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Hunter Shepard gets opportunity to lead Hershey deep into Calder Cup Playoffs

Shepard gets opportunity to lead Hershey deep into playoffs originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

HERSHEY, Pa. — Hunter Shepard is getting his moment.

After bouncing back and forth between the AHL and ECHL each of the last two seasons, the 27-year-old stuck with the Hershey Bears this year. He saw a fairly even split in playing time with fellow netminder Zach Fucale all the way up to the regular season finale. So far in the Calder Cup Playoffs, however, the starting net has been all his.

Shepard went 3-1-0-0 with just seven goals allowed and 85 saves in the Bears’ second-round series win over the Charlotte Checkers. After competing with Fucale for playing time for most of the season, Shepard earned the confidence of the coaching staff to lead the Bears on a deep playoff run.

“Whoever it’s been this year, and at times he’s played a lot more and at times I have, it’s just been a good dynamic between us,” Shepard said following a practice in early May. “If it’s a good relationship it can be really good for the team or if it’s bad it can be really bad for the team. So, I think that has made it easier on us as well as everyone in the locker room, whatever way it’s going.”

Both Shepard and Fucale cleared 20 wins this season, becoming the first pair of Hershey goaltenders to do so in a single season since Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek each hit the mark in 2018-19. Shepard finished with one fewer than Fucale’s total of 21, though he would’ve had a chance to add more to that total had he not spent two weeks with the Capitals in December.

Shepard spent seven games backing up Charlie Lindgren in Washington while Darcy Kuemper worked his way back from a concussion. He never appeared in a game for the Capitals — he still has yet to make his NHL debut — but Shepard was with the team when Alex Ovechkin scored goal No. 800 with a hat trick against the Chicago Blackhawks.

“It was a little weird just because in Chicago they don’t have a spot for the goalie on the bench and I was actually sitting in the locker room,” Shepard said. “He scored and I was the last one to go out there, everyone was already down there. But it was still pretty cool. It’s something you can tell your grandkids someday that you were there when Ovechkin scored that goal. It was definitely pretty wild to be there for that.”

After returning to Hershey in late December, Shepard picked right up where he left off and finished the year as the Bears’ team leader in both GAA (2.18) and save percentage (.916). Fucale credited his teammate for his strong play and expressed how his mentality has changed now that he’s shifted into a back-up role.

“I think internal competition is always great,” Fucale said. “We have a great relationship so it’s fun to play and contribute. He’s contributed a lot. He had a fantastic season…he’s a big contributor to our club, Hunter is. For me, my job now is just to be ready. Whatever happens, I’m ready to go if they need me.”

The Bears continue their quest for the Calder Cup trophy Thursday when they host the Hartford Wolf Pack for Game 1 of the best-of-five Atlantic Division Finals. With Shepard between the pipes, they’re hoping Hartford is just another obstacle on their way to the Finals.