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Bears Win 11th Calder Cup

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
Lather, Rinse, Repeat – Drama played a part in each of the first five games of the Calder Cup final series between the Hershey Bears and the Texas Stars, but there was no drama in the house for Monday’s Game 6. Hershey imposed its will upon Texas from the get-go, rolling to a 4-0 win and the 11th Calder Cup championship of the franchise’s storied history.

Hershey becomes the first team to repeat as Calder Cup champions since the Springfield Indians in 1990 and 1991. It also becomes the first team in AHL history to win the Calder Cup after dropping the first two games of the final series on home ice.

“We knew we had to switch something up,” says Bears captain Bryan Helmer of his team’s sluggish start in the series. “In Game 3 we did. We got behind at the start but we didn’t lose focus. We did our game plan and it worked perfect and we just kept going from there.”

The Stars opened this series by winning the first two games on Giant Center ice to take a 2-0 series lead back to Texas. The Stars led past the midway point of each of the three games played in their own barn, the Cedar Park Center. The Stars had no such whiff of success on this night.

It was all Bears, all the time.

“The guys had a players only meeting as soon as we got to Texas,” says Bears coach Mark French. “One person talked and it certainly wasn’t me, it was our captain. I believe that was probably the turning point in terms of understanding what we had to do to win a game and how deep we really had to go as a group to win.”

Hershey was on every loose puck, it won every corner battle and it dominated in all three zones for the game’s first 20 minutes, forging a 2-0 lead in the process. It would prove to be all the offense the Bears would need on this night.

Having won it all last year, the Bears were hungry and relentless throughout the first frame, determined not to host a potential Game 7 with the Stars on Wednesday. The Bears outshot Texas 17-4 in the period, and 17-2 over the final 19 minutes of the period. Hershey dominated in zone time, and the Stars had more icing violations (five) than shots on goal (four) in the game’s first 20 minutes.

Eleven different Bears registered a shot on goal in the first period, paced by John Carlson’s four.

It was Carlson who supplied all the offense the Bears would require on this night. With Aaron Gagnon off for high-sticking, Carlson pounced on a rebound in the slot at 12:29 of the first, roofing it over Stars goaltender Brent Krahn.

Krahn was nicked again on Hershey’s very next shot. Karl Alzner fired that one, a laser from the left circle that beat Krahn clean to the short side.

“It’s hard not to get up for this game,” says Alzner, who was brilliant in his own end as well. “You don’t want to say you got ahead of yourselves but during the day a lot of guys were talking about the celebration after a little bit and just finishing it. That’s how confident we were. It’s easy for this team to come out and play 60 minutes when we want to. I think 17 shots in the first period on a goalie that hadn’t played in a while sets us up pretty good.”

Bears blueliner Patrick McNeill administered the dagger at 14:47 of the second when he pounced on an Alexandre Giroux rebound and put it behind Krahn.

“Scoring the goal to make it 3-0 was big,” says Bears coach Mark French, the third different bench boss to lead the Bears to a championship in the last five years. “You talk about the two-goal lead being the worst goal in hockey, so getting the three-goal lead gave us some breathing room.

“Early [ in the game], I thought we were very good but I thought Krahn played very well.  It was going to be a little frustrating coming out of the first period if we didn’t get a goal. When we were able to score I think there was a lot of tension that was released from the bench.”

McNeill also closed the scoring late in the third when he netted a power play goal. From there, it was a matter of watching the clock count down.

“This is the best team I’ve ever been a part of,” says left wing Chris Bourque, who also skated for the 2006 and 2009 Hershey Calder Cup champions. “You don’t see too many seasons like that, 60 wins and then winning the Calder Cup. We broke a lot of records. We had such a fun group to be a part of; we have so much fun. We all love each other and we have great team chemistry. This is by far the best one. I’ve had so much fun this year I really don’t know what to say.  It’s been unreal. To do it in front of the home crowd, it really adds a cherry on top. It’s exciting.”

Spirit of 76 – Tonight marked the Bears’ 76th win of the season. After setting an AHL record with 60 regular season victories (60-17-0-3), Hershey rolled to a 16-5 postseason mark.

Neuvirth’s Net Worth – Neuvirth becomes the first AHL netminder to repeat as the primary netminder of a Calder Cup championship team since ex-Caps goalie Pete Peeters turned the trick with the Maine Mariners in 1978 and 1979. Neuvirth has now played one more game in the playoffs (40) than he has in the regular season (39) during his career for the Bears.

Neuvirth was tremendous for the Bears this spring, posting a 14-4 mark with a shutout, a 2.07 GAA and a .920 save pct.

In his AHL playoff career, Neuvirth is 30-10 with five shutouts, a 1.98 GAA and a .927 save pct.

