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2023 Calder Cup Playoffs

Shepard, Bears Defense Loom Large in Playoff Success

Photo by Carl Minieri

Shepard, Bears Defense Loom Large in Playoff Success

HERSHEY, Pa. – The Hershey Bears are one of four teams still dancing in the Calder Cup Playoffs after completing a sweep of the Hartford Wolf Pack. On the team’s social media, the Bears shared video of a postgame tradition in the locker room that’s occurred after every win: the team’s player of the game receives an oversized bear head and shares a few words. In Wednesday night’s iteration of the show, a familiar scene played out as Mason Morelli handed the bear head off to goaltender Hunter Shepard, who loomed large in the team’s 3-1 win with 33 saves on 34 shots. Shepard, playing his third season of professional hockey, deflected praise to his teammates as he did during the team’s prior series against the Charlotte Checkers.

“Killer instinct, that’s what it comes down to, right?” Shepard said. “It’s kill or be killed, and we’re Bears.”

His reference to a “killer instinct” is a phrase that the team and head coach Todd Nelson have referred to for much of the season in terms of coming up with goals at key times to earn big wins. The Bears have played in close games all season long, as the team has focused on a defense-first mentality and flowing on offense from there. That style of play was on full display on Wednesday as the Bears simply stayed with the Wolf Pack and wore them down backed by Shepard.

Nelson mentioned in his postgame press conference that the first few minutes in Hershey’s first road game of the series would be crucial, but it ended up being most of the first period where Shepard loomed large with 12 saves on 13 shots. He faced and stopped double digit shot figures in each of the three periods of play, and the Bears found the back of the net three times to win the game.

Shepard has been given the opportunity to run with the crease after a fairly even split of the regular season with Zach Fucale. His body of work included a pair of back-to-back games, a situation the Bears typically would utilize both of their netminders, and the results speak for themselves as he is in first place among teams remaining in the Calder Cup Playoffs, with a 1.71 goals against average and a 0.933 save percentage, with 168 saves on 180 shots faced. That mark includes no more than two goals against in any of his games so far, and it’s the model of consistency that saw Shepard finish second among goaltenders in the regular season, with a 2.18 GAA and a 0.916 save percentage in 33 games, as he and Fucale were the league’s top tandem in 2022-23.

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Photo by Carl Minieri, Field Pass Hockey.

The workload is nothing new to Shepard, who played four seasons with the University of Minnesota-Duluth prior to joining the Bears for the 2020-21 campaign. Shepard worked his way to the starter’s role in his sophomore season after beginning the year as part of a three-goalie system in which he had a period to prove himself before eventually running with the opportunity. He led the UMD Bulldogs to back-to-back NCAA championships in 2018 and 2019 and was well on his way to leading his team back to that point in 2020 before the season came to an unfortunate early end. His time in college includes a laundry list of awards and achievements, but includes over 100 consecutive starts dating back to January of 2020 before he turned pro.

While the leap from the NCAA ranks to the American Hockey League is perhaps the toughest in hockey, Shepard has proven he can handle it and the numbers are translating well to his first full year at the level.

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Photo by Carl Minieri.

Shepard often gives credit back to his defensive group, who has helped make it easier on the Bears backstop. This includes the sizeable pair of Gabriel Carlsson and captain Dylan McIlrath, Hershey’s top tandem as well as younger players like rookie Vincent Iorio and Lucas Johansen. Both players each tallied their first postseason goals in Hershey’s win in Game Three as just another example of the Bears getting offensive contributions up and down their lineup. Aaron Ness has been a constant on the team’s back end, but in his absence due to injury, Logan Day and Jake Massie have filled in excellently as the team has gotten at least a point from 19 different skaters, including the majority of their blue liners, and have helped make this team so dangerous to play against.

The road isn’t going to get any easier for Shepard and the Bears as they prepare to face the Rochester Americans in the Eastern Conference Final. The Amerks have been one of the highest scoring teams in the AHL, putting up four or more goals in six of their eight playoff games going into the series, including three games where they’ve tallied seven or more times. It’s a stark contrast to Hershey’s method of getting to this point behind Shepard’s strong play and a defensive mentality, which makes it likely that it’ll be the toughest series yet for the netminder. Shepard played in one of the two matchups between the Bears and the Amerks in March, when he made 22 saves in a 2-1 win at Giant Center. It’s more than likely this series will be close like that game, and Shepard will be called upon to be a difference-maker in this series.

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