When the Toronto Marlies visit Giant Center in Hershey on Wednesday night, the Hershey Bears will start the stretch run of their 2005-06 season. With three games in three nights over the past weekend, Hershey reached the three-quarter pole for the campaign. Twenty games remain for the Bears; Hershey plays nine at home and 11 on the road before they begin to vie for the 2006 Calder Cup.
Hershey’s weekend got off to a strong start last Friday when Jakub Klepis netted the game-winner in Albany, giving the Bears a 4-3 road triumph over the River Rats. Klepis’ goal made a winner of goaltender Frederic Cassivi, who pushed his league-leading win total to 26 in his 400th career AHL appearance. Meanwhile, up in Winnipeg, former Bear Maxime Ouellet made 21 saves to backstop the Manitoba Moose to a 3-1 win over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
The combination of the Bears’ win and the Penguins’ loss left Hershey just five points behind Wilkes-Barre Scranton for first place in the AHL’s East Division. With home games on Saturday (against Philadelphia) and Sunday (vs. Grand Rapids), Hershey had a chance to close the gap even more on the Pens, who again played in Winnipeg on Saturday before jetting to Toronto for another road game on Sunday.
Although the schedule fell in the Bears’ favor, health did not. Hershey was without several standouts in Friday’s game at Albany and only rookie right wing Eric Fehr was given the green light to return on Saturday. Among Hershey’s medical scratches on Saturday night were key defensemen Mark Wotton and Lawrence Nycholat and top forwards Tomas Fleischmann and Graham Mink. Before Sunday’s game, those five would be joined on the sidelines by defenseman Jakub Cutta. Backup goaltender Kirk Daubenspeck was also unable to play throughout the weekend.
With Daubenspeck on the sidelines, Saturday’s game against the Phantoms gave Bears head coach Bruce Boudreau a chance to install Maxime Daigneault between the pipes for his first appearance in a Hershey uniform. Washington’s second round (59th overall) choice in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, Daigneault got into 11 games with Portland of the AHL last season, but had garnered all of his previous 2005-06 playing time with the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL. Playing Daigneault against Philadelphia enabled Boudreau to give Cassivi a night off in between starts on Friday and Sunday.
The tone for Saturday night’s East Division battle between Hershey and Philly was established early on, just two seconds after the opening face-off to be precise. That’s when the Bears’ Doug Doull and the Phantoms’ Riley Cote dropped their mitts and went at it. The game was a hard-hitting affair the rest of the way, and another fight broke out just minutes later when Philadelphia’s Ryan Ready cross-checked Hershey’s Louis Robitaille across the mouth. The infraction went undetected, so Robitaille was forced to exact his own justice. He sagely noted after the game that the two teams still have several games left against one another, too.
At the 8:16 mark of the first period, Hershey’s Chris Bourque
drew a holding call on Philadelphia defenseman Charlie Cook. Just over a half minute later, the Bears made the Phantoms pay. Joey Tenute threw a pass to Fehr at the Philadelphia line. He then threaded the puck through the Philadelphia defense, setting up Jakub Klepis on a semi-breakaway. Klepis did the rest, deking goaltender Martin Houle and casually flipping a backhander up and over the prone netminder.
“I kind of knocked down a pass from Tenute and I saw Klepis going to the net,” said Fehr after the game. “I just threw it in the general area and I knew he’d be able to pick it up. He made a nice move to put it in.”
Jared Aulin made a couple of crisp passes to create a pair of scoring chances on the very next shift, but Hershey was unable to expand its lead. With just over three minutes remaining in the opening frame, Hershey’s Boyd Kane rushed into his own zone on the backcheck and lifted the stick of a Phantom forward at the last second, preventing a sure goal. That kept the score in Hershey’s favor at 1-0 going into the second.
Daigneault made a pair of strong stops early in the second and the Houle robbed Kane on a turn-around slapper just seconds later. Hershey got into penalty trouble a few minutes later; Philadelphia enjoyed a two-man advantage for a full minute. The Bears’ Boyd Gordon personally cleared the puck on two occasions to help snuff out the Philadelphia opportunity.
