SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Saturday was another clinching scenario for the Hershey Bears in their lone contest against the Syracuse Crunch in New York. The Bears needed some help out of town, but no matter how Hershey sliced it, they’d need a win of any kind to make that happen. Hershey took care of business with a responsible defensive effort and got goals from their depth players in a 4-1 decision over host Syracuse. Netminder Hunter Shepard turned in one of his best performances of the season with 33 saves and was named the game’s first star, while Hugo Alnefelt took the loss with 24 stops.
Shepard earned that first star nod by being the difference-maker in this game early on, making a fantastic sequence of stops early by stretching out his left pad to make not one, but two key saves by just inches. Hershey rewarded him moments later when Beck Malenstyn won a puck battle along the boards in the offensive zone and centered a pass to Shane Gersich, who rifled a shot past Alnefelt for his fourth point in as many games after being inserted back into the lineup in this game.
Hunter Shepard keeps this shot out by a skate blade! #HERvsSYR pic.twitter.com/KTZMMqnTnF
— Corey Swartz (@FPHBears) March 25, 2023
Hershey’s fourth line does it again! Shane Gersich scores in his return to the lineup! #HERvsSYR pic.twitter.com/98r7xwMZA4
— Corey Swartz (@FPHBears) March 25, 2023
The Bears would double their lead in the second period with some luck and an excellent finish by Mike Sgarbossa for his 20th of the season. The puck bounced on defender Phil Myers, and Sgarbossa made a nifty play to get the puck around the sizable defender on a breakaway, beating the goaltender with a well-placed shot. Sgarbossa hits 20 goals for the second time in his tenure as a Bear, having previously tallied 30 in 2018-19 and not being able to play a complete season for different reasons, but he leads the team in scoring with 54 points.
Mike Sgarbossa scores his 20th of the season on a savvy steal! #HERvsSYR pic.twitter.com/0Xmh1GKpGF
— Corey Swartz (@FPHBears) March 26, 2023
Syracuse cut into the lead in the final minute of the middle stanza as Daniel Walcott scored his 11th of the campaign as the lone shot to beat Shepard on this night, lifting a backhand shot to the top shelf to cut the lead to one. Contrary to a day ago, the Bears held steady and kept working hard, which is what head coach Todd Nelson wanted to see after seeing a 3-0 lead evaporate in a 4-3 shootout loss.
“We let a game slip away from us,” Nelson said before the game. “We started getting too cute, got away from our game plan. I talked to the guys about that this morning. We have to play the same way whether we’re up two goals or down two goals.”
Julian Napravnik picks up right where he left off, stashing a rebound for his third goal in as many games! #HERvsSYR pic.twitter.com/kd7Y2FTaCf
— Bears Hockey Nation (@HBHNationBlog) March 26, 2023
Hershey put their foot down in the third period by showing a little more of the killer instinct that Nelson talked about a week ago. Julian Napravnik tallied his fourth goal of the year by putting a rebound off a shot from Gabriel Carlsson by Alnefelt to restore the two-goal edge. Napravnik has been on fire of late, tallying his third goal in as many games and his fourth point in that stretch overall after being a healthy scratch due to Hershey’s sheer lineup depth of late. Napravnik and Gersich will be difficult to pull from the lineup with solid performances like Saturday.
Shepard held steady in the third period, continuing an impressive bounce-back performance of late. Since being pulled two weeks ago in Providence, Shepard has won all three of his starts and allowed just one goal in each game, with tonight’s first star honor the latest achievement for him. The Bears would cap off the night with an empty net goal for Mike Vecchione as the veteran forward set a new career high in goals in a single season with 22 for a 4-1 final score.
The win extends Hershey’s point streak to five, with four wins in that span.
For the 70th time in franchise history, the Chocolate and White have clinched a berth in the Calder Cup Playoffs! pic.twitter.com/JNd7Lzown1
— X – Hershey Bears (@TheHersheyBears) March 26, 2023
The Bears needed some help out of town to secure the playoff berth and got it with the Springfield Thunderbirds taking a 4-0 shutout win over the Hartford Wolf Pack, and the points lost by Hartford helped drop Hershey clinch. Hershey and Providence became the first teams in the Atlantic Division to lock in a playoff spot.
The chocolate and white still have work to do in order to solidify their positioning, staying within two points of first place Providence after the Bruins took a 3-1 win over the Charlotte Checkers earlier in the day. That score does help the Bears extend their lead over the third-place Checkers to eight points.
It’s the earliest that the Bears have clinched a berth in the Calder Cup Playoffs since the 2009-10 season, in which the team captured its 11th championship in one of the best campaigns in the team’s 85-year history. The Bears will wrap up their 3-in-3 later today when they return home to host the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in the 13th installment of the rivalry series between the two foes at Giant Center.
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