Photo: Hartford Wolf Pack
After sitting out the first round with a bye, the Hershey Bears opened their 2023 Calder Cup playoff run by dispatching the Charlotte Checkers in four games in the best-of-five series. The Bears now move on to face the Hartford Wolf Pack in the Atlantic Division finals. The Wolf Pack took down the Providence Bruins, the top team in the Eastern Conference, also in four games.
Game 1: Thursday, May 11, Hartford @ Hershey – 7 p.m.
Game 2: Saturday, May 13, Hartford @ Hershey – 7 p.m.
Game 3: Wednesday, May 17, Hershey @ Hartford – 7 p.m.
Game 4: Friday, May 19, Hershey @ Hartford – 7 p.m.*
Game 5: Tuesday, May 23, Hartford @ Hershey – 7 p.m.*
* If Necessary
This will be the second postseason meeting for Hershey and Hartford, as the two franchises squared off in the 2015 Eastern Conference semifinals. The Wolf Pack got the better of the Bears in that matchup, winning the last three games to take the series four games to two. Hershey legend Chris Bourque played for Hartford in the series and torched his former team, netting three goals, including the overtime winner in game one, and dished out five assists. Current Bears captain Dylan McIlrath was with Hartford during that series as well.
How They Got Here
Unlike Hershey, the Wolf Pack had to play a three-game, first round series. They made quick work of the Springfield Thunderbirds in two games, winning 6-1 in Springfield in game one and routing the Thunderbirds 7-1 at home in game two.
In the Atlantic Division semifinals, Hartford stifled the Providence Bruins. The Wolf Pack shutout the Baby Bruins in two of their three wins and held Providence to a single goal in their other victory. Hartford held the Bruins to 14 shots on goal in a 1-0 game one triumph and then prevailed 2-1 in game two. Both of those games were in Providence. The Bruins’ offense woke up in a 6-3 triumph in Connecticut in game three. However, the Wolf Pack went right back to their strong defensive play in game four and kept Providence off the scoreboard in a series clinching 4-0 win.
The Bears showed no signs of rust after a 13 day layoff. The chocolate and white jumped out to a 4-0 lead and bested the Checkers in Charlotte by a score of 5-2. A day later, Hunter Shepard kept his side in the game in a lackluster start for Hershey. Then, Joe Snively and Mason Morelli tallied in the second period to put the Bears up two heading into the third. Ryan McAllister brought the Checkers within a goal in the final frame, but Connor McMichael answered 35 seconds later to restore the two-goal edge. Sam Anas scored 23 seconds after McMichael and Garrett Pilon added an empty net goal to send Hershey home up two games to zero.
Charlotte made tactical adjustments for game three, clogging the middle of the ice and preventing the Bears from carrying the puck into the offensive zone. The change worked as Charlotte held the chocolate and white to just four shots in the first period. Shepard was up to the task for Hershey and the game was scoreless after one. Anas put the Bears in front early in the second stanza, but a turnover and a defensive breakdown led to two breakaway goals for the Checkers. The chocolate and white could not find an equalizer as they failed to convert on multiple third period power play opportunities. Charlotte staved off elimination with a 2-1 victory.
Game four began much like game three for Hershey. The Checkers continued to clog the middle of the ice and the Bears were flat in the first period. Charlotte deservedly leaped out to a 2-0 advantage and looked poised to extend their advantage, as the Hershey offense was dormant, generating a mere two shots on goal in the first. A huge check from Beck Malenstyn on Santuu Kinnunen broke a pain of glass behind the goal and caused a delay in play.
Beck Malenstyn is wrecking the place! #WreckItBeck #BeckTheCheck #ALLCAPS #HBH pic.twitter.com/bZX3GTZ7mi
— Capitals Prospects (@jon_m_sorensen) May 4, 2023
That pause stunted the Checkers’ momentum. Head coach Todd Nelson recognized Malenstyn’s impact in his post-game press conference.
“I think Beck Malenstyn changed the game for us, going through bodies, hard hitting,” Nelson said.
Down by two heading into the second, Hershey awoke from their slumber. Mason Morelli cut the deficit in half, powering in on the goal of Mack Guzda. Malenstyn then evened the scoreline with 16 seconds left in the frame.
What a play by Joe Snively! Beck Malenstyn buries it and we are tied 2-2 at second intermission. #HBH #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/m1olmuUNCC
— Capitals Prospects (@jon_m_sorensen) May 5, 2023
In the third period, Aliaksei Protas tallied twice in a span of a minute and 58 seconds, the first on the power play to put the Bears ahead 4-2. Riley Sutter (credited with the marker after Riley Nash sent the puck into his own net) and Dylan McIlrath tallied with the net empty and Hershey clinched the series with a 6-2, come-from-behind triumph.
