Heroics at Hartford, Pre-Gaming the Phantoms – 12/5

Photo courtesy Chris Rutsch, Hartford Wolf Pack.

Photo courtesy Chris Rutsch, Hartford Wolf Pack – December 4, 2015 at Hartford.

Tough one last night in Hartford, but I’ll tell you something – whether it needs to be told or not – this team has got grit, will and desire to win hockey games no matter the record right now.

For the third time in the three-game season series, the Bears and Wolf Pack went beyond regulation.  And for the second consecutive time, a Hershey goal inside the final minute of regulation deflated the Wolf Pack’s hopes of an easy ride into victory lane.

Chandler Stephenson’s goal with just shy of 43 seconds left to play earned the Bears a point, but the shootout – which simply has not gone Hershey’s way this season – favored the Wolf Pack in a 4-3 decision.

Here is the audio with time winding down:

Let’s get to some bullet points from this game and others like it:

1. Nathan Walker.  The Australian is absolutely in a groove right now, showing six points (2-4-6) in his last seven games.  After earning the only star of last Friday’s loss at Lehigh Valley (second star, by the way), Walker posted an assist at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Saturday and last night, followed up with a goal just 1:21 into the game.  Walker seems to have found a groove with linemates Sean Collins and Zach Sill – and head coach Troy Mann alludes to that in tonight’s pre-game interview.  Walker called “a bit of luck” and being allowed “a few whacks” (and you’ll hear that conversation in the second intermission tonight).  But, make no mistake about it.  Walker is rising to the top lately in getting to the net front and cashing in.

2. Rebounds.  Several goals last night were the result of rebounds, but not so much on the fault of the goaltenders – moreso, the players covering their opponents’ attempts at GETTING those rebounds.  Justin Peters made a nice kick save on Chad Nehring’s drive from the right circle in the first period, but defenseman Brady Skjei was the one to cash in on the rebound chance.  Normally, that’s a forward that gets that goal.  Skjei was somehow able to fly in and get to the puck first.  The second rebound that resulted in a goal was also off of Peters but it was nowhere near placed into a prime scoring area.  Peters kicked his left pad out to deny a Chris McCarthy shot from in-close.  The puck somehow went dead left off his pad – and Nick Tarnasky just swatted at the puck, which then perfectly found what little daylight Peters ever gives.  The last rebound was the biggest one of the game, and it came off of Mackenzie Skapski.  With Travis Oleksuk taking a delay of game penalty with one minute left in regulation, Hershey’s power play – which had been denied four other times by Hartford’s top-ten penalty kill – struck nicely.  Connor Carrick laid into a pass from Chris Bourque, and Skapski kicked out the left pad but placed the puck right onto Chandler Stephenson’s tape.  It couldn’t have been an easier first goal of the season for Stephenson and I know he’ll take that every time.  A huge goal to say the least as it forced overtime, much like Jakub Vrana ripping home the equalizer on October 25 with 12 seconds left in regulation.

3. Late Goals.  Who says this team doesn’t battle?  Nine times this season – and in four of the past six games – the Bears have scored a goal later than four minutes left in regulation to either tie or win a game:

10/23 at Utica – Garrett Mitchell – GWG at 18:49
10/24 vs. Hartford – Chris Bourque – PP GWG at 2:50 of overtime
10/25 vs. Hartford – Jakub Vrana – GTG at 19:47
11/1 vs. Lehigh Valley – Zach Sill – GTG at 17:53
11/15 vs. Rochester – Garrett Mitchell – GWG at 16:13
11/20 vs. Portland – Connor Carrick – SH GWG at 19:45
11/25 vs. Providence – Paul Carey – GWG at 3:43 of overtime
11/27 at Lehigh Valley – Paul Carey – GTG at 16:33
12/4 at Hartford – Chandler Stephenson – PP GTG at 19:17

4. Extra Time.  Exactly one-third of the games played by Hershey this season have required overtime.  The Bears dominate puck possession time in the three-on-three – no arguing that.  Thus, the team is a perfect 2-0 in overtime.  The tough part is the 0-5 record in shootouts.  I’m quite sure something will give the next time the skills are required.

So, with that, we look ahead to tonight’s game with Lehigh Valley.  Speaking of extra time, two games of the three played so far have required the shootout.  Both were wins by the Phantoms – one at GIANT Center and one at PPL Center just last Friday.  A minimum of four goals has been needed for the winning team to claim victory.  The Bears will be challenged to run up four tonight, as it will undoubtedly be the season debut against Hershey for Phantoms goaltender Anthony Stolarz.  The big 6’6″ netminder’s numbers last year: 31GP, 9-13-4, 3.28 GAA, .905 save percentage.  This season: 15GP, 9-4-1, 1.82 GAA, .936 save percentage.  He has matched his win total already, and his ninth was massive – a 35-save victory over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins last night that handed WBS its first home loss of the year.  Two nights earlier, Stolarz frustrated the Utica Comets in their own building with a 27-save effort.  Lehigh Valley also has received Nick Cousins, their leading scorer, and veteran Colin McDonald from the Philadelphia Flyers – meaning that the Bears should see an even more improved lineup on the other side of the ice tonight.

For Hershey, there was no morning skate today, but Troy Mann said in our morning interview that the Bears had accomplished nine of the 10 game objectives set forth each time the team plays – and that translated, to his eyes, into the “best-played road game of the season.”  I would agree.  The high number of long-pass turnovers (not glaring, right-in-front-of-the-net ones) was the one objective not gained.  The Bears scored first, had a special-teams victory, were great on faceoffs and out-hit the Wolf Pack.

That needs to happen again tonight.

The puck drops at 7:00 PM, and the pre-game airs at 6:20.  Game notes can be found here.  And a reminder, the gates will be open 30 minutes earlier than usual tonight and tomorrow.

See you here.