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Bears Push Rats to the Brink

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
GLENS FALLS, N.Y. – For the first three games of the East Division semifinal series between the Hershey Bears and the Albany River Rats, both teams’ leading scorers had been strangely silent. Hershey’s Alexandre Giroux was held without a point while Albany’s Keith Aucoin – the AHL’s second leading scorer in the regular season – had just a pair of assists. Giroux and Aucoin both scored their first goals of the playoffs in Monday’s Game 4, but it was Giroux’s Bears that came away with a 3-1 win and a 3-1 series lead.

“It was a different style of game,” said Bears coach Bruce Boudreau after the game. “I thought it was tremendously fast-paced. That to me was the first real playoff game, It looked like the intensity from both teams was finally there. There was a dislike for each other and that’s what makes playoff hockey.”

The Bears started strong on Monday, moving the puck efficiently out of their own end and keeping the Rats from the middle of the ice. At the other end of the rink, River Rats netminder Tyler Weiman looked more like the goaltender who allowed a total of five goals in the first two games of the series than the goalie who surrendered a six-spot in Sunday’s Game 3. Hershey had some decent scoring chances early on, but Weiman was able to answer them all.

The contest took its first turn at 15:06 of the first frame when Chris Bourque hit Albany defenseman Tim Conboy in the neutral zone, drawing a roughing call in the process. The Bears had difficulty gaining the zone and getting established on the power play in the first, but that changed after Kyle Wilson was able to win an offensive zone face-off late in the Conboy minor. The Bears worked the puck around the perimeter, and it came to Alexandre Giroux down low on Weiman’s left. Giroux skated toward the cage and let a shot fly, and it caromed in off Weiman to give Hershey a 1-0 advantage.

 “That’s one of the plays we practice all the time on the power play,” explained Giroux, “trying to get low. I think the goalie was playing off his post. I tried to go far side for a rebound, or to just try to stuff the puck in. I was lucky enough that it went in. I think it went between his arm [and his chest].

“We got the win. It feels good to get on the scoresheet and help the team win this time.”

Albany was a bit out of synch in the first, getting whistled for five offsides violations, including a few when they had speed and numbers as they reached the line. The Rats missed a glorious chance on a power play in the waning seconds of the first. Jakub Petruzalek had an open net at which to shoot, but he took too long to tee up his shot and Cassivi was able to slide across and get a pad on the bid.

The Bears got a golden chance to put the game away at 3:31 of the second when the Rats’ Mike Angelidis drew a high sticking major for his flagrant stick to the face on Giroux. Giroux’s linemate Quintin Laing took Angelidis to task for the deed, dropping his gloves and delivering some punches. But the Bears were incapable of getting anything going on the five-minute power play. They couldn’t skate it in, couldn’t dump it in. Hershey was outshot 4-1 during the five-minute major, and the Bears’ lone shot didn’t come until the final minute of the sentence.

Cassivi flashed a left pad to stop a Ryan Bayda scoring bid midway through the middle frame, and Louis Robitaille made a diving backcheck to deny Shane Willis a scoring chance on an odd-man rush just seconds later.

On Robitaille’s next shift, he and linemates Matt Hendricks and Chad Wiseman were working the puck down low in the offensive zone and cycling for the better part of a minute when Robitaille was called for a reputation boarding call. The Bears had to kill that penalty and another to Jeff Schultz before the period expired. Dave Steckel got called for cross-checking at the 20-minute mark, giving the Rats a full two-minute power play on a fresh sheet of ice to start the third, and with the Bears’ best penalty killing forward in the box. Hershey killed that one, too.

Hershey went a man to the good at 2:59 when Noah Babin went off for interference. After Wilson won another offensive zone draw, Giroux got the puck out to the point. Mike Green hammered a drive home for his second goal of the playoffs and the Bears’ second power play strike of the night.

Hershey held the Rats without a shot for the first 6:50 of the final period, but the Rats were able to break the goose egg on Aucoin’s rebound put-back at 7:30. Hershey was forced to kill one more third period penalty, and Cassivi made one of his best stops of the night just as that man-advantage expired. Shane Willis deftly deflected Jakub Petruzalek’s point shot through Cassivi’s legs, but the veteran goaltender squeezed his pads together to keep the puck from crossing the line.

When Cassivi made that stop, 4:33 remained in the game. Albany would not get another shot on goal the rest of the way. Rats coach Tom Rowe double-shifted Aucoin in an effort to get the equalizer, but Boudreau countered with Steckel, who was able to keep the shifty star in check.

