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Bears’ Strong Defense Leading to Success

Photo courtesy: Carl Minieri

Bears’ Strong Defense Leading to Success

HERSHEY, Pa. – During the summer, it seemed like the Hershey Bears were loading up to have an offensive juggernaut after the team was eliminated in the play-in round of the 2022 Calder Cup Playoffs. Free agent acquisitions like former American Hockey League scoring champion Sam Anas, defenseman Aaron Ness, who had his best offensive output as a Bear during the 2018-19 season, and top Washington prospects like Hendrix Lapierre and Vincent Iorio created an expectation for success. Now, with 18 games under their belt, the Bears sit second in the Atlantic Division and league, but the formula to get to this point has been responsible defense as much as putting the puck in the net.

Take the Bears’ recent trip to take on the Hartford Wolf Pack, for instance. Although the Bears certainly didn’t lack in offensive chances, particularly on Saturday, where the Chocolate and White outshot their hosts by a 39-16 margin, they didn’t get discouraged or slouch in their defensive game at any point, even after allowing the first goal of the shootout. The team pushed through the noise and secured the extra point, and with the Atlantic Division looking to be one of the toughest in the league, every point is going to be crucial in the race to make the Calder Cup Playoffs.

Hershey’s defense stacks up as the best in the league in several capacities. Entering Tuesday, the Bears had allowed the fewest goals of any team in the AHL at just 37 and had the top goaltending tandem in Zach Fucale and Hunter Shepard. Shepard boasts a 1.69 goals-against average with a 5-0-2-0 record in seven games, continuing a trend of strong play since he made his Hershey debut during the 2020-21 season. Fucale has climbed the ranks to join him, posting the team’s first shutout in Saturday’s win with a 2.00 goals-against average with a 7-4-0-0 record entering Tuesday. Hershey’s goaltending has been solid over the last five seasons, and it appears the crease will be well taken care of for the immediate future. The Bears’ strong defense extends to the penalty kill, which is second-best in the league at 87.1 percent efficiency.

Although Hershey’s offense hasn’t quite matched its defensive prowess, there are signs of improvement in that area. Outside of the team’s shot advantage on Saturday, where the team matched a single period best with 18 shots, the Bears have gotten a solid spread of offense from talent like Lapierre, Mason Morelli, Ethen Frank, Mike Vecchione, and Mike Sgarbossa, just to name a few. With others like the recent addition of Connor McMichael from the Washington Capitals, the team is undoubtedly due to score a few more goals than they have. Health has been an issue early on in the season, with key players like Garrett Pilon, Gabriel Carlsson, and Lucas Johansen missing time with injuries. Hershey’s depth has come in clutch, with players like Logan Day and Jake Massie not missing a beat when they’re called upon to jump into the lineup.

Hershey’s start has been drawing some comparisons that should be exciting news for Bears fans: the team has had a start comparable to the 2009-10 season, where the Bears had 14 wins over their first 21 games and eventually set records on the way to the team’s most recent Calder Cup. The Bears finished that season with 60 wins and 123 points over 80 games. Although it’s going to be a very different and difficult road to get back to the Calder Cup for the team’s 12th championship, the Bears are off to a start that’s sure to be exciting for fans of the league’s oldest team.

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