The Hershey Bears, who came into Thursday night’s Calder Cup opening game against the Texas Stars with an undefeated 8-0 home record, started slow, took a brief 1-0 second period lead, but ultimately were done in by bad decision making in a 2-1 loss at the Giant Center. Texas left wing Scott McCulloch grabbed an errant Chris Bourque drop pass that was intended for Sean Collins and darted down the ice with the game tied early in the third period. #17 appeared to have the angle on him to make up for his miscue but instead of using his speed to get position on the Stars forward, Bourque dove on the ice to slide past McCulloh, and then the Texas winger faked out Bears goalie Michal Neuvirth and deposited the puck by #30 for the game winner. Game two is Saturday night at the Giant Center.
A very energized Hershey crowd of 10,013 was all fired up for the return of Bears hockey after an 11 day layoff. However, unlike the start of the AHL Eastern Conference Finals, the Bears did not score quickly nor dominate the first period. Hershey clearly the showed the signs of the long break early with several missed passes and that trend would continue through much of the contest. Texas outshot the Bears 12-4 in period one and had a few good scoring chances with the best being a Jamie Benn partial breakaway after a Karl Alzner giveaway in the last minute. Neuvirth (24 saves), however, would stone the leading goal scorer so far in the 2010 Calder Cup Playoffs. Overall Neuvirth was solid in net making some big stops to keep his club in the contest, especially when the Stars were carrying the play early on.
As the tilt went on, the Bears started to get their skating legs but often times they would parlay a good scoring chance into a turnover or blocked shot due to overpassing or waiting too long with the puck and Hershey Coach Mark French singled that out as the biggest reason for the loss.
“We are not going to make [the 11 day layoff] as the excuse. Were we good in the first period? No. I thought we got better as the game went on but we need to be better for 60 minutes,” started French, “We seemed to get some opportunities where we brought the puck into scoring areas but we were trying to be too cute, make that one more pass instead of one less pass and one more shot. They blocked a lot of shots but I thought with blocks the longer you wait, the more indecisive you are to shoot, and the more tendency they are to get blocked. You get closer to their guy, so I thought that played into that and we didn’t have a really good shot-drive mentality. We need to improve that in game two,” finished the man who led the Bears to a 60 win and 123 point regular season.
Francois Bouchard scored the lone Bears goal at 4:25 of period two after a nifty pass from Mathieu Perreault and it appeared that things would get rolling for the Hershey machine. But 11 seconds after an Alzner delay of game penalty had expired, Greg Rallo of Texas came down the slot on King Karl and rifled one by Neuvirth, using #7 as a partial screen. It was a super shot that rang the iron on the way in but Alzner usually would break that play up before a shot is released. Overall, it was not one of the better performances from the Capitals 2007 1st round pick (5th overall). The pair of Alzner and John Carlson received a ton of ice time and at the end of the game it appeared that they were tired as a couple of times they were beaten to the puck. Clearly the layoff could have impacted many of the players conditioning. Carlson had an up and down game as well but one of the highlights was when he hammered Benn against the right wing boards in the Bears zone, and then he easily took the puck from the forward who spent all 82 games during the 2009-10 regular season with his parent club.
Texas received four power plays on the night to just two for the Bears but neither team converted with the man advantage. The second Hershey penalty was the result of an Alexandre Giroux cross check. The bad penalty by the 2008-09 AHL MVP came after he was set up beautifully in the slot by an Andrew Gordon feed after a super cross ice pass from Alzner. Had Giroux shot quickly he likely would have scored but he took the extra second and lost the puck. Giroux was pretty awful in game one taking far too long to release the puck on scoring chances and on several occassions he was stripped of the biscuit rather easily. Center Keith Aucoin did not perform very well either and if not for Gordon creating havoc in front of the cage against Stars goalie Matt Climie (26 saves) that line would have been even worse.
These two teams did not face each other in the regular season so game one definitely had a feeling out period for each squad. After the tilt I caught up with Gordon and here is a transcript of the interview:
WNST: What was the game plan for game one?
Gordon: We wanted to shoot the puck a lot. I thought we did a decent job of that the last two periods. Any goalie, the more rubber you put on him eventually he is going to slip up. We wanted to get a lot of pucks on net, create a lot of traffic, the problem was they were blocking a lot of our shots and stifling our second chance opportunities. We have to find a way to battle through that and make sure we get our shots through and be in position to get the rebounds.
WNST: Having seen Texas on film and now seeing them live, what is your impression of their team?
Gordon: They’re a hard working group. It is a lot like Manitoba was last year. They are strong physically, they don’t back down, they’re deep but not overly skilled. Not every guy on the team is going to beat you one on one. They wear you down a bit if you are not careful, especially if you are not mentally prepared every shift to go in and battle. It is going to be a battle from here on out and we know the series is far from over.
WNST: Speaking of battles, you had quite a few with Climie tonight taking a few sticks in the back of the leg.
Gordon: You are going to take those sticks when you get in their way. I just try to make sure I stay out of the paint. The referees are good at talking to me and making sure I am not backing up into the crease and getting myself any penalties. So that is where I’ve certainly made a living this year, in front.
WNST: Did you get much input from the referees tonight given what was going on out there?
Gordon: They just told me to watch my feet, watch my feet, watch my feet. Other than that I have a pretty good sense of where I am when I am out there. It’s good, I am going to keep getting there and at times [Climie] had trouble seeing through traffic. Try and create havoc in there whenever I can.
Overall Gordon, who missed the last five games of the Manchester series due to a lower body injury, was one of the better Bears on Thursday night. He also had the hit of the night on Stars defenseman Andrew Hutchinson catching #10 from the side and rocking him into the boards in front of the Texas bench. The hit incensed the Stars and two players immediately jumped on, with Hutchinson still on the ice, to get at Gordon but they were unsuccessful. Surprisingly the Stars were not whisteld for a bench minor. As for the hit, it was vicious but not dirty, according to Texas coach Glen Gulutzan.
“I thought it was clean. I thought if anything it might have been a minor for a charge, but you know this is the playoffs and guys are gonna have to get dirty and they are going to take hits so that is kind of my take on it. I haven’t seen it on video, so maybe I change my mind, but from what I caught of it I think it was probably the right call,” said the Stars bench boss on the Gordon hit that was not penalized.