopping Alexandre Giroux’s point blank attempt, and getting some help from the post on Mathieu Perreault’s shot before succumbing to Giroux’s one-time blast from the left faceoff dot at 1:32.

Bear’s goaltender, Michal Neuvirth, made a highlight reel save with just over two minutes left in the period with the Sound Tigers on a power play, diving across the crease to stick away Michael Davies’ slapshot.

“I wasn’t really in the game (because of lack of shots),” said Neuvirth, who has not allowed more than two goals in his last eight playoff outings. “I was trying to stay focused the whole game. I think I did my best and helped the guys win the hockey game.”

“That was unbelievable,” said Alzner of Neuvirth’s stellar stick save. “I’m happy he made it. I thought he was in front of the net, because as soon as the guy shot, I stepped out of the way. I thought he was standing there with no one in front of him, so the smart plan in that case is for the D man to get out of the way and let him have it. As soon as I turned and looked and he wasn’t in the net and I was sweating thinking ‘please make the save’. That’s Neuvy for you. He makes saves that you don’t know how he does it.”

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Bears Send Tigers One Step Closer to Extinction

After struggling in a pair of home victories against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers at Giant Center, the Hershey Bears made themselves right at home in their first road outing of the playoffs on Saturday night at the Arena at Harbor Hard, soundly whipping the Tigers, 7-2.

With the victory, the Bears take a commanding 3-0 series lead and have a chance to close out the series on Sunday afternoon in Bridgeport.

After a first period in which they had no solid scoring chances and registered only five shots on goal against Bridgeport backstopper, Scott Munroe, the Bears netted the first goal of the game when Andrew Gordon scored his first goal of the playoffs at 5:19 of the middle frame. Gordon’s marker marked the first time in the series that the Bears tallied the first goal of the game.

Twenty-five seconds after his initial conquest of Munroe, Gordon converted from close range to make it 2-0, Hershey.

Midway through the second period, the rout was officially on when Alexandre Giroux, Gordon, and Steve Pinizzotto scored within a 2:12 span to make it 5-0 and end the night for Munroe who was replaced in net by Mikko Koskinen.

Giroux finished out the goal scoring in the second period, generating his second goal of the game, this one on the power play to give the Bears a 6-0 lead. Giroux’s goal established a new Hershey record for goals in a period with six, eclipsing the previous record of five set in the 1998 playoffs against the Kentucky Throughblades in Kentucky.

Bridgeport’s Greg Mauldin ruined Bears goltender, Michal Neuvirth’s, bid for his fifth career playoff shutout when he beat Neuvirth to the short side at 9:11 of the third period.

Hershey’s Kyle Wilson and Bridgeport’s Jeremy Reich exchanged goals late in the third period to finish out the scoring in the game. Wilson, who entered the game with no shots on goal in the series, now has 11 career playoff goals with the Chocolate and White over four playoff seasons.

Bears Trip Up Tigers Again

Though the Hershey Bears had limited experience with coming back from behind in games in the regular season, they’ve handled the challenge like pros in the first two games of the series against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

With their 3-2 victory on Friday night at Giant Center, the Bears take the 2-0 lead in the playoff series to Bridgeport this weekend for games three and four.

Bridgeport broke free for the first goal of the game when defenseman, Dustin Kohn, canned the rebound of his own shot by Michal Neuvirth at 16:14.

Although Kohn’s goal was the only one to hit the back of the net during the first period, there were plenty of other hits to go around as the Bears bruised the Tigers with numerous bone-crunching hits, most notably Andrew Gordon’s wallop on Bridgeport’s Mark Flood.

“I wanted to make sure I had good contact,” explained Gordon. “He was trying to one-time the puck and it was the kind of hit they have been talking about in the NHL these days, so I wanted to make sure I kept my elbow down and kept it shoulder on shoulder.”

Hershey’s high scoring duo of Keith Aucoin and Alexandre Giroux, the league’s leading and second leading point producers in the regular season respectively, tagged up to tie the game 16:32 into the middle frame. The sequence actually started with the twosome doing yeoman’s work along the boards and culminated with Giroux cleanly beating Sound Tigers’ netminder, Nathan Lawson.

