Bears draw tough bid
nReady to face top-seeded Providence as AHL playoffs get under way. BY KEVIN FREEMAN, Sports Writer
HERSHEY -- If the Hershey Bears are looking for a model as they head into the American Hockey League playoffs, they need look no further than the Los Angeles Kings.
Or the Philadelphia Flyers.
Last season, the Kings landed the eighth and final playoff berth in the NHL's Western Conference. They went on to win the Stanley Cup.
The Flyers won their final regular-season game during the 2009-10 season -- needing a shootout to win it -- to land a playoff berth and zoomed all the way to the Stanley Cup finals.
Hershey needed to win in its last regular-season game this past Sunday.
Can they make a run like the Kings or Flyers?
Well, one step at a time.
Not that the first step will be easy. The Bears are in Providence this morning, prepping to play the Bruins in Game 1 of the best-of-five series at 7 tonight. Game 2 is scheduled for 3 p.m. Sunday.
Like the Kings last season, the Bears are a No. 8 seed going against a No. 1, the Bruins.
"The pressure is on them,'' Hershey forward Ryan Potulny said of the Bruins, admitting, too, that Providence is in first place in the Eastern Conference for a reason. "We have to play with intensity and urgency but also can't be tight. We're the underdogs.''
While the Bruins recorded 14 more wins than the Bears this season and finished with 24 more points in the standings, the two teams split their only two games, each winning on its home rink.
"Outwardly, there isn't much pressure, but inwardly there is always pressure to play well as a team and as an individual,'' Hershey coach Mark French said.
Hershey fans that see the glass half full might point to the fact that the Bears made some changes to their lineup at the trade deadline, improving their offense with the moves. While that's true, the Bears were still 5-5 in their last 10 games, 9-11 in their last 20.
The Bruins? 9-1 in their last 10 and 17-3 in their last 20.
"(Providence) has a complete team and they are good in their building,'' said forward Nicolas Deschamps, who is one of those players who arrived in Hershey in mid-March. "We have to focus on that first game, even if they get the first goal. But I like our chances. We are a solid team with depth and we have some guys who have won championships.''
Another of those mid-March additions was Casey Wellman. The forward has produced nearly a point per game since coming to the Bears. His production, and work on the power play, will be a key to Hershey's success.
"Casey has quietly amassed real good numbers,'' French said. "When you look at the makeup of Providence's top two lines, they are not overly big but skilled, so Casey should fit well into the series.''
Wellman and the rest of the Bears will have to solve Providence goalie Niklas Svedberg, recently named the AHL's outstanding goaltender. A rookie, Svedberg was 37-8 with two shootout losses this season and posted a 2.17 goals-against average.
In two games against the Bears this season, Svedberg surrendered a pair of goals each to Potulny and Deschamps.
"We have to get some bodies in front of him and try to get him out of his game a little bit,'' Deschamps said. "I think we have some good offensive guys who can score some goals.''
At the other end of the ice, the Bears will be relying on their own rookie goalie. Philipp Grubauer enters the series with a 15-9-2 record and a GAA of 2.25.
"There are two good first-year goalies going, which will make for a good subplot to the series,'' French said. "Philipp didn't get to go on a playoff run with South Carolina in the ECHL last year because he was injured, but he did in the Canadian Major Junior League and led Windsor to a championship at that level, so some of those experiences should play into it.''
While former Bears Chris Bourque, Christian Hanson and Graham Mink will figure prominently into the Bruins' offense, Hershey has to be wary of Jamie Tardif, who led the team with 30 goals, and Ryan Spooner, who had a team-high 40 assists.
Hershey's top scoring threats are Jeff Taffe, who was second in the league in scoring (71 points) and tied for the league lead in assists (53), along with Potulny, Wellman and Jon DiSalvatore.
"There may be more pressure on Providence but in Hershey, it's a little different,'' Wellman said. "There are a lot of expectations and a lot of tradition here. We're happy to be in the playoffs and we think we have a good chance.''
Notes: Mike Carmen (lower body injury), Mattias Sjogren and Patrick McNeill are not making the trip to Providence. Sjogren and McNeill are healthy. French said Thursday that while he didn't know which players would dress for the game, Patrick Wellar was selected over McNeill because he is more physical. Plus, French liked the way defenseman Chay Genoway played in Sunday's playoff-clinching win over Manchester. ... The Bears defeated the Bruins in the 2008-09 Eastern Conference finals, four games to one.