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Hershey Bears

2023 Calder Cup Playoffs

Offense Fuels Bears in Game One

Offense Fuels Bears in Game One

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Hershey Bears returned to the Calder Cup Playoffs and began a five-game playoff series with the Charlotte Checkers on the road at Bojangles Coliseum in their third all-time playoff matchup. The two teams had a bit of a layoff coming into the action, with the Bears not in action since their season finale on April 15 while the Checkers had a week since their opening round series win over the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.

The rust was evident in the early stages of play, but the Bears got their offense going as three players tallied their first playoff goals and Hunter Shepard made 22 saves for his first postseason win by a 5-2 final score. Mack Guzda took the loss and was replaced by J.F. Berube early in the second period, with the latter making 16 saves on 17 shots.

Although both teams kept busy with tough practices and scrimmages, there was a bit of a feeling-out process to start the game, with neither club finding much in terms of quality chances or quantity of shots. The Bears broke through for a pair of goals before the end of the opening stanza, starting with Mike Vecchione deflecting a shot from Mike Sgarbossa by Guzda. The puck hit the back bar of the net, zipping out as fast as it went in, but stood after a brief review to give Hershey the lead. Despite 338 regular season games in the American Hockey League, the goal was just Vecchione’s fourth playoff goal in just his 18th career playoff game.

The Bears doubled their lead just over two minutes later as Aliaksei Protas took a pass from Hendrix Lapierre and walked around the defense for his first Calder Cup Playoff goal. Protas played in just nine regular season games for the Bears, spending most of the season with their National Hockey League affiliate, the Washington Capitals, but was made eligible to play and got back in the lineup for the season finale with the Caps missing out on the dance. He played in all three of Hershey’s postseason games a year prior, but the NHL experience shone through in this game.

Hershey made it a three spot as Lapierre got in on the action, taking a big hit along the boards but getting up and firing the puck towards Protas on the other side of the net. The puck instead took a fortunate bounce off the skate of a defenseman and past Guzda, pulling him from the game. Lapierre, playing in his first Calder Cup Playoff game as a former first round pick back in 2020, had a hat trick earlier this month against Charlotte and was one of four players to have multiple points for the Bears.

The goaltender switch did not provide immediate dividends for the Checkers, as the Bears struck again with Connor McMichael’s first playoff goal. McMichael took a lead pass from Garrett Pilon in the slot and beat the goaltender on his first shot faced, giving the Bears a four-goal lead. It was McMichael’s first playoff goal in his first playoff game despite not being a rookie, having skated with the Bears during the playoff-less 2020-21 season and not joining the team a year ago.

However, the Bears have never had it easy in Charlotte, and the Checkers provided plenty of pushback. Down but never out, the Checkers got on the board minutes after the McMichael goal as Lucas Carlsson‘s point shot on the power play got through traffic and Shepard to cut the lead to three. Carlsson spent the layoff between playoff games with NHL affiliate Florida Panthers during their playoff series, returning for this game and picking up where he left off after recording four points in three games against Lehigh Valley.

The Checkers tried to rally in the third as Santtu Kinnunen tallied his second goal of the postseason, but even with the edge of past experiences, it’s a tall order to tally three goals in a short span against the stingiest team in the Eastern Conference, as the Bears were the only team to allow fewer than 200 goals in the east side of the AHL. The Bears would bend with their highest total of shots allowed but ultimately hung on as Sgarbossa scored on the empty net to seal the deal in the first game.

Hershey will have the opportunity to try and seize a massive edge in the rematch on Saturday evening before heading back to the friendly confines of the Sweetest Place on Earth. The win is Hershey’s first ever playoff win at Bojangles Coliseum, with the Checkers playing in Time Warner Cable Arena when the teams met up back in 2011 and a Charlotte sweep in 2019. The Bears have been building towards this season, with several players in their lineup that were part of the last battle in 2019. Charlotte’s offense will need to be the difference in Game Two if they hope to avoid visiting one of the league’s top teams at home down by two games.

The Checkers will not receive any reinforcements from their NHL affiliate in Florida as the Panthers stole a massive Game Six win over the Boston Bruins with the help of Charlotte’s captain Zac Dalpe, who scored his first-ever Stanley Cup Playoff goal in the win. He, along with Riley Nash, played in the original playoff series between the Bears and the Checkers in 2011, and Dalpe is unique in that he played for the Albany River Rats prior to the team’s move to North Carolina. Game Two is set for a 6:00 PM ET puck drop from Bojangles Coliseum.

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