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Bears Come Back to Take Playoff Opener

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
HERSHEY, Pa. – "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown." It’s been 410 years since William Shakespeare penned that line, but it will always hold true. And these days, it particularly holds true for the Hershey Bears. Every foe they face this spring is looking to knock off the defending champions.

alt Aiming to repeat as AHL Calder Cup champions for the second time in their storied seven-decade history, and to become just the eighth AHL team ever to repeat, the Bears’ Calder Cup quest got underway here on Wednesday night with Game 1 of the East Division semifinal series with the Albany River Rats. The Bears came away with a 3-2 win in the opener, but it wasn’t easy.

“They’ll be ready for us tomorrow,” said relieved Bears coach Bruce Boudreau afterwards. “They have a lot of confidence that they can beat us, and they have every right to think that way. They outplayed us the first two periods.”

The Rats, the 19th best regular season team in the AHL, played a strong road game for the first 40 minutes before the Bears rallied and took over every aspect of the contest in the final frame. Hershey outshot the River Rats 20-2 in the third period. The Bears’ dominance helped them draw four third period power plays, and they cashed in on two of them to erase a 2-1 deficit.

After a scoreless opening period, Hershey got on the board first, doing so during a crucial stretch early in the second period. With the Bears already down a man, Hershey’s Tomas Fleischmann took a slashing minor at the 20-minute mark of the first. When the second period got underway the Bears were down two men for 59 seconds.

Hershey won the opening draw of the second period (face-offs weren’t a strong suit for the Bears in the first two stanzas) and had two key defensive zone clears before Albany’s Shane Willis lost an edge and turned the puck over in the neutral zone. The opportunistic Dave Steckel pounced on the puck, gained the zone and ripped a wrist shot that beat Albany netminder Tyler Weiman high to the glove side. The goal came at the 41-second mark.

The Rats got a rare odd man break midway through the middle period, evening the score when ex-Bear Cody McCormick made a deft move to draw Hershey goaltender Frederic Cassivi away from the cage. McCormick’s goal came while the two teams were skating four to a side.

With 5:03 remaining in the second, there was a face-off to Cassivi’s right. Albany’s Jakub Petruzalek won the draw, getting the puck to winger Ryan Bayda. Bayda launched a turnaound wrister that beat Cassivi. Only three seconds elapsed between the puck drop and the red light.

Hershey came out flying in the third. The Bears had three shots on goal in the first minute, and went on the power play after Weiman high-sticked Hershey’s Jakub Klepis behind the Albany cage. It was one of three penalties Klepis drew in the final period alone.

The Bears did not strike then, but Cody McLeod went off for boarding Klepis at 4:28. Seconds later, Chris Bourque went back to his own end to retrieve an Albany clear. He fired a blind (but perfect) turnaround slap pass from deep in his own end to Steckel, who was parked along the wall at the Albany line. Steckel skated to the far circle, turned and with his back to the net, fed Fleischmann. The Czech sniper picked his corner and tucked a wrist shot neatly inside the far post. The Bears were even at 4:59 of the third.

alt With Petruzalek off for holding, Hershey netted the winner. Matt Hendricks won an offensive zone draw, and the Bears controlled the puck for several seconds. Hendricks’ shot was stopped, but Kyle Wilson put the rebound home. Hendricks and Scott Barney collected the assists.

Hershey had several more excellent chances, but Weiman kept it close. The Rats’ Kyle Cumiskey took a holding minor in the defensive zone at 18:23, and Hershey methodically ran down the clock from there. The Bears won two draws in the offensive zone and effectively played keep away around the perimeter for more than a minute. By the time Weiman was able to get off for an extra skater, less than 30 seconds remained.

That stifling third period effort is what Hershey is looking for when the puck drops for Game 2 at Giant Center Thursday at 7 p.m.

“We need to come out exactly how we finished,” Steckel asserts. “We’ve just got to go out, get pucks deep and take the body. We know what they’re going to do. Chips and supports are going to work.”

