In a best-of-five, first round Calder Cup playoff series, game three is usually a crucial game. This is especially true when the series is tied at a game apiece. That is the exact situation the Hershey Bears find themselves in after splitting the first two games with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
The Bears now head home with a chance to take control of the series. The first two games were distinct from one another with different outcomes, but both contained important aspects that will impact the series going forward. Those aspects are part of the keys that will decide game three on Tuesday night and the series. To see where the series goes from here, it is necessary to look back at how the first two games unfolded.
The Bears got a stellar goaltending performance from rookie Ilya Samsonov in game one and jumped out to a 2-0 lead, but were doomed by penalty trouble. Samsonov made 49 saves, including 15 in a first period dominated by the Sound Tigers, as Hershey started out passive. However, the play of the Russian netminder was not enough to overcome the eight power plays Hershey gave to Bridgeport. The eight power play included a double-minor and a late 5-on-3. The Sound Tigers scored all three of their goals with the man advantage, including Steve Bernier’s winner in double overtime. Bridgeport sent a message that their power play was a dangerous force.
For their part, the Bears earned three power plays, but two of them were cut short by Nathan Walker penalties. One of those was the five-minute power play Hershey received after Travis St. Denis’ was ejected for boarding defenseman Aaron Ness, who was stretchered from the ice. The Bears did not convert on any of their power plays, but did get a shorthanded goal from Jayson Megna in the second period, but that was quickly answered by the first Bridgeport power play of the night. The special teams battle was decisively in favor of the Sound Tigers and that was what gave them a 3-2 win in game one.
Heading into game two, Hershey head coach Spencer Carbery wanted his team to play with more discipline. That went unheeded early as Liam O’Brien, back from a three-game suspension, was whistled for cross-checking just 1:19 into the game. The Bears killed off the penalty and then, unlike the first game, pushed back. Hershey fired 13 shots in the opening frame (had 14 shots through two periods in game one) and got rewarded at the 11:15 mark, when Mike Sgarbossa tipped in Lucas Johansen’s shot to give themselves a 1-0 lead. The Bears doubled the lead in the second on Riley Barber’s backhand goal. Discipline wise, O’Brien’s penalty was Hershey’s lone penalty through two stanzas.
The third period was different. The Bears held a 26-21 shot advantage after two, but the Sound Tigers peppered Hershey goalie Vitek Vanecek with 18 shots and had two cracks at the power play. However, the penalty killing unit came through this time and Vanecek stood tall, stopping all 18 Bridgeport shots. The shutout was Vanecek’s first playoff clean sheet and brought the Bears even in the series.
The difference between game one and game two? Hershey did not lose the special teams battle. They did not win it, but they were even. The Sound Tigers have not tallied an even strength goal in the series. The Bears have not netted a power play goal in the series. It would help if that unit got going because as long as the Bears can keep the special teams battle even, they have the advantage. That is the key to game three and the series for Hershey.
While the special teams battle is the key to the series, there are a two questions heading into game three for the Bears. First, who starts in goal? Both Samsonov and Vanecek were superb in their outings. Hershey is in good hands either way, but does Carbery reward Vanecek for his game two shutout or go back to his goalie rotation? That remains to be seen. Second, how long can the Bears survive without their best defenseman Ness? Ness escaped serious injury after being stretchered off in game one, but it is unknown how long he will be out. Tobias Geisser and Colby Williams both filled in admirably, but neither are the complete defenseman that Ness is.
Those questions will be answered starting Tuesday night in game three. Hershey hopes game three is more like game two than game one. If that happens, the Bears will be on the brink of the second round.
By Eric Lord