HERSHEY, Pa. – Time flies when you’re having fun. Wednesday marked the 12th and final matchup between the Hershey Bears and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the 2022-23 season as the two rivals battled for important point in very different situations going into the final 20 games before the postseason. Much like the rest of the set between the two teams, the game was incredibly close as the Penguins erased a two-goal deficit, but Joe Snively scored his second goal of the game with just four minutes to spare that stood up as the winner. Zach Fucale earned the win in goal with 25 saves while Dustin Tokarski stopped 30 shots in defeat. The win sets the stage for an interesting weekend as Hershey took over first place in the Atlantic Division over idle Providence.
It was another nail-biter for two teams looking for crucial points in a tight division race. Hershey looks to get back on track after a frustrating loss on Sunday against Belleville and kept up one of the positive trends of that game by scoring first. Henrik Borgstrom was able to disrupt an attempted Penguins breakout with a nice stick lift, suddenly finding himself with some space. Despite the defense’s best attempt at knocking him off the puck, Borgstrom remained steady and wired a shot past Tokarski for his eighth goal of the season.
“I feel like I’ve got my conditioning back and I can play better,” Borgstrom said after the game. “The season has been a little tough on me, but it’s getting better and it’s nice to get some goals to back that up. We were pretty mad about Sunday’s game where we lost our focus in the third period. It was a big win today, we’ve struggled playing against Wilkes-Barre and it was nice to get that win, for sure.”
The Penguins would strike back on another strong outing for their power play. Despite missing some key personnel in Drake Caggiula and Filip Hallander, Wilkes-Barre flexed its muscle on special teams twice in three tries with a pair of goals from a fresh face as Justin Addamo stood in front of the net and deflected his first American Hockey League goal past Fucale to even the count at one. Addamo has predominately spent time with the Wheeling Nailers, the Penguins’ ECHL affiliate, with 33 points in 42 games.
Hershey turned the tide in the middle frame with a 14-4 shot edge and two goals, countering with a power play goal from Ethen Frank for his 24th of the year. Hershey’s power play was a sore spot in Sunday’s loss, but the top unit went to work and set up Frank for a blast reminiscent of Alex Ovechkin.
The Bears tallied again in the period’s last minute as Lucas Johansen set up Snively alone in front of Tokarski, who made no mistake in outwitting the Penguins backstop for his first point of the night.
The two-goal lead is often called one of the worst leads in hockey, as a momentum shift can see a snowball effect towards changing the game. The Penguins proved why that term exists as they fired pucks towards Fucale on the power play, and despite the Bears’ best defensive efforts, Addamo smashed the puck into the net down low to cut into the lead.
Noted Hershey nemesis Alex Nylander announced his presence as he camped out at the Bears’ blue line, taking a homerun pass and beating Fucale to even the score at three with his 24th of the year.
It’s all too familiar territory for the Bears of late, as the team similarly let a 3-1 lead slip away on Saturday night that led to a 4-3 shootout win. This time around, the Bears wouldn’t make their fans wait for extra time as Snively held the puck beneath the faceoff circle and whipped a shot on net that got through Tokarski to break the tie.
Mike Vecchione tallied an empty-net goal to seal the win for the Bears, with some lineup changes paying dividends as Snively and Mike Sgarbossa had three points each while Vecchione had two. Both teams exit the 12 game season series with six wins and three points courtesy of overtime decisions in one of the most even sets of games in the rivalry’s history.
“I thought we played a pretty good game tonight,” Bears head coach Todd Nelson said after the game. “I thought we were more engaged, that was a concern of mine, thought we were engaged for sixty minutes. We had a couple lapses at the start of the third period, but we stuck with it and battled hard. It’s an important two points for our hockey team.”
“We’re kind of in lull,” Nelson said of the line changes. “It happens over the course of the season, sometimes even though that line’s been very good for us, we decided to juggle them up and give some fresh looks. Usually when that happens, it’s human nature to get excited about playing with new players. It worked out for us tonight because Joe Snively played an excellent hockey game for us. It was a solid team effort, all four lines played well. The first five minutes of the third period were trouble, but I thought from there on out we battled hard.”
“The speech before the game was that we have 20 games left, we can’t go into the playoffs and just turn it on like a tap. We have to make sure we’re gearing up for the postseason and it started tonight. It’ll be an interesting ten days to see where we’re at.”
Among some of the noteworthy performances, Sgarbossa tallied his 400th professional point to hit another milestone as he’s been on a tear of late. He’s tallied eight points in his last five games, and Wednesday’s tilt was his second three-point night in that span as he continues to set a point-per-game pace.
“He means a lot,” Nelson said of Sgarbossa. “He’s producing offensively, he’s been around and he’s the guy you look at for veteran leadership. He’s been around the league, he’s a very important piece for our hockey team and he’s a number one center in this league.”
The Bears moved back into first place in the Atlantic Division with the win as they’ll be the ones watching the scoreboard on Thursday when the Bruins are in action to play their game in-hand against Bridgeport. Hershey hosts the Toronto Marlies on Friday night in a key measuring-stick game as Nelson mentioned against the Eastern Conference’s top team quickly followed by the first of three straight meetings with the Bruins with major standings implications. The Bears will host the Bruins before the scene shifts for Providence for two games next weekend.
Wilkes-Barre continues to struggle, coming up with no points in this one and feeling the pressure in the standings board as both the teams they’re chasing in Bridgeport and Hartford both have a game in-hand on them and a gap of three points to the sixth and final playoff spot. The Penguins have only won two games in their last ten, a mark that won’t do their playoff chances any favors as they fell below .500 with the loss.
However, the Penguins have a unique opportunity to build some momentum as they prepare to face the similarly hungry Cleveland Monsters outdoors at FirstEnergy Stadium on Saturday afternoon, which we’ll have special coverage of on Field Pass Hockey. The Monsters and Penguins will then take it indoors a day later for a rematch.
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