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Bears Continue AHL Domination

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
Bruce Boudreau and Bob Woods. Bob Woods and Mark French. Mark French and Troy Mann. It doesn’t matter who’s manning the bench for the Hershey Bears, the league’s most storied team just keeps on rolling, and it keeps on doing so in front of sold out Giant Center crowds.

As tremendous as the Washington Capitals have been thus far this season, the Bears have been even better. Having played nine fewer games than the Capitals to this point in the season, Hershey has the same number of wins as Washington and just six fewer points. The Bears have already had a pair of winning streaks that stretched to double-digits in length, and they’ve continuously shattered franchise records along the way.

Like the Caps, the Bears have scored more goals than any other team in the league by a wide margin (229-180). They lead the AHL’s East Division standings by 20 points. They lead the Eastern Conference by 14 points. They lead all teams in the AHL by eight points. Hershey has not suffered consecutive regulation setbacks since Oct. 24-25.

Hershey has scored better than a power play goal per game. The Bears lead the AHL in power play goals and their 22.2% extra-man efficiency rate is also tops in the league. Hershey has killed off 90.2% of the opposition’s power play this season, again, tops in the league. (The kill rate is 92.1% on Giant Center ice.)

The Bears have allowed just 23 power play goals, fewest in the circuit. They’ve also scored a dozen shorthanded goals, so they are only minus-11 on the power play through 53 games, a stunning show of dominance.

On Sunday afternoon, the Bears finished up a busy weekend slate with a Giant Center contest against the visiting Lowell Devils. The game was played before another capacity crowd of 10,530. The fourth-place team in the Atlantic Division, Lowell entered the game 18 points behind the Bears.

Hershey had taken a 5-2 decision from the River Rats in Albany on Friday before suffering one of its rare losses – a 5-0 whitewashing – to the Baby Pens at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Saturday night.

In Sunday’s game, Hershey and Lowell nearly made it through a scoreless first until the final minute when Chris Bourque put on a brilliant end-to-end power play rush that culminated with some slick moves, a goal and a short flight through the air. Bourque had played with the Caps on Thursday in Ottawa and had flown back from St. Louis with the parent team after Saturday’s 4-3 shootout setback to the Blues.

Bears goaltender Braden Holtby stopped all nine shots he faced in the first, but was nicked for a goal in the first minute of the second frame. The contest stayed knotted until Hershey’s Grant McNeill fired a blind turnaround shot off the crossbar and in at 17:55 of the second to give the Bears the lead. Kyle Wilson forced a Lowell turnover and fed McNeill for his first of the season.

Just 28 seconds later, rookie sensation John Carlson ripped one home from the point to make it 3-1, Hershey. For Carlson, who had played with the Caps in St. Louis the night before, it was his fourth goal of the season.

Early in the third, Bears blueliner Patrick McNeill connected on a shot from center point to give Hershey a commanding 4-1 lead, getting help from Carlson and Mathieu Perreault. Five minutes later, Francois Bouchard’s 13th of the campaign made it 5-1 for the Bears. That goal also chased Lowell’s Jeff Frazee from the net, a common occurrence for Bears’ opponents this season.

Late in the third, Lowell’s Matt Cohen floated a shot from the point that deflected off a Bear in front and eluded Holtby, who finished with 32 saves en route to his 17th win (17-3-1-1) of the season. The rookie netminder had atoned for his loss in Scranton a night earlier.

The victory was Hershey’s 18th straight on home ice, one shy of matching an AHL record. The Bears are 23-3-0-2 on the Giant Center sheet this season. (The Capitals are 23-3-3 on Verizon Center ice in 2009-10).

Veteran AHLers Keith Aucoin and Alexander Giroux are once again 1-2 in the AHL scoring race. Both had stints with Washington earlier this season, missing several Bears games in the process. Hershey was able to take down Lowell without as much as a point from either Aucoin or Giroux, who skate together on a line with Andrew Gordon. Gordon ranks eighth in the AHL in scoring with 53 points in 52 games.

Since re-joining the Bears after a short stint with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, Bourque has been scalding. He has 15 goals and 40 points and is plus-15 in just 26 games in Chocolatetown this season. Despite playing in few than half of Hershey’s games, the 24-year-old Bourque is well on his way to a fourth straight season with 20 or more goals in the AHL. He is already the Bears’ fourth-leading scorer. With Andrew Joudrey out of the lineup, Bourque played the pivot against the Devils.

Despite playing in only 40 of Hershey’s 53 games, Carlson ranks second among all rookie defensemen in the league in scoring with 33 points. He stands eight among all rearguards in the circuit. Carlson’s plus-32 is tied for second in the league. He is one of six Bears in the AHL’s top 10 in that category. Even coming off short rest and having played in St. Louis the night before, Carlson was the best skater on the ice in Sunday’s game.

Patrick McNeill is tied for 10th among blueliners in scoring with 31 points.

The Bears are a lethal mix of battle-tested AHL veterans like Aucoin, Giroux, Boyd Kane and team captain Bryan Helmer; young and proven AHLers such as Bourque, Gordon, Kyle Wilson (on the verge of a fourth straight 20-goal season) and Patrick McNeill; and up-and-coming hopefuls like Carlson, Perreault, Holtby, Oskar Osala, Karl Alzner and Michal Neuvirth.

Last year’s rookie line of Perreault, Bouchard and Osala skated together on Sunday, They’re now the sophomore line, of course.

Holtby has incredible focus. You can see his focus and determination right in warm-ups and during the national anthem. That focus does not waver in the slightest even when the Bears’ lead continues to grow. He allowed a goal early in the second and after that it took a deflection to get a shot past him last in the third period. Holtby made some remarkable stops on rebounds; he is able to get himself back in position and flash a pad or thrust his chest to make successive stops in short order.

Carlson and Alzner are paired together and they play in all situations. Patrick McNeill played alongside Helmer on Sunday, a partnership that should benefit third-year pro McNeill. He sometimes gets lost behind Carlson, Alzner and Dmitry Orlov in the discussion of future Caps blueline hopefuls, but McNeill has quietly improved in each of his pro seasons. He moves the puck efficiently and is effective in his own end, too. There are those who are curious to see what he could do with a look-see in the District at some point.

This is the fifth season in the post-lockout, Capitals-Bears affiliation relationship. Hershey has posted at least 42 wins and 92 points in each of the first four seasons, and it has eclipsed the century mark in points in three of those four seasons. The Bears set franchise records with 51 wins and 114 points in 2006-07, but they’re very likely to threaten both of those marks this season. Hershey has now won 24 of its last 26 games.

More importantly, the Bears have won two Calder Cup titles and have reached the Calder Cup finals in three of the previous four seasons.

We’ll try to get back to Giant Center for more on the Bears on the other side of the NHL’s Olympic break.

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