HERSHEY, Pa. – Wednesday marked the first matchup of the season between the Hershey Bears and the Providence Bruins, who are the first and second teams in the entire American Hockey League respectively. The game itself lived up to the extraordinary billing: Mike Vecchione scored the only goal and Hunter Shepard delivered his first shutout of the season as the Bears treated a capacity crowd to an old-school 1-0 win at Giant Center. The crowd of 10,515 contributed to a playoff-like atmosphere as Brandon Bussi suffered the loss with 21 saves.
The stakes were high in this game as the Bruins were looking to draw closer to the Bears in the standings while the Chocolate and White could extend their lead even further with their fifth straight win. The Bears had the only shot to dent twine just over halfway through the first period when Vecchione took a feed from Jake Massie at the point and fired a perfect shot over Bussi’s shoulder for his 12th goal of the season.
Both teams had plenty of opportunities on special teams, as the Bears came up empty in four attempts while the Bruins missed out on five chances of their own. The penalty kill unit on both sides contributed to a lower shot count across the board with both teams finishing with just 22 shots on goal – a far cry from the normal volume for each club. It was a physical, gritty game where role players on both sides came up large – particularly Hershey forwards Riley Sutter and Matt Strome, who both blocked shots and were staples on the penalty kill.
Wednesday’s game saw the return of forward Beck Malenstyn to Hershey’s lineup for the first time since opening weekend, and the fan favorite forward made his presence known from his first shift with big hits and fitting in seamlessly with role players on the Bears.
There was a scare for the Bears in the second period as star scorer Connor McMichael was forced to depart the game after taking a heavy hit up high from Chris Wagner. The Bruins forward was assessed a match penalty for the hit, and although McMichael departed for the remainder of the second period, he did return for the final frame to the relief of Bears fans. Hershey found a way to win once again in a tense, tight-checking game, locking down the game at a one goal differential and securing two points.
“Both teams were playing really tight,” Bears head coach Todd Nelson said after the game. “Both goaltenders played well, we were fortunate to get one goal and it stood. It was playoff-style game, that’s what I expected tonight, they’re a good hockey team and there’s a reason they’re where they are at in the standings. It’s good that our guys are going through these games. It’s kind of weird, we have a hard time protecting a lead but we feel more comfortable playing in a one goal game. That’s good for us going through these situations. The guys did a really great job with it, great efforts from everybody. I just said in the dressing room, we have a lot of bodies here, a lot of injuries, but it doesn’t matter who we have in the lineup, the guys get the job done and that’s a sign of a good hockey club.”
“That shows the closeness of our team. We have a viewpoint that if somebody hits one of us, they hit all of us. [McMichael] is fine, I was a bit concerned and thought it was going to be worse, but he came back and played in the third. Good hockey teams stick up for their teammates.”
The win guarantees that the Bears will remain in first place regardless of remaining games before the calendar flips over to 2023, meaning that Nelson clinched the honors to coach the Atlantic Division in the 2023 American Hockey League All-Star Game in Laval in February. The two points extends Hershey’s total to 47, eight points higher than Providence for the Atlantic Division and seven more than the Toronto Marlies for second place.
The two teams are set to rematch on Saturday on New Year’s Eve, but the Bruins have business to take care of first as they’ll travel to Mohegan Sun Arena to take on the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on Friday before returning to the Sweetest Place on Earth.
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