“We have to make sure we win battles along the wall, and that’s why I got that goal,” said Giroux. “We put it deep and got the forecheck and we got the goal.”

The Sound Tigers, as was the case in game one when Andrew MacDonald struck late in the second period with a goal at the 19:59 mark, received a fortuitous bounce to take the lead at 19:15, when Kohn’s backhanded attempted pass pinged off the stick of Bears’ defenseman, Patrick McNeill, and then trickled through the pads of Neuvirth.

Kohn’s marker was the first power play goal of the series after the two teams combined for 22 unsuccessful attempts.

Giroux tied the game at two just 1:32 into the third period with his 25th career playoff goal as a Bear, and his 3rd of the current playoff season.

With an ailing Aucoin on the bench, and Lawson in the dressing room due to injury, Aucoin’s replacement on the power play unit, Mathieu Perreault, beat Lawson’s replacement, Scott Munroe at 7:06 to give the Bears a lead they would never relinquish.

“The puck was bouncing a little bit and I was looking to go to Helmer back door,” Perreault said. “The lane wasn’t there, so I just pulled it back and shot it short side because the goalie was playing the back door.”

Neuvirth, making just his 7th appearance in seven weeks, preserved the lead by making a glittering glove save on Flood just shy of halfway through the final period.

“My glove was working good tonight; pretty much every shot, they were going high glove for some reason,” said Neuvirth.

Gordon who contributed two assists to the winning cause and was named the number three star of the game, attributed his team’s two comebacks to the confidence level of squad.

“We have a lot of belief in ourselves,” he said. “We’ve won a lot of games in the last couple years, and a majority of us have been around for most of it, so we’re a team that knows how to win and deficits don’t really bother us. Tonight was a good testament to that.”


Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bears Turn Back Tigers in Series Opener

In the first period of game one of their Calder Cup playoff matchup with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the Hershey Bears’ usually ferocious attack was grounded, as they managed a scant three shots on net; however, aided by a controversial late third period goal by Mathieu Perreault, the defending champions left the Tigers feeling low by managing a 4-3 overtime win at Giant Center on Wednesday night.

The heavily-favored Bears, who established a new AHL regular season record by reeling off 60 wins, were realistically playing their first meaningful game in nearly a month, and it showed in the early stages of the contest.

The visitors struck for the first goal of the series at 5:40 of the opening period when Trevor Smith lit the lamp. Smith, after snagging Chris Bourque’s failed clearing attempt high in the Hershey zone, launched a shot that climbed first off of the blocker of Bears' goaltender, Braden Holtby, and then over his right shoulder, eventually finding a resting place in the net.

The Sound Tigers then stunned the Giant Center faithful by taking a 2-0 lead at 15:14, when Sean Bentivoglio stickhandled behind the Hershey net and then sandwiched a pass between a pair of Bears’ defenders to teammate Matt Martin in the crease area, with Martin then pushing the biscuit into a yawning cage.

The Bears came out energized in the middle frame, outshooting the Sound Tigers from the opening puck drop and getting their first goal of the series at 5:33, when Alexandre Giroux, the AHL’s leading goal scorer in the regular season, authored his first goal of the post-season by blasting a point shot through Bridgeport backstopper, Scott Munroe.

In the latter stages of the second period, seconds after the expiration of Hershey’s fourth unsuccessful power play of the stanza, Francois Bouchard was whistled off of the ice for a goaltender’s interference penalty, although he was clearly given some assistance by Bentivoglio.

Hershey survived Bouchard’s sentence without allowing a Bridgeport power play strike, but the boys from Bridgeport kept a presence in the Hershey’s zone after Bouchard was released and netted an even strength goal by defenseman Andrew MacDonald at the 19:59 mark to re-establish their two-goal lead heading into the second intermission.

“It wasn’t quite how I imagined it would go," said Hotby of his inaugural playoff outing. “I didn’t get off to a good start in the game, but I felt I played (stickhandled) the puck very well. I got caught by a couple of bad bounces that could probably be attributed to my nervousness.“

Bouchard cut the Bridgeport lead to a single goal at 14:14 of the third period by skillfully deflecting Patrick Wellar’s wrist shot from the point behind Bridgeport backstopper, Scott Munroe.

