The Hershey Bears defeated the Manchester Monarchs, 4-2, in game 1 of the AHL Eastern Conference Finals at the Giant Center on Wednesday night. Bears goalie Michal Neuvirth stopped 24 shots, including three breakaways, en route to his seventh straight playoff victory this post season. #30 was the Calder Cup winning net minder last season for the Bears and looks capable of duplicating that feat again this spring. Here are the period by period highlights and analysis followed by some post game quotes and thoughts:
End of 1st Period: Bears 2, Monarchs 0
So much for the nearly two week layoff hurting Hershey! The Bears came out flying scoring just 16 seconds in on a Sean Collins point blast with assists from Chris Bourque and Mathieu Perreault. Then after a poor power play by Hershey, plagued by two Alexandre Giroux giveaways, the Monarchs received a man advantage but Neuvirth stood tall. The shots were 5-2 Manchester after the Bears penalty kill, but then Hershey turned it up. When the Bears received their second power play they made the Monarchs pay as Keith Aucoin sent a nice cross ice pass to Giroux, who one timed it on Jonathan Bernier. The Kings 2006 1st round pick (#11 overall) gave up a huge rebound into the slot and Andrew Gordon banged it home to make it 2-0. Hershey would dominate the rest of the stanza, outshooting the Monarchs 13-7. Bourque had a super period and was all over the ice. Steve Pinizzotto and Kyle Clifford had a spirited bout by the benches late in the period and both received five minutes for fighting.
End of 2nd Period: Bears 3, Monarchs 0
The Monarchs came out with much more energy and a solid forecheck to start period two but they could not solve the Bears defense. Both Karl Alzner and Patrick Wellar made separate solid defensive plays to break up any scoring chances and when Manchester did get shots through, Neuvirth (15 saves so far through two periods) was there for Hershey. With just under 14 minutes left in period two the Bears started taking over again and just past the game’s midway point Pinizzotto made a great play in the neutral zone to steal the puck, then went around the Monarchs defender and skated in two on one on Bernier. “Pinner” froze the Manchester goalie and beat him up high, short side to make it 3-0. The visitors then got a golden opportunity to get on the board as Hershey got caught in a bad change allowing Andrei Loktionov to get a clean breakaway on #30. Neuvy, however, stopped him with a super pad save. The Bears had a late 5 on 3 power play for 22 seconds but could not convert. Lots of guys are standing out for Hershey tonight including the Alzner-John Carlson pairing plus Bourque, Perreault, and the physical impact Pinizzotto is bringing to this tilt (not to mention his highlight reel tally). Shots are 22-15 Bears after two.
End of Period 3: Bears 4, Monarchs 2
Hershey played a sloppy 3rd period but managed to hold on for the victory. Neuvirth stopped Bud Holloway on a shorthanded breakaway to keep it 3-0 after Carlson was caught at the left point. #30 then gave up a softie to Loktionov from lower right circle to make it 3-1 with 7:28 remaining. Less than two minutes later Boyd Kane stole the puck in the neutral zone, waited patiently while Alzner jumped up into the play, fed King Karl with a nice pass when #7 opened up, and then Alzner beat Bernier blocker side to make it 4-1 with 5:42 remaining. The Monarchs would add a goal from Gabe Gauthier off a good Oscar Moller pass to make it 4-2 with 3:50 remaining. Gauthier was left all alone in front of Neuvrith for some reason. With 2:35 to go Collins was sent off for cross checking but the Monarchs surprisingly didn’t pull Bernier until the last minute allowing the Bears to close the deal.
All in all it was a good effort from Hershey in their first tilt in 13 days to get a big win to open this series. They were sloppy, at times in the third period, and the power play needs to take more advantage of its opportunities (1 for 5) but overall Hershey looks like the better club. Many of the players stated afterwards that they were excited to finally play again and that is why they had such a good start. However, they pointed out that in the third period they lost their legs and as a result the Monarchs outshot them 11-6. The final shots tally was 28-26 in favor of the Bears.
The official three stars for the contest were Pinizzotto, Neuvirth, and Bourque. It is hard to argue with those selections but Alzner also stood out along with Carlson. In addition, forward Andrew Joudrey played a very nice game going +2 and he was excellent killing penalties (Manchester went 0 for 3). Kane (1 assist, +2) performed well assisting on Alzner’s goal and he was also the other forward on Pinizzotto’s two on one break in which #13 shot the puck to notch the third Bears goal.
Here are some more thoughts and quotes on the Bears victory:
Neuvirth outdueled Bernier and #30 credited his success on the breakaways to some extra practice work.
“You know I took over 50 breakaways yesterday at our practice. Maybe I was right to get the extra work on the breakaways. I am glad I did it. I was perfect on the breakaways,” added the 22 year old Czech goalie.
Alzner was also very complimentary of his goaltender.
“We talked about [the three breakaways], he’s unbelievable. He’s good in practice when we go against him and you could tell he was on today. He was sliding over at the right time and he was staying square to the puck. It was exactly what we needed from him. We don’t want to do that anymore but it is nice when he comes up big,” said the captain of the 2008 Canadian World Junior Championship squad.
Neuvirth did a good job of not commiting first on the breakaways and he was solid all game. The first tally on him was from a bad angle and could be considered soft but he clearly did not see it.
“I don’t even know where it went through. Archie [goalie coach Arturs Irbe] told me it went short side under the glove but I got to get those and make sure I stop them on Saturday night,” added #30.
As I mentioned, Alzner and Carlson were so dominant and there were numerous shifts where they just appeared to be at another level than the others on the ice. Carlson, who was super down the stretch with the Caps, seems to be even more aggressive in the AHL when paired with King Karl and there were several instances where he was almost like a fourth forward on the ice as he helped create lots of offensive chances for Hershey. It is ironic though, that on one of the rare occassions when Alzner jumped up in the play, the Bears scored.
“We don’t talk too much about jumping into the play or anything like that. If he has a chance, I know he is going to go. If I have a chance I’m going to go but I’m going to make sure I let him know to stay back because I’ve found that I’ve learned alot from him this year on just getting my timing better on jumping into the play. So when he was [in Washington] that is what I was doing a lot more. We just have to watch each other because [Manchester] has a great transition game,” said #7 on how he and Carlson handle adding offense from the blue line.
Manchester clearly appears to be the weaker team but Alzner was quick to point out that he thinks the Monarchs are dangerous and there are things Hershey will have to do to continue to be successful in this series.
“Once they get into the swing I’m sure they are going to be cycling real well. They got a lot of guys that can move and can play really well one on one. So we have to be careful that we are not over-commiting. I know that there were a few times when I went in for a hit and they stepped around me, so we just have to be careful down low and keep the pucks on them,” finished #7 on what he sees are areas for improvement in game two on Saturday night at 7pm at the Giant Center.