With the regular season coming to an end, the playoff race is really heating up in the Atlantic Division as only 3 points separate the second-place Phantoms and the fifth-place Bears. The Bears face a must-win Sunday night as they start a home-and-home with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Hershey looks to regroup from a crippling loss to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and end a two-game losing streak during their most important stretch of the season. The Phantoms also look to rebound from a two-game losing streak as they look to take a stranglehold on a playoff spot.
A slow, physical start to the game eventually opened up at the 5:30 mark as Hershey’s Hubert Labrie had a golden chance from the high-slot that he wristed wide. However, it was Lehigh Valley that controlled the first half of the game, going up 10-3 in shots at the mid-way mark.
Hershey would come back with another golden opportunity just after the halfway point of the first period as Stanislav Galiev received a pass just above the crease with an open net to shoot at, but Galiev missed just right of the post.
Lehigh Valley came back with a chance of their own just a minute later; after a beautiful passing play, Danick Martel broke in ahead of the defense but could not beat Bears’ goaltender Phoenix Copley.
The Phantoms would finally capitalize at the 12:55 mark as Chris Conner got behind Travis Boyd, who was back on defense, and out-waited Copley before sliding the puck past the his pad and giving the Phantoms a 1-0 lead.
Just under a minute later, the Phantoms would strike again. Greg Carey skated wide along the boards, again getting around the Bears’ defenders, and deposited a wrist shot past the glove of Copley into the top corner, giving the Phantoms a 2-0 lead.
At 19:15, with the Bears desperately trying to get back into the game, Chandler Stephenson unleashed a one-timer from the faceoff circle, but Alex Lyon was up to the task, sliding across the crease and swallowing up the puck, giving the Bears no shot at a rebound opportunity.
Early in the second period, the Bears’ Riley Barber received a pass in the low circle, just missing a tiny opening between the shoulder of Lyon and the crossbar.
At the 4-minute mark, Sam Morin ripped a slapshot wide of the Bears’ goal, which ricocheted right to the stick of Tyrell Goulborne in the crease, but a scrambling Copley made the save.
A minute later, at the 5:05 mark, the Bears retaliated; after a great chance by Riley Barber, Nathan Walker picked up the puck and avoided stick checks from Phantoms defenders Samuel Morin and Travis Sanheim before turning and beating Alex Lyon low glove-side and getting the Bears back in the game.
At 6:55, the Bears struck again as Tom Gilbert skated along the boards before finding Jakub Vrana in the high-slot. Vrana controlled the pass and wristed the puck past Lyon, beating him glove-side.
In a tense first period and a half, emotions boiled over as the Phantoms’ Andy Miele and Bears’ Hampus Gustafsson, who had been battling in the low-slot, dropped the gloves for Gustafsson’s first AHL fight. When asked if there was any build up to the fight, Gustafsson said, “He kinda slashed me in the face in the previous shift, and on the next draw, we kinda got into it.” Miele was given a two-minute cross-checking penalty while Gustafsson was given two minutes for slashing to go along with their five-minute fighting majors.
Just after the midway point of the game, Phantoms winger Chris Conner lifted the stick of Bears’ center Travis Boyd and broke in all alone. Conner faked a shot while going to his left, opening up the five-hole of Copley, and slid the puck through. The Phantoms regained their lead.
The Bears came back with a chance of their own soon after as Nathan Walker perfectly delivered a cross-zone pass into the wheelhouse of Zach Sill, but Lyon stood tall, flashing across the crease and robbing Sill of a sure goal.
At 15:00, the Bears came back with another chance to tie the game when Garrett Mitchell broke in on a 2-on-1 before attempting to go top-shelf on Lyon, but Lyon again shut the door.
The first penalty of the game did not come until 39 minutes into the matchup when the Bears’ Tom Gilbert tripped up Andy Miele during a puck battle in neutral zone. The Phantoms, however, could not get any pressure, and the second period came to an end.
The Phantoms began the third period with over a minute of powerplay time, but could not build on their lead. After the powerplay, Tom Gilbert jumped out of the penalty box, handled a pass, and went in on a partial breakaway, but he could not get a shot off.
At 4:38, the Phantoms struck again as Chris Conner skated through the circle to the left of the Hershey goal, avoided the stick of a diving Jonas Siegenthaler, and beat Copley low blocker-side, picking up his third goal of the night.
Just before the midway point, at 10:59, Jonas Siegenthaler wristed a shot from the point that was tipped by Nathan Walker past Alex Lyon. However, after a conference between referees Michael Mullen and Pierre Lambert, the goal was waived off because of a high-stick.
After the disallowed goal, Hershey controlled the puck, forcing Lehigh Valley’s Nicolas Aube-Kubel to take an interference call to send the Bears to their first powerplay. During the powerplay, Hershey only had one chance. With 16 seconds left on the powerplay, Chandler Stephenson found Stanislav Galiev open in the circle, but once again, Alex Lyon was up to the test.
Soon after, Hershey’s Siegenthaler had another chance to get the Bears within one, but his shot rung off the crossbar.
Down by two goals and with their playoff hopes on the line, Hershey pulled their goaltender in favor of the man-advantage late in the third. Hershey controlled the puck in the Phantoms’ zone, and with 44 seconds left, Phantoms’ Travis Sanheim was called for a slash, giving the Bears a six-on-four, but they could not beat Lyon.
FINAL:Lehigh Valley 4-2
SHOTS: Tied 34-34
- The Phantoms and Bears were both without key players Sunday night. The Phantoms were without their captain and second-leading goal scorer Colin McDonald as he has been called up to the Flyers. The Bears were without alternate captain and 24-goal scorer Paul Carey as he is also up in the NHL with the Capitals.
- Travis Boyd continued his dominance of the Phantoms by picking up his thirteenth point in the season series with an assist on Jakub Vrana’s second period goal. The assist gave him five goals and eight assists in eleven games against the Phantoms this season.
- With Lehigh Valley’s victory, the Phantoms give themselves a one-point lead over the Providence Bruins for second place in the Atlantic Division
- With Hershey’s loss, they remain in fifth place, one point out of a playoff spot with 5 games remaining. The Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the team the Bears are chasing in the playoff race, play the Springfield Thunderbirds on Tuesday. With a Bridgeport win on Tuesday, the Bears can fall three points out of a playoff spot.
- With the Bears and Phantoms sporting the fifth and sixth best powerplay units in the league, neither unit had much of a chance to show it. Hershey had just two powerplay opportunities, and Lehigh Valley had only one.
The Bears and Phantoms meet again in another critical matchup on Wednesday at the PPL Center in Allentown as they finish off their season-series. The Bears look to climb back into the playoff picture with just five games remaining. The Phantoms, who are not in the clear yet, look to lock down their playoff spot.
The next scheduled Bears game for GNGHockey will be April 15th against Providence.
Dean Snock is a writer for Good Night, Good Hockey and a Hershey Bears reporter. You can follow him on Twitter @DSnock97.