Roster hits keep coming, but so do wins for Bears

JustSports Photography

📝 by Patrick Williams

The hits keep coming for the Hershey Bears, but so do the wins.

Captain Matt Moulson exited the Hershey lineup and is out indefinitely following back surgery Dec. 30.

When Bears goaltender Zach Fucale might return to the American Hockey League is anyone’s guess. On Saturday night for the parent Washington Capitals against the Minnesota Wild, Fucale set a National Hockey League record for the longest shutout streak to start a career at that level (138:07). The Capitals already had Hershey products Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, but Fucale could be making a case with his play to stay in Washington in some capacity.

On recall to Washington, all-everything offensive catalyst Mike Sgarbossa has not appeared in a game for the Bears since Nov. 21 after he supplied 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in his first 15 games. Forwards Brett Leason and Aliaksei Protas, who had been counted on to contribute in Hershey, instead went to Washington early in the season. Defenseman Michal Kempny remains with Washington as well.

The 20-7-9 Capitals have a grip on fifth overall in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.

This season’s upheaval has forced the Bears to use 36 players, tying them for seventh-most in the AHL. Since October seven Bears have made their NHL debuts with Washington (Fucale, Leason, Protas, Lucas Johansen, Alex Alexeyev, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, and Joe Snively), and 11 Hershey players in all have appeared in a game with Washington.

Yet through it all the 18-10-2-0 Bears (.629) are chasing down the Atlantic Division lead and have emerged once again as a Calder Cup contender. Since the Washington-Hershey affiliation began with the 2005-06 season, the Bears have added three Calder Cup championships, been to two other Calder Cup Finals, and qualified for the postseason 12 of 14 times. Last season the Bears captured the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the AHL’s regular-season champion after going 24-7-2-0.

Now the Bears are fresh off sweeping a two-game weekend home set against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, taking 3-0 and 3-2 wins in a week featuring four games in five nights. Since the Christmas break, the Bears have won six of seven.

Between Jan. 2 and Jan. 29, Hershey is in a stretch of 10 of 12 games at home. So far the Bears are 12-5-1-1 this season at Giant Center; the 12 home wins lead the AHL. This week the Bears welcome the Bridgeport Islanders on Wednesday and the Toronto Marlies on Saturday before heading north to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton the following afternoon.

While those personnel losses would be hits to any AHL roster, the Bears can continue to rely on strong leadership that also contributes on the ice. Three members of that group ― defenseman Dylan McIlrath along with forwards Garrett Pilon and Mike Vecchione ― chipped in goals in Sunday’s win over the Penguins. Pheonix Copley provided 26 saves, and Cody Franson led the defensive corps as usual.

Joe Snively is tied for fourth in the AHL in scoring this season. (JustSports Photography)

That leadership has impressed head coach Scott Allen, who is in his first season guiding Hershey after Spencer Carbery’s promotion to an assistant-coaching post with the Toronto Maple Leafs last summer.

“Our leadership group does a tremendous job,” Allen said. “I’m a big believer in communication with the players so that they always know what I’m thinking, what we’re thinking as a staff.

“We put it out there for them, and then those leadership guys, they carry the message. The message is clear, but it’s important that you have solid leaders in the room, because quite frankly, we’re not always in the room.”

Three different goaltenders ― Fucale, Copley, and Hunter Shepard, with a shutout on Saturday – earned the week’s wins. McIlrath started Hershey’s scoring before an Allen favorite – “playing to the whistle” – followed with Vecchione’s goal just as the second period expired. Pilon, a fourth-year forward taken as a third-round selection by Washington in the 2016 NHL Draft, continues his push for additional time with the Capitals and provided the game-winner on a third-period goal. Pilon, 23, has at least one point in seven of his past nine outings (four goals, five assists), and he is up to 22 points (11 goals, 11 assists) in 27 contests this season.

Others are contributing as well.

After playing 41 regular-season games as a 19-year-old for the Bears in 2018-19, defenseman Tobias Geisser returned to Hershey from his native Switzerland this season. Now 22, the 2017 Capitals fourth-rounder has continued to earn Allen’s trust, is taking a heavier role with Kempny in Washington, and led all Hershey blueliners in Sunday’s win with three shots while paired with a top-tier veteran in Franson.

“[Geisser] is playing with a level of confidence right now,” Allen said. “We have certainly not seen this offensive side of his game, and it’s exciting. It’s continued growth, right? It’s continued growth for all these guys. He’s a young guy who’s had a couple of short stints in North America, and now he’s full-time. So that’s the challenge. The acclimation process is coming along strong.”

With the personnel losses, Hershey has had to dip into Washington’s organizational depth. Defensemen Jake Massie and Macoy Erkamps joined Hershey from South Carolina, the organization’s ECHL affiliate.

“We have so much confidence in those guys,” said Allen of Erkamps and Massie, who paired on his blue line. “[Assistant coach] Pat Wellar is not afraid to throw out guys in crucial situations at crucial times against solid players top-six players. We’re very fortunate to have them on the back end.”

That youth is also counting on Hershey’s leaders.

Said Allen, “It’s very important in those situations that you have a leadership group to say, ‘Hey, remember what we talked about. We’d better do this. We can’t do that.’

“I talk about it all the time… if you’re going to talk the talk, you have to walk the walk, and that’s what those [leaders] do first and foremost. They’re so well respected. That’s a complete buy-in, and we want our young guys mobilizing and encouraging in those situations.

“That’s where we’re at right now, and hopefully we will continue to grow.”