In the second round of the Eastern Conference semifinals, both series went to seven. Toronto's goal scored by Dickey "Clutch" Clune sent the Marlies on to the finals in regulation. In the Hershey-WBS series, rookie F Travis Boyd scored an overtime goal that rocketed Hershey onward. Are these teams evenly matched? Perhaps TOO evenly matched? (Here, by the way, is the series schedule.)
The Toronto Marlies played the Hershey Bears twice during the regular season, splitting the series. The first game was on December 19th with Ray Emery (!) in goal, facing goaltender Dan Ellis. It was a 6-2 victory, with the game-winning-goal by Brendan Leipsic.
The second meeting, on February 26, was a different story. A 2-5 loss with Garret Sparks in net, and ... uh. The story of that game looks grim. Sparks let in three goals on eleven shots, whereas Ellis saved 37 of 39 shots. I've often thought that Sparks does better when facing more action, and this game is a classic example.
Theoretically we are all Bears fans, but, y’know, it’s awkward high-fiving a dude in a Crosby sweater. It just is. -- Emily Bennett
Trivia. The Hershey Bears have won three Calder Cups in the past ten years. They are owned by chocolate mogul Hershey, and used to be called the "Hershey B'ars" before someone called them out for being too commercial. And here's another very interesting piece of news: the Hershey corporation have been in talks to buy the Penguins. Not the WBS ones, the ones in Pittsburgh.
Connor Carrick, who is currently leading the AHL in playoff points, will face a very familiar foe. He was drafted in the 5th round by the Washington Capitals in 2012, and played two-ish seasons with their AHL affiliate before heading to Toronto in the Brooks Laich-Daniel Winnik trade.
Awaiting Carrick and the Marlies is Zach Sill, a five-season WBS Penguin who was briefly called up to Pittsburgh in the 2014-2015 season, traded to the Leafs where he had a 21 game mug of espresso, and then traded to the Washington Capitals. An Alternate Captain for the Bears, he has settled back into his position as a very good AHL-level player, and will cause the Marlies trouble in their run.
David Straub of Pensburgh just finished covering the series between the WBS Penguins and the Hershey Bears, and shared some angst and insight into this team, while Emily Bennett of Japers' Rink is nothing but enthusiastic about meeting the Marlies. Here are their thoughts going into the Eastern Conference Final.
PPP: Justin Peters and Dan Ellis are Hershey's goaltenders. What are their weaknesses? Strengths? Which one has been better in your series?
Straub: Neither Justin Peters nor Dan Ellis are rookies. Ellis's professional career goes back to 2003-04 with the Utah Grizzlies, while Peters has played parts of 9 AHL seasons with three different franchises (the old Albany River Rats, the Charlotte Checkers, and now the Hershey Bears). In our series, Peters was the superior goaltender, which was a bit surprising in a way considering the lack of success he had against WBS in the regular season. Peters was very positionally sound, with a very quick and sometimes flashy glove; the best way to beat him would be to get him moving and crash the net to capitalize on whatever rebounds he does give up.
Bennett: Their experience has been very valuable for a team that has a lot of youngsters on it. The Caps signed Justin Peters to a two-year contract in 2014 to be Braden Holtby's backup but he did not play well in 2014-15 and accepted reassignment to Hershey for this season. Dan Ellis signed as a free agent for the 2015-16 season. They have played as a 1A-1B tandem all season but Peters has received most of the postseason starts.
PPP: Erik Burgdoerfer made a strong defensive play in the last seconds of game 7 to keep the Bears' lead. What's your impression of him as a defenseman?
Straub: Erik Burgdoerfer is a curious case in WBS Penguins lore. He has seven career goals for Hershey, and while I don't know the exact number, there was a time at which every single goal he had scored in his career was against the Penguins. At 28, he spent a lot of time in Bakersfield of the ECHL before making it to the AHL with Hershey, so he's not as young as some of his fellow teammates. His more veteran presence serves as a nice counterbalance against the rookies of Hershey's blue line, such as Tyler Lewington, Madison Bowey, and Christian Djoos.
Bennett: Burgdoerfer played for Coach Mann at the ECHL Bakersfield Condors, and when Mann came back to the Bears, so did Burgdoerfer. He is a big rig and plays a good positional game. I don’t foresee a lot of NHL time for him, but he is certainly built for the AHL postseason.
Here’s what grateful goalie Justin Peters said about that play:
""It was all 'Burgy' (Burgdoerfer). We were just talking about that, too. 'Burgy' made a heckuva play, there. He hit his face on the 'dasher' and he was bleeding, blood in his eyes, and he was still able to get his stick on the puck. It was a really good play and that was a game-saver.''
PPP: Travis Boyd is a rookie, but still seems to be lighting up the net. Is he their most talented young player? Anyone else we should be aware of?
Straub: While Travis Boyd did score the series winner in overtime, he is far from the only young threat the Bears have. Just as dangerous as Boyd is rooke Jakub Vrana, with 4 goals and 5 assists for 9 points in 12 playoff games (tied with Carter Camper for the team lead). Until Game 7, Hershey had not won a playoff game this season in which Vrana had not scored a point, and they had won 6 of 7 games in which he did record a point (according to the daily AHL Morning Skate postings). You referenced Carter Camper, who is also a danger, but don't overlook the AHL MVP and perpetual thorn in the sides of Penguins fans Chris Bourque, with 3 goals and 4 assists for 7 points in 12 games. Dustin Gazley was a revelation for the Bears in the WBS series; pressed into service in Game 2 after Liam O'Brien was suspended, he served an immediate impact, and he has 2 goals and 2 assists in 7 playoff games.
