In the first period of game one of their Calder Cup playoff matchup with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the Hershey Bears’ usually ferocious attack was grounded, as they managed a scant three shots on net; however, aided by a controversial late third period goal by Mathieu Perreault, the defending champions left the Tigers feeling low by managing a 4-3 overtime win at Giant Center on Wednesday night.
The heavily-favored Bears, who established a new AHL regular season record by reeling off 60 wins, were realistically playing their first meaningful game in nearly a month, and it showed in the early stages of the contest.
The visitors struck for the first goal of the series at 5:40 of the opening period when Trevor Smith lit the lamp. Smith, after snagging Chris Bourque’s failed clearing attempt high in the Hershey zone, launched a shot that climbed first off of the blocker of Bears' goaltender, Braden Holtby, and then over his right shoulder, eventually finding a resting place in the net.
The Sound Tigers then stunned the Giant Center faithful by taking a 2-0 lead at 15:14, when Sean Bentivoglio stickhandled behind the Hershey net and then sandwiched a pass between a pair of Bears’ defenders to teammate Matt Martin in the crease area, with Martin then pushing the biscuit into a yawning cage.
The Bears came out energized in the middle frame, outshooting the Sound Tigers from the opening puck drop and getting their first goal of the series at 5:33, when Alexandre Giroux, the AHL’s leading goal scorer in the regular season, authored his first goal of the post-season by blasting a point shot through Bridgeport backstopper, Scott Munroe.
In the latter stages of the second period, seconds after the expiration of Hershey’s fourth unsuccessful power play of the stanza, Francois Bouchard was whistled off of the ice for a goaltender’s interference penalty, although he was clearly given some assistance by Bentivoglio.
Hershey survived Bouchard’s sentence without allowing a Bridgeport power play strike, but the boys from Bridgeport kept a presence in the Hershey’s zone after Bouchard was released and netted an even strength goal by defenseman Andrew MacDonald at the 19:59 mark to re-establish their two-goal lead heading into the second intermission.
“It wasn’t quite how I imagined it would go," said Hotby of his inaugural playoff outing. “I didn’t get off to a good start in the game, but I felt I played (stickhandled) the puck very well. I got caught by a couple of bad bounces that could probably be attributed to my nervousness.“
Bouchard cut the Bridgeport lead to a single goal at 14:14 of the third period by skillfully deflecting Patrick Wellar’s wrist shot from the point behind Bridgeport backstopper, Scott Munroe.
“It was a really good shot by Wellar,” said Bouchard. “It was just a little behind me, but I was able to reach it and get a stick on it. They say in the playoffs, good things happen when you go to the net, and that’s what happened on that goal.”
Bouchard, although not playing on a line with Mathieu Perreault at this early juncture in the playoffs, anticipates the duo pitching in with more offense in their second playoff run.
“Last year was our first year in the playoffs and we were learning from the big guys," said Bouchard. “I think this year we will have a bigger roll and score some big goals like we did tonight.”
Forty seconds after the Bouchard marker, the Sound Tigers’ Jesse Joensuu came within inches of giving them their two-goal cushion back, but his redirect slithered to a halt just before reaching the goal line, and Holtby, surprised to see the puck not in his grasp, quickly covered it.
“I was actually more surprised that it got through me, because it was a deflection that I felt in my armpit pretty solid and I thought it was still there,” Holtby explained. “Once I didn’t hear the whistle, I looked behind me and saw that the puck had stopped and jumped on it.”
With less than two minutes left in regulation time, Perreault batted an airborne puck behind to Munroe to seemingly tie the game. However, the Bears had to wait a few tense moments while the officials conferred before being able to officially celebrate the goal. Although a replay of the goal appeared to make it a very questionable one, Perreault, as could be expected, thought the goal call was the right one.
“The goalie was down and his head was about even with the crossbar,” said Perreault. “I think it was a good goal but it was a tough call for him (referee, Nygel Pelletier).”
Like Bouchard, Perrreault also envisions elevating his level of play in this year’s playoffs, alleviating some of the tremendous pressure this is placed on Hershey’s bigger guns.
“I think if we can give a hand to our top line by getting some goals, it will make them more comfortable and allow them to do what they do best, ” Perreault said.
Joensuu had another chance to salt the game away for the visitors in the last minute of regulation, but his breakaway bid was halted by Hershey defenseman, Karl Alzner, who despite stopping Joensuu’s advances, drew a penalty in the process.
When the Sound Tigers were unable to take advantage of their remaining regulation power play opportunity, the game went into overtime with the visitors starting out the session with more than a minute remaining on Alzner’s call.
Hershey’s penalty killers came up strong against the challenge, not only stopping the Sound Tigers from getting the game winner, but also by drawing a penalty on MacDonald while shorthanded to short circuit the charge.
Fittingly, it was a pair of the Chocolate and White’s premiere penalty killers who factored into the game winning goal, with Steve PInizzotto picking up the secondary assist, and Andrew Joudrey collecting the game-winner at 4:08 to send the home crowd home on a happy note.
“Wellsie was stepping left to right and their goalie is such a big guy; I thought he would be going the other way," said Joudrey. “I tried to go back against the grain, and get him to over commit.“
Wellar, who was a member of last year’s ECHL Kelly Cup winning South Carolina Stingrays, but did not see any playoff action with the Bears, gave a lot of credit to the Sound Tigers for their tenacious defense, but said that the biggest factor in helping the Bears pull out the come from behind win was their persistence.
“We weren’t getting much accomplished for most of the night because they were playing such good defense,” said Wellar, who collected a pair of assists in the win. “I was fortunate to get a few pucks through from the point and the guys did a great job with the deflections. We scored some pretty ugly goals tonight.”
It’s not often that you get to learn a valuable lesson in a win, but Joudrey thinks that is exactly was his club experienced in the series opener.
“It’s a testament to them; they were working hard,” said Joudrey, who knows a thing or two about hard work, "but your first and last minutes of a period, you want them to be good. That should be a lesson to us going forward, that we need to go whistle to whistle for the full twenty.”