“It was a really good shot by Wellar,” said Bouchard. “It was just a little behind me, but I was able to reach it and get a stick on it. They say in the playoffs, good things happen when you go to the net, and that’s what happened on that goal.”

Bouchard, although not playing on a line with Mathieu Perreault at this early juncture in the playoffs, anticipates the duo pitching in with more offense in their second playoff run.

“Last year was our first year in the playoffs and we were learning from the big guys," said Bouchard. “I think this year we will have a bigger roll and score some big goals like we did tonight.”

Forty seconds after the Bouchard marker, the Sound Tigers’ Jesse Joensuu came within inches of giving them their two-goal cushion back, but his redirect slithered to a halt just before reaching the goal line, and Holtby, surprised to see the puck not in his grasp, quickly covered it.

“I was actually more surprised that it got through me, because it was a deflection that I felt in my armpit pretty solid and I thought it was still there,” Holtby explained. “Once I didn’t hear the whistle, I looked behind me and saw that the puck had stopped and jumped on it.”

With less than two minutes left in regulation time, Perreault batted an airborne puck behind to Munroe to seemingly tie the game. However, the Bears had to wait a few tense moments while the officials conferred before being able to officially celebrate the goal. Although a replay of the goal appeared to make it a very questionable one, Perreault, as could be expected, thought the goal call was the right one.

“The goalie was down and his head was about even with the crossbar,” said Perreault. “I think it was a good goal but it was a tough call for him (referee, Nygel Pelletier).”

Like Bouchard, Perrreault also envisions elevating his level of play in this year’s playoffs, alleviating some of the tremendous pressure this is placed on Hershey’s bigger guns.

“I think if we can give a hand to our top line by getting some goals, it will make them more comfortable and allow them to do what they do best, ” Perreault said.

Joensuu had another chance to salt the game away for the visitors in the last minute of regulation, but his breakaway bid was halted by Hershey defenseman, Karl Alzner, who despite stopping Joensuu’s advances, drew a penalty in the process.

When the Sound Tigers were unable to take advantage of their remaining regulation power play opportunity, the game went into overtime with the visitors starting out the session with more than a minute remaining on Alzner’s call.

Hershey’s penalty killers came up strong against the challenge, not only stopping the Sound Tigers from getting the game winner, but also by drawing a penalty on MacDonald while shorthanded to short circuit the charge.

Fittingly, it was a pair of the Chocolate and White’s premiere penalty killers who factored into the game winning goal, with Steve PInizzotto picking up the secondary assist, and Andrew Joudrey collecting the game-winner at 4:08 to send the home crowd home on a happy note.

“Wellsie was stepping left to right and their goalie is such a big guy; I thought he would be going the other way," said Joudrey. “I tried to go back against the grain, and get him to over commit.“

Wellar, who was a member of last year’s ECHL Kelly Cup winning South Carolina Stingrays, but did not see any playoff action with the Bears, gave a lot of credit to the Sound Tigers for their tenacious defense, but said that the biggest factor in helping the Bears pull out the come from behind win was their persistence.

“We weren’t getting much accomplished for most of the night because they were playing such good defense,” said Wellar, who collected a pair of assists in the win. “I was fortunate to get a few pucks through from the point and the guys did a great job with the deflections. We scored some pretty ugly goals tonight.”

It’s not often that you get to learn a valuable lesson in a win, but Joudrey thinks that is exactly was his club experienced in the series opener.

“It’s a testament to them; they were working hard,” said Joudrey, who knows a thing or two about hard work, "but your first and last minutes of a period, you want them to be good. That should be a lesson to us going forward, that we need to go whistle to whistle for the full twenty.”

Monday, April 12, 2010

Bears Reap Rewards of Holtby’s Bountiful Crop

Warren Zevon’s hockey-themed song titled, “Hit Somebody” is about an enforcer whose skills are limited to fighting, but who grudgingly patrols the ice protecting his more talented teammates.

In that classic song, one of the often repeated lines is “What’s a Canadian farm boy to do?” and for Hershey Bears’ rookie goaltending phenom, Braden Holtby, a native of Saskatchewan, his answer is to patrol the crease with authority.

