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Bears Take Aim at Ads in Bid for Ninth Calder Cup

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
The Hershey Bears began their quest for a ninth Calder Cup championship against the Admirals and they will conclude it against the Admirals. Some six weeks ago, Hershey began its playoff odyssey with a four-game sweep of the Norfolk Admirals in the East Division semifinals. Three series later, it must now conquer the Milwaukee Admirals if it is to capture that ninth title.

While Hershey was engaged in a rugged, cliffhanger of a conference finals series with the Portland Pirates, Milwaukee had an easy go of things. The Admirals vanquished the Grand Rapids Griffins, owner of the league’s best regular season record (115 points).

After toppling Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (113 points) and Portland (114) in the last two series, the Bears have to take down Milwaukee (108) in order to claim the Cup.

alt The Bears won 10 straight games to start the playoffs, a streak that enabled them to advance to the finals despite dropping three of their last five contests. Hershey earned the right to face Milwaukee by virtue of its thrilling 5-4 overtime win over Portland in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals at Giant Center on Tuesday night. Eric Fehr netted the game-winner in the extra session, his second tally of the night.

Veteran netminder Frederic Cassivi has been stellar in the Hershey nets, going 12-3 with a 2.00 goals against average and a .932 save percentage. He leads all AHL goaltenders in playoff wins this spring, and his GAA and save pct. are tops among netminders with at least seven starts.

Hershey’s defense in front of Cassivi has also been marvelous throughout the playoffs. The blueline received a needed shot in the arm with the twin returns of Mark Wotton and J-F Fortin for Game 7 against Portland. At the start of the Portland series, the Bears defensive depth was paper-thin. Now Hershey is as flush as it can be in the back.

The availability of Wotton and Fortin bolsters the backline of Hershey’s second power play unit, where the Bears had been deploying a forward at one of the points. Hershey was victimized by a number of odd-man rushes against on its power play in the Portland series, forcing Cassivi to make a number of huge saves.

With a dozen points (two goals, 10 assists) in 15 playoff games, 20-year-old rookie Mike Green has quietly slipped into third place among all AHL defensemen in playoff scoring. Despite missing five games with an injury, veteran Hershey blueliner Lawrence Nycholat is tied for 11th on the defenseman scoring list with seven points (all assists).

Up front, the nine forwards who populate Hershey’s top three lines have all made significant and steady contributions throughout the playoffs. Tomas Fleischmann (third), Kris Beech (ninth) and Graham Mink (10th) all rank among the AHL’s top 10 in playoff scoring. Brooks Laich, Colin Forbes and Fehr have all had two-goal games during the postseason and each has supplied a game-winning tally, too.

The checking line of Dave Steckel between Boyd Gordon and Boyd Kane has been extremely effective all over the ice while chipping in with 14 goals in Hershey’s 15 games. With nine goals, Steckel is tied for the team lead with Fleischmann. Along with Green, Steckel and Kane are tied for the team lead with plus-10 defensive ratings; no Hershey skater has a negative figure.

 Louis Robitaille
Fourth liner Louis Robitaille has played all 15 games and has also been a factor, especially in the first two series when his agitating tactics riled and rankled two of the league’s most grizzled enforcers, helping to turn games in Hershey’s favor.

The Bears’ power play has converted 25 of its 117 chances this spring, and its 21.4% efficiency rate is second best among all AHL playoff participants. Nine different players have scored power play tallies for the Bears, led by Beech and Fleischmann with nine each.

Hershey’s penalty killing corps has been successful on 84.5% of its playoff missions, seventh among the 16 playoff teams.

After cruising through the first two series against Norfolk and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton with nary a blemish, Hershey had its hands full against Portland. That figures to be the case against Milwaukee, too.

“I have two tapes to take home of Milwaukee tonight, but I don’t know how much I am going to enjoy it,” said Bears bench boss Bruce Boudreau after Tuesday night’s Game 7 nail-biter. “They’ve won nine in a row in the playoffs and they won the whole thing two years ago. They’re a juggernaut. Again, we’re the underdogs. We’re just going to have to keep chugging along.”

Admirals head coach Claude Noel spent five seasons with the Bears during his playing career and was the leading regular season scorer on the 1979-80 Calder Cup champion Hershey team. Noel’s NHL playing career consisted of seven games, all with Washington during that same 1979-80 season.

The Admirals reeled off a third straight regular season with more than 100 points in 2005-06, and are in the Calder Cup finals for the second time in those three campaigns. Milwaukee won the hardware in 2004. The Admirals are 31-13 in the playoffs over the last three years.

The Iowa Stars pushed the Admirals to seven games in the West Division semifinal series, but Milwaukee rebounded to whack both Houston (106 points) and Grand Rapids in four straight.

