The Hershey Bears’ first possible elimination game of the 2023 Calder Cup playoffs will be their last. After defeating the Charlotte Checkers in four games, the Hartford Wolf Pack in three, and the Rochester Americans in six, the Bears will attempt to win the franchise’s league-leading twelfth championship in the AHL’s final game of the 2022-23 season.
Not only does the Game Seven matchup against the Coachella Valley Firebirds mark the definitive end of the series, the game will likely prove to be the end of an era for one of the deepest teams in the AHL. Many of the Bears’ biggest contributors in the postseason will be free agents in July including defensemen Dylan McIlrath, Logan Day, and Gabriel Carlsson; goaltenders Hunter Shepard and Zach Fucale; and key forwards Sam Anas, Garrett Pilon, Mason Morelli, and Riley Sutter. The Capitals, who are looking to go younger next season, could also pluck several stars from the current team including Beck Malenstyn, Connor McMichael, Joe Snively, and Ethen Frank for the NHL roster.
It’s all or nothing tonight for this special group. But if the Bears are feeling that stress, they weren’t showing it hours before puck drop.
“We’re excited,” Riley Sutter said to Fox 43’s Andrew Kalista. “You know if at the start of the year if we said we’re going to be playing a Game Seven in the Finals, we all would have said yes. This is what it’s all about. We’re all excited and ready to go.”
“You couldn’t have wrote a better script to end the season for us,” Dylan McIlrath told the Capitals’ John Walton. “We’ve all dreamt of being in this situation, so we’re just going to enjoy it.”
It’s down to Peels and Veccs for morning sewer ball while the public at the community rink at Acrisure Arena looks on! pic.twitter.com/Mz5BrQQjl3
— Hershey Bears (@TheHersheyBears) June 21, 2023
The Bears will look to capture a championship and give an inspired effort in front of their families who traveled for the game at Acrisure Arena where they’re 0-for-3 on the series. Neither Hershey or Coachella Valley has won a single game on the road.
The Bears got into this must-win situation after falling 5-2 in Game Six.
“Once again, it’s a wakeup call,” Nelson said. “Bottom line we knew that we were going to have win one on the road. We still have that opportunity. We know how tough it’s going to be. We played against a team that was desperate. They wanted to come out and stay alive, give themself a chance and now they did.”
Connor McMichael scored the game’s first goal on his first shift 1:33 in but Coachella Valley battled back with three consecutive goals 6:42 apart in the first period.
“It seems like they score goals in bunches as we’ve experienced here in this building,” Nelson said. “Our guys have to understand, if a goal goes in, it’s right back to work. We fought back to 3-2 early in the second and were chipping away (to tie) and the fourth one killed us.”
The Bears have been outscored an astounding 14-2 in Coachella Valley after not losing a single game on the road in their first three playoff rounds (6-0).
“It all starts in our end,” Nelson said. “We have to kill plays better, we have to make sure we’re breaking the puck out well. It starts in our own end. I thought [in Game Six] we didn’t kill plays like we should have. That’s going to be a focus for next game. But the biggest thing for Game Seven is if we bring up pucks well and go up the ice, we can generate some offense off the rush.”
“I think everyone knows what they need to do going into tonight,” Sutter added. “Everyone has a job to do. Everyone’s going to do what they need to do to get the win.”
A Bears’ victory tonight would mark a rare comeback for a team that has fallen behind two games to none in the opening two matchups of the Calder Cup Finals. Only three teams have won championships facing that same deficit in AHL history. The last club to do so was the 2010 Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears who won four straight games after falling behind 2-0 against the Texas Stars.
“There’s a lot of players in the league, and not even in this league, who want to be in our shoes,” Sutter said. “It’ll make it that much better if we can get the win tonight.”
This will be the twelfth time in Calder Cup Finals history that the championship trophy will be decided in a Game Seven and the fourth time Hershey has competed in a Game Seven for the Calder Cup. According to the Bears, the team’s lone Calder Cup Game Seven win was the franchise’s first championship in 1947, a 5-0 victory against the Pittsburgh Hornets at Hersheypark Arena, 76 years ago.
“The 20 guys that are playing [in Game Seven] all have to leave it on the line, but this is where your leadership group comes into play,” Nelson said. “Guys that have been around for a bit, they’ve been in these situations before. There’s nothing better than a Game Seven for a championship. Let’s face it.”
The Bears will be rooted on by thousands watching live from Giant Center, where the team is hosting a watch party at its home arena. The game is being aired nationally at 10 pm on NHL Network, and AHL TV is allowing fans to watch the final hockey game of the season free on its streaming site.
“It’s winner take all,” Nelson said. “If you can’t get up for a Game Seven, something’s wrong.”
All eyes on us. There's only one thing left to do.
Let's ROAR, Bear Nation 🐻 pic.twitter.com/YGSlSjZY2D
— Hershey Bears (@TheHersheyBears) June 21, 2023
Headline photo: Tori Hartman/Hershey Bears
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