It’s a much different looking Hershey Bears hockey club in the first quarter of its two-time Calder Cup defense. For one thing, cornerstone components of those two Calders are gone: Michal Neuvirth, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson have graduated to Washington. Chris Bourque is pursuing greener pastures in Europe. Captain Bryan Helmer is retired. The AHL’s best set of hands the past couple of seasons, Alexandre Giroux, signed with Edmonton in the offseason. That’s some serious talent and leadership to replace.
Additionally, there have been key injuries early on in 2010-11. Patrick McNeill’s season hasn’t gotten started; he’s still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. Top playmaker and sniper Keith Aucoin went down last month with a knee injury. He’s expected back soon. Steve Pinizzotto missed all three of this past weekend’s games with a finger injury. Francois Bouchard is nursing a neck injury.
It perhaps then should be no surprise: wins are harder to come by for these new-look Bears. At 10-7-0-1 after Sunday night’s 4-3 victory over Hartford they’re lodged in an odd place in the AHL’s East Division — 4th, 7 points behind a white-hot Junior Penguins club (14-3). On Saturday night the Bears lost a toughie to visiting Wilkes-Barre 4-3 despite going 3-for-3 on the power play. On Sunday they faced this league’s proverbial gut-check game — the third of the weekend, again at home. And they did so coming off an emotionally draining setback 20 hours earlier against their bitter in-state foe. It was a bit of beleaguered backdrop: the very beat-up Bears facing the prospect of going pointless over the course of a three-game weekend for the first time since they re-affiliated with Washington in 2005. Seriously. I was stunned when Bears’ radio voice John Walton shared that tidbit with me in the pre-game, and the Patriot News’ Tim Leone verified it with a second-intermission perusal of the team’s media guide.
Imagine, not a single ‘lost’ weekend among the litany played by this organization under the Capitals’ banner these past five years.
Another oddity about Sunday: the Wolfpack were making their final appearance in Hershey. Beginning November 27 the team, under new owner Howard Baldwin, will be known at the Connecticut Whale. The team’s website has already begun the transition. When was the last time you can recall a pro sports franchise changing its entire identity in mid-season?
In somewhat of a surprise assignment a rehabbing Semyon Varlamov started the back-to-back set of Saturday and Sunday games this weekend, as opposed to splitting his duty between Friday and Sunday. Head Coach Mark French explained that having the concluding games at home allowed Varlamov access to team staff who could prepare him well and allow him to be a “creature of comfort” this weekend. The Caps might have liked him to see more work this weekend: he faced just just 23 shots Saturday night followed by 22 on Sunday. Against Hartford the Bears formed an effective box in front of Varly that kept the Wolfpack’s side-to-side puck movement to a minimum; it was therefore difficult to determine just how uniformly comfortable and fit the young netminder’s healing groin is. But in all other respects he looked fit.
Sheldon Souray was a healthy scratch, the Bears’ coaching staff not wanting to put him in a three-in-three set of exertion just returned from the injured list.
There is one player who fairly delights in all this hockey playing on the weekend — Mathieu Perreault. He earned Sunday’s first star for his two-goal performance. Leone the Bears’ beat reporter likes to point out that when it comes to that Sunday grind game players’ spirits are often willing but the legs are not. And fatigue manifests itself in a variety of forms. You notice, for instance, that crisp tape-to-tape passing at the start of a weekend is often replaced by more pucks hitting skates instead of tape come Sunday. Less so, though, with Perreault.
“I like the afternoon games maybe better than the night games,” he said in the Sunday postgame. “The third games are tough, but so far every Sunday game in my career I feel like my legs are great. I’ve been playing my best game on Sundays. When I play a lot of games close I feel like I’m just getting my legs warm [by Sunday].”
The kid just loves to play; the AHL could probably schedule Sunday doubleheaders and Matty would be the first to report for that sixth period of duty.
Perreault broke a scoreless tie just 17 seconds into the second period, magically thieving a Wolfpack clearing pass right at the blueline and going in all alone and besting Hartford netminder Cameron Talbot with a patient slide of the puck underneath Talbot’s pads.
The Bears’ revamped look today includes Perreault centering the top line with Andrew Gordon to his right and Brian Willsie to his left. Big, big numbers for this line, and the playmaking pivot and his right wing had strong fall camps with the Caps. Gordon is now second in the entire league in scoring with 12 goals and 13 assists in 18 games. Willsie is 6th in scoring with 21 points. And Perreault’s 4 goals and 14 assists in just 12 games lodge him just outside the top 20 of league scorers.
Big change on the back end, too. When Souray’s out of the lineup Lawrence Nycholat forms a top pairing with Zach Miskovic. There’s simply no replacing a Carlson-Alzner pairing.
Aucoin’s absence is especially noticeable on the Bears’ power play. Like the Capitals the Bears love the back door setup while a man up, and time and time again on Sunday Hershey’s extra man unit patiently pursued it, in vain. Aucoin has been a force for the team with that play, as both QB and finisher. It will be a different looking Bears’ team with Aucoin, Souray, and McNeill in the lineup, and hopefully all three are fit for duty come spring. The wild card is the potential of having Cody Eakin’s season in Swift Current end in time for the speedy center to join the Bears for a playoff push.