The underdog Texas Stars made their first-ever appearance at Giant Center a memorable one Thursday night, upending the Hershey Bears 2-1 in the opening game of the 2010 Calder Cup finals and quickly casting startling doubt upon Hershey’s claim to an 11th Calder Cup title.
Could these historic Bears, winners of 60 games during the regular season, really lose in the finals to an expansion team?
Losing an opening game in a best of seven series is rarely cause for great alarm, but it might be in this one. Now the Bears face a virtual must-win scenario in game 2 Saturday night, for then they travel to Austin to compete in Cedar Park Center for games 3 through 5. Lose Saturday night and the Bears would have to win two of three games in Texas just to stay alive.
The signs of struggle arrived early in game 1. Enduring an 11-day layoff, the Bears looked sluggish and out of sync in the opening 20 minutes, and were badly outshot, 12-4. Texas, like Manchester before them, employs a defense first, defense second, and offense when they can get it system. They send in a lone forechecker and box up the neutral zone with their four remaining skaters. They take that same box and collapse it around netminder Matt Climie, clogging up shooting lanes and blocking shots in bunches.
But there was more than mere layoff rust evident among Bears’ skaters in game 1. They were visibly fatigued at the end of their shifts. Head Coach Mark French relied on three forward lines, and his top defensive pairing of Karl Alzner and John Carlson easily pushed 30 minutes of ice time each. All looked exhausted as they exited the ice with each rotation.
The Bears neither wanted nor needed the 11 days off they endured since eliminating Manchester on May 22. Moreover, when you consider that Hershey polished off Albany in a sweep back on April 29 in the East division finals, they’ve played a grand total of six games over the course of the past 34 days.
There is a rhythm to postseason hockey; it commonly consists of games contested every other night, with slightly longer interruptions in games between series, and this schedule lasts a few months. Hershey, by dispatching early-round foes with efficiency, and seeing Giant Center springtime filled with competing engagements, has known no such rhythm this spring. It seemed to show on the home hockey club Thursday night as much as with any I’d seen with any hockey team in any postseason on any level. These guys looked gassed at the end of each shift.
The Bears generated more shots in the second and third periods, but few truly tested Climie. Many shots came from the non-threatening perimeter, but often too Bears players who were in decent scoring position hesitated, over-thought the moment, and lost shooting lanes as Stars’ defenders quickly closed gaps and got sticks and shins in the way. At other times Hershey forwards insisted on executing unnecessary, additional passes, making for “pretty” pond hockey when playoff hockey instead was needed. For the home team it was an evening of rampant indecision when instinctive drive was required.
But instinctive hockey gets played reliably and most effectively when players play games.
“We didn’t have a good shot mentality,” Bears’ coach Mark French noted afterward. When pucks did get into scoring areas in the Texas zone, French added, “we got too cute.”
Stars’ bench boss Glen Gulutzan acknowledged in the postgame that his team may have harbored “self doubt” going up against this 60-win Bears team, most especially on Hershey’s virtually unbeatable Giant Center ice sheet, but victory in this game one, delivering so swiftly a mandate for victory by the hosts in game 2, has his Stars in a perfect mental state. They won’t change their aesthetics-challenged style, and they’ll skate without pressure Saturday night.
- John Carlson didn’t have what so early in his pro career we’ve come to expect him to night after night: a dominant game. He made errors and missed assignments, and his mistakes were matched and perhaps exceeded in volume by partner Karl Alzner. Still, even in JC’s less impressive outings, there is ample evidence of how bluechip and polished a prospect he is. I noticed in particular an attack he led against an over-stacked Stars’ neutral zone during which he flick-flipped a puck about a quarter of an inch higher than the stick blade of a Stars’ defender and smack onto the tape of a hard-charging Mathieu Perreault on the wing. A pass possessing just the requisite height, with perfect accuracy and velocity needed under duress. It was a pass that perhaps no other blueliner presently in the Capitals’ organization can make with anything approaching the reliability that Carlson can.
- Mathieu Perreault is presently Hershey’s best center. I might have said Keith Aucoin four or five months ago, but not now.
- When Alexandre Giroux isn’t scoring goals, or helping linemates score them, he positively hurts his hockey team. He is as one-dimensional a player as there is in the Capitals’ organization. Right now he is hurting Hershey, and his linemate Aucoin isn’t helping much either. Andrew Gordon returned to their right wing in game 1, and perhaps should have looked a bit rusty in his first game back from a knee injury and the Bears’ lengthy inaction. But he was the only effective skater on Hershey’s top line Thursday night.
- If Hershey is to topple Texas and secure an 11th Calder Cup, they will need reliable production from the top two lines. The absence of which was the parent club’s postseason undoing.