HERSHEY, Pa. – It was an important week of action for the Hershey Bears, who got back into their early-season form to roll into a three-game winning streak. Although the standings board might not shock anyone who has been paying casual attention, the Bears took care of business on their end to start shaping up for the postseason.
Perhaps most impressively of all, the Bears got contributions up and down their lineup in addition to (largely) getting healthier, receiving several key players back from the injured list. This is the best trend to have as the season winds down to single digits in terms of games remaining. It’s an important upcoming race to the finish line, with the standings board far from locked up as April approaches.
The Bears won an important four-point swing against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, preventing their Pennsylvania rival from inserting themselves into the conversation of the top three positions in the Atlantic Division. The game on Wednesday saw the Bears stretched thin, missing regulars like Mike Sgarbossa, Sam Anas, Hendrix Lapierre, and Vincent Iorio.
More hits came as the Bears lost Henrik Borgstrom to injury in the first period and trailed 2-1 after surrendering an early lead. However, Hershey’s depth came to the rescue as Matt Strome tallied his first as a Bear, Julian Napravnik tallied twice, and Shane Gersich added a goal to drown out a Garrett Wilson hat trick to the tune of a 6-3 win. None of the three Hershey scorers had more than five goals on the season going into the game but gave Hershey important scoring when they needed it most.
Julian Napravnik scores a highlight-reel goal for his second of the season! #HERvsLHV pic.twitter.com/bBBKsRdtmE
— Corey Swartz (@FPHBears) March 16, 2023
In the next game, Hershey was once again able to cobble together a lineup with Sgarbossa, Borgstrom, and Mike Vecchione out of the game. Anas returned in addition to Joe Snively being returned from Hershey’s National Hockey League affiliate in Washington to fill out those roster spots. Young players like Connor McMichael stepped up to the top line (and donned an alternate captain’s emblem on his jersey) and took on a bigger role.
It seemed to go well as the new-look top line of McMichael, Snively, and Ethen Frank combined for Hershey’s first goal, while Anas scored the game-winner from his office on the power play. The Bears held onto the one-goal lead in a sound win while depth players like Napravnik had another assist in the game. Bears head coach Todd Nelson has had the unenviable job of deciding who plays and who sits out.
“It as a tough decision for us today,” Nelson said before Saturday’s game. “The guys who are sitting out have played very well for us. We’re getting to a point where guys are going to play on merit. Contracts don’t matter or anything like that. Three of the guys sitting out (Strome, Napravnik, Gersich) deserve to play. Obviously things have been going well of late, sometimes you have to tweak the chemistry but hopefully it works out.”
Hours later, the Bears felt the heat as goaltender Zach Fucale was recalled to the Washington Capitals after their starter, Darcy Kuemper, sustained an injury in the team’s morning skate. Hunter Shepard, who played Friday’s game, was suddenly pressed into action on back-to-back nights, which is a rarity at the American Hockey League level.
The Bears had to dress a goaltender on a professional tryout agreement from the nearby Reading Royals of the ECHL just to get a second netminder for the game at Giant Center. Hershey had almost all of their players jump in off the injured list, with Sgarbossa, Vecchione, and Lapierre returning to action after absences. Suddenly, the heroes of Wednesday’s game found themselves on the sidelines as extras.
Despite the differences, Hershey once again took care of the task at hand, as Frank and McMichael scored. The Bears outshot the Americans by a 14-7 count in the third period, limiting Rochester’s ability to tie the game.
“We feel that with [Fucale] going up, it’s not a bad situation for [Shepard] because now we can see him in back-to-back games. In the playoffs, if one of our goalies gets hot, we have to stick with that guy. When he’s been tested, he’s played really well.”
It’s a recipe for success for the Bears, who went from losing three games in a row to winning three straight. Hershey kept pace with Providence and Charlotte, who are on winning streaks of their own and prevented a team like the Phantoms from gaining ground on them in the standings. Had the Bears lost out, the Checkers could have passed them in the standings, and a first-round bye might be a lost opportunity.
Instead, Hershey maintains its five-point lead for second place and stays within three points of first. It’s important to keep the momentum going with just 12 games left, starting with this weekend’s set of three games in as many days as Charlotte and Providence are playing each other. Three of Hershey’s final six games are against those two teams, and with the standings as tight as they are, the Bears will want to get themselves on the best possible footing ahead of time.
14 for number 14! Connor McMichael scores a beauty! #ROCvsHER pic.twitter.com/WJLlfx4dou
— Corey Swartz (@FPHBears) March 19, 2023
In the meantime, Hershey opens a three-game set in Rochester on Friday, followed by a trip to Syracuse before returning to Hershey to host the Lehigh Valley Phantoms on Sunday. It’s a grueling schedule that will test the team’s mettle, but with plenty of extra players, it’s likely the lineup will rotate over the course of three days.
One interesting name to possibly see is forward Bogdan Trineyev, who joined Hershey this past week after his season in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) came to a conclusion. Trineyev memorably made his AHL debut last spring in the Calder Cup Playoffs, where a shortage of bodies saw him play a pair of games before the Bears were eliminated in the play-in round. The Capitals drafted him in the fourth round, 117th overall, in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft.
Ultimately, the biggest test of the set will be the Syracuse game. Hershey has won just three of their last eight matchups over the last five seasons against the Crunch. One of those games happened earlier this season, a 4-3 win for the Bears.
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