Just over seven minutes into the middle period, Hershey defenseman J-F Fortin took a hard shot off his ankle. He would return minutes later but would be noticeably gimpy for the remainder of the weekend. The one-time Capital made a strong play late in the period, stopping the Phantoms’ Ben Eager in a one-on-one situation to prevent him from getting a shot on Daigneault. The Bears maintained their slim 1-0 lead through two and held a 22-14 advantage in shots on goal.
The teams traded strong chances early in the third, with both Daigneault and Houle making big stops. Four minutes into the final period, Gordon drew a tripping penalty to put the Bears on the power play. Second later, Philadelphia was found guilty of another infraction, giving the Bears a two-man advantage for 1:19. The lengthy 5-on-3 was full of near misses. The Bears were credited with four shots on goal during the power play, and several more shots skidded just wide of the cage.
Ready took a slashing minor at 7:35 to give the Bears another chance with the extra man. Houle made a flashy glove save to rob Kane on the best Bears opportunity of that power play, and the score remained 1-0 midway through the third period.
With just under six minutes to play and the puck in the corner to Daigneault’s right, three Bears went in after it while another circled in the high slot, awaiting a possible odd-man break in the other direction should his teammates emerge with the puck. Philadelphia’s Pat Kavanagh sensed the opening and went to the net. When the Phantoms’ Brent Kelly was able to come away with the puck in the corner and slide it to Kavanagh on the doorstep, he was all alone. He had plenty of time to roof one over Daigneault’s shoulder to tie the score.
“I didn’t see him,” lamented Daigneault later. “If I see him before I can tell my d-men to take him, but I saw him at the last second. He shot and it hit my glove and went in.”
Houle stopped Bourque seconds later and Daigneault also made a key save with less than two minutes remaining. Ready took another minor with 24 seconds on the clock, giving the Bears another chance to come away with two points. The Bears were unable to take advantage, and were forced to kill a penalty of their own when Kane was detected holding at 2:37 of overtime. Cutta, Fortin and Gordon were extremely solid on the kill, helping to send the game to a shootout.
Daigneault stopped the first two Philadelphia shootout bids, but Fehr’s stick imploded as he shot, sending the puck harmlessly into the corner. Tenute’s chance grazed the post. Tony Voce put a strong move on Daigneault, getting him to bite, but the Bears’ goaltender nearly recovered in time to make a dazzling stop. Aulin put a similarly strong move on Houle, but was unable to get his backhand bid up and over the goaltender’s last-chance left pad kick. When Phillly’s Matt Ellison beat Daigneault clean, it was all up to Bourque. His shot missed the net and the Bears had squandered a point. Up north, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton managed to salvage a split with Manitoba, taking Saturday’s game in a 3-2 overtime decision.
After the game, Boudreau was asked if the lost offensive opportunities did his club in.
“I think that’s it,” he agreed. “We had one real breakdown and they put it in. We had enough chances to win two games. Their goalie was very good; give him credit tonight. You hate giving up a point but it’s going to happen sometimes. You’re going to run into somebody like that.”
The Bears’ coach was pleased with the performance of his own goaltender.
“I thought he played pretty well,” said Boudreau. “I think we played pretty good in front of him and we didn’t give up a lot of chances. He was there in the third period [when] I thought they had more good chances than they had in the first two periods combined. He was there to make the saves.
“I was a little disappointed in the power play tonight. You get 5-on-3s and 4-on-3s, those are automatic ‘have to bury them.’ Obviously we miss Nycholat and Fleischmann, but those are things you just have to bury. But our penalty killing has been extremely good in the last three or four games.”
Daigneault, who confessed to being nervous most of the day, was pleased with his performance, if not the result.
“I was nervous since 8 o’clock in the morning,” he admitted. “I always want to win and do well. The result is not there, but I think I played a decent game. The d-men helped me a lot to clear my rebounds and stuff like that.”
Cassivi would be back between the pipes on Sunday as the Grand Rapids Griffins, the AHL’s highest-scoring club made its first visit to Hershey in more than three years. The night before, the Griffins had won in Syracuse to become the first AHL team to reach 40 wins on the season. Cutta was added to Hershey’s growing list of wounded; the Bears were forced to bring in ECHL defenseman Jeff State and suit him up for the contest.
After taking a holding call just 40 seconds into Sunday’s game, Fortin emerged from the penalty box and skated in on a breakaway. He rang his shot off the post.
