No AHL team can boast more history and prestige than the Bears. The AHL's longest-running franchise dates to the 1938-39 season and has 11 Calder Cup championships, three of them under the banner of an affiliation with the Washington Capitals that began in 2005.
But the Toronto Marlies have sprinted away with the Eastern Conference this season. The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins threatened to pull away with the Atlantic Division before midseason struggles slowed that run. After a slow start, the Portland Pirates have emerged as a viable threat to the Marlies and Penguins in the Eastern Conference.
That has left the Bears to quietly go about their business in the Atlantic Division, and they have done just that. After polishing off a sweep of a home-and-home series with the Syracuse Crunch last weekend, the Bears have edged to within three points of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for the Atlantic Division lead.
Hershey has at least a point in nine consecutive games (6-0-2-1) using a blend of strong prospects and experienced pros. The Bears' .700 points percentage at home ranks seventh, and their 15 home wins are tied for second place, one off the AHL lead.
Leading the way is coach Troy Mann, who is in his second season behind the Hershey bench.
"There is still lots of work to do," Mann said. "A great bunch of kids that are really improving. The kids are getting better and better. The kids drive the bus. Mix in some really good vets, and you should have a good team."
Two of those really good veterans are goalies Dan Ellis and Justin Peters, who have anchored the Bears in net. The blue line includes AHL All-Star Connor Carrick and rookie Madison Bowey, Washington's second pick (No. 53) in the 2013 NHL Draft. Reliable veterans Mike Moore and Aaron Ness provide a back bone for the young blue line.
The Bears also have forward Scott Gomez, who brought his 1,066 NHL games to Hershey in January. Since then, he has a goal and eight assists in seven games while providing another play-making threat. Forward Chandler Stephenson played nine games with Washington in his second pro season.
However, Mann does not know how long the Bears will have Gomez, who has adjusted well to the AHL's style of play.
"The NHL is so structured," Mann said. "I believe that our team plays a very structured game as well, but the American League is a little bit more chaotic from a structural standpoint. It's really difficult for an NHL player to come down here because in the NHL when you make a play, you know the other guy is going to be there. That's not always a guarantee in the American League, so that's a very difficult adjustment.
"We're an offensive team. He fits right into that."
Averaging 3.20 goals per game (Hershey's 147 goals are third-most in the league), six Bears have 10 or more goals, including leading scorer Chris Bourque, whose 44 points (20 goals and 24 assists) position him third in AHL scoring. A pair of 21-year-old sixth-round draft picks has also emerged as rookie scoring threats. Riley Barber, (No. 167 in 2012) reached 11 goals with a hat trick last Saturday, and Travis Boyd (No. 177 in 2011) is third on the Bears in scoring (10 goals, 18 assists).
"Hopefully the depth scoring continues because I truly believe that you've got to roll four lines and have depth to win at this level," Mann said. "Overall, we're very, very happy, and we've got some quality guys standing out right now."
STILL AT IT
Like his 20-something teammates with the Rockford IceHogs, goaltender Michael Leighton has NHL ambitions.
What separates Leighton from those teammates is that he is in his 15th pro season, long enough so that his next AHL shutout will push him past Johnny Bower for the AHL career lead.
Leighton, 34, earned his 45th AHL shutout in a 6-0 win against the Chicago Wolves last Friday. He's 23-4-5 in 33 games with Rockford with a 2.04 GAA and a .931 save percentage. That performance earned Leighton a trip to the 2016 Toyota AHL All-Star Classic.
Leighton began his pro career in 2001 as a sixth-round pick (No. 165) of the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1999 NHL Draft. He has played in 105 regular-season NHL games and was part of a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2010 with the Philadelphia Flyers.
He returned to the Blackhawks organization before last season after one season in the Kontinental Hockey League.
"I'm pushing as much as I can to get a job next year as [an NHL] backup or at least put myself in an organization where I think I have a chance to move up as a [recall]," Leighton said.
