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Bears Whisk Away Wilkes-Barre/Scranton

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
HERSHEY, Pa. -- The more time that passed in Tuesday night’s Game 4 of the AHL’s East Division finals series, the more imperative it became for the Hershey Bears to win the game. Since the Bears entered the game with a 3-0 stranglehold on the series, it seems strange to fix so much importance on winning Game 4. But with its defensive depth dwindling dangerously by the minute, the specter of a possible Game 5 in front of a hostile Wilkes-Barre crowd on Friday had all the appeal of a Pauly Shore film festival for Hershey.

Thanks to a gritty, gutsy and entertaining team effort on the part of the Bears, there will be no Game 5.

Frederic Cassivi stopped all 27 pucks fired in his direction, enabling Brooks Laich’s first period power play goal to stand up for a 1-0 Hershey win and a series sweep over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. The series sweep was the second in a row for the Bears in this postseason; Hershey set aside the Norfolk Admirals in four straight earlier in the playoffs.

alt The battered Bears can now rest up and lick their wounds while they wait to learn the identity of their next opponent, the winner of the Atlantic Division finals series between Hartford and Portland, currently tied at two games apiece.

Cassivi and Laich’s Tuesday night deeds are easily quantifiable on the scoresheet, but the heroes were many for Hershey.

“I’ve been in this business professionally for 30 years, and that was one of the gutsiest efforts I’ve ever seen, not only by everybody, but especially the defense,” said Bears bench boss Bruce Boudreau.

The Bears took to the ice without two of their top defensemen, Lawrence Nycholat and Mark Wotton, both of whom were sidelined with undisclosed injuries. In their place, the Bears dressed Deryk Engelland, who also got hurt and had to leave after his first shift, and 20-year-old Jeff Schultz, playing just his second professional game.

“You lose a defenseman on the very first shift of the game, so you are [at] five for the rest of the game,” lamented Boudreau. “And then Mike Green goes down again in almost an identical scenario to the last time. It makes it tough. But those guys, I give them credit. Boy, they’ve got heart and character and everything else.”

For the first half of the first period, the absence of Wotton and Nycholat was noticeable. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was able to keep the puck in the Hershey end for a longer and more sustained period of time than at any point since late in Game 1 of the series.

Once again however, the Penguins’ penchant for penalties helped Hershey get on the board first. After each club had killed off an early penalty, and after Boyd Kane’s bid to get the Bears on the board first bounced off the pipe to Penguin netminder Dany Sabourin’s right, WBS blueliner Chris Kelleher was assessed a five-minute major for administering a high-sticking to Kane.

Without Wotton and Nycholat, the Hershey power play was out of sorts and out of synch, and not nearly as fearsome as in the first three games of the series. But finally, with the seconds ticking down on Kelleher’s major, the Bears made good.

A long home run pass just eluded Kane at the WBS line, but he got to the puck first to negate an icing call. Kane and Eric Fehr worked the puck free, and Brooks Laich took it to the front of the net.

“It was a battle in the corner, and Kaner eliminated the man,” Laich related. “I was able to get on the puck and had a little bit of room, so I took it to the net. I think the D-man was expecting me to make a pass or to go behind the net. I just took it out front and tried to slide it five-hole with the backhand. [Saboourin] saved it, and then he opened up again and I was able to slide it through.

“At that point in time, I didn’t think it was going to stick [as the game-winner] but Freddie held us in there. He made huge saves on the penalty kill and he basically won us the game.”

Laich’s goal gave the Bears a 1-0 lead at 14:59 of the first, just 26 seconds before Kelleher was to be sprung from the box.

The Pens outshot Hershey 6-1 in the first 9:32 of the first period, and outgunned the Bears 6-0 from Laich’s goal until the end of the frame.

The long-awaited first scrap of the series finally took place in the opening minutes of the second period when Hershey’s Louis Robitaille and the Penguins’ Daniel Carcillo dropped the gloves. Both players got a few shots in, but most observers gave Carcillo a narrow decision.

The Bears nursed their slim lead through the second, getting the better of the play throughout the frame. Right after Cassivi made a strong stop from in close, the Bears went on a power play with the Pens’ Ryan Whitney going off for high-sticking at 3:07 of the second. Hershey was unable to mount much of a threat on that man advantage, and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton went a man to the good at 8:27 when the Bears came out on the wrong end of a series of penalties.

With seconds remaining on that Penguins power play, Cassivi flashed his glove to make a fine save on a point blast from Whitney that was ticketed for the lower right corner of the cage.

