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Bears are 2023 Calder Cup Champions

June 21, 2023

Mike Vecchione scored at 16:19 of overtime to lift the Hershey Bears (14-6) to their first Calder Cup championship since 2010 and their league-leading 12th overall Wednesday night in a 3-2 overtime victory over the Coachella Valley Firebirds (15-10) at Acrisure Arena, winning the 2023 Calder Cup Finals four games to three.

Hershey rallied from a 2-0 deficit with a pair of goals in the second period to force overtime before Vecchione’s marker in sudden-death secured the victory for the Chocolate and White. The contest was only the second-ever Game 7 of the Calder Cup Finals to be settled in extra time, and the first since 1953 (The Cleveland Barons defeated the Pittsburgh Hornets, 1-0).

Goaltender Hunter Shepard was awarded the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the most valuable player of the 2023 Calder Cup Playoffs. Shepard started every game for the Bears during the postseason run, going 14-6 with a 2.27 goals-against average, a .914 save percentage, and three shutouts. Shepard allowed two or fewer goals in 14 of his 20 games.

After losing the opening two games of the Finals, the Bears reeled off three straight victories on home ice at GIANT Center before returning to California. Coachella Valley then forced the decisive Game 7 with a 5-2 win in Game 6 on Monday; Hershey became just the fourth team in the history of the American Hockey League to rally from a 2-0 series deficit and eventually win the championship round, joining the 1972 Nova Scotia Voyageurs (won series 4-2), 1991 Springfield Indians (won series 4-2), and 2010 Hershey Bears (won series 4-2).

The contest was the 12th Game 7 in the history of the Calder Cup Finals, and the fourth involving the Bears, improving Hershey’s all-time record in Calder Cup Finals Game 7s to 2-2, and giving Hershey its first Game 7 win in the Finals since its first championship in 1947. The Bears became only the fourth road team to win the Calder Cup in a Game 7. Hershey improved to 10-9 all-time in playoff Game 7s with the victory.

When AHL President and CEO Scott Howson presented the Calder Cup to Bears captain Dylan McIlrath, it marked the first time in 13 years that the trophy had been awarded to the AHL’s most historic franchise, with 12 Calder Cups, 24 Finals appearances, 70 postseason appearances – all AHL records. The Bears have won at least one Calder Cup in every decade since claiming their first championship in 1947. Hershey’s most recent title is its fourth since opening its current home, GIANT Center, for the 2002-03 season, and fourth since its current affiliation with the NHL’s Washington Capitals began prior to the 2005-06 campaign.

Hershey went 14-6 during the postseason, after going 44-19-5-4 for 97 points in the regular season. Under head coach Todd Nelson, the Bears defeated the Charlotte Checkers (3-1), Hartford Wolf Pack (3-0), and Rochester Americans (4-2) before eliminating Coachella Valley in seven games in the Finals.

This is the third time in franchise history that Hershey has defeated a first-year team to claim the Calder Cup, after previously achieving the feat in 2010 (Texas, 4-2) and 1997 (Hamilton, 4-1).

For Nelson, in his first year as the bench boss for Hershey, the championship marks the second time as a head coach that he has hoisted the Calder Cup, after previously doing so with Grand Rapids in 2017; it is his fourth overall Calder Cup championship, after also winning as an assistant coach with Chicago (2008) and as a player with Portland (1994). Nelson, who played one season for the Chocolate and White in 1995-96, is also the fifth head coach in Bears history to guide the team to a championship after also previously suiting up for the club as a player, joining Frank Mathers, Chuck Hamilton, Doug Gibson, and Bob Woods. Nelson joins AHL Hall of Famers Bun Cook and John Paddock (also a former Bears coach) as just the third head coach to win Calder Cups with two different teams.

Joe Snively led the Bears in postseason scoring with 15 points (2g, 13a) in 20 games.

BOX SCORE

Coachella Valley opened the scoring when Ryker Evans snuck a shot through a screened Hunter Shepard at 4:41 of the opening frame.

Hershey was out-shot 17-12 by Coachella Valley in the opening frame, but Shepard came up with 16 saves to keep the Bears to within striking distance of the Firebirds.

Max McCormick, however, put the hosts up 2-0 just 24 seconds into the middle frame when he flew up the left side and beat Shepard with a high shot.

The Bears got on the board with a power-play goal at 13:52 when Joe Snively sent a pass from the right circle ahead to Mason Morelli near the right post. Morelli moved the puck across the crease to Connor McMichael who put home his sixth of the postseason past Joey Daccord.

Hershey then drew level at 17:09 when Aliaksei Protas negated a Coachella Valley clearing attempt and sent the puck back to the point for Vincent Iorio, whose one-timer was redirected by Hendrix Lapierre for the rookie’s third of the playoffs.

Hershey out-shot Coachella Valley 9-4 in the third period, but the game remained deadlocked at the end of 60 minutes of regulation.

The Bears got their Cup-winning tally late in the first overtime when Henrik Borgstrom’s rebound popped out to Vecchione, who put home his fifth of the postseason to win it for Hershey.

Shots finished 47-38 in favor of Coachella Valley. Shepard went 45-for-47 for the Bears in the win; Daccord went 35-for-38 in the loss for the Firebirds. Hershey was 1-for-4 on the power play, while Coachella Valley went 0-for-2.

Hershey’s 2023 Calder Cup championship celebration will be at GIANT Center on Saturday, June 24 at 3 p.m. More information about the festivities will be circulated later this week.


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