HERSHEY, Pa. – Although the Hershey Bears had already clinched the title as the AHL’s best team after action on Saturday, not much needs to happen for teams to get up for a game between the Bears and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, meeting for the final time in the season finale. In a fight-filled contest, the Bears skated away to a 5-2 victory at Giant Center, winning all of the games in the season series at Giant Center and eight overall in the season series. Connor McMichael had a goal and three assists, and Brett Leason tallied two goals and an assist to lead the way for the ailing Bears, who dressed just 11 forwards on Sunday.
It was a baptism by fire for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton goaltender Brett Brochu, making his AHL debut in the season finale between the pipes and faced 16 shots in the opening frame. Hershey tallied twice on the power play in the opening frame, courtesy of McMichael’s 12th goal of the season. Brett Leason got the puck to the net and found its way to McMichael to open the scoring. Later in the frame, Matt Moulson scored in his 400th AHL game with a smooth finish on the backhand for Hershey’s power-play unit, which finished on a high note of three-for-five on the afternoon.
Leason would get the first of two tallies on the day, finishing a great feed from McMichael to tap in Hershey’s third goal of the day just over sixty seconds into the second period. Wilkes-Barre would battle back, flipping the script on the second period that’s been the strength of Hershey’s by tallying both of their goals on Hunter Shepard, who made the start after Zach Fucale was recalled following a 3-2 victory on Saturday to Washington. Drew O’Connor and Cam Lee would score 1:26 apart to suddenly cut Hershey’s lead to just one goal, setting the stage for a massive final frame of the season between these two foes.
The scrappy, nasty feud that has been building all season long came to a point in this game, with four separate fights being called throughout the course of the game. Kale Kessy was involved in two of the tilts, taking on Jon Lizotte and Josh Currie and getting tossed from the game; putting an exclamation point on the season series that’s seen many fights taunts, and even one huge goal from Kessy. The 1,329 recorded attendees at Giant Center got their money’s worth in this one and then some in the season finale. Hershey finished with 60 minutes in penalties, while Wilkes-Barre/Scranton ended with 34.
Hershey took over the game halfway through the third on the first goal of the season for defenseman-turned-forward Eddie Wittchow, who scored on a beautiful shot and looked like he’s been playing forward for a long time to make it 4-2 for the home team. The game took a turn for the more interesting just a minute and change later when Moulson threw a hip check on Billy Sweezy, who threw a couple of shots at the Hershey captain before Moulson caught him with a high stick. Moulson was given a misconduct for spearing, giving the Penguins a big chance to get back into the game with a five-minute major.
However, the Bears did their diligence to kill the penalty, and momentum suddenly changed when Jan Drozg was called for hooking, and Will Reilly was called for roughing shortly afterward, leading to a two-man advantage for the home team late in regulation. McMichael earned his third assist in a beautiful feed across the crease to Leason, who buried the final goal of the season for the Bears to make it 5-2. Hershey head coach Spencer Carbery had a lot of praise to dole out to his players following the game.
“He’s a Swiss army knife, and he plays with so much energy,” Carbery said of Wittchow. “He’s so competitive, and he sticks out like a sore thumb whether he’s playing defense or forward, and it’s a luxury to be able to play him on forward this past weekend. Another fitting thing is that Eddie is loved by our guys, he’s such a nice young man and so soft-spoken for how he plays the game. For him to score such a huge goal for us, the guys were just thrilled for him and his smile was pretty special to score such a huge goal.”
“Best weekend for the season from him,” Carbery said of McMichael’s game. “In these two games where the division title, the league are on the line, last game of the season potentially he’s not gonna play for four months he wants to leave everything on the ice, and it’s his best two games of the year. He’s had some pretty good games, these two were just phenomenal tonight and backed it up from last night, too. He really stepped it up for us tonight.”
“He does have a really good skill set; you just see the pins and the scraps a lot, but that’s part of his game,” Carbery said when asked about Kale Kessy’s game. “He can finish, make plays off the wall, he’s one of our best wingers at handling the puck off the wall and make plays for us, penalty kill for us. There’s been some bad blood brewing with that group, typical Wilkes-Hershey, right? We’ve had some battles with them and situations where our guys weren’t happy with them, so you knew playing them in the last game of the season, it would be a competitive game tonight.”
“There’s an expectation for how we do things here and how we treat one another and how we pull for each other. If someone’s out, I’ll have to do a little more, or I’ll have to make the plays or do the things that are gonna be better for the two guys next to me and not just myself. It’s a tricky thing in the AHL because there’s a lot of players who are, individually, trying to get to the highest level in the world, and that’s the balance that our culture is about.”
Hershey finishes the season with the best record in the AHL, 24-7-2-0, and North Division champions.