The Bears’ netminder was very humble in describing the play.

“The one-timer, I stopped with my glove,” recalled Cassivi. “I think it looked a little better because I was a little late on the play. I was trying to find the puck; the first guy had the puck at the point. I was a little late on the pass and it always looks a little better when you are late getting there.”

The Bears had two more power play chances in the second half of the second, but managed only three shots combined on the two opportunities. The best chance came with just over five minutes left in the period when Tomas Fleischmann set up Martin Wilde for a one-timer from the top of the circle to Sabourin’s right. Sabourin was able to square himself and make the stop.

When Hershey’s Colin Forbes was banished to the box for interference at 17:52 of the middle frame, the Pens had a chance to even things up before the second intermission. With less than a minute remaining in the period, Whitney fired a shot toward the lower portion of Cassivi’s stick side, the opposite of the side he’d tried some minutes earlier. At the last second, the veteran Bears netminder flashed out his right leg pad to bounce the puck harmlessly into the corner.

Again, Cassivi downplayed his achievement.

“Actually, I think it would have missed the net by about six inches,” he said. “I just got it with my pad. I just tried to stay with the puck and it was easy for me to see the puck tonight, so it worked out well.”

For the first time in the series, the Bears went to their locker room leading by a mere goal after 40 minutes of play. Hershey held at least a two-goal lead after two periods in each of the first three games of the series.

About four minutes into the third, Carcillo came within a whisker of knotting the score when he rang a backhander off the inside of the post to Cassivi’s left.

At that point of the game, with their defense depleted and tired and the game hanging in the balance, the 16 minutes that remained stretched out like an eternity for the Bears. Hershey took three more minor penalties along the way, making it even longer. To make matters worse, two of the infractions overlapped and left a pair of key penalty killing rearguards – Dean Arsene and Jakub Cutta – unavailable for duty because they were cooling their skates in the box instead.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton called a timeout to talk things over and  decide how to proceed with its 53-second two-man advantage. That decision also enabled the Bears to pull up their work boots and catch a breath. Boudreau sent out Dave Steckel, Boyd Gordon and Wilde to handle the Wilkes-Barre power play.

Mission accomplished.

The trio killed off the two-man advantage without allowing a shot, and killed of the remainder of the power play without permitting a serious scoring chance. Steckel played like a man possessed, or perhaps a monster or machine possessed.

“I thought him and Gordo were just exceptional,” exuded Boudreau. “They almost willed it. They weren’t going to allow it. When Steck outmuscled three guys there on the boards at the end, he was out there for over a minute, I thought that was a sign that good things were going to happen. When you work that hard, bad things don’t happen to you. He was a major component there, obviously.”

“That was huge,” agreed Steckel. “I don’t even know what to say about it other than we needed to kill that off to win the game. We just went out there and the three guys I went out there with, we were just amazing.”

Green left the game in the third after taking a puck in the face, just five days after a previous puck to the face opened up two wounds that required stitches to close and left the rookie defenseman sporting quite a shiner. He did not return.

With eight minutes left, Laich was felled by a Drew Fata hit. The Bears center, obviously woozy, clambered to his skates and wobbled to the bench, then went down the tunnel and into the locker room. Fortunately he would return, because he would be needed.

Steckel went off for holding at 13:53, giving the Baby Pens one last chance to even up the game. This time it was Gordon, Kris Beech, Cutta and Arsene who did the heavy lifting. But just before the penalty expired, a Pens winger gained the blueline with speed only to have the puck pokechecked off his stick from behind by a Bears penalty killer in hot pursuit.

It was Laich.

“I came back into the [locker] room and sucked it up a little,” he said. “There was only seven minutes left, so I can suck it up for seven minutes. It was nice to get it done in regulation and not go to overtime. I’m not the only one doing that; everyone else is playing through [injuries]. This time of year you’re not going to miss any action if you can help it. You’re going to do what you can to stay in there.”

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was held without a shot on its final power play of the night. The Bears battened the hatches down tight, and forechecked hard, keeping the puck in the attack zone and forcing the Pens to play a 200-foot game. They could not do it.

With their season hanging on the brink, the Pens could manage only two shots on Cassivi and the beleaguered Bears defense in the game’s final 11:52. The Pens were finally able to get Sabourin off in favor of an extra skater with about half a minute remaining, but just as they did so, they also iced the puck. The game and the series were all over.

Cassivi had backstopped the Bears to his second shutout win of the series, playing his best game when it mattered most.

