By: John Sparenberg
With the onset of spring just around the corner, Hershey Bears forward Garrett Mitchell has really blossomed into a solid pro in his second pro season. Entering Saturday night’s key matchup against the Norfolk Admirals at Giant Center, with having already surpassed his rookie totals in goals and assists in ten less games and being a presence in all three zones on the ice on a nightly basis and in the Bears’ thrilling 3-2 comeback victory last night at Giant Center, his budding flower was in full bloom as he played a pivotal role in the outcome of the contest.
Mitchell and his Bears’ teammates, who managed only 15 shots on goal in their road victory the previous evening against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, continued their struggles to put the puck on net in the first period, registering only six shots, one of which was by Mitchell. The Bears trailed 1-0 after twenty minutes by virtue of a goal by Josh Brittain.
Less than two minutes into the middle frame, Mitchell capped off a two-on-one foray into the Admirals zone with linemate Peter LeBlanc by taking Norfolk rookie defenseman Sami Vatanen to school, patiently waiting for him to commit to the pass, and then utilizing LeBlanc as a decoy against the Anaheim Ducks’ farm team before subsequently mesmerizing Norfolk netminder Igor Bobkov with his slick stickhandling abilities and then lofting a brilliant backhander over the befuddled Bobkov’s shoulder.
“My first instinct was to go to my backhand and have him come over to me and pass it over to LeBlanc. As soon as he laid down, I didn’t have much of an option. I had to get it up,” explained Mitchell.
The score remained tied at a goal apiece after forty minutes of action, but that didn’t mean the rest of the frame didn’t have a few highlights after the Mitchell goal. In the goaltending department, Bears’ netminder Philipp Grubauer was outstanding in thwarting two prime opportunites for the visitors, first beating back a shorthanded attempt by Brandon McMillan, who was riding a three-game goal-scoring streak entering the encounter, and later denying “Dangerous” Dan Sexton’s shot from close range. In the physical department, it was Mitchell providing the muscle when he plastered Norfolk defenseman Matt Smaby into the boards in the last minute of play. Mitchell’s “Smaby smash” was credited by Hershey head coach Mark French in his post-game press conference as a play that “really got things going” for his club.
The Admirals took the lead again 2:32 into the final frame when Troy Bodie lit the lamp, after Mitchell, while he was trying his best to get back into the play by backchecking on Brittain who had put a shot on Grubauer, laid a shoulder on Brittain, but bounced off of him and then inadvertently ran into Grubauer and knocked his goaltender out of the play in the process.
“I was coming back on the play,” said Mitchell. “I don’t know if was goaltender interference or what, but it was a tough play to make. Things happened quickly, and Gru was lying on his back. It’s a tough goal to take, but guys are going to make plays.”
With the Bears still trailing by a goal and less than three minutes remaining in the game during a promotional timeout, Mitchell’s hit on Smaby was shown on Giant Center scoreboard and the body belt received a thunderous approval from the Bears’ boosters.
On the ensuing faceoff the Bears gained control of the puck, and thanks to Mitchell’s effort of slicing between a pair of defenders to retrieve the puck and then feed a pass to linemate Ryan Stoa, they had gained a tie on that same scoreboard at the 17:27 mark.
“We got a defense zone faceoff and called a strong side out, which is where our defenseman basically just banks the puck off the glass,” said French in the post-game press conference. “The point of it is to put the puck into the neutral zone and put their D under pressure.”
And pressure is just what Mitchell provided to collect the helper on the Stoa strike.
“It was just a Hail Mary by Schilling. He just kind of said to me just go. The worst thing that could have happened is that we could have iced it and been back where we started from. I just broke for it, and it ended up bouncing right to me. Stoa made a heck of a shot to put it in to finish it off,” said Mitchell.
With less than a minute to play in regulation time, French elected to play the hot hand and put Mitchell out on the ice in place of Casey Wellman and the result was that Mitchell and his linemates, Boyd Kane and Ryan Potulny, witnessed Potulny extend his goal-scoring streak to four games in dramatic fashion, potting the game-winning goal with 47.1 seconds remaining in regulation time after gathering in the rebound of Kane’s shot.
“You just play hard and hopefully get your chances, and things are going to happen for you,” said Mitchell when asked if he was surprised to be out there in that situation. “We went hard to the net, and the puck bounced out for Potsy to pounce on it and put her home.”
The one-goal verdict was the 33rd of the season for the Bears, who improved to 14-11-3-5 with the victory.
The Admirals and Bears finish out their eight game season series next weekend when the clubs faceoff in Norfolk on Friday and Saturday nights.
The Bears scratched Danick Paquette and Dmitry Orlov (both injured), in addition to goaltender Brandon Anderson, forwards Matt Clackson, Evan Barlow, and Jonathon Kalinski and defenseman Patrick Wellar, all of whom were healthy.