Bears hoping to be recharged for Game 2

Photo: Tori Hartman

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

How would the Hershey Bears navigate the emotional transition?

After seven passionate, contentious games with the Cleveland Monsters in the Eastern Conference Finals, the defending Calder Cup champion Bears had less than 48 hours to shift their full focus to the Calder Cup Finals and their old foe, the Coachella Valley Firebirds.

The Firebirds, meanwhile, had been in town since last Sunday after closing out the Western Conference Finals in Milwaukee and spending the week preparing to play either Hershey or Cleveland. And this Firebirds club has made no secret of its desire to avenge last year’s Game 7 overtime loss in the Finals.

Coachella Valley took the first of four necessary steps toward that goal, handing the Bears a 4-3 loss in Game 1 at Giant Center on Friday. Game 2 is this evening (5 ET, AHLTV, NHL Network).

“I’m not making any excuses,” Bears head coach Todd Nelson said after Game 1, “but it was a pretty emotional series (against Cleveland). We looked mentally tired at times, making mistakes. Puck-decision mistakes. Just not bearing down on passes.

“We’ve got to recharge the batteries here. But I think just going through [Game 1] will help us move forward.”

Last year the Bears dropped the first two games of the Finals on the road, shut out in both. But they had the advantage then of knowing that they would be coming back home to try to make their way back into the series.

That situation is flipped this year, however. After tonight’s game, the series moves west to Acrisure Arena for as many as the next three games. The Firebirds are 6-0 this postseason at home and went 20-10-3-3 there in regular-season play.

Nelson knows that his team will need a much better performance tonight to avoid having to go to Coachella Valley down two games to none. There was a mishandled puck that led to John Hayden’s shorthanded goal in the opening period. The Firebirds’ dangerous rush game had Ryan Winterton finish off another first-period goal. Winterton and Hayden both got loose on down-low coverage for their second goals of the night. Coachella Valley is potent off the transition, but also can play a heavier down-low game, and the Bears paid the price in both regards.

Nelson has won the Calder Cup twice as a head coach (along with one title apiece as a player and assistant coach), and knows what the Bears are up against and what they must fix. He rattled off several areas that need to be addressed before tonight’s puck drop.

“When you look at the four goals against, they’re all preventable,” Nelson said. “A team like Coachella, you have to make them earn their goals because they’re a highly talented team, and they can finish. Just like we saw last year. We’ve got to make it tougher on them.”

The Bears also landed in third-period penalty trouble. Trailing 4-2, they took four consecutive minors that sidetracked their comeback effort. Skating 6-on-4 with a late power play of their own, Hendrix Lapierre managed to make it a one-goal deficit with 1:56 to go in regulation, but the Bears ran out of time.

“All of a sudden you look up at the clock, and you have four minutes left to go in the game,” Nelson said.

That brings Nelson to another topic. The Bears finished with 19 shots, including just nine across the final two periods. After Lapierre’s goal, they managed just one more shot.

“We have to have a shooting mindset when we get 6-on-5,” Nelson continued. “It’s fine to pass the puck around the perimeter, but eventually we have to get pucks to the net and try to create some havoc.”