In a game that looks like a major mismatch on paper, the Hershey Bears looked to take on the Hartford Wolf Pack and build on their momentum into Sunday’s huge game vs Bridgeport. Don’t not take that mismatch too seriously, though. On Friday night, the Wolf Pack took a run at the Bears and almost pulled off a victory in overtime. Although they have nothing to win, the Bears have everything to lose. Coming into Saturday, they held on to a playoff spot simply by virtue of having 2 more points (.006% points) than the Bridgeport Sound Tigers who have a game in hand.
Nothing is more dangerous than a team who has nothing to lose at this point in a season. That’s exactly the challenge that the bottom-feeders of the AHL, the Wolf Pack, represent. They can play a huge part in this Atlantic playoff race.
That’s what they would like to do in Hershey on Saturday.
Early in the 1st, a 3-on-2 rush for the Bears saw an opportunity go wasted. Nathan Walker stemmed a pass to the recently hot Stanislav Galiev in the hashmarks. His shot was blocked by a sliding Wolf Pack player, and his second try hit the outside netting. A quick and hard-hitting start to this game was evident by Hartford star Nicklas Jensen’s hit on Hershey’s Hubert Labrie in the Hershey defensive corner. The hit jarred the glass off its holders, and for the second time in 3 games, the Giant Center needed a pane of glass to be replaced.
When play resumed, a quick pass from Hartford-killer Christian Djoos to a speeding Jakub Vrana was stopped by Hartford goalie Mackenzie Skapski. A second later, Chandler Stephenson had an opportunity to put the Bears up front early, but his shot hit the netting. Bears captain Garrett Mitchell was being wrapped around in front and was unable to get to the loose puck.
The Bears’ pressure was obvious in the early goings of the game. Riding a wave of points against the Hartford Wolf Pack, including his 4-point game the previous night, Christian Djoos fed a pass to Paul Carey in the slot. Carey’s shot eluded Skapski to put the Bears up 1-0 at the 7:50 mark of the 1st.
Quickly after that, Hartford got their first chances of the night. After a short burst of pressure from Hartford’s Chris Brown, Colby Williams took a hooking penalty to put the Wolf Pack on the power play. At the whistle, Robin Kovacs and Williams got into a small shoving match that was simmered down by the officials.
The Wolf Pack’s powerplay halfway through was sloppy, but they were getting some chances on net. Vanecek had to fight off a shot from Jensen through traffic before holding it for a whistle a few seconds later. Some absolutely amazing work from Riley Barber killed off the remaining seconds of the powerplay, and they went right back to work. Stretching his entire pad in what looked like a play in slow-motion, Skapski was able to stop Riley Barber in the slot on what looked like a sure goal. After a scramble in front of the net, the whistle was finally blown.
After an offsides call, Hubert Labrie decided that the play could continue, as he stapled Hartford forward Taylor Beck into the glass. Although Hartford was not a playoff team, this game absolutely had the feeling of a playoff game. After a beautiful move by Paul Carey to get into the slot, his shot was stopped but not before a hooking call was made on Hartford’s Chris Summers. On the ensuing powerplay, Travis Boyd, moments after missing the net on the far-side, fed a beautiful pass to Christian Thomas to put the Bears up 2-0 at the 14:51 mark of the 1st.
With 2 minutes left in the 1st period, some great fun happened for the Giant Center crowd – if you were a Bears fan. Hartford forward Matt Carey went for a destructive hit in their offensive end, but instead fully found the boards and glass. With his full force, he laid a crushing hit on an inanimate object. The replay of that hit attempt was played multiple times on the scoreboard, much to the fans’ delight. Seconds later, Hartford defenseman Michael Paliotta fell down with the puck, leaving Stanislav Galiev to pick it up. Pick it up he did; with a spin-o-rama, his shot lifted and hit the crossbar. Jakub Vrana had a few opportunities to pad on to their lead late in the 1st, but he was not able to do so. The period ended with Hershey in front 2-0.
At the start of the 2nd period, a beautiful saucer pass by Jon Gilmore was too far out of reach of any teammate of his. A great bit of connecting play from Ryan Bourque and Christian Thomas meant that the Bears were able to keep their forecheck alive. Ryan Bourque sent a cross-ice pass over to the Australian-born Nathan Walker who then sent the puck mindlessly in the blue paint. With Skapski out of the net, a horde of players for the Wolf Pack acted as a wall in front of the twine and prevented a goal.
