The Hershey Bears, who blew a 2-0 lead in game three and then were shutout in game four in their AHL Eastern Conference Finals best of seven matchup with Manchester, just needed to find a way to get a win against the Monarchs on Thursday in order to reclaim the series lead. Well, it wasn’t pretty, and it was tough on the heart, but Francois Bouchard knocked home the rebound of a Mathieu Perreault shot 10:38 into overtime to give the Bears a 3-2 win and the same margin in games. Game 6 is at what surely will be a sold out Giant Center on Saturday night in Chocolate Town. If Hershey can’t close the deal then game seven would be Sunday at 5pm at the Giant Center, as well.
Here are some highlights, thoughts, and analysis on what could be deemed an Instant Classic from New Hampshire on Thursday night:
WOW, what a game! After a scoreless 40 minutes that were dominated by outstanding goaltending at both ends of the rink, the Monarchs appeared to take control on two occassions after scoring power play goals. The first Manchester tally came after Greg Amadio was called for interference just four minutes into period three. Bud Holloway lasered one from the right wing circle by Michal Neuvirth (27 saves). #30 had no chance because Patrick Wellar screened his own net minder. But the Bears answered with a goal by Kile Wilson at the 11:41 mark. Boyd Kane carried the puck down the left wing boards and he fired it on net. The puck hit the Monarchs defender and then what appeared to be Wilson’s skate, before going by Jonathan Bernier (32 saves). Manchester would complain, but the goal stood.
With play tightening up the contest appeared headed to overtime, but then Alexandre Giroux, who struggled in the three tilts in New Hampshire, took a costly goalie interference penalty at 15:56. 90 seconds later the Monarchs appeared to be on the verge of taking control in this series when, after a wild sequence, Jacob Muzzin blasted one in by Neuvirth. The Bears had several attempts to clear but Manchester kept the biscuit in and made Hershey pay.
Things looked bleak but Coach Mark French’s crew managed to get an offensive zone face-off with just 1:08 to go and the Bears called timeout. Hershey won the face-off and Keith Aucion fired a cross ice pass from the left wing circle to Alexandre Giroux at the right point and #12 then slid one to Chris Bourque in the right wing circle. #17 then wristed one by Bernier with Bouchard screening in front. A wild Hershey celebration ensued with just 50 ticks remaining in regulation. However, just before the first 60 minutes were up, Holloway hit the post and that gave the Bears their chance to prevail in OT.
As I said, both goalies were superb and it is hard to say who was better, but I’ll give the nod to Neuvirth, who could not be faulted on either Monarchs tally. #30 was just sensational on several occassions, including one sequence where he made a great first save on Andrei Lotkionov then dived to stop Holloway with the rebound on the doorstep in the second period. Manchester had a good game plan of trying to throw as much traffic as they could in front of Neuvy and it nearly worked, although the Monarchs only scored with the man advantage (2 for 3 on the power play).
As I blogged after games one and three, Bourque continues to be the best player on the ice, in my opinion. #17 had a goal and an assist and was +2. Whenever he was out there the Bears seemed to carry the play. He and Perreault (1 assist, +2) create offense well together. I attribute that to their superior skating ability, outstanding hands, and excellent hockey smarts. I think both guys will get good looks and have a chance to make the Caps out of training camp in September.
Now to Bouchard. It was good to see him make things happen around the net, something I saw him do well back in February when I was up for a Hershey-Albany tilt during the NHL Olympic Break. #22, who was a Capitals second round pick in 2006 and turned 22 years old on April 26th, is starting to fill out physically (6′ 1”, 190 lbs) and the winger is using that additional size to notch some hard working tallies.
The pair of John Carlson (+2) and Karl Alzner (+1) had a game that was more reminscent of the two opening contests of this series at the Giant Center after what I will call an average performance in game three. They were both on for the game winner. In fact, Carlson was the one who made the play on the right point to start the sequence that led to the winning tally by Bouchard. #4 fought off two Monarchs to keep the puck in and get it to Bourque. #17 then fed it to Perreault near the point in the middle of the ice and his blast could not be handled by Bernier. Bouchard then skated in off of the right post and banged it home to bring on the familiar call from the great John Walton (Hershey’s play by play voice): “Good morning, good afternoon, and good night Manchester!”
I have a feeling Walton will be saying that again on Saturday night and that would put the Bears in their second consecutive Calder Cup Finals. Stay tuned.