Hershey Loses Game 1

(Hershey, May 16) — Call it, the Agony of Aucoin.

Game one of the American League’s Eastern conference finals Saturday night will be remembered for the play that wasn’t made, when in fact it should be remembered for the period that wasn’t played (the first, by the hosts).

It was 3-2 Providence with 30 seconds left Saturday night, Michal Neuvirth planted on Hershey’s bench for a sixth skater. Providence’s Tuukka Rask, the 2005 first-round pick of the Leafs, now Bruins’ property, had already made a handful of game-saving stops for the Junior Bs in the game’s final 5 minutes, as the Bears pressed for the equalizer. The stop he made on Bears’ center Keith Aucoin in the final minute would hurt the most.

As the game clock dwindled down, Alexandre Giroux directed an on-the-tape, cross-ice feed to an unguarded Aucoin at tap-in range of the right side of Rask’s cage. Rask was hard against his left goalpost. Aucoin found himself with so much net to shoot at, and so much time — no Bruin was anywhere to be found near him — that perhaps he was as startled as nearly 8,000 in Giant Center. He had time to settle the puck. He had time to pivot to a prime shooting position. He had time even to eat a Hershey’s chocolate bar and still score.

He had too much time, apparently, to score.

Aucoin2.jpgPerhaps it was a moment of such unimaginable prosperity that the reflexive offensive instincts of this AHL All Star, ones that allow him to work magic in the most meager of spaces and mere fractions of a single second, just didn’t quite know how to react in that eternity. Was he already imagining his hero’s embrace among his teammates? It would have been understandable.

We’ll never know. Aucoin’s eventual shot along the ice was gobbled up by Rask’s pads. An arena poised to erupt in jubilation-relief instead groaned. The game ended soon thereafter, a 3-2 triumph for the visitors.

Down in the Hershey locker room afterward, while his teammates discarded their gear and showered, Keith Aucoin sat fully in uniform, motionless and isolated, his head sunk in his gloved hands, inconsolable. Television and print media surrounded him for some while, moving to other player stalls and keeping an eye out for any signal from Aucoin that he’d share his explanation for what happened. He never did.    

Keith Aucoin likely will have a sleepless Saturday night replaying that doorstep opportunity, but in reality, Hershey lost this game with a flat first period — one that Bears’ officials from the head coach on down termed the worst they’d played this postseason. It was a trend seen all too often from the parent club this spring, and not one that ought to be filtered down from the parent club.

Bears’ head coach Bob Woods acknowledged that in the immediate aftermath of the second round series with Wilkes Barre-Scranton, his charges may not have brought the requisite intensity to the start of a new series.

“For whatever reason we came out flat. Sometimes when you come from a series like we did against an archrival and seven games, and now you’re playing a team that you don’t have a lot of history [with], sometimes . . . maybe you come out flat,” the coach noted.

Also lost in the drama of game one’s final-minute failure will be, to some extent, the two-goal performance of Oskar Osala. Osala, Mathieu Perreault and Jay Beagle formed Coach Bob Woods’ most effective line Saturday night. 

Michal Neuvirth, who hadn’t surrendered a goal since game five of the Wilkes Barre series, played well enough in net to earn a victory, but his teammates in front of him did not in the game’s opening 20 minutes. Providence converted two power play tallies in the opening frame, forcing the hosts to play catchup the rest of the night. They very nearly did.    

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