He had a week worthy of Rookie of the Week honors, and that just might come, but he could be back with the Washington Capitals by the time it gets announced.
Zach Sanford is this week’s prospect, but many Caps fans already know him from the 19 games he played so far this year in Washington. But what many people might not know about the quiet and unassuming 22-year-old is that he takes hockey very seriously and is happy to be playing, whether with the Bears in Hershey or the Caps in Washington. And he’s learning and improving, which should pay huge dividends down the road.
Hershey head coach Troy Mann seems to think that Sanford enjoys three-in-threes. “He seems to like the three-in-three,” said Mann. “I was talking with him this morning and he actually said he liked them. Obviously it’s paying off because I thought he was excellent last Sunday against Syracuse and then four points tonight.”
That’s a statement that Sanford wasn’t really willing to get behind. He said, “I don’t know if I remember saying that, but I think last night there wasn’t anyone on our team who really played the way they wanted to and to have another game to really prove yourself and come out of the weekend on a high note is a positive of three-in-threes.”
But if you look at his stats over the course of the six games he played in Hershey, the kid just keeps upping his game. While Mann called Sanford’s first game for the Bears “okay” he noticed an improvement to game three, where he said, “We talked about it last week; he just got better and better every game. For him to come down and get six games and feel good about himself, when they make the decision to take him back, I’m sure he’ll feel confident getting on the ice that first time.”
Fast forward to this weekend. Friday night against Hershey’s in-state rival and current Atlantic Division leader, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, Sanford scored the goal that would be the game winner midway through the second period.
While the Bears struggled Saturday, Sanford was lights-out Sunday with two goals and two assists, finishing the week +2.
Both of Sunday’s goals were special teams scores. The first came early in the second period when the Bears were on the penalty kill. Sanford raced after a loose puck in the neutral zone and notched the short-handed goal to tie the game.
The second goal, which also would become the game winner, came nearly eight minutes later when Hershey was on the power play. Christian Djoos passed the puck to Chris Bourque, who then found Sanford for the score.
Sanford also had assists on later power play goals from Djoos and Christian Thomas.
Since arriving in Hershey, Sanford’s 1.17 PPG puts him ahead of all other Bears and has him in 15th in the AHL.
“I think I’ve been trying to work as hard as I can, get some chemistry with the guys on the team here. I think me Walks and Bugsy (Brad Malone) have been playing really well together and we kind of got some chemistry right off the bat,” Sanford said. “Walks is one of the hardest working guys I’ve played with and Bugsy is one of the smartest guys I’ve played with and having me there with a little size and skill completes the trio.”
While in Hershey, Sanford notched his first professional goal December 4 at Giant Center against the Syracuse Crunch.
“Like I said Walks gets in hard on the forecheck and steals the puck and sends it out to me and I was just waiting there for the goal,” reflected Sanford.
Then came this weekend’s three goals, including back-to-back goals Sunday night, which served as a huge confidence booster for Sanford.
“Definitely first goal was a broken stick for them and I end up with a break-away,” he said when asked if his time in Hershey has helped. “Then the second one I was actually trying to tip in and I kind of missed it, but it ended up back on my stick. When you’re getting those bounces it’s definitely a lot more fun to play. To come out here tonight and work hard you get those bounces.”
But, that’s not to say he isn’t proud of his first NHL point, but he is waiting to replace that memory with a better one once he returns to Washington.
“Nobody really cares about that first assist – they care about that first goal,” laughed Sanford. “When I get that first goal, I’ll forget about that first assist and just remember that.”
In reflection, Sanford noted the adjustment he has made in just one short year and understands that in order to appear in the NHL full-time, he will need to continue to adapt.
“It was crazy going from college to the NHL. I thought that there were a lot of differences there. The pros have so much more details there. Even off the ice they take care of their bodies so well. Just the lifestyle, not going to classes, trying to find stuff to do with your free time it was a little different. Hockey-wise it was a huge step up.”
He even admits to being in awe of the other guys on the ice when he first arrived in DC. “I was a little (star-struck) in training camp, and then it kind of wore off after a week or two.”
And those first games in DC? Well, the butterflies wore off a little as the games went on too. “It definitely got easier. I think the first game I had I was okay,” he said. “I made some decent plays, but I was getting beat a lot in battles and getting caught out of position. Not to say I wasn’t perfect the rest of the way, but I think by the 19th game I was just getting better at those little things and all of the wall plays, getting a stick on the puck and finishing checks and stuff like that.”
But if his time in Hershey is up, he’s happy to have had the opportunity to be here.
“Definitely,” said Sanford when asked if he enjoyed the experience and added ice and practice time in Hershey. “I think my average was maybe 9 or 10 minutes (in DC). Here I’ve been getting like 15, which getting those extra touches or those extra reps every game or getting your legs under you more really helps a lot.”
Just the Facts
Drafted: 2013 Round 2 (#61) by the Washington Capitals
DOB: November 9, 1994
First AHL Goal: December 4, 2016 for Hershey against Syracuse
First AHL Point: December 4, 2016 for Hershey against Syracuse
First NHL Point: October 30, 2016 for Washington at Calgary
He Said It
After Sunday’s game, I asked Zach to finish a few sentences that I started.
Teammate I’d never want to fight – Tuna aka Liam O’Brien – I don’t think I’d ever fight anyone.
I try to model my game after – I would say James Van Riemsdyk
My favorite sport other than hockey is – I played baseball growing up, but then I played volleyball a year in high school, and that was pretty fun.
If I wasn’t playing hockey I would – still be in school (laughs)
Have you heard any stories of the two Czech players – “Just a couple of little funny ones. They’re good kids and they’re goofy too. They kind of mess up their English a little bit.”
By Julie Beidler