Bears being rewarded for faith in Shepard

Photo: Tori Hartman/Hershey Bears

📝 by Patrick Williams

The Hershey Bears had been warned coming into the Eastern Conference Finals.

Be fully aware of the Rochester Americans’ speed and ability to create excellent scoring chances seemingly out of nothing.

Even a 5-1 defeat in Game 1 did not seem to completely drive home that point, at least not right away. In Game 2, the Bears again had trouble implementing their game plan early. Rochester came out attacking in a bid to bury the Bears.

For situations like that, rely on a goaltender like Hunter Shepard.

First came a point-blank stop on Tyson Kozak from the edge of the crease 1:02 into the contest. Then the Amerks’ deadly transition game pounced on a Hershey neutral-zone turnover and immediately turned up ice. Lukas Rousek quickly exploited a seam off the zone entry, directing a pass to sniper Jiri Kulich, who ripped a one-timer on net. But Shepard rocketed across his crease and managed to swallow another prime scoring opportunity.

Shepard put a blocker on another edge-of-the-crease chance from Kulich late in the period.

Those saves managed to buy the Bears enough time to start to find their game. Get above the puck. Get above your opponent. Rely on the excellent forecheck that has taken the Bears places all season. And manage the puck properly inside the offensive zone.

The result was a much different night that Game 1, when Shepard found himself on the bench after Rochester’s fourth goal, just six minutes into the second period. Shepard, who had been pulled only once during the regular season, brought a .927 postseason save percentage into the series, and had not allowed more than two goals in any previous playoff start.

That setback dialed up the pressure on Hershey for Game 2. Going down two games to none with the next two games at Blue Cross Arena was not a palatable option.

But head coach Todd Nelson never wavered about his Game 2 starter. It was to be Shepard. One off-night did not change his confidence in Shepard, who ranked second in the AHL with a 2.18 GAA and sixth with a .916 save percentage in the regular season.

And besides, Nelson is not one to panic or start tinkering too much anyway.

“I don’t touch goalies,” Nelson said after Hershey’s morning skate Thursday. “I don’t even go there. I’m not a goalie coach. I don’t want to be a goalie coach, because I don’t have the knowledge for it. He’s been outstanding for us all year.”

Nelson’s faith paid off for the Bears, who looked much more like the team that finished second overall in the Eastern Conference during the regular season.

“[Shepard] made some huge saves for us early on,” Nelson told reporters at Giant Center after Game 2, “and that’s what he’s capable of doing. He played an outstanding game for our hockey team.”

The trust in Shepard is fully justified. The third-year pro is 7-2 with a 1.89 GAA and a .927 save percentage in the playoffs, better numbers than his impressive regular-season stats. Now the Cohasset, Minn., native, who won two national championships at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, has the Bears seven wins away from their 12th Calder Cup title.

“I think it would have been tough to try to have a strong [Game 2] if I didn’t think the team had full confidence in me,” Shepard said. “Just knowing that they had the confidence in me to go back out there and have a strong performance made it really easy for me.”

Shepard is now 10-3-2 this season in his next start following a loss.

“It’s a decision,” Shepard said of shaking off a rough night. “You can get down on yourself and let it bother you or you can just forget about it and move on to the next shot.”

Those early stops on Kozak and Kulich helped, too, especially after Game 1 when in which the first shot of the game had beaten him and quickly silenced the Hershey crowd.

“You let the first shot in,” Shepard said, “and it kind of messes up your plan a little bit. Letting one in early is always tough to get back on your game plan.”

With Shepard handling his responsibilities, the Bears started to direct their own pressure on Rochester’s Malcolm Subban, who has been strong as well through two games. Eventually Henrik Borgstrom converted on the power play for the Bears late in the second period before Beck Malenstyn doubled the lead in the final minute of that period. Hershey then shut down the Rochester offense in the third period, and Shepard had himself a 24-save shutout.

Shepard is a quiet, soft-spoken sort. His play says more than enough, however, and his teammates will speak up plenty on his behalf.

“He’s our backbone,” Bears forward Mason Morelli said. “We know he’s going to be back there for us.”