“It had to be [his best game], too,” said Boudreau. “The two saves he made on the [Whitney] slapshot on the one power play and then the kick save in the second period were just unbelievable.

“His puckhandling was so good, giving it to the defensemen to clear it out, and being the added defenseman that we didn’t have in there. That was the impressive part, because he was making the good passes, and he was making it easier for the D to get it out and get it to the forwards. I think that helped a lot. You need great goaltending to win, and we got great goaltending tonight.”

Smiles were plentiful in the locker room afterwards, but there was also a palpable sense of relief. Hershey knew it needed to finish the job on Tuesday and every guy on the bench laid it all on the line to get it done.

“Everyone did a great job bearing down in the third,” said Beech. [WBS] came out hard and they played a really good game. It was their best game of the four, I thought. They gave a great effort and we matched it and did a great job of turning it on. I didn’t think we had a great first period, but the rest of the game we turned it on and made sure we got the job done. That’s the character of our team.”

“We went down to five D right off the bat and then Greener went down in the third,” said Wilde. “I am happy we didn’t go into overtime but it was also good not to have to go up there on Friday.

“Now we get a couple more days to rest up and get everybody healthy again.”

Boudreau on the game and his team: “It was a tough game to coach. I had to make decisions tonight. There are a couple games where you don’t have to make decisions. But it was an emotional game. You want to see them succeed. When guys are trying that hard, that hard, and they’re dying, and they’re coming on the bench and they can’t catch their breath and you ask them, ‘Can you go again?’ [And they say], ‘Yeah coach, I can go.’ How can you not just love what they do? It’s a great testament. That’s’ a great bunch of men in there.”

Boudreau on his team’s success against the Pens after struggling against WBS during the season: “We’ve got a different team now. I’m surprised we swept anybody. We play our divisional foes, and quite frankly, Wilkes-Barre and Norfolk played us really, really tough and this is a tough division. But the power of belief and fate and goaltending is an amazing thing. Those guys believe in there and they didn’t quit. Right until the final buzzer everybody was doing things out of character in the checking department, and not caring whether they score just, ‘Let’s not get scored upon.’ It was a pretty impressive display, I thought.”

Boudreau on Tuesday’s game turning out like many expected to whole series to be: “I’m glad the whole series wasn’t like this. They played extremely hard. They got great goaltending. They came out and they proved why they were champions of the division during the regular season. They had tremendous character and they showed it tonight. It was your classic playoff game, I believe.”

Boudreau on whether it became more important to win Tuesday’s game as the game wore on and the injuries piled up: “In my mind it did. I was sitting there in between periods thinking, ‘We have to win it, because we play what would have been Friday and [Sunday]. And we didn’t think [Nycholat and Wotton] would be back by then. We hope Portland and Hartford, they make it into the best-of-15. And they can go till the middle of June for all I care.”

Boudreau on whether he feels like the team has something special brewing: “No, we take everything one round, one game at a time. Hartford has beaten us twice, handily I thought. Portland was the best team that we faced all year we thought, even though we had success against them. Either opponent is going to be very, very difficult. I don’t even pay attention right now to the West, and probably will start paying attention if we go deeper.”

Cassivi on whether he thought he had to play even better tonight because of the injuries to the defense: “Every game I tell myself I have to play well. I can’t get out there and not play well. We got away with one in Game 1; I didn’t play well and we won but it’s not going to happen too often. The defensemen who are filling in for Mark Wotton and Lawrence Nycholat are good defensemen. We lost [Deryk] Engelland early in the game with another injury and Mike Green later in the game with another injury. But the guys that are out there can do a good job and we are all confident in each other. Mark and Lawrence work so hard, and we want to win it for them and hopefully they get a chance to get back in.”

Steckel on the need to win Game 4: “There was that turning point in the third period. We just wanted to end it here. We didn’t want to find out what was going to happen if we had more injuries.”

Laich on whether he thought Fata’s hit should have resulted in an elbowing penalty: “I’m not sure if he got his elbow up or not. I would have to look at it on videotape. I was trying to chip the puck in. It’s one of those situations that you know you are going to get hit. I was able to chip the puck in but he got me with a good hit. I got rung a little bit. It was a pretty solid hit; he can throw his weight around. I was able to shake it off and finish the game. I think I’ll be all right.”

Wilde on adjusting to a larger role and seeing more time on the power play in the absence of Nycholat and Wotton: “I’ve played a few games on the PP, and it takes a little while to get used to. The PP overall did a good job today. You get a little more used to it the more you are out there. But it doesn’t matter when you win. Nothing hurts until the next day.”

