November 21, 2017

Three Hershey Bears prep for AHL All-Star Game

When the AHL All-Star Game roster was first announced January 6, it looked as though only one player would be representing the Hershey Bears. However, other players’ call-ups have summoned two more Bears to the All-Star festivities in Utica, NY. Goaltender Philipp Grubauer was named to the roster on Friday, joining Tim Kennedy and defenseman Connor Carrick for Monday’s game. Grubauer was a last-minute addition when goaltender Anton Forsberg (Springfield Falcons) pulled out of the game due to a recent injury to Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Carrick replaces Nikita Nesterov (Syracuse Crunch), who is currently on a call-up with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The three Bears players are well-deserving of the appointments. Kennedy, the only one to be named to the initial roster, has been named to three AHL All-Star Games, though this is the first one he will actually play, as injuries prevented him from attending the first two. Kennedy leads the Hershey Bears in scoring with 33 points (4 goals, 29 assists) in 40 games, and ranks second in the AHL in assists. Bears head coach Troy Mann told Tim Leone, “After a little bit of a slow start, I think he certainly came into his own and has been arguably our best forward, for the most part, all year.”

Defenseman Connor Carrick joined the All-Star roster on January 21, less than a week before the game itself. Carrick is in his second season with the Hershey Bears after starting the 2013-14 season with the Washington Capitals. The Illinois native is third on the Bears in points with 27 (6 goals, 21 assists) and leads all Hershey defensemen in that category. Carrick went on a tear in December, recording 9 points in 12 games that month. In the last game before the All-Star break on January 24, Carrick scored the overtime winner against Binghamton. Carrick took to Twitter after the All-Star selection announcement, saying, “Such an honor, lotta great players on that roster.”

Philipp Grubauer could perhaps have been a bit of a snub being left off the initial roster. However, once Bobrovsky went down in Columbus and All-Star starter Anton Forsberg was called up, Grubauer got the call to join the All-Star Game. Grubauer has been consistently excellent in his three seasons with the Hershey Bears. Currently the starter for the Bears, he is 14-9-4 with three shutouts, and has a 2.15 GAA and a .920 save percentage. While that doesn’t rank very highly in AHL rankings (he’s 10th in GAA, 19th in save percentage, 8th in wins), those are very respectable numbers for the 23-year-old goaltender. Though Grubauer was recently injured (knee), he recovered in enough time to be an All-Star.

The AHL All-Star Skills competition was Sunday in Utica. Kennedy participated in the puck control relay and breakaway relay. Carrick faced the speed gun in the hardest shot competition (clocking 98.0 mph) as well as the breakaway relay. Grubauer’s talents in net were on display in the Rapid Fire and pass and score. Grubauer won the award for Top Goaltender in the skills competition, stopping 16 of 19 shots in goaltending events.

The AHL All-Star Game takes place Monday, January 26 at 7:00pm ET.

Winter Classic: The fan experience

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The Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks line up for introductions before the Winter Classic, Jan. 1, 2015. (photo courtesy Erika Schnure)

I moved back to Sweet Home Chicago from Washington, DC in 2011, but that hasn’t stopped me from keeping up with the Washington Capitals. I’m that weird person who shows up to Chicago Blackhawks viewing parties in a John Carlson t-shirt and drives a car with a custom Capitals-dedicated Illinois license plate. Thankfully, all my Blackhawks fan friends understand, and I’ve even convinced some of them to change any negative opinions of the Capitals and their players. They, however, have been unsuccessful in convincing me to like the song “Chelsea Dagger.”

Even when it was only a rumor that Washington, DC would be hosting the 2015 Winter Classic, I knew I had to go. When that rumor was confirmed by Capitals owner Ted Leonsis during the 2013 Capitals Convention, I made a mental note to save up for the trip.

On New Year’s Day, my boyfriend (a Blackhawks fan) and I ascended the escalator out of the Navy Yard Metro station and encountered a huge mass of people. Initially, we were hoping to get into the “fan experience” area in the Bullpen, but the line to get in stretched around the block, and security was being stingy with allowing people to enter. Instead, we met up with some friends at a local bar, and around 11:30am, we headed toward the entrance of Nationals Park.

The line to get into the park was long, but moved surprisingly quickly. After a quick bag check and wanding, we were in the ballpark gates in around 10 minutes. Despite the crush of people outside, the park was very maneuverable and never once felt claustrophobic. When we dropped by a concession stand to get some lunch, we were shocked by the incredibly short lines.

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A display outside section 102 of Nationals Park during the 2015 Winter Classic between the Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks. (photo courtesy Erika Schnure)

In Section 102, we found our seats and discovered we were seated next to two Blackhawks fans who had traveled from the Quad Cities in Illinois to be there. Everyone in the section was incredibly friendly and just happy to be attending such an event. My section was not the only one without conflict: Capitals fan Abram Fox, sitting in Section 133, “found the entire atmosphere to be positive.”

The execution of the event was nearly flawless. I never stood in line for concessions or a beer vendor, and amazingly, I never encountered a line at the restroom. Even when I stopped at the merchandise store during the second intermission (mostly to avoid hearing Lee Greenwood), the store was crowded but orderly, and cashier lines were swift and efficient.

