Monday, July 26, 2010

Holtby Keeps Rolling With The Changes

By: John Sparenberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 22, 2010

After Briefly Celebrating Championship, French Eager To Repeat Feat

By John Sparenberg jsheynow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Playoff Numbers Breakdown

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

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

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

75-number of goals scored by Bears.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 5, 2010

Bears Beneficiaries of Neuvirth's Net Gains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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