 Kris Beech
Beech began the 2005-06 season with the Admirals, the AHL affiliate of the Nashville Predators. After Tuesday’s win over Portland, the Hershey center gave a brief scouting report of his former teammates.

“They’re very good defensively,” said Beech. “They have a very good defensive corps. Their forwards are smaller guys. They’re not too big up front, but they’re quick. They’re very skilled, especially their top line. They have good speed throughout their lineup. The top line is a very skilled line and [Pekka] Rinne is a very good goalie. They definitely have a lot of good components to their team, but I think their defense is their strongest point.”

Three-year veteran and team captain Greg Zanon heads up the defense, a defense that features Shea Weber, Kevin Klein and Ryan Parent, three of the Predators’ top blueline prospects. The 20-year-old Weber split 2005-06 – his first season as a pro – between Nashville and Milwaukee, rejoining the Admirals after the Predators were ousted from the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs. Klein is a second-year pro who led the Admirals’ backliners in regular season scoring with 42 points. Parent is a 19-year-old whose first taste of pro hockey has come in these Calder Cup playoffs. The 18th player chosen in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Parent spent the 2005-06 regular season with Guelph of the OHL.

 Greg Classen
Most of the heavy offensive lifting has been done by Milwaukee’s top two forward lines. The trio of Darren Haydar, Simon Gamache and Greg Classen has been the Admirals’ most dangerous unit. Haydar netted the game-winner in each of Milwaukee’s last two wins over Grand Rapids. He leads all AHL players with 14 goals and is second in scoring with 28 points. Gamache ranks fifth in scoring with 22 points while Classen has 13 assists in 15 games.

Two-thirds of the second unit spent much of the regular season in Nashville, joining the Ads after the Preds were bounced from the playoffs. Scottie Upshall has three goals and 12 points in nine playoff games with Milwaukee while linemate Jordin Tootoo has eight goals and nine points in nine games. Rich Peverly centers that line. Peverly turned pro in 2004-05, playing one game with Washington’s Portland AHL affiliate and netting 30 goals for the South Carolina Stingrays, the Capitals’ ECHL affiliate.

Milwaukee goaltender Pekka Rinne is undefeated (8-0) in these playoffs after winning 30 regular season games in his first season as a North American pro. Only Cassivi (34) won more regular season contests in the AHL this season. Rinne’s 2.13 GAA and .931 save percentage are just a shade off Cassivi’s postseason numbers.

Milwaukee’s power play has clicked on 19 of its 92 postseason chances, and its 20.7% conversion rate ranks second in the league. The Admirals’ penalty killing unit is second best in the AHL this spring, having killed off 84 of 98 opposition power plays for a kill rate of 85.7%.

Notes – Both teams are 12-3 overall and both are 3-0 in Game 1 during the 2006 Calder Cup playoffs. The Bears are 6-1 at home and 6-2 on the road. The Admirals are 6-2 at home and 6-1 on the road. Hershey has scored three more goals and has allowed four fewer than Milwaukee thus far in the playoffs … The Admirals and Bears have met just twice in the regular season during their respective AHL histories, both times during the 2002-03 season. Milwaukee won one and the other ended in a tie … Milwaukee GM Phil Wittliff’s No. 9 is one of four sweater numbers retired by the Admirals. Wittliff spent five seasons playing with Milwaukee’s USHL team in the 1970s (he was league scoring champ in 1974-75) and went on to serve 10 non-consecutive seasons as the head coach of the Admirals during the team’s days in the now-defunct International Hockey League … Caps radio color analyst Ken Sabourin played three seasons under Wittliff for the Admirals, 1994-95 through 1996-97 … Admirals defenseman Rick Berry played 108 games with the Capitals from 2002-04 … Admirals defenseman Steve Lingren is a former Bear who played for Hershey’s last Calder Cup team in 1996-97 … Both Boudreau and Noel served as an assistant under Al Sims, currently an assistant himself with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Boudreau assisted Sims with the 1990-91 Fort Wayne Komets of the IHL and Noel with the 1998-99 Admirals of the same circuit … Fehr and Tootoo were junior teammates on the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings.

Homeboys – Bears Dave Steckel (West Bend) and Kirk Daubenspeck (Madison) are both Wisconsin natives. After Tuesday’s Game 7, Steckel’s phone was ringing with ticket requests and he couldn’t contain his excitement over going “home” to play in the Calder Cup finals.

“It’s phenomenal,” he exuded. “I can’t explain it. I’ve already got guys calling me and asking for tickets. I think it’s going to be a great feeling going back home. [My parents] are going to be having six or seven guys staying at the house. It’s going to be awesome.”

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