Kane had a good chance a few minutes later when a rebound of State’s shot came right to his stick. But the veteran winger shot just wide and the game remained scoreless.
Hershey definitely had the early edge in jump, chances and energy. The Bears went on a power play midway through the first and took advantage when Gordon fired home a rebound of Klepis’ slap shot from the wing. Bourque collected the other assist. Hershey led in shots on goal by a convincing 11-1 margin at that point. But just as in Saturday’s game, Hershey was unable to build upon its early lead.
The Bears went without a shot on goal in the final 8:10 of the first, getting outgunned by a 7-0 count during that span. An early second period power play gave the Bears another chance to increase their cushion, but despite four shots on net, they were unable to solve goaltender Joey MacDonald.
Three and a half minutes into the second, Hershey’s Dave Steckel, generally one of the team’s most reliable defensive forwards, committed an uncharacteristic turnover behind his own net. Grand Rapids’ Matt Ellis took the puck and quickly wrapped it around the goal to Cassivi’s right, sliding it between the netminder’s pads to tie the game at 1-1.
A few minutes later, Bourque scored during a delayed penalty on the Griffins, but a quick whistle deprived the Bears of the goal. Fehr made sure it didn’t matter, scoring a seeing-eye goal on the power play less than a minute later. Colin Forbes and Tenute picked up the assists.
With just under six minutes remaining in the second, the Bears went on another power play. Hershey held a commanding 24-10 lead in shots on goal at that point and had a chance to double its one-goal lead heading into the final period. But disaster struck. The Bears turned the puck over near the Grand Rapids line and found themselves facing a 2-on-1 with Tenute, a forward by trade, as the lone man back. Grand Rapids’ Clay Wilson exploited the mismatch, beating Cassivi to tie the game at 2-2. The Bears had outplayed one of the AHL’s best teams through two periods, but the third would decide the result.
With Hershey already down a man, Fortin was whistled for a cheesy hooking call at 6:40. Facing the league’s top power play unit and a two-man disadvantage for 1:28, the Bears fell behind when Don McLean rifled a howitzer past Cassivi at 7:03. The goal was McLean’s 43rd of the season, he leads the league in that category.
Just over two minutes later, the Bears again turned the puck over and again the Griffins made them pay. It was McLean again, striking with a high, hard wrist shot from above the circle that eluded Cassivi’s outstretched catching glove.
The Hershey power play brought the Bears to within a goal at 13:31 when Kane, who was solid all weekend, was finally rewarded with a goal when he put in a rebound of a Fortin point shot. Bourque got the other assist.
The Bears came out with energy on the next shift and nearly knotted the score, but hopes of getting the equalizer faded when Steckel was charged with a ridiculous charging call behind the Grand Rapids goal. Despite outshooting the Griffins 40-25, the Bears were a goal short in the end. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton fell in Toronto, maintaining its six-point lead over the Bears heading down the stretch.
After the game, someone commented that the uncharacteristic turnovers cost the Bears a chance at two important points.
“No kidding,” he agreed. “We talk, we practice and we can play two games incredibly well defensively. And then sometimes when guys are tired, and whether it’s three games in three nights or for whatever reason, the first thing to go is their focus and their thought process and they end up making a really dumb play. I wouldn’t have seen that on Friday night. And sometimes guys get frustrated and they want to go for goals and they don’t realize that it’s defense that wins hockey games. That happened on two of the goals tonight.
“It’s hard. We preach defense all the time.”
A bruised and limping Fortin admitted that mistakes happen, but also said that Hershey can’t expect to continue making those turnovers with the stretch drive and playoffs looming.
“It’s a game of mistakes,” said the personable Bears defenseman. “Nobody plays a perfect game, but those are turnovers we can’t make. I don’t think it’s a question of focus, it’s a question of playing together [better] instead of trying to do too much as an individual.”
Two of the Bears’ final 20 games are against Wilkes-Barre Scranton. The Bears play the Baby Pens on the road on Mar. 24 and at home on Mar. 26. A strong stretch between now and then could put the Bears’ eventual divisional fate into their own hands, but Hershey is more concerned with getting the likes of Nycholat, Wotton, Fleischmann and Mink back to full health. If the Bears are at full strength, they are primed for a deep run in the Calder Cup chase this spring.