The Hershey Bears began their 85th campaign this past weekend with a set of wins on home ice over the Utica Comets and the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Capitals’ prospect Hendrix Lapierre recorded his first career AHL assist on Saturday and his first career AHL goal on Sunday, and Vinny Iorio recorded his first career AHL assist on Sunday, but arguably the best story from the Bears weekend was the play of goaltender Zach Fucale.
The Bears have started the 2022-23 season with two very strong goaltenders in Fucale and Hunter Shepard. That’s why it was somewhat of a surprise that Fucale got both starts this weekend – Saturday night against the Utica Comets, and 18 hours later on Sunday afternoon against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
Bears head coach Todd Nelson stated before the game that the plan was to see how Fucale felt Sunday morning and make a decision regarding Sunday’s starter at that point. Fucale said he was fine and wanted to get into a rhythm, so it was Fucale who got the start on Sunday as well. It was the first time Fucale started on back-to-back days since 2017.
To Fucale’s credit, he didn’t disappoint. He stopped 19 of 20 shots he faced on Saturday night in a 3-1 win over the Comets and followed that up by stopping 14 of 15 shots he faced in a 2-1 victory over the Phantoms on Sunday. For the weekend, Fucale stopped 33 of 35 shots he faced for a .943 weekend save percentage.
The start to the 2022-23 season is encouraging for Fucale, who endured a very streaky 2021-22 season. He would record a shutout in his NHL debut for the Capitals against the Red Wings on November 11, but then falter in his last start where he gave up four goals in a period and half of play and was subsequently returned to Hershey.
Fucale was also streaky in Hershey last season. He would end the season with an underwhelming 11-15-5-3 record, a .896 save percentage and a 2.52 goals against average. To his defense, the Bears were also struggling in front of him. He also became a new father in February, which certainly can affect anyone’s concentration on the ice.
Fucale’s excellent start could be a prelude to a hotly contested crease this season in Hershey. Hunter Shepard went 5-3-0-1 with a .922 save percentage and a 2.06 goals against average during the 2021-22 season for the Bears, and is expected to apply pressure for the number one spot in Hershey.
The duo could also see additional pressure from Clay Stevenson at some point this season. Stevenson, although starting the season on the injury list, has excelled over the past year and saw stiff competition for his services during college free agency.
The Bears return to action Friday night when the face the Checkers in the first of a weekend set in Charlotte. Puck drop is set for 7PM on Friday.
By Jon Sorensen