“I think that’s the most I’ve played in 10 minutes all year,” said Steckel.

The big Bears center took the drama out of the end when he slid a shot into a vacated Albany cage at 18:44 for his second goal of the playoffs. The win gives the Bears a commanding series lead, but four wins are required to advance and the fourth one is usually the toughest to secure.

“They’re not going to give up,” said Cassivi. “They’ve shown us so far that they really want to win and they’re playing hard. We can’t take a night off. Next game is the game where we have to close it. We can’t take a chance to bring it to [Game] 6 and then to 7. We have to come here Wednesday and win the game. But obviously they’re not going to give it to us. It’s going to be a battle, it’s going to be a tough game. We just have to be ready for them.”

On the Bears’ performance:
“I think we played harder than we did the last couple of games. We played smarter. You look at their lineup. I’ve seen a lot of good players this year in this league, but every time Aucoin is on the ice he is a dangerous man. That line with [Matt] Murley and [Antti] Laaksonen, they’re dangerous every time they touch the puck. We had to be able to contain them, and our gaps had to get better. I thought our gaps were really horrible last game. They’re too good a team to give them room to skate.”

On matching Steckel vs. Aucoin:
“It’s hard to match the whole game. Teams do it. But I remember as a player, it takes you out of the game. You’re always looking that if you get it deep then you change. You never get a chance to get on offense. We want some offense. We always want to attack, but responsibility – that’s our game. Attack with responsibility. But there are certain times, when there is under 10 minutes to play you certainly like your best defenseive guy against their best offensive guy.

On Hershey’s power play:
“When we got control of it [we were good]. We’ll look at the video. They changed their force a little bit and we didn’t adjust to it as well as we would have liked to. But once we got it into the zone I thought we did a good job.”

On Giroux’s game:
“Alex finally stepped up his game and that’s what you like to see. I could tell right off the bat; he got two good shots in the first five minutes. He had a little more jump in his step. You could tell he was going to be pretty good tonight.”

On Cassivi:
“Our goaltender was the reason he was the [playoff] MVP last year.”

On Game 5:
“We want to win every game. Every game has been a one-goal game. I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t think that they can beat us. They’ll come out just as hard. They’ve got a lot of heart and character, you could tell by them blocking shots and guys getting up and limping and getting to the bench and then coming back and playing the next shift.

On the probability of Albany winning three straight:
“I’m not saying anything about that. We take one game at a time. It’s a bad cliché but it’s the truth.”

On whether the Rats are being too fine because of frustration at being unable to beat Cassivi:
“I don’t think that far ahead. I’m not that smart. I just know when he’s on his game he is hard to beat. They don’t score a lot of goals when Freddie is on his game. I’m not trying to articulate how they do it, or how they don’t do it, or what they try to do or what they don’t try to do. I just know that you have to have a great shot to beat him.

“A lot of that was because we were in the way. We blocked an awful lot of shots, and we put our bodies in the way. When the bodies are in the way, it’s tough. You have to find other avenues to get to the net. Our defensemen are pretty big and Mike Green is starting to step up his game the way he can play it. That’s good.”

On the Rats:
“They dominated us in the second. I think we had four shots and they had 10 or 12 shots. They’re right there. The games can go either way. Tonight we were lucky enough that it went on our side. They play really hard. They have come at us more than we thought.”

On what he expects in Game 5:
“I think they’re going to come at us even harder than the last four games. This is their last chance to survive. For us, we have to do what we did in the first and the third tonight, just come at them and make our push.

On the Hershey power play:
“I think we tried to be too fancy. We need to keep it basic. In the five-minute major, mentally we thought we had a lot of time to do something and we didn’t do anything. If we keep it simple on the power play, we’ll keep putting some goals in there.

On Albany trying to be too fine:
“At times they took some shots from far out. Every team says that about every goalie, ‘Try to get rebounds, shoot on net, drive the net, get rebounds, get traffic.’ They did it pretty good last night, and they probably tried to do that tonight, too. I think that’s what you do against any goalie, make the goalie move, get rebounds and get traiffic in front of the net. I expect it every game.

On the performance of the defense:
“I think they got 12 shots in the second period. Probably seven or eight were from the blueline or outside. They got a lot from the outside. And not just the defensemen, the forwards too played good defensively. They blocked some shots, and came back with some good backchecks. It made it a lot easier for me. It’s noticeable just by looking at the shots on net to begin with.”

On matching up against Aucoin:
“[Albany coach] Tom Rowe does a great job. Obviously he’s going to change if Bouds is going to try to match lines. When they scored, I think Bouds did a great job and guys on the team did a great job of winning draws and getting the puck deep, and making sure we had the right lineup against them out there.”

On the key to closing out the Rats on Wednesday:
The key is going to be coming out and playing like we did in the first [period] for sure. You don’t want to give them any hope. I was in an elimination game in my rookie season. Guys are fighting for their lives. Whether it’s for a job next year or to be on a winning team and play just one more game. They’re not going to give up. We’re going to address that tomorrow as a group of older guys and veterans and make sure that we know all about it and we’re prepared for what they have to throw at us.

On the Hershey specialty teams:
“We didn’t really take advantage of [the five-minute power play] at all. You knew they were going to call penalties on us [afterwards], it’s just the nature of the game. We did a great job of penalty killing; [Hendricks} and [Bourque] blocking shots. Lainger blocking shots. Our defense picked it up tonight. They did an excellent job. We made sure we weren’t going to have any three-goal lapses tonight.”

On the number of blocked shots by both teams:
“Albany is a great team with their sticks, I think one of the best in the league. Right up there with us. Tonight a lot of our defensemen sacrificed and got in front of shots. I think that was a main key on our win. They were getting a lot of shots in the last game especially, and they weren’t necessarily slap shots. We just needed to step into them and go the other way. I think we did that tonight.”

Lineup – Hershey reinstalled Robitaille into the lineup in place of Kip Brennan. Albany made its first lineup change of the series, scratching forward David Gove in favor of NHL veteran Antti Laaksonen.

I’ve Got Your Back – Just as Giroux stuck up for Steckel in Sunday’s Game 3 by dropping the gloves with Albany’s Pat Dwyer, Laing did the same for Giroux in Monday’s Game 4.

Power Aid – With two power play strikes on Monday, the Bears have now netted at least one power play tally in each of the series’ four games. Hershey is 7-for-25 (28%) with the extra man in the playoffs, the best conversion rate in the league.

Around the Circuit – Wilkes-Barre/Scranton took a 2-1 lead in its own East Division semifinal series with Norfolk on Monday, taking a 3-2 overtime decision. Jonathan Filewich tallied the game-winner for the Penguins.

Out west, Grand Rapids took a 2-1 series lead over Manitoba with a 2-1 overtime win on Monday and Iowa gained a 2-1 series edge over Omaha with a regulation win over the Knights on Monday.

Netminding News – Two Capitals goaltending prospects were in the news on Monday. Goalie Michal Neuvirth (Washington’s third choice, second round, 34th overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft) was named the OHL’s Player of the Week for the week ending Apr. 22. Neuvirth stopped 65 of the 67 shots he faced in leading the Plymouth Whalers to a pair of 5-1 wins in the first two games of the OHL’s Western Conference Championship playoff series with the London Knights. Neuvirth had a 1.00 goals against average and a .970 save pct. in the first two games of the series.

Neuvirth, a 19-year-old OHL rookie, carried a 9-1 postseason mark into tonight’s Game 3 at London. (He improved it to 10-1 in a 5-2 win over London on Monday night.) Neuvirth has fashioned a 2.26 playoff goals against average and a .941 save pct. He leads all starting OHL goaltenders in the latter two categories and is tied for the league lead in playoff wins.

Russian national head coach Vycheslav Bykov today chose to go with other goaltending options, leaving Washington prospect Semen Varlamov (the Caps’ second choice, first round, 23rd overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft) off the Team Russia roster for the IIHF World championship tournament that starts on Apr. 27.

1. Giroux – He got the Bears on the board first, and for a long while it looked like that goal might stand up. He set up the second Hershey goal and drew the five-minute major that gave the Bears a chance to put their foot on the Rats’ collective throats.

2. Aucoin – The most energized we’ve seen him in the series. He skated well, created a lot and was a force to be reckoned with every time he was out there.

3. Tyler Sloan – The Bears’ defense deserves major kudos as a group for its efforts on Monday, but we’ll single out Sloan for some recognition here. He blocked shots, made smart plays and reads in his own end and won battles along the wall.

Honorable mention: Cassivi has stopped 46 of the last 49 shots (.939) he has faced and may be starting to creep into the Albany psyche. Green had a second straight strong game at both ends of the ice.
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