After winning a Calder Cup AHL Championship last June, the Hershey Bears continue to make history. On Sunday night, before 9,166 fans, the Bears won their 20th consecutive contest at home to set an AHL record by defeating the Albany River Rats (Carolina Hurricanes farm team), 5-3. The Bears are now 43-11-0-2 (88 points) and are at least eight points ahead of every other AHL team.
Here are my thoughts and analysis on this super triumph for the Hershey franchise and Washington Capitals organization:
Francois Bouchard had the two third period goals to win this one for the Bears, with both assists coming from Karl Alzner. Bouchard was excellent all night and that was easily the best game I have ever seen him play at this level. #22 wasn’t a factor in the Calder Cup finals last year and I wondered what was going on with him. Then in training camp I noticed he looked bigger and was encouraged because I always thought he could skate and score but am curious to see if he can handle the physical grind at the pro level. The young man selected in the 2nd round (35th overall) of the 2006 NHL draft won’t turn 22 until April 26th so he has plenty of time to develop and his performance on Sunday certainly got my attention. The game winner was the result of him going to the net and his phenomenal hand-eye coordination. On the fifth and final tally of the game, he took a superb breakout pass from Alzner and just turned turned on the jets, racing up the right wing and he blasted a laser five hole by Andrew Peters.
Alzner was very good as well, outside of getting beat 1 on 1 in the first period one time (but Braden Holtby bailed him out on that mistake). King Karl unleashed the best slap shot I’ve ever seen from him and it hit Peters so hard that the puck bounced up in the air and to Bouchard at the side of the net for the game winning power play marker. As usual, a solid defensive zone pass that was intercepted by #7 was followed up with a great breakout pass by him that resulted in a scoring opportunity in transition. The play Alzner made to set up Bouchard for that final goal reminded me of the super defensive play and breakout pass he made in Edmonton back in December that led to Alexander Ovechkin’s game tying tally that night.
Chris Bourque started this one like he was going to be the game’s first star. He was all over the ice with his speed and controlled the puck with his outstanding skill on several rushes. He scored just 15 seconds into period two. Bourque, who has a very good slap shot and therefore gets first unit power play time on the point, could have had more points but his decisions on when to shoot and when to carry the puck were slightly off. However, I was impressed with his play and the team is now 25-1 in the last 26 games he has worn the Bears uniform, which tells you how much he means to the club.
Hershey outshot the River Rats handily (19-6) in the first period but Peters and some incorrect decisions by the Bears in the offensive zone kept this a one goal game. After Bourque scored early second period I figured Hershey would roll but then they got in penalty trouble and gave up a 1:56 five on three. They nearly killed it before Albany scored with just 15 seconds remaining in the first minor to Oskar Osala. But when Osala scored on a fluky deflection while trying to pass on a two on one just 2:25 later it appeared this contest was on the verge of being a Hershey blowout. Then Holtby gave up an awful bad angled, short side goal that seemed to deflate the Bears while energizing the River Rats. Albany would carry the play in the second, outshooting Hershey 10-5, and outscoring them 3-2.
Holtby (11 saves on 14 shots) was yanked after the third goal and I thought that was more of an indication that head Coach Mark French was looking for a momentum change rather than singling out bad play by Braden, although that second goal #1 allowed was terrible. Fortunately Jason Bacashihua came in and stopped all 11 shots he faced over the last 27 minutes. After a strong first period, Holtby struggled, but one thing I really like about the young goalie is his ability to play the puck. That talent makes him like a third defenseman and he takes pressure off of his blue liners by possessing that skill. Jose Theodore, Semyon Varlamov, and Michal Neuvirth are nowhere near as good as Braden is at playing the puck right now. Clearly though, stopping the puck is priority number one.
Notes: Bryan Helmer tied an AHL record by recording his 386th career assist, tying him with Steve Kraftcheck for the most assists by an AHL defenseman. He was also +2 and was named the game’s third star. Jerome Sampson scored two goals for Albany and he abused Bears d-man Greg Amadio on the third River Rat marker that chased Holtby. Hershey was 2/8 on the power play while Albany was 1/6. Hershey plays at Lake Erie Wednesday morning at 10:45 a.m., and in Toronto Thursday night. The Bears return home Saturday against Bridgeport at 7:00 p.m.