Paul Fixter, first time Hershey Bears coach under Colorado Avalanche contract, gave no motivational speeches in the locker room. He did not worry about the Xs and Os. There was to be no excuse for this team consisting of Tampa Bay Lightning, Colorado Avalanche and new call-ups from the ECHL. It was proclaimed a “six period weekend” consisting of two games in less than 24 hours and the players knew that the heat was on the ice. Meticulously, Fixter prepared his line-up wisely to make no mistakes.
Coach Fixter had three goalies from the Colorado Avalanche organization to choose from: Philippe Sauve, Peter Budaj or recent-call up AHL rookie Tom Lawson. He opted for 24-year-old Philippe Sauve, knowing that despite a .909 save percentage in nine games he could get the job done with flair. It was important for Paul Fixter to take into consideration all factors including AHL experience, against a team well known to the Bears, the Norfolk Admirals, and outright promising regain of the young goaltender’s physical and mental form. He also took into consideration that 21-year-old Peter Budaj proved the team right by playing a more competitive edge of goaltending reminiscent of his OHL years. He turned heads in his last two games leading to wins against Springfield and Albany. Budaj was to rest for a possible playoff run. Budaj himself acknowledged that although he was not to be on goal: “I know the team will do anything to win.”
Jeff Finger, 24-year-old defenseman and Colorado Avalanche, who General Manager Doug Yingst considers one of the most promising prospects of the line-up knew that the most important aspect in defense is to play in front of the net and defend your center against ongoing chaos on the ice. Finger gained leaps in his development by adding grit to a Hershey Bear team considered by the press as weakly defensive overall.
Nikita Alexeev, 22-year-old Russian left wing from Murmansk, standing at six foot five and two hundred and fifteen pounds who played in 37 NHL games for Tampa Bay during the 2002-03 season had a near promising start from October 11th to November 2nd of this season. An on-ice-game injury to his shoulder halted his career briefly until his comeback on March 26th against Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins. With appropriate physical therapy rehabilitation and conditioning, Alexeev who was Tampa Bay’s first election and eight overall in the 2000 NHL Entry attempted to dispel any disappointments on the ice. He was chosen for his outstanding size and playmaking abilities.
Ryan Craig, 22-year-old British Columbia native who was Tampa Bay’s eight round selection in the 2002 Entry Draft stands as a versatile center and role player at the AHL level who needs to develop his depth in play especially in the neutral zone.
Cody McCormick, 20-year-old right winger proud of his indigenous Chippewa, Mohawk background has a tremendous worth ethic on the ice. After been sent down to the Hershey Bears McCormick felt that his ice time had significantly decreased playing fourth line. McCormick found his adjustment from the NHL harder than that to the AHL given the minor league on the road bus trip schedule. He also found difficulty in creating quick flowing passes and plays.
Evegyni Artukhin, 21-year-old Russian winger and Tampa Bay prospect, learned this season the significance of game misconduct. Artukhin’s awesome size at six foot five and two hundred and forty pounds is a menace on the ice even with attempting clean checks. Artukhin’s skating abilities clearly improved but still he must improve on his grit in forking the puck in the net.
THE SIX PERIODS
(Three periods – April 10th) Like any coach wanting to win, Paul Fixter’s believes that hard work leads to success on the ice. He knows that good guys win at the end: “It’s easy to quit when you’re down and we were down…We were down in the month of March and we didn’t quit. We believed, we persevered.” The Hershey Bears prospects needed to outsmart the Admiral’s opposition in skating and shooting ability, but Fixter was rather impressed with the goaltending situation in the 3-1 win: “Phil is a three-time MVP. He’s an all-star. He spent the better part of the NHL. He was in the all-star rookie game, some pretty good credentials. I felt very confident with him. “ He proved his win against Mike Leighton, 24-year-old NHL experienced back-up to Jocelyn Thibault with the Chicago Blackhawks organization. The prospect casts effort was worthy of an encore now against the Philadelphia Phantoms.
(Three periods and overtime April 11th) On a chilly rainy Easter Sunday afternoon, the Hershey Bears postponed their celebration plans. They needed to win the game in overtime to jump into fourth place for a playoff run. It was an all or none situation in which hard work should be rewarded. It was as a Philadelphia Phantom crew insisted on winning their 12 game series against the Hershey Bears Paul Fixter pointed out that: “In the end, did we get anything for it? Well, we can wake up in the morning, looking in the mirror and know that we at least gave it our all and our all wasn’t good enough this year” as he spoke referring to a fluke goal registered officially as an unassisted goal to twenty-four year old Flyers prospect Antero Nittymaki leading to the Phantom win. However, Paul Fixter revealed that despite not making a playoff run, he believes that he reached his main goal in developing quality players. “This season was an educational experience” in schooling prospects into the NHL.