Bruce Boudreau has been a well-perched witness to the opening of the 2010 Calder Cup finals, taking in the action from the Bears’ corner suite in Giant Center. About an hour after Hershey had fallen to the Texas Stars for the second consecutive game on home ice last night, while riding back to D.C. in a caravan of hockey bloggers, I told my carmates that I was glad that Gabby was seeing again, anew, how a team with less skill could take down a big-winning club with its clog-and-snore system in the glory part of a hockey season.
Washington’s hockey fans have been forced to asked a litany of second-guessing questions in the aftermath of the Capitals’ stunning first-round exit from the NHL playoffs in April, the third consecutive spring in which the team failed to advance beyond the postseason’s second round. Among them is this: is Gabby’s get-up-go system fun and productive for regular seasons but susceptible to being bottled up and beaten by a band of committed cloggers in the postseason?
And, because the entirety of the Capitals’ development affiliation employs this system, did the Montreal Canadiens devise a system to beat it, and subsequently did the Manchester Monarchs and now Texas Stars follow it? The Bears overcame the Monarchs’ frustrating center ice clogging in the American League’s Eastern conference finals, but not easily, and Texas is a bigger team that’s used this sytem all season long.
All Saturday night long media noted the prevalence of black-sweatered Stars’ skaters commanding the middle of the Giant Center ice sheet, and the Bears’ refusal to patiently attack it with a blue-collar ethos.
“The middle of the ice is what we want to own,” Stars coach Glen Gulutzan said afterward. They own it alright.
Hershey head coach Mark French has asked his club to execute what he admits is an unexciting strategy to what the Stars are using to frustrate his hockey club. He wants his skaters to attack Texas’ sagged box in the middle of the ice with a patient perimeter attack. They have not. Six periods have been played in these Calder Cup finals, and they have been six frustrating stanzas for the defending champs. Consequently, the Bears are in a 2-0 hole, and this morning they board Bear Force One for a flight to Austin and three dates on their adversary’s ice this week. They have a daunting task ahead of them: no team in American League history has lost the first two finals games at home and gone on to win a Calder title.
There is the very real possibility that the Hershey Bears won’t be returning to Giant Center this season to play more hockey.
“It’s maybe not a fun way to play, the way we’re asking, but it’s an effective way,” French told the media after Saturday night’s 4-3 setback in game 2. “It’s like we want to be rewarded right away.
“At defining moments in the game we made poor decisions,” he added.
French was alluding to the litany of instances in which all of his skaters refused to stick to the coach’s strategy and instead overpassed or vainly forced passes through the Stars’ middle-of-the-ice ice forest of defenders. That’s precisely what Texas wants, and on Saturday night they used a handful of high-in-the-zone turnovers to transition the other way with lethal effectiveness. In just the opening two minutes Saturday night the Bears surrendered two odd-man breaks and a breakaway from forcing the issue in the Stars’ end.
Up in the Giant Center press box the assessment early on was unanimous: the Bears to date have yet to believe in and adopt French’s decree, and they’re paying a heavy price for it. In just about every instance of a Hershey attack Texas had two to three black sweaters back in tight in front of netminder Matt Climie, and usually four in a disciplined box. The Bears are actually making things easy for Texas in this series with their stubborn insistence on attacking this clogged, shooting lane stifling setup with ill-advised cross-ice passes an a one-too-many pass approach that Texas always redirects out of harm’s way.
To this strategic shortcoming Hershey added the double whammy of ill-timed and shockingly undisciplined penalty taking. An inadvertent high sticking on Texas’ Matt Stephenson afforded the Bears a four-minute power play deep in their third period of a 3-3 game, the first 31 seconds of which brought a 5-on-3 advantage. But some 90 seconds into the extended advantage Boyd Kane took a 4-minute penalty for spearing. French termed it a “substantial” development in the game.
The Bears were just beginning to do some dirty work in the Texas end and pile up some shots when Kane halted the momentum. He acknowledged his lapse in a quickly emptying Bears’ locker room afterward. The Bears took six infractions on the evening overall, and French identified four of them as unacceptable.
Former Bear and Caps’ draft property Travis Morin won the game for Texas with a soft backhander from a severe angle that somehow elluded Michal Neuvirth with just 46 seconds remaining. The tally again was the result of a Bears’ forward failing to force the puck in deep in the Stars’ end, the visitors counter attacking fast and stunning an all-time record Giant Center crowd.
When you win 60 games in a regular season as the Bears did, scoring goals in bunches and generally hosting a party of playing razzle-dazzle with the puck in your opponents’ end each night, it must feel foreign-language alien to be asked to lunchpail it in finesse fashion, cross-ice one-timers and fan-raising artistry replaced by a chess match of perimter patience. The Bears in this series are required to replace their Super Chexx dome hockey pace with grandpa’s Stiga table top game. To date they haven’t stopped trying to feed quarters into the slot for the table top. The dilemma they’re now in probably will force them into a begrudging acceptance of the task ahead.
“We didn’t win 60 games for nothing,” captain Bryan Helmer warned afterward. His teammate Kane pointed to the experience with Manchester as additional support: “Manchester frustrated us too and we got it done,” he noted.
Even if both players are right Mark French’s gameplan this series certainly seems to suggest that changes in Washington for next spring are badly needed.