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2023 Calder Cup Playoffs

Bears Roar Back, Eliminate Checkers

Photo by Carl Minieri, Field Pass Hockey

Bears Roar Back, Eliminate Checkers

HERSHEY, Pa. – The Charlotte Checkers poked a sleeping bear on Thursday. Up 2-0 in a continuation of the type of effort that won them Game Three, the odds were looking favorable for a fifth and decisive game on Sunday. However, the Hershey Bears rose to the task at hand and rattled off six unanswered goals to take a 6-2 win and advance to the Atlantic Division Final for the first time since 2019. Hunter Shepard stopped 26 shots in the win while Mack Guzda took the loss with 17 saves.

Charlotte picked up right where they left off from the prior game, striking twice before the opening stanza was halfway through. Jake Wise struck for his first Calder Cup Playoff goal just two minutes into his first postseason game at the American Hockey League level, followed by Riley Nash‘s third of the postseason on a deflection minutes later to double the lead.

The home Bears only managed to tally two shots on goal in the opening twenty minutes, drawing the ire of the smaller crowd of 4,515 at Giant Center, but what the crowd lacked in size, they made up for in terms of passion for this team.

The crowd helped spark the Bears in the second period, where the Chocolate and White turned the tides thanks to a workmanlike effort and some physical play. Beck Malenstyn led the charge, with one hit in particular on the boards against Santtu Kinnunen that broke the glass, planting the seed of a Bears comeback.

Hershey broke through on a goal with a little controversy. Just after the puck appeared to touch the netting just above the glass, play continued with the Bears working the puck to Mason Morelli cutting in over the blue line. He protected the puck with his body and beat Guzda through the pads for his second of the postseason and cut the lead to a single goal.


The tying goal came with seconds to spare in the second period as the Bears battled through some adversity. Forward Joe Snively was flagged for back-to-back penalties preceding the goal, with essentially four straight minutes of penalty kill time. Hershey killed off both penalties, and Snively emerged from the box to help the Bears get out of the zone and set up Malenstyn on a breakaway for the tying goal. It was Malenstyn’s second career playoff goal and sent the crowd into a frenzy at the intermission.

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Photo Courtesy of Carl Minieri

“Beck Malenstyn turned the game around for us,” Bears head coach Todd Nelson said of his game. “Going through bodies, hard hitting, killing off four minutes in penalties and getting that goal. It was an outstanding effort from him.”

“We went from getting booed off the ice in the first period to being heroes in the second period,” Nelson said after the game. “It was a funny game, the first period was a continuation [of Game Three] but once Mo scored that goal and the Malenstyn goal gave us a lift for the third period.”

With the teams looking to break through in the third, the job fell to Hershey’s power play. A day after coming up empty in five tries as a major factor in the team’s loss, the special teams unit played a crucial role in this win with Aliaksei Protas burying his own rebound for his second goal of the playoffs off a perfect pass by Sam Anas. The duo connected for an insurance marker less than two minutes later as Anas drew the defense to him on the rush, allowing Protas to sneak in and tally from along the goal line to make it 4-2. Protas was named the game’s first star for the pair of goals, tallying three in four games.


Half of the third period remained for the Checkers to push for a comeback, but Shepard and the defense had seemed to flip the script completely by that point. Hershey’s defense held fast, and Charlotte made a mistake with an errant pass to the point off of a faceoff by Nash that hit the empty net. Bears forward Riley Sutter was credited with his first Calder Cup Playoff goal as the opposing center despite not possessing the puck during the sequence.

The Bears capped off a big-time comeback with a well-deserved second empty net goal for captain Dylan McIlrath. The towering defender hadn’t scored a goal since the Calder Cup Playoffs were at Giant Center almost exactly a year ago to the day, banking the puck off the boards and into the goal to cap off the scoring. It was Hershey’s first ever playoff series win against Charlotte.


“The guys grew through this process. We weren’t winning the puck battles, something we talked about after the first and eventually it paid off in the third. It was a battle, it was a good thing to go through battling adversity and overcoming it.”

“I want them to learn how tough it’s going to be. Those games in Charlotte were closer than the scores indicated, a lot of credit to their coaching staff who did an excellent job with their team. They played us hard throughout the series.”

The Bears took to the ice with a few key differences to their lineup, notably without their leading rookie scorer Ethen Frank, who was injured on Wednesday alongside Aaron Ness. The team will hope that a break in game action might allow for some health to return to their group.

The Bears await the winner of the Providence Bruins and the Hartford Wolf Pack, who will play a Game Four on Friday night. Hartford has taken a similar path as Hershey, taking the first two games but need a response after dropping Game Three on home ice. If Hartford wins, Hershey will have home ice advantage in the next round, but if Providence can win two more and advance, the Bruins will have home ice advantage.

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