HERSHEY, Pa. – It was a homecoming of sorts Sunday at the Giant Center as the Hershey Bears welcomed back beloved goaltender Vitek Vanecek, who was assigned to the team on a conditioning assignment from the Washington Capitals. It was the first time Vanecek had suited up for the Chocolate and White since March 7, 2020, and might be the only time this season if he is indeed good to go for the Capitals as they make a goaltending decision after additionally assigning Pheonix Copley back to the Bears on the same day.
But, it would be Akira Schmid who outdueled Vanecek and the Bears in a 3-1 decision. Ryan Schmelzer’s goal proved to be the difference in a playoff-like atmosphere, with a crowd of 9,282 in Hershey.
The Bears were looking to seize victory for the second time this weekend after Zach Fucale shut out the Comets on the road on Friday. On the other side, Utica was playing its third game in as many nights and was trying to avoid coming up empty after a 6-3 loss in Syracuse.
The two teams dueled each other to a standstill through two periods, with Vanecek coming up large on a two-man advantage situation for the Comets, while Schmid came up large in a 17-shot second period for the Bears. The Comets would open the scoring seconds into the third when Joe Gambardella stashed a loose puck past Vanecek to break the ice, and Schmelzer would add to it at the eight-minute mark after the Bears killed off a penalty with a nifty deflection in front of Vanecek. Both players notched their tenth goal this season.
Much like their last game at Giant Center, the Bears would make things interesting when Jake Massie scored his first in a Hershey uniform on the power play, capping off a great passing play from Brett Leason to cut the lead in half. Hershey pushed with the goaltender pulled late in regulation but were unable to prevent Schmelzer from sealing the deal on the empty net despite getting some good pressure. It’s the sixth loss in nine games for the Bears, and prevents them from keeping pace with the Providence Bruins, who also won on this day over the Hartford Wolf Pack.
Vitek Vanecek stopped 21 shots in his conditioning start, and Jake Massie scored his first goal as a Bear, but Utica claimed a 3-1 win tonight. pic.twitter.com/lE2EZEviUN
— Hershey Bears (@TheHersheyBears) February 28, 2022
Hershey made the most of their lineup despite some last-minute maneuvers. Both Lucas Johansen and Brian Pinho were unable to suit up for the game, a change that only happened as the players were warming up. The duo made a huge difference with two points each on Friday, and despite the addition of Leason, the Bears were still playing shorthanded. Vanecek made 21 saves on 23 shots, while Schmidt made 32 of 33 and was named the game’s first star.
Bears head coach Scott Allen was quick to praise Comets head coach Kevin Dineen and his staff for the work their team has done to get to this point but felt his group played well.
“I did not dislike our game,” Allen said after the game. “We played the best team in the Eastern Conference and held them to five shots in the first period, outshot them for the game, outchanced them for the game. Huge penalty kill in the second period five on three, again, against a very strong power play. Found a way to score a power play goal in the third, unfortunately, gave up a goal early in the period but that wasn’t the backbreaker, the second one cost us and forced us to play from behind. We did what we needed to do six on five to get puck possession, get our spread, get a quick shot to the net, potential rebound opportunity, puck bounces out, empty net game over. We need to continue to look ahead, after the first two periods we liked a lot about our game. I thought our guys were relentless on pucks and thought our stick work was phenomenal.”
“We’re going to build on it, we’re not going to hang our heads, we’re going to continue to build on it.”
Allen also offered comments on Vanecek’s game.
“I’ve like Vitek’s game every time he’s pulled on a Bears jersey,” Allen said. “Again, I’ve talked about our goalies a lot, our former goalies and current goalies, we are very fortunate. Our goalie coach Alex Westlund does a phenomenal job. I don’t know what the future holds for (Vanecek), I don’t know how he feels so I can’t answer that question.”
Earlier today, the Bears announced Vanecek was returning to the Capitals, after his conditioning stint with the team.
While a split after winning the first game of the series isn’t the ideal solution for the Bears, they did get some help out of town to stay in the Atlantic Division race as teams continue to fight for positioning. The Providence Bruins beat the Hartford Wolf Pack, splitting those past few games between the two foes and keeping their points percentage within striking distance for the Bears. Another good decision was a Bridgeport win over Charlotte, which prevented Hershey from being passed in the standings for fourth place as the Checkers fell for the fourth straight game and sets up an interesting matchup on Wednesday as the two teams meet up at Giant Center for a huge contest in the standings race. It’s the last time the Checkers will visit Hershey for the remainder of the regular season, and it’s two crucial points on the line.
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