At this point, the Bears were holding the puck in the offensive zone for an amazing 3 minutes. With the Wolf Pack down on their heels, an opportunity in front taken by Tom Gilbert was saved again by Skapski. Skapski, although staying strong at this point in the game, was unable to control a barrage of rebounds. Luckily for the Wolf Pack, they managed to survive the relentless Bears pressure with a clear into the bench area.
With 12:58 left in the 2nd period, the Bears put their 20th shot on goal in the game. Their next shot would be their 3rd goal of the game. Using his speed and strength, Travis Boyd was able to find time and space as he swung behind the net and passed the puck out in front to Paul Carey who slotted it home at the 7:13 mark of the 2nd. A 2-point night was already set by both Boyd and Carey.
The soreness kept on coming for the Wolf Pack soon after the goal as Adam Chapie took a hooking penalty. The penalty kill from the Wolf Pack was a strong one, however, as they managed to keep the puck in the offensive zone for a good amount of time.
Garrett Mitchell and Dan Catenacci got into a heated exchange following a whistle in the Hartford end, with Garrett Mitchell being the aggressor. Mitchell received a double minor and Catenacci received one minor, both for roughing. The powerplay for the Wolf Pack was not able to spark any kind of offense for Hartford.
At the 14:06 mark of the 2nd, Riley Barber was able to wrist a shot over Mackenzie Skapski to put the Bears up 4-0. With only 4 shots on goal in the game at this point for the Wolf Pack, coach Ken Gernander needed to get something going for his team. He had enough of Skapski’s play and decided to put Jeff Malcolm in for relief.
The spark seemed to work, with the Wolf Pack doubling their shot total in a span of 2 minutes. After two quick penalties on both Colby Williams and Hubert Labrie, the Wolf Pack were gifted a 5-on-3 for 1:30. This was their opportunity to get back into the game. With Nathan Walker having his stick broken, Hartford had virtually a 5-on-2. They gave the puck away, however, and the puck was cleared the length of the ice. Then, a clearing attempt hit the back of Nathan Walker before leaving the zone, and Hartford was able to capitalize. Ryan Graves’ huge shot was able to put the Wolf Pack on the board at the 16:57 mark of the 2nd to make it 4-1.
There were still around 30 seconds remaining in the Hershey minor, and a clearing attempt from Paul Carey went over the bench area. The referees convened and decided that the Wolf Pack would get another powerplay for delay-of-game.
Right as the 5-on-3 ended, a shot from the point off the stick of Taylor Beck ended up in the back of the net, going past a screened Vanecek. All of a sudden, a game was on our hands. The goal made it 4-2 at the 17:36 mark of the 2nd.
Back to even-strength the game went, but not for long. With just under 2 minutes left in the 2nd, Robin Kovacs took a penalty to put the Bears on the powerplay. Now up just 2 goals, the Bears were looking to build back on to their previously huge lead. With some offensive zone opportunities, they were not able to get the puck past Malcolm. The game that was all in the Bears’ favor was suddenly a close one at the end of the 2nd with the score being 4-2.
With the 3rd period underway, Hershey got off to a slow start, allowing a defensive zone draw to the left of Vanecek. Winning the draw was the Bears, however, and a premium opportunity from Travis Boyd was saved by Malcolm. A second later, a fluttered shot caught Malcolm by surprise, as it tipped off his glove and went behind the net.
A spinning pass from Stephenson was sent across to Chris Bourque, but Dan Catennaci slid into net as Bourque got his shot off. A minute later, Christian Djoos walked down the left-wing side to get a shot off that was saved by Malcolm. Jakub Vrana then had the next 3 opportunities: one from the point that was covered, one off the draw that was saved, and one from the hashmarks that he couldn’t get off. The Bears seemed to have gotten their mojo back for the time being.
Back came the Wolf Pack with immense pressure the other way. A shot from the point by Dan Catenacci was not able to come off cleanly and he was rocked to the ice by Chandler Stephenson. Stephenson seemed to be all over the physical side of the game tonight for the Bears, and it was much-needed. Both teams were combining to throw their bodies around in big ways, with players hitting other players (and not only hitting the boards and glass).
At the 10:41 mark of the 3rd, Chris Brown of the Wolf Pack took a high-sticking call as his stick came up into the face of Christian Djoos. On the ensuing Hershey powerplay, Paul Carey was able to whack a puck home from the side of the net off a Hartford stick for the hat-trick. It took a while for the fans to realize that it was a hat-trick, but at the 11:15 mark of the 3rd period, the Bears padded their lead once again to make it 5-2.
