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Hershey Bears

Special Teams Lift Bears By Checkers

#AHL| @TheHersheyBears found success while visiting @CheckersHockey Saturday night. @FPHBears has the recap of the special teams clinic:

Hershey's Garrett Pilon and Charlotte's John Ludvig go shoulder-to-shoulder in Atlantic action on Saturday. Photo Courtesy: Charlotte Checkers on Twitter

Special Teams Lift Bears By Checkers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It’s starting to become a well-known trope that the Hershey Bears haven’t had a ton of success against the Charlotte Checkers at Bojangles’ Coliseum. From their first year in 2011 to their last postseason meeting in 2019, Charlotte has had the answers for Hershey over the previous year and a half at home. They met up with Hershey Saturday evening, heading into a series of games with massive playoff implications. The Bears shook both their recent struggles and their struggles in Charlotte with a statement game on special teams with a perfect penalty kill and two power-play goals on the way to a 6-3 win. Zach Fucale took the win with 22 saves, while Alex Lyon made 21 saves in the loss.

The teams had a bit of a feeling-out process in the first period, with neither team getting a lot of shots on goal until the second half of the opening stanza. The Bears opened the scoring with a power-play goal from All-Star forward Ethen Frank, who drained a one-timer from the left circle for his 22nd goal of the season, snapping a short three-game goalless drought for Hershey’s leading scorer.

Hershey’s struggles on the power play in recent times have been well-noted. It ultimately proved to be a big night for both their power play and penalty kill. The Bears were pushed to the limit in the second period as Charlotte had three straight opportunities with a Hershey man in the box. Among Hershey’s top performers on the penalty kill, forward Matt Strome had a big game after being inserted into the lineup for the first time in a few weeks with a solid defensive effort. The Bears bent but wouldn’t break; shortly after one of the penalties ended, the Checkers tied the game at one as Logan Hutsko picked up an errant pass and beat Fucale to even the count.

The difference-maker, however, came just over two minutes later as the Bears got a huge lift from their power play as Mike Vecchione deflected a point shot from Connor McMichael past Lyon to put Hershey back out in front before the intermission. Vecchione, who recently signed a two-year extension with the Bears and represented them in the All-Star game, was instrumental in their success Saturday night.

The Bears parlayed that momentum into the third as Henrik Borgstrom scored his seventh goal of the season, chipping a bouncing puck by Lyon to put Hershey up by two. Borgstrom went eight games between points before tallying on Saturday, and with a strong pedigree as a former first-round draft pick, he’s a player looking to heat up as an important contributor for Hershey.

Charlotte did not go away quietly as one of the American Hockey League’s hottest teams cut the lead to one a couple of times in the final frame, starting with Riley Nash tallying his 17th goal of the season. With each team down one skater in the penalty box, Nash made no mistake with a bit of free space and beat Fucale to keep it a close game. Nash represented the Checkers in the All-Star festivities, ensuring both team’s all-stars found the scoresheet on Saturday.

It remained a one-goal game through the late stages of the final frame, but Hershey’s top players came through in a key moment as McMichael took a stick up high on the rush. Before the penalty took effect, Bobby Nardella set up Mike Sgarbossa for a huge shot that blew by Lyon for his 17th goal of the season. Although it won’t go down as a power-play goal, it was a pivotal moment for the Bears to capitalize on as Sgarbossa, McMichael, and Vecchione all finished with three points in the game.

The Checkers showed their resilience in this game, striking back just over a minute after the Sgarbossa goal as Lucas Carlsson earned his tenth goal of the year to set up an exciting finish. Charlotte pulled their goaltender and went all-in for an equalizer, but Hershey held steady and netted a pair of empty-net goals from Vecchione and McMichael for a 6-3 edge. It’s just the second time since Hershey’s 7-3 win over Lehigh Valley on January 28 that the Bears have tallied four or more goals in a single game. Although two of them came with the net empty, it’s a mark the Chocolate and White are no doubt happy to hit as they look to earn some crucial points down the stretch.

These two points are particularly important for the Bears, who halted the Checkers’ climb in the standings by increasing their lead back to eight points with this win. It’s an important test with less than 25 games left in the regular season to see where each team is at, and with the top two spots in the Atlantic Division holding increased importance as byes from the play-in opening round of the Calder Cup Playoffs. There are just three more meetings between the Bears and the Checkers this season, and the next one comes on Sunday at 4:00 p.m. EST as the teams rematch from Bojangles’ Coliseum. Charlotte looks to go for a split, while Hershey looks for a sweep of these two games.

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