HERSHEY, Penn. – The first month of the 2018-19 campaign for Spencer Carbery’s Bears began with a nose dive. Could a team full of youth and rookies recover?  The road through a hockey season is long and winding with many ebbs and flows of momentum.  For now, its swinging back in the Bears favor.

How the Tables Turned

It took the Bears until December until they notched two wins over Wilkes-Barre last season, but the 2018-19 team has done it within the first month of the season. Fellow division rival Lehigh Valley provides a similar story as the first win against them took three tries in 2017-18 as opposed to just one this season.

Since October 14 and the 0-5 start, the Chocolate and White have begun to right the ship, amassing points in five of the past six while going 4-1-0-1. How has the team been able to reverse fortunes so quickly according to coach Spencer Carbery?

“Puck management. Early in the year at certain points of games and in certain areas of the ice we were very casual with pucks,” Carbery said.

Something we’ve mentioned as a disturbing trend after the season’s first few games.  Hershey’s inability to clear pucks and surrendering them to attacking players inside the zone was killing them.

“At this level and certainly at the NHL level, if you’re ever casual with the puck and turn it over in a bad area it’s an automatic scoring chance and most likely going to be a goal against. I thought that was one of the biggest issues with us early is our young guys understanding how important puck management is at this level,” said Carbery.

Carbery noted this area was the number one most improved area(among many) after the first month. Maintaining better management of the puck continues to be a major point of emphasis and this attention to detail is producing a significant difference in play as evidenced by the recent hot streak.

Evolving Role

Liam O’Brien in the beginning of his career for Hershey certainly featured more of the rough stuff with 121 penalty minutes compared to eight points in 45 games. As the game shifts away from fighting to more skill and scoring, O’Brien is following suit. Gradually the PIMs are dropping and the points are rising for O’Brien.  He set career highs in goals (17 and games played (69) last season proving he is a valuable asset and belongs in the lineup. Also steadily rising is his shooting percentage from 7.3% as a rookie up to a sizzling 20.7% today. Even as he’s shooting more it’s gone up every season.  O’Brien is off to the best start of his career scoring six goals in the first 11 contests.

The way O’Brien is scoring, particularly of late, illustrates exactly the kind of mindset and offensive approach Carbery and the coaching staff are trying to instill in the team.

“We’re trying to to make it a point: For us to score goals we’re going to have to get to the hard areas and the hard area is right in front of the goaltender. Hunting for rebounds, there’s a lot of loose pucks hanging around in that area,” Carbery said.

The lone goal of the game on Friday for Hershey came from O’Brien sitting in the “hard area” in front of the goal and he paid for it.

From their most recent game this past Sunday, the team exemplifies to a T what Carbery is looking for on offense.

Garrett Pilon parks himself in front of the goaltender for a point shot providing a screen and distraction while Liam O’Brien is there to pounce on the loose rebound and bury it past a scrambling Alex Lyon.

Vitek Vanecek, entering his third full season with Hershey, has now seen more rubber in his first seven games this season than any other. Stopping 190 of 207 shots including a 25-save shutout over Charlotte, the Czech netminder is making a statement to the entire Capitals organization as he competes with the Capitals top prospect Ilya Samsonov.

Samsonov briefly battled a minor injury coming off the long road swing to start the season and his numbers reflect a team in front of him which had yet to develop any real solid chemistry at the time.  His return from injury on Saturday against Wilkes-Barre required a shootout after facing just five shots in the first period.  His coach was impressed with how he handled himself despite the quieter than normal first.

“He didn’t get tested a lot especially early in the game.  That’s challenging for a goaltender to not face a lot but I thought he was real good, especially late in that game,” Carbery remarked on Samsonov’s first AHL win.

The Bears look to keep on rolling with another three-in-three coming this weekend starting with a home and home against 7-2-1 Rochester.  Hartford (4-6-1) closes out the weekend as they come to Giant Center for the afternoon tilt in Hershey.

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