The parallels are eerily similar; the Capitals finish the regular season with the best record in the league, only to be eliminated from the playoffs earlier than expected. In 2010, it was at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens, who rallied behind a herculean performance in goal from Jaroslav Halak to overcome a 3-1 series deficit and win it in seven games.In 2016, the Capitals dominated the regular season, clinched another president’s trophy, and made everyone in DC believe that this was the year. Unfortunately, even this team was unable to escape playoff heartbreak, and bowed out to hated rival Pittsburgh in 6 games. A common thread, and perhaps a silver lining, between these two seasons? The success of the farm team, the Hershey Bears.
In 2009, and then again in 2010 the Bears, the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate, won the Calder Cup, the AHL’s championship trophy. These Bears teams included some of the household names that Caps fans are used to seeing rocking the red night in and night out. Players such as John Carlson, who not only led team USA to World Junior glory, but would score the eventual game-winning powerplay goal in game 6 of the 2010 Calder Cup Final against the Texas Stars.
Karl Alzner, the Capitals’ “Iron Man,” registered 21 points in the Bears’ 09-10 championship season. In that same season, Jay Beagle registered 35 points in the regular season, and another 9 in the postseason while the “Holtbeast” registered a 24-8-2 record while posting a .917 save percentage and a 2.32 goals against average. The pipeline that has been established between the Bears and the Capitals has helped to turn this franchise from a perennial laughingstock into a team that can legitimately contend for the Stanley Cup year after year. While this season marks yet another season of disappointment for the Capitals, Hershey will be looking for its AHL-leading 12th Calder Cup overall, and a fourth in the past ten years.
The Bears road to the Calder Cup finals began against the Portland Pirates, where they rallied from a 2-1 deficit and the brink of elimination (the first round of the AHL playoffs are a best-of-five) to win the series three games to two. Up next would be Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate. Affectionately known as the “Baby Pens,” there was nothing “baby” about a big, physical, bruising Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguin team. The two teams split the first four games, with each team winning one game at home and one game on the road. Game five was going to be crucial on both sides, but the Bears came out flying, taking game five by the score of 5-3. With all the momentum in the world, Hershey laid an egg in game six, losing 6-2. That brings us to game seven, two words that make any Capitals fan cringe, given the team’s historical lack of success in game sevens. After an evenly matched 60 minutes, the series would have to be decided in overtime (cue further cringing). As a Capitals fan, you are brought up to expect the absolute worst. With the Capitals already having been eliminated by the Penguins at the NHL level, the Bears were determined not to let them have a clean sweep. Travis Boyd scored a little over seven minutes into the extra frame, and the Bears eliminated the baby Pens in seven games. The Bears would play the regular-season champion Toronto Marlies in the Eastern Conference Final.
The Toronto Maple Leafs were not a very good hockey team this season, finishing dead last in standings, and winning the draft lottery for the right to select first overall in this year’s NHL Entry Draft. However, their AHL affiliate the Toronto Marlies had an unbelievable season. Loaded with both elite prospects and cagey veterans, the Marlies were steamrolling anything and everything in their path en route to racking up the most points in the AHL’s regular season. Shattering any kind of expectations, the Bears won three out of the first four games in the series, including an 8-2 thrashing in game three, which happened to be the first game in Toronto. After a 5-0 victory in game four (which included a hat trick from top Toronto prospect William Nylander), the Bears jumped out to a three goal lead in game five, including two goals in a 1:12 span in the second period that made it 3-0. Despite their most valiant comeback efforts, the Marlies only managed to get two past veteran netminder Justin Peters, and the Bears eliminated the Marlies in five games. The Bears will begin the Calder Cup Finals with home ice advantage, taking on the Lake Erie Monsters (the AHL affiliate of the Columbus Blue Jackets). Led by top prospects such as Sonny Milano, Kerby Rychel, and Zach Werenski, the Monsters should not, and will not, be taken lightly, especially after a series with the Toronto Marlies. Game one is Wednesday Night June 1st, with opening puck drop scheduled for 7PM.
The 2009 and 2010 Bears championship teams were built around future Capitals, and this year’s team is no different. Jakub Vrana, the 13th overall pick in the 2014 NHL entry draft, broke his wrist early in the season, but has played a pivotal role in this playoff run, scoring 13 points in 17 games. Many see Vrana as the top prospect in the Capitals’ organization, and they are not wrong. Vrana’s hands, speed, and shot are what make him such a special player, and I fully expect him to transition to the NHL, maybe as soon as next year. The other crown jewel in the Capitals’ prospect pool is defenseman Madison Bowey, a second round pick in 2013, who helped lead Canada to World Junior Gold in 2015. Bowey has all the tools of an elite NHL defenseman; size, puck skills, and hockey IQ. Additionally, being a right-handed shot makes Bowey that much more valuable not only to the Bears this season, but to the Capitals in the future. Besides these two, this year’s bears include Justin Peters, who spent last season as Braden Holtby’s backup in Washington; Australian-born forward Nathan Walker, who’s incredible speed may make him an asset to the Capitals as soon as next season; Chris Bourque, the AHL’s MVP this past season, may not have a future with the Capitals, but has certainly contributed to the Bears in both the regular season and postseason; Riley Barber, a member of the 2013 USA World Junior team that won gold; and finally, the team’s captain, Garrett Mitchell, who held the team together when things looked bleak against Portland and during overtime against the Baby Pens in game seven. The Bears are coached by Troy Mann, who after four years as an assistant coach with Hershey, was named head coach last year.
While the Capitals have broken many hearts with early playoff exits during the “Ovechkin era,” and many fans are pessimistic about the future of the team, as Hershey continues to routinely develop NHL players, the future of this team is bright. The next generation of Capitals are looking to win a championship at the AHL level, and down the road, I believe they can contribute to winning a championship at the NHL level.
By Matthew Jacobson