Bears fall short of record, turn attention to Cup repeat | TheAHL.com

Bears fall short of record, turn attention to Cup repeat | TheAHL.com

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Patrick Williams, TheAHL.com Features Writer


As the AHL’s oldest club, the Hershey Bears already own a league-record 12 Calder Cup championships, including the one that they captured last June with an overtime goal in Game 7 against Coachella Valley.

Last night they had an opportunity to add still more history and lore as they wrapped up their 86th regular season. By taking one point at home against Charlotte in the regular-season finale, the Bears would have established a new league mark for the best regular-season record in AHL history.

Instead the 1992-93 Binghamton Rangers’ 57-13-10 showing, a .775 points percentage, stands for at least one more year. The Bears dropped a 4-1 decision to the Checkers to finish at 53-14-0-5 (.771) and the franchise will have to settle for owning two of the three best regular seasons ever; the 2009-10 club went 60-17-0-3 (.769). Hershey’s 53 wins are a league record for a 72-game season, and they never lost back-to-back games in regulation over the entire 2023-24 campaign.

Still, last night’s setback also provided the Bears with a “wake-up call,” head coach Todd Nelson said. A potential opponent for Hershey in the Atlantic Division semifinals, the Checkers pounced with two strikes in the opening 5:53 and then stifled the home team en route to a 4-1 win.

“Quite honestly, if Hunter Shepard didn’t play as sharp as he did, it would have been a really tough first period for us,” Nelson put bluntly. “They could have had four or five.”

Said forward Mike Vecchione, “We didn’t play the way we wanted, and that’s going to sit with us until our next game.”

“The guys are disappointed [about the record], but also the guys got a big scare,” Nelson added. “That (Charlotte)’s a team to be reckoned with in the playoffs, so I think it’s more of an eye-opener for the guys, to be quite honest. And maybe that’s not a bad thing, because when we break down the video, it’s not going to be pretty.”

As the Bears shift their attention to the Calder Cup Playoffs, the frustration of Game 72 illustrates how quickly fortunes can change in April, May, and June.

That standout season for Binghamton 31 years ago? It fell apart all too quickly once the postseason arrived. In the opening round against head coach Barry Trotz and his Baltimore Skipjacks – a team that finished 56 points behind the Rangers in the regular season – Binghamton needed seven games to advance. And against Rochester in the second round, the Rangers gave up six third-period goals in a 7-5 loss in Game 6, then dropped Game 7 on home ice.

Nelson has been working for weeks to keep his Bears sharp and avoid a similar fate. The Bears clinched their playoff berth six weeks ago, but Nelson has continued to push his club hard despite a steady parade of recalls to Washington. The better the Bears have played, the more that Nelson has pushed them.

In Hershey, after all, they only hang banners at Giant Center for Calder Cup titles, and regular-season success is only a means to an end toward the franchise’s perennial goal of skating the Calder Cup. As the AHL’s regular-season champion, the Bears will have home-ice advantage for as long as they remain in the Calder Cup Playoffs. Last spring the Bears went 7-3 at Giant Center during postseason play, including sweeping three games on home ice against the Firebirds to put themselves back in the Finals after dropping the opening two games on the road.

While the Bears and Providence will have byes, the Checkers will meet Hartford in first-round play in the Atlantic Division. Lehigh Valley and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton will stage an in-state match-up in the other best-of-three.

The Bears’ success has earned them a break, but that can be a mixed blessing, of course. It will allow the club to heal and rest. But they will be out of game action before they must ramp up quickly. Like last season, Nelson will be utilizing plenty of intensive scrimmage play as well as a mix of off-ice team-bonding activities as the spring weather takes hold in central Pennsylvania. He also has reviewed his practice plans from last spring and plans to break them out again. There could be a team golf tournament as well.

Hershey will have to walk a line between putting in tough, demanding practices while also keeping players fresh. All sorts of dangers lurk out there for a Calder Cup contender like the Bears – as they found out last night.

“They can skate,” Nelson said of the Checkers after last night’s loss. “They were first on loose pucks. They outcompeted us. And finally when we got our act together in the third period, the game started to shift in our favor, but we just couldn’t finish.”

Therein lies a significant challenge for any team in the Calder Cup Playoffs. The time available for a team to get its act together is minimal.

“It scares the [life] out of me,” Nelson acknowledged about falling behind quickly in a best-of-five series. “It really does.”

Whether a 13th championship happens for the Bears this June remains to be seen. But the Bears will bring a time-tested formula with them into the postseason. This is a team that gets the lead first (a league-leading 40 wins when scoring first), defends (first overall in both goals-against and shots-against), and stays out of the penalty box. And when they do go down a skater, they bring out the AHL’s top-ranked penalty kill at 87.7 percent and one that has also notched 10 shorthanded tallies.

They’re hungry as well. Nelson made it a point early last fall to put last season’s championship behind them as soon as the banner went to the rafters on opening night. To that end, Capitals and Bears management also worked together to bring in new established pieces for the Hershey lineup last summer.

But the best-laid plans can quickly come undone in the Calder Cup Playoffs, and Nelson will be using that video from last night to underscore that point.

“Yeah, it’s definitely a wake-up call,” Vecchione admitted. “It’s probably the best thing that could have happened to us, to get smacked around a little bit.”

Once the AHL’s regular-season schedule finishes up later today, the hunt for the Calder Cup officially begins for the 23 teams that made the cut.

“Now,” Nelson said, “we have to start focusing on the big prize.”

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