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Hershey Looks to Make History

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
No AHL team has ever won eight straight playoff series in the process of claiming two straight Calder Cup titles. The Hershey Bears are four wins – one playoff series – away from achieving that feat. On Friday night at Giant Center, the Bears will set about the business of claiming those last four victories.

The Hamilton Bulldogs are all that stand between the Bears and a rare title repeat. The last AHL club to claim consecutive championships was the 1990-91 Springfield Indians. Hershey has run up a dominant 12-2 record in the first three rounds of the 2007 playoffs, and the lone blemishes were both suffered in overtime.

The Bears’ last regulation loss in the playoffs came last June 10 in Game 3 of the Calder Cup final series against the Milwaukee Admirals. The Bears won the next three games by a combined score of 18-7 to take the series and the ninth Calder Cup title in franchise history. Hershey is 15-2 since suffering its last playoff loss in regulation time.

The Bears’ playoff success formula starts right where it did last spring, in between the pipes where veteran Frederic Cassivi has again been a stalwart. He is 12-2 with a shutout, a 2.27 goals against average and a .923 save pct. Last spring, Cassivi ran up a 16-5 mark with four shutouts, a 2.09 goals against average and a .931 save pct. Put the two playoff runs together and you’ve got a stretch of very dominant goaltending over a period of 35 postseason tilts.

Cassivi has had some help from the troops in front of him this spring. Veteran Bears blueliner Dean Arsene has been sidelined for all but two of Hershey’s 14 playoff games this spring, but he is expected to play at some point in the series against Hamilton. The Bears’ defense has been solid in Arsene’s absence. Mike Green, Jeff Schultz and Tyler Sloan have been especially good throughout the playoffs.

Hershey’s Tomas Fleischmann finished second in AHL playoff scoring last spring. He is tied for third in the league in playoff scoring with 17 points this year as he and the Bears head into the finals. Three skaters who were not a part of last spring’s playoff run have also made significant offensive contributions. Veteran AHLer Scott Barney also has 17 points. Obtained from Grand Rapids just before Clear Day, Barney has proved to be a tremendous acquisition. Matt Hendricks has been consistently energetic on the ice, and he is tied with Barney for the team lead with eight playoff goals. Rookie Kyle Wilson, rescued from the scarp heap in December, is now second among all rookie scorers with 15 points.

A few familiar faces are also aiding the attack. Green’s seven goals and six power play goals are tops among all AHL defensemen. With 13 points, he is just a point off the playoff scoring lead among blueliners. And shutdown center Dave Steckel continues to go above and beyond the call of his job description. He has been a monster defensively, and has also chipped in with half a dozen goals and a dozen points in as many games.

Hamilton finished the regular season in third place in the North Division standings. The Bulldogs eliminated Rochester in six games, Manitoba in six and Chicago in five on their way to hooking up with Hershey in the finals.

Hamilton’s Carey Price has matched Cassivi’s postseason dominance in goal for the Bulldogs. But while Cassivi has more than 200 career AHL victories, the 19-year-old Price joined the Bulldogs in time to record his first regular season AHL win (he appeared in two games). Price has played in 17 postseason contests, forging an 11-5 record, a shutout, a 2.13 goals against average and a .929 save pct.

Montreal’s first pick (fifth overall) in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Price played his junior hockey with the WHL’s Tri-City Americans. Caps goaltender Olie Kolzig is a co-owner of the Tri-City club, and he worked with Price there during the lockout season of 2004-05.

“Obviously he is having a breakthrough season,” says Kolzig. “I think with what he did in Sweden for Canada in the World Juniors really solidified him as a goaltender, but also his belief and his confidence. I don’t know where our organization – Tri-City – would have been the last two, three years had he not been there. He is a terrific talent, very athletic. He is similar to Cam Ward, but maybe a little more athletic. But his demeanor, nothing fazes him. He is very relaxed.

“When I was there during the lockout, I had a great relationship with him. I was more of a big brother than a coach. He is blooming probably earlier than expected. It wasn’t a popular draft choice, but obviously Montreal saw what I saw. He is legit.

“Sometimes he would be a little lackadaisical in games. Some questionable ones would get put in from bad angles that might change the turn of a game. But he seems to have put that behind him. He is more focused. He is a competitor. He is a good athlete, he is good at whatever he does. He is a good golfer. He is very solid, big legs and a strong base.”

Corey Locke leads Hamilton with eight goals and 16 points. Kyle Chipchura, Eric Manlow and Maxim Lapierre have each kicked in with five goals for the Bulldogs. Locke (tied for sixth) and Chipchura (tied for 16th) are the only members of the Bulldogs who are ranked among the top 20 playoff scorers in the league.

While Hershey’s Green and Sloan are the only Bears defensemen in the league’s top 20 among blueliners’ playoff scoring, Hamilton boasts five rearguards on that list. Danny Groulx leads ’Dogs defensemen with four goals and nine points. Ex-Cap Mathieu Biron has seven points, and Dan Jancevski, Andre Benoit and Ryan O’Byrne have six points each.

Hershey’s power play has been a big part of the team’s postseason success. The Bears have clicked on 22 of 85 extra-man chances (25.9%) this spring, the best mark in the league. Going into the final series, the Bears have scored at least one power play goal in six straight games. Hershey has had multiple power play strikes in nine of its 14 postseason games. The Bears are sixth in postseason penalty killing (81 of 94, 86.2%).

Hamilton has tallied 13 power play goals in its 95 opportunities (13.7%). The Bulldogs’ penalty killing corps ranks eighth in the AHL (75 of 89, 84.3%).

After playing the first two games in Hershey on Friday and Saturday, the clubs will head north for Game 3 in Hamilton on Monday. Games 4 and 5 (if necessary) will be played in Hamilton on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. If Games 6 and 7 are needed, they’ll be at Giant Center on June 12 and 15, respectively.

Notes: The series is a rematch of the 1997 Calder Cup final between Hamilton (then affiliated with Edmonton) and Hershey (then a Colorado farm club. Hershey assistant coach Bob Woods was a defenseman on the 1997 Calder Cup champion Bears team … The 1996-97 Hamilton Bulldogs didn’t have much bite during the regular season. The ’Dogs finished the campaign with a 28-39-9-4 record.

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