Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson, Travis Boyd, Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey, and Nathan Walker. Those names sound very familiar to any Washington Capitals fans who followed the team during the 2017-18 season, as they were all rookies who played on the team and all, except for Bowey, appeared in at least one playoff game during the Caps’ Stanley Cup run.
All those players have one other thing in common. They all played for the 2015-16 Hershey Bears team and most of them were rookies that year, too. In fact, they were all rookies, except for Nathan Walker and Chandler Stephenson, who were all playing in their second season for the Bears.
This article looks back at the Hershey Bears playoff run for the 2015-16 season, which has many similarities to the Caps’ Stanley Cup run of 2017-18, even though the Bears were not ultimately successful in winning the Calder Cup that season.
The Hershey Bears ended the regular season by winning the Atlantic Division. They had 43 wins, 21 regulation losses, 5 Overtime losses, and 7 shootout losses for a total of 97 points. They did not have the best record in their conference, as the Toronto Marlies, who had won the North Division, had 54 wins and an incredible total of 114 points.
Round 1 – Hershey Against Portland Pirates
The theme for Round 1 of the playoffs for both the 2017-18 Capitals and the 2015-16 Bears was a divisional (but not conference) top seed having trouble dispatching a fourth seed opponent. The 2017-18 Capitals met the Columbus Blue Jackets who had finished in fourth place in the Metropolitan Division in Round 1. The 2015-16 Bears met the Portland Pirates, who had finished in fourth place in the Atlantic Division.
The Caps started their series by dropping the first two games to Columbus at home, getting themselves in a 2-0 series deficit. They had gotten off to leads in both those games, were unable to hold the lead, and lost in Overtime both times. It looked mighty bleak for the Caps as they would need to win at least two games on the road. The Caps played Game 3 on the road and, once again, the game went to an Overtime period and then to another Overtime period. Another loss by the Caps and they would be down in the series 3-0 and needing to win all four of the remaining games in the series. But this time, the Caps won in double Overtime. They went on to win Game 4 and tie up the series at 2 games apiece. They returned home and, once more played an Overtime game, but this time they won. They returned to Columbus and finished off the Blue Jackets.
Meanwhile, the 2015-16 Bears split the first two games of their five-game series with Portland in Hershey, with Portland winning the first game and Hershey winning the second. But then the Bears traveled to Portland for Game 3 and lost to the Pirates in triple Overtime, and found themselves on the brink of elimination from the playoffs. They would have to win both remaining games to advance. Fortunately, the Bears were able to win Game 4 (in Portland) by a score of 2-0 and Game 5 (in Hershey) by a score of 2-1. For this playoff round, the following Bears who would later be part of the 2017-18 Capitals, had points: Jakub Vrana had 2 goals and 2 assists, Travis Boyd had a goal and 2 assists, Nate Walker had a goal, and both Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey had assists.
2017-18 Washington Caps Round 1 Results
2015-16 Hershey Bears Round 1 Results
Round 2 – Hershey Against Wilkes-Barre Penguins
The theme for Round 2 of the playoffs for both the 2017-18 Capitals and the 2015-16 Bears was playing a bitter, long time arch-rival and frequent playoff opponent. The 2017-18 Caps were playing the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had ousted them in Round 2 in both of the previous seasons, as well as in 2009. The 2015-16 Bears were playing the Wilkes-Barre Penguins who they had opposed in many previous playoff series. While the Bears have had better luck throughout their history of beating the Wilkes-Barre Penguins in the playoffs than the Caps have had beating the Pittsburgh Penguins, Wilkes-Barre was still a bitter arch-rival of the Bears.
The Caps dropped the first game of the series against Pittsburgh at home, despite getting off to an early lead. But came back and won the second game. They traveled to Pittsburgh for the next two games, winning Game 3 in the waning minutes of regulation but then dropped Game 4 so the series was tied at 2-2. They returned home to play Game 5 and won in a come from behind victory and were up 3-2 in the series. They played Game 6 in Pittsburgh, with the game going to Overtime. The Caps scored early in the Overtime period and advanced to Round 3, vanquishing a long-time nemesis in the process.
In 2015-16, the Bears met the Penguins in Round 2 who had just finished sweeping the Providence Bruins, winning all three games in Overtime, with the last being a win in double Overtime. So the Bears, who had gone to the brink in their opening series, were playing a much more rested Penguins team. Like the Caps two years later, the Bears dropped the first game at home to the Penguins but beat them in Game 2. Also like the Caps, they played Games 3 and 4 in Wilkes-Barre, with Bears winning Game 3 and the Penguins winning Game 4. Wilkes-Barre won Game 4 in Overtime. The teams returned to Hershey where the Bears won Game 5. The Penguins extended the series by winning Game 6 in Wilkes Barre. They played Game 7 in Hershey, with the Bears prevailing by winning in Overtime.
In both cases, the Caps of 2017-18 and the Bears of 2015-16 won their series by winning an Overtime game, even though the Caps were able to win in 6 games while the Bears needed the full 7 games. The first five games for both teams followed the same script as to which team won or lost. For this playoff round, the following Bears who would later be part of the 2017-18 Capitals, had points: Jakub Vrana had 2 goals and 2 assists; Madison Bowey had 3 assists; Chandler Stephenson had 3 assists, all in Game 2; Walker had 1 assist; and Travis Boyd had 1 goal and 2 assists. Boyd’s goal was the series clinching game winner.
