The Hershey Bears stand in the way between the Toronto Marlies and the Calder Cup Final.
The Bears are one of the most storied franchises in American Hockey League history, having been a member since the inaugural season and winning eleven championships.
Washington’s affiliate has not tasted much playoff success in recent times, with this the first occasion they’ve reached the Conference Final in six seasons.
The previous two years before the lull saw Hershey win back to back champions, defeating Manitoba and Texas in 2009 and 2010 respectively.
They are coached by Troy Man, who spent five seasons as an assistant coach before leaving to take the top job with the Bakersfield Condors. It was a short-lived time away as Mann returned a year later to Hershey, where he’s now been the head coach for two seasons.
The Bears were the Atlantic Division Champions this season and were the second highest goal scorers in the Eastern Conference, behind only Toronto. They also allowed 220 goals in the process, equal worst amongst teams making the post-season in the East.
It’s been somewhat of a struggle for Hershey to progress to this stage of the post season, having been pushed all the way in both series thus far.
Twice they fell behind to the Portland Pirates before showing defensive strength in games four and five, limiting Portland to just one goal through 120 minutes, and clinching the series 3-2.
Round two was a match-up with their arch rivals, Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins.
Not much love between these old foes, as was encapsulated in many tussles and fights through the seven games.
That was perfectly encapsulated by Tom Sestito and Jim O’Brien, who were at each others throats throughout.
Hershey fell behind in the series after being shut 4-0 in game one. They recovered to take leads of 2-1 and 3-2 but the Pens would not be put to bed that easily and even game seven went to overtime before the Bears finally prevailed.
Hershey’s home form was strong during the regular season (24-7-2-5) and it’s proved that way in the post season, winning five of seven at the Giant Center.
On the road the Bears have lost three of five, scoring 15 but allowing 17 in the process.
Overtime has been a feature for the Capitals affiliate, with 25 % of their games needing extra time to be decided.
Hershey have not found goals as easy to come by as they did during the regular season (3.4GPG), averaging just 2.5 per game heading into this series.
A big reason for that is reigning MVP Chris Borque not firing on all cylinders.
The 30yo winger produced 30 goals and 50 assists in 72 regular season outings but has just seven points in the post season.
It’s not through a lack of trying though, leading the league in most shots taken (45) but failing to produce the goods with a 6.66 shooting percentage. That’s at odds with the 14.5% during the regular season.
Having previously won three Calder Cup Championships with Hershey, Borque will be a key figure if they are to have success against Toronto.
Others struggling to replicate regular season success are Riley Barber and Nathan Walker, both having recorded just a single goal and assist each.
Jakub Vrana is the highest drafted Washington player on the Hershey roster.
He was the Caps’ first-round pick (13th overall) and the rookie is currently tied for the lead in playoff scoring with nine points. The Czech native hasn’t played much this season, requiring wrist surgery but when able to dress put up 16 goals for 34 points in 36 regular season games.
Carter Camper is a proven AHL’er who has failed to impress enough to make it in the NHL (Three games). He continues to produce at a consistent rate at this level and is tied with Vrana for the scoring lead on the team.
Another rookie to keep an eye out for is Travis Boyd. Coming out of college, Boyd has made an immediate impression with a 50 point season including 21 goals. His two post-season goals have been game winners, including the OT marker in game seven of the WBS series.
Zach Sill will be a familiar name and that’s because he played 21 games for the Leafs in the 2014/15 season. Five points in twelve playoff games is way above his career production average in the AHL and no doubt he’ll be looking to impress against his former employers.
Threats from the blue line most revolve around Aaron Ness and rookie Madison Bowley.
Hershey do not own the offensive threat Toronto does from it’s back end and will be looking to Aaron Ness and rookie Madison Bowley to step upto the mark in that regard.
Hershey’s scoring has been a balanced effort with 14 different players netting at least once and all 19 skaters dress, registering two points or more.
