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Calder Cup Playoffs: Hershey Seeking Fast Starts, Elite Play In Division Finals



Led by captain Dylan McIlrath, the Hershey Bears celebrate a goal against the Charlotte Checkers in the 2023 Calder Cup Playoffs.
Led by captain Dylan McIlrath, the Hershey Bears defeated the Charlotte Checkers in four games during the division semifinals. (Tori Hartman/Hershey Bears)

Three games separate the Hershey Bears from an appearance in the AHL’s Eastern Conference Finals.

But only if they can get out of their own way first.

“We played well last series, but we have not played our best hockey yet,” head coach Todd Nelson said Wednesday. “We have to get back to playing our best hockey.”

The Bears made quick work of the Charlotte Checkers in the division semifinals, outscoring them 17-to-7 over four games. But the team only scored once in the first period of those four games, and the thought of falling into a hole early is worrisome for one of the AHL’s lowest scoring teams this season.

While the Bears are one of the league’s best at limiting opposing goals, the Hartford Wolf Pack is averaging just over three goals per game. The teams will open the Atlantic Division Finals in Hershey on Thursday night, with the Wolf Pack coming to town having won five of their last six in the playoffs.

“We’re playing a very good hockey team,” Nelson said. “Right now they believe in themselves and they’re playing confident hockey. They played hard for each other, and anytime you have a team that plays hard for each other they’re a very strong team. We feel we have a tight-knit group in our locker room, but I’m sure they do too. It’s gonna be a battle.”

Securing the division’s fifth seed did little to deter the Wolf Pack as they outscored the Springfield Falcons 13-to-2 in the playoff’s first round en route to a two-game sweep. Hartford built on that momentum, downing the Providence Bruins in four games during the division semifinals.

Led offensively by forwards Tim Gettinger and Tanner Fritz — the team’s playoff points leaders — the Wolf Pack have scored 23 goals in only six games, making them the second-best scoring team in the playoffs.

Defensively, Hartford goalie Dylan Garand leads playoff teams with a 1.17 goals against average, as well as a 0.954% save percentage.

All together, the Wolf Pack seem to have gotten hot at the right time — a skill that could spell disaster for the Bears if the team is not prepared for what will be thrown at them.

“We’ve just got to get through that first period,” Nelson also added. “If we get through that first period, then we can tweak things, make adjustments and go from there. We want to make sure we have a good first period, and it starts with everybody as an individual. They all have to have a good first shift and just build off that.”

Michael Sgarbossa, who led the team with 58 points in 60 regular season games, is “banged up,” Nelson said, as well as defenseman Aaron Ness. Neither player has been ruled out.

“You saw it last round, it’s playoff hockey,” center Michael Vecchione said. “Everyone’s giving everything they’ve got, everyone’s a little banged up but, at the end of the day, you’ve got to fight for battles, fight for position, puck battles. It’s gonna be war out there.”

Series Schedule

Game 1: Thursday, May 11 at Hershey, 7 p.m.

Game 2: Saturday, May 13 at Hershey, 7 p.m.

Game 3: Wednesday, May 17 at Hartford, 7 p.m.

Game 4 (if necessary): Friday, May 19 at Hartford, 7 p.m.

Game 5 (if necessary): Tuesday, May 23 at Hershey, 7 p.m.

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