Team Playoff Leaders
Points: Sam Anas – 6 Tim Gettinger – 7
Goals: Aliaksei Protas – 3 Lauri Pajuniemi – 3
Assists: Joe Snively, Garrett Pilon – 4 Tanner Fritz – 6
Wins: Hunter Shepard – 3 Dylan Garand – 5
This season, the Bears and Wolf Pack met six times. Five of these meetings came in the first two months of the season. Hershey emerged victorious in four of the six matchups. The chocolate and white prevailed twice at home and twice on the road.
The first time the two sides faced off was on October 28 at the XL Center. Hartford scored twice in the first period and raced out to a 3-0 lead before Ethen Frank got the Bears on the board. The two sides exchanged goals in the third period and the Wolf Pack came away with a 4-2 victory. Jonny Brodzinski’s second period power play marker proved to be the game winner.
On November 19 and 20, Hershey hosted Hartford for a pair of games. In the first game, Mason Morelli, Henrik Borgstrom and Garrett Pilon all netted tallies in the first period. Sam Anas and Mike Vecchione pushed the lead to 5-0 with second period markers before Andy Welinski ensured the Wolf Pack would not be shutout. Hendrix Lapierre’s goal made it a 6-1 final.
Hartford would exact a bit of revenge in the November 20 matchup. Welinski opened the scoring in the first on the play, but goals by Borgstrom and Julian Napravnik allowed the Bears to lead 2-1 after the initial 20 minutes. Ben Harpur’s shorthaned tally 51 seconds into the second tied things up for the Wolf Pack and changed the momentum. Ty Emberson moved Hartford in front at the 5:58 point of the middle frame and Will Cuylle sealed a 4-2 win with an empty netter.
Hershey headed up to Connecticut for two games on November 25 and 26. Both of the contests would be defensive battles. The Bears found the back of the net just 34 seconds into the matchup on the 25th when Vecchione beat Louis Domingue. Borgstrom would tally on the power play with 1:56 left in the opening period and the chocolate and white led 2-0 after the first. Tim Gettinger scored in the third after a scoreless second stanza, but Shepard stood tall, making 30 saves in a 2-1 triumph.
A night later, offense would be non-existent as neither team scored in regulation or overtime. The game headed to a shootout. Brodzinski commenced the skills competition by beating Zach Fucale, but Connor McMichael and Mike Sgarbossa responded for Hershey and the chocolate and white took the shootout 2-1 and the game 1-0.
The final meeting of the regular season was on February 11. It would be another low scoring affair. The Bears put home two shots in the first period and that would be enough as Shepard was stellar in net. Shepard turned aside 33 shots and rookie Henrik Rybinski’s shorthanded marker was the difference in a 2-1 Hershey victory.
Season Series Leaders
Points: Henrik Borgstrom – 5 Tim Gettinger – 4
Goals: Henrik Borgstrom – 3 Tim Gettinger, Will Cuylle – 2
Assists: Dylan McIlrath – 3 Brandon Scanlin – 3
Wins: Hunter Shepard – 3 Louis Domingue – 2
The Wolf Pack received four players from the New York Rangers after the parent club was eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs. Forwards Jonny Brodzinski and Jake Leschyshyn and defenseman Libor Hajek all returned for the series clinching win over Providence. Louis Domingue was also sent down and served as Dylan Garand’s backup. Leschyshyn scored twice and Brodzinski had an assist in the 4-0 victory in game four.
The Bears added three players from the South Carolina Stingrays after their season ended in the first round of the Kelly Cup playoffs. Goalie Clay Stevenson and defensemen Michael Kim and Benton Maass have joined the chocolate and white.
Hershey lost two players to injury in game three against Charlotte. Defenseman Aaron Ness left in the first period after taking a hit behind the goal. He skated off with what appeared to be a shoulder injury. The veteran blue liner missed game four with an upper body injury. Rookie winger Ethen Frank was also out for game four after suffering an undisclosed injury in game three. The status of both players is unknown.
When the puck drops for game one, it will be exactly three months since Hartford and Hershey last played. Since five of the six head-to-head matchups came in October and November, the season series is not necessarily a good indicator of what may happen in this series. However, the last three games of the head-to-head series very well may be a precursor to the type of games that can be expected. Those three contests were all low-scoring, one-goal affairs. The Atlantic Division finals likely will be much of the same.
Both the Bears and Wolf Pack have been strong defensively this postseason. Hershey has not given up more than two goals a game in the playoffs. Hartford has surrendered a goal or less in their five wins thus far in the second season. The only time they have given up more than a single goal was in their 6-3 loss in game three against Providence.
