Sunday notebook: Despite record, Bears not letting up

Photo: Tori Hartman

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

Todd Nelson termed it a “come-to-Jesus meeting” for his club.

Something did not seem quite right, and Nelson could sense it. Shut out in back-to-back games. A split of a two-game trip to Charlotte the following weekend. After a shootout loss Mar. 15 at Utica, he had seen enough. In Hershey, where the defending Calder Cup champion Bears are positioned to make a run at the AHL’s best regular-season record ever, a 1-2-0-2 stretch practically qualifies as a slump.

“We were playing halfway in,” Nelson said. “Just playing to play the game.”

The Bears had a lot swirling around them in March. They clinched a playoff berth a full six weeks before the end of the regular-season schedule. There was the brief assignment of NHL star Evgeny Kuznetsov by the Washington Capitals, a move that put the Bears in headlines across the hockey world. And Nelson saw the potential for problems ahead. Six weeks is a long time – too long, perhaps – for his players to tune up and tweak their individual and collective games before the postseason.

He saw the high standard that they had worked so hard to solidify now not quite up to his liking.

“We’re going to get everyone’s best game, especially this time of the year,” Nelson said. “I think that’s good for our hockey team to play these competitive games.”

Two factors went into the decision to call a meeting that also included staff and scratches.

“There was a bit of bickering going on on the bench and during practice,” Nelson elaborated. “I wanted to nip that in the bud. That was the first part.”

He also circled back to the team’s seven-game fight last June in the Calder Cup Finals against Coachella Valley.

“And the second part is – we hate to talk about last year, but we’ve always talked about how tight our dressing room was last year. That’s probably why we won the Cup. If we didn’t have a tight dressing room and didn’t love each other in there, and Coachella scores to tie it up 4-4 in Game 3 (already leading the series 2-0), the guys could have easily packed it in. But they didn’t. They stuck with it.

“We just said to everybody in there that our closeness is going to help us win games. We’re a close team. Still, there is room for improvement. [If] the guys have a tough night, we want to pick them up, help them out because not everybody’s perfect every night. We just talked about that and how important it is.”

After that meeting, the Bears went on to win nine of their next 10 games. On Friday, they secured the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the AHL’s regular-season champion. And still in their sights are the 1992-93 Binghamton Rangers, whose .775 points percentage has been the AHL regular-season record for the past 31 years; the Bears will need five points in their final three games to overtake that mark.

After missing the postseason cut last season, the Belleville Senators are on the march.

Two nights after a come-from-behind overtime win at Toronto, the B-Sens made a stop in Rochester on Friday night and took a 6-3 win. That victory, their fifth in a row, moved them four points clear of the North Division playoff line. At least until last night. That’s when Rochester repaid Belleville with an 8-2 decision.

Meanwhile in Cleveland, the Laval Rocket captured a 5-1 win. The Toronto Marlies are in the postseason after last night’s shootout victory at Syracuse, leaving just one playoff spot remaining in the North Division.

The night’s results leave the Senators two points ahead of Laval for the fifth and final playoff spot in the North. Belleville still has a game in hand on Laval, a home date against Syracuse this Wednesday.

But next weekend could be even more interesting. That’s when the B-Sens and Rocket stage a home-and-home series with that final playoff spot on the line. Laval has the first tiebreaker with Belleville, which is regulation wins (29-27). Belleville hosts Friday before the teams finish Saturday at Laval.

The Manitoba Moose clinched the fifth and final Central Division playoff berth yesterday, taking care of visiting Iowa, 7-4. That win eliminated the Wild, and when the Chicago Wolves lost last night, the Moose moved into the postseason field.

Go nearly back two months, though, and the chances of the Moose becoming a playoff team looked shaky at best. When play began Feb. 24, the Moose found themselves stuck at the bottom of the Central. But they defeated Calgary at home that afternoon, 4-2, starting a run of nine wins in 10 games as they began moving away from the logjam with Chicago and Iowa. They also dealt the Wolves a pair of fatal blows last weekend at Canada Life Centre with victories in both the shootout and overtime.

Defenseman Ville Heinola has settled in with the Moose and helped to anchor the club’s back end. A broken ankle suffered in the preseason with the Winnipeg Jets kept Heinola, a 2019 first-round pick, out of action until Jan. 13 when he entered the Manitoba lineup. Since then he has 21 points (eight goals, 13 assists) in 37 games, second-most among Moose blueliners. In net, rookie Thomas Milic has solidified Manitoba. Selected by the Jets in the fifth round of the 2023 NHL Draft, Milic began the season in the ECHL with Norfolk before a promotion to the Moose. Head coach Mark Morrison has turned to Milic, who turns 21 today, down the stretch and the rookie has responded by going on a 9-3-1 tear. He made 30 saves in yesterday’s win.

With the Moose now through to the postseason, they have a confirmed first round best-of-three meeting with the fourth-place Texas Stars. The teams will meet twice on Texas ice next weekend, and the Moose still have a chance to overtake the Stars and earn home ice in the upcoming playoff series.

The cavalry has returned to Coachella Valley.

The Firebirds received help from the Seattle Kraken with the return of forward prospects Logan Morrison, Ryan Winterton, and 2022 fourth overall pick Shane Wright. While Seattle did not qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Firebirds have clinched the Pacific Division title and will have a first-round bye.

Wright, 20, picked up four goals during his five-game recall to Seattle, including a two-goal night April 5, and averaged nearly 16 minutes of ice time. He has 43 points (20 goals, 23 assists) through 56 games with the Firebirds. The 21-year-old Winterton, a 2021 third-rounder, has 33 points (21 goals, 12 assists) in 55 games; Morrison, a 21-year-old who went undrafted, has generated 40 points (15 goals, 25 assists) in 60 games.