Even with his pro accomplishments, landing NHL contracts can be a challenge for a 34-year-old, especially one who has not closed the door on a return to the NHL.
"It's a little tougher now," Leighton said. "It's a decision that general managers will have to make, whether they want a 34-year-old that has been around awhile and who has accomplished a lot or a young guy coming in that might not play that much but has a good career ahead for him."
"It doesn't matter where I'm playing. I want to be the best and show that I can play. I'm getting older now. I just want to push it that much more and show people that I can still play."
Another long-time AHL figure reached a milestone last weekend.
A 4-3 win against the San Antonio Rampage last Saturday gave San Jose Barracuda coach Roy Sommer his 636th AHL coaching win, tying him with Fred "Bun" Cook for the AHL career lead. Before the win Saturday, a six-game losing streak had left Sommer stuck one win behind Cook since Jan. 15.
Sommer is in his 18th season leading the San Jose Sharks' AHL prospects, a journey that took him to three cities before he landed in the Bay Area last summer with the franchise's move to SAP Center. He ranks first in AHL coaching history with 1,385 games.
Along the way, he has sent 120 players on to NHL careers. Twenty members of the Sharks roster have played for Sommer.
At 19-14-5-3, Sommer has the Barracuda sitting third in the Pacific Division, 10 points off the division lead. He can set a new record with his 637th win Friday when the Barracuda start a two-game road series against the Ontario Reign, who are tied for the Pacific Division lead.
AHL GAME OF THE WEEK
The Lone Star State rivalry between the San Antonio Rampage and Texas Stars resumes Friday with a home-and-home series. Injuries and recalls to the parent Colorado Avalanche have sent the Rampage plummeting to last place in the Pacific Division. Much like the Dallas Stars, the Texas Stars can put the puck in the net. They rank second in the AHL with 3.75 goals per game and have three players in the top-10 in scoring, Travis Morin (fourth), Brendan Ranford (seventh) and Greg Rallo (eighth). The teams head to San Antonio on Saturday to complete the series.
Toronto defenseman T.J. Brennan has held on to the AHL scoring lead with 18 goals and 29 assists…Wilkes-Barre/Scranton left wing Scott Wilson has a league-leading 22 goals…Ontario veteran Peter Budaj's 1.61 GAA and 24 wins are best among AHL goaltenders. Two shutouts last weekend have Budaj in the league lead with seven, and his 36 games and 2,164 minutes are most in the AHL.
AROUND THE AHL
A quick talent infusion powered the Providence Bruins last week with right wing David Pastrnak and center Frank Vatrano on loan from the Boston Bruins. Since returning to Providence on Jan. 21, Vatrano settled in quickly with his second hat trick this season to go with two assists in an 8-1 home win against the Springfield Falcons last Friday. The rookie has six goals and four assists in the four games since his assignment and 16 goals in 14 games this season…After winning a franchise-record 14 games at home, Grand Rapids has lost five straight at Van Andel Arena. The Marlies swept the Griffins in a two-game series last week…A 9-1-0-0 run has the Hartford Wolf Pack in the middle of the Atlantic Division race. They trail Providence and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers by one point. Bridgeport went into the break with a four-game winning streak…Albany has two wins in its past 10 games… The Manitoba Moose went winless on an eight-game road trip and have lost 13 straight road games. They start a six-game homestand this week. Their 29 points in 42 games put them last in the AHL, and they have minus-61 goal differential…Wins in three of their past five games have pulled the Iowa Wild out of last place in the league. They have a three-point lead on Manitoba…Five consecutive wins have moved the Stockton Heat out of last place in the Pacific Division to fourth place…A nine-game point streak ended for San Antonio forward Mikko Rantanen. The 10th pick in the 2015 draft, Rantanen had five goals and six assists in that span…Two more AHL players debuted in the NHL this past week, bringing the season total to 82.