Three Takeaways: Hershey Bears Roar Even With Firebirds In Calder Cup Final

Hershey Bears/IG

The Calder Cup Final is shaping up to be another nail-biter similar to last year’s seven-game thriller between these two new rivals, with the Coachella Valley Firebirds and the Hershey Bears tied at two games each. It’s now a best-of-three to decide this year’s AHL champion. 

The Firebirds entered Game 4 with a 2-1 series lead after a dominant 6-2 win on Tuesday and were 7-0 at home in the postseason. However, Hershey’s goalie and Washington Capitals prospect Hunter Shepard, who rescued his weary teammates in Game 2, and was chased in Game 3, shone again in Game 4, made 22 saves, and led the Bears to a 3-2 victory on Thursday. 

Hershey’s Fast Start:

Before the game, Firebirds fans, who’ve seen Summer hockey in both years as a fanbase were rowdy before puck drop, were buzzing.

However, their coach, Dan Bylsma, who will be promoted to the NHL job with the Seattle Kraken after this series, anticipated a strong performance from Hershey, and he was right. The Bears quickly took control. They dominated the neutral zone and kept the Firebirds at bay. Ethen Frank scored a sneaky goal late in the first period, one that giving Hershey a 1-0 lead and outshooting Coachella Valley 10-2. Hardy Häman Aktell set up a breakout, passing to Lapierre, who then found Frank. Frank skated up the right side and slipped the puck through Chris Driedger’s legs, netting his 10th goal of the playoffs. 

Shane Wright’s Rise Continues:

Early in the second period, Coachella Valley came out firing, outshooting the Bears 6-1 in the first four minutes. It looked reminiscent of Tuesday when they set a franchise record with 23 shots in the middle frame.

Shane Wright tied the contest during 4 on 4 play, with a slick move on top of the crease, but the play started with Cale Fleury’s diving defensive stop, in the neutral zone denying a Hershey breakaway chance with his lunging stick. Wright, who now has 4 goals and 10 points in 10 playoff games, is making a strong case for joining the NHL’s Seattle Kraken next season. It’s impressive to see how he’s developed into a reliable two-way player under Coach Bylsma’s guidance, a partnership that should continue in the big leagues next season. The intensity and drive of the 4th overall pick in the 2022 NHL draft are clear, and it’s likely you’ll see him as a full-time member of the show in the 2024-25 season.

Yet despite the Firebirds momentum, it was Hershey who regained the lead late in the second period when Hendrix Lapierre scored his sixth goal of the playoffs. He carried the puck out of the defensive zone and passed it to Frank, who then sent it over to Joe Snively at the left boards. Snivley found a streaking Lapierre by the right circle, and he swept it under Driedger’s pads for his sixth goal of the playoffs. The Firebirds’ juice from Wright’s goal melted like ice cream would in the 100 degree weather outside the arena due to three offensive zone penalties.

Special Teams Spark:

The third period saw Ryker Evans score from his knees in front of Shepard just 32 seconds in, tying the game at 2-2. Both Firebirds’ goals came during 4-on-4 play, with Hershey neutralizing them at 5V5. But Joe Snively’s power-play bouncer on a rebound put the Bears ahead 3-2, a lead they held onto despite both teams struggling with their special teams – Hershey was 1-for-6, and Coachella Valley 0-for-4 on the power play. 

Hunter Shepard’s Redemption: 

Shepard redeemed himself after his Game 3 clunker with 24 saves, 22 in the final two periods, including ten down the stretch, and two saves where he swiped pucks off the goal line and another on Wright in the slot. 

The Bears also established possession by winning faceoffs and bunched up in the neutral zone, perfectly executing a 1-2-2 trap. The Firebirds struggled through most of the contest to get pucks behind them. Their speed was stunted as they succumbed to Hershey’s aggressive and desperate mindset. They traveled across the country needing a win to send the series home, and they got it. Game 5 is Saturday night in California, but the Bears’ win guarantees the 2024 Calder Cup champions will be crowned next week in Pennsylvania. Game 6 is Monday, and Game 7, if needed, will be Wednesday. You can watch the games on NHL Network for free. 

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