The Hershey Bears dominated the Manitoba Moose territorially for over 45 minutes but all they could muster was a 1-1 tie with just over five minutes gone into the third period in game four of this Calder Cup final series. Then former Capital Nolan Baumgartner took a holding penalty to give the Bears a power play and 55 seconds later Manitoba made what may turn out to be the deciding mistake that costs them this Calder Cup final series – they committed a two many men on the ice penalty – giving the Bears a 1:05 two man advantage. 63 seconds after that mental miscue an Alexandre Giroux point blast went wide on the short side of the net but caromed out the far side where it was buried for the game winner by center Keith Aucoin. Hershey now leads this AHL final series three games to one and can take home the trophy with a win in game five on Tuesday night at the Giant Center. A loss on Tuesday would send this series back to Winnipeg for Friday’s game six and possibly Sunday’s game seven, something Hershey Coach Bob Woods and his team does not want to see happen
“We don’t want to have to go back to Manitoba so we need to take care of business right now. I told the guys in the locker room that it is probably going to be the toughest game of your career. Manitoba and the way they came at us tonight they’ve got a lot of jump. We had to battle to get that one tonight…Our guys don’t want to have to do that flight [to Winnipeg] and they want to [win] in front of their home crowd,” said Woods.
It was pointed out to Woods that Hershey has not won a Calder Cup on home ice in 29 years and the coach talked about that and the difficulty involved.
“For the fans that follow us it would be nice to win it at home. It will take every bit of ounce of energy we’ve got to get it done,” finished Woods.
Hershey really had to hang on for the victory over the last eight minutes while the Moose came at the Bears stronger than they had at any other time in the two games in Chocolate town this weekend. However, 21 year old goalie Michal Neuvirth was spectacular down the stretch and thwarted any chance Manitoba had of sending this game to overtime. The young net minder made at least three huge stops in the final 30 seconds of regulation when the Moose pulled their goalie (Cory Schneider) and had a 5 on 3 skater advantage (Giroux and Jason Jaffray of Manitoba were in the box for coincidental penalties while Chris Bourque sat for cross-checking). The Bears also killed off a 25 second two man Manitoba advantage in the second period. Neuvirth is very impressive because he is positionally sound and does not flop around on the ice. His rebound control was outstanding on Sunday. After the contest Neuvirth had the following to say on his play.
“I feel good and am just playing the best I can. My teammates played great tonight blocking shots and it was a huge win for us. I was just trying to stay positive and I got the feeling we were going to win the hockey game.”
I also asked him if he has a lot of communication with his defensemen and if he is hoping to improve his ability to play the puck with his stick. Below are his respective answers.
“Yes, we do, especially on our PK and it has been great so far. I believe in our guys on defense and they believe in me so it has been a team effort,” said the young Czech goalie on communicating with his defense.
“Yes, but my defense doesn’t want me to play the puck so I’m just trying to do what is best for the hockey team and my job is stop the puck and that is what I am doing right now,” added Neuvirth on improving his puck moving skills.
Here are some other thoughts on the Bears 2-1 victory on Sunday evening:
The Bears did a very good job of creating turnovers at the Moose blue line or in the neutral zone which led to numerous Hershey two on one breaks but they could not convert on those opportunities. Aucion and Giroux were involved in many of them. I thought the AHL MVP (Giroux), despite assisting on the game winner, did not play well on Sunday. He looked slow at times and struggled to finish chances. He passed up a great shooting situation from the slot in the second period and then another time on a two on one rush he hogged the puck and tried to beat the defender himself when the pass was the right play. He also took a costly unsportsmanlike conduct penalty with two minutes left for mouthing off at the referee (Francois St. Laurent).
Bourque was all over the ice using his speed to generate opportunities and he had 5 shots on goal in the contest. However, on two occasions when manning the point on the power play he was not patient and shot the puck when there wasn’t a good lane to the cage. His hall of fame father (Ray) was in attendance on Sunday.
Woods has a really solid group of defensemen to use in Hershey. Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Bryan Helmer, Tyler Sloan, Staffan Kronwall, and Dean Arsene can all move the puck. The Moose, on the other hand, “struggle on the backend” as one NHL scout described it to me on Sunday evening. I spoke with both Alzner and Carlson after the game and King Karl says he is not feeling any ill effects of his first concussion and that he came out okay after some physical play in game four. Carlson, who is only 19, continues to greatly exceed expectations. He is excellent at breaking the puck out of his own zone and has improved his positional play. However, a couple of times in the third period he had Manitoba forwards lined up in the corner but when he attempted to knock them off the puck with his body he failed. The good news is he will just get stronger as his body matures and be able to make those hits in due time. I’ll post the Alzner and Carlson interviews on Monday night.
There are no official tallys on face-offs in the AHL like there are in the NHL but it seemed that Manitoba dominated in that category, especially in the last few minutes when the Moose won 5 of 6 key draws in the Hershey end. Aucion and Andrew Joudrey are the best options for Coach Woods but both struggled from the dot when it really mattered late. Also, the only goal the Moose scored came as a result of a defensive zone face-off loss by the Bears.
Special teams were a difference maker for Hershey as they went 1 for 5 with the power play while holding the Moose scoreless in five attempts. “Again our penalty killing did the job, credit them and credit [Neuvirth] with making the big saves,” said Woods.
21 year old forward Oskar Osala had a good game using his body to dole out hits. He seems to have improved his skating over the course of his season and if he continues to do that he could be in the NHL in a couple of years. Also, 25 year old forward Steve Pinizzotto, who spent some time in the ECHL with the Kelly Cup Champion South Carolina Stingrays this season, was a real energy guy for the Bears throwing out hits and drawing penalties. I really liked “Pinner” last summer in development camp and then in the rookie game against the Flyers in September.
Game Four Press Box Attendees: Former Baltimore Skipjacks coach and Washington Capitals assistant coach Rob Laird, who now is a pro scout for the Los Angeles Kings, sat next to me and directly to his right was former Capitals right wing Steve Leach, who scouts for the Calgary Flames. Also present were Washington Times beat writer Corey Masisak, Comcast’s Smokin’ Al Koken, WashingtonCaps.com web producer and Caps pregame warmup goalie specialist, Brett “Stretch” Leonhardt, On Frozen Blog’s John Keeley, and from National Public Radio Independent co-producers Gemma Hooley and Chris Nelson (who have followed Alzner all season long).