The only snag I ran into had to do with the ushers. As I was returning to my seat after grabbing a beer, I was about to head down the aisle, as there was a stoppage in play, when the usher stopped me and said I had to wait for the whistle. As I mentioned, play was already stopped. I looked at the usher, a little confused, and said, “But they’re not playing right now.” He was insistent, and so was I. Finally, he caved and let me go before the next faceoff. Others reported similar experiences with ushers. I don’t really blame the ushers — they’d probably never ushered a hockey game before in their lives.

Despite the usher situation, the entire Winter Classic experience was incredible. Nationals Park looked beautiful, everyone was in very high spirits, and thankfully, we were treated to a very exciting game. My Blackhawks fan companion wasn’t happy with the score, but it didn’t put a damper on the day for him. He called it an “unforgettable” day.

Capitals celebrate the 4-3 win

The Washington Capitals celebrate a 3-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks in the Winter Classic on Jan. 1, 2015 (photo courtesy Erika Schnure)

Holtby and Orlov Ready to Leave Hershey Behind

The NHL is back and many of the league’s superstars are scrambling back to their home clubs from Europe, while those who opted not to play across the ocean are nervously hitting the ice and the gym in preparation for an extremely brief training camp.

However, there is a somewhat forgotten group of NHL players who have been playing in North America all along — in the American Hockey League.

In September, NHL teams anticipating the impending lockout assigned many of their AHL-eligible players to their farm teams so they could play there during the stoppage. Players on two-way contracts, as well as players still on their entry-level contracts were among those able to play in the AHL during the lockout.

Because of this assignment policy, the AHL was stacked with talent this season. Much of the media attention has focused on the 2011-2012 Edmonton Oilers’ “Kid Line” of Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Taylor Hall teaming up to make the Oklahoma City Barons one of the most formidable teams in the AHL. Others, like the Capitals’ Braden Holtby and Dmitry Orlov, have been quietly grinding it out with their farm teams while they waited for the end of the lockout.

Both humbly took on the challenge of returning to the AHL, despite the disappointment of starting in Hershey instead of Washington.

That’s not to say that Holtby and Orlov have been taking it easy in the minor leagues — last week, Holtby was named AHL Goaltender of the Month for December, and he is currently the fifth-ranked goaltender in the league with an impressive 2.14 GAA and .932 save percentage over 25 games. Orlov, though injured since early December, has nine points and is a plus-1 in 18 games this season.

But both had been hoping to start their full-time NHL careers in earnest last October. Instead, they had to postpone their NHL plans and wait it out in Hershey.

“Everyone’s in the same situation and I’m lucky I get a place to play,” Holtby told CSN Washington in September, before the AHL season began. “It’s an unfortunate situation with the NHL right now, but hopefully they get it solved and get it done right.

“Obviously, it would be nice to see what I can do over a complete season in Washington, but that’s not my mindset,” Holtby continued. “I want to keep getting better and use some of the things I learned in the [NHL] playoffs and get even better.”

Judging by his performance in Hershey this season, he has gotten better. However, NHL skill is a different animal, and the grind of the season is going to be even more intense with a shortened schedule. Holtby will benefit from his preparation, because beginning next week he’ll be competing for a job.

Holtby’s incredible performance in last season’s playoffs threw Washington’s starting goaltender role into uncertainty, and with fellow Capitals goaltender Michal Neuvirth making his return to Washington this week, Holtby will quickly go from certain AHL starter to fighting for an NHL starting job.

When it comes to that battle, Hershey coach Mark French is likely in Holtby’s corner. Speaking to the Washington Post in October, French indicated how impressed he’s been with Holtby’s attitude and maturity toward the Bears’ season in the face of the lockout. “There’s no arrogance or ego to it at all,” French said. “He’s got a great attitude coming into this. He feels he can get better every day and he approaches each day with that goal.”

Orlov is also eager to get started on the season. He was benched for the majority of last season’s NHL playoffs, but now that offensive defenseman Dennis Wideman has departed Washington to sign with Calgary as a free agent before the lockout began, Orlov seems to be a lock to make the Capitals roster full-time.

French feels confident that Orlov’s time with Hershey over the past few seasons has put him in good position for that roster spot. “(Orlov’s) individual skills are excellent, but he needs to find his game within the confines of our team game and the Washington team game and he’s been able to do that in Hershey,” French told CSN Washington in December.

However, Orlov’s 2013 NHL debut will have to wait a little longer. Capitals general manager George McPhee told reporters Tuesday that Orlov is not likely to be ready to start the NHL season due to his upper-body injury, which has kept him out of all action since December 6. However, McPhee reported that Orlov is in Washington and has begun working out again. Hopes are that Orlov will be prepared to join Washington’s practices in a few weeks.

Holtby, healthy and having had the majority of Hershey’s starts in goal this season, thinks that his latest stint in the AHL could be an advantage over the typical NHLer returning to the ice. “The main thing [playing in Hershey], though, is just being able to stay in shape, playing games,” Holtby told the Washington Times in December. “Keeping my mind sharp and when it gets going it’ll be an advantage.

