WINNIPEG – Rookie Hershey Bears goalie Michal Neuvirth kept looking down in disbelief at the trophy in his hand.
He and his Hershey Bears had just won the American Hockey League Calder Cup championship Friday night with a 4-1 Game 6 victory over the Manitoba Moose and Neuvirth was holding his playoff MVP trophy.
“It’s so amazing. I can’t believe what’s happening right now,” said Neuvirth, 21.
“My teammates, they played the whole season long great and we’re the best team in the AHL right now.”
Neurvirth, the Washington Capitals’ second-round pick in 2006, turned away 29 shots and finished the playoffs with a 16-6 record.
He spent time this season in the East Coast Hockey League with South Carolina and played five games with the Capitals. Last season, he played with three Ontario Hockey League teams (Plymouth, Windsor and Oshawa).
Hershey scored three goals on its first nine shots in front of a sold-out crowd of 15,003 at the MTS Centre.
Andrew Gordon notched the first goal at 3:56 and Chris Bourque – son of NHL Hall of Fame defenceman Ray Bourque – scored the second one at 6:10 on a long blast that went by screened Moose goalie Cory Schneider.
Winger Alexandre Giroux, the AHL regular-season scoring leader and MVP, made it 3-0 at 11:16 when he went in alone, deked and put the puck around the stretched-out leg of Schneider.
It was Giroux’s playoff-leading 15th goal and 28th point.
Moose forward Mario Bliznak flipped in a close wrist shot at 11:03 of the second period to make it 3-1 and Bears centre Keith Aucoin scored an empty-netter with 20 seconds left in the game.
Fans gave the Moose a standing ovation at the end of the game, chanting, “Go Moose Go.”
The win gave Hershey its 10th league championship and second since 2006. The Pennsylvania team is the oldest franchise in the league, having joined in 1938.
Manitoba was seeking the first championship in its 13-year history. It joined the AHL in 2001 after five seasons in the former International Hockey League.
Schneider was this season’s AHL goalie of the year, but there was little doubt he’d trade that honour to be in Neuvirth’s skates.
“It’s just a pretty empty feeling right now,” Schneider said. “We felt we had the team to get it done.”
“You don’t get too many chances like this in your career to win a championship, but you’ve got to give Hershey credit. Over the course of six games, they were the better team and they did deserve to win.”
The Western Conference-champion Moose won the regular-season title with 107 points, one point ahead of the Eastern Conference-champion Bears.
Moose head coach Scott Arniel said his players were tense and nervous at the start of the game, which was uncharacteristic for them.
He estimated they turned the puck over 15 or 16 times in the opening frame.
“We sort of self-inflicted a lot of pain on ourselves,” said Arniel, who’s in his third year as bench boss.
“We looked very nervous. (Hershey) pounced on every opportunity . . . We finally got going in that second (period), but obviously being down three was a big hill to climb.”
He told his players how proud he was of what they accomplished in their 102-game season and to remember the experience so they won’t want that same losing feeling again.
“We lost to a real good hockey team,” Arniel said. “There wasn’t much separation between us, but in the end they were the better team.”
Hershey coach Bob Woods said it was a great, close series.
“I don’t think anybody could ask for more than what they got to witness here,” said Woods, whose team was making its third appearance in the Calder Cup final in the past four years.
“We’re just happy we’re the last one standing at the end.”
Manitoba had trailed 3-1 in the series and was fighting history to claim the Cup. Only three teams have won the Calder Cup after being down 3-1 in the finals, the last time happening 60 years ago when the Providence Reds rallied to beat Hershey.