Players often say that it is really easy to get up for certain games for two big reasons: 1) when it’s an arch-rival, and 2) when it’s your former team that you’re facing.
That will be the case tonight for two players in particular, when the Hershey Bears face off against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins at 7:05 tonight.
Bears centerman Zach Sill will head to the visiting locker room at Mohegan Sun Arena for the first time ever. In a recent interview with PennLive’s Dave Sottile, Sill said, “It’s never happened to me before, playing a former team. It should be a fun night.”
Prior to coming to Hershey, Sill played in all 277 of his AHL games with the Bears’ bitter rivals. He came to Chocolatetown with the buildup of being a strong center with good skill on faceoffs, excellent on penalty kills and willing to scrum it up if need be. He was always that type of player, but now – with increased minutes and a leadership role, serving as alternate captain on the road – Sill will be concentrating solely on the first two characteristics while simply doing his best to help his team win.
A player who says that they would be sorry if a win happened against their former team would be lying. Nobody is more up for this game than Sill. Except – maybe, just maybe – Penguins defenseman Steve Oleksy.
The former Bears fan favorite, who earned every players’ dream of playing in the NHL while a member of the Washington Capitals organization, is now in the rival uniform wearing number 28. Of course every die-hard Hershey fan will be rooting against him now, but nobody can hate on this guy. One of the most kindhearted and thoughtful human beings out there just plays his game and does what he can to help his team to victory. We saw Oleksy as an opponent once before and we will see him again tonight in the same fashion. I just can’t shake off one of the greatest moments at the GC from last December, when Oleksy drilled home a pass from Tim Kennedy inside the first 40 seconds of the game against Penguins netminder Jeff Zatkoff, thus unleashing the rain of stuffed toys onto the ice in the Teddy Bear Toss. Remember this?
So, yes – tonight is one for these two players, but it is one for every hockey fan. Forget NBC’s Rivalry Night (explain how Pittsburgh and Montreal are true rivals to me, somebody). Tonight is the AHL’s Rivalry Night. It’s the first of 12 matchups between the teams, and it’s a big one. The Penguins’ franchise record for consecutive wins is nine games (which happened twice during the 2007-08 season). Wilkes-Barre/Scranton enters tonight having won eight in a row. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the Bears need to win to stop the Penguins’ run in its tracks. To do that, however, is no small task. The Bears haven’t won at Mohegan Sun Arena since December 6, a tight 2-1 decision. The Bears were seemingly well on their way to an emphatic season series win last year, but the Penguins rattled off a strong finish of their own to also snag six wins in 12 tries. A Hershey win tonight will also make it three in a row away from home for the good guys – and will set up a nice return home tomorrow for the start of a welcome five-in-a-row at the Den.
The Bears’ roster got another injection of talent this morning as well. Forward Chandler Stephenson is back, fresh off of his first nine games in the NHL. Stephenson earned the chance, having improved his game very nicely since heading into the 2015 Calder Cup playoffs. The center of last spring’s gritty trio of Liam O’Brien – Chandler Stephenson – Garrett Mitchell, he is back and getting rest as I write this.
Also joining the crew for the jaunt north on I-81, for the first game of a conditioning loan, is winger Chris Brown. “Texas” is going to play tonight for the first time since the Capitals and Montreal Canadiens met in pre-season. Brown has conditioned nicely, his injured hand is healed (as I saw from some shots he was taking this morning), and he is ready to jump into the lineup. I had a great chat with him after his practice today, and I’ll air that in the broadcast tonight. He smiled when I asked him about jumping into the first game of a rivalry like this. But these are Brown’s kind of games, and this particular game could be just the re-start he needs. When Brown joined the Bears last season after Washington reassigned him, he promptly scored two goals against the Manchester Monarchs – in their building – last October.
I’m looking forward to this one, most especially to see my wonderful Mom and Dad, who – at age 82 each – are still able to come see their youngest son (the “caboose”, as they have long since called me), even though it might not be as easy for them to use the steps. I miss them very much and I’m so thankful that they will be there, rooting on the team that their son works for – not the team that is 6 miles from their home.
Pre-game is at 6:25 PM, and you can find all the notes right here.