Bennett: Travis Boyd has been a very solid player in his rookie season. He’s got good instincts and good hands. But the OT gamewinner in Game 7 was only his second of the playoffs. Much like Nylander and Kampanen for Toronto, the Hershey young player to watch is skilled Euro forward Jakub Vrana. He was the Caps’ first-round pick in 2014. Also keep an eye on Riley Barber and our lovable ginger pest, Liam O’Brien. Marlies fans should say g’day to Nathan Walker; he is the only Australian in the AHL and therefore also a loyal subject of the Crown. And don’t forget one other player of note – 2015-16 AHL MVP and points champion Chris Bourque.
PPP: What is Troy Mann's coaching philosophy?
Straub: No clue. What I can tell you is, in Game 7, Hershey's second and third goals came as a result of long spells of Hershey possession that had WBS trapped in their zone on the wrong end of a long change. If Hershey gets going on an extended possession, watch out; they are very dangerous. The Toronto defenders must, at all times, watch their backs on defense, as a longtime staple of the Hershey Bears offense has been to sneak a player to the back door for quick-strike one-timers.
Bennett: "Be strong on the puck, win the battles, get pucks deep." The Bears are using many of the same systems that the Capitals use but I don’t know if I can define a philosophy. He has been excellent bringing a very young squad along and developing a true team identity for them. Mann was the assistant coach on Hershey’s last Calder run in 2010 and he was named head coach last year. His assistant coach Bryan Helmer is a sure-bet first-ballot AHL Hall-of-Famer and legendary Bears captain who raised the Cup twice with Hershey in 2009 and 2010.
PPP: Chandler Stephenson is described as almost NHL-ready, and puts in time on the Bears' special teams. What difference did he make in your series, and what are his weaknesses?
Straub: Chandler Stephenson did not play in the last 4 games of the WBS series due to injury. If he recovers in time for Toronto, he will only serve to bolster the Hershey front lines, as he is very proficient in the faceoff circle.
Bennett: His weaknesses are the lower-body injury that has kept him out of the last four games. There hasn’t been much information on what the injury is or if he’s expected back anytime soon. :(
PPP: Carter Camper made a highlight-reel deke that beat Peters as well as all five Penguins on the ice. What's your impression of what Camper did right, and what's the best way to stop him?
Straub: Carter Camper's highlight goal was primarily made available by WBS defender Ethan Prow choosing to follow Riley Barber as he crossed in front of the net; if the Toronto defenders don't fall victim to Hershey's weaving and are disciplined enough to hold their positions, the skills and abilities of Camper, Bourque, and the other Hershey forwards will be hampered.
Bennett: That goal was super insane and made the SportsCenter (or SportsCentre, if you must) Top 10. But that goal was best goal because it made this beautiful headline, courtesy of Swedish Google Translate:
PPP: What's the one moment you'd want to do over again in your seven-game series against Hershey?
Straub: The one thing I'd like to have back in the WBS/Hershey series is the two shorthanded goals that WBS conceded. Former WBS Penguin Zach Sill features very prominently for Hershey on the PK; he is very aggressive killing penalties, creating constant havoc and always looking to force turnovers and shorthanded chances. Hershey got two shorthanded goals in the WBS series; the first was in Game 2 as the eventual game-winner in a 2-0 shutout, and the second was scored by Sill himself in Game 5 just as WBS brought a deficit of 3-0 back to 3-3. It was a real backbreaker for WBS in that game.
Hershey's best chance to hang with the Marlies is to whack them around. They are not afraid to take penalties, due to their aggressive PK, so they will skirt the lines of the rules wherever and whenever they can. Liam O'Brien and the captain Garrett Mitchell are not afraid to get their noses dirty and crunch opposing players wherever possible. If Toronto can stay disciplined, not retaliate, and focus on their considerable skill advantage, they have a good chance to advance to the final. Albany gave them a very stern test in round 2; they would be wise to use the lessons of that series against the 11-time Calder Cup champions.
PPP: Hershey has won three cups in ten years. What's your favorite part of following this team?
Bennett: My first favorite part is early summer playoff hockey in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where you can ride rollercoasters all morning at Hersheypark, walk across the parking lot for some righteous tailgating in late afternoon, then head into Giant Center to see some quality puck. Pretty much a perfect day.
My second favorite part is the slightly uneasy standoff in central Pennsylvania of Hershey’s three NHL fanbases – about 1/3 Caps fans coming north to see their prospects, and then a mix of Pennsylvania locals who have allegiances with the Flyers and Pens. Theoretically we are all Bears fans, but, y’know, it’s awkward high-fiving a dude in a Crosby sweater. It just is.
And for some reason there's always more than a few people in Sabres jerseys and I can't quite figure out what that's all about.
But the very best part of Hershey Bears hockey is Hershey itself and all the history (eleven championship banners, for example). Milton Hershey built his chocolate factory there and then an amusement park and then a hockey arena so his town would have visitors all year long. The Bears are a central part of the city’s identity. Season tickets are generational; the Hershey Bears Booster Club was founded in 1948. This is a town that loves its hockey team and a hockey team that loves its town. I hope that any Marlies fans making the trip south will spend a little time looking around. It’s "the sweetest place on earth" and it's really quite special.
One question remains.