Opportunity lost: Hershey drops Game 4 to Lehigh Valley at home, now in a winner-take-all road game Sunday
Whatever control the Hershey Bears had over the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in this Atlantic Division semifinals series is gone.
Long gone after Lehigh Valley handled Hershey 4-1 Saturday night in Game 4 before a crowd of 8,133 at Giant Center.
Hershey’s heavy lifting in the first two games — road games — of this best-of-five series produced a 2-0 lead.
The Phantoms’ response was to hold Hershey to two total goals in a pair of road wins, a 2-1 overtime triumph Wednesday night and the Saturday effort that saw Lehigh Valley’s Scott Laughton score a pair of third-period goals to end the Game 4 suspense.
So what’s changed?
Well, Hershey’s talented forward Jakub Vrana has disappeared. After scoring no points in the first three games of the series, Bears coach Troy Mann benched him Saturday.
And the play of Lehigh Valley goalie Martin Ouellette has been a revelation. Filling in for the injured Alex Lyon, Ouellette stoned the Bears in a must-win Game 3 and followed up that performance with a 27-save effort Saturday.
The two rivals are all-square, 2-2, with Game 5 set for late Sunday afternoon at Allentown’s PPL Center. Opening face-off is 5:05 p.m.
The good news? The Bears have won three consecutive road games against Lehigh Valley. The problem has been at home. Hershey is 2-6 vs. the Phantoms at Giant Center this season.
Hershey forward Chandler Stephenson, who returned to the lineup Saturday after spending a couple of weeks with Washington, had the Bears’ lone goal late in the second period, cutting the hosts’ deficit to 2-1.
He was asked what the team needs to change for Sunday’s winner-take-all game.
“I wouldn’t really say too much,” said Stephenson, who skated with Riley Barber and Nathan Walker.
“Maybe (take) some more shots, test their goalie a little bit more.”
“We’re trying to stay ‘up’ as much as we can,” Stephenson added.
“I know we’ve got a lot of veteran guys in there that know what to do.”
“We’ve faced adversity plenty of times this year,” Hershey coach Troy Mann said.
“We need to go win a hockey game.”
With Vrana and defenseman Madison Bowey out, Hershey turned to forward Christian Thomas, but the Bears managed just three first-period shots.
Lehigh Valley dictated play and scored the only goal of the opening 20 minutes on forward Danick Martel’s backhand shot from in-close over the glove of Hershey netminder Pheonix Copley with 3:09 left.
The Phantoms made it 2-0 early in the second when forward Mark Zengerle beat Copley through a screen at 4:25. It didn’t help Hershey’s cause that Ouellette stopped Bears forward Stanislav Galiev on a breakaway in the opening minute of the period.
“I thought they were the better team tonight,” Mann said.
So the Game 5 question is this: Will Mann go back to Vrana with the Bears’ season on the line? Vrana scored 36 points (19 goals) in 49 regular-season games.
Mann said he spoke with Vrana before Saturday’s game about picking up his play on the defensive end and working to win more one-on-one battles.
“(Vrana) needs to be a difference-maker, he needs to impact the game,” Mann said.