One last roar from the crowd over the Matt Carey incident happened, as it was given the award of the ‘Hit of the Game’ on the jumbotron. Carey was then highlighted at that moment. That is probably something the he wants to avoid ever doing again.
At the 14:52 mark of the 3rd, the Wolf Pack once again crawled back with a goal of their own. A shot from the point seemed to deflect off of Matt Carey and got through Vanecek to make it 5-3. Nathan Walker showed his frustration by spearing Carey with his stick. No call was made.
Just a few seconds later, the Wolf Pack unbelievably brought the game within 1 goal. It was Cristoval Nieves on a great play to get in front of the net. The goal came at the 15:33 mark of the 3rd to make it 5-4. The crowd got incredibly tense, and just moments later, Vitek Vanecek fumbled a rebound. The puck just laid in crease before Hershey could clear it away. Hartford was starting to believe they could come back, and they were flying on the ice.
With 1:35 left in the game, Hartford emptied the net to bring on an extra skater. Paul Carey was able to get the puck into the empty net for his 4th goal of the night at the 18:49 mark of the 3rd. Hartford ended up taking one more penalty before the night was over. On the powerplay, Riley Barber was hit hard into the corner boards, sending him to the dressing room with 13 seconds left to play and leaving the Wolf Pack another man down. As time expired, the Bears looked to have scored their 7th goal of the game on a Paul Carey wraparound. This would’ve given Carey his 5th goal of the game, but the official score did not include this goal. Even though it went in before the whistle, the goal did not count.
The players got extremely feisty, and with a few throw-downs and fights taking place, the refs tried to keep everyone else calm.
In what was perhaps a game defined only by the word schizophrenic, the Bears held on for the victory.
FINAL: Hershey Bears 6-4
SHOTS: Hershey Bears 38-19
- Saturday marked the return of Jaukb Vrana from his stint in Washington. Coming into this game, he had recorded 12 goals and 14 assists for 26 points in 36 games. With the NHL’s Capitals, he recorded 3 goals and 3 assists for 6 points in 21 games.
- Tonight lacked a defenseman for the Bears that returned on Friday from a gruesome injury in December. That player would be Madison Bowey. On Friday, GNGHockey writer and Bears reporter Dean Snock was able to get confirmation from Hershey coach Troy Mann that Bowey would be out for the game on Saturday. Look for him to dress against Bridgeport on Sunday.
- Here’s a stat that may surprise some people: the Hartford Wolf Pack have been very successful in 1-goal games. In 27 decisions decided by a lone goal, Hartford has gone 15-6-4-2. Anything over 1 goal, however, doesn’t look too pretty. They are 3-13-0-0 in 2-goal games and 3-9-0-0 in 3-goal games. That is helped by the fact that they are in the bottom third of goals for in the AHL with 159 goals.
- Tonight was the professional debut of Hampus Gustafsson. He was recently signed by the Bears to an Amateur Tryout contract (ATO) on March 9. From Merrimack College, he recorded 38 goals and 49 assists for 87 points in 146 games for the Hockey-East school. Gustafsson only ever got to the second round of the Hockey-East tournament over his 4-year playing career. Before Merrimack, he played for the Amarillo Bulls of the NAHL, the second-best junior league in the United States.
- Starting in net tonight for the Hershey Bears was Vitek Vanecek. Vanecek came into tonight as the usual backup for the last few weeks since the NHL trade deadline. Ever since Phoenix Copley took over, he’s run with the job. Copley was given the rest tonight in advance of the Bridgeport game on Sunday. Vanecek came into the game with a 16-10-7 record, 2.60 GAA, and .923 SV%.
On Sunday, the Hershey Bears will be taking on the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in a game that means so much to both of their seasons. Although it seems to be said every time these two teams have played each other lately, with Hershey starting to reel back their playoff position, this match-up will be huge in deciding the playoff contenders of the Atlantic. The Bears have not fared well in Bridgeport as of late, losing 3 straight games to the Sound Tigers there.
Hartford’s next match-up will be a mid-week tilt against the Atlantic division-leading Wilkes Barre/Scranton Penguins. Wilkes Barre/Scranton is coming off a weekend where they were able to help solidify their Atlantic Division lead by splitting 2 games against the second place Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Although this may not be of as much importance to Hartford, the Penguins will look to keep building on to their division lead until the end of the season.
The next scheduled Bears game for GNGHockey will be April 2 against Lehigh Valley.
Dylan Coyle is a writer and the founder of Good Night, Good Hockey. He is also a Hershey Bears and Reading Royals reporter. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanRCoyle.