Hershey played the part of the defending Calder Cup champions, with the visitors outshooting the home squad Firebirds, 11 to 4, in the first 20 minutes and took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission. It’s the third of four Cup final games in which Hershey has scored the first goal. The early goal proved a pace-setter in a 3-2 road win for Hershey in the 2024 Cup Final that is now effectively down to a best-of-three series with one more contest in the Southern California desert before Game 6 and potentially Game 7 are played across the country in central Pennsylvania.

Coachella Valley found some ballast in the second period, closing the shots on goal gap in the middle period with both teams recording nine SOG. The Western Conference champs tied matters on another highlight-reel goal from Kraken prospect and 2022 first-round draft choice Shane Wright. During a 4-on-4 sequence with matching minor penalties, veteran D-man Cale Fleury made an eye-popping sprawling interception of a Hershey transition pass in the neutral zone.

Then Fleury found a way to blade the puck to Marian Studenic, who quick-passed to Wright, who again took the scoring play to another level. Skating cross-ice, Wright deked Hershey goaltender Hunter Shepard for a tying goal. Wright now has two goals and three assists in his last three games of this Cup Final.

Late second period, Hershey regained the lead when a missed defensive-zone assignment left the wrong Bear forward, Hendrix Lapierre, alone net-front to make it 2-1 visitors with two minutes left in the frame. Lapierre earned two assists on the night and leads the AHL in postseason scoring with 20 points. Fellow Hershey goal scorers Thursday Ethen Frank (first goal and hit a post on a second-period power play) and Joe Snively (winning goal) are tied for second in Calder Cup Playoffs scoring with 17 points each.

Kraken 2021 second-round draft choice Ryker Evans scored his fourth goal of the postseason and the second prospect highlight-reel goal of the night to get the score back to even just 32 seconds into the final period. Evans, slicing through the high slot, was felled to his knees by a Hershey defender, but the NHL-tested 22-year-old defenseman kept his composure and the puck. He calmly and quickly wristed a shot that caught Hershey’s Shepard sliding the opposite way.

Firebirds fans were rocking sold-out Acrisure Arena, but four minutes later, Hershey quieted the crowd with a deadly third goal during a 4-on-3 man-advantage situation. Firebirds penalty killers had snuffed the first five penalties called on teammates before that score.

“They’re a championship team, and they played very well tonight,” said Firebirds head coach Dan Bylsma post-game. “I think that was their best game of the series so far. They were down 2-1; it was a desperate time for them, and they brought it.”

Both goaltenders were solid, with Coachella Valley’s Chris Driedger making huge saves during the aforementioned penalty kills and, again, the third period to the game within one-goal reach. Hershey’s Hunter Shepard, yanked after surrendering five goals in a Game 3 loss, bounced back with a couple of handfuls for Grade-A saves. The former Minnesota-Duluth goalie, who has backstopped title runs in 2017 (NCAA) and 2023 (AHL), doesn’t always look fluid, but his acrobatics and battle-level thwarted the Firebirds – along with some solid work by Hershey skaters in bottling up the neutral zone.

“Just not as clean puck execution from us,” Bylsma said. “Not as great with the puck and it led to their playing well. We expected it. We got it.”

Coachella Valley threatened late game, but Shepard continued his scrappy play while a couple of CVF attempts just couldn’t find a few more inches past the goal line. After a timeout called by CVF coach Dan Bylsma, the Firebirds had three faceoffs in the Hershey zone during the final 90 seconds but couldn’t generate any sustained pressure.

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