O’Brien Returns; Sens Visit Hershey – 12/12

It’s always great to see your team’s injury list shorten up during any time of the year.  The Bears have had Jakub Vrana on the shelf since the home-opening weekend against Hartford; winger Liam O’Brien has been out since leaving the game against St. John’s on November 7; captain Garrett Mitchell left the game on November 21 against Portland; Ryan Stanton missed a string of four games ; and Austin Fyten fought through a two-game injury absence just last week.

The Bears have a total of 45 man-games lost due to injury this season.

But, good news comes out of the locker room as the Chocolate and White get set to take on the Binghamton Senators – news on all four of the most recent injury scratches.

First and foremost, Liam O’Brien is back tonight.  12 games over a period of five and one-half weeks is a long time to have to recuperate.  Of the four players, I believe that O’Brien’s rehabilitation is the one that has taken longer than expected.  When I saw him skating in his track suit at Hersheypark Arena early last week, I couldn’t be happier.  O’Brien has such a tremendously positive attitude, and you can just read the love of the game on his face when he came out to join his teammates that day.  Earlier this week, O’Brien skated in full gear with his team for the first time, and took the morning skate today on a line with Travis Boyd and Caleb Herbert.

The Hershey penalty kill really picked up the slack in his absence.  The Bears have killed off 23 of their last 24, and have killed 55 of 63 opposing power plays (87.3%) with O’Brien out of the lineup (and that includes two tough ones on November 13 at WBS and November 27 at LV, in which the Bears allowed five PPG’s over those two games).

We will undoubtedly see O’Brien on that side of special teams tonight, most likely the second PK unit (depending on how long it takes for the Senators to get their first power play of the game, if at all).  His minutes will be managed, and his progress watched, but I can tell you that he is thrilled to get going again.  Head coach Troy Mann addressed his return this morning:

So that’s one player back.  Forward Austin Fyten missed the last two games with a lower-body injury, yet still managed to skate in practice in a non-contact uniform earlier this week.  Today, Fyten took the morning skate with a regular uniform – again, great to see.

And now, news on the two players who have been out the longest and have been expected to be out the longest.  Forward Jakub Vrana, who suffered an injury to his wrist during the week of October 27, and captain Garrett Mitchell, who suffered a thumb injury during the November 21 game against the Portland Pirates, were both skating yesterday and today in non-contact uniforms.  It is truly a thrill to see the team captain out there with his teammates, but it was even more exciting to see Vrana back out there stickhandling and skating.  The targets for return were originally 2-3 months (Vrana) and 6-8 weeks (Mitchell), but Mann said today that the outlook is even better:

Fantasic news all around.

So let’s get to tonight’s game.

The Binghamton Senators (6-14-2-0, 7th North Division) make their first visit to GIANT Center as a non-division rival since they departed the former East Division in the offseason with the AHL realignment.  Binghamton is off to a very tough start record-wise, but this team is ALWAYS in games… especially on offense.  Forwards Cole Schneider, Matt Puempel, Ryan Dzingel, Buddy Robinson and Colin Greening have been mainstays with this club; defensemen Fredrik Claesson, Patrick Mullen and Guillaume Lepine are back again; and new captain Zack Stortini is in place to patrol the ice and provide needed leadership.  Newly-added forward Eric O’Dell, formerly of the St. John’s IceCaps, provides some power-play prowess as well.

So why the issues?  Seemingly it’s goaltending.  Undrafted rookie Matt O’Connor out of Boston University lost his first 10 starts before picking up the win last Saturday against a very good St. John’s team.  Chris Driedger, the 76th overall pick (OTT) in 2012, is on NHL recall.  The versatile Scott Greenham is back with the organization.  But none of these players were in the net for a string of good games.

Enter the Hamburglar.

Andrew Hammond is with the Sens on conditioning, and despite playing last night in Springfield in  a 4-3 loss to the Falcons and arriving in Hershey over five hours later, could see the crease tonight at GIANT Center.  The Bears have historically had superb numbers against Hammond, and – having not played last night – should be the odds-on favorite to win this one.

Hershey has won six straight at the Den.  Binghamton has dropped five straight on the road.  The Sens are the most penalized team in the league, yet have a power play that ranks around the middle of the pack.  The Bears have the league’s best home penalty kill.

Hopefully this adds up to a win for the good guys – who will travel after the game for tomorrow’s matchup with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.  The battle for second place in the Atlantic Division continues.

(And maybe first, depending on what happens with our neighbors to the north… lots of news coming out of the Pittsburgh Penguins organization today.  Check out here and here.)

Game notes are located here.

Air time is at 6:20 PM tonight.  Listen inside the GC on 88.9 FM if you’re here.