On McLeod’s penalty that led to the tying goal:
“It was big in the fact that our power play was pretty [smelly] the first two periods. We got the one, and then we got the next one again. The law of averages [says] if you work hard enough, which we did in the third period, they’re going to take penalties on you. And if they take penalties with a normally good power play, you’re going to have some success eventually.”

On whether Steckel’s goal gave the Bears a false sense of security:
“I don’t think there was a false sense. I think we played exactly in the second period like we played in the first, except for Dave Steckel who was the best player on the ice. I don’t think there’s any doubt, and it’s not because I like him as a player. He came to play. There was no false sense. Maybe some guys in their mind said, ‘Okay, yeah. Now we’re gonna go.’ But it wasn’t a question of us not going. Even though I didn’t think we were skating as good as we could, I thought they were playing the perfect game. They were dumping it in, they were waiting for their chances, when they had a chance to forecheck, they were forechecking. We were very well-scouted. They played it to a tee. Every man on their team was ready. You could see when they scored the [first] goal, everybody jumped up. They were really into the game, and we didn’t get that way until the third period.”

On whether Fleischmann and Klepis were “too cute” in the third:
“I agree with you, but it’s really difficult to tell Fleischmann and Klepis not to be cute. If they play a dump and chase game, you’re taking them out of their element. They have that many chances in the third period like they did, I gotta believe eventually they’re going to score. I wish they weren’t as cute as they were, but sometimes you have to take the good with the bad. If we’re going to want Flash to lead us, and score the goal when he needs to score it and be the guy that everybody is after – and their team was after him pretty good – it’s pretty hard to say, ‘Dump it in and don’t try to make your plays.'”

On whether he’s surprised that Steckel hasn’t seen more NHL duty:
“His time will come. I’m not worried. What’s the average length of an NHL player’s [career], 5.6 years or something? He’s still 24 years old. I’ve got to believe that he’s going to play 5.6 years in the NHL at least. His time is coming. He has gotten steadily, better, better, and better. And I think this year he finally got the confidence to go along. I haven’t been at the NHL level for a while, but there can’t be many better penalty killers than him with the reach he’s got and the intelligence he’s got.”

On Steckel and his line shutting down Albany’s Keith Aucoin, the AHL’s second leading scorer:
“Without sounding too fatherly, he was really good. He’s a leader. He’s a leader vocally, he’s a leader in the locker room and he’s a leader on the ice. And he shows it. And that’s what you need. Hopefully, some other guys will pick it up. It wasn’t everybody who had a good game tonight. There were some guys who didn’t play very well, and we’re going to need them. They’ve got to pick it up tomorrow.”

On face-off woes in the first two periods:
“Winning face-offs is all about how your head is into the game. We weren’t winning them in the first two periods, because we just weren’t into it, for whatever reason. We have some young guys and maybe they were just a little too nervous.”

On his line vs. Aucoin’s line:
“The game plan wasn’t the matchup at first. I thought [Boudreau] did a good job. We kept four lines going. We had good energy in the first. I thought we came out hard. Aucoin is a good player and their line started to get something going there when they popped in the two goals. I thought we did a great job as a line shutting them down and getting pucks deep in the third period. We came out like the Hershey Bears.”

On whether he had ever scored a 3-on-5 shorty before:
“No, I think that’s the first one. Usually you go out and you just try to stop them from scoring. But hey, it worked out for us.”

On whether he is surprised that he hasn't played more at the NHL level to date:
“I was actually really happy that I got any playing time. Up there, it’s going to be hard to crack the lineup for a player like me. Surprise or no surprise, I’m part of a great organization. As long as they tell me to keep working hard, I’ll keep getting my callups and hopefully I’ll be up there one day.”

On the secret to the third period success on the power play:
“I think just attacking the nets. I think we were trying to make too many pretty plays instead of just firing the puck and going in and crashing the net for rebounds.

On his face-off success in the third:
“One of the big things we talk about on the team is that on every face-off, it’s the forwards’ job, it’s not just the centerman. And our wingers know their role. They did a great job of jumping in and helping. I can’t take the credit because they did a great job tonight."

