On Saturday night at Giant Center, the Hershey Bears’ 12-game home ice winning streak came to a halt with a 5-0 setback at the hands of the Syracuse Crunch. On Sunday, the two teams tangle again. This time the scene shifts to Verizon Center in the District, where Hershey will try to exact revenge against the Crunch, which will be the home team for this game.
Even with Saturday’s lopsided loss, the Bears are on a roll right now. Hershey is 17-5-1 in its last 23 games, and it goes into Sunday’s game with a 29-17-3-3 record for the season, good for sixth in the AHL’s Eastern Conference standings.
“I think everybody is just on the same page,” says Hershey captain Dane Byers. “The guys know what to expect from the coach now and they know their role. That’s the biggest thing. We’re playing with confidence and enjoying the run.”
First-year Hershey coach Mike Haviland has the Bears playing their best hockey of the season over the last two months. The team has rebounded from a slow start and has put itself in position for a ninth straight playoff berth in the nine seasons of the current affiliation between the Capitals and Hershey. The team’s fortunes have risen along with their comfort level with their head coach.
“I definitely think so,” says Byers, when asked whether the rise in the standings has come about as a result of feeling more familiar with their new coach. “Guys needed to know what coach Haviland was about and vice versa. Havvy has come in and done a great job of holding guys accountable. I think that’s one of the biggest things we’re having success with.”
Fourteen players who have skated for Hershey this season have also donned a Capitals sweater at some point in their NHL career, and several stalwarts from the Bears’ Calder Cup championship teams in 2006, 2009 and 2010 have gone on to taste success at the NHL level in Washington.
Bears goaltender Philipp Grubauer and defensemen Julien Brouillette, Steve Oleksy, Nate Schmidt, Tyson Strachan and Patrick Wey and forwards Michael Latta and Casey Wellman have also played for the Capitals in 2013-14. Hershey forward Ryan Stoa was recalled from Hershey to Washington earlier this season, but has yet to appear in a game for the Caps.
Syracuse – the AHL affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning – currently occupies the basement of the AHL’s East Division with a 19-23-4-5 record. This marks the second straight weekend in which Hershey faces a divisional foe twice in as many nights. The Bears swept a weekend set from rival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last weekend, winning by a 5-4 count on Sat. Feb. 15 at Giant Center and then downing the Baby Pens by a 3-1 margin in their own barn the following afternoon.
“Those teams we play 10 or 12 times a year so they’re heated games and they are definitely ones that are almost like playoff games,” says Byers. “You know it’s going to be a battle. But those are games that are fun to play in. The guys are playing well and just believing in each other.”
Hershey has defeated the Baby Pens in each of the last five meetings between the two teams, dating back to Dec. 28. The two clubs meet on Tuesday night in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the last of the 11 regular season contests between them this season.
In last Saturday’s game at Giant Center, Byers helped Hershey to victory with a Gordie Howe hat trick (goal, assist and a fight in the same game). Byers has one goal in 14 NHL games spread over parts of three NHL seasons with the New York Rangers and Columbus, but he has amassed 114 goals and 1,109 penalty minutes over the course of 497 AHL games in his nine seasons in the league.
The 28-year-old Saskatchewan native has had a few Gordie Howe hat tricks along the way.
“I can’t remember the last one,” he says. “I know I’ve had a couple, but I can’t remember. It just kind of comes with the kind of game I play; I’m going to have to fight once in a while. Those are always intense games against Wilkes-Barre, and fun games to play in.”
Sunday’s divisional match-up against Syracuse should also prove to be intense, as the Bears figure to be smarting a bit from Saturday night’s setback to Syracuse.