After losing game two in Hershey on Saturday night, 4-3, in heartbreaking fashion to go down two games to none in their best of seven game Calder Cup Finals series, the Bears have their work cut out for them since no team has ever rallied from a 2-0 deficit to capture the league title in AHL Finals history. The two losses in Hershey were shocking to many, especially given that the Bears were 8-0 at the Giant Center coming into this series, but Texas Coach Glen Gulutzan has taken a page from the Manchester Monarchs strategy by packing in his defense and clogging the center of their own zone to make it extremely difficult for Hershey to get shots on Stars goalie Matt Climie. The big Texas defense has also done a superb job of preventing Hershey players from getting in front of Climie to create traffic. The tactic is working and frustrating the Chocolate and White, who find themselves down 2-0 primarily because they continue to try and force passes into the slot area, which the Stars have jumped on and taken the other way in transition. Three of the four Texas goals on Saturday night came on the rush, several of which were the result of odd man breaks. In addition to the mistakes with the puck and positionally, Hershey has also taken six penalties, four of which were of the undisciplined variety.
“To be honest, my focus isn’t game three in terms of wins and losses, we took six penalties tonight and four of them were poor in nature, very undisciplined play. Two of the goals were the result of turnovers when our number one point was getting pucks deep and getting it behind their D. If [our team] wants to continue to make those errors, [Texas] will get to four faster than we will,” said Bears Coach Mark French on the situation facing a club that won 60 regular season games, most in the AHL, in 2009-10.
Several of the Bears players seem to have ignored the message coming from their coaching staff, and first and foremost on the list are the AHL back to back regular season MVP’s, Keith Aucoin (2009-10) and Alexandre Giroux (2008-09). Giroux has always had to deal with his slower skating ability but now his hands appear to have deserted him and he is taking far too long to get rid of the puck making it easy for the Texas players to strip him of the biscuit. As for Aucoin, his decision making has been suspect leading to too many turnovers and not enough scoring opportunities. French, who was clearly upset with the majority of his top line, did like the way his team played in the final 10 minutes and thought his second line was his best. But he said the whole club needs to decide to heed the message going forward if Hershey is to be successful against the Stars, starting with game three on Monday night (shown on Comcast SportsNet at 830pm in the Mid-Atlantic region).
“I thought we generated more offense but we don’t have the patience to continue to do it. It’s like we want to be rewarded right away and if it doesn’t work then we are going to throw our hands up and say ‘That’s not working.’ Time of possession in the offensive zone is a good thing. We’ve got to attack seams a little bit more to draw some penalties and generate scoring chances. I thought, at times in offensive zone play, we would have it for 15-20 seconds then we’d throw it blindly into the slot area and turn it over. Again, it’s maybe not a fun way to play that we are asking of the guys, but it is an effective way to play. Until they clearly understand that then we are going to struggle offensively but I do agree that we did [cycle the puck] better in spots tonight. If you look at our resulting goals, especially the last one, we’ve got [Patrick] Wellar shooting and [Andrew] Gordon tipping it, that is how you design it,” said French, describing the direction he gave to his players and his analysis of the resulting execution in game two.
“The Perreault-Beagle-Bourque line was good. Again, that top line has to be concerned about the way we want them to do it. I thought they were better in spots and on that third goal, my hope was that would propel them a little bit. It was a nice play by ‘Coiner [Aucoin] to get the puck to Patrick Wellar and Gordon does a good job and we need to see more of that. We can’t slow down games, we can’t play the way the individuals necessarily want to play, we have to play the way we are going to be effective,” continued the Bears first year head coach.
Beagle, after the contest, clearly hears the message from Coach French on playing more intelligently, but he also says Texas is a tough nut to crack.
“We seem to give them a lot of odd man rushes. We have to be smarter that way. They are not giving us much so we have to make sure we play tighter and not give them so many odd man rushes, that is huge,” started #21, “They play a tough game, it’s hard to get to the net. Our line is cycling them and working it down low and that is what we need to do. But we also have to find ways to get to the net or it’s all for nothing. We’ve had some chances. A couple of shots from the D, one went off of my leg, it’s one of those things where we just have to start getting the bounces now and keep working hard and keep doing what our line was doing, just play in their zone every shift we have and try to play below the dots.”
Beagle then brought up the challenge Hershey faced in the Eastern Conference Finals and some of the similarities to the contests with Texas.
“Manchester was almost the same, they just collapse, so they are blocking everything. We are not getting shots through. They play such a tight defensive game that you don’t have that many odd man rushes and the one we had, [Steve Pinozzotto] scores. It’s just one of those things where we have to make our own chances below the dots and just find ways to get to the net. Not just burying your head and taking it yourself, you have to find ways to get to the front of the net,” finished the 24 year old forward who has played 10 contests with the Caps over the last two seasons.
For Texas, they obviously want to maintain the same blueprint of keeping the Bears on the perimeter, creating turnovers, and staying disciplined in what has become a very chippy and nasty series already, as evidenced by the Boyd Kane attempted spear that likely cost Hershey game two.
“We try to make sure that if we are going to give up shots they are from the outside, for sure, territorially the middle of the ice is what we want to own,” said Gulutzan on his team’s simple strategy for success.
“Obviously one of the keys in the game is discipline too and the spear went the other way and I think that evened the playing field there,” added Gulutzan on an official’s call that came at a critical time for his club.
“The linesman told the official and believed it was warranted of a four minute penalty. I didn’t see it and the video doesn’t show it. The effect it had on the game was rather substantial. You go from having a 5 on 3 and a double minor to trying to kill off a double minor so it was a substantial momentum swing,” said French, who watched his team blow a golden opportunity late in the contest to even the series up.
It was apparent that Hershey tried to ramp up their physical play in game two to contend with a heavy on size Texas squad, but on a few occassions early on the over aggression led to bad positioning and scoring chances for the Stars. Then, as the game went on, the Bears lost their heads, at times.
“We sacrificed ourselves physically, that is not an issue, but there is a sacrifice in not taking undisciplined penalties and that would be the area that we need to get a lot better on,” started French, “I am confident [we can turn the series around], if we learn a tough lesson, discipline. We had a good emotional level tonight and we played a bit harder but at key moments in the game we made poor decisions that cost us the game. I am confident, but at the same time those issues have got to be addressed. I’m not divulging any blame for myself, but those individuals in the room have to make those decisions for themselves,” the Bears bench boss explained.
So as this series shifts back to Austin for three games the Stars are clearly in the drivers seat but the Texas head coach was not going to back off or take anything for granted.
“We’re happy but these last two games were one goal, one goal. I thought either of those games could go either way and I think the whole series is going to play out like that so there is a lot of hockey left,” finished Gulutzan.
On the other hand, the situation for the defending Calder Cup Champions looks to be bleak, but French says there is still hope for a turnaround for Hershey, especially if his team learns from the first two contests.
“You will draw on different scenarios and one I’ll draw on that I am familiar with is Washington was down 2-0 to the New York Rangers two seasons ago and were able to come back. It is not how you draw it up, it’s not conventional,” finished French on the possibility of a comeback.
Simply put, if the Bears do not play smarter, i.e, raise their hockey IQ, starting on Monday in game three, then they could be golfing by the end of the week.