The Hershey Bears opened their East Division Finals series against the Albany River Rats on Saturday night at Giant Center in the same manner as they opened up their first round matchup against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, overcoming a third period deficit and then prevailing in overtime in dramatic fashion.
Hershey centerman, Andrew Joudrey, who scored the game-winner in overtime against Bridgeport, was once again at the forefront of the overtime heroics, this time picking up the primary assist on Kyle Wilson’s game-winning goal which gave the Bears the 4-3 overtime triumph.
Andrew Gordon struck for the first goal of the series when he guided Keith Aucoin’s centering pass behind Albany netminder, Justin Peters, at the four minute mark of the opening period.
“Their winger up high collapsed on me and that left Helmer open,” said Gordon. “Helmer rimmed it around Coiner, who was open behind the net. As is my habit, I curled right in front of the net and no one picked me up.”
The River Rats squared the score at 8:25 when Zac Dalpe bested Wilson on a Hershey defensive zone draw, and Drayson Bowman’s bad angle shot from the wall, which resulted from the faceoff win, eluded Bears backstopper, Michal Neuvirth.
Although the Bears only scored one goal in the first period, Gordon scored a knock down when he put Zach Boychuk on his backside with a solid body check.
“It was just a self-defense mechanism. If you have the opportunity to hit someone before they hit you, I’ll do that every time instead of taking a blow,” Gordon said.
A controversial double minor high-sticking infraction assessed to Hershey defenseman, Greg Amadio, for clipping Albany defenseman, Tim Conboy, at 5:06 of the second period, gave the visitors a chance to break their 0-for-22 playoff drought. That’s exactly what they did when Jerome Samson sizzled a shot by the glove of Neuvirth at 6:40.
Later in the period, with the Bears on a 5-on-3 power play, Mathieu Perreault’s slashing penalty cut the advantage down to a 4-on-3 and forced the Bears to take a faceoff in their own zone. Faced with that situation, Bears’ coach, Mark French, made the tactical decision to put four forwards on the ice that paid off handsomely, ultimately resulting in another Gordon goal at 15:47.
“It’s a bit of a risk, but we think to have Chris and Alex on the point gives us an opportunity,” said French. “It might hurt us defensively the odd time, but you’ve got to capitalize on those opportunities and it wasn’t traditional. It was off a bit of a broken faceoff, and a great play by Chris and Alex to get it to Gordo.”
The Bears started off the third period with a rush when the line of Bourque, Perreault, and Jay Beagle buzzed the Rats’ zone for an entire minute, putting three shots on net; however, Peters and his mates were able to weather that early storm.
The Bears kept up the pressure after that impressive shift by pelting Peters with four more shots, but Samson’s long range wrister on Albany’s first shot of the period at 7:13, found an opening and beat Neuvirth to give Albany another one goal lead at 3-2.
The former Rat, Keith Aucoin, who absorbed a bone-rattling neutral zone check from defenseman, Jamie McBian, midway through the frame, tied the game at 3-3 when he potted a rebound goal, his first tally of the post-season.
Aucoin’s goal turned out to be the last of regulation, and the Bears entered the overtime session with a 1:14 power play, courtesy of Jay Harrison’s hooking penalty incurred in the last minute of third period.
The River Rats were able to thwart Hershey’s power-play bid and nearly ended the game shortly after Harrison was released from his sentence. Luckily, Neuvirth saved his best work for the overtime session and repelled Bryan Rodney’s breakaway bid by kicking off his last pad to make a splendid save.
“I was not feeling really good about my play, and I told myself that I had to be better,” Neuvirth said. “That was a big save. I hope that when I made that big save on the breakaway that it gave the guys some confidence that I’m back.”
Wilson’s game-winning goal start with a simple dump-in by Wilson himself after the puck went behind the net. Boyd Kane’s impending body belt on Brett Bellemore forced the Albany defenseman to release the puck quickly. Bellemore’s clearing attempt was intercepted along the boards by Joudrey, who launched the puck in the direction of the net.
Joudrey’s shot was deflected by Kane, with Peters making the original save, but the wily Wilson who was waiting in the wings, pounced upon the rebound and the celebration ensued for the defending Calder Cup Champions.
“I was able to read the play and pick it up along the boards,” said Joudrey. “Kane always goes to the front of the net, so I just tried to put it in that direction. Kane made a great tip and Willy was in the right position.”
“In overtime, anything can happen when you keep it simple,” continued Joudrey. “I’m just trying to help the team out any way I can, and the only reason we won that game is that 20 guys were working at it.”