On Saturday, the Hershey Bears opened the 2023 portion of their schedule with a 3-1 home loss to the Charlotte Checkers. It marked the first time Hershey had lost consecutive games in regulation time this season.
Then on Sunday, the Bears earned a hard-fought 4-3 victory over the visiting Syracuse Crunch to improve to 23-8-2-1 and retain the top spot in the Atlantic division.
In Saturday’s tilt, the Checkers opened the scoring at 12:57 of the first period when Aleksi Heponiemi lifted a backhand shot under the bar on the blocker side of Hershey goaltender Zach Fucale.
The Bears’ Hendrix Lapierre tied it at 1-1 at 17:30 when he hustled to control a dump-in from Aaron Ness at the left circle and beat Alex Lyon with a low shot to the far post for his ninth of the season.
Cameron Morrison scored the game-winner on a power-play goal at 14:16 of the third period to put Charlotte up 2-1 and Riley Nash closed it out with an empty-net score at 18:05.
“I thought we had a chance to win but the Checkers goalie played well,
said Hershey head coach Todd Nelson, “but our energy was a little low and we weren’t as sharp as we could’ve been and that often happens after a long lay-off like we had.”
Shots finished 25-22 in favor of the Bears. The Bears were 0-for-4 on the power play, while Charlotte went 1-for-5 with the man advantage.
Forward Aliaksei Protas made his season debut for the Bears after being loaned by the NHL’s Washington Capitals earlier in the day. Protas skated in 41 games with the Capitals this season, striking for 10 points (3g, 7a).
Hershey forward Henrik Borgstom returned to the lineup and skated in his 100th career AHL contest.
In Sunday’s contest with the visiting Syracuse Crunch, Hershey enjoyed an early 4-1 lead but had to settle for a slim 4-3 victory in front of a near-sellout Giant Center crowd of 10,404 fans. The triumph was Hershey’s first home victory against Syracuse since November 3, 2019.
Hershey opened the scoring on just its second shot of the game when Riley Sutter sent the puck from the left corner behind the net where Henrik Rybinski passed it into the slot for Beck Malenstyn, who beat netminder Max Lagace for his first of the season at 4:19 of the first period.
Connor McMichael put the Bears up 2-0 early in the second period on a delayed penalty to Syracuse, when he hustled up the left wing before cutting to the right and sending a low backhand shot around the pads of Lagace at 2:49. for his seventh of the season. Aliaskei Protas received credit for an assist on the goal.
Mike Sgarbossa nearly extended Hershey’s lead to three goals at 5:23, but the potential score was waived off due to goaltender interference committed by Ethen Frank. The Crunch then failed to convert on a subsequent opportunity with the man advantage before Jack Finley eventually scored at 8:22 to cut Hershey’s lead to 2-1.
Sgarbossa found the twine at 10:36 to restore the Bears’ two-goal edge when he headed up the right side and roofed a shot above the glove of Lagace for his 11th of the season, with Frank and Vincent Iorio receiving assists.
“We can’t overlook the efforts by both of our goaltenders who are solid every night,” said Sgarbossa.
Mike Vecchione put Hershey up by three with a power-play goal at 14:32, as Protas collected Frank’s rebound in front of the net and sent a no-look pass back to Vecchione, who found the back of the net to make it 4-1 with his 13th of the season.
Gabriel Dumont countered with a back-door tap-in at 8:37 of the third period to pull the Crunch back to within two goals of the Bears.
Syracuse continued to chip away at Hershey’s lead at the 13:03 mark when Shawn Element deflected a shot from the blue line by Darren Raddysh, making the score 4-3.
The Crunch attempted to pull Lagace for an extra skater in the final minutes of regulation, but the Bears held on for the win.
“I thought it was a tough game for the guys to get into a rhythm with so many penalties on both sides,” said Nelson, “and after that I was just trying to find ice time for the guys that were sitting and that kept me on my toes.”
Shots finished 28-22 in favor of Syracuse.
The Bears were 1-for-3 on the power play, while Syracuse went 0-for-5 with the man advantage.
With the win, Hershey improved to 10-0-0-0 at home this season when not surrendering a goal in the first period and 11-0-0-1 on the season when Vecchione scores a goal.
Hershey will host the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins at Giant Center on Wednesday, Jan. 11 at 7 p.m.
Joe Snively has been loaned to Hershey. When he went to Washington on Jan. 27, 2022, he was in the midst of a 14-game home point streak, which ties him for the franchise record.
The Bears are 16-1-0-0 when they hold opponents scoreless in the first period, but just 6-7-2-1 when they surrender a goal in the opening 20 minutes.
Syracuse is now winless in five straight games (0-4-0-1) and has also dropped three straight road games.