ROCHESTER, N.Y. – The old saying goes that in a town known for chocolate, nothing tastes as sweet as victory. The Hershey Bears are returning to the Calder Cup Finals for the first time since 2016 thanks to a 24-save shutout for Hunter Shepard and Shane Gersich’s first goal of the 2023 Calder Cup Playoffs for a 1-0 win over the Rochester Americans. Hershey take the series by a four games to two count with the win to the final round for the 24th time in their storied 85-year history. It’ll be a little while until the schedule for the final round is released due to the ongoing Western Conference Final.
The sixth installment of the series saw the Amerks with momentum coming off of a 4-1 win in Game Five and back home before a crowd of 8,777 at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester looking to force a seventh and decisive game back in Hershey on Monday night. It was the most detailed game of the series for both teams, with shots on goal staying in single digits for both teams in each of the three periods of play. It was a scrappy game within reason as neither side wanted to take an unnecessary penalty and potentially swing momentum in the series.
It seemed like the only way the red light would be lit in this game would be with some kind of miracle, and it would be the kind of goal that just can’t be scripted. It would play out just that way as Gabriel Carlsson knocked a puck down in neutral ice, skating into the offensive zone and dishing the puck to Beck Malenstyn on the left side. Malenstyn fired a smart shot on Malcolm Subban (18 saves on 19 shots) that the goaltender kicked out, but right to Gersich sneaking in on the right side. Gersich put the rebound into the yawning cage that would ultimately serve as the only goal of this game.
The goal is just the second postseason tally at the American Hockey League level for Gersich, playing in just his fifth game of these playoffs. Gersich has been a team player this season, returning to the Bears on an AHL contract and finding himself on the outside looking into the lineup in these playoffs with players down from the Washington Capitals. Gersich found his way in as a result of injuries, slotting in on Hershey’s hardworking fourth line and batting in the rebound for the only goal of the game. It’s just the latest example of an unsung hero emerging for the Bears when they need it most.
“We talked about depth all year, right?” Bears head coach Todd Nelson said after the game. “[Gersich] brings a lot of energy and he’s been around, one of our veteran presences in the lineup. It was a great goal, both goaltenders are playing so well I thought it might be the one to separate us. It’s huge when you get contributions up and down the lineup.”
Hershey was not out of the woods in the slightest after the goal, with their defense looming large particularly on the penalty kill. The Bears found themselves down two men for one minute and 24 seconds when a too many men on the ice call was compounded by a high-sticking call on Riley Sutter, a double-whammy as one of Hershey’s top penalty killing centers. However, the Bears endured the kill with shot blocks and clears from other unsung heroes like Jake Massie, who’s been pinch hitting for the team on the blue line all season long. The penalty kill came through in a crucial moment, holding a lethal Rochester power play to just one goal in 15 chances in the series as another crucial factor in the Bears’ success.
“It was totally outstanding, and when it broke down Shep was there,” Nelson remarked about the penalty kill. “The five-on-three, wow, that was a defining moment of the game tonight. They’ve been pretty good all year and all the playoffs, but tonight they were outstanding.”
The Bears played a smart third period, limited the Americans to just seven shots on goal and Shepard stood tall when needed. Hershey was given a power play with 2:22 left in the third period, but Rochester pulled their netminder and pressed for the tying goal with their season on the line. It came down to the final moments, but the Bears held on to secure the win and advance to the final round for the first time in seven years.
“It’s a great feeling, I don’t know what to say,” an exuberant Bears Vice President of Hockey Operations Bryan Helmer said. “I’m just so excited right now. Man, it’s good to be back! I think those guys already know that this might be the last time they’re all together, they have a chance to win the Calder Cup together, they’re going to be ready.”
Coincidentally, Friday’s game marked the first time that the Bears have played hockey in June for the first time since 2016. Hershey has not won a game in the final round since Helmer hoisted the Calder Cup as a player on June 14, 2010, but if they can win four more games, they’ll lift a banner to the rafters at Giant Center for the 12th time in the history of the league’s oldest franchise. The Bears famously don’t hang any banners aside from championships, and the work isn’t done yet.
“Our guys were really focused coming into this game tonight and you could see it, the determination,” Nelson said. “I’m glad we’re trending in this direction because, depending on who we play, if we play Coachella [Valley], we’re going to have to win on the road. It’s a good trait to have, but we want to establish ourselves at home now.”
The Bears won’t know who they’re playing or when they’ll be playing for a little while yet. The Western Conference Final got off to a later start than the East, and it’ll be either the Milwaukee Admirals or the Coachella Valley Firebirds facing off against the Bears in the final round. If Coachella Valley wins, the Firebirds will have home ice advantage as Nelson mentioned as one of two Western Conference teams to finish above Hershey in the standings. It will be the first ever matchup between the oldest and newest teams in the AHL. Should Milwaukee advance, the Bears will have the majority of games at home in a rematch of the 2006 Calder Cup Finals, where the Bears lifted the Calder Cup after six games. It presents vastly different schedule possibilities, and it’ll be known by Wednesday at the very latest.
Only the beginning for Rochester
It’s a bittersweet ending for the Americans and their fans after making a memorable run to get to this point. Three straight wins over the Syracuse Crunch, including an overtime winner in Game Five to advance, and scoring 16 goals in three games to sweep Toronto made for a memorable run in Rochester. The future is bright in the Buffalo Sabres organization, and although losing this series is difficult, there’s plenty of reason to believe that the Amerks will be battling to avenge this season in 2024. It’s easy to see key players like Jiri Kulich battle for a spot with the big club or be part of a team that will be hungry for more in the fall.
- PHOTOS: Jason Johansen’s Best Photos of 2022-2023 Season
- Rolling Thunder Podcast Episode #11: Kicking Off Season 2
- PHOTOS: Michael King’s Best Photos from the 2022-23 Season
- PHOTOS: (Rookie Faceoff) San Jose Sharks vs. Vegas Golden Knights – 09/16/2023
- PHOTOS: (Rookie Faceoff) Anaheim Ducks vs. Vegas Golden Knights – 09/15/2023
- Andrew Lord Reunites with Former Player in Recent Signing
- PHOTOS: Andrew Fielder’s Best Photos from the 2022-23 Season (Part One)
- The Coast Cast Episode #1: The Maiden Voyage
- PHOTOS: RJ Forbus’ Best Photos from the 2022-2023 Season
- PHOTOS: Héctor Urcia’s Best Photos from the 2022-23 Season