Perhaps one of the best ways to measure your hockey team is via their performance against a division rival. For the Bears, that would be the Wilkes Barre Scranton Penguins. They’re close in proximity (really only about a 2 hour drive along Route 81), the hatred runs beyond the AHL (look at their parent clubs), and for quite a few years, they’ve been the crème de la crème of the Eastern Conference. However, if you only look at the surface of the matchups this year, you’d say Hershey is off to a rough year while Wilkes Barre is setting the AHL on fire.
The Bears have yet to beat Wilkes Barre this season. In their four regular season meetings thus far, Hershey has walked away with 1 point, a point gained in a shoot out loss.
- 10/09/2010: Bears @ Penguins Lost 3-4 (in shoot out)
- 10/22/2010: Bears @ Penguins Lost 2-3
- 10/30/2010: Penguins @ Bears Lost 2-6
- 11/20/2010: Penguins @ Bears Lost 3-4
True, the Bears have lost a lot of big names. Neuvi, Carlson, and Alzner are up with the Caps now. Wilson and Giroux have moved on for other opportunities. The Bears roster is filled with younger players and has gotten younger with so many of the remaining big names recovering from injury – Pinizzotto, Bouchard, Aucoin. The addition of guys like Greentree and Wilsie have proven to be good ones, but it seems that the Bears are still trying to find their way. Hmmm… where have we seen this before?
Oh wait, I know! Let’s go back a few years to 2005. The Bears had just begun their re-affiliation with the Washington Capitals. Bruce Boudreau was behind the bench in Chocolatetown, and the team was finding their own way. The Bears regular season roster included names like Boyd Gordon, Tomas Fleischmann, Mike Green, Dave Steckel, Eric Fehr, and Deryk Engelland. By the time Calder Cup Playoffs rolled around, commuting defenseman Jeff Schultz was back with the Bears for the rest of the push. Why does this matter? The Bears were heading into the East Division Finals after sweeping Norfolk in the first round. Their opponent? The Wilkes Barre Scranton Penguins. The Baby Pens finished 2nd in the Eastern Conference and first in the East Division with 113 points at the conclusion of the regular season. The Bears were 2nd in the East Division with 103 points. All signs pointed to a tough series, with the majority picking the Pens to move on to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Baby Pens’ regular season roster features many names you’re probably familiar with. Daniel Carcillo (seriously), Erik Christensen, Max Talbot, Drew Fata, David Koci, Paul Bissonnette, Alain Nasreddine, and Dany Sabourin. For the Calder Cup Playoffs, the Baby Pens got their boost with young stud goalie Marc Andre Fleury joining the team. The entire town of Hershey was nervous about facing Wilkes Barre in the playoffs that year. In the 05-06 regular season, the Bears and Baby Pens had met 10 times, and the Baby Pens came out on top 6 of the 10 meetings. In fact, Wilkes Barre took 2 points in 5 of the first six meetings that season:
- 10/08/2005 Bears @ Penguins Lost 2-1
- 10/09/2005 Penguins @ Bears Lost 4-3 (in shootout)
- 10/28/2005 Bears @ Penguins Lost 5-2
- 12/04/2005 Penguins @ Bears Won 3-2
- 12/18/2005 Penguins @ Bears Lost 3-0
- 12/26/2005 Bears @ Penguins Lost 8-1
- 1/14/2006 Penguins @ Bears Won 2-1 (OT)
- 2/10/2006 Bears @ Penguins Won 1-0
- 3/24/2006 Bears @ Penguins Lost 7-2
- 3/26/2006 Penguins @ Bears Won 3-2
So you see, that season seemed to be one where the Bears were always falling short of the Baby Pens, especially early on. It seemed that the team made a New Years’ Resolution to be better, and they were. They took the 2 points in 3 of the last four meetings, and seemed to have figured out how to handle that hot team. But with playoffs looming and an NHL goalie with the team, would that change?
If you paid any attention to the Bears that year, you know how the rest of the story goes. The Bears swept the Baby Pens in 4 games, went on to the Eastern Conference Finals where they defeated the Portland Pirates (remember them, Caps fans?) in OT in Game 7 at Giant Center (thanks to that beauty of a shot by Eric Fehr), and then ended up defeating the Milwaukee Admirals in Milwaukee to hoist the Calder Cup.
Now I’m not saying that the Bears are going to win the cup this year. Every team seems to get better every year, and hey, the Bears can’t win it every year. What I am saying, and what I hope you’ll take from this, is that throughout the course of the season, the unsolvable teams seem to become solvable. The unbeatable goalies eventually get beaten (think Halak in last year’s NHL playoffs), and the team that takes the lead early on is rarely the team hoisting the Cup in June (the Bears were the exception last year, not the rule – ask many of the recent President’s Trophy winners).
While there are still key cogs on the Bears Roster, there are many new names. It’ll take time to get them all rolling together and clicking the way they should. Don’t boo the team because they’re not living up to the expectations set over the past two years. They’re a different team.
In the meantime, sit back and enjoy the exciting games. Let’s face it, blow outs become boring after awhile. And if nothing else, let the stumbles and struggles of this season remind you of how very special the last two years in Hershey were.