Getting up early in the morning to watch Olympic hockey hasn’t been as difficult as this night owl thought it would be. Starting with the Canada-USA women’s game last Tuesday, I’ve been waking up early every morning from Florida and now D.C., taking in all the hockey I can and managing to avoid afternoon naps, too.
But exactly a week after seeing the Caps play their last game before the NHL’s Olympic break, I started craving some live hockey, so I made a quick journey up to Pennsylvania on Saturday night to check in on the AHL Hershey Bears for the first time this season. The Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins were in town to face the red-hot Bears as part of a home-and-home set. The two teams would do battle once again the next night up I-81 in W-B/S.
(You won’t have to travel that far if you want to get a look at the Bears next weekend. Hershey will take on the Syracuse Crunch at Verizon Center in a 5 p.m. game in the District this Sunday, Feb. 23.)
I was up early watching Team USA’s preliminary round win over Russia on Saturday morning, and the day also ended on a high note in Hershey as the Bears earned a 5-4 win over the Baby Pens on Saturday night.
Arriving at the Bears’ Den in time for a pregame meal and a few cold ones, I spotted many familiar faces before Saturday’s game. The Caps’ Road Crew was on hand in full force, representing in numbers with a bus full of Capitals’ fans. The restaurant was more than packed at 5 p.m. (a 20-minute wait for a table) and about 90 percent of the clientele appeared to be pre-game diners.
My son Mac and I ate quickly and then made the short drive to Giant Center, settling into our upper level seats behind the net where the Bears would shoot twice. We got there in time to watch warm-ups and noted that the Bears were dressing seven defensemen for the game, including four (Nate Schmidt, Tyson Strachan, Patrick Wey and Julien Brouillette) who have skated for the Capitals in 2013-14.
Five of those defensemen – including all four who’ve played for Washington in ’13-14 – recorded a point in the game. But we’ll get to that.
The first frame didn’t go the way Hershey had hoped. The Bears spent a lot of the period chasing the puck in their own end of the ice, and Hershey weathered a pair of Baby Pens power plays in the first half of the period, too.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton took a 1-0 lead on a Bobby Farnham goal at 12:01 of the first, but Bears goaltender Philipp Grubauer made some good stops to keep Hershey close.
The Bears got a couple of power plays late in the first period, and they made good on the second of those opportunities. After a D-to-D pass from David Kolomatis to Nate Schmidt, the latter fed Casey Wellman in the left circle. Wellman’s shot beat Baby Pens’ goalie Eric Hartzell at 19:39 of the first to make it a 1-1 game.
Hershey took control of the contest in the second. In the game’s middle 20 minutes, it was the Bears who spent most of the time possessing the puck and the Pens who were chasing. Hershey wasted little time in taking its first lead of the night. Just 32 seconds into the second period, Dustin Gazley converted a terrific feed from Strachan off the rush to give the Bears a 2-1 lead on Hershey’s second goal in 53 seconds of playing time. Wellman collected the secondary assist on the score.
Despite their second-period domination, the Bears drew only one power play and that was for delay of game (puck over the glass). But once again, the Bears scored in the final minute of the frame to extend their lead to 3-1.
With 25 seconds remaining in the middle period, Hershey doubled its lead when captain Dane Byers made a nifty backhand feed across the crease to Ryan Potulny, who converted for his second goal of the season. Brouillette picked up the secondary helper on that strike.
Byers scored a goal of his own at 10:16 of the third to make it a 4-1 game, Wey and Michael Latta assisting. On the ensuing shift and just 19 seconds after the goal, Byers drilled Farnham into the boards behind the Penguins’ net, and the two dropped the mitts. That event finished off Byers’ Gordie Howe hat trick.
Hartzell injured himself on the Byers goal, and he left the game shortly after. Jeff Deslauriers came on in relief, and Gazley baptized him with his second goal of the game at 12:52 to make it a 5-1 game. Gazley’s second tally came on a Hershey power play with help from Ryan Stoa and Jeff Taffe.
With a four-goal lead and only 7:08 remaining, Hershey appeared to be coasting to victory. But the Baby Pens weren’t dead, yet. Nick Drazenovic made it a 5-2 game just 42 seconds after Gazley’s second goal, and then the Bears got into some penalty trouble. With a two-man advantage for 1:47, the Penguins cashed in on the front end of that power play. Brian Gibbons’ goal made it a 5-3 game with 5:17 left, plenty of time by any standard.
The Baby Pens kept pouring it on, and they pulled Deslauriers for an extra skater with about two minutes remaining. Hershey dodged several bullets in its own end, but Jayson Megna scored with 16.6 seconds left in regulation to make it a 5-4 game. Fortunately for the Bears, Hershey was able to win the ensuing center ice face-off and whittle off the remaining time for its fourth straight victory and its 12th straight on home ice.
I’ve got to say, Gazley was impressive. He’s a very undersized (5-foot-9, 154 pounds) gut who started the season with the ECHL Reading Royals. But he was getting significant time on both special teams with the Bears in Saturday’s game, and he seemed to have decent wheels and some heart to go along with it. The right wing has eight goals and 12 points in 21 games with the Bears. Taffe and Brandon Segal are tied for the Bears’ team lead with 14 goals, and they’ve skated in 51 and 46 games, respectively. Half of Gazley’s eight goals have come on the power play; he is fourth on the team in that department.
Mac and I woke up Sunday morning in Hershey and watched Russia eke out a shootout win over Slovakia before we headed home. We got back to DC in time to watch Canada's overtime win over Finland, finishing off a full weekend of hockey on TV and live. We were happy to see the Bears finished off a busy weekend with their third win in as many nights on Sunday, a 3-1 triumph over the Baby Pens in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
At the turn of the calendar, the Bears were on the outside of the playoff picture and looking in. Hershey won just two of its first nine games this season (2-4-3-0), and as 2014 dawned the Bears still had not won more than two straight games at any point in the season. But starting with a 2-1 shootout win over the Penguins at Giant Center on Dec. 28, the Bears have had the look of a juggernaut.
The Bears were very pedestrian 12-12-2-3 going into that Dec. 28 game against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, but they’ve been burning up the circuit since with a 17-4-1-0 mark. Hershey hosts Syracuse at Giant Center on Saturday, and the two teams will meet again on Sunday at Verizon Center with Syracuse taking on the role of the home team. Hershey is only two points behind front-running Binghamton for the lead in the AHL’s East Division, and the Bears currently rank fourth in the Eastern Conference standings.
The 2013-14 season marks the ninth in the current partnership between the Bears and the parent Washington Capitals. During the previous eight seasons, the Bears made the Calder Cup playoffs every spring and claimed Calder Cup championships in 2006, 2009 and 2010.