This just in – Caps fans, get excited because the crop of rookies in Hershey have put the Bears in first place in the Atlantic Division with huge wins at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Tuesday, at Toronto Friday, and at home against Utica Sunday.
Over the course of the three games which saw victories over two division leaders, the Bears outscored their opponents 14-4, with five goals coming from rookies and Dan Elllis coming up with 95 saves on 99 shots and three victories for the Bears.
Oh yes, the future is bright, but as of Sunday night/Monday morning, it will look slightly different as the Bears learned that Chris Brown and Connor Carrick played their last games in Hershey uniforms Friday and Sunday respectively. Add to that, Scott Gomez’s PTO will end on or around March 20, and the Capitals organization has made it clear they will not be offering the veteran a contract.
Brown was scheduled to play Sunday, but was a late scratch, leading many to wonder if he would be part of a package deal with Brooks Laich. Instead, Brown was dealt to the Rangers organization for Ryan Bourque, and Carrick was surprisingly dealt to Toronto.
Carrick, the team’s +/- leader and an All-Star this season will be sorely missed by the Hershey faithful; he was the epitome of professional, volunteering his time often for community nights, never hesitating to stop and talk to fans, especially kids, and always optimistic.
Both players spent a stint in Washington this season, but Brown’s trade seemed to have been some time in coming, as he spent most of the recent games scratched. The move reunites the Bourque brothers who both played together last season in Hartford.
Carrick’s departure could mean a recall of another rookie, defenseman Joey Leach, from South Carolina. With the way the rookies have been flourishing under Troy Mann this season, it is entirely possible that Leach could return and contribute yet again, which is just what the current crop of five has done over the past week.
Jakub Vrana “Player of the Week” ceremony
Tuesday night in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Nathan Walker, Travis Boyd, and Riley Barber got the Bears out to a 3-0 lead and Liam O’Brien added a tally late in the second to secure a 4-1 victory for the Bears over their division rivals.
Walker scored his 12th goal of the season just 4:50 into the game after taking a pass from Scott Gomez. The Bears took a 1-0 lead into the intermission, along with the knowledge that they would be on the Power Play when the second period resumed after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Wilkes-Barre as time expired.
The Bears wasted little time making the Penguins pay, as the rookie connection of Jakub Vrana and Riley Barber teamed up for assists on Travis Boyd’s Power Play goal just 36 seconds into the period.
Shortly after, Barber was hauled down and awarded a penalty shot, and he made good on the opportunity for this 18th of the season.
Wilkes-Barre would manage to get one of their 27 shots past Dan Ellis near the midway point of the period, but Liam O’Brien added an insurance goal for Hershey at 16:32 with assists going to Garrett Mitchell and Zach Sill. Ellis stopped all 9 shots that came his way in the 3rd to preserve the win.
The team then traveled to Toronto on Friday where they had to come from behind for their second-consecutive victory over a division leader.
Chris Bourque put the Bears on the board first 2:09 into the game with assists going to rookies Vrana and Madison Bowey, but Toronto tallied two goals within 70 seconds, including a shorthanded goal for a 2-1 lead in the second before Hershey took over.
First came Vrana’s equalizer off an assist from Bourque. Then Dustin Gazley added an unassisted goal for a 3-2 lead after two period.
In the final frame, Sean Collins netted a Power Play goal with assists to Brown and Carrick, and Gazley added a shorthanded, empty-net goal before time expired. The assist on that goal went to Mike Moore.
So after two huge road wins, the Bears returned to the Den to take on 3rd place Utica.
The Bears were buzzing early and often in the first, with Moore missing on two opportunities before Walker got on the board with 68 seconds remaining in the first period.
In the second, Boyd once again scored less than a minute after the faceoff to give the Bears a 2-0 lead.
Utica was able to score on the Power Play, but Barber scored 51 seconds later, effectively killing any momentum the Comets created off their Power Play goal.
Bourque tallied his team-leading 24th goal of the season 21 seconds before the second period expired and Zach Sill added a shorthanded goal midway through the third for the 5-1 victory.
With Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s loss earlier Sunday, the Bears were already assured of the division lead, but the victory over Utica made it even sweeter.
In his postgame press conference after the game, Mann assessed this week’s success. “I was very happy with the three wins,” he said. This one tonight puts us in first place with 19 games to go. So we are put ourselves in positions to win a division title.”
Not only did the Bears find themselves atop the divisional standings for the first time this season, it was also the first time that Mann did not rotate goalies, allowing Ellis to start all three games, but fans should not read too much into that. Mann explained his thought process saying, “If Ellis won on Tuesday, great, I would start him Friday. He played well again Friday so I decided to stick with the hot hand; this doesn’t mean Peters is out of the mix.
With Vitek Vanecek going 11-7-3-1 in 23 games and a save percentage of .910, Peters may not be in the mix much longer than the remainder of this season as he is an unrestricted free agent for 2016-2017 and Vanecek is under contract through 2017-2018.
The schedule doesn’t get any easier for Hershey as they travel to Binghamton Friday, host Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Saturday, and travel to Wilkes-Barre Sunday.
Weekly Prospect and Two-Way Contract Players Report
* Herbert (Feb. 11) and Leach (Feb. 9) were returned on loan to South Carolina. Brown was traded to the New York Rangers for Ryan Bourque. Carrick was sent to Toronto in a deal with Brooks Laich
Dan Ellis – 3-0 – 95 saves on 99 shots
Justin Peters – 0-0 – 0 saves on 0 shots
Paul Carey – had season-ending shoulder surgery
Chandler Stephenson – upper body injury (Feb. 21)
Weekly Stars Report (opponent)
1. Barber (WBS), Ellis (Tor.), Ellis (Utica)
2. Ellis (WBS), Vrana (Tor.), Bourque (Utica)
3. Bourque (Tor.), Walker (Utica)
Bears in the Top 20
Bourque – 1st in points (61), T-3rd in goals (24),
2nd in assists (37), T-5th in PP Assists (16), T-13th PP Goals (8), T-2nd Insurance Goals (5), T-9th in OT goals (2), T-6th in shots (149), T-4th First Goals (5)
Bowey – T-14 in +/- (+18)
Boyd – 6th in Rookie scoring (41 points)
Barber – 16th in points (43), T-15th in goals (19),
T-4th Insurance Goals (4), 3rd in Rookie scoring (43 points)
Djoos – T-11th Shootout % (.667)
Ellis – 11th GAA (2.41), T-7th in wins (20), T-7th
in shutouts (3), 13th in minutes (1815), 20th in saves (730)
Peters – 16th in Shootout % (.471)
Both Burgdoerfer and Gazley are AHL-only contract players.
Scott Gomez was signed to a PTO on January 15 – March 20 will be Gomez’s 25th game.
By Julie Beidler