Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Catching up with the Hershey Bears

Bears vs Bruins:
After finishing work on Thanksgiving Eve, we headed to the Giant Center to see the Bears take on the Providence Bruins. With fond memories of eliminating the Bruins from the playoffs last spring, the tough match we anticipated did not materialize, and the Bears would be given a lesson by the boys in yellow. Providence would win the game 4-1, as Hershey failed to find chemistry and failed to stay out of the penalty box with their eight infractions. Boyd Kane would score the only goal for the Bears, and it was one of those lucky-turned-fluky efforts that saw the puck flip up of Kanes' stick over Dany Sabourin and into the net. Alexandre Giroux did all of the work, Kane got the glory, and the Bears shut down from that moment on. It was just a shame that the Bears had to be the turkeys on the eve of Thanksgiving.

Bears vs Phantoms:
Hershey found their form on the road in Adirondack the night after Thanksgiving, upsetting the Phantoms in front of their own fans. With Alexandre Giroux on recall to the Capitals, Hershey called up Michael Dubuc from South Carolina, and from all accounts, he shone for the Bears - and scored his first AHL goal in the process. A great road win, and 24 hours later, both teams would face off again in Hershey, PA. Less than 60 seconds after the puck dropped, Dubuc would strike, taking a nifty pass from Zach Miskovic and sending the vulcanized rubber into the back of the net. Ten minutes later, Dubuc made the score sheet once again, earning the primary assist on a Darren Reid goal. Many in attendance started to believe that this 21 year old was for real.

I wish the same could be said for defenseman Sean Collins, who was fairly impressive last season and had playing time in Washington to show for it. Fast forward to the present, however, and Collins has failed to repeat such a performance. On numerous shifts, he was out of position, out-played by the Phantoms forechecking, sloppy with the puck and gave up too many odd-man rushes. I had to laugh when I heard somebody compare Collins with a turnstile - creaking as he spins in circles. Right now Collins needs to be benched, or even spend some time back down in the ECHL in order to help him find his game. Come on Sean, last season I believed in you......don't let the Bears down.

As stated in an earlier post, I am having a hard time warming to Boyd Kane. During this game, however, he started to break down some barriers...mixing it up with his former Phantom team mates, and being a general agitating pest. At one point, I almost cracked a smile. However, in a game that would be tied at the end of regulation, Kane would destroy all of his temporary credit by taking the DUMBEST double roughing minor in overtime. Fortunately the Bears made it through the five minute OT period, and would ultimately lose in the shootout.....but for me, the damage had been done when Kane mixed it up with the Phantoms one time too many. Thanks Boyd.....

Bears v Baby Pens:
Having had time to cool down, we ventured back to the Giant Center the following evening for a showdown with the boys from up I-81. The previous encounter between these two teams at Giant Center had been lopsided, especially as the majority of the Penguins stars had been recalled to an ailing Pittsburgh club at the time. This time around, many familiar faces were back - Ben Lovejoy, Mark Letestu, Deryk Engelland - the Bears would have to bring their A-game tonight and not underestimate the pesky Pens. Hershey would call on Michal Neuvirth to tend between the pipes, and a few fans would cheer when Sean Collins was announced as a scratch, leaving captain Bryan Helmer to fill the final defensive roster spot.

After 60 minutes of play, Michal Neuvirth earned the first star honors as he shut out Wilkes Barre in the Bears 5-0 victory. 'Neuvy' faced a total of 42 shots, while Pens netminder John Curry faced only 21 in comparison, statistically giving up 1 goal for every four shots faced. The Bears outhustled the Penguins all night, and earned the victory in a great team effort. After his poor performance on Saturday, Boyd Kane would redeem himself to the Hershey faithful - scoring on two of his three shots, and staying out of the penalty box all evening. Michael Dubuc would assist on Darren Reids' power play goal to finish the game, collecting points in three straight games and making it difficult for Mark French to reassign him back to the ECHL. The Bears took 5 of 6 points in three consecutive nights, and maintain a comfortable position at the top of their division.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Springfield defeat Hershey in Shootout.

Saturday evening, with our NHL differences aside for now, we headed to the Giant Center to see the Bears host the Springfield Falcons. For many Bears fans, this was a homecoming night for the Mayor of Hershey, Dean Arsene, and enforcer Kip Brennan - two of the Bears championship team from last season. Arsene, however, would not make the trip. The Mayor was instead fulfilling his dream of playing hockey in the NHL, as a call-up to the Edmonton Oilers. The last time I checked, Arsene had played in at least 3 games for the Oilers, and was receiving favorable feedback from the coaching staff in Edmonton. Congratulations to you Dean - you truly deserve this opportunity.

The Falcons had started off well this season, so we knew this game would not be easy. Just not too long ago, we faced a red-hot Jonathan Bernier in goal when we played the Monarchs. Springfield would give us another tough encounter, with a stellar performance from goaltender Devan Dubnyk. With Michal Neuvirth in Washington, the Bears went with Braden Holtby in goal, and when the game became a shootout, a feeling of deja-vu from the Royals/Stingrays game would haunt us. Holtby has agility and decent reflexes, but has yet to look comfortable in the one-on-one situation. Holtby would once again lose the shootout, conceding a score to Chad Wiseman. He would have little help from his team-mates, who failed to connect on all five of their attempts against Dubnyk. The Bears may have dominated the game in regulation, but their failure to beat Dubnyk after 60 minutes was enough to give Springfield the confidence to take home the victory.

