Patrick Williams, Features Writer

The Hershey Bears wore a target all season.

They felt it both mentally and physically. Not only were they the defending Calder Cup champion, they also proceeded to assemble one of the finest seasons in AHL history, finishing with the second-best regular-season record ever and winning 53 wins, the most by an AHL team in a 72-game season.

The Bears took care of Lehigh Valley and Hartford and raced out to a 3-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference Finals before the pressure intensified dramatically. As the calendar turned to June, it looked like Hershey might have finally met their end. The Cleveland Monsters gave them everything that they could handle, winning three straight games and pushing the Bears to overtime of Game 7.

They survived thanks to Garrett Roe’s OT winner, earning a trip back to the Calder Cup Finals, but a relentless Monsters had put the Bears through seven punishing games.

Then the Coachella Valley Firebirds got their crack at redemption, the type of opportunity that does not always come. Hershey had won last season’s Calder Cup by finishing off the Firebirds in overtime of Game 7 of the Calder Cup Finals. All year long the Firebirds worked toward reaching that point once again.

Entering the series with only one day of rest and missing three top defensemen due to injury, the Bears lost the opener to the Firebirds, were blown out in Game 3, and faced a very real possibility of seeing their new cross-country rival grab that Calder Cup that had just barely eluded them a year earlier.

But Hershey once again rallied, scratching out a 3-2 win in Game 4 and getting a late goal from Jimmy Huntington to grab another 3-2 victory in Game 5. The Firebirds were on the brink of elimination for the first time this postseason, and the Bears were returning home one win away from a repeat title.

“We’ve got a lot of depth,” said Roe, “and we’re proud to use that. We’re proud to be able to put four lines out there and feel comfortable against other teams.”

Back at Giant Center, a standing-room-only crowd of 11,013 fans witnessed a tense, back-and-forth Game 6. Pierrick Dubé notched a hat trick and Hershey carried a 4-3 lead late into regulation, but another tying goal late in regulation sent the contest to overtime.

Matt Strome, a forward who was a healthy scratch for the first nine games of the regular season, found himself nearly alone with a loose puck that had come out of a scramble of players. He stepped into a shot and ripped it past Chris Driedger’s left glove hand 1:06 into OT.

The Bears had survived again, and they had their 13th Calder Cup.

“It’s the best feeling in the world,” said forward Hendrix Lapierre, whose 22 points (seven goals, 15 assists) in 20 games earned him the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the most valuable player of the Calder Cup Playoffs.

It was also the fifth title for the Bears since beginning their affiliation with the Washington Capitals in 2005. Head coach Todd Nelson had his fifth Calder Cup, and his third as a head coach. Bears vice president of hockey operations Bryan Helmer, who helped to build this roster, matched Nelson with his fifth championship, including two as captain of the Bears when they went back-to-back in 2009 and 2010.

“This year we had a target on our back,” Nelson said following Game 6. “There was a lot more pressure this year to finish it off and win a Cup. We were expected to win, and it would be a crying shame if we didn’t finish off the right way.”

Mike Vecchione, who had the Game 7 Cup-winning overtime goal last year, knew they were getting the best from their opponents every night this season, and that helped bring the Bears locker room closer together.

“Everybody’s so close,” he said. “We’re really a band of brothers, and that starts with [Nelson] at the top. You really care for the guy sitting next to you, and that’s why we played so well the entire year.”

And it came down to Strome, who skated on what was a fourth line in name only. In reality Nelson relied on them to shut down opposing top lines, win key draws and snatch momentum from opponents time after time. With shutdown center Riley Sutter and rookie Bogdan Trineyev, the trio frustrated opponents right until the final second of the season. This time it was Strome who got his moment to be the hero.

There really could have been no more fitting way for the Bears to end this season.

“Matt Strome has the clutch gene for life now,” Vecchione said. “I’m so happy for him. He really deserved this spot. He’s just the best. I’m so proud of those guys.”


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