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Bears win Eastern Conference championship

her_200.jpgThe Hershey Bears have won the Richard F. Canning Trophy as the AHL’s Eastern Conference champions for 2008-09, claiming the title with a 5-2 victory over the Providence Bruins in Game 5 of their best-of-seven series at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence on Monday afternoon.

The Bears are heading to the Calder Cup Finals for the third time in four years since becoming the top development affiliate of the Washington Capitals, and for the 21st time overall, extending their own league record. Hershey’s most recent AHL championship came in 2006.

Chris Bourque, whose father Ray played 21 seasons with the Boston Bruins, scored the series-clinching goal on a shorthanded rush 6:46 into the third period as the Bears continued their late-game domination of the B’s. In the series, Providence owned a 6-0 lead on the scoreboard in the first period, but were outscored 18-6 from the second period on.

Hershey controlled the first period on Monday, outshooting the Bruins by a 13-3 margin, but the game was scoreless after 20 minutes. Andrew Gordon cashed in on a two-man advantage early in the second period, but Brad Marchand answered with Providence’s eighth power-play goal of the series just 2:28 later.

Alexandre Giroux converted a fortuitous bounce out of the corner to give the Bears the lead heading into the third but the Bruins drew even again on a goal by Mikko Lehtonen 1:57 into the final frame.

Darren Reid got a much-needed insurance goal with 9:41 to play, his third goal in six games this postseason after scoring twice in 38 regular-season matches. And Quintin Laing, who missed eight weeks with a torn spleen before returning to the Bears lineup in Game 3 of the series, finished things off with an empty-net tally after assisting on the first two goals of the period.

Rookie goaltender Michal Neuvirth, who assumed the Bears’ starting role after Simeon Varlamov was recalled by Washington prior to the start of the postseason, made 27 saves to improve his playoff record to 12-4.

In his first full season as head coach, Bob Woods guided the Bears to a first-place finish in the East Division during the regular season with a record of 49-23-2-6 (106 points). Hershey defeated Philadelphia in the division semifinals (4-0) and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the division finals (4-3) before ousting Providence (4-1) for the Eastern Conference championship.

The Bears will face either Manitoba or Houston in the 2009 Calder Cup Finals; Manitoba takes a 3-2 series lead into Game 6 of that series later tonight.

Established in 1990, the AHL’s Eastern Conference championship trophy honors Richard F. Canning, who served the AHL for more than 50 years during his career, including a term as league president from 1958-61. Mr. Canning is recognized as the author of the AHL’s constitution, by-laws and regulations.