Okay, so hands up all Bears fans that found themselves secretly rooting for Kip Brennan when he chose to drop the gloves with Hershey enforcer Brandon 'Sugar' Sudgen. Hmm, I found a good friend of mine who raised her hand at work (thanks Lorie), so I don't feel so bad now. Those that know me, know that it takes me a while to warm to 'newbies' on the team. Last year, I did not care much for Kipper himself until we had a chance to meet and have a short conversation. This year, I am struggling to care for the likes of Sugden, who brings mediocre hockey skills at best. However, I find it harder still right now to show any emotional attachment to Boyd Kane. Yes, he is a former Bear that has come back! Yes, he's already played a handful of games in a Capitals sweater this season! But there is something, just something, that irks me about him. Is it the whining that he was famous for last season when wearing a Phantoms sweater? Is it the lack of ba......erm, courage when pushed into a corner? I really don't know - but my lack of attachment will make it harder still for him to win me over. He must prove it on the ice, and the missed opportunity to win the game on Saturday night in front of the goal certainly did nothing to boost his worth.

When Husband and Wife disagree....

the source of such differences often coincide with the Washington Capitals facing the Montreal Canadiens. Last season was a great year for the husband (me!!!). We saw the Caps shutout the Habs 3-0 last year in the Verizon Center, and win 3 out of the 4 games played during the regular season. Last year, I took home the 'household' cup.

Fast forward to the 2009-10 NHL season, and we took in our second Capitals game of the season at the Verizon Center. Once again, it was the Caps and Habs, but this time I would suffer the humiliation of defeat, and hand bragging rights back to the Habs fan in the household. The Caps did not play to their potential. The Habs had little offense, but played great defensively and relied on the outstanding performance of goaltender Carey Price probably a little more than they should have. Both teams could have taken this game, but the Habs wanted it more and beat the home team by a score of 3-2.

With Jose Theodore taking time out for personal reasons, Hershey goaltender Michal Neuvirth would be given his first NHL start of the season. The game was also a first for Hershey defenseman John Carlson, who many believed should have stayed in DC right after training camp. Both call-ups had great performances (Neuvirth may have liked the second Habs goal back, but alas) and while neither could add a victory to their resume on this particular night, they both had a chance to shine at the highest level of pro hockey.

So for now, wifey has a 1-0 lead this season, but the Caps will be looking to tie that series when both teams square off this weekend at the Bell Center in Montreal.

An irrelevant side note: congratulations to the CFL's Montreal Alouettes for winning the Eastern Final, and having the opportunity to play once again in the Grey Cup this coming Sunday. Best wishes for Anthony Calvillo and the boys when they take on the Roughriders. Go Als.....

Royals upset Stingrays with Shootout Victory

We arrived at the Sovereign Center in downtown Reading just as both teams were taking to the ice for their pre-game warm-ups. As mentioned in my previous entry, this was our first opportunity to see South Carolina in person, and it was great seeing a few familiar names from the Capitals roster. It was certainly not hard to miss the towering Joe Finley, who we had not seen since his short stint in Hershey last season. We also noticed a lot of new names and faces amongst the Royals. We were certainly disappointed to learn that Dan Rudiseula had not been resigned, and like many others that preceded him, was now playing hockey in Europe. It is a shame that players we have come to know, such as Josef Boumedienne and Shawn Collymore, have made such little impact in the North American pro-ranks that they've had to ply their trade elsewhere.

Once the game got underway, it was VERY difficult to root against either team. We are fond of the Royals, but we were also loyal to the NHL affiliation with the Caps. It was hard to cheer respectfully when the Rays scored, and almost impossible to stay seated when the Royals took their turn finding the back of the net. Spotting some friends from Hershey in the crowd, we moved after the first period to both not alienate the fans in our section and to have strength in numbers to support the visiting team.

The game itself was a sequence of fights and a shootout - but this was not a Clint Eastwood western - this was ECHL hockey. Joe Finley would indeed drop the gloves, as would Matt Fornataro and Nate Kiser (an impressive defenseman). However, it came down to a duell between two great goaltending prospects: Braden Holtby for the Rays and Andrew Engelage for the Royals. Needing to stand tall, Holtby would be beaten by Jared Ross in the shootout and the home team would take the victory. In a way, it was a win-win for us - the Stingrays beat the Royals just 24 hours earlier, and then took an extra point in defeat. While the Rays headed home with 3 out of 4 points on the road, the Royals also salvaged a victory of their own for the 5000 fans in attendance.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Torn Loyalties Tonight

We are heading to Reading, PA tonight for our first taste of Royals hockey. While our visits to the Sovereign Center only account for a small percentage of our hockey viewing pleasure, we always enjoy the fast paced action that the ECHL offers. Tonight, however, we face the paradox of having our Royals host the South Carolina Stingrays (affilates of the Washington Capitals), and thus questions arise as to where our loyalties will lie. We are supportive of the Royals, but with no emotional ties to either the Toronto Maple Leafs or Boston Bruins, it will be almost impossible to cheer against the Rays. We look forward to seeing the likes of Josh Godfrey, Michael Dubuc, Joe Finley, Jake Hauswirth, and possibly even Braden Holtby who was recently reassigned. Indeed, talk about being between a rock and a hard place.

