Monday, April 09, 2007

How Sweet It Is

The end of the regular season is always a little rough on me. The Caps are out of the playoffs, the playoffs haven’t started yet, and so I find myself seeking out other sources of hockey entertainment. Sure, I could watch Miracle for the 3000th time, but I swear I’m about two viewings away from believing I’m one of the members of the USA Hockey team. (“CapsChick, Washington DC...I play for the United States of America!”)

So after months of casually tossing around the idea, my roommate and I decided to finally get off our butts and go see a Bears game live. We piled into our little zipcar (shameless plug in hopes of getting free stuff) and headed up I-83 into the mountains of Pennsylvania, passing tiny towns and wide open farmland on our way. It was good to get out of the city, away from the memories of the season that might have been, away from the cold into...well, colder.

As we crossed the Maryland border into Pennsylvania, I was struck by a wave of giddiness and greeted by a sea of mullets.

I kid, I kid. (Kind of.)

But I was excited and proceeded to bounce in my seat for the rest of the the way, not something I’d recommend doing if you’re actually the one driving, although it did make for a thrilling car ride. We passed signs for Harrisburg – 58 miles, 34 miles, 22 miles...then we started seeing signs for Hershey attractions. Suddenly we were behind a car with Pennsylvania plates and a sticker that said ‘HBH’. Hershey Bears Hockey. Follow that car!

Our little caravan grew as we drew closer to the arena, and I started spotting people in the cars around us clad entirely in Bears’ gear. I don’t really know why we were so excited by that – maybe it’s just the sight of people who actually love hockey, something so rare in this football-mad area. Walking through the parking lot towards Giant Center we passed cars with Hershey Bears vanity plates and bumper stickers, families dressed in matching Hershey jerseys, kids waving foam bear claws excitedly, all hoping for a Bears victory to cap off their weekend. that a Muir jersey???

After purchasing our requisite Bears’ shirts and equally requisite program (because we figured correctly that Flash wasn’t going to be wearing #43) we were directed to our seats and the game was on. It was a strange period, lots of penalties but very few chances. Neither team seemed to be able to generate anything in the way of serious scoring chances, and those few shots that broke through were quickly turned away by the goaltenders.

"Game on." "Game on!"

Freddy comes up big

Watching the power play for Hershey in that first period was eerily reminiscent of watching the Caps – they had trouble entering the zone and when they were finally able to set up, they got one shot towards the net before allowing the puck to be cleared the length of the ice. They wasted a golden 5 minute opportunity and would fail to connect five more times with the extra man. On the plus side, penalty killing looked sharp, with Steckel in particular holding down the fort for most of the game.

The deadlock was finally broken when Tomas Fleischmann scored for the Bears and the home team took a 1-0 lead into the locker room. After a scoreless but equally penalty-filled second
period, the Bears would extend their lead with a goal by rookie Kyle Wilson off a pretty passing play from Flash and Klepis. The Penguins rallied back to pull within one late in the game, ending Cassivi’s shutout bid and making the Bears pay for taking too many penalties. Steckel then scored an empty-netter to put the game out of reach.

Your 2 stars - 'Flash' and Freddy (the #3 star was a dirty baby pen)

It was really an interesting experience and there are some things that stick out at you right away. The speed of the game is much more leisurely than NHL games. Many of the players’ abilities are clearly at a lower level. Plays aren’t so much planned out as they are spontaneous reactions to something the other team did. Guys have more of a tendency to simply whack at a puck when in a battle, be it along the boards or at open ice. There is a lack of basic hockey awareness, of a vision on the ice that you see in the NHL – guys know where their teammates are at all times, where the open ice is, and more importantly, where the opponents are. Not so much at the AHL level.

Still, the game was entertaining and the Bears really dominated the Penguins after what was a bit of a rough first period. They controlled rebounds well in front of Cassivi who was sharp in his own right, and they had some nice plays that forced the WBS goalie to come up big at times.

