By: John Sparenberg
In the early going of this season, the Hershey Bears have found themselves in the uncustomary position of looking up at the rest of the American Hockey League’s East Division and showed only one win on the winning side of the ledger entering Saturday night’s tilt at Giant Center; However, bolstered by the return of goaltender Braden Holtby and with a solid contribution from defenseman Tomas Kundratek at both ends of the ice, they escaped their meeting with the Albany Devils with a 3-0 victory.
The Bears were on their heels defensively in the opening moments of the contest, but Holtby was on top of his game from the outset and showed no signs of his two weeks of inactivity between the pipes. Holtby made a big save on Adam Henrique, a 16 goal-getter last year with in the NHL with the New Jersey Devils during the visitors’ first power play of the evening.
Late in the first frame, with the clubs still locked in a scoreless duel, Hamill’s backhander at 17:10 gave the Bears a 1-0 lead. Hamill’s goal was his first in the Chocolate and White and was assisted by Kundratek and Ryan Stoa, who fed Hamill in the spot with a pretty backhand dish. Stoa was stymied by Albany netminder Keith Kinkaid a short time later when the Devils keeper kicked out his bid with a quality stop from just atop the crease.
Early in the second stanza, Holtby was stellar, quickly flexing his left pad in razor-like fashion to deny a point-blank chance by Albany’s David “Don’t call me Mark” Wohlberg. Seconds later, Wohlberg, obviously still in full frustration mode, slashed Hamill and then absorbed a couple of stiff jabs in the subsequent scrum that ensued, but when the dust had settled, he was the only player sent to the “sin bin” by referee Darcy Burchell.
“That was a big chance for them and for a goalie; that’s where you’ve got to come up with a save. I thought I played it patiently. I’ll have to look at it on video and find out if I was cheating or not, but it worked out well and I made the save. Luck was on our side tonight,” said Holtby.
Less than thirty seconds into Wohlberg’s sentence, the Bears, feeding off the “Good Vibrations” from Holtby’s big save, padded their one-goal cushion when Jeff Taffe, with a helping hand from Kundratek, sizzled a one-time slapshot by Kinkaid to give the Bears a 2-0 lead. Taffe’s goal went to video review, but Burchell eventually ruled on the Bears’ behalf.
“It was one of those shots where you’ve obviously got to elevate it because the goalie is going to slide over. But at the same time it’s one of those shots where if you get it on net, you’ve got a pretty good chance of scoring. Most of the guys on the team thought it went in, but it was just a matter of going through the review process,” said Taffe.
The Bears then went on to earn the games next three power plays, but did not score on any of them including a lengthy five-on-three advantage, and nearly squandered a shorthanded goal to Albany’s Jacob Josefson, but Holtby, aided largely by Kundratek who raced back to catch Josefson, the Bears avoided the crisis and maintained their two-goal lead in the process.
“Those types of play are always tough. If he gets that last half-step at the end, he can go right around me, but Kundy did a great job of holding him, and I was able to cut down the angle and force him into shooting,” said Holtby.
In the third period, the Bears sputtered again from the opening puck drop, and with Albany enjoying a 5-1 shot advantage through 4:38 of action, the Bears bench brain trust elected to utilize their timeout.
“We seemed to be stalled in our end and had to take a timeout. I think a lot of it started with not winning the draw and possessing the puck. It’s something that we’ve got to get out of the gate a little bit better; fortunately tonight it didn’t hurt, but we’ve got to better in that area,” said Hershey co-coach, Mark French.
Last weekend, the Bears wasted a pair of three-goal leads in their home opener against the Rochester Americans when they fell in a disappointing 8-7 loss; However, Taffe said that game is now a distant memory, although he conceded that the club held onto the memory for a bit after the stinging setback.
“When you lose big leads like that you can think about it for a day or two, but you’ve got to put it out of your head. Last week, we’ve kind of put that out of our minds. It was the first (three-in-three) weekend and obviously, you can’t play run and gun hockey like that, especially after last night getting down early. We just wanted to get a lead tonight. We know we are a different team when we do.”
The timeout strategy worked as the Bears allowed only seven more shots the rest of the way, with most of those coming in the final moments, and Kundratek added an empty-net goal at 17:53 to put the game out of reach for the visitors.
Holtby’s shutout was his 12th as a Bear and fell just short of his shutout best performance (38 saves at Wilkes/Barre Scranton on October 9, 2009).
Holtby was seeing only his second game action of the young season after starting and being injured in the Bears’ season opening loss in Syracuse (28 saves, 4 goals against).
T.J. Syner was recalled prior to the game from the Bears’ ECHL affiliate, the Reading Royals, before the game to take Sjogren’s spot in the lineup, while goaltender Philipp Grubauer was heading the other way on the Pennsylvania turnpike with Holtby’s return.
The Bears and Devils, who will meet a total of four times this season, don’t square off again until a December 29th meeting at Giant Center.
Ryan Potulny and Mattias Sjogren (injured in Friday night’s loss at Connecticut) were the injury scratches for the Bears, while Patrick McNeill (veteran), Julien Brouillette, Jonathon Kalinski, and Matt Clackson were the healthy scratches.