HERSHEY, Pa. – It was a battle of two teams desperate for points in the Atlantic Division playoff race. The Hershey Bears, looking to push further in the race, hosted the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, who are pushing to get into the top six. With less than 20 games to play in the season for both teams and five remaining matchups in the season series, each game in the season takes on more meaning. On this night, the Bears scored five unanswered goals to take a 5-1 decision at Giant Center thanks to a 26 save effort from Pheonix Copley and two goals from Beck Malenstyn. Felix Sandstrom made 29 saves on 34 shots in the loss.
It was about as bad of an opening 48 seconds as the Bears could imagine. Just 20 seconds in, Phantoms forward Wade Allison scored on the first shot of the game as he took a one-handed pass from Adam Johnson to open a 1-0 lead. The next shift, Hershey forward Mike Sgarbossa lost his balance and slid into the boards on the rush hard, and departed to the locker room. Eventually, he would be lost for the game, despite a brief attempt at a comeback later in the period. The Bears kept working and tied the game later in the first period when Mike Vecchione made a cross-crease feed to Shane Gersich, and he buried the shot for his 12th of the season to even the score at one. Under two minutes later, Hershey would score the eventual game-winner when Cody Franson fired a shot towards the net that Aliaksei Protas deflected past Sandstrom to make it 2-1.
The Bears took a step backward during their recent trip north of the border in Canada in terms of scoring, tallying just three goals in as many games and falling three times as a result. However, Hershey not only potted three more goals in the contest but held the recently hot Lehigh Valley offense off the board the rest of the way for just the goal by Allison in three head-to-head matchups with the Phantoms. The scoring started when two defensemen combined for a goal, with Franson once again jumping on the puck from the point and throwing a cross-ice feed to a streaking Lucas Johansen for his seventh of the season, reminiscent of his season-opening strike. Just over a minute later, Malenstyn would get on the board with his ninth of the season, ripping a short pass from Bobby Nardella top shelf to further extend the lead. Copley stood firm in the second period with a game-high 14 saves, erasing any doubt with the Bears electing to go to him rather than Zach Fucale with a pair of shutouts against the Phantoms. Malenstyn would cap the scoring in the third with a highlight reel shorthanded tally, beating both Adam Clendening and Allison down the ice before sliding the puck between Sandstrom’s legs for his tenth of the season as well as Hershey’s tenth shorthanded goal this season. It’s the first time Malenstyn has hit double digits in goals in his AHL career as the forward continues to add the offensive element to his game to earn Hershey’s 30th win of the season.
— Bears Hockey Nation (@HBHNationBlog) March 24, 2022
“Didn’t love the first 20 seconds of the game,” Bears head coach Scott Allen said after the game. “Probably not our first ten minutes or so, but thought we really buckled down for the last fifty and I certainly loved the fact that as our game went on we got stronger. Playing a team that’s desperate and certainly fighting for their playoff lives, they have a solid roster of guys looking for opportunity to play up in Philly, and I liked how our guys responded.”
— Hershey Bears (@TheHersheyBears) March 24, 2022
“Beck is not known as a goal scorer, right, but he certainly has the ability, the nose for the net, and he works extremely hard. You know what you’re going to get from him each and every night, which is honest effort first and foremost. Guys like that when they stick to their guys and buy into not only the defensive aspect of the game but the offensive system we’re trying to play as well. It’s rewarding to see him get rewarded.”
Allen was not able to provide an update on Sgarbossa after the game, and it will be a story worth watching for the Bears. They have missed him often this season, whether on recall to the Washington Capitals or on the injured list as he was for much of February after he was swapped with Joe Snively and suffered an injury in his first game back in late January. The former 30 goal scorer during the 2018-19 season with the Bears is an offensive mastermind and a key element of the power play, which came up empty in five tries for the team but showed promise of getting better in this game. Lehigh Valley came up empty in two attempts on the man advantage.
It was a big night in the standings race for two teams desperate for points, and it sets the table for an interesting weekend that could shake up the divisional race. The Bears won and got help out of town as both the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and the Hartford Wolf Pack lost their games, pulling Hershey to 0.006 percentage points within Hartford while the Penguins lost ground towards moving up in the standings. The Bears will be in Providence to take on the Bruins on Friday and face the Wolf Pack for the last head-to-head matchup between the teams this season. The Bears’ next win will be the 3,000th in the team’s storied history. They’ll have the chance to do it against a team from Providence much in the same way the team earned its first win on November 5, 1938, when they skated to a 2-1 decision in the inaugural game at Hersheypark Arena over the Providence Reds. Over 84 years, 11 Calder Cups, and a lot of wins have hit the books since that time.
The Bears had a big night hosting one of the team’s most anticipated specialty nights of the season in a bobblehead night featuring captain Matt Moulson. Unfortunately, he has not played for the team since late December after undergoing back surgery. As part of the celebration, 26 of the 4,000 bobblehead recipients had theirs signed by Moulson himself. The captain also appeared during the second intermission to talk about playing in Hershey. Moulson didn’t rule out a comeback and is feeling good after surgery, much to the approval of the 7,269 in attendance for Wednesday’s action.
Lehigh Valley, meanwhile, will look to get back on track and back in the hunt for a playoff spot after the team doubled down on efforts to play meaningful hockey beyond the 76-game regular season. In Philadelphia, their parent team hopes that several highly regarded prospects will join the team for a stretch run, including Bobby Brink, Noah Cates, and Ronnie Attard. In addition, the Flyers elected not to trade veteran backup goaltender Martin Jones at the trade deadline to allow Sandstrom to continue playing meaningful hockey at the season’s end. They also made room on the roster for those young players once their college seasons conclude, shipping players like Connor Bunnaman and German Rubtsov in the Claude Giroux trade. Allison, a highly regarded player who has spent time in Philadelphia this season, has been on a tear to assist his team with making the postseason, scoring four goals, and adding five assists in his last four games since returning to active duty. The Phantoms will head north of the border to take on the Laval Rocket on Friday, followed by a trip to Belleville on Saturday.
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