One of the Bears strength’s has been between the pipes.
There was a battle for the starting position, very much like Toronto, but there has clearly been one winner.
That’s Justin Peters, who has recorded two shutouts, seven wins and a 0.935 save percentage in eleven outings. His save percentage is third best in the league and he’s played more games than anyone else in the top 15 of that category. Peters leads the league in most minutes and saves to boot.
Special teams played a huge part in Toronto’s last series against Albany and could well be a department they could dominate Hershey in.
Somewhat surprisingly the Bears power play has only produced at 10.9%, scoring just six times on 55 opportunities and giving up a short-handed goal in the process.
The Marlies have produced at almost double that rate so far, scoring ten on far less opportunities.
The penalty kill has fared better for Hershey, running at 88.1% efficiency, having allowed seven goals against and tallied two short-handed markers. Albeit a much smaller sample size, the PK is much improved from the regular season. That department matches up well with Toronto who are just a percentage point behind.
Toronto’s leading points producer will be well known to the Bears.
Connor Carrick is a former 5th round Washington draft selection and played 143 times for Hershey.
His 14 points still leads the AHL in post season scoring (six goals/eight assists) and is halfway towards the record set by a defenseman in the post season (Alex Galligaski – 2008).
Connor Brown has been a silent assassin somewhat, notching six goals, with two of those coming short-handed.
Josh Leivo and Mark Arcobello join Brown with eight points, while Kasperi Kapanen is the Marlies leading rookie scorer with seven points.
The Marlies could use William Nylander stepping up his game, assuming he’s healthy, while another player the team have relied on is Nikita Soshnikov. The Russian winger has five points in six games and Toronto have yet to lose a post-season game when he’s in the line-up.
T.J Brennan has five goals, of which four are power play markers. He’s certainly been helped by Connor Carrick taking some of the focus away, allowing Brennan more time and space.
Now to the elephant in the room – the scheduling of this series.
It’s a case of welcome to the AHL for those not familiar with it‘s foible‘s, where buildings are multi-purpose events and hockey is not always the main focus of proceedings
With the Giant Center hosting the Circus later in May, Toronto will begin the series on the road, playing a back to back.
A 2-3-1-1 schedule is not ideal and nor is starting on the road, but it could prove a blessing in disguise.
As I mentioned earlier, most of Hershey’s success in the post season has occurred on home ice.
Therefore there will be a lot of pressure for the Bears to win those opening two games.
Toronto were often more dominant on the road during the regular season and took two of three games played in Albany.
A back to back presents no problem to a jam packed Toronto roster, while the benefit of a potential three game home stand should not overlooked.
This series promises to be more entertaining from a viewing perspective as Hershey’s main strength lies offensively.
How much they adapt some of that to counter Toronto will be of interest, especially if they fall behind in the series.
The Marlies will need to play strong defensively to counteract the Bears offensive weapons and look to fire as much as they possibly can in return.
In Justin Peters, the Marlies face a goaltender in as good form as Scott Wedgewood, so traffic and driving the net could be just as effective and required to breakthrough.
The teams met just twice during the regular season, each handing the other a heavy defeat and not much can be read into either of those encounters.
Toronto enter this conference final as a clearer favourite than they did the last round, but how they handle that pressure could be as vital a factor as any other on the ice.
Game One Fri, May 20, 2016 Toronto at Hershey 7:00 pm EDT
Game Two Sat, May 21, 2016 Toronto at Hershey 7:00 pm EDT
Game Three Wed, May 25, 2016 Hershey at Toronto 7:30 pm EDT
Game Four Fri, May 27, 2016 Hershey at Toronto 7:30 pm EDT
Game Five* Sun, May 29, 2016 Hershey at Toronto 3:00 pm EDT
Game Six* Tue, May 31, 2016 Toronto at Hershey 7:00 pm EDT
Game Seven* Thu, Jun 2, 2016 Hershey at Toronto 7:30 pm EDT