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BY DON SCOTT

The Hershey Bears and Utica Comets met twice over the weekend, starting Friday in Utica then ending Sunday in Hershey. The Bears won the Friday road contest 4-0, before the Comets grabbed a 3-1 Sunday victory in Giant Center.

The Bears celebrated their biggest road victory of the season on Friday with goaltender Zach Fucale making 34 saves in a 4-0 win over the Atlantic- Division leading Comets. The shutout was Fucale’s first of the season, and improved Hershey’s record to 26-18-3-3. 

With the Bears on a power play, Aliaksei Protas opened the scoring at 5:25 of the first period. Protas whipped a wrist shot from the right circle that sailed past Utica goaltender Akira Schmid, for his third goal of the season, with Cody Franson and Mike Vecchione getting the assists. 

Fucale blocked 14 shots in the opening period and then Hershey scored twice in the second period.

Lucas Johansen made a perfect stretch pass through the middle of the ice to a streaking Vecchione. He skated in on a breakaway and fired a shot off the post and past Schmid to make it 2-0. The goal was Vecchione’s 13th of the season, and the tally came on his 29th birthday.

Johansen assisted on Brian Pinho’s seventh goal of the season at 14:39 of the second period to put the Bears up 3-0. At the end of a shift, Mason Morelli carried the puck over the blue line and fed Johansen, who made a quick pass back to Pinho, who ripped a shot over Schmid’s blocker. 

In the third period Utica got aggressive, pulling Schmid for an extra skater with six minutes to play. Pinho added his second goal of the night on an empty netter to extend Hershey’s lead to 4-0, with Morelli setting him up again, at 14:58. 

Fucale earned his second shutout as a Bear, stopping 13 more Utica shots in the third period. His 34 saves were the most he’s made in a game this season.

Bears Notes:

Prior to this game, the Bears had lost four of the past five outings, scoring just eight goals in that stretch, and being held to just a single goal in each of the past two contests.

Hershey head coach Scott Allen was a member of the Colonial Hockey League’s Utica Bulldogs during the 1993-94 season.

The Bears’ Kody Clark, who did not play due to an injury and Utica’s Nolan Foote are connected through their fathers who played together in the NHL with the Quebec Nordiques in the 1994-95 season. Kody’s father, NHL legend Wendel Clark, joined Quebec that season after coming over in a blockbuster trade from Toronto. Nolan’s father, Adam Foote, was a second round draft pick by Quebec in 1989 and went on to win two Stanley Cups in his career.

In Sunday’s outing, Vitek Vanecek stopped 21 shots in a conditioning start, and Jake Massie scored his first goal with the Chocolate and White, but the Utica Comets skated to a 3-1 decision.

Both goaltenders were at the top of their game in Sunday’s tilt with Utica goaltender Akira Schmid and Vanecek trading saves in the first 40 minutes. During that time the Bears killed a five-on-three Comets advantage in the second stanza, and the goal posts denied two Fabian Zetterlund slap shots. 

It took just 16 seconds into the third period for Joe Gambardella to take advantage of a broken play and slide a shot past the left pad of Vanecek for a 1-0 Utica lead.

After another penalty kill by Hershey, the Comets struck again to make it 2-0. Ryan Schmelzer redirected a shot from the left point that was stopped by Vanecek, but the puck hit Hershey defenseman Dylan McIlrath’s skate and bounced into the net at 8:53.

Hershey finally beat Schmid at 11:28 on the power play. Jake Massie collected his first goal as a Bear, scoring from the left wing on a perfect pass from Brett Leason. Alex Alexeyev also assisted to make the game 2-1 Utica. 

Hershey pulled Vanecek for the extra attacker late in the game and Schmelzer sealed the win with an empty net goal at 19:07.

“I did not dislike our game against the best team in the Eastern Conference, holding them to just five first-period shots, then out-shot them for the game and out-chanced them and had that huge penalty kill in the second period,” Hershey coach Scott Allen said. “We found a way to score a power-play goal in the third period, but unfortunately, we gave up that early goal, but the backbreaker was the second one that cost us to play from behind.”

Shots finished 33-24 Utica. Hershey was one-for-three on the power play while the Comets went 0-for-three. 

The Bears (26-19-3-3) return to action on home ice on Wednesday night versus the Charlotte Checkers for the final Hersheypark Pass Night of the year.

BEARS NOTES:

On Thursday, the Washington Capitals announced that Brett Leason was re-assigned to Hershey.

On Sunday, the Capitals assigned goaltender Vitek Vanecek to the Bears on a conditioning loan and also reassigned goaltender Pheonix Copley to Hershey. 

In March, the Bears will have just four home games, one of those a rescheduled COVID-19 contest on March 8, and nine on the road.

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