The Hershey Bears began the 2012 regular season with high hopes at another Calder Cup championship. Many believe their chances would increase with added talent due to the NHL lockout, mainly in defenseman Dmitry Orlov and goaltender Braden Holtby. The addition of new Capitals head coach Adam Oates to the Bears’ coaching staff was definitely a surprise to many fans and media, and it took time for the players to adjust to a new system and team philosophy.
Hershey struggled out of the gate, but has regained their common place in the standings like years past, in a playoff spot. The Bears currently sit eighth in the Eastern Conference, but a strong second half to the season could push them much higher in the East.
The Bears’ players and coaching staff have adjusted Oates’s new system, but also made some tweaks of their own. Oates implemented a highly defensive oriented system, with defensemen often staying at the blue line instead of pinching in the offensive zone. Since Oates has left, Hershey blue liners have pinched more often, but still hold a defensive first approach.
“I think the team is really starting to find its groove within our system,” Bears forward Jon DiSalvatore said. “I think our D (defense) have been playing really well, learning how to come out cleaner of our defensive zone which has led to some pretty good offense for us. We just had to be patient with the system, but ultimately that’s what’s been good production for us.”
“The systems that Adam [Oates] put in place are the identity of the organization,” said French of any possible change to team philosophy in Hershey. “Adjustments are always made. We make adjustments from game to game. So if there’s adjustments that need warranted, we’ll make those adjustments, but certainly not an overhaul.”
Hershey enters 2013 with a 16-14-1-1 record, a significant accomplishment considering their place near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings in November.
“It was a goal that we set,” DiSalvatore said of entering 2013 above .500. “I think when we were maybe four or five games under .500, so we’ve put it out there and we came together to accomplish that goal. It shows we can set those bars and achieve those bars.”
They’ve set themselves up for a chance to earn a top four seed in the Eastern Conference at seasons end, only trailing the fourth seed Binghamton Senators by seven points, the team Hershey hosts Sunday night in their first game of 2013.
“It’s probably brought us into the race,” Bears coach Mark French said of Hershey’s strong December. “We were kind of out of it and now we’re right in the thick of things. It’s very competitive in the [Eastern] conference.”
The turnaround by the Bears in the month of December can be credited to Hershey’s work on the defensive end, mainly strong goaltending, especially by Washington Capitals’ goalie Braden Holtby.
“Obviously our commitment to the defensive side of the game has been really good through the month of December,” said French after Hershey’s loss to Albany last Saturday. “Our goaltending has been a big part of that as well, but we showed a little more jump offensively tonight. I think that’s probably the next component where our game needs to go. We need to take away the pressure on our team defense and generate a little bit more offense.”
“It’s been phenomenal,” Bears forward and assistant captain Jon DiSalvatore said. “It seems all we have to do is score one goal and we have an opportunity to win.”
Holtby’s recent play earned him goalie of the month for December, and could earn him an all-star appearance in Providence this January. Through 23 games, he has accumulated 12 wins in net along with an impressive 2.15 goals against average and .932 save percentage.
The offense has also been making strides in recent games, with free agent additions Jeff Taffe and Jon DiSalvatore leading the way. Taffe is tied with former Hershey Bear Keith Aucoin with 25 assists on the season, but also has seven goals to go with his helpers in 32 games. He’s provided veteran leadership along with veteran players including Ryan Potulny, and has been a key component of Hershey’s power play.
“Sometimes you need to have success when you’re trying to find your identity with a system,” DiSalvatore said. “We were a little patient and we had some early on struggles, but now that we’ve had some success guys are really buying into what we’re doing. That’s going to be able to keep our momentum going into the second half of the season.”
A big January awaits for Hershey, including their first matchup in the New Year against a hot young team in Binghamton, along with their Outdoor Classic game against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, a team the Bears have dominated thus far this season.
The lockout could determine how far Hershey can go this season, but a commitment to the defensive end could turn this club into a Calder Cup contender if their offense catches fire.