HERSHEY, PA – In the midst of the All-Star Break, the Hershey Bears find themselves in unfamiliar territory: last place in the Atlantic Division. In a town with a rich history of success comes with high expectations. Spiraling down in an eight-game losing streak, time is starting to run out for the Bears.

It’s no secret the Bears are starving for goals this year. Going from a team among the top scoring in the league (252) last year to the bottom four in one season (113).

So what’s up?

Is there anything that can be done to salvage the season?

Let’s take a look at four things can Hershey do to turn things around.

Vitek Vanecek looks on after a goal in Providence. Photo Courtesy: Sarah Hobday, The Sin Bin.

Win the first period

Over the current eight-game slide, the Bears have only scored in the first period in two of those games. Overall in their 28 total losses, the Bears have a first-period goal differential of -18. For a team lacking in offensive firepower, a strong first period with a goal or two is crucial. Constantly having to battle back from early deficits takes its toll and the odds aren’t in their favor for a recovery as the team is 3-15-1 when trailing after the first. Hershey has faced two-goal deficits four out of the past five games. As coach Troy Mann has said, chasing the game is a tough way to win hockey games.

Net Front Presence

Something noticeable at the Outdoor Classic two weeks ago was the lack of Bears in front of the net.  Yes, Hershey threw a season-high 43 shots on goal, many of them were from a low probability area.  Many offensive zone trips for the Bears, nobody was standing in the slot looking for a pass, they were cycling on the outside.  Not until the second period when Nathan Walker sat on top of Alex Lyon and buried a rebound did Hershey get on the board.

Nathan Walker scores in the Outdoor Classic. Photo Courtesy: Sarah Hobday

The old saying in hockey “good things happen when you go to the net.”  It’s something the Bears need to adopt especially since they’ve been having trouble getting long-range shots through to the net.  Give the puck carrier an option in front, crash the net for rebounds, don’t shoot and then fall back.  It works, Anthony Peluso proves this by following his shot.

Hershey is hungry for goals, they should heed the words of former Bear Brooks Laich: 

“If you want money, go to the bank. If you want bread, go to the bakery. If you want goals, go to the net.”

Power play

The extra man units have been all over the place with personnel. Thrown off by the early season injury to Connor Hobbs and the additions of Tyler Graovac, Aaron Ness, and Nathan Walker. Even with a change of strategy and personnel they still can’t seem to break through consistently. Troy Mann’s heavy emphasis on looking for Grade A scoring opportunities may have stuck a little too well into the minds of the forwards. We saw many instances were a player may have been better served to shoot and instead passed off looking cross-ice only to be blocked or turned over.

Things seemed to have improved slightly as Hershey has continued to tweak things to get more pucks on net. Recently the power play broke a 0-for-20 goal-less stretch and has scored in two straight games. The bad news is that in both the Bridgeport and Providence games, the power play had extended five-on-three chances that could’ve broken open the game and they failed to convert.

In-House Options

Kelly Zajac

Zajac posted a career year with the Stingrays last year posting 52 points in 59 games. He also earned playing time in Hershey picking up seven points in nine games at the AHL level. The Bears opted to re-sign Kelly to an AHL deal this offseason. Zajac is South Carolina’s leading scorer with 33  points(13 G, 20 A) in 40 games. He also has points in five of the last six games and five power play goals, something Hershey is lacking heavily. He is however over the 260 pro games threshold for veterans as ruled by the AHL.

Tim McGauley

McGauley was signed by the Capitals in October of the 2015-16 season. He played parts of five seasons with the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL including a 105 point season in which he was a finalist for WHL player of the year. He’s yet to have played a game in Hershey but currently sits fourth among point scorers on the South Carolina Stingrays. In 38 games with the Rays, McGauley has 27 points (9 G 18 A). He’s scored in three consecutive games. It’s likely the Capitals plan to keep McGauley in the ECHL for a full season to develop at the pro level but he may be worth a look to see what he can do at the AHL level especially if they’re looking for a hot hand.

Hampus Gustafsson

“Gus” joined the Bears after signing with Washington in March of 2017 out of Merrimack College. He joined the Bears on a PTO for the remainder of the season and played in ten games out of necessity registering two assists.

This season, the official first year of his two-year entry-level deal, Gustafsson began with the Bears. In 14 games he put up two assists. He sat for an extended amount of time until reassignment to South Carolina. He was held off the scoresheet for his first seven-game with the Rays. Not until January 19th was he able to finally score his first professional goal. Seemingly becoming more and more confident in the professional game, Gustafsson has points in five of the last seven games. Confidence is vastly important for success in Hockey and in his previous Hershey stint he may not have found it yet. Now might be a good time to give him a look as he’s producing points and building confidence.

Dylan Margonari

Mann is very high on Margonari whenever he’s called up because he’s always one of the hardest workers on the ice.  The Greensburg, PA native has already matched his point total from last year of 17 in seven fewer games with the Stingrays. He’s already seen four games with the Bears without a point but if they’re looking for a spark to light a fire under underperforming vets, Margonari is a favorite for Troy Mann.

NHL Trade Deadline

Last year the Capitals came through and salvaged Hershey’s season by trading for Tom Gilbert and later adding Pheonix Copley as part of a blockbuster deal with St. Louis.  Bears are at the mercy of the Caps at this point, the high ups have been in Hershey, Barry Trotz has seen what’s been going on first hand.  They have a plan and undoubtedly it involves keeping all of the Bears young defenders in the lineup.  The deadline deals are unpredictable, the Caps could be quiet or they may be active.  More likely than not, Washington will be pretty quiet as they are cap-strapped unless they give up a big piece.  It would be tough to see them moving draft picks as well as 2018 looks to be a very deep draft.

A franchise successful as the Hershey Bears have been with 11 Calder Cup Championships in 79 seasons will always carry lofty goals.  At a minimum, you’re expected to make the playoffs and then make a deep run once you’re in.  As a developmental league, sometimes living up to those expectations can be tough to live up to.

When the Washington Capitals went all in and missed last season it sent shockwaves that were felt in Hershey.  The holes opened up at the NHL level had to be filled with fresh blood, taking most of Hershey’s offense with it.  In turn, a new crop of young talent has made its way to Hershey.  The Bears are still a developing team with a second-year 22-year-old goalie and five defensemen 23 and under. Not everyone can jump right into the pro game and be successful and there’s going to be growing pains. It takes time to find your way and unfortunately for the Bears playing in one of the toughest divisions the margin for error is super small.  The talent and veterans who have won before are on this team, could they catch fire and go on a roll? Sure.  But don’t be surprised if it’s April and Hershey’s not there.  There are 31 games left and the NHL Trade Deadline still to come, expect them to go down swinging.

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