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2023 Calder Cup Playoffs

Amerks Draw First Blood in Conference Final

Photo by Carl Minieri, Field Pass Hockey.

Amerks Draw First Blood in Conference Final

HERSHEY, Pa. – The two oldest teams in the American Hockey League met at Giant Center in Hershey on Tuesday as the Rochester Americans visited the Hershey Bears for Game One of the AHL’s Eastern Conference Finals. The visiting Amerks scored on their first shot on goal just 14 seconds into the game and never looked back, taking the opening game by a 5-1 count. Goaltender Malcolm Subban made 21 saves in the win while Hunter Shepard was pulled after the fourth goal. The two teams will rematch again in Hershey on Thursday night.

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 Photo Credit: Carl Minieri, Field Pass Hockey

Simply put, Rochester was ready for this game while Hershey didn’t look like the team that swept its way to this stage.

The Americans appeared faster and capitalized on their chances, starting with their first shot on goal, a wicked wrist shot off the stick of Joseph Cecconi that went through a screen and beat Shepard high over the shoulder just inside the post to make it 1-0. Subban would make a key save not long after the goal as Garrett Pilon cut in on a partial breakaway, but the Rochester netminder stayed with it and made the stop with his left pad to prevent host Hershey from evening the count at one.

Instead, the Amerks added to their lead with a tic-tac-toe passing play that landed on the tape of Brett Murray with time to spare, and he made no mistake by depositing the puck past Shepard to double the lead after one period. The Bears have not been phased in this playoff run, even trailing by two goals, having come back from such a deficit on two separate occasions against two different teams this postseason. However, Rochester would score a key goal early in the second with Matt Bartkowski beating Shepard with a point shot that found a home through traffic to make it 3-0.

How key was the third goal? It’s the first time in Hershey’s playoff run that the Bears have allowed more than two tallies, and the score seemed to take the wind out of the building. For good measure, Rochester added another as Mason Jobst scored his third postseason goal to give the visitors a 4-0 lead before the game was halfway through. That was the end of the night for Shepard, who had a tough outing despite being a pivotal player for the Bears this playoff as well as the season as a whole. Zach Fucale took over and stopped all six shots he’d face the rest of the way.

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Photo Credit: Carl Minieri, Field Pass Hockey

Hershey would push and break the shutout bid for Subban in the third as Aaron Ness scored his first career playoff goal off a slick feed from Logan Day during a four-on-four situation. Ness, who had not suited up for the Bears since being knocked out of Game Three against the Charlotte Checkers early on, played his first game since signing a two-year extension with the team. That would be as far as they’d get in this game despite pulling their goaltender, with the Amerks adding an empty net goal to seal the deal.

“We can’t cry over spilt milk,” Bears head coach Todd Nelson said after the game. “We have to prepare ourselves for Game Two on Thursday. I’m sure they’ll be coming out just as hungry if not hungrier to put us in a pretty deep hole, you have to win games on the road to win a series. That’s the way it is. We’ll take it game-by-game, focus on what we need to work on tomorrow. It’ll be a clean slate on Thursday.”

As for Shepard’s play?

“I think maybe he’d want one or two back,” Nelson said of Shepard. “With that being said there’s five guys in front of him that have to do their job. Our rush coverage wasn’t very good at all, I don’t know why because we worked on it all week. Now the guys understand what we’re up against, it’s a very good hockey team that deserves to be here. It’s going to be a battle on Thursday.”

“It’s playoff hockey, it’s not going to be easy. I think every time our team has faced adversity, we’ve gotten stronger. You’ve got to give them a lot of credit. We know it’s going to be hard.”

Nelson’s confidence in his group is well-founded, as it didn’t seem to be that same Hershey club that had earned this berth in the Eastern Conference Final in this game. The Bears couldn’t find a way to strike with two opportunities on the power play as that side of their special teams continues to be a sore spot, and Tuesday’s effort felt flat like their only other loss against Charlotte in the second round. Rochester’s speed was on full display, and they showed why they’ve been able to score so many goals to get to this point, picking up right where they left off against Toronto with some perfectly placed passes and shots.

Heading into Game Two, the Bears will look for a fresh slate to try and even up the series before it shifts to Rochester. The Amerks have the opportunity to take a commanding 2-0 series lead if they should take the second game, put the pressure on their opponent heading back to their barn, and try to make it a short series. It all adds up to what should be a pivotal game in Hershey on Thursday night.

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