HERSHEY, Pa. – Saturday night’s tilt between the Hershey Bears and the Charlotte Checkers meant a lot for both clubs in the midst of a playoff push. With first place on the line and a few of the team’s top regulars out for maintenance, the Bears elevated their game to another level with rookie forward Hendrix Lapierre scoring his first American Hockey League hat trick to power his team to a 5-2 decision at Giant Center. Hershey netminder Zach Fucale turned in a stellar performance with 34 saves and a primary assist, while Mack Guzda took the loss with 27 stops. The Bears got some help out of town to regain the top spot in the Eastern Conference with the win.
Lapierre took center stage early on in this game, and he’s been in the right place at the right time for the Bears of late. Fresh off of scoring a goal in Springfield a day prior, Lapierre hovered around the net and tucked in a loose puck off a shot from Vincent Iorio in the dying moments of a power play, which trickled behind Guzda in the blue paint. Charlotte evened the game with a fortunate bounce that resembled Lapierre’s goal from a day prior as Dennis Cesana scored his first AHL goal as the rebound of his initial shot clicked off a defender past a defenseless Fucale.
Hendrix Lapierre has a hat trick!! #CLTvsHER pic.twitter.com/LDzvrBd8TH
— Corey Swartz (@FPHBears) April 9, 2023
Hershey got the lead back with their second power play goal of the game as Fucale fired a pass from along his own goal line to an open Lapierre at the blue line with the teams during line changes. Lapierre beat the goaltender with a perfectly placed shot on the blocker side to put his team in front again. However, the Checkers would have the answer on a power play of their own as Gerry Mayhew scored his 23rd goal of the year on a deflection of a Lucas Carlsson shot as only perfection would beat Fucale on this night.
Anything the Checkers could do in this game, Lapierre could do better. Not even two minutes later, he’d send the hats flying at Giant Center by beating an outstretched Guzda on the rebound for his 15th goal of the year that would eventually stand up as the game-winner in this contest. Hershey Bears head coach Todd Nelson said in his postgame press conference that he gave Lapierre a special assignment earlier in the year that paid dividends for the young forward’s development.
Lapierre hat trick ✅
34 saves from Fucale ✅
Back in 1st in the East and Atlantic ✅
Here are the highlights from tonight's thrilling 5-2 victory over Charlotte! pic.twitter.com/Q7SSV2hT5S
— X – Hershey Bears (@TheHersheyBears) April 9, 2023
“In Charlotte when he sat both games, I told him to take a break, reset, watch the game and watch how hard the veteran guys have to work to stay in the league. He took it to heart, he’s a student of the game, and when he got back in the lineup he started elevating his game. (Saturday), he was as good as ever. I asked him three days ago when we were in Providence what’s gotten into him seeing he was moving his feet and skating really well. He said he didn’t realize how hard he had to work, and that’s part of becoming a pro. He’s challenged himself to be the hardest working guy in practice, not to say he was lazy before, but he took it upon himself to do the extra work and it’s paid off right now.”
Hershey’s depth again made a difference from two players who haven’t been regulars in the lineup. Julian Napravnik and Matt Strome were both inserted into the lineup with veteran forwards Sam Anas and Mike Vecchione resting after a long road trip and showed up on the score sheet in this game, with Napravnik tallying a point in his fifth straight game on the first tally while Strome had his first multi-point game in a Bears sweater with a pair of assists including a nice setup to Shane Gersich, who fed Mike Sgarbossa for an insurance marker in the third period. Gersich added insurance with an empty net tally for a multi-point night of his own in an impressive recent stretch.
“He’s been awesome, same with Napravnik,” Nelson said of Strome and the depth players. “These guys haven’t played a whole lot, but when they get in there it’s like the team keeps on flowing. When you look at our record when Strome is in the lineup, it’s pretty darn good. Not sure what it is, but it’s impressive. He brings stability to our lineup because of the details in his game. His two assists weren’t sexy, but the right thing to do.”
Hershey got some help out of town as the Hartford Wolf Pack downed the Providence Bruins in their latest success in the late-season playoff push. The point swing lifted the Bears back into the top spot in the Atlantic Division and, by extension, the Eastern Conference. It’s an important swing of points to get Hershey back in front with the playoff field set and the Bears looking to lock up home-ice advantage at least until the Calder Cup Finals if they were to go that far. Charlotte misses out on some points and sees a wide-open battle for home ice in the play-in round, with three teams tied at 80 points and the Wolf Pack one point behind. The entire field is now set with positioning the only prize.
The Bears and the Checkers will meet up for the final time in the regular season on Tuesday at Giant Center as part of their last three games in 2022-23.
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