“I grew up on a farm and my parents are still farmers; I go back every summer,” said Holtby, in response to what part of his life would probably surprise his legion of fans. I really don’t know what I’m portrayed as out there on the ice, but I think a lot of people would be shocked that I’m a farmer.”

While he was in fact born in Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, as listed in Hershey’s media guide, the Bears netminder is actually from a small town near Lloydminster, but for convenience sake, he tells people he’s from Lloydminster.

“Although I was born in Lloydminster, I’m actually from a little town called Marshall,” he explained. “I usually just say I’m from Lloydminster because nobody has ever heard of Marshall. Marshall is a town of about 600 people, and it’s not even big enough for a minor hockey team in Canada, which is kind of crazy.”

Faced with no options to play minor hockey in his home town, Holtby was forced to go up the road about ten minutes away to the town of Lashburn to start his journey to the pros.

“When I played there, I was fortunate enough to play in my age group as a forward and then the age group above that as a goaltender, so I got to play twice as much hockey which was great for my development; it was one of the benefits of being in a small town.”

Holtby’s fortunes took a turn for the worse when he stepped up the ladder to the next level, Bantams, playing for the Midwest Red Wings.

“I played one year there and we were a terrible team. We went like 1-and-23 and we folded after the year, so I had to find a new place to play the next year, and there was a new team coming into Lloydminster.”

It sounds easy enough to forget the memories of the painful season and go back to playing in the town you were born to continue your career; however, it turned out there were more barriers to overcome, more specifically, the border patrols.

“I had to go through a whole bunch of trouble to get across the border to play there because Lloydminster is a border city, but I finally got that worked out and from there I got drafted by the Saskatoon Blades (WHL).”

With living at home while playing with Saskatoon ruled out because of the two-hour drive, Holtby was forced to leave home as a 15-year-old to play with the Blades; fortunately for him and his parents, there were a couple of familiar faces there who saw to it that the teenager’s three-year stay there went smoothly without much incident.

“I was really fortunate that a couple of friends of my parents from high school, Ian and Karen Belyea, lived in Saskatoon, and I was able to move in with them. They were great people who had two younger boys just a little younger than me. My parents are very thankful for what they did for me, and obviously I am too. They were unbelievably good to me, and I consider them family, and realistically, they were the sole reasons that I was able to get through those years there.”

Holtby’s coach in Saskatoon was Lorne Molleken, a former goalie himself who played over 300 games in the minor leagues during his pro career.

During Holtby’s three years under Molleken’s tutelage, he never played less than 50 games in a season, and like a typical teenager who does not see their parents’ infinite wisdom during those formative years, Holtby now sees that Molleken knew exactly what he was doing.

“Lorne was great to me. He gave all the faith in the world to me, and trusted me by allowing me to play that many games; but that being said, other than myself, he was the toughest one on me in Saskatoon,” Holtby said.

“He expected a lot out of me, and looking back, it was pretty frustrating for me at the time because I was young and trying to figure out what was going on. Now, when I look back at it, he knew what he was doing with his own personal experience of being a goalie and was only doing what was best for me.”

After the conclusion of his junior career with the Blades at the end of the 2008-09 season, Holtby became a member of the Bears, dressed as a backup in one regular season game, and watched from the stands as the Bears captured their 10th Calder Cup.

Holtby began the current season in Chocolatetown and got off to a fast start by winning two of three decisions, including a shutout in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, before being sent to the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL to get some playing time because of the Bears’ logjam in the crease.

“It wasn’t as tough as you’d think,” said Holtby of getting sent down after the fast start. “Coming into the year, I kind of knew that the writing was on the wall and that I’d be down there a bit, but the most frustrating part was after those three games, knowing that I could play well at this league and knowing if I got my opportunity I would have done well with it.”

“Going down to South Carolina was tough, mentally and physically, too, with all the travel going back and forth, but in the overall picture, it turned out to be better for me. I got to play even more than I would have at the start of the year here, and I got to go through some emotional roller coasters that I probably wouldn’t have had to go through here just being a back up.”

Although there are many differences between the junior ranks and the pros, there is one thing that is the same in both leagues: the mode of transportation, the bus or “Iron Lung” as many players call it.

