Bears ready to start playoff journey anew

Photo: Tori Hartman

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

The first day of truly warm springtime weather arrived in Hershey, Pennsylvania, this week.

Sunny, clear skies above, Chocolatetown’s greenery is in full bloom, and the Hershey Bears are preparing to pursue another Calder Cup.

First up is an old rival, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Game 1 of the teams’ best-of-five Atlantic Division semifinal series goes tonight at Giant Center. And after a week-plus of demanding practices, scrimmages, an afternoon on the golf course, and team-bonding, it’s time to play for real.

History and lore surround the AHL’s senior-most franchise, a team in its 86th season, but the Bears lifted the Calder Cup last June in particularly dramatic fashion – an overtime win in Game 7 of the Finals at a raucous Acrisure Arena in Palm Desert, Calif.

It was 1:17 a.m. back home when Mike Vecchione secured the Bears’ 12th championship. Fans had stayed up late into the night and early-morning hours watching the game from their homes or together inside Giant Center.

So what do you do for an encore? Hershey is trying to become the first team to repeat as Calder Cup champion since the Bears themselves did so in 2009 and 2010.

“Once you win a championship,” head coach Todd Nelson said, “it’s a like a shark with blood. You want more.”

Defenseman Jake Massie added, “I think playoffs, especially when you win it, it matures players not only away from the rink but also at the rink, the way they carry themselves… more confidence, a little more swagger. I think the guys that won it last year are going to bring that swagger into the locker room and hopefully propel the whole group to win another one.”

The 2023-24 regular season went a long way toward giving the Bears the best possible chance to play deep into June again. They assembled a 53-14-0-5 record, setting an AHL mark for wins in a 72-game schedule and registering the second-best points percentage (.771) in league history. They earned not only a first-round bye, but home-ice advantage through the entire playoffs, for as long as they advance.

The Bears’ returning core knows how difficult earning Calder Cup number 13 will be. And this season’s newcomers are eager to learn what that journey feels like. Of the 20 players in uniform for Game 7 at Coachella Valley, only 11 are still with the team.

“The new guys are just as hungry because they want to be a part of something special,” Nelson said. “They understand how special it is to win here.”

Those new guys Alex Limoges, Pierrick Dubé, Jimmy Huntington, Chase Priskie and Clay Stevenson, all significant contributors this season.

“When you win, it’s a tremendous feeling,” said Nelson, the AHL’s coach of the year this season and a four-time Calder Cup winner as a player, assistant coach and head coach. “All the hard work you put in throughout the course of the year… I think that’s the biggest thing. Seeing these young players grow as hockey players, grow as pros, it makes you proud as a coach.”

Last year’s postseason MVP Hunter Shepard came back to lead the league in goals-against average (1.76) and save percentage (.929), earning the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL’s top goaltender. With Shepard and Stevenson leading the way, Hershey allowed the fewest goals in the league by far, and posted a team-record 12 shutouts. The Bears also had the AHL’s top penalty kill at 87.7 percent, while their power play operated at 20.1 percent, sixth-best in the league.

This club has the highest of goals, but it has learned to break down those objectives to something more manageable each day, each week, each month.

“‘We have so-and-so this weekend,’” Limoges outlined. “We want to win that game. And then we prepare for the next one, and we want to win that one. It’s been a lot easier to go at like [that]. Hopefully that’s how we approach it in the playoffs, too. It’s one round at a time, one game at a time.”

Clearly plenty is there to like about the Bears’ chances this spring. But this team is also self-aware enough to know that even the best regular season will not mean much come Game 1.

And in a best-of-five series, the margin for error can become uncomfortably tight, uncomfortably quickly. A hot opposing goaltender, a bad bounce or two, and six months of work could be in jeopardy.

Hershey has had plenty of time to heal up and rest up having not played since April 20, the regular-season finale. Nelson and his coaching staff have worked to keep everyone fresh and as close to game-ready as possible.

The time to be game-ready is here. Limoges saw that home environment as a fan last June: the Virginia native attended Game 3 of the Calder Cup Finals at Giant Center. Now he wants to experience that intensity on the ice.

He will. Just like Vecchione and the returning Bears did last spring.

Said Vecchione, “This is what you play for.”