HERSHEY, Pa. – The old saying is that you’re never immune to setbacks in life or facing any character development. For the Hershey Bears, that lesson came at them hard on Sunday afternoon in a tilt with the Belleville Senators. Power play struggles spelled doom for the Bears before another sold-out crowd at Giant Center. Hershey lost the special teams battle in a 4-2 loss to the Senators. The Bears missed an opportunity to climb in the Atlantic Division standings with rival teams losing on Sunday. By virtue of the same token, the Bears didn’t lose any ground. Kevin Mandolese earned the win with 25 saves, while Hunter Shepard took the loss with 23 saves.
Bears head coach Todd Nelson promised a faster start than the one the team showed on Saturday and made good on his word. His squad opened the scoring just over three minutes in as Beck Malenstyn deflected a shot from Vincent Iorio to beat Mandolese for his fifth goal of the season. It’s a nice reward for Malenstyn, who played a big role in getting Hershey to the shootout on Saturday with a massive presence on the penalty kill and made a key shot block to get the Bears beyond sixty-five minutes.
Unfortunately for the Bears, the lead wouldn’t last long and was erased in tough fashion as Egor Sokolov tallied his 15th goal of the season courtesy of a freak bounce. Shepard deflected a shot with his stick high and off the back glass, but the puck struck a stanchion and bounced back rather than continuing along the boards as it might have ordinarily. Shepard moved with where the puck should have gone, but instead, it sat in perfect position for Sokolov to tuck back to even the count at one.
Officiating became a sticking point in the game for both teams, with the Bears getting five chances on the power play and the Senators getting seven kicks at the can with a man up. Hershey’s power play, which ranks seventh in the division at 17.3 percent, continued to struggle, with no tallies in back-to-back games. The struggles were magnified when Belleville’s Jake Lucchini skated past the defense and buried a shot between the pads of Shepard to put the visitors in front.
The Bears struggled but failed to find an equalizer in the final frame, and when that happens, it’s more than likely it’ll end up going in your net at some point. That happened late in the third when Cole Reinhardt buried a power-play goal that seemed to put the game away. Things got interesting in the late stages when the Senators failed to bury an empty-net goal, and Mike Vecchione buried his 17th goal of the season the other way. An ill-advised penalty from Henrik Borgstrom for unsportsmanlike conduct ended any chance of a comeback on the ensuing faceoff. Sokolov scored his second of the game on the empty net to seal the deal.
Beck Malenstyn and Mike Vecchione scored, but Belleville posted a 4-2 win in front of a sold-out GIANT Center. Here are the highlights from the setback. pic.twitter.com/xB71hg9cEw
— Hershey Bears (@TheHersheyBears) February 26, 2023
“That was a frustrating game,” Nelson said in his postgame press conference. “I thought we had a really good start. Got up 1-0, a bad bounce, they score to make it 1-1. After that it was a penalty-filled game, it was hard to get any flow. I thought their goaltender played well. It came down to our power play struggling a bit but you’ve got to give them credit, the way that they kill is very aggressive and that makes it tough on you. We had some chances but didn’t bury them.”
“I think our players didn’t handle it as well as they should have and we talked about it after the second period. You can’t control what a penalty is and is not. It’s out of your hands… We have to compete more consistently… It starts with me. I have to keep my composure, I’m not a very excitable person but tonight some emotion came out from me. Players read off that, and we have to discuss that as a group and go through these situations that will help us in the playoffs, because there’s going to be adversity in the playoffs. We faced a bit of adversity tonight, and we have to fight through it. It was a type of game that you’d see maybe 25 years ago before the new rule changes came in. You’ve got to fight through those situations.”
Hershey has plenty of playoff-style hockey ahead to test if they’ve learned the proper lesson, starting on Wednesday with their final match-up with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, followed by a visit from the conference-leading Toronto Marlies. Their homestand concludes with the first of three straight games with the Providence Bruins. Both the Bruins and the Charlotte Checkers lost on Sunday, meaning that while the Bears missed out on a chance to pass the Bruins into first and extend their lead on the Checkers to eight points, they can make up for it with a win on Wednesday.
It’s a true testament to the American Hockey League that even the league’s best teams are learning lessons through the second half of the campaign.
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