Greetings from Interstate 78!
The coaches have their laptops out, doing some last-minute analyzing and preparation for the pre-game video meeting tonight while we are en route to Allentown. From the Lehigh Valley Phantoms’ power play, to their penalty kill, to their goaltending, even to the upcoming weekend opponents – all types of video are being looked at as we get set for the sixth matchup of the 12-game season series between the Bears and Phantoms.
The teams will meet for the sixth time in the 12-game season series, and for the third time in the last four at PPL Center. Despite the Phantoms having a slight edge in wins, the Bears remain unbeaten in regulation against their in-state rivals (2-0-1-2). The last game played on December 9, however, was the one that really irritated us the most. It was one that was in the bag – a 2-0 lead halfway through the third period. No matter if the opponent were one of the league’s best teams, or in Lehigh Valley’s case, one of the lower-ranking teams, you cannot blow a two-goal lead with only 10 minutes left from two points. Obviously that was already addressed, and the Bears are focusing on what got them the additional four points last weekend: hard work, puck support, good decisions, and… very good goaltending.
Although he hasn’t come out and said it verbatim, it’s obvious that Troy Mann is going with the hot hand in goal. Justin Peters is that hot hand, 3-0-1 with stingy goals-against and save percentage numbers in December and a three-game win streak. But this will be the first time he faces the Lehigh Valley Phantoms this season. Ellis has started and played every minute against the Phantoms – and, by the process of similar situations, is unbeaten in regulation against them in his five games. He deserves the credit for how the Bears were able to battle for points in all five contests.
The part that made last Wednesday’s setback more painful was the fact that Lehigh Valley is playing with an injury-riddled roster. Seven players are currently on the sideline, and one will sit as a healthy scratch. Two players returned from injury recently – those being forward Cole Bardreau and goaltender Jason LaBarbera. But, take away defenseman Matt Lashoff who was recently injured, and the Phantoms are right back to that huge man-games lost number (Marti, Sundher, Parks, Conner, Lashoff, Brent and Pyett).
On paper this seems to be a win for Hershey. Sure, the Phantoms are missing three of their top ten point producers because of injury or recall, but they have three of the top ten in scoring against the Bears. Hershey will be looking to shut down LW Petr Straka (15-5-20 overall, 5-1-6 vs. HER), LW Tyrell Goulbourne (3-0-3) and LW Taylor Leier (2-2-4) tonight while watching leading scorer C Nick Cousins (7-15-22). With LaBarbera having played Wednesday in the Phantoms’ shutout loss against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, I would expect “Stolie the Goalie” Anthony Stolarz to play tonight.
On the Bears’ side of things, Garrett Mitchell (thumb) and Jakub Vrana (wrist) are skating with their team more and more as the days go on. I can’t wait to see both of them back. With Connor Carrick recalled to Washington, Aaron Ness having been returned and former Phantom Austin Fyten loaned to South Carolina, the Bears have two injuries and one healthy scratch to eliminate from their roster. Peters is expected in the crease for his fourth consecutive game.
It will be all about the start to this game for the Bears in order to pull out a victory. I have a gut feeling that this team will continue their strong play tonight, looking to extend its point streak to seven. The Bears are due in this venue.
Here are some stats for you, located here.
The radio broadcast hits the air at 6:25 PM on the following network stations: WQIC-100.1, WTKT-AM 1460, via the iHeartRadio App (Fox Sports 1460 Harrisburg), online at FoxSports1460.com and on AHL Live (AHLLive.com).
For the weekend home game news, it’s all about goaltending. Toronto Maple Leafs netminder Garret Sparks apparently suffered an injury in last night’s game, and the Leafs reported that the last starter left on the AHL Toronto Marlies, Antoine Bibeau, will be recalled. The Marlies are in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton tonight (who also have a bit of a goaltending issue, with Matt Murray on NHL recall and backup Tristan Jarry injured the other night in this very building that we are rapidly approaching), and will be racing the Bears back to Chocolatetown later tonight to rest for tomorrow’s first matchup in over two years. Rob Madore, an ECHL veteran, remains on the Marlies roster. Brian Foster and Casey DeSmith are the Penguins’ tandem until Jarry and Marc-Andre Fleury get better – whichever comes first (the Penguins visit the Bears on the day after Christmas).
Wrapping things up for Sunday, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Kristers Gudlevskis have been swapped back and forth between the AHL Syracuse Crunch and the NHL Tampa Bay Lightning a few times. The juggle was made again yesterday, with captain Mike Angelidis joining Gudlevskis with the big club – who play the Capitals tonight at Verizon Center. Vasilevskiy has struggled at the NHL level this season, but apparently loves playing Hershey. He is 5-0 in his last five starts against the Bears, but will have a much different 18 on the ice in front of him than what Syracuse put out on their opening night.
Even more reason to get up for this weekend. I’m looking forward to our team effort in this last three-in-three before the holiday break… and I hope you are too. Let’s pack the Den tomorrow (UGI snow globes for the first 5,000) and Sunday (HERSHEYPARK Pass for all fans; pre-game Hershey Bears Hockey Club Hall of Fame induction pre-game; Hall of Fame chocolate bars post-game for all fans; AHL 80th anniversary live jersey auction post-game). A continued thanks to all for your support of some of the greatest guys I’ve ever worked with.
Talk to you soon!