HERSHEY, Pa. – Hershey Bears head coach Todd Nelson and his team have battled through plenty of adversity this season, but their recent two-game stretch saw the team dueling with forces outside of their control much as their opponents on the ice. Sickness and even a bus breakdown on the way to Utica have added to the team’s laundry list of issues, but Nelson’s bunch grinded out a 2-1 win over the Hartford Wolf Pack on Saturday night before a full house at Giant Center. Hunter Shepard stole the show in goal with 33 saves as the first star of the game, while Dylan Garand took the loss with 18 saves.
“Hunter Shepard was outstanding tonight,” Nelson said. “It was pretty obvious. We have a lot of guys, about half the team, under the weather and it showed tonight. Hartford played a really good game, but Shep was really strong for us. We scored enough to win, I like the way the guys battled in the end, but you go through these stretches every once in a while and like I said to the guys, every game can’t be a Picasso, but good teams find ways to win. It was Hunter Shepard’s night, he was unbelievable.”
“It’s a tough couple games coming off of the break. We had a great practice on Thursday, and then Friday on the road to Utica, our bus breaks down. Have to wait for another bus in a small town that treated us really graciously, they served us lunch which was outstanding. We got into Utica at six, and I felt really good going into the game last night against Utica because we had a really good practice Thursday and a good morning skate on Friday. When the game hit, we didn’t have a lot of energy. Obviously you saw Ethen Frank didn’t play tonight, he’s sick, so we have a bit of a flu bug going around our team right now so we have to get healthy. It’s good to get together on the road, it always is, but the down and back was a tough trip.”
Some of those struggles from the Utica trip a day earlier continued early in Saturday’s contest, as the Bears were once again outshot by a large margin in the opening stanza. The difference was that Hershey potted a couple of big chances to open the lead. Mike Sgarbossa continues to be a leader on the team, as he stayed at the net front and potted a rebound from Mike Vecchione for his 16th goal of the season to open the scoring.
Mike Sgarbossa jams away and scores his 16th goal of the season! #HFDvsHER pic.twitter.com/vw8gBMCUyS
— Bears Hockey Nation (@HBHNationBlog) February 12, 2023
At times, it’s not how many goals your team scores, but when the goals happen that can ultimately make or break any game. The Bears experienced that Friday night when the Utica Comets caught some breaks from poor circumstances to get a big goal, while Hershey’s big break came with a man in the box.
Saturday night, Hershey’s break came when Henry Rybinski picked up the puck with some steam at the blue line and split the Hartford defenders, skating in on a breakaway and scoring his third goal of the season in dramatic fashion. Shane Gersich, inserted back into the lineup in Frank’s absence, tallied an assist on the goal for his second point in his last three games.
Dazzling shorthanded goal for Henry Rybinski! #HFDvsHER @FieldPassHockey pic.twitter.com/tIfozQ6nnP
— Corey Swartz (@FPHBears) February 12, 2023
The rest of the game was predicated on a big game from Shepard, who came up with big save after big save. One such save was in the second period on a two-on-one rush where he lunged from left to right to deny Will Cuylle and keep his team ahead. The Wolf Pack piled up 28 shots in the first 40 minutes of action, and Shepard denied all but one where Cuylle would tally his 15th goal of the season on a chip shot that snuck through the goaltender. A few of Shepard’s best stops happened with time running out in regulation, when the Bears weathered one last storm from the Wolf Pack.
Hunter Shepard makes a huge save on the rush! #HFDvsHER pic.twitter.com/3MqrGEAYhY
— Bears Hockey Nation (@HBHNationBlog) February 12, 2023
“I wasn’t pleased with our start the last couple nights,” Nelson said. “The first and second periods we gave up way too many odd-man rushes. I thought we tightened things up in the third period, I thought the third period showed a lot of character. We were a tired group, a group that was sick, but the guys got the twenty minutes. The speech was last twenty minutes, let’s try to find some kind of gas in the tank and get the job done and they did. When you’re getting out chanced five-on-five 15-3 after two periods that’s not very good, but I thought our team held it together in the third period, Nelson said.”
The two points were important for the Bears, who remain in close contact with the Providence Bruins in the race for the top of the Atlantic Division. Courtesy of a thriller in regulation that saw the Charlotte Checkers fall just short, the Bears extended their lead over the third-place Charlotte Checkers, back to nine points. Hershey will travel to the Queen City to the Checkers in a week’s time.
Before that, though, Hershey’s next game is their last trip to Wilkes-Barre this season for a Wednesday night tilt at Mohegan Sun Arena against the Penguins.
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