HERSHEY, Pa. – The Sunday evening rematch between the Hershey Bears and the Lehigh Valley Phantoms had some high expectations. Both teams entered play having won two straight games and having success, particularly the Phantoms with ten goals in their last two games and wins over some difficult opponents. Hershey’s defense came to play as goaltender Zach Fucale earned his third straight shutout with 29 saves and his second straight clean sheet against Lehigh Valley. Marcus Vela scored the decisive goal in the second period as the Bears earned their third straight win, 2-0.
With both teams having more offensive success as of late, the goaltending matchup of Fucale versus Felix Sandstrom delivered in this one as the Lehigh Valley goaltender came up with 30 stops for the game. Vela’s goal came late in the second period as Mason Morelli fired a shot through some traffic at the blue line, with Vela in a perfect spot to net another deflection goal as his sixth of the year. Hershey didn’t give the Lehigh Valley fans who made the trip to Giant Center much to cheer about throughout the game with suffocating defense and not many second-chance opportunities from Fucale, a strength of his in this recent hot stretch for him. Fucale has 99 saves and zero goals against in his last three games.
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Both teams struggled on the power play at times in this game, as Hershey came up empty in six opportunities a game after they had zero chances while Lehigh Valley had no goals in four chances. The Bears iced the game late in regulation only as Sandstrom had made it to the bench with a long-distance goal for Mike Sgarbossa, his ninth of the season and first since his return to the lineup from injury. Tempers did not flare as much as in previous matchups, with the Phantoms on the back end of three games in as many nights and teams missing key players like Brennan Saulnier from Lehigh Valley and Kale Kessy from Hershey. It marked the third straight game for Hershey that the same group dressed for the game as injuries have plagued the team all season long.
“Big week for our group,” Bears head coach Scott Allen said after the game. “We gave up one goal this week in three games, it’s impressive, it’s impressive from our goalies first and foremost, and it’s impressive from our defensemen right out through our forwards digging in. We’ve had trouble scoring and we’re still not there yet, we’re getting more chances, we just need to finish, but when we’ve had troubles it helped us continue to work on our defensive play and that’s what you need. Tonight was the start of game 20 coming into the stretch run, and that’s how you have to play.”
Allen emphasized the coming Canadian trip for the Bears this week, lamenting the scheduling as an element of adversity for the team to overcome the hand they’ve been dealt. Hershey plays three games in as many nights starting on Thursday afternoon in Toronto, then traveling to Belleville to take on the Senators on Saturday before completing the trip Saturday afternoon in Laval. It’s Hershey’s first trip up to Canada since the early stages of the season in 2019, and represents a major challenge as the team’s last bit of travel outside of the Atlantic Division, with only one game against a team from the North Division remaining in the last 19 games of the season.
“We’re gonna deal with different kinds of adversity on and off the ice. We play on Thursday afternoon at 1:30 in Toronto, I don’t know if anybody’s ever seen Toronto rush hour traffic but it isn’t pretty. Even little things like that that will extend the trip going to Belleville where we have to play the next day, and then we finish off a three-in-three in Laval with a 3:00 game which is absurd, but it’s the challenges and when you’re a tight-knit group you find ways to dig in and pull the rope a little tighter for the guys to the left and the right and across from you, and you hope you’re able to find ways to battle through and win some hockey games.”
The trip comes at a key time for the Bears, who are battling their way back into the conversation among the Atlantic Division’s best teams inside of the last 20 games of the season. The win today pulls the Bears closer to the Charlotte Checkers and the Hartford Wolf Pack in terms of points percentage, with the Wolf Pack and the Providence Bruins both losing multiple games in a row and lost on Sunday. Wins move Hershey’s percentage higher while losses to the team’s foes drops theirs, and after losing a lot of ground in February, the Bears are now within striking distance of moving to fourth place and not so far from third with second not even an impossibility. Every game in the last 19 for the Bears will be crucial to moving their name up the standings as far as possible.
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