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Hershey Bears

Bears Bottom Out in Shootout Loss

Bears Bottom Out in Shootout Loss

HERSHEY, Pa. – It was the 13th installment of the regular season series between the Hershey Bears and the Lehigh Valley Phantoms at Giant Center, with one more battle on the calendar before all is said and done. The Bears logged many miles this weekend, traveling to Rochester on Friday, followed by a trip to Syracuse before returning home to host Saturday’s game. The Bears did their best to manage fatigue, rotating players in and out of the lineup, but with the core group logging those miles, the impact in the third game of the set was evident.

The Bears capped off their final set of three games in as many days with perhaps their most brutal set of travel, a day after clinching their spot in the 2023 Calder Cup Playoffs.

Unfortunately, a recent trend reared its ugly head as the Bears surrendered a multiple-goal lead and fell in a shootout as the Phantoms held on to take a 4-3 decision in the skills competition. Zach Fucale took the loss in goal with 20 saves, while Samuel Ersson earned the win with 37 stops.

The Bears struggled out of the gate but found some rhythm amid a parade to the penalty box by the Phantoms in the second period. Garrett Pilon opened the scoring with a rocket of a shot set up by Aaron Ness for his eighth of the season before a sold-out crowd in Hershey.

Hershey doubled the lead on a two-man advantage on a goal that would eventually be credited to Sam Anas on a blast from Joe Snively. Anas, playing in his fourth game since returning from core muscle surgery on March 17, tallied his third goal in that span. The Bears had a 21-6 lead in shots in the middle stanza and seemed to be in control of the game with 20 minutes to play. However, early in the third, the Phantoms pinned the Bears in the zone with a failed clear, perhaps the biggest culprit of the play, and made them pay with Louis Belpedio doing his best impression of Pilon’s earlier goal from about the same spot to cut into the lead.

However, Hershey would respond to the goal less than two minutes later, with recent hero Julian Napravnik burying a shot past the blocker of Ersson to re-establish the two-goal edge. Napravnik has been on a tear for the Bears lately, tallying four goals and an assist in his last four games, even after sitting out as a healthy scratch for two games in that span. He’s becoming harder and harder to remove from the lineup with these kinds of goals, with just one goal in 11 games preceding this hot streak.

It took a lucky break for the Phantoms to get back in the game. Ryan Fitzgerald, playing in just his fifth game of the calendar year 2023, would be credited with his first goal of the season by driving the puck to the net and getting a bounce as the puck somehow went airborne off Fucale’s stick and rainbowed over the Bears backstop and into the net. The Phantoms would score to even the game at three on a power play as Tyson Foerster found Artem Anisimov for a power-play goal before the period was halfway over. Foerster, pulling double duty with his recent domination at the National Hockey League level with the Philadelphia Flyers to help out the Phantoms’ playoff push, left an impact on the game, as did Emil Andrae, tallying his second pro point in as many games.

The Phantoms survived the overtime session despite a very strong push from the Bears to end the game, but the skills competition played out exactly as it did on Friday. Bobby Brink completed the skills competition in the top of the third round to send the visitors home with the extra point.

Hershey’s point streak extends to six games by going beyond regulation. The single point keeps the Bears within three of the first-place Providence Bruins and extends their lead over third-place Charlotte to nine points. Bears head coach Todd Nelson is focused on weeding out the issues preventing the Bears from earning two points instead of just one before the playoffs.

“Refining the details of our game,” Nelson said. “When we get to the playoffs, there will be a lot of adjustments being made when you play the same team in a seven-game series. I’d like to see us shoot the puck more, we get two-on-ones and we try to make the play, just shoot the puck. The guys want to be unselfish in those areas I’d like to see them be selfish.”

“The next few games, it’s working on the details in our system-work, also ramping up our intensity so when we get to the playoffs, we’re ready to go.”

The loss was nearly identical to Friday’s loss in terms of how the scoring looked, a trend that’s haunted them five times in just over the last month where a lead has been blown in a loss. It’s another misstep for the Bears by failing to protect a lead. It puts a sour note on what’s otherwise been a solid six-game point streak. The natural counterargument is that the Bears ran out of steam with a much heavier and harder road swing than that of the Phantoms, who needed some luck even to get the game beyond regulation time.

The Bears will be further tested with a difficult road swing this week as the team will depart on Monday to Toronto to kick off a five-game road trip against the Marlies in a strange 11:00 AM EST puck drop, followed by their lone trip to Cleveland for a pair of games next weekend. The points earned will be crucial to maintain a lead for second place and one of the all-important byes in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs, with the season now less than three weeks away from completion.

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