“I wouldn’t say the travel in either league is harder than the other, but it’s a different travel for sure. Obviously, the bus here in Hershey is a lot nicer than the one in junior, and the food here is a lot better. Also, here you tend to go on longer, more organized trips, where in junior, sometimes you went on 10 or 12 hour bus rides for just one game.”

Vision, which is a vital part of being a good goalie, has been a longtime struggle for Holtby, who wears glasses off of the ice; but thanks to the Blades, that problem seems to be under control now.

“I wear contacts and vision has been a huge problem for me the last few years. I’m very sensitive to some contacts, but I’ve been fortunate to hook up with a guy in Saskatoon who the Blades hooked me up with who has been a huge help to me and my family with our eye problems.”

“I guess you could say he’s the sole reason that I can see, because before he figured my problems out, I had tried about 30 different contacts over the last couple of years. Hopefully, over this upcoming summer, I’m getting the Lasik surgery with my dad, and I can’t wait for that.”

Looking at a goalie’s mask, you can get a pretty good idea of where or with whom his interests lie, and Holtby is no exception to that rule, but the design on his current mask was not his first choice.

“I was pretty happy with the one I got last year in the playoffs, but due to some legal reasons with HERCO (he had the familiar Hershey bar design, but with his last name on lettering instead of HERSHEY’S), I had to stop using that one. So, I had to come up with another design in about an hour with my current one.”

“I liked the Hershey/Washington theme that the other goalies before me had so I went with that on the front. The back of my mask is more personal, it has “carpe diem” on it, which means “seize the day” in Latin. That was the school motto back in high school in Lloydminster and I try to live my life by that, because I think that if you can live every day to its fullest, you are going to be successful.”

“I also have the Saskatchewan and Alberta flags on the back, to help me realize where I came from and to not get too ahead of myself.”

Holtby finished the recently concluded regular season with 24 wins for the Chocolate and White with an impressive number of victories for any goalie, much less a rookie who prior to the beginning of the season was not expected to play in Hershey.

“The only times I had seen him play before this season, were in development camps and those sort of situations,” said Hershey head coach, Mark French. “Washington’s plans were that he was going to spend the year in South Carolina and take the bulk of the work there, and then make the jump up here the next year. He got a little bit of good fortune early when Neuvy went down and he was able to step in and do the job. From that opportunity he has really grown and played exceptionally well. I think it’s easy to say that he’s played above our expectations for a first year guy.”

In seasons prior to the current one, Hershey’s goaltenders had the good fortune of having former Caps goaltending guru, Dave Prior, be a frequent visitor in town. However, this year, the Caps’ new goaltending coach, Arturs Irbe, has not been a frequent visitor to central Pennsylvania, which makes Holtby’s achievements even more remarkable.

“Mostly I’ve just stuck with my goalie coach back home, who is a sports psychologist, but Archie keeps in contact with me every little while, just to catch up on how things have been going; but it’s hard for him as a goalie coach to see what’s going on over the phone.”

“Goaltending is so much a visual thing as far as the technical aspects of the position. Hopefully, I can grow my relationship with Archie more in the coming years, because he is a fun guy to be around and tries to keep things on the light side.”

Holtby’s impressive season also resulted in him getting a couple of recalls to the show, but realistically those callups were based on convenience, with little chance of him seeing any game action. However, he still feels fortunate to have spent time in the show, and soaked up the experience for future use.

“Coming into the year, I didn’t think I’d get called up at all. I was more focusing on hopefully playing games in Hershey. Any time I can get up there and be around those guys in that atmosphere, I’ll take it. Being up there, I saw that there are still some holes in my game that I’m going to have to fine tune, but I think I can play when I get a chance up there.”

Although opponents have found few holes in Holtby’s armor while he manned the crease for the Bears, as evidenced by his single digit loss total (8), French said sometimes Holtby can be his own worst enemy.

“Braden is a very strong kid, mentally, but he’s very hard on himself. The one thing that we have talked to him about this year is that after each loss, he takes it to heart, which is a good thing, but at the same time when you play eighty games, if you get too emotional it will hurt your next performance. You need to learn from those losses, but let it go pretty quick. Because he cares so much, that can be a fault, but I think with maturity he will certainly be able to overcome that.”

