Sunday notebook: First-half tear just the start for Bears

Photo: Casey Saussaman

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

When a team is in its 86th season, new records are difficult to set.

But the Hershey Bears have been breaking new ground. The defending Calder Cup champions are off to the best start in club history with 56 points (28-7-0-0) through 35 games. They complete the first half of their 2023-24 schedule today when the rival Lehigh Valley Phantoms visit Giant Center.

The Phantoms are one of only four teams to come to Hershey this season and leave with two points; they dealt the Bears a 4-1 defeat Nov. 12. A 5-3 loss to Hartford last night ended the Bears’ latest nine-game winning streak.

Yes, “latest.” It has been that kind of season in Hershey. The Bears also won nine in a row from Nov. 15 to Dec. 2. They have not lost back-to-back games all season, and with 19 wins in their last 22 contests they have opened up 15-point lead atop the Atlantic Division.

Head coach Todd Nelson openly acknowledged in training camp his concern about a potential championship hangover. How would the returning players handle the start of another regular-season grind? The 2023 playoff run had been long and the summer had been all too short to heal up and recharge for season.

And while the Bears and parent Washington Capitals acted aggressively to retool the Hershey roster following offseason departures, how all of those pieces will mesh is always unknown until the games actually start.

Nelson need not have worried, however. They are playing at an .800 clip; the 1992-93 Binghamton Rangers (57-13-10) finished with a .775 points percentage, the best in league history. The record for wins in a season of 72 games or fewer is held by last year’s Calgary Wranglers (51).

What does their path ahead look like? They play 21 of their 36 second-half games on the road beginning with three straight, including a trip to Hartford on Jan. 19. They have a Toronto-Belleville-Laval trek in mid-February, and two-game visits to Charlotte, Cleveland and Iowa further down the line.

Nelson reached back nearly 30 years to provide a cautionary tale before this season began. Back in his playing days as a defenseman, his Portland Pirates, fresh off the 1994 Calder Cup title, went undefeated over the first 17 games of the following season. They finished with 104 points, second-most in the league… and lost to Providence in the first round of the playoffs, dropping Game 7 at home.

Even with the passage of time, it still stung all these years later. Nelson has a knack for finding the right emotional temperature for his club, and it is a safe bet that his players will be very cognizant of what is ahead of them in the second half.

“We’re going to get their best game,” Nelson said of opponents looking forward to facing off against the defending champion.

Hershey’s closest challenger in the AHL’s overall standings is the Cleveland Monsters. At 47 points (23-9-1-0) with two games in hand, the North Division leaders are wrapping up their own impressive first half.

And like the Bears, the Monsters may stumble but not for long. They dropped a 3-1 decision at Rochester on Friday and trailed the Amerks early in the rematch last night, but withstood a Rochester comeback and earned a 6-5 overtime victory in front of 13,692 fans at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Trey Fix-Wolansky’s second goal of the game. It was Fix-Wolansky’s sixth career OT goal, and moved him into a tie for third in the AHL scoring race with 32 points (12 goals, 20 assists).

The Monsters, who have never won a regular-season division title, are nine points clear of Syracuse for first in the North.

One shutout was good, so why not two?

Yaroslav Askarov returned to the Milwaukee Admirals and blanked the visiting Colorado Eagles in back-to-back starts this weekend. He made 30 saves on Friday before Marc Del Gaizo gave Milwaukee a 1-0 overtime victory and recorded 26 more stops in a 5-0 win last night, pushing the Admirals to within two points of Texas for the Central Division lead.

Askarov, whose AHL shutout streak now stands at 131 minutes and 13 seconds, earned his first career National Hockey League victory last Saturday, making 27 saves in Nashville’s 3-2 shootout win at Washington. He is 10-6-1 with a 2.14 goals-against average (second in the AHL) and .920 save percentage (sixth) in 17 appearances with Milwaukee this season.

With Pheonix Copley out for the season after undergoing knee surgery, the Los Angeles Kings added goaltending depth to the organization by signing Aaron Dell to an American Hockey League contract with the Ontario Reign.

Erik Portillo, a rookie out of the University of Michigan, has gone 9-4-1 with a 2.53 GAA and a .917 save percentage for Ontario this season. After David Rittich’s recall to the Kings in mid-December, Portillo had been joined by Jacob Ingham, a fourth-year pro who has just nine games of AHL experience.

Dell, who spent last season mostly with the San Jose Barracuda, is coming off an appearance with the Canadian national team at the Spengler Cup tournament in Switzerland. The 12th-year pro has played 133 games in the AHL and 130 more in the NHL.

Samuel Fagemo’s third goal and fourth point of the night gave Ontario a 5-4 overtime win over San Jose last night after the Barracuda had scored three times in the final 7:24 of regulation to tie it. The Reign are third in the Pacific Division, two points behind Tucson and five behind Calgary.