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2023 Calder Cup Playoffs

Shepard’s Shutout Helps Bears Claw Back

Photo by Carl Minieri, Field Pass Hockey.

Shepard’s Shutout Helps Bears Claw Back

HERSHEY, Pa. – It didn’t seem like it was much of a question whether or not Hunter Shepard would be back between the pipes for the Hershey Bears for game two of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Bears and the Rochester Americans. After being yanked in the series opening loss, the Bears went back to the stalwart Shepard for game two looking for a bounce back performance, and Shepard delivered with his first Calder Cup Playoff shutout, stopping all 24 shots fired his way to lift Hershey to a 2-0 win. That sends the series to Rochester even at one apiece ahead of game three.

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Photo by Carl Minieri, Field Pass Hockey

“It was pretty simple,” Bears head coach Todd Nelson said after the game.” There’s going to be nights like [game one], Shep was really focused all day, he was ready to go yesterday. It was a pretty easy decision, during the regular season if he did have a night where he didn’t play that well, he bounced back really strong like he did tonight.”

Shepard left his mark on the game early on as both teams had ten shots in the opening period of play, with his biggest test coming just over five minutes into the game as Lukas Rousek entered the zone on a fast break and found Jiri Kulich all alone at the side of the net. Kulich, the leading goal scorer for Rochester, ripped the puck as it came onto his stick, but Shepard slid to his left and made the save. He’d make another key save on a nice drive to the net by Brendan Warren early in the second period to keep the score at zeroes.

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Photo by Carl Minieri, Field Pass Hockey

It took most of the second period until the goal light was lit as the Bears broke through on their third power play of the game. Henrik Borgstrom found himself with some space on the right side and was able to step a bit to the inside lane and wire a perfect wrist shot over the shoulder of Malcolm Subban (19 saves on 21 shots) to open the scoring. It was Borgstrom’s second goal of the postseason, and both goals have been game-winners, as his previous tally was the overtime winner in game 0ne against Hartford.

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Photo by Carl Minieri, Field Pass Hockey

With time dwindling down in the second period, the Bears were rewarded for their hard work in the offensive zone. Riley Sutter and Mason Morelli kept the puck in along the boards on a hardworking shift as their line has done so often in these playoffs. Sutter held off a defender and fed the puck to a waiting Beck Malenstyn, who ripped a shot that found what could only be a puck-sized bit of daylight on the short side of Subban for his third of the postseason to make it 2-0 Hershey.

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Photo by Carl Mineri, Field Pass Hockey

Hershey’s checking line has been a difference-maker all season long and particularly so in the postseason. Morelli, Hershey’s lone player to dress in all 72 games in the regular season, tallied assists on both goals to earn the game’s third star honors. Sutter has been known for his work defensively as a reliable center and a willingness to block any kind of shot for his team, but did a great job protecting the puck and setting up Malenstyn nicely. That line has been responsible for making a difference all season long and was rewarded with a big goal. Malenstyn should be on the radar for Hershey’s National Hockey League affiliate, the Washington Capitals, for a promotion next season as he’s dressed in games over the last few seasons.

In the preview of this series, the point was made that these two teams have gotten here by very different means. Rochester got here by lighting the lamp early and often; their skills were on full display in game one. The Bears were uncharacteristically fleeced by their offense, but the second game was much more akin to what has made Hershey so successful in this postseason, as they put the game to bed in the third period. Their defense loomed large in the third period, absorbing shots before they ever got to Shepard and secured the win by a 2-0 final. The Bears looked like the strong, defensive-oriented group that quieted other strong offensive teams in the Atlantic Division, although there was room for improvement in their coach’s eyes.

“We got [Shepard] into the game early, he made some huge saves for us early on and that’s what he’s capable of doing. He played an outstanding game for our hockey team. Getting the power play goal sparked us a bit and the insurance marker gave us a lift. I thought we did a pretty good job in the third period, there’s still some breakdowns but Shepard was there.”

“Rochester accomplished what they wanted to: they got a split here. We’re going to have to go to Rochester and take home ice back. They have a sold-out building for Saturday night, it’s going to be a tough environment to play in. If we’re down 2-0, that’s a tough road so it’s a huge win for our hockey team.”

It’s Shepard’s first career postseason shutout at the AHL level as he was named the game’s first star. As Nelson mentioned, the Amerks have already sold out their building for game three as the series shifts to New York for the next two games. With games on the weekend as well as on a holiday Monday, it should serve to be a great atmosphere as Hershey was in the first two games. The win guarantees that the Bears will get at least one more game on home ice in game five on Wednesday with a lot on the line next time the series comes back to Giant Center.

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