With the high likelihood that he will see some substantial time in the upcoming playoffs for the Bears, Holtby is taking the wait and see approach, and not getting caught up in the hoopla.

“I have no clue how much I’ll play, or if I’ll play at all, or in every game. It’s up in the air, and I haven’t really been asking questions about it. Last year it was tough being in the stands, but even if I don’t play this year, it will be fun being in the locker room. It’s going to be a lot more fun to be a bigger part of it.”

Hopefully, for Bears’ fans, the “bigger part” will involve sipping the bubbly from the Calder Cup at the conclusion of the playoffs.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Caps Can Thrashers

Down by a goal midway through the game on the night they were awarded the President’s Trophy, which recognizes the team with the best record in the NHL, the Washington Capitals, fueled by Alex Ovechkin and Niklas Backstrom achieving individual milestones, escaped Verizon Center on Friday night with a 5-2 victory over division rivals, the Atlanta Thrashers.

Ovechkin, Washington’s leading scorer, who entered the game with 48 goals, registered his 49th and 50th goals of the season, with Backstrom collecting his 100th point of the campaign on the 50th goal.

Backstrom banged home the only goal of the first period, depositing Ovechkin’s rebound behind Atlanta netminder, Ondrej Pavelec, at 14:44. Backstrom’s goal was his 32nd of the season, and 4th at Atlanta’s expense.

Despite Backstrom's goal, Washington’s tough as nails winger, Quintin Laing, had the best two opportunities of the first period, but had both of his quality bids were rejected by Pavelec.

“It would have been nice for them to go in," said Laing, who has only two goals on the season. "As a fourth liner, you don’t get many chances like that, at least I don’t usually. Whenever you get chances like that in tight, you want to put them in, but they didn’t go my way; I’ll just have to work harder on those in practice tomorrow.”

Laing, who has missed sizeable portions of the last two seasons in the District as a result of him sacrificing his body to block shots, knows that despite playing in seven of the last nine games, playoff time for him is anything but guaranteed.

“We’ll see; we have three extra forwards, and every game, three guys will have to sit out,” said Laing, who has never appeared in a Caps playoff game. “I’m going to be ready whatever my role is, and it’s just a matter of being ready and staying sharp and making the most of it when you get your opportunity.”

Backstrom’s goal stood as the only goal of the game until 11:15 of the second period, when former Bear, Evgeny Artyukhin, banked a shot off the skate of Washington forward, Brendan Morrison, to knot the affair at a goal each.

Less the two minutes after Artyukhin’s tally, and with the Caps on a power play, Clarke MacArthur stole Ovechkin’s point pass and then beat Washington goalie, Jose Theodore, on a breakaway attempt, depositing the biscuit high into the net to give the visitors a 2-1 lead at 13:07. MacArthur’s marker was reviewed by the off-ice officials, but the goal was allowed after the video review clearly showed the puck had entered and then exited the net.

Ovechkin, the league’s reigning Rocket Richard Trophy winner, symbolic of goal-scoring superiority, atoned for his power play slipup by sizzling a slapshot by Pavelec at 16:04 to tie the game. Ovechkin’s goal was his 49th of the season, and featured a sole assist to Alexander Semin who started the play in the neutral zone.

Theodore saved his best work for the third period, denying Maxim Afinogenov’s point-blank backhand bid and laying down the leather and gloving Bryan Little’s bid at 7:35 to keep the Thrashers from taking another lead.

Ovechkin was at it again just shy of the midway point of the final period, lasering a low missile by the stick side of Pavelec at 9:49 to give the Capitals a lead they would never relinquish.

Ovechkin’s goal was his 50th of the season, and was assisted by Backstrom and Semin. Backstrom’s helper was his 100th point of the season, and his coach, Bruce Boudreau, who has seen Backstrom develop into one of the premiere players in the league during his three seasons behind the Washington bench, couldn’t be happier for the 22-year old Swede.

“I’m just really proud of him,” said Boudreau. “You know he’s such a great young man. You like to see great people and good people succeed. I was sitting there going, 'Nicky just got his 100th and Alex just got his 5oth; whose picking up the puck'?”

