Tight-knit Bears ready for next challenge

Photo: Tori Hartman/Hershey Bears

📝 by Patrick Williams

A winner-takes-all game was starting to feel like an increasingly likely and uncomfortable possibility for the Hershey Bears last week.

After two efficient road wins to begin their best-of-five Atlantic Division semifinal series with the Charlotte Checkers, the Bears had run into some serious resistance trying to finish the series back on home ice. A 2-1 loss in Game 3 had left normally even-tempered head coach Todd Nelson steamed.

A “pretty ugly game for our hockey team,” Nelson termed it.

The first period of Game 4 did nothing to lift Nelson’s mood, to say nothing of the increasingly restless and vocal Giant Center crowd. Charlotte took a 2-0 lead in the opening 7:54 and limited the Bears to all of two first-period shots. Relentless on the puck throughout Game 3, Charlotte continued to have the faster feet, better back pressure and stronger reloads in Game 4, and all of Hershey could feel it.

Fourteen minutes into the first period and with one shot on the scoreboard for the Bears, a routine outlet pass skipped over Beck Malenstyn’s stick inside the neutral zone, just another in a series missed passes and fumbled pucks that were plaguing the Bears. Malenstyn pursued Checkers defenseman Santtu Kinnunen into the left corner for the loose puck and unleashed a hit that lifted Kinnunen off his skates and dislodged a pane of glass behind the Charlotte net.

“Hopefully that will spark the other 19 guys,” Bears color commentator and AHL Hall of Fame member Mitch Lamoureux said on the team’s radio broadcast.

It did, eventually. First, however, came the boos from the home crowd at the end of the opening period.

“The first period was not pretty at all,” Nelson said. “It was a continuation of [Game 3].”

But the Bears stuck with the game despite its many frustrations. Ten minutes into the middle period, forward Mason Morelli cut down the left side, fought off Charlotte defenseman Lucas Carlsson, drove the net, and somehow squeezed the puck past netminder Mack Guzda.

Some of the pent-up tension finally left the building. For a few minutes, at least.

But then back-to-back Hershey minors left Charlotte with a chance to break the game open late in the period and grab back the game’s energy. With a Checkers power play featuring the likes of Carlsson, Cory Conacher and Gerry Mayhew, the game might quickly get out of reach.

Instead the Bears managed to fend off the Charlotte push, limiting the Checkers to four shots, and killing off the four minutes of shorthanded time. Bears forward Joe Snively, who had taken both of those late penalties, bolted from the penalty box into the Hershey zone, forced a turnover, and sent the Bears up ice. With only Mayhew back to defend a developing two-on-one chance, Snively won a puck battle at center ice and dove to nudge ahead a pass. That pass managed to reach Malenstyn at the Charlotte blue line, and he finished off the breakaway, snapping a shot blocker-side past Guzda for a 2-2 game with 15.5 seconds left in the second period.

Those boos were long gone going into this intermission.

“I think Beck Malenstyn turned the game around for us,” Nelson said. “Going through bodies, hard-hitting, and then killing off four minutes of penalties late in the second and getting that goal, it was an outstanding effort by him.”

Back from the parent Washington Capitals for the Calder Cup Playoffs, forward Aliaksei Protas delivered third-period goals 1:58 apart that sent the Bears on their way to an eventual 6-2 win and finally put Charlotte behind them.

“We went from getting booed off the ice in the first period to being heroes in the second and third,” Nelson quipped. “It felt good, but it was more or less a relief, to be quite honest. Nobody wants to go to a deciding game.

“I think it’s a good learning process for a team. Over the course of the regular season, you have those situations where you come back from a deficit, but the game where you can close a series out… I think we grew tonight. I think the guys certainly grew through this process.”

Said Malenstyn, “We’ve been through a lot this year. We have a lot of skill in that room. I think we just needed to take a breath. That was the biggest thing. We reset after that first period. I thought we were able to come out in the second swinging and start to turn the tide of that game.

“It’s a great experience for us to deal with that. It’s something we’re definitely going to be able to lean on moving forward. I think it was a huge test for our group. Having that little bit of adversity early on really kind of shows what the playoffs are going to be like.”

Surely the Bears are going to face many more of those tests if this Calder Cup Playoff run is going anywhere. With Providence, a team that frustrated the Bears all season, having been eliminated, Hershey is the highest remaining seed in the Eastern Conference and would have home-ice advantage through at least the conference finals. But first they have to get through the Hartford Wolf Pack, who handily ousted Springfield and Providence, in a best-of-five Atlantic Division final series that opens tonight.

Protas only played nine regular-season games with the Bears and spent much of the second half in Washington before his return to Hershey. But he can sense what the Bears have going inside their dressing room.

“That’s one of the greatest groups of people,” Protas said. “I haven’t been here for a while, but I can see how tight this group is, how close these guys are together, and it’s such fun to play with these guys.”

They will need that tight-knit feeling to continue to build. Nelson has won the Calder Cup as a player, assistant coach, and most recently as a head coach with the Grand Rapids Griffins in 2017. He has seen everything that the Calder Cup Playoffs can present to a young team. If the Bears are to make that same journey this spring, he knows that these early tests will be just the start.

“I think it’s a good thing that we went through this,” Nelson said. “I really do. I want them to learn how tough it’s going to be.”