Holtby, Oleksy, Potulny Help Hershey to VictoryPosted on January 14, 2013 by Mike Vogel
Thursday night’s game between the Hershey Bears and the Norfolk Admirals at Verizon Center came one night after the 15th anniversary of the building’s opening. It was the first AHL game played within District city limits since 1949. And it was the first hockey game played at Verizon Center since last May 9.
Hershey edged the Admirals 2-1 in the 2012 Washington AHL Showcase, giving a large crowd a faint taste of what they’ve been missing for the last couple of months.
The Bears dug themselves an early hole before pulling even later in the first frame. The two teams battled through several power play opportunities on both sides before Hershey’s Ryan Potulny netted what proved to be the game-winner at 4:26 of the third period.
The last time Hershey goaltender Braden Holtby played in a game at Verizon Center, he did not allow a goal until the game’s final minute, helping the Capitals to a 2-1 win over the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference semifinal series game between the two teams. That May 9 victory forced a deciding Game 7 at Madison Square Garden in New York three nights later.
Holtby returned to Verizon Center with his Bears teammates for Thursday night’s game, and this time it took all of 10 seconds for the opposition to solve him. Norfolk’s Brandon McMillan released a wrist shot from above the left circle that got past Holtby to give Norfolk a 1-0 lead.
“Just a great pass by Sami Vatanen across the ice,” says McMillan of his goal. “I came down the wing with some speed and kind of used the defenseman as a shield. I don’t think [Holtby] was really ready for that one.”
Hershey evened the count with 6:06 left in the first period. Zach Hamill scooted into the attack zone, driving hard down the right side. As he got down low, he drew a pair of defenders before sliding a perfect pass to Evan Barlow in front. Barlow had just enough time and space to pick his corner – top right – and snipe it to make it a 1-1 game.
For Barlow, it was his first AHL goal of the season.
The game was a penalty-filled affair, but a total of 14 power plays (eight for Hershey and six for Norfolk) produced exactly zero special teams goals on the night. The two clubs continued their standoff until the fifth minute of the third period when Hershey finally grabbed a lead.
Bears center Jeff Taffe curled off the lower left wing wall and, while fending off a defender, slipped a backhand pass out to defenseman Steve Oleksy at the point. Oleksy performed middleman services, quickly dishing a perfect feed to Potulny, who was locked and loaded down low on the right side.
Potulny’s shot was as perfect as the passes that got the puck to him; the blast eluded Norfolk netminder Frederik Andersen to put the Bears on top.
A two-time 30-goal man at the AHL level, Potulny is one of Hershey’s most lethal offensive weapons when healthy. But he has missed much of the first quarter of the season with a lower-body injury. Potulny entered the game without a goal in his first dozen games of 2012-13.
He picked a great time to notch his first of the season.
“It felt good, it did,” he admits. “You don’t change your game. People asked me if I was frustrated; and I really wasn’t to be honest with you. I knew it was going to come. Things were coming and I was getting chances. Once you get frustrated is when you get yourself into trouble. It was more of just play my game and stick with it, stick with the systems and the right thing usually happens when you do that.”
Oleksy is not known for his offensive prowess; he entered the game with one assist in his first 19 games this season and he has just one goal in 87 career AHL contests. But he was one of Hershey’s unsung heroes on this night, playing a sturdy game in his own end and making a sublime play on the game-winner.
Because of an injury to defenseman Dmitry Orlov, the Bears played the last two periods with just five defensemen. Oleksy had a strong shift late in the second, sending a message to Admirals forward Kyle Palmieri, who had been taking post-whistle liberties with some Bears. Oleksy let Palmieri know that sort of thing wouldn’t be tolerated, and he even managed to do so without putting his defense-depleted team a man short.
“I definitely tried to bring a physical presence back there,” says Oleksy. “Pottsy came off the bench there, and it was a great pass by Taffer to give it to me. I saw Pottsy out on my periphs. I just threw it across to him and it was nice to see him get his first one of the season.”
Potulny was appropriately appreciative of the play.
“That was a great pass by him,” says Potulny of Oleksy’s feed. “He put it right in my wheelhouse for me there, and that’s not an easy pass to make. He showed a little skill there with that play. Some of the fans maybe think of him as a physical guy. I’m sure we’ll have some jokes about that pass maybe after, but it was a great play. He just laid it our there for me.”
From that point on, Holtby and the Bears dug in and kept the Admirals at bay. Norfolk had a couple of strong chances in the game’s waning seconds, but Holtby stiffed the Ads and allowed the Bears to come away with two big divisional points.
“It’s always big to take two points in a divisional [game],” says Oleksy. “I think the guys did a great job in coming out. Obviously it didn’t start the way we wanted it to, but to battle back that’s a character win that goes very far throughout the rest of the season.”
Norfolk coach Trent Yawney was also complimentary of Hershey’s efforts.
“Full points to Hershey,” says Yawney. “They played hard and they won most of the loose-puck battles. Those usually equate into winning hockey games.”
The victory elevated Hershey’s mark to 10-11-1-0 on the season. The Bears were able to stay ahead of the Admirals in the East Division and Eastern Conference standings, and to pull within a single point of eighth-place Portland in the conference standings.
Potulny on the Bears’ power play, which was 0-for-8 on the night and is 0-for-19 in three games against Norfolk this season despite generating a lot of zone time and a number of good looks:
“We moved the puck well tonight. We had a lot of chances. It’s a hard look to defend. When we can get control and make a few passes like that like we did tonight, it really breaks them down. We had a lot of chances, unfortunately we didn’t get one in. The look was good; it was what we wanted. As long as we’re doing the right thing and getting chances, that will come.”
Bears coach Mark French on his team’s game:
“The guys showed good resolve. We played well in the first period, so we responded well in the first to not a great start. I was happy with the response we got from the group.”
French on Orlov’s upper-body injury:
“I don’t think it’s anything serious, but he obviously wasn’t able to return to the game. We’ll probably know better once I’m briefed.”
Oleksy on playing in front of a large crowd:
“It was a great atmosphere out there with all the Caps’ fans. And obviously the way we’ve been treated the last couple of days has been amazing. To get a feel for that and to walk out to the building like that it was a great experience for all of us.”
I was poking around my desktop this weekend when I stumbled upon the original player selection list of the World Hockey Association. Here’s a short discussion of the birth of the WHA. Forty years ago at this time, the nascent World Hockey Association was a couple of months into the first season of its seven-year existence, an existence many scoffed at a year earlier. In 1971, the WHA announced its plans to form a 10-team major pro league to compete with the NHL, which was a 14-team circuit in those days. (The NHL became a 16-team league with the addition of the New York Islanders and Atlanta Flames in 1972-73; that represented a growth from six to 16 teams in a span of just five years.)