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2023 Calder Cup Playoffs

Bears Outlast Wolf Pack, Grab Series Edge

Photo by Carl Minieri, Field Pass Hockey.

Bears Outlast Wolf Pack, Grab Series Edge

HERSHEY, Pa. – The Hershey Bears have had a flair for the dramatic in their last few games in the Calder Cup Playoffs, twice erasing deficits for comeback wins most recently against the Hartford Wolf Pack on Thursday in Game 1. Game 2 was a bit more akin to the type of wins that the crowd of 9,520 at Giant Center often experienced in the regular season, as the Bears roared to a 4-2 victory on Saturday to take a lead of two games to none in the best-of-five series by playing a complete sixty-minute game. Hunter Shepard made 25 saves in the win, while Dylan Garand took the loss with 26 saves.

The Bears rose to the task in this game early, pressing the Wolf Pack behind an energetic home crowd from when the puck dropped and rewarded them just over three minutes in amid a line change partway through a power play, two players that usually play on different units connected for the game’s opening goal. Joe Snively carried the puck up the left-wing side and fed an open Mason Morelli, who slid the puck through Garand’s pads for the game’s opening tally. It’s Morelli’s third postseason goal, as Hershey’s only iron man in the regular season continues to be irreplaceable.

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Photo by Carl Minieri, Field Pass Hockey.

Hartford has been making the impossible possible for so long that it’s no surprise they answered the early challenge. On their first power play, the top dogs of the Wolf Pack needed only ten seconds to set up the tying goal as Ryan Carpenter found Will Cuylle all alone in the slot to beat Shepard with a quick shot to tie the game at one. The goal is Cuylle’s first of the postseason after serving as one of his team’s top scorers throughout the campaign.

However, the Bears responded just over a minute later courtesy of their fourth line starting in the defensive zone. Defenseman Vincent Iorio put in the hard work along the boards in his own end off of a faceoff to get the puck ahead to Morelli, who flew in and set up Beck Malenstyn all alone in the slot for his second of the postseason. Hershey’s checking line has been giving opponents fits so far in the Calder Cup Playoffs by playing with sheer grit and determination, filling the role of heroes in this game. Bears head coach Todd Nelson had plenty of praise for the line after the game.

“You know what you’re going to get from Mason [Morelli],” Nelson said of Morelli and his line. “He’s going to give you maximum effort and can provide offense for us, he plays net front on the power play. … It was a great effort, I see that every night he plays for the most part. I’m happy for him, he deserved to be the first star.”

“They like playing together because they have an identity. We started them tonight because we wanted to establish a forecheck tonight and be physical, and that’s the line to throw out there. … They’re dependable hockey players that work extremely hard and play physical.”

Hershey netted the only goal of a tightly played second period, similarly mimicking Hartford’s earlier goal. Henrik Borgstrom, fresh off of playing the overtime hero in Game One, got the puck below the goal line and centered it to Mike Vecchione in the slot. A broken stick from a Hartford defender gave just enough space for Vecchione to bury the pass to extend Hershey’s lead to two goals going into the final frame. The Bears were without their regular-season point leader Mike Sgarbossa for the second straight game due to injury, but Borgstrom has had a point in both games filling in for him.

The Bears were tested by a third-period push from the Wolf Pack, who fired 14 shots on goal in the final frame to try and get back in this game. Hershey bent but did not break, and after an extended time in their defensive zone, caught a break as a clear from Aliaksei Protas got tangled in the feet of the linesman and eluded defender Ty Emberson. That left an opening for Hendrix Lapierre to chip the puck away and to himself on the rush, firing the puck past Garand on the short side to open up a 4-1 edge. Nelson praised the effort and discipline in not taking a penalty in a key situation.

“A lot of times in those situations, somebody takes a penalty because they’re tired,” Nelson said. “It was a gutsy effort by the five guys out there, the bench got lifted up and then Lapierre gets out there and scores on the two-on-one. That was a huge goal for us, probably the key moment of the game. If they score one, suddenly it’s a one-goal game, it was a great effort.”

Crunch time came shortly after the goal for the Wolf Pack, who pulled Garand with five minutes to play in regulation and cut the lead to two goals thanks to a point shot through traffic from defenseman Adam Clendening. Clendening was initially slated to miss Saturday’s game to serve the third game of a three-game suspension handed down by the American Hockey League on a hit to the head during Game Three of Hartford’s last series against the Providence Bruins. Still, the league reduced the suspension on Friday. Clendening had a goal and four penalty minutes in his return to the lineup. Hershey clamped down for the remainder of regulation to take a 4-2 win, with Nelson praising his team’s commitment after the game.

“It starts with conditioning. The guys aren’t too happy with me over the course of the season, we have workdays and I tell them it’s going to pay off. The players know I work them hard for these moments. We’ve played tight games all year and the guys have felt very comfortable in those situations. As expected, [Hartford] made a push, they’re a big, heavy team and our guys kept them to the outside. The first five minutes of the first period will be key on Wednesday.”

Hershey’s defense had another strong outing, allowing two goals or fewer in all six of their postseason games, with Shepard making a few saves that loomed large in the third period. At times, the defense played a more direct hand in that effort as defender Logan Day swept a loose puck that got through Shepard and landed in the crease, a direct showing of his team’s strong defensive prowess. The team’s depth has loomed large in that department, playing without veteran defenseman Aaron Ness since he was injured early in Game Three against Charlotte. Ness is on the mend, recently signing a two-year contract with the Bears, but Jake Massie hasn’t missed a beat as he has all season long when he’s in the lineup.

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Photo by Carl Minieri, Field Pass Hockey.

The series shifts to Hartford on Wednesday for Game Three, where the Wolf Pack will have their backs against the wall facing elimination. They’ll have the benefit of their home crowd behind them to try and ride the momentum into a fourth game, if necessary, on Friday before the teams meet up for a fifth and decisive game in Hershey on May 23. Hartford must win both games to force the series back to Giant Center. Nelson mentioned that the Bears aim to get to Hartford early to get acclimated to the ice and try to close out the series. Hershey has not won the division final since 2016, when the Bears went to the Calder Cup Final but were swept by the Cleveland Monsters.

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