HERSHEY, Pa. – The Hershey Bears did what they needed to do defensively to play with the Charlotte Checkers Tuesday night, but getting the result they were after was a different matter.
The Bears entered game three in desperate need of protecting their sheet of ice after dropping the first two games on the Checkers’. Games one and two did not go Hershey’s way at all, with the high-flying Charlotte attack striking for eleven goals in six periods to take a two-games-to-none lead in the series. The Bears don’t have the offense to score at that rate, so they needed to find a way to plug the holes fast to avoid falling behind 3-0 in the best-of-seven series.
Hershey played its game on Tuesday, holding Charlotte to just 23 shots on the night and keeping the visitors in check for the vast majority of the night. Despite this, however, the Bears found themselves unable to take advantage and find enough offense for a win. Hershey managed only 18 shots of its own, and only one of them found twine.
The difference in the game was the Charlotte penalty kill, who went a perfect six-for-six on the night. That included killing four straight Hershey power plays in a 1-1 game in the third period. The Bears struggled to gain entry into the zone with the man advantage, and when they did, the Checkers closed off passing and shooting lanes with expert precision. The inability of Hershey to gain momentum, let alone a goal from the power play, came back to bite the chocolate and white on Tuesday.
The first period was an even battle throughout in game three, with each side coming close to breaking the ice early only to be turned away. Both Alex Nedeljkovic for Charlotte and Vitek Vanecek for Hershey made excellent saves, setting the stage for what would be a low-scoring battle all game. It looked like the game was heading to the first intermission scoreless, but with just over a minute remaining, the stalemate was broken.
The Bears had the cycle working late in the frame when Jayson Menga took the puck from behind the net and found Ryan Sproul open in the near circle. Sproul immediately whipped the puck towards the crease where Nathan Walker had his stick ready and waiting to deflect the puck past Nedeljkovic. It was Walker’s first of the playoffs, and have Hershey a 1-0 edge with 1:04 to play in the first.
The Bears took the lead to the intermission for the first time in the series, but the second period belonged to the Checkers as it has all postseason. The Checkers came in outshooting opponents 61-44 and outscoring them 8-1 in the middle stanza over the first six games of the postseason, and improved upon those numbers in the seventh. Charlotte held a massive 12-2 advantage in shots over the second segment on Tuesday and pulled even on the scoreboard with a goal 6:32 into period two.
The goal was the first of two on the night for Aleksi Saarela and came with an assist from a returning Andrew Poturalski. Poturalski (5G, 6A, 11Pts.) moved his point streak to six games to start the playoffs by sending Saarela into the zone, then the third-year pro out of Finland did the rest by blasting a rocket over the blocker of Vanecek and into the top corner to knot the score at one.
The score held at one and one into the final frame of game three, where the Charlotte penalty kill slowly drained the fight from Hershey. The Checkers took a two-minute minor for delay of game, a four-minute double minor for high-sticking, and a two- minute minor for interference all within the first 8:36 of the third, yet killed them all with extreme efficiency. Hershey managed only three shots with eight minutes of power play time, and never looked threatening at all.
The energy slowly began to drain from the Giant Center as the futility unfolded, first from the chocolate-clad crowd and then from the players on the ice. The tension started to increase with each passing minute, as everyone knew the Bears had squandered precious chances to pull ahead. Charlotte was content to patiently defend and wait for an opening, even going without a shot for the first 17-plus minutes of period three. When the Checkers finally attacked, though, they brought the Bears’ worst fears to fruition.
The Checkers finally got their first shot of the third with just over two minutes to play, as Julien Gauthier was sent in on a breakaway. Vanecek made an excellent save on Gauthier, but the Bears were unable to clear the rebound out of the zone. Trevor Carrick acquired the biscuit at the blueline and wired a shot that was tipped on goal by Stelio Mattheos. Vanecek made that save too, but Mattheos was ready for the rebound and smacked it home to give Charlotte a 2-1 lead with just 2:08 remaining for Hershey to equalize.
The Bears immediately called a timeout to try to regroup, then pulled Vanecek for the extra attacker, but it was not to be for the home squad. Saarela hit the post on the empty net to briefly keep the Bears alive, but he got a second chance and didn’t miss. His second of the night and third of the playoffs provided the final count of 3-1, Charlotte.
With the triumph, Charlotte takes a three-games-to-none lead in the series and moves one win away from the Eastern Conference Final. Hershey will now need to defeat the best team in the league four straight times to keep its season alive. The Bears can only take it one game at a time, however, and must have their focus squarely on game four now. There is little time to adjust between games, with game four set for 7:00 p.m. ET/6:00 p.m. CT on Wednesday from Giant Center in Hershey.
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