On whether he was amped to play in his first AHL playoff game, after watching as a scratch when Milwaukee won the Calder Cup in 2004:
“Oh yeah. That was three years ago. I sat in the stands for every game during that Calder Cup playoffs. It was great to win. It was great to see the guys who were playing, what it’s like to win. But I didn’t feel like I deserved the ring as much as they did. This go-round, it’s my turn.”

On the first two periods:
“I think we had a little bit of playoff jitters going in there. They locked us up pretty good and didn’t give us a lot of space. We were making a few mistakes. We calmed down by the third period, and got a little of the jitters out of our system. Hopefully we can keep it going from there.”

On whether he was “star struck” by being in his first pro playoff game:
“I don’t know about star struck, but I was definitely holding the stick a little bit tighter the first couple of periods. I wasn’t at the top of my game. I think I settled down by the third, and hopefully I can pick it up here for the next couple of games.”

On what Boudreau said in the room after the second period:
“He’s a really good coach so he knows what to say. There wasn’t any screaming or anything. He just wanted us to the same game we played during the season. We didn’t play it for the first two periods. That’s not Hershey Bears hockey.”

Mohawkin’ – As was the case last year, a handful of Bears opened the playoffs with modified Mohawk haircuts, tall and spiky on top and close-cropped on the sides. Hendricks’ is one of the best of the bunch, and likely one of the most authentic. Mike Green and Louis Robitaille led the barber’s brigade for the second straight year, with Hendricks, Chad Wiseman, Kip Brennan, Deryk Engelland and Scott Barney (and possibly a few others) following suit. Some of the ’dos were self-inflicted.

“Some guys, it was a sitting at home effort,” said Hendricks. “Other guys went to a salon and got it done.”

What about yours, Matt?

“My girlfriend and I kind of thought it up.”

Isn’t that Special? – Steckel’s shorthanded strike already has the Bears halfway to their total of two shorthanded goals during last year’s 21-game Calder Cup run. Steckel and Kris Beech netted Hershey’s two shorties last spring.

Throw in a pair of power play strikes in the third, and all the Bears’ Game 1 scoring came via the special teams route.

altHelmet Head – Continuing a tradition that ex-Bear Doug Doull started last year, the Bears will give a hard hat to the player who gives the game’s grittiest effort after each win. There are peel-off numbers on the dome that descend from 16 to one, signifying the number of wins needed to claim the Calder Cup. The player who gets the hard hat on a given night peels off the highest number and wears the hat when the media converges on the locker room afterwards.  

“It started last year with the veterans,” said Steckel, the Game 1 hard hat recipient. “It’s a helmet given out by the guys, to not necessarily the guy with the most points, but [the one] who made some key plays tonight and worked their tail off. I was fortunate enough that the guys honored me with it tonight.”

Déjà vu All Over Again – Hershey opened last year’s East Division semifinal playoff series with a 3-2 home ice win over the Norfolk Admirals on Apr. 19. Boyd Gordon netted the game-winner for the Bears in the third period.

This year’s playoff opener came a day earlier, but the Bears won by an identical 3-2 score over Albany.

Big Joe in the House – Joe Finley, the 6-foot-7 defenseman who just finished his sophomore season at the U. of North Dakota, was in attendance for Wednesday’s opener. Finley was Washington’s second choice (first round, 27th overall) in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. Before you start getting ideas about Finley being here to sign a contract and turn pro, remember that Caps GM George McPhee is in Finland at the IIHF World U18 Championship.

1. Steckel. Quite simply the best player on the ice. Involved and noticeable on every shift, and a force in all three zones. Throw in the rare 3-on-5 tally and the primary helper on the tying goal and there can be no other choice.

2. Hendricks. Did a lot of little things, especially when the game was on the line in the third. He was physical, was excellent on the penalty kill, and won some key draws as well.

3. Weiman. Withstood a 20-shot barrage in the third, and made the saves needed to keep the Rats in the running.

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