Jason Chimera (7th goal as a Capital) and Backstrom struck later in the third frame within a 49 second span to finish out the scoring and give the Caps their 54th win of the season and their 30h home ice triumph.

Theodore, who stopped 29 Atlanta shots on the night to register his the 30th win of the season, has now accumulated 30 or more wins in four different seasons in the NHL, including the last two with Washington.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Bears Anchor Admirals to Add to Record

The Hershey Bears added another chapter and another record to their storybook season on Sunday evening at Giant Center when they nipped the Norfolk Admirals, 3-2.

The Bears improved on the record they have already broken by registering their 59th overall win of the season, and their 34th home triumph, establishing a new league record for home wins.

Hershey scored the only goal of the first period at exactly eleven minutes when Mathieu Perreault shagged down Jay Beagle’s deflected shot that took a weird bounce of the rear boards and shoved the puck behind Norfolk’s sprawling netminder, Dustin Tokarski.

“I gave it wide to Beagle and he tried to throw the puck on net,” said Perreault. “Good things happen when you shoot the puck on net, and it bounced right to me and I put it in.”

Though the Admirals were outshot in the early stages of the first period, they came on strong in the latter part and if not for a brilliant save by Bears’ goaltender, Braden Holtby, on a breakaway attempt by Mitch Fadden, it would have been a tied game.

“I don’t know if it was a lucky save or not, but I wasn’t really sure if I had it,” said Holtby. “That’s one of tough things about breakaways-if they shoot five-hole, you want to hold your ground as long as you can. I just held it long enough to stop the puck.”

Hershey rookie forward, Cody Eakin, who made his AHL debut in Syracuse last week and netted his first pro goal in the contest, doubled his goal production when he skillfully skewered Patrick Wellar’s point shot past Tokarski at 12:53.

“Gus passed it off to Wellar and I thought I made eye contact with him, but he said he just buried his head and shot it,” said the youngster, Eakin, who was only a year old when the Binghamton Rangers established the previous record for most wins in a season. “I was able to get wide open in front of the net and I got a lucky tip on it.”

Though the Winnipeg native has been concentrating on his junior career, Eakin is fully aware of the rich tradition in Chocolatetown.

“I caught a couple of the games when they were playing the Moose, and I understand the history and recognize the team they have here; it’s an honor to be a part of it,” he said.

The AHL’s leading goal-getter, Alexandre Giroux, scored his 46th goal of the season to give the Bears a 3-0 lead at 4:45 of the third period, helped tremendously by Mathieu Perreault’s outstanding individual effort against seemingly insurmountable odds.

“I got the puck in the neutral zone and I saw it was Parrish playing D man, and I know he’s a forward so I thought I might as well take him one-on-one because he’s not a D man,” said Perreault, who faced a one-on-four situation when he entered the zone. “I beat him and Giroux was calling for the puck. It’s never a bad play to give the puck to Giroux in the slot.”

Perreault, who recently returned from a call up stint with the Washington Capitals where he has spent 21 games this season in the show, credits his newly found confidence for his decision to confront the overwhelming odds he faced that led to Giroux’s goal.

“I think the call ups helped my confidence a lot,” he said. “I would have probably just chipped it in and tried to go get it, but now that I have confidence, I skate it in and try to make some moves and I’m not afraid to commit a turnover.”

The never-say-die Admirals made a game of it when Fadden and former Bear, Ryan Craig, each scored within a 52 second span, cutting the Bears lead to 3-2. However, Holtby faced down the Ads’ last six shots to secure his 24th win of the campaign.

Bears Munch on Crunch to Set Record

Though the seasons have changed in the six months since the Hershey Bears’ season-opening win on October 3rd, 2009, one thing has remained constant-their winning ways. On Saturday night, exactly six months to the day of the first win of this season, the home team made history by recording their 58th win of the season against the Syracuse Crunch at Giant Center, 6-1.

Hershey’s win was also their 33rd home triumph of the season, tying another AHL record that they have the opportunity to break by defeating the Norfolk Admirals on Sunday, the same team against which they picked up their first win.

Boyd Kane gave the Bears an early lead only 1:07 into the contest by redirecting a Patrick Wellar shot that trickled between the wickets of Syracuse’s starting goaltender, Kevin Lalande.

