Series square, but Nelson still hoping to get more from his Bears

Photo: Tori Hartman

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

Todd Nelson liked the result.

The process? Well, that needs some work.

At this time of the year results are what counts, but Nelson and his Hershey Bears players recognize that they must be much better – even after they defeated the visiting Coachella Valley Firebirds 5-2 in Game 2 of the Calder Cup Finals last night.

The best-of-seven series is even at one game apiece.

The defending champion Bears now face three games this week at Acrisure Arena, where the Firebirds have gone 6-0 in this postseason and outscored the Bears 16-5 in four games during last year’s Finals. Game 3 is Tuesday night (10 ET/7 PT, AHLTV).

The Bears headed to Harrisburg International Airport immediately after Sunday’s game for a cross-country flight, landing in Palm Springs around 12:30 a.m. PDT. The Firebirds, who have been on the road for two weeks, flew back to California this morning to set up for Tuesday night.

“We got away with one,” Nelson said of Game 2. “Let’s call a spade a shovel here. They elevated their game, and we got worse – maybe because they elevated it. I’m happy with the win, but we have to be a lot better if we want to extend this series.”

Part of the Bears’ challenge these past two games has been managing the emotional transition and physical fallout from their seven-game struggle with Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals. That series only ended last Wednesday before the Bears had to jump into this Finals rematch with the well-rested Firebirds. Since the start of the conference finals, Hershey has played nine games in 18 days; the Firebirds had 11 days off between the end of the regular season and their division semifinal opener against Calgary, nine days off before their conference final against Milwaukee, and five days off before starting the Finals in Hershey.

The Bears have managed just 40 shots on goal through the first two games of the series. They went 12:37 without a shot in the second period of Game 2 before a heavy forecheck created a turnover behind the Coachella Valley net that turned into a Jimmy Huntington goal that broke a 1-1 tie. They went shotless for another 13 minutes in a stretch from late in the second period to nearly the third period’s midpoint.

Hershey is struggling with the Firebirds’ potent speed and transition game, something that forced the Bears into long stretches in which they struggled to move pucks out of danger spots. And when asked about the Bears closing out Coachella Valley’s 6-on-4 chance late in the game, Nelson pivoted to discussing his team allowing a goal just 17 seconds into the third period, calling it “unacceptable” and adding that he has seen defensive-zone mistakes in the series that he has not seen from his players all season.

But winning the Calder Cup is not supposed to be easy, and the Bears also have a lot going for them. AHL goaltender of the year Hunter Shepard turned in a strong performance in Game 2, stopping 32 of 34 shots.

“If Shep doesn’t play extremely well, we don’t win that game,” Nelson stated.

Pierrick Dubé continues to turn in exceptional work following his return from a three-game absence after being hit in the face by a shot in the Cleveland series. Dubé stormed the Coachella Valley net off a rush and converted Huntington’s centering feed as he took a heavy tumble into the end boards, a goal late in the second period that stood up as the game-winner.

Hardy Häman Aktell, described by Nelson as the Bears’ best blueliner this postseason, chipped in two goals and helped to hold together a wounded defense corps that continues to be without Lucas Johansen, Aaron Ness and Vincent Iorio. All-purpose forward Matt Strome once again came back into the lineup last night, this time to take over for an injured Garrett Roe.

So the result is there for the Bears, even if the process needs further refinement. Moreover, last night’s win avoided the prospect of having to go west down two games to none. For all of the sunshine, palm trees and beautiful desert scenery, visiting teams do not relish trips to Acrisure Arena.

Anything that Nelson says inside the Hershey dressing room is taken to heart. So video and rest are two potential remedies for the Bears before Game 3. And even playing at what was admittedly far from their best, they still managed to deal a loss to an elite Firebirds team.

“Think about the last series,” Huntington said. “We win in seven, and we played 48 hours after. I think the energy was a little bit low [in Game 2]. But hey, we won the game. We just need to win, and we made it happen.”

But said – or was it warned? – Nelson of the Firebirds, “They’re a talented group. They’re skilled. They’ll be even better in their home building. We know what we’re getting ourselves into. I do know that our team will be better because it couldn’t get any worse than it was [in Game 2].”