We mentioned in our preseason analysis and run-up to the start of the 2022-23 American Hockey League (AHL) season that the Hershey Bears should have a very healthy competition at the goaltender position this season. So far, it’s been exactly that, as both Zach Fucale and Hunter Shepard have got off to pretty good starts in the 2022-23 season, with Fucale beginning the season as the number one netminder.
We also mentioned (here) that Hunter Shepard could surprise some folks and assume the number one spot for the Bears as the season progresses. And he has done just that. Through the first 16 games of the Bears season, Shepard has simply been the better netminder in Chocolate town.
Shepard has been very strong in all of his starts so far this season. His goals against average (1.80) is second-best in the AHL behind the Penguins’ Dustin Tokarski. His save percentage (.935%) is third-best in the AHL this season, behind Tokarsi and the Bruins’ Brandon Bussi.
Sheapard’s latest impressive showing came on Wednesday night in the Bears 2-1 win over the Springfield Thunderbirds. Shepard stopped 26 of the 27 shots he faced, including this incredible save that made Sports Center’s #2 play of the day.
— Capitals Prospects (@jon_m_sorensen) November 24, 2022
Shepard got the first start of a three-game set of games this weekend for the Bears, which typically indicates he will get a start in one of the two remaining games, and thus, start two of the three games this weekend. That’s number one goaltender status.
Shepard, 27, spent four years with the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs in the NCAA. In 119 games with the team, which included an NCAA-record 115 straight games from Oct. 21, 2017 to March 7, 2020, Shepard finished with a 76-37-5 record, ranking first all-time in Bulldogs history in wins, goals-against average (1.94), save percentage (.922) and shutouts (17).
Shepard won back-to-back NCAA Championships with the Bulldogs in 2018 and 2019, was twice named the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) Goaltender of the Year (2019 and 2020), earned First-Team All-American honors in 2019 and Second-Team All-American honors in 2020. Shepard finished his NCAA career as a three-time Mike Richter Award Finalist, given to the NCAA’s top goaltender, and a three-time All-NCHC selection.
The soft-spoken Shepard was (quietly) signed at the end of his collegiate career, and got right to work with ECHL South Carolina. Shepard split the last two seasons between South Carolina and Hershey, biding his time. He signed a two-year, $750,000 AAV contract with the Capitals on July 28, 2021 and will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2022-23 season.
“It’s been good. I’ve liked all the goalie coaches. I’ve liked all the coaches and the staff, really good teammates. Everyone makes you feel welcome. They give you things you need to succeed, wherever you are. It’s been good,” Shepard told Bears Radio back in training camp.
Shepard knows he still has work to do in order to make it in the NHL, but for him, the biggest leap forward in his level of play has come from having a consistent goalie coach and building a relationship with the goaltending coaches in the organization.
“I think every goalie has certain things that maybe you can’t really teach them. Whether that’s size or that’s reading the play well or just your instincts. I think being able to work with a goalie coach full time is just going to help me even more. The somewhat limited time I’ve got to spend with “Westy” (Alex Westlund) the last two years, I can just feel my game get so much better, so I’m excited to have a chance to be here the whole year, and get to have that every day.”
The Bears are back in action on Friday night when they play the first of a two-game set against the Wolf Pack in Hartford. Puck drop on Friday is set for 7PM.
By Jon Sorensen