For the fourth time in the past five years the Hershey Bears advanced to the Calder Cup finals, defeating the Manchester Monarchs 3-2 in game 6 Saturday night at Giant Center. They did so with what has become convention for this Hershey club this postseason: working overtime.
Trailing 2-0 well into period three Saturday, Hershey confronted the very real possibility of losing game 6 and facing Jonathon Bernier, one of the best young goaltenders on the planet, in an all-deciding game 7.
Squandered opportunity to eliminate an upstart underdog on home ice. Uber-talented and white hot netminder at the other end of the ice. Skaters in front of him, line after line, committed to playing a collapsing, shot-blocking umbrella in front of their goalie, caring little about attacking at the other end. A huge upset in the brewing. Where have we seen this postseason script before?
Making matters worse, a healthy contingent of Washington media was clogging the Giant Center press box Saturday night, bringing with them very bad playoff Mojo. Consider: Hershey entered play Saturday night boasting a tidy 36-1 record their past 37 games at Giant Center. Nearing the midway mark of the final frame Saturday, the Bears had a goose egg on the scoreboard. I was making plans to follow Sunday’s game 7 in the Giant Center parking lot, via John Walton’s radio call. Hockey friendships can only endure so much bad luck in spring.
But overtime, this postseason, belongs to the Bears. Saturday night marked the eighth time this postseason Hershey had to work overtime. They’ve now won seven of them, thanks to Boyd Kane’s heroics 7:06 into the extra session, his first score of the 2010 postseason. The Bears’ seventh triumph in OT this postseason established a new American League record.
“We play with a different swagger in overtime,” Bears bench boss Mark French said afterward. “I don’t say much to them [in the room awaiting OT]. They seem to know what they’re doing.”
Kane, who’d replaced injured Andrew Gordon on the top Bears’ line, was dropped off it in game 6 in favor of Jay Beagle. It was startling to see the Hershey first unit struggle mightily all night, after spending so much of the past two seasons terrorizing the American League in near 100-points-apiece fashion. Earlier this season a number of writers covering the ‘A’ attributed Gordon’s eye-popping production this season (37 goals, 34 assists) to his feeding like a pilot fish hovering about two Great Whites. To watch Keith Aucoin and Alexandre Giroux Saturday night, however, was to suspect that Gordon was very much the missing cog on the top line.
The Bears skated with discipline Saturday night — they didn’t take a single penalty in any of the four frames. But they did not quite skate with a sense of urgency through 40 minutes. Manchester suffocated and frustrated. The Bears managed just four shots in the first period, two of them coming in the final 90 seconds.
“They’re very committed defensively,” French noted. “They didn’t care what they generated offensively. If you’re picking a strategy to play against us it’s a pretty good one.”
“When things don’t go our way we seem to get frustrated.”
Part of Hershey’s frustration was self-inflicted: they appeared to over-respect Bernier, passing up wide open shots from prime range in favor of pretty passes seeking sweet scores. In playoff hockey, however, ugly scoring usually wins the beauty contest. The Bears generated no traffic in front of Bernier while skating scoreless through the first two periods. Then came a desperation third period, bringing with it a lunch pail ethos and dirty nose drive and determination.
Giroux got Hershey on the board at 7:37 of the final frame, knocking in a reboound while stationed right in front of Bernier. Patrick McNeill knotted the game up at 2 at 14:09 with a seeing-eye shot from the point — but with Francois Bouchard performing pest-work in front of the Monarchs’ netminder. And in OT, Kane banged home a centering feed from Kyle Wilson from about three feet in front of Bernier. Three goals, all aided by sacrifice and grunt work in front of the crease.
How are great goalies most often beaten in big playoff games? With dirty-nose drive directed at chaos-making about the crease. The Bears on Saturday night needed to endure 40-plus minutes of frightening frustration before they warmed to the workman-like task.
And Hershey’s star performers did what stars must do in tough times. Giroux got the home club ignited. Michal Neuvirth held the fort when it was 2-0 Monarchs and a third Manchester goal could have been lights out. John Carlson and Karl Alzner again shined as Mark French’s top blueline pairing.
“I thought Alex [Giroux] struggled tonight,” French acknowledged. “But great players have the ability to rise at important times.”
Boyd Kane picked a very important time to notch his first goal in these playoffs. A Giant center throng in excess of 10,000, provided with noisemakers upon their arrival, needed none of them to shake the Center roof as Kane’s teammates mobbed him at center ice, yet another Eastern conference title secured.