Less than a minute after Kane’s caper, the Bears’ Mathieu Perreault, who returned to Hershey after a recall to the Washington Capitals, failed on his penalty shot attempt, being foiled in his backhand attempt by the glove of Lalande.

Hershey’s penalty killing unit, which ranks first in the loop in PK proficiency, was responsible for the second goal, with Jay Beagle’s dogged determination on the forecheck which forced Lalande into a turnover that led to Beagle’s 15th goal of the season at 12:30.

“I knew that they had all their guys on one side of the ice,” Beagle said. “Their goalie was kind of left out to dry there, and I just tried to pressure him to cough up the puck. I don’t know if it hit my skate, but it just popped loose and I was able to grab it and put it on net.”

Beagle’s goal was the last of the period, but there was plenty of roughhousing in the latter stages of the period that excited the crowd. Hershey’s captain, Bryan Helmer, was in the middle of the melee, throwing an impressive looking uppercut intended for Syracuse’s Evan McGrath that connected with nothing but air.

“I thought Nygel (referee, Nygel Pelletier) did a good job and took care of most of the stuff. Guys stood up for each other, and that’s a team,” said Helmer. “That’s what a good team does, and probably why we have 58 wins.”

Continuing the successful first period formula, the Bears struck again early in the second period, this time on the power play, with Alexandre Giroux generating the red light by sizzling a shot by the stick side of Lalande for his 45th marker of the season.

“We had a lot of power plays tonight, and I think we tried to be a little too fancy,” Giroux said. “We do that play all the time; Coiner made a great pass and set me up perfectly for the one-timer.”

Giroux’s goal gave him 98 points on the season, tying last year’s point total and putting him within two points of reaching the century mark in Sunday’s home finale.
“It would be nice to do it at home. I’d like to beat my total points from last year, which was 98 and now if I can get a higher number, that will be another milestone. Hopefully I can do it in front of the home crowd,” he said.

Lalande atoned a bit for his first period stickhandling fiasco by lofting a pass to teammate Evan McGrath that culminated with McGrath beating Hershey netminder, Michal Neuvirth, on a breakaway foray at 8:56.

McGrath’s goal was the only real challenge faced by Neuvirth who was making his first appearance since the March 19th outing against the Albany River Rats when he lasted only one period before he was forced to leave the game with a lower body injury.

Sixty-eight seconds after the McGrath marker, the Bears quickly countered when Beagle collected his second bone of the game, beating Lalande from his doorstep after receiving a pretty setup from Perreault.

“As soon as Perre was going behind the net, I thought five-hole if he gives it to me just because the goalie was on our strong side,” said Beagle. “Perre made a great play because the goalie thought he was coming around the net with it. I had the whole short side open.”

Beagle’s goal celebration was unceremoniously halted when he received a cross check to the upper body from Syracuse defenseman, Nick Holden.
“I put my hands up to celebrate and exposed my ribs, and I got a cross check right to the ribs,” said Beagle, who sported an ice pack on his ribs after the game. “Right away, I cramped up and couldn’t breathe. I came in here and iced it and they did a couple quick things to me and loosened up my ribs so I was able to go back out and play.”

With a delayed penalty being signaled by referee Nygel Pelletier against the Crunch, Bears’ defenseman, Zach Miskovic’s, seeing-eye shot from the point eluded Lalande at 11:06, ending the second period scoring and Lalande’s night. Lalande departed the contest allowing five goals on 23 shots faced, and was replaced by Dan Taylor.

Karl Alzner netted the lone goal of the third period, cashing in on a 5-on-3 power play opportunity for his 3rd goal of the season which capped off the scoring.
After the record-breaking win, Helmer reflected on his team’s amazing accomplishments this season, but assured that his team has its eye on the ultimate prize.

“When you look at it, it’s really impressive. I’m pretty proud of the guys in our dressing room, from the new guys that came in to everyone that’s played this year. It hasn’t sunk in, and probably won’t sink in for a while. It’s my 17th year pro and this is probably one of the best teams I’ve ever played on. We’re definitely focused on one thing, and that’s winning the championship.”