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BY DON SCOTT

The Hershey Bears started their 84th American Hockey League season with a pair of wins this weekend, Saturday over the Charlotte Checkers and Sunday over the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. For the first time in franchise history, Sunday’s game was officiated by a female. Jaqueline Zee Howard was one of 10 women officials hired by the AHL for the 2021-22 season.

The Bears scored the first goal of the season in Saturday’s home opener 3:31 into the contest, one that finished in a 5-2 victory, making it the first time in six seasons the Bears started with a win.

Hershey defenseman Lucas Johansen took a pass from Garrett Pilon and beat Charlotte’s goalie Christopher Gibson with Joe Snively getting the other assist. Three minutes later, Aleksi Heponiemi evened the score with a power-play breakaway goal at 6:21 for the Checkers.

Brett Leason regained the lead with Hershey’s first of two power-play goals, stuffing a rebound of a shot by Brian Pinho home with 3:25 left in the frame, and Snively adding another helper.

Kody Clark scored on the man-advantage at 2:43 of the second period for the eventual game-winning goal, with Mike Vecchione and Mike Sgarbossa setting up the tally. Alexander True’s power-play goal for Charlotte at the 12:35 mark made it 3-2, but the Bears needed just 24 seconds of the third period to go up 4-2 on Sgarbossa’s goal and Garrett Pilon made it a 5-2 at 14:26.

“We had a full buy-in by everyone in the third period, because from Day One we talked about how we want to play the game the right way, with no cheating, which is a tough way to play every game,” said Hershey head coach Scott Allen.

The Bears enjoyed a 34-15 shot advantage and the special teams finished 2-for-6 on the power play and 2-for-3 on the penalty kill.

Phoenix Copley made 13 saves to record his 71st win for the Bears, tying him with Phil Sauve and Vitek Vanecek for eighth place all-time, two less than seventh-place’s Braden Holtby. 

Protecting a one-goal lead in Sunday’s contest, the Bears had to battle through a 6-on-3 man disadvantage for the last 80 seconds to record the 2-1 victory over Lehigh Valley.

Ex-Phantom Mike Vecchione gave the Bears a 1-0 lead at 8:49 of the opening period with a rebound of a shot by Tobias Geisser. The Bears were helped in the second period when a Phantoms’ goal was disallowed by a high stick call, before Axel Jonsson-Fjallby beat Lehigh Valley’s Samuel Ersson at 9:17 for the eventual game-winner.

The Bears also had a goal disallowed just as the second period ended, then kept the Phantoms off the board in the third period, until Gerry Mayhew ruined Zach Fucale’s shutout effort with 2:30 left in the game.

Two late Hershey penalties gave the Phantoms the opportunity to also pull their goaltender for the rare three-man advantage, but Fucale was able to shut them down to record the victory.

“We had to control what we could control,” coach Allen said about the late- game situation. “We actually worked on that sort of thing a few days ago in case we ever needed it.”

Fucale finished the night with 23 saves on 24 shots and Hershey’s penalty kill completed a perfect 8-for-8 night, and 10-for-11 weekend to squeak out the 2-1 win. 

The Bears return to action on Friday with a back-to-back road games in Charlotte.

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