The Hershey Bears were lucky that number 17, Chris Bourque, raced into the Wachovia Arena in Wilkes-Barre just 17 minutes before the opening faceoff, after arriving at Harrisburg International Airport earlier in the afternoon. Bourque was returning from services in Boston for his grandfather who passed away earlier in the week, and his return paid immediate dividends, as he assisted on both of Alexandre Giroux’s goals, and added a shootout goal to lead his team to a 3-2 shootout victory on Saturday night over division rivals, the Baby Pens.
“It was definitely a different experience that I haven’t been through these last few days,” said a somber Bourque. “It was definitely hard and took a toll on me more emotionally than anything, but hockey is what I do; it’s what I love to do, and it’s not too hard for me to get up for games. I wanted to play, and these are big points. You can’t really just go out and miss games. I’m happy I got here in time for the game.”
With assistance from Bourque and Mathieu Perreault, Alexandre Giroux gave the Bears a 1-0 lead at 1:25 with his 56th goal of the season, walking in from the left wing boards, and then brilliantly stickhandling the puck between Pens’ defenseman, Joey Mormina, and goaltender, John Curry, before sliding a backhander beneath the pads of Curry.
“I was trying to get on the far side where Bourque was calling for the pass,” Giroux said. “I saw the open space five-hole. I was surprised they gave me that much room, but it was a good start for our line.”
Bourque was at it again late in the period, intercepting a Penguins’ clearing attempt at the blueline and then finding Giroux all alone in the right faceoff circle. Giroux, with Curry already down in the butterfly position, roofed a wrist shot into the upper portion of the net at 16:00, giving the Bears a 2-0 lead to take into the first intermission.
“Bourque did all the work: a nice pass, nice blocking,” said Giroux, who, with this point, tied his teammate, Keith Aucoin, for the AHL point scoring lead. “I just had to use a little patience to get it up over the goalie.”
Bears goaltender, Michal Neuvirth was outstanding in the first period, stopping all 12 WBS shots, and just as importantly, not allowing any tasty rebounds for the home team to feast on.
“We needed an effort like that,” said Hershey head coach, Bob Woods. “We’ve had pretty tough travel this week. They were sitting at home resting last night, so we knew they were going to come at us hard. We needed somebody back there to weather the storm and I thought he was awesome.”
The second period featured no goals, and few scoring chances for either club, although Janne Pesonen’s backhander at 8:08, seconds after the Penguins had successfully killed of a bench minor penalty for having too many men on the ice, rang off the post.
Oskar Osala, the Bears talented rookie forward, who entered the game with 40 penalty minutes and no fighting majors, duked it out with former Bear, Deryk Engelland, at center ice. Osala, although unable to land any solid punches on the tough-as-nails Engelland, survived the battle virtually unscathed, despite having his jersey over his head for the majority of the bout.
After his return to the Bears’ bench, Woods counseled Osala on the timing of the tilt.
“When you have a 2-0 lead in the other team’s building, it’s probably not a good time to fight,” said Woods. “Nothing against Oskar, but he’s a pretty tough kid, so I’m not seeing much positive come out of that situation other than firing up their crowd.”
The Penguins waddled back into the game in the third period when Paul Bissonnette scored his 7th goal of the season, cutting the Bears’ lead in half at 14:21.
The Pens persisted after Bissonnette’s goal, eventually netting the dramatic game-tying goal with just 3.2 seconds left on the clock. The goal was scored by Mark Letestu, after the Pens’ centerman out dueled the Bears’ Andrew Joudrey on the faceoff draw.
After a scoreless overtime period that featured only two shots on goal between the two teams, setting the stage for the shootout sideshow.
Darren Reid, a surprising selection, shot first for the Bears, and beat Curry with a nifty backhand maneuver.
“He’s pretty talented,” said Woods of his selection. “If he was in the lineup more often, you’d probably see him more often (in shootouts). He’s a pretty gifted player. I know his stats don’t show that, but even tonight, he could have had a couple of goals in regulation.
Bourque scored the shootout game winner, propelling a shot past his former college teammate, Curry.
“I think it might have hit both of his pads, but it had enough steam to just get over the line,” said Bourque. “I thought I made a pretty good shot, and I was happy it got through.”
Neuvirth, after allowing goals in the second and third rounds, finished strong, stopping the last two contestants.
Hershey scratched Patrick McNeill, Francois Bouchard, Sean Collins, Greg Amadio and goaltender, Braden Holtby (all healthy), Keith Aucoin (recall) and Graham Mink (injured).
Giroux’s two goals in the first period marked his 10th multi-goal game of the year, and 7th multi-goal period.
Giroux, the only Hershey shooter that failed to beat Curry in the shootout, is 2-for-12 on the season in that category, including being snuffed out on his last 10 attempts.
Hershey now has 104 points with three games to be played, while WBS has 99 points with four games ahead.