Beech on whether he got any extra satisfaction at beating Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, where he spent most of the previous three seasons: “Maybe a little, not much. Just to get to the third round I am very excited. I am looking forward to the third round. I don’t think there is that much extra satisfaction. It didn’t matter what team it was. We want to go all the way. The third round is what we’re looking forward to, and it is exciting to get there.”

Beech on what he would tell his younger, less experienced teammates about what it takes to get deep in the Calder Cup playoffs: “The battling doesn’t stop and continuous work ethic is what it takes to get there. That’s what we have to do. After the Norfolk series, I wasn’t thinking about Norfolk and what we did there, it’s what we have to do for our future opponents and that’s what we have to focus on. Yeah, we swept two teams in a row, but we have to focus on what we have to do in the third round to win.”

Lineup Dance – The Penguins made no changes in their lineup, aside from making the predictable switch back to Sabourin after Marc-Andre Fleury failed to win Game 3.

Hershey inserted Engelland for Wotton, returned Joey Tenute to the lineup, and inserted Doug Doull into the lineup, giving the veteran enforcer his first taste of action in this postseason. Jared Aulin and Chris Bourque were scratched.

Seven Up – For the seventh time in eight postseason games, the Bears netted the game’s first goal on Tuesday. Each of the seven first goals has come off the stick of a different player. Tuesday, it was Laich’s turn to find the net first.

“We’re ready to go at the start,” he said. “If you look at those games, our start has been the key to victory in those games. We’ve been able to get up one goal and then push for that second one and that third one. Then we’re able to clamp down defensively. We’re not going to give up very many shots, and if we do give them up, Freddie is going to save them. Hopefully our starts will continue to be that way in the next round.”

Frontrunners – Hershey has played a total of 501:52 in its eight playoff games this spring. The Bears have trailed on the scoreboard for just 19:58 of that span.
Even It Up – After permitting just two even strength goals in its first-round sweep of the Norfolk Admirals, the Bears went one better against the Penguins. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton managed just one even strength tally in four games against the Bears, and none in the final 195:15. Hershey has now allowed just one even-strength goal over its last 351:41.

And Then There Was One – After scoring a point in each of the first seven games of the playoffs this spring, Steckel and Beech were both held off the scoresheet on Tuesday. Both performed extremely well defensively, however.

With his assist on Laich’s goal, Kane ran his scoring streak to six straight games (two goals, five assists).

Starts and Stops – Hershey’s first-round sweep of the Norfolk Admirals spanned seven days. The series between the Bears and the Pens lasted six days. The Bears had nearly nine days between the end of the Norfolk series and the start of the WBS series.

Hershey is likely to have at least a week off before its next game. The soonest the Hartford-Portland series could end is Sunday; if a Game 7 is needed to decide that series it would take place on Wednesday, May 17. A seven-game set between the Wolf Pack and the Pirates would ensure the Bears of eight days between games, at the very least.

History Lesson – Prior to this year’s model Bears, the 1987-88 Bears were the last AHL team to sweep consecutive best-of-seven series. The Springfield Indians (1961) and the Nova Scotia Voyageurs (1973) were the only previous teams with consecutive sweeps in best-of-seven sets in AHL Calder Cup history.

The 1960-61 Springfield team featured Jim Anderson, who would later become the first-ever head coach in Washington Capitals history.

Connected – Hershey’s Aulin and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Erik Christensen were teammates with the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers for three seasons. Capitals defenseman Shaone Morrisonn also played for Kamloops during those three seasons … Hershey’s Fehr and WBS’s Ryan Stone were teammates for four seasons with the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings. Fehr and Stone were both chosen in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, with Fehr going to Washington in the first round (18th overall) and Stone going to the Penguins in the second round (32nd).

With this game, we’re introducing a new feature of our coverage, “our own” three stars. The tried and true formula for three stars in a 1-0 game is to include both goaltenders and the lone goal-getter. The order can vary depending on when the goal was scored and the quality and quantity of the shots faced by both goaltenders.

That’s how it went at Giant Center for Tuesday night’s game. Cassivi got the first star, Laich the second and Sabourin the third. We’re fine with that, but we will add an honorable mention to the two players we thought were the best skaters for their respective clubs.

Steckel was simply dominant on the penalty kill, and narrowly missed the net for what would have been an important third period insurance goal.

Penguins defenseman Ryan Lannon was stellar throughout the night. He was always in position, and played physical in front of the net and in the corners. Lannon also used his stick in a deft and timely manner to thwart several possible Hershey scoring chances.

Box Score from
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