The Hershey Bears can dazzle with skill, but it’s their detail that can be most impressive.

That attentiveness certainly has left an impression on Hartford Wolf Pack interim head coach Steve Smith after the Bears dealt his club a 4-2 loss in Game 2 of the Atlantic Division Finals last night. The Bears will take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series into Game 3 in Hartford on Wednesday.

A big, strong group, the Bears skate well. They work hard. Most of all, they play a connected, consistent game. Smith, who played 804 NHL games and won the Stanley Cup three times, has come away impressed beyond anything that is on the scoreboard.

“They’ve bought into a system that the coaches are selling,” Smith points out. “They’re very consistent on face-offs. They’re very consistent on breakouts. It’s a simple structure. Through the neutral zone, they push the pace forward. If they have a chance to make plays, they make them. Otherwise they just chip it in behind and make your ‘D’ turn.”

Said Wolf Pack forward Anton Blidh, “They do the simple stuff very well.”

One example is Hershey forward Ivan Miroshnichenko, who had two goals in Game 2, including a highlight-reel drive to the net on his second tally. With the Bears up 4-1 and Hartford goaltender Dylan Garand off for an extra skater with 2:37 to go in regulation, head coach Todd Nelson sent Miroshnichenko over the boards in a bid to ice the game and notch a hat trick.

Instead Miroshnichenko peeled off on a forecheck 15 seconds later and raced to the Hershey bench to get fresh help in forward Matt Strome on the ice.

“Very unselfish play,” Nelson said. “It’s a sign of maturity.”

It’s an unglamourous but effective way of playing winning playoff hockey, but a commitment to head coach Trent Vogelhuber’s edicts have the Cleveland Monsters holding a 2-0 series lead in the North Division Finals.

After a 4-1 win in Game 2 yesterday on home ice, they will head to Syracuse for Game 3 of the best-of-five series Wednesday.

The Monsters got to pucks quicker, and they got to those pucks in numbers. It left Vogelhuber pleased with his players.

“You give yourself a chance to win those 50-50 battles because you’re at least even numbers,” Vogelhuber told reporters after Game 2 yesterday. “You wear a team down over the course of three periods. You could see that as the third went that our physicality didn’t waver, and now we get more opportunities.”

All season long the Coachella Valley Firebirds have stressed that this is not the same group that lost the Calder Cup in overtime of Game 7 last year.

Not in personnel, and not in style. These Firebirds still have ample skill, and they led the AHL with 3.50 goals per game during the regular season. But they are a grittier, more physical team. Sure, they can run-and-gun with any team in the AHL, but they can also grind out games if the situation calls for it.

The Ontario Reign have tried to test that talking point through the first two games of the Pacific Division Finals, and the Firebirds have backed up their words so far. Ontario possesses a roster that bears some considerable size and, more importantly, a willingness to use it, but the Firebirds have shown that they can withstand that brawn.

“I don’t think it’s a good thing if they think that being physical against us is going to knock us off our game because the guys proved that it’s not,” Firebirds head coach Dan Bylsma told reporters after a 5-3 win in Game 2 on Friday gave his team a 2-0 series lead.

“Our guys just keep finding ways to win hockey games, and it’s a credit to them,” Bylsma continued. “It’s playoff hockey. You’re going to get different games. There are going to be highs and lows. Each one of our wins, they’ve kind of been different types of games, and we needed different things to be able to come up with a win.”

― with files from Patrick Williams


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