Two weeks ago hockey in the sweetest place on Earth seemed to have soured. The Bears were caught in a nosedive that saw them fall from the top of the Atlantic Division all the way down to fifth place. I examined the key problem areas bringing them down here. Since that piece, fortunes for the chocolate and white have changed dramatically, with the Bears going 5-0-1 and in a position to regain lost ground in the standings. We’ll revisit points made and see how things stand today.
We’ll revisit points made and see how things stand today.
Goaltending For The Win
Back on January 24, Vitek Vanecek hadn’t won a game since December 26th. In the seven games following, Vanecek’s save percentage was a cool 0.825. Just as it was intended, the move to bring up goalie Parker Milner from the ECHL lit a fire under Vitek. In the four games following the recall, Vanecek produced a solid 0.919% save percentage which included a career-high 37 save win on the road in Providence. The 21-year-old went through similar January struggles during his rookie year in the ECHL last year. After allowing four goals on 14 shots on January 29th, 2016, Vanecek did not lose a game in regulation for the rest of the season. The Bears would love to see history repeat itself for the AHL rookie.
The goalie called up to support Vanecek, Parker Milner, has proved to have been just what the doctor ordered. Not only has he motivated Vanecek to elevate his game, he’s also come in and won both of his only two starts. Nothing illustrates his impact for the Bears than a sequence that occurred early in the first period against St. John’s this past Saturday.
— Andrew Gallant (@AGallanzo) February 6, 2017
The Bears had just surrendered a goal 25 seconds prior and had this shot gone in, it would’ve put Hershey down 2-0 two minutes into the first period. The save by Milner in this situation is something that Hershey desperately needed throughout their three-week tailspin. Two weeks ago that shot goes in and the wheels fall off. Hershey head coach Troy Mann recognized the importance of the save in the post game the following night.
“We had our goaltenders this weekend making some key saves at important pockets of the game. Even like (Saturday) night for example, It’s 1-0 (St. John’s) and Milner makes a heck of a save to keep it 1-0. Just little things like that and that’s something we weren’t getting and its nice to see now.”
Piecing a Defense Together
The loss of Madison Bowey until at least April was a devastating blow to the Bears Blue line corps. Injuries to Tyler Lewington and Aaron Ness exaggerated the void. As a result, Hershey averaged four goals allowed from the time of Bowey’s injury on December 28th through January 22nd. The need for a puck moving defender that could handle heavy minutes forced the coaching staff to scrounge the ECHL for help. The answer was three point-producing defenseman Nolan Zajac, Steve Weinstein, and Justin Agosta. The three combined for 74 points for their respective ECHL clubs. Each chipped in offensively and was important in giving the Bears another puck carrier on the back end. The extra bodies have helped create some stability that the defense has lacked.
The patchwork unit has reduced the goals against per game to 2.5 in the last six games but it remains to be seen who will stick around. As of this writing, Weinstein and Agosta (PTOs) remain with the Bears. It is possible the trade deadline could bring about a longer-term solution or Jonas Siegenthaler returns at the conclusion of his season in Switzerland. Siegenthaler played in six games for Hershey last season prior to returning to Switzerland for personal reasons.
Christian Djoos has flourished with the extra minutes as injuries have thrust him into the top pairing. The second year pro is fifth on the Bears in scoring and has already surpassed his point total from last season. In 38 games, Djoos has 29 points (6G,23 A), he had 22 points in 62 games as a rookie.
He’s making smart plays and forcing turnovers in the offensive zone. One play in particular that stuck out came Friday night in Binghamton. With the Senators breaking out, Djoos pinched in and caused the Senators to lose the puck. The Bears never left the offensive zone and scored shortly afterward to extend their lead at the time to 4-2. Djoos’ play was an important one in the game because the Senators scored three minutes later on what would’ve been the tying goal, instead it cut the lead to 4-3. The little things like that are what make Christian Djoos a key cog down the stretch.
The schedule doesn’t get any easier for Hershey as they’ll have three-in-threes for the next five weeks. It’ll go a long way in determining whether this most recent hot streak is a return to Bears hockey or a just fluke.