It was also an interesting look at some of the guys we’ve seen down in DC this year in a completely different setting. There’s a confidence and a swagger to their game and a smoothness to their skating that is missing in some of their teammates. Flash and Klepis were making nice
passes and dancing around the defense with an agility we have yet to see from them consistently in the NHL. If they are ever able to keep that in their game and make the transition to the Caps, they will be very scary to play against. Schultz played his usual solid but invisible game, which is fine by me, and Green actually looked like a defenseman out there.

Schultz sporting #6. A good omen maybe?

Of all the recent callups I found myself watching Dave Steckel the most throughout the game. He seems to really have taken to his role as one of the leaders of this Bears’ team and plays like it every shift. He was everywhere he needed to be and often places you didn't expect him to be. Gone were the shaky strides of his first few stints with the Caps, to be replaced by the sure, fluid motions of a true NHLer. You could tell that the confidence from his two-game assignment with the big boys has carried over – let’s just say if he keeps it up I don’t think he’ll be in Hershey much longer.

But others stood out too, some guys that may not have worn a Caps jersey yet this season but could be seeing time with the club as soon as next season. Kyle Wilson was very impressive, and
the finish on his goal was really beautiful. Quintin Laing was also sharp, and Joey Tenute was a feisty little bugger all game long.

Kyle Wilson pots the eventual game-winner - 2-0 Bears!

I thought that Chris Bourque in particular had a great game and really surprised me. He was hitting guys who had two feet and 50 pounds on him with no fear, blocking shots, setting up plays with nice passes, killing penalties – the only glitch on his performance was an undisciplined penalty he took in retaliation for an earlier hit...although it was pretty funny, he basically shoved one of the Penguins down in front of the Hershey bench as he was coming off. It made me laugh, what can I say?

I’m going to assume that everyone was a bit sleepy
after church and too much chocolate (or in my case gefilte fish and matzah), because it was a bit mellow throughout the afternoon and I’ve heard that it usually gets pretty raucous. I’m sure once the playoffs start up things will get a bit more interesting. Funny thing is that it was still noisier than Verizon Center. Fans do a good job of just starting up random cheers throughout the game to keep at least a buzz running through the crowd, something I've noticed was lacking at Caps games.

I will take Horn Guy over the dozens of air horns in attendance any day, though – it sounded like a herd of dying cattle.

Overall it was really a fun day – the drive was pleasant and not too long, everyone at the arena was very nice and helpful, and we even made friends with some people next to us (one of whom was also a Habs fan and joined me in my giddiness when it was revealed that the Islanders had slid into the playoffs...). The fans there are dedicated and it shows in the way they dress, their knowledge of the game and the players, their excitement about the team. This Hershey team is really fun to watch and I’m hoping to get up there for a playoff game to see what they can really do. Hopefully sometime in the not too distant future we can see it here in DC as well.

Bears Win!!



OrderedChaos said...

Good stuff, thanks for sharing the experience. A few of us went to Hershey last year for a Calder Cup game (a shellacking of the Admirals) and had a fantastic time, it's a great hockey atmosphere.

Elly said...

Just can't go a post without bashing the Penguins in some incarnation, can you? ;)

Sounds like a good game! I'm sad that there aren't a lot of AHL teams around me (I think the closest is...Hamilton?), we just have a lot of colleges, and tickets to Cats games require you to mug someone on the street beforehand.

mcoale said...

It was a great atmosphere at the game.

This was my first game in Hershey at the new building. We used to go to the Arena back in the day before I moved away. It's certainly much much better than going to the Scope to see the Admirals.

At least the Pens fans were much better behaved as visitors than the Sabres fans Saturday in DC.

best thing I saw, fan wise, was the guy wearing the bears' St Pat's green sweater from a couple months ago.

mudwoman1326 said...

Muir...there's no accounting for bad taste, i guess.
glad you enjoyed your trip up north to my town of hockey...we're die hards here. With a bunch of bandwagons for good measure since we won the cup.

Mullets are a little further in Wilkes-barre. Don't believe me? Keep driving up I-81 some time...

Expect to see a lot of Steckel, Flash, Bourque, Tenute and Wilson...these guys are amazing. NHL is lucky...they get to keep these guys someday. I'm used to it. It's part of loving an AHL team.

You should have driven up on saturday. It was a completely different game playing the phantoms.