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.”