Saturday buzz: Bears buckle down for big weekend

Photo: Katie Fri

📝 by Patrick Williams

After an up-and-down February, not to mention the fretting that can come with the National Hockey League trade deadline, perhaps the Hershey Bears needed to see the Toronto Marlies and Providence Bruins show up on their schedule this week.

Certainly it looked like it Friday night against the Eastern Conference-leading Marlies at Giant Center, where the Bears took a 3-0 second-period lead and held on for a 4-3 win. Friday’s victory nudged the Bears to within two points of Toronto for top spot in the Eastern Conference, and they own a game in hand on the Marlies as well.

Providence, second to the Bears in the Atlantic Division, is next tonight at Giant Center.

“I think the guys ramped up a lot more to play these games, and maybe it gets you out of the rut,” said Bears leading scorer Mike Sgarbossa, who contributed a goal and an assist Friday while also playing his standard agitating style. “But I think it just more forces you to play the right way than anything.”

Bears head coach Todd Nelson thought so, too. Nelson almost always strikes a low-key tone, especially post-game, but he came away happy with what he saw.

“I thought we played a pretty good game,” Nelson said. “We played with emotion and intensity, and I liked that quite a bit. To get a win against that team, it’s pretty special.”

Bears players and coaches barely had a chance to catch their breath after facing Toronto, either. The Bruins, who are only three points behind Hershey, had Friday night off and were already in town awaiting tonight’s showdown between the clubs. In the hallway outside the Bears dressing room, staff wheeled Providence’s freshly laundered jerseys past them to begin setting up for tonight as the Marlies packed up for a trip to Lehigh Valley.

Tonight’s game begins the first of three consecutive games against Providence for the Bears, who visit Rhode Island for a pair of games next weekend. The Bruins arrived in Hershey fresh off a 7-1 loss in Bridgeport on Thursday, while the Bears were victorious against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Wednesday before turning their attention toward Toronto.

“The guys knew what they were in for,” Nelson said. “There are no easy games. There never is, but we’re playing against top teams.”

Now comes this test with Providence. The teams split a pair of games at the end of December.

“We’re going to need the same effort facing a very good Providence team,” Nelson continued. “They’ll be hungry. They (the December meetings) were playoff-style games going back and forth.”

Said Sgarbossa of Providence, “They are extremely hard-working. Very detailed, defensive-minded team, and they just always seem to be in your face, so it’s an aggressive-style game. Heavy game. But they stick to their system, which is key. When you have guys buying into that, you can go a long way in this league, and I think when we’re at our best we’re doing that, too.”

The NHL trade deadline arrived Friday at 3 p.m. ET, four hours before the Bears faced off with Toronto. For young players experiencing it for the first time, Nelson understood that unnerving feeling. The parent Washington Capitals had been active leading up to Friday, and a talented roster like Hershey’s naturally will attract attention from other NHL organizations. Rumors fly across the hockey world, and players hear them.

“It’s a bit of a distraction,” Nelson acknowledged. “It’s always in the back of your mind. It’s on their mind. It’s human nature.

“It was on my mind, too. You just never know what’s going to happen.”

Sgarbossa is in his fifth season with the Washington organization and in the final year of a two-year contract that he signed in June 2021. Hershey is a bona fide Calder Cup contender, and he wants to see this season through to June.

“For me, it’s a relief once [the deadline] is over,” Sgarbossa admitted. “I mean, it’s a stressful time. You don’t know if you’re moving or where you’re going.

“We’ve got such a good team, and we’re really close as far as personality and the players on the team… everyone wanted to stay together and see how far we could go. I think there’s a lot of relief in that room that there weren’t moves made to ship guys out. But at the same time, not even to bring guys in, because sometimes [bringing] guys in, it can disrupt the chemistry a little bit in the room, and I think guys are happy the way the team is set up.”