Recalls, injuries not slowing down Bears

Photo: Tori Hartman

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

Fortunes swing quickly in the American Hockey League.

Earlier today, rookie forward Ivan Miroshnichenko was recalled from Hershey by the Washington Capitals. The 20-year-old Miroshnichenko, a 2022 first-round pick, is having a solid season with the Bears with 25 points (nine goals, 16 assists) through 47 games.

On Friday, hours before a game against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Hershey lost forward Hendrix Lapierre to recall. Before that it was Pierrick Dube, who took his 24 goals (tied for fourth-most in the AHL) with him to Washington to make his NHL debut. Bears leading scorer Mike Sgarbossa left for Washington during the All-Star break and is taking a regular shift with the Capitals, showing no sign of returning to Hershey.

On Feb. 15, the Capitals put forward Matthew Phillips on waivers. A 30-goal scorer in the AHL each of the last two seasons, Phillips would have been a massive addition if he was assigned to Hershey. Instead the rival Pittsburgh Penguins claimed him, keeping him in the NHL.

And then there is AHL All-Star Ethen Frank, who has been injured and out since Feb. 9. Versatile center Riley Sutter has missed the last four games. Captain Dylan McIlrath served a two-game league suspension.

These Bears are hobbling. But so it goes in the AHL. And so it goes that a made-in-Hershey theme is nothing new for the Capitals, where Bears alumni have made major impacts in the nation’s capital since their affiliation began in 2005.

And despite the recent bumps in the road, Hershey is 5-1-0-1 since the All-Star break and has just five regulation losses in its last 42 outings (32-5-0-3). For the 12-time Calder Cup champions, this regular season may be shaping up as their finest yet: playing at an .802 clip with 19 games remaining, they are on pace to surpass the 1992-93 Binghamton Rangers’ standard (.775) for the best record in league history.

The Bears certainly aren’t cruising, especially now. They had to grind out five of six points on a swing through Toronto, Belleville and Laval last week. Then came a nine-hour bus ride home before back-to-back games hosting Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Rochester. Before a packed house at Giant Center on Friday, Chase Priskie scored the go-ahead goal with 3:38 left in regulation to send the Bears to a 4-1 win over the Penguins. And in front of another sell-out crowd on Saturday, they ripped 39 shots at Rochester’s Devon Levi – 22 of them in the second period – before Alex Limoges gave Hershey a 2-1 win with his third overtime marker this season.

“It was a total team effort,” head coach Todd Nelson said after Friday’s win. “All in all, it was a great effort from everybody. Like I always say, they all can’t be Picassos.”

Nelson has won the Calder Cup four times, including last year’s championship with the Bears. He consistently preaches that the regular season is a time to learn hard lessons, which is why he rarely raises too many alarms if his club has a bad night or two. Those stumbles, Nelson reasons, are part of that process. (Of course, he is also not one to make much of a run of success, either.) There is no time in the postseason to learn those lessons, especially when a slip or two in a short series can bring an abrupt and early end to any Calder Cup hopes.

For much of the season, the Bears had remained rather healthy and the calls from Washington were minimal. With a deep roster, finding playing time for everybody was difficult. That is no longer a problem, and players who had sought more then now have all the ice time that they can handle, including opportunities on the power play. Tyson Empey and Kevin O’Neil were the latest additions from the Bears’ ECHL affiliate in South Carolina.

“It’s put up or shut up,” Nelson said bluntly. “Go out there, do your job, and show that you can play there. The guys have done a pretty good job of that.”

That Toronto-Belleville-Laval swing helped as well.

“I think it was a huge stepping stone for us in terms of guys stepping up,” said Priskie, whose 29 points (six goals, 23 assists) in 51 games lead all Hershey blueliners. “You look down the list, and it seems like we have a depleted core. However, guys are stepping into new roles, and they’re thriving. You look at a guy like Matt Strome, he had to bide his time waiting to get his chance full-time on the fourth line. Then in an elevated role, he goes out and has a goal and an assist (against the Penguins), which is just huge for our club.

Nelson had Strome and Bogdan Trineyev killing a penalty in the final minutes of regulation on Friday while holding a one-goal lead. Both picked up empty-net shorthanded goals on that kill. Rookie forward Ryan Hofer had a goal the same night. At some point the Bears may get some of their top point-getters back with fresh NHL know-how. But for now they have a new contingent of personnel who have shown that they can compete and win games in the AHL.

“Guys [are] being thrust into new roles,” Priskie said, “and having to elevate their game to make sure we continue to sustain success.”