Bears heading home on the brink of history

Photo: Eric Fowler

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

The Hershey Bears are flying home today with two chances to make it back-to-back championship seasons.

A 3-2 win against the Coachella Valley Firebirds last night in Game 5 of the Calder Cup Finals has given the Bears a 3-2 series lead with Game 6 ahead of them Monday night at Giant Center (7 ET, AHLTV), where the teams split the first two games of the series. If necessary, Game 7 would be Wednesday, also in Hershey.

Down two games to one earlier in the week, the Bears took Games 4 and 5 at Acrisure Arena, where the Firebirds had been 7-0 this postseason.

Of the nine times in AHL history that a team has won consecutive Calder Cups, it’s been the Bears doing it twice, in 1958-59 and again in 2009-10. It’s been a rare feat in recent decades; only Hershey and Springfield (1990-91) have captured back-to-back titles in the last 45 years.

“On any given night, it’s a particular line or a couple players that step up,” Bears head coach Todd Nelson told reporters after last night’s 3-2 win.

On Thursday, it was the line of Ethen Frank, Hendrix Lapierre and Joe Snively. In Game 5, it was the trio of Jimmy Huntington (two goals), Alex Limoges (two assists) and Pierrick Dubé (one assist) coming through. With Hershey trailing 1-0, Huntington struck with 1.3 seconds to go in the first period. Then he responded again with 3:15 left in regulation, breaking a 2-2 game and setting off his decidedly enthusiastic goal celebration.

“It’s just…passion,” said Huntington, a fifth-year pro who reached the conference finals with Milwaukee in 2023. “I want to win for those guys. I came to Hershey to win a championship.”

In between Huntington’s two goals, Hardy Häman Aktell’s tally with 11:34 to go in the third period erased the second Coachella Valley lead of the night. With three regulars on the Hershey blue line out, Häman Aktell has delivered four goals in the Finals.

After being pulled in a 6-2 loss in Game 3, Hunter Shepard has won back-to-back games, making 24 saves and shutting down several prime scoring chances from the Firebirds’ dangerous attack in Game 5.

“He gave us a chance to win,” Nelson said of his Bastien Award winning goaltender. “When we broke down, Shep was there for us.”

Nelson said that he had spoken with the Limoges-Huntington-Dubé line before the game and asked for more. All three players came to Hershey this season and are pursuing their first Calder Cup title.

“They responded really well,” Nelson said. “The guys that have not won a championship know where we’re at right now.”

Like they were in last year’s Finals, the Bears are up three games to two – this time heading home. A year ago, they lost Game 6 before closing out the series. Huntington also pointed out a recent history that is all too familiar for the Bears: their 3-0 lead against Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals that evaporated before Hershey pulled out Game 7 in overtime.

“I know that they have a whole other gear,” Nelson said of the Firebirds. “That’s what I expect in Game 6.”

Said Huntington, “The job is not done. We have one more to go.”