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Bears, Bruins Tangle for Eastern Conference Crown

Photo Courtesy: Carl Minieri, Field Pass Hockey.

Bears, Bruins Tangle for Eastern Conference Crown

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The Hershey Bears will travel to Providence to visit the Bruins in the final installment of a six-game regular-season series on Wednesday. The two teams have not only clinched their places in the 2023 Calder Cup Playoffs but have secured byes as the top two teams in the Atlantic Division ahead of the game to skip the play-in round of the postseason. What’s left to play for? The crown of the Eastern Conference and home-ice advantage all the way up to the Calder Cup Finals will be on the line as these two juggernauts face off for the last time from Amica Mutual Pavilion. The Bears jumped into first place on Sunday by a single point going into the week, and the winner will walk away with the division lead except for a decision in overtime or a shootout.

Providence has won four straight games against Hershey when looking at the season series as a whole, dating back to their first matchups back at the end of calendar year 2022. The games have been extremely close, with the Bruins taking three wins by one-goal scores and the other only by multiple goals due to an empty-net tally. Despite how close all of those games have been, none have gone beyond sixty minutes of action. Goaltenders Kyle Keyser for Providence and Hershey’s Hunter Shepard have pitched shutouts in the season series to this point, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the two oppose each other for Wednesday’s tilt.

The two teams have battled each other all season long for the top spot in the Atlantic Division, with the last couple of games of the season series representing how close the battle has been. Providence won three straight games against Hershey, which resulted in the Bruins taking the title and going on an eight-game winning streak. The Bears kept on battling, extending a point streak to nine games at 7-0-0-2 and keeping pace with the Bruins. Suddenly, the Bruins lost two games, and the Bears kept winning, leading to the crown exchanging hands on Sunday. With the Toronto Marlies struggling immensely recently, the battle now extends to the Eastern Conference as a whole, as the winner will be able to carry it into the end of the season with half a dozen games on the calendar.

That recent change of hands magnifies the slim margin for error as the Bruins hit a rare snag against two Atlantic foes: the Bridgeport Islanders and the Hartford Wolf Pack. Providence was outscored by a collective 10-2 margin from two teams desperate to make the Calder Cup Playoffs, battling for the sixth and final spot in the dance. It’s a jarring change for the Bruins, and it remains to be seen if it’s the beginning of a trend for a team that’s been a model of consistency this year. Providence is only a week removed from a pair of convincing wins over the Charlotte Checkers as part of a very strong organizational year across the board. Having two losses against both of their goaltenders is atypical for them. The team is no doubt missing the services of Vinni Lettieri, who hasn’t played since recording a five-point night against Hershey on March 12 and can carry the offense on nights where other players might not. Georgii Merkulov, Justin Brazeau, and Fabian Lysell face more pressure to contribute than ever. Additionally, depth performances from others who have chipped in frequently this season are more valuable than ever.

Hershey is riding high with seven wins in their last nine games, keeping pace with Providence despite their slightly less flashy streak. A lot of Hershey’s success is thanks to their recently bolstered lineup, led by Connor McMichael’s streak of ten consecutive games with a point. The Chocolate and White have gotten contributions up and down their lineup, even from players who don’t play every game as a result of the logjam of players. A perfect example is Julian Napravnik, who has five points in his last four games but didn’t dress for any of the team’s previous three games on the road. It’s a great problem to have, as the team has the luxury to mix and match across the lineup in all positions, but there’s a core group of players who are cementing their place in the lineup. Bears head coach Todd Nelson spoke about what’s on the line before Sunday’s game in Cleveland.

“The guys have to make the choice if they want to take it to the next level,” Nelson said. “We put ourselves in a very good spot, it’s up to us. We want to be in first place to get that home ice advantage in the playoffs locking up one of those top two seeds. There are a lot of things we have to work on, but if we make the right choice and play the right way, we should be fine.”

Both teams will have just five games left on their schedules after Wednesday’s tilt and the division’s fate seems to be in the balance of this game. If the Bruins take a regulation win, they’ll be back in front by a single point, giving them complete control of their destiny down the stretch to simply collect more points than the Bears. Hershey can likewise put the pressure on with a regulation win, jumping out to a three-point margin and causing Providence to need a heap of help to reclaim the title. The only situation in which the teams would be entirely even is an overtime win for the Bruins, in which the Bears have the lead courtesy of a tiebreaker, and the race would be wide-open going down the stretch. Each side will still need to earn points in the final five games, but it’s safe to say Wednesday’s tilt will impact the playoff picture.

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