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.