The Hershey Bears, given up for upset victim to the upstart expansion team from Texas a week ago, completed a three-game sweep on enemy ice in Austin in overtime last night, 2-1, Alexandre Giroux the hero, affording the Bears their happiest commute home of the season to date. And they’re coming home for good, perhaps to claim an 11th Calder Cup, when a week ago most in hockey had given them up for dead.
A year ago the Texas Stars skated in Iowa, as the infamously named Chops. Right now they look like chop suey.
Once down 2-0 in this Calder Cup finals, and confronting the entirety of American League postseason history as well as Glen Gulutzan’s stifling sag and clog system, Hershey did a serious Texas two-step down in the state capital, summoning its 60-win character and swagger, and now heads home seeking to become the first AHL club in league history to win a finals having lost the first two games on home ice. On Monday night Hershey will seek to hoist the Calder Cup trophy on home ice for the first time since 1980.
The Miracle on Ice took place on hockey’s calendar that year.
Hershey’s new-found lease on life sounded something like this:
Game 6 arrives Monday night, back at Giant Center, in front of what may well be an all-time record crowd for hockey in that historic hockey town. The visitors from Texas, who looked so comfortable as unheralded upstarts at Giant Center at this series’ start, are a week later badly battered both physically and you have to believe psychologically. The environment they will confront Monday night, with their best rearguard Andrew Hutchinson likely shelved again with a knee injury, will be unlike anything they have in their short history. They will also confront a Hershey club that knows all too well what this moment means — upwards of 19 players who could wear the Hershey crest in game 6 were with the club a year ago when it won its 10th Calder title.
Among them is goaltender Michal Neuvirth, who saved his best work of the postseason for last night, when his team needed him most. Neuvirth stopped 35 of 36 Stars shots he faced in game 5, many of the most crucial ones coming deep in periof three and overtime.
How did this stunning reversal in the series happen? How did a Texas Stars’ club that appeared in utter and complete command of the ice sheet in Hershey last week suddenly have thereafter every game’s tempo dictated to it? How did Hershey suddenly gain control of all three zones for eight of the nine periods played down in Austin?
The answer, it seems, arrived with a belated and begrudging acceptance of the adjustments head coach Mark French ordered at some point all the way back in game 1, perhaps even earlier as the Bears prepared for this Calder finals. French knew the stifling style the underdogs were going to play. But his prideful, perhaps overconfident club was late accepting his warning. With this series’ 2-3-2 travel setup the worst-case scenario unfolded 120 minutes in.
The proverbial light bulb moment seemed to arrive in the middle of the second stanza in game 3. Some bad bounces, ill-advised penalties, and more inspired play from the underdog lodged the Bears in a 3-1 deficit then, but a Kyle Wilson power play goal halved that deficit, and suddenly an all-important swagger seemed to settle in. The Bears began controlling the play. They piled up shots and dramatically altered time of puck possession. Momentum is heavy artillery in our sport. It didn’t take much for the Bears to gain it, and once they did, they never surrendered it.
Mark French’s star is shining brightly right about now. He seems unique in the Washington hockey organization in being a bench boss able to recognize the stratagems of his adversary and, most importantly, effect a counter architecture against it. Its astounding to think that on Monday night French could become the third Bears’ bench boss to guide this franchise to a Calder title since 2006. His body of work in achieving it, I’d submit, would be the most impressive among them.