That’ll play.

“With Michal, I don’t know if there is anymore the fellow can do,” French marvels. “He has brought the team to a Calder Cup two years in a row. He outplayed arguably the best goalies in the American League and he stands at the top. I think he is an unbelievable competitor. He is ready for another challenge.”

MVP – Chris Bourque was a member of the 2006 and 2009 Hershey Bears Calder Cup championship teams, and he was named winner of the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the league’s playoff MVP for 2010. Bourque’s 27 points (seven goals, 20 assists) were tied for the most of any skater in the playoffs, and he was consistently among the best players on the ice game in and game out, throughout the postseason.

Bourque made the Capitals’ opening night roster, only to be claimed off waivers by the Penguins before he could suit up in red, white and blue against the Bruins in his native Boston for the season opener. Two months later, the Capitals reclaimed him and reassigned him to Hershey where he had been a key full-timer since 2005-06. Although he played in just 49 games for Hershey, Bourque totaled 22 goals and 70 points, good for 14th in the league’s regular season scoring race.

“It was the biggest acquisition of the year to get a guy and not have to give something up,” exudes French. “Arguably, if he would have played a full season [in the AHL] he certainly would have eclipsed the 100-point mark and probably would have fought tooth and nail to get the MVP.

“It’s kind of fitting that he gets the playoff MVP. He was a special player all through it. He single-handedly got us the Albany [series] win with his line. Against Manchester he was phenomenal and then raised his game to another level here tonight.”

Century City – With two assists in Game Six, veteran Bears forward Alexandre Giroux reached the 100-point mark for his Calder Cup playoff career. Giroux’s two assists also pushed him into a tie with Bourque for the top spot on the 2010 playoff scoring ledger.

Marriage Made in Heaven – In the five seasons since the Bears and the parent Washington Capitals renewed their affiliation, Hershey has compiled a combined regular season record of 246-108-15-31, averaging 49 wins a season.

Those stellar seasons have produced four Calder Cup final appearances and three of the 11 Calder Cup title won in the Bears’ 71-year history in the AHL. Hershey is 62-26 in the playoffs in the last five seasons.

O From The D – All four Bears goals came from the blueline. Carlson netted his second of the playoffs – and his second game-winner of the series and the playoffs – and Alzner notched his third of the postseason. McNeill’s goals were his second and third of the playoffs.

“We’ve been stressing that because that’s what’s been open against these teams that want to collapse,” says French. “Our [defensemen] were open and I thought we were very opportunistic. Patty McNeill with two and Karl Alzner with one and John Carlson scored on the power play, so not bad.”

House Record – A record crowd of 11,002 patrons crammed themselves into the Giant Center for Game 6. All six Calder Cup final games were sellouts and each of the last four set records for the buildings in which they were played.

“It’s amazing, [there were] 11,000 people in this building tonight,” says Helmer. “All year long on Wednesday nights there is 10,000 people plus. They expect a lot out of you. They know their hockey and they want winners on the ice. Man, did we do it right this year for them. They’ve been unbelievable and it means a lot to win it here at home.”

No Changes – Both teams dressed the same 20 skaters for Monday’s Game 6 in Hershey as they had dressed for last Friday’s Game 5 in Texas.

Long Layoff – With his Stars facing elimination, Texas coach Glen Gulatzan made the decision to change goaltenders for Monday’s Game 6. He inserted Brent Krahn, who had not played since Game 6 of Texas’ second-round series with the Chicago Wolves. That game was on May 9, meaning Krahn was being fed to the Bears after a layoff of 36 days.

“We came out and played unreal the first 20 minutes,” says Bourque. “That’s what we wanted to do was get a good start and pepper this goalie. He didn’t play in two or three weeks so we knew we had to get some shots on him, crash the net and hopefully one or two would go in.

“Luckily, we went in the lead 2-0 and we didn’t really look back after that. We used this crowd to our advantage. It was unbelievable. It was just such a fun game, a fun atmosphere to be a part of.”

Milk Carton Man – Stars forward Jamie Benn entered the series as one of the league’s hottest players, but he went stone cold in the final. He managed two assists and a minus-4 in the six games against Hershey.

Benn came into the series with 14 goals and 24 points, leading the AHL in both categories. At that point, his 14 goals had already tied a league record for most goals by a rookie in a playoff year.

During the 2010 Calder Cup playoffs, the Stars were 11-2 in games in which Benn scored a point. They were 3-8 in games when he was held off the scoresheet.

Keystone Cups – Both the NHL’s Stanley Cup and the AHL’s Calder Cup were awarded in the state of Pennsylvania this year. The Chicago Blackhawks took the Stanley Cup in Philadelphia last week while the Bears took the Calder here at Giant Center tonight.
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