By KEVIN OKLOBZIJA
Don’t poke the bear, they always say.
The Rochester Americans did some poking on Tuesday night by winning Game 1 of the Calder Cup Eastern Conference finals in rather embarrassing fashion. They chased starting goalie Hunter Shepard to the bench before the game was 27 minutes old and romped to a 5-1 victory.
But Shepard and the Bears responded big-time on Thursday night, stifling the potent Amerks attack and winning 2-0 at the Giant Center to even the best-of-seven American Hockey League playoff series.
After scoring 40 goals in stringing together seven consecutive victories, the Amerks were blanked for the second time in the postseason. They also lost 2-0 in Game 2 of the North Division semifinals against Syracuse. That’s also the last time they had lost before Thursday.
In coach Seth Appert’s mind, however, there’s no such thing as a playoff winning streak.
“I don’t think we won seven in a row, we won one game seven different times,” Appert said, “because at playoff time, it’s play a game, reset, learn a little bit, adjust a little bit, play another game.
“So we didn’t even look at it as a winning streak, we just looked at it as the next game.”
They say they’ll stick to that mantra on Saturday, when the series comes to downtown Rochester for Game 3 at the already sold-out Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial. A limited number of tickets remain for Game 4 at 6:05 p.m. Monday.
“They played a great game tonight so we’ll reset,” captain Michael Mersch said. “There’s a lot more hockey to be played.”
The Amerks again outshot the Bears, this time 24-21. They had a 23-22 shot advantage in Game 1.
“We probably had better scoring chances tonight, or at least as good of, but for whatever reason we didn’t execute them or he made some big saves,” Appert said.
Indeed, the Amerks had two great chances to score in the game’s first 5:30, but Shepard, who made few, if any, top-notch saves on Tuesday, denied both.
“As you would expect an excellent goaltender like he is to do after maybe an off outing,” Appert said.
Shepard gave Tyson Kozak nothing to shoot at just 62 seconds into the game when the Amerks rookie forward was alone in the right of the slot. Then at 5:29, he moved across his crease to stop Jiri Kulich’s one-timer off a two-on-one fastbreak pass from Lukas Rousek.
As the game wore on, the great chances began to diminish for the Amerks, however.
“They were really content making sure they were above us, trying to take away our speed, not give us line rushes,” Appert said. “I don’t think our D moved the puck fast enough tonight, and then they got back above and they were good in the neutral zone because of it.”
The game stayed scoreless – and fairly even – for the remainder of the period, and for the first 16 minutes of the second period.
But the Bears finally broke through when Borgstrom scored on a power play at 16:05. With Mason Morelli creating a screen at the right edge of the crease, Borgstrom fired a shot from the right circle that zipped in over the left shoulder of goalie Malcolm Subban.
“It was a really good hockey game and they found a way to get the first goal, and that dictated it a little bit,” Appert said.
The power play came with Jeremy Davies in the penalty box for tripping. But just 28 seconds before Davies was called for tripping, he was struck in the face by the high stick of Aliaksei Protas but referees Jordan Samuels-Thomas and Cody Beach chose to ignore it.
“There’s always calls (that aren’t made),” Appert said. “At the end of the day I think they’re two very good referees in our league and I thought they did a really good job.”
The Bears struck again when Malenstyn whipped a one-timer from the left circle past Subban at 19:29. Connor McMichael set him up, spinning away from Mason Jobst before finding Malenstyn alone in the circle.
Ahead 2-0, Hershey had no trouble protecting the lead in the third period.
Savoie makes debut
Newcomer Matt Savoie, the ninth overall pick by Buffalo in the 2022 NHL draft, made his pro debut and Appert said he liked what he saw from the 19-year-old forward.
He joined the Amerks over the weekend following the end of his season in the Western Hockey Leageu. Savoie replaced Filip Cederqvist in the lineup.
TV possible for Games 3 and 4
The Amerks and MSG are working on logistics and details in order to televise the weekend home games, but nothing has been finalized or confirmed. MSG picked up the Bears telecasts on Fox 43 of Games 1 and 2 from Hershey.