2017-18 Washington Caps Round 2 Results
2015-16 Hershey Bears Round 2 Results
Round 3 – Hershey v.s. Toronto Marlies
The theme for Round 3 of the playoffs; i.e. the Eastern Conference Finals, for both the 2017-18 Capitals and the 2015-16 Bears was playing the top seed of the Conference. The 2015-16 Bears advanced to play the Toronto Marlies who had the best record in the AHL, with 54-16-5-1 record and 114 points. The 207-18 Caps advanced to play the Tampa Bay Lightning who had the best record in the Eastern Conference with 54-23-5 and 114. While the Lightning did not win the President’s Trophy, they trailed the President’s Trophy winning Nashville Predators by just 4 points.
Because of issues with arena availability at the times the playoffs needed to be played, this series would be played in a different format than normal. The Bears would play the first two at home. After that, the Marlies would play three at home, with the plan after that for the Bears to play at home in Game 6 and the Marlies to close out in Toronto.
The 2015-16 Bears seemed to be energized by starting the Eastern Conference Finals series at home, winning the first two games in Hershey by scores of 3-1 and then 3-2 in Overtime. They traveled to Toronto and won Game 3 with an 8-2 score. Toronto staved off elimination and won Game 4 by an 8-2 score. But Hershey finished off the Marlies in Game 5, also in Toronto, by edging them, and advanced to the Calder Cup Finals, beating a team who had been much better than them during the regular season.
The Caps schedule in 2017-18 for Round 3 was a more typical NHL schedule in the home field advantage department, with the first two games being played in Tampa Bay and the next two being played in Washington DC. The Caps started the series by winning the first two games in Tampa so there was reason to think they might do as well as the Hershey Bears did against Toronto. However, the Caps were unable to take a commanding lead in the series as Tampa Bay won both Games 3 and 4 in Washington. To compound the problem, the Caps dropped Game 5 and fell behind in the series. However, the Caps won Game 6 by a score of 3-0 at home and beat Tampa Bay in Game 7 on the road by another shutout score, this time by a 4-0 score. The Caps advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals by beating Tampa Bay although the road was rougher in Round 3 than it was for the 2015-16 Hershey Bears.
For this playoff round, the following Bears who would later be part of the 2017-18 Capitals, had points: Jakub Vrana had 3 goals and 1 assist, Chandler Stephenson had a goal and an assist, Christian Djoos had 2 goals and 1 assist, Madison Bowey had 2 assists, Nathan Walker had 1 goal and 1 assist, and Travis Boyd had 2 assists.
2017-18 Washington Caps Round 3 Results
2015-16 Hershey Bears Round 3 Results
Round 4 – Hershey v.s. Erie Monsters
The theme for Round 4 of the playoffs for both the 2017-18 Capitals and the 2015-16 Bears was playing a relative upstart team. The 2015-16 Bears played the Erie Monsters in the Calder Cup Finals, a team who had only made it to the playoffs once time in their team’s short history – during the 2010-11 season where they were eliminated in Round 1. The Monsters had only started playing in the AHL since 2007-08 and had only become the Columbus Blue Jackets’ affiliate starting with the 2015-16 season. The 2017-18 Caps would play the Las Vegas Golden Knights, a team that had only come into existence that season.
Hershey had won three Calder Cups between 2000 and 2010 (i.e. 2005-06, 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons), they had not made the finals since 2010. this was their first time to the Finals since 2009. The Caps, meanwhile, had never won the Stanley Cup and they had only made the Stanley Cup Finals once in their history, against the Detroit Red Wings in 1997-08, only to get swept in four straight games.
The 2015-16 Bears started off the series with two losses at home and were already down 2 games to none. They traveled to Cleveland and lost Games 3 and 4, both in Overtime. The series highlighted what might have been the outcome of Round 1, if the Caps had not won Game 3 in Overtime. The Erie Monsters were now the Calder Cup Champions.
Fortunately, the script worked out better for the 2017-18 Caps than it did for their affiliate two years earlier. The Caps dropped the first game in Vegas in a game where they had led at one point. But they won Game 2 in Vegas. After that, they went home to Washington for Games 3 and 4 and won them both. Finally, they went to Vegas for Game 5. While they had fallen behind at one point in the game, they tied up the game and won before regulation time had ended and won the Stanley Cup. For this playoff round, the following Bears who would later be part of the 2017-18 Capitals, had points: Jakub Vrana had 1 goal; Christian Djoos had 1 assist, and Travis Boyd had 1 assist.
2017-18 Washington Caps Round 4 Results
2015-16 Hershey Bears Round 4 Results
Conclusion: There were significant parallels between the 2015-16 Hershey Bears playoff run and the Washington Capitals 2017-18 playoff run, with contributions from several former Bears players from the former. Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson, Christian Djoos, and Travis Boyd, and Nathan Walker had all contributed. Madison Bowey was also on the roster but had not played.
By Diane Doyle