The biggest reason for the defensive prowess for the Wolf Pack and the Bears is goaltending. Dylan Garand has been stellar for Hartford. He recorded a pair of shutouts in the Providence series and has been in net for all five Wolf Pack wins. Garand’s save percentage of .954 is the best in the playoffs so far. He has also posted the best goals against average in the postseason with an average of 1.17. Garand has stopped 144 pf the 151 shots he has seen.
On the Hershey side, Hunter Shepard has been a standout in net. The Minnesotan started all four games, posting 1.77 goals against average and a .924 save percentage. Shepard was especially strong in game two in Charlotte. The chocolate and white were outplayed for the first period and part of the second, but the Minnesota-Duluth alum stood tall and did not let anything get past him. The Bears found their game and took a 2-0 lead. Shepard then kept Hershey up by a pair with a high-end save by kicking out his left pad to deny Aleksi Heponiemi from in close. The Bears would prevail 5-1.
With Garand and Shepard at the top of their games, goals will be at a premium. Hershey will have to do a better job of creating shots. There were times in the Charlotte series when the Bears went long periods of time without getting a shot on goal. In game four against the Checkers, the chocolate and white had a mere two shots on goal. Head coach Todd Nelson noted that the Bears were “standing around watching”. The problem was twofold. One issue was the chocolate and white passed up shots. Instead of taking the available shot, an extra pass would be made and often this meant no shot happened. The other problem is creating open shooting lanes. Too many shots were fired into the defender standing in front of the Bear. Instead of just firing the puck into the opponent, Hershey needs to fake shots to open a shooting lane. Once the defender commits, then put the shot on goal.
If the series does turn out to be low scoring, special teams loom as a key factor. Hershey and Hartford have both had their struggles on the power play. The Bears were 3 for 15 with the man advantage against Charlotte and the Wolf Pack are 2 of 16 in the playoffs. The chocolate and white used a five forward look on the first power play unit. The group did not enjoy much success and were often careless with the puck. In game three, the first play unit turned the puck over several times leading to Charlotte shorthanded chances. Hershey will need to clean this problem up against Hartford. The Wolf Pack have two shorthanded tallies in the postseason and have several players who are dangerous on the penalty kill. If the Bears are sloppy with the puck on the power play, Hartford will make them pay. Hershey has to be stronger and smarter in possession to prevent the Wolf Pack from getting shorthanded breakaways.
Limiting breakaways and odd-man-rushes will be important for the Bears. The chocolate and white did a good job in this area in the series with the Checkers, with the exception of game three where two breakaways led to both Charlotte goals. Hershey did not take too many chances with puck and stayed sound positionally when they were successful in restricting rushes. The Bears need to continue to do these things against Hartford. The Wolf Pack have speed in their lineup and players such as Jonny Brodzinski, Tim Gettinger, Lauri Pajuniemi and Will Cuylle will burn Hershey if given too many opportunities on the rush.
By Eric Lord
Excellent write up all around. I agree that the Hershey PP needs to tighten up. The 5 forward look has not been working and needs to be changed. McMichael seems lost on the point when he does not have the puck.
The top line has been dreadful.
I honestly don’t know why the Bears went back to the five forward power play unit. They tried it during the regular season and it was miserable failure.
I don’t think Nelly has confidence in many defensemen offensively, at least on the power play. With Ness out and Nardella in and out, those are his offensive guys. Just a guess. But I agree. It’s not working.
I would like to see Iorio get a shot on the power play. He’s got a good low shot and is also smart defensively. Can’t really do any worse than the five-forward unit
Iorio should definitely be getting some PP time. They can run a 1-4. Or if you want another dee out there I would put LuJo out there. He hasn’t done much this year offensively but he can play the opposite point.
Finished fifth for the regular season, but Hartford has come on strong as of late. Probably the Rangers additions, but who knows. Bears will be challenged from here on out.
I think the Checkers presented an effective blueprint for stopping the Bears. It will be interesting to see if they adopt similar defensive principles. We will know by shot counter after first period.
They did. Adjustments after game 2 were working for a game and a half.
Greetings folks! Just a quick note, if you haven’t done so already, please consider subscribing to NoVa Caps posts in the “subscribe” box located in the upper right corner. Thank you!
Good preview. Thanks Eric!
Gonna need to score some goals. Gonna need 4 lines going hard and some rising stars to make a mark. A tad concerned about Frank being out… that would hurt. Any updates on him?
Yes, yes and yes! First line needs to show up.
I think it could be a low scoring series with goals at a premium. The first line weren’t a big factor in the series win against Charlotte. The Bears need more from that line, especially Sgarbossa. He was not good in the opening round, making poor passes & consistently losing faceoffs. I really wish the coaching staff would stop sending him out for big draws. Part of the power plays problem is that Sgarbossa consistently loses the initial faceoff with the man advantage and the other team gets an immediate clear. The Bears struggle to get set up after that.