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Bears Battle Through Charlotte Struggles

The Hershey Bears return home for a substantial stretch of their early schedule after a weekend set against the Charlotte Checkers

Bears Battle Through Charlotte Struggles

HERSHEY, Pa. – The Hershey Bears return home for a substantial stretch of their early schedule after a weekend set against the Charlotte Checkers, dropping the first game by a 5-3 count and rebounding for a dramatic overtime win a day later by a 2-1 count. Although the Checkers have gone through a significant overhaul since the two teams have met, it’s been a tough recent history for the Bears when they make the trip to Bojangles Coliseum.

Dating back to the 2019 Calder Cup Playoffs, the Bears have not won a game in Charlotte. Granted, Charlotte hasn’t been a frequent destination for the Bears over the past few seasons despite sharing the division, but their playoff series that season marked the beginning of Bojangles Coliseum becoming a very tough place to play in. Hershey dropped games by a 4-1 and 7-3 in the first two games, and Charlotte used that momentum to power past the Bears in four straight, despite a few closer games at Giant Center. The following season, Hershey dropped two straight games in their lone trip to North Carolina, as the Checkers were one of a few teams to contain the Bears prior to the season shutdown.

Although it’s a very different group of Checkers and Bears that hit the ice over this past weekend, it didn’t feel too far off from those matchups of the past as Charlotte rallied with a clutch goal past Hershey in the first game. The Checkers seemed to use the momentum to shut down any hope of a Bears comeback, and their impressive youthful scoring blended in a similar fashion to the powerful, experienced group that won the Calder Cup last time it was up for grabs. Alexander True, one of the league’s top scorers, played a large part in that as he’s stood out in each of the three games the teams have played in the young season. Combined with Max McCormick, Zac Dalpe, and Lucas Carlsson, it’s easy to anticipate good results.

The second game of the set featured less flow and scoring as a result, but it felt like the kind of game Charlotte could clamp down on and win 1-0. The Bears had a hard time even holding onto the puck in the offensive zone at times as the puck seemed to stick to the ice rather than their stick blades, and shots would either slip away or wobble off their sticks, resulting in a lot of botched opportunities. Much in the same way as the Checkers, the top dogs of the Bears got the job done in a workmanlike effort, with Mike Sgarbossa getting the puck to Garrett Pilon and getting a shot to rainbow over Antoine Bibeau to even the count at one. The top line of Sgarbossa and Pilon both rank among the league’s best point producers early in the season, and Hershey stuck with it to get a greasy but crucial tally.

The pace of the game changed completely in extra time, perhaps one of the most entertaining in recent memory as the teams traded opportunities. Sgarbossa had a clear-cut breakaway, Charlotte had a few odd-man rushes, and fans were on the edge of their seats throughout. The eventual goal scorer Lucas Johansen started the shift battling Charlotte’s Cale Fleury off the bench, making a great defensive play physically separating skater from puck, allowing Aliaksei Protas to grab it and send Axel Jonsson-Fjallby down the ice. Johansen finished the play, beating Bibeau for the first game-winning goal of his career.

Although the Bears and Checkers will rematch at Bojangles Coliseum to kick off the month of April, Saturday’s game was important not only for the two points and to continue a strong start, but to exorcise a few demons of years past in the process. It will be interesting to see how the momentum carries over into their upcoming homestand and build into a strong start to the 2021-22 season.

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