The fight for first place in the AHL’s Eastern Division is not likely to be decided until the last minute, and the battle between the Hershey Bears and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers on Friday night was evidence to that fact. The Sound Tigers emerged victorious in the seesaw battle at the Arena at Harbor Yard, prevailing 4-3 in overtime.
Jamie Fraser gave the Sound Tigers a 1-0 lead at 3:36 of the first period, corralling a long rebound from Hershey goaltender, Daren Machesney, and wristing the disc into the net from the top of the right faceoff circle.
Mitch Fritz, who did not play in the last matchup between the teams at Giant Center, was inserted into the lineup by Bridgeport coach, Jack Capuano, to add some toughness to their lineup. Just 2:14 after the first goal of the game, Fritz took on Hershey’s Grant McNeill in a fistic encounter. McNeill suffered no lasting damage from the fight, and offered his strategy on surviving against the 6’8” forward.
“You have to fight him smart. You’ve got to make him stretch as far as he can,” said McNeill, who dropped his gloves for the 20th time in 22 games. “He’s a big boy and tough, and he’s been around for a long time. It was a fun fight, and a good one. I was happy to get it done with and get the boys going.”
True to his word, McNeill “got the boys going”, not so much with his fight, but in goal-scoring fashion when he found the back of the net for the 3rd time this season.
Tyler Sloan started the play by making a crisp pass right on the tape of Andrew Joudrey at center ice. Joudrey proceeded to forward the puck to Kip Brennan, who had his backhand attempt from the doorstep denied by Bridgeport goaltender, Peter Mannino. When Mannino failed to control the rebound, McNeill was quick to pounce on it, and backhanded his own shot past Mannino.
“I saw Brennan driving, and Joudrey got it to him,” said McNeill. “We’re a pretty simple-minded line and we’re not going to score pretty goals, but we got one this time.”
The Bears, scoreless in ten opportunities in their last two outing without power play catalyst Mink in the lineup, finally broke the string when Matthieu Perreault cashed in at 18:23 to give the visitors a 2-1 lead to take into the first intermission.
As was the case in the first period, the Sound Tigers were again on the prowl early in the second period, and only a nifty save by Machesney on Tyler Haskins kept the home team from tying the contest.
“It was an opportunity for him to step up, and I thought he did a good job tonight,” said Hershey head coach, Bob Woods of Machesney. “He made some key saves, and gave us a chance to win.”
Haskins, after being denied in his bid, turned the puck over to Andrew Gordon in the Hershey defensive zone. Gordon, realizing that the Sound Tigers were a tired bunch, departed the zone with Darren Reid on a 2-on-1. Gordon saucered a pass to Reid, who fought off a Bridgeport defender and slid the puck under a sprawling Mannino, to give the Bears a 3-1 lead.
Jesse Joensuu, an offensive stalwart earlier in the season, but finding himself in a recent slump, clawed the Sound Tigers back into the game with a power play goal at 11:14 with Tyler Sloan in the penalty box, to cut the Hershey lead to 3-2.
Bridgeport’s Haskins finally found the way to solve the Machesney puzzle at 5:43 of the third period, after converting a Hershey turnover. Haskins’ goal was the only one of the third period, and sent the game into overtime.
It took only one shot for the Sound Tigers to steal the second point that was up for grabs when Sean Bentivoglio, who was in the penalty box for the Bears’ second goal, ended the contest 25 seconds into the overtime session.
Woods, while not satisfied with the outcome of the game, was satisfied with his team’s spirited effort.
“It was a great battle, and a good atmosphere. It was physical by both teams. We made a couple little mental mistakes, and it cost us a tight game. This time of year, you can’t make those.”
Alexandre Giroux picked up his 92nd point of the season, assisting on Perreault’s goal.
Hershey played without two of the AHL’s Top 20 scorers, Chris Bourque and Keith Aucoin.
Recent addition, Braden Holtby, dressed as Hershey’s back up goaltender.