Nelson making Bears’ puzzle pieces fit

Photo: Hershey Bears

📝 by Patrick Williams

An AHL regular season can be broken down into 27 weeks, each making up a piece of the season-long puzzle.

Each week is also a process, particularly in a league dominated by youth finding its way in the pro game. That process can also be complicated quickly by an AHL club doing its job, which is preparing players and shipping them off to the National Hockey League. All of it is preparation for the Calder Cup Playoffs come April and what a team hopes can be another two-month journey.

Take a team like the Hershey Bears, a group that is battling for first overall in the AHL. At 23-8-2-1, the Bears have a league-best 49 points and are tied with Calgary for the most wins in the league.

There have been some rocky times even for a strong Calder Cup contender like Hershey, however.

First, the good for Chocolatetown. The hockey gods bestowed plenty of generosity upon the Bears and head coach Todd Nelson this past weekend, with injured forward Garrett Pilon returning to the lineup for the first time since Nov. 19 and defenseman Lucas Johansen, out since Dec. 21, reportedly close to being back.

And the Washington Capitals delivered as well. With Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson back in the Washington lineup, the resulting roster congestion necessitated a pair of moves. First Aliaksei Protas found his way back to Hershey, where he had 24 points (eight goals, 16 assists) in 42 contests last season. Protas, a 22-year-old forward, had been in Washington for all of this campaign, playing 41 games and posting 10 points (three goals, seven assists).

The second move felt a bit more dicey. The Capitals put forward Joe Snively on waivers on Saturday; both Washington and Hershey then waited for the next 24 hours before they could exhale as the Virginia native cleared waivers and was sent to the Bears.

Snively’s arrival adds another key piece for the Bears, who lead the league on defense allowing 2.38 goals per game but have been challenged to find offensive production, scoring just 2.85 goals per contest — tied for 26th in the AHL — and ranking 28th in power-play efficiency at 16.0 percent (20-for-125).

When Snively was first called up to Washington last January, the Bears placed 11th in the league on the power play. They ended up dropping to 26th before suffering a first-round playoff exit to the rival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

Nelson had Protas and Pilon flanking top prospect Connor McMichael on his second line Sunday vs. Syracuse, and the trio produced quickly. Leading 1-0 early in the second period, a quick exit strike from Protas freed McMichael to convert a partial breakaway. McMichael, who like Protas and Snively began the season with the Capitals, has put up 11 points (seven goals, four assists) in 20 contests since joining the Bears.

But there is work to do, something that a three-time Calder Cup winner like Nelson brought up without any prompting in his post-game comments following Hershey’s 4-3 victory.

Holding a three-goal lead going into the third period on home ice, against an opponent in its third game in three nights, Hershey endured a nail-biting finish. Crunch captain Gabriel Dumont broke loose from net-front coverage tapped in a rebound past Hunter Shepard with 11:23 to go. Shawn Element cut the Bears lead to 4-3 with 6:57 remaining, and what had looked like a comfortable end to the weekend had become much more nerve-wracking for the crowd of 10,404 at Giant Center.

“We’ve got to start learning that when we play prevent defense and we don’t play on our toes, it gets us in trouble,” Nelson stressed. “I think our veteran players have to recognize the situation. They’ve been around, and it starts with them.

“And it’s not words. It’s action. They have to go out there, lead by example, the rest will fall. I think it starts there. We have to have a killer instinct.”

But after allowing 11 shots in the third period’s first 13 minutes, the Bears held Syracuse without a shot the rest of the way to put away the win.

“We bent a bit there,” Nelson said, “but we didn’t break.”

The power play showed some life as well Sunday. Hershey was 2-for-19 over the first three-plus games of its current seven-game homestand before breaking through in the second period against the Crunch. Positioned to the right of Syracuse goaltender Max Lagace, Protas picked up the rebound of Ethen Frank’s left-circle shot and backhanded a pass through his legs to the slot, where Mike Vecchione stuffed it into the net.

Now Nelson has to manage it all. Three of Hershey’s lines produced a goal Sunday.

Of course, a need or two in Washington could disrupt the Bears’ current abundance quickly, which is why keeping the Hershey roster fresh will be paramount for Nelson. After hosting the Penguins on Wednesday and Springfield on Friday and Saturday this weekend, the Bears play six of their following seven games on the road.

Hershey is 14-4-1-1 at Giant Center, good for the league’s second-best home points percentage (.750). A strong finish to the homestand can set up the Bears well for their upcoming time on the road. Nelson cited this week as an opportunity to also create chemistry following this influx of talent into the lineup. The Bears also have some differences from Washington in the systems that they use, something that requires a bit of an adjustment for everyone.

“There are a lot of good players that are sitting out right now,” Nelson acknowledged. “We’re going to try our best to make sure we utilize everybody here.

“It’s hard. It’s real hard. We’ve got to manage the best way possible. You feel bad for the guys [who] get pulled out that shouldn’t have gotten pulled out. It’s just truly a numbers game.”

Nelson added with a chuckle, “I guess that’s my job. So we’ll try to keep them happy.”

Sunday was a good start toward what Nelson and the Bears hope can be a strong finish to this homestand. And this week will be just one more piece of this six-month journey and preparation for what they hope can be a lengthy Calder Cup Playoff run.

“All in all, it’s a good two points,” Nelson said.

“Can we get better? Absolutely.”