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Bears Set Out to Defend Calder Crown

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
An historic regular season for the Hershey Bears came to a conclusion on Sunday night in Philadelphia when Alexandre Giroux’s goal in the final seconds of regulation lifted the Bears to a 3-2 win over the Phantoms. Now the Bears can put the regular season in the rear view and focus their sights on the goal they’ve had for the last 10 months: becoming the first Bears team in nearly four decades to repeat as AHL Calder Cup champions.

The Bears are coming off a franchise record 51-win season (51-17-6-6). They claimed the team’s first division title since 1993-94 and forged the league’s best overall record for the first time since 1987-88.

alt On paper at least, the first-round series with the Albany River Rats is a mismatch. Hershey finished with the league’s best record and 114 points (another club record). Albany recorded 81 points, fewest of any playoff team and fewer than three teams that missed the Calder Cup playoffs.

The Bears took seven of the eight games from the Rats in the season’s series, and had a league record 19 straight victories over Albany until the Rats finally salvaged a 3-1 decision over the Bears at Giant Center on Feb. 17.

The games aren’t played on paper and Hershey knows it needs to win nearly a third (16, to be exact) of the number of games it just won in the regular season in order to achieve its main goal: consecutive Calder Cup titles for the first time since 1957-58 and 1958-59.

Hershey’s deep and diverse attack features seven 20-goal scorers, led by Alexandre Giroux (42) and Dave Steckel (30). Giroux and Steckel also led the Bears (and finished second and third in the league) in plus/minus with plus-29 and plus-28 respectively. Besides the seven 20-goal scorers, Hershey has three others with at least 15 tallies. They also have Jakub Klepis, who scored only six goals but totaled 32 points in just 31 games with the Bears this season.

Giroux became the first Bear to net 40 or more goals in a season since Christian Matte netted 43 and Serge Aubin 42 in 1999-00.

In addition to his offensive capabilities, Steckel is the league’s premier shutdown center and a player who many feel belongs in the NHL. He tied for the league lead with five shorthanded goals, and only four of his goals came on the power play.

Joey Tenute (28 goals), Chris Bourque (25), Kyle Wilson (25), Tomas Fleischmann (22) and Eric Fehr (22) are Hershey’s other 20-goal men.

Bears coach Bruce Boudreau did a terrific job of dealing with a roster that was in a nearly constant state of flux. Hershey set a club record in using 50 different players to achieve those 51 victories.

As the Bears prepare to defend their title, they have a very potent asset in what Yogi Berra would likely term: “deep depth.”

altOf the 50 players who suited up for Hershey this season, 33 are still at the team’s disposal and available for playoff duty. Another (recently signed collegiate prospect Andrew Gordon) could arrive in town within days. Only two players are currently unavailable with injuries. It is hoped that defenseman Dean Arsene will be able to return to action in the second round if the Bears are able to vanquish the Rats. Right wing Fehr is out indefinitely with a back ailment. His return is much more difficult to predict.

If injuries and/or ineffectiveness threaten to derail the Bears’ repeat train, Boudreau will have options at his disposal.

A dozen of those players are defensemen, and only two of them (Arsene and Tyler Sloan) played in as many as 45 games for the Bears this season. Hershey’s backline will be aided by the return of 2004 Washington first-rounders Jeff Schultz and Mike Green, both of whom spent a great deal of the season with the Capitals. Hershey managed to turn over a significant portion of its blueline near the trade deadline, bringing in Troy Milam, Tim Wedderburn and Andy Hedlund for the season’s final six weeks.

During last season’s championship run, veteran goaltender Frederic Cassivi was a stalwart and a workhorse in the Bears’ nets. He played every minute of all 21 playoff contests, and played in 82 games including the regular season. Cassivi logged 50 wins last season, 34 in the regular season and 16 in the playoffs. The 31-year-old native of Sorel, Quebec won’t have to shoulder the entire load this time around.

Goaltender Maxime Daigneault, Washington’s second-round choice (59th overall) in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, performed well in his first full AHL season. Daigneault posted a 23-6-0 record with a 2.64 goals against average and a .910 save percentage. This season marks the first time in franchise history that the Bears had two goaltenders reach the 20-win plateau in the same season. If Cassivi needs a night off during the playoffs, Boudreau has enough confidence in Daigneault to give the 23-year-old netminder the nod.

alt The River Rats will be embarking upon their first playoff voyage in seven years.

Albany is a shared affiliate; its roster is populated with prospects from both the Colorado Avalanche and the Carolina Hurricanes. Since both parent clubs failed to make the Stanley Cup playoffs this season, the River Rats will be at full strength from the get go.

What they won’t be is at home. One of the Rats made mention of wanting to “win it for the city,” so the River Rats adopted that as their postseason slogan and had some hats made that read, “For the city.” The chapeaus don’t specify which city, though. After playing their 40 regular season home games in Albany, the Rats will head an hour north to Glens Falls, NY where they’ll camp out for the “home” portion of their East Division semi-final series with the Bears.

Albany’s usual home sheet is the Times Union Center in Albany, but a Martina McBride concert is booked at the TUC on Sunday, Apr. 22, the same night as Game 3 vs. Hershey. The Times Union Center plays host to the circus beginning on Apr. 26. So the Glens Falls Civic Center, built in 1979 and with 4,806 permanent seats, will serve as the Rats’ home rink for the first-round series with Hershey.

The games in Glens Falls will mark the first playoff contests staged at the building since 1999, when it played host to an opening round series between the Adirondack Red Wings and the Rochester Americans. The Amerks swept that series in four straight, and the Wings suspended operations two months later. The River Rats played a preseason game at Glens Falls last Sept., drawing a sellout crowd of more than 5,000 for a 4-1 win over the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

Albany’s attack is paced by 28-year-old veteran pivot Keith Aucoin, who racked up a franchise record 99 points (27 goals, 72 assists) in 2006-07. Aucoin finished in a tie for second in the AHL in scoring and was one of four 20-goal getters for the River Rats.

Albany might be without one of those four when the series gets underway on Wednesday. Matt Murley, a native of nearby Troy who played his college hockey at R.P.I., missed each of the last seven games of the season with an upper body injury. He is questionable for the series opener at Giant Center.

Ryan Bayda led the Rats in goals, potting 29 in just 55 games. Shane Willis, who had 20 goals and 44 points for the Carolina Hurricanes in 2000-01, totaled 20 goals and 43 points in just 43 games for Albany this season. Willis skated with the Bears in 2003-04.

alt The Albany forward ranks also features 33-year-old Antti Laaksonen, a veteran of 483 regular season NHL contests with Boston, Minnesota and Colorado. Laaksonen totaled nine goals and 16 points in 24 games with the Rats this season.

Rookie defenseman Kyle Cumiskey led Albany blueliners in scoring with 33 points (seven goals, 26 assists). Cumiskey, a seventh-round (222nd overall) Colorado choice in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, got into nine games with the parent Avs in his first season as a pro.

Tyler Weiman handles the bulk of the netminding duties for Albany. He finished the season at 27-22-3 in 54 appearances, posting a 2.99 goals against average and a .905 save pct. in the process. A fifth-round (164th overall) Avalanche choice in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, Weiman is a third-year pro in his first full season of AHL duty. First-year pro Justin Peters is Weiman’s backup. Peters was Carolina’s second-round (38th overall) pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.

By The Numbers – The Bears finished ninth in the league in power play prowess (17.9%) while Albany was 14th (17.4%) … Hershey is fifth in the league in penalty killing with a kill rate of 85.6% while the River Rats are 23rd at 80.2% … The Bears scored 153 goals on the road this season, most in the Eastern Conference and second-most in the AHL … Albany surrendered 258 goals, most of any of the AHL’s 16 playoff teams … Giroux was tied for fifth in the AHL with 16 power play goals … Aucoin is fourth in the league with 25 power play assists … Fifteen current Bears saw some action either in the playoffs or during the regular season with the 2005-06 Calder Cup championship team.

Notes – Albany’s Johnny Boychuk, a member of the Bears in 2004-05, became the first River Rat in four seasons to play in all 80 regular season games. Boychuk was a junior teammate of Hershey’s Tomas Fleischmann and Deryk Engelland at Moose Jaw … A pair of ex-Caps are behind the Albany bench. Tom Rowe, who became the first American-born player to net 30 goals in an NHL season when he was a member of the Caps in 1978-79, is Albany’s head coach. Rowe’s assistant is Joe Sacco, who skated three seasons in the District from 1999-2002 … River Rats right wing Cody McCormick and defenseman Jeff Finger are also ex-Bears. Finger was a college teammate of Hershey’s Matt Hendricks at St. Cloud St., as was Albany blueliner Tim Conboy.

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