So our apologies in advance to the Royals. We support you and always wish you success, but just this once our loyalties to the Capitals will take precedence. Next time we visit the Sovereign Center, we'll be rooting for the home team, honestly.

On a side note, we are looking forward to seeing Kyle Laughlin play tonight for Reading - son of CSN color commentator, Craig Laughlin. Hopefully Craig can take time out to visit Reading and see his son play.

AHL'ers making an impact in DC

I am prone to spending my work breaks perusing hockey blogs that talk primarily about the Capitals and the Bears, and have seen a lot of criticism about Bruce Boudreau recently. To many bloggers, there seems to be some level of disgust concerning how a coach with a largely minor league background tends to be favorable towards his minor league prospects from Hershey. I have seen several comments about how DC only needs 'The Young Guns' (Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green) to be successfull, and that call ups from Hershey are a sideshow. Just last season, in the stands at the Verizon Center, I would often hear bitter resentment from fans if such a call-up fanned on a shot, missed a pass, or was out of position. Only once did I think such criticism was justified. It was hard to forgive Sami Lepisto and his 'broken skate' episode that cost the team a victory, and a subsequent lack of confidence in his ability from coach Boudreau. But cries of 'send 'em back to Hershey' and several others not fit to print left me with a feeling that the talent provided by the farm system was completely under-appreciated.

This brings me to my reasoning for this entry. Over the last three games played by the Capitals, the Young Guns have not been a factor. With Ovechkin out due to injury, Semin investing in penalty box real estate, and Green ailing once again, only Backstrom is left to carry the load, and he too has been quiet lately. In the absence of the Great 8, the Capitals have still posted a 2-1 record, and underlying the success in these games have been, yes, you named it, the AHL contingent. Take a look at the stats, for they do not lie. Hershey call-up Mathieu Perreault has points in all three games since wearing a Caps jersey, including a nifty goal against the Florida Panthers in his Verizon Center debut. Tyler Sloan has successfully switched between playing forward and defense as dictated by Boudreau, and has two goals in those last three games now posted on his resume. Another one of Gabby's boys, Quintin Laing, has demonstrated an uncanny knack for killing penalties, and has developed great chemistry with his linemates David Steckel and Matt Bradley. Laing has also found the net recently too, beating Columbus netminder Steve Mason and then tallying last night in the 7-4 victory over Florida. And then what about that other 'Hershey' guy? Oh yes, Semyon Varlamov, the Hershey call-up that helped keep the playoffs alive in back to back series last season, and who maintains a pretty impressive win/loss percentage since playing for the Caps. Yes, clearly there is absolutely no need to have these mediocre AHL'ers taking up roster space :')

So has Gabby shown favoritism towards his minor league boys? Not at all! In my opinion, the coach has simply made the right decisions for the best interests of the team. Few could argue that in the absence of the superstars, the call-ups have not been a contributing factor to the Capitals continued success. And for those that remain unconvinced...well, sorry to rain on your parade, but both Hershey and the South Carolina Stingrays are developing the next generation of this team, and given their track record recently (Calder Cup and Kelly Cup), have certainly done a pretty outstanding job to date.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Triple Treat of Hershey Bears Action

Following on from the previous entry, we took in 3 games at the Giant Center over the following couple of weekends. Hershey would concede a game to the Binghamton Senators, in a 5-2 loss that resulted from not necessarily a lack of effort, but a lack of chemistry. With a tied game after one period, a combination of missed opportunities, poor puck distribution and penalty woes pushed the Bears into a hole from which they would not recover.

The next evening at Hershey saw the Bears host the Portland Pirates. Just like the Manchester game from the week prior, the game would be a tight, defensive affair. Goaltender Jason Bacashihua would make his home debut for Hershey, and looked pretty calm and collected between the pipes. Down by 2-1 after two periods, Andrew Gordon would level the score just six minutes into the third period. Six minutes later, gritty winger Steve Pinizzotto would not only score the game winning goal, but would do so short-handed whilst killing a high sticking penalty assessed against the Bears. Pinizzotto would earn number one star honors for his efforts, and hopefully the victory would steer the Bears back to their winning ways.

One week later, and back at the Giant Center once more to host the Albany River Rats. With a combination of confidence and momentum, the Bears made short work of their opponents, downing the River Rats by a score of 4-1. Jason Bacashihua was once again solid in goal for Hershey - a great off-season signing who can not only perform, but will be a great mentor for both Michael Neuvirth and Braden Holtby. Andrew Gordon would score the game winner during a Bears power play, and Francois Bouchard would take the first star honors after recording one goal and two assists.