Finally — thankfully — it’s about to get going.

Washington Capitals add blue line prospects in later rounds of NHL Draft

Connor Carrick

Selected by the Washington Capitals in the fifth round (137th overall), Connor Carrick is the second Chicagoan to be added to the Caps organization in the 2012 draft. He also became the third US National Development Team player to head to Washington. In fact, he shared a billet family home with Austin Wuthrich during their time as teammates. [Read more…]

Washington Capitals go for grit in rounds 3 and 4 of NHL Draft

Chandler Stephenson

After trading their second round pick to the Dallas Stars as part of the Mike Ribeiro trade Friday, the Washington Capitals’ first draft pick Saturday was in the third round at No. 77. With it, the Capitals selected Chandler Stephenson, a forward from the Regina Pats. A former teammate of now-Hershey Bear Garrett Mitchell, who captained the WHL team in 2010-2011, Stephenson is the Capitals’ second consecutive 2012 pick who lists Boston Bruins bruiser Milan Lucic as his favorite player. [Read more…]

Capitals select Thomas Wilson at No. 16

At No. 16, the Washington Capitals went for a bit of surprise pick, selecting tough guy forward Thomas (Tom) Wilson from the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League. Most recently, Wilson is best known for fighting Dalton Thrower during the CHL/NHL Top Prospects game (an exhibition game) last February.

Wilson, who said after his selection that he had an Alex Ovechkin jersey as a child, actually has some things in common with the big Russian Capital. At 6’4″ and 203 lbs, he’s huge, he’s physical, and he has a mean streak that could rival any NHL tough guy. But he’s not “just” an enforcer.

Though he’s not quite there skill-wise, Wilson’s playing style has been compared to that of Boston Bruins forward Milan Lucic. He loves the physical aspect of the game, but can also help out a good deal offensively. Last season with Plymouth, he had 27 points (9g, 18a) in 49 games (Wilson missed a month after fracturing his knuckle on Thrower’s head during the aforementioned prospects game).

Scouts have projected that his statistics will only climb higher next season. In Midget, he averaged well over a point per game, and heading into his second full year in juniors, those numbers and that offensive talent is expected to show through.

He won’t ever be lauded for slick Datsyuk-like goals, but this NHL power forward in the making is the type of player that could be a major X-factor for any team.

Erika Schnure is a Contributor to District Sports Page, specializing in Washington Capitals prospects. She has been a hockey writer since 2010.

Capitals select Filip Forsberg with No. 11 draft pick

As team after team used their picks on defensemen in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, the Washington Capitals finally came up to the podium with Filip Forsberg, Mikhail Grigorenko, Radek Faksa, and Olli Maata still available for the taking. Prior to the draft, it seemed impossible that such highly-rated players would still be up for grabs at the No. 11 spot, but it left the Capitals with a wealth of very talented options.

With the No. 11 pick (from Colorado in the Semyon Varlamov trade), the Capitals decided to go Swedish. Forward Filip Forsberg — originally ranked as the No. 1 European skater by the CSS, No. 4 by the ISS, No. 2 by The Hockey News and No. 3 by TSN — greeted Capitals general manager George McPhee on stage, where he was handed a red jersey.

Forsberg (as Joe Beninati would say, no relation to legend Peter) is an absolute steal at No. 11, after the previous seven teams in the draft order opted for defensemen and forwards saw their stock start to fall. Forsberg is an incredibly versatile forward with the ability to play both wings as well as center. He’s a two-way forward who could stand to put on some weight, but he has the frame (6’2″) to potentially become a large defensive forward.

Forsberg arguably plays his strongest game in the defensive zone, but his numbers on offense weren’t very impressive in the past year in Sweden’s Tier II professional league. However, he made a splash with scouts at last summer’s Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament (U-17), scoring four goals in five games. Some scouts say his past season’s statistics should not be indicative of his talent — he has a very strong, accurate shot, is a very good skater, and possesses great hockey sense.

Erika Schnure is a Contributor to District Sports Page, specializing in Washington Capitals prospects. She has been a hockey writer since 2010.

Grubauer named ECHL Rookie of the Month for January

Philipp Grubauer continues to build on his impressive rookie year, as this week the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) named him the Reebok Hockey Rookie of the Month for January. Grubauer played in nine of the South Carolina Stingray’s 13 games in January, going 7-1-0 with one shutout, a 1.66 Goals Against Average, and a .935 Save Percentage during that span. The Stingrays went 11-2-0 in January.

Philipp Grubauer at Capitals Training Camp (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

Earlier this season, Grubauer was named Reebok Hockey ECHL Goaltender of the Week (Oct. 31-Nov. 6), and was the ECHL’s Goaltender of the Month for November.

Grubauer should expect another heavy workload in February — goaltending partner Daren Machesney sustained a groin injury during a game on Sunday, and will be out for an “extended period of time,” according to Stingrays trainer D.J. Church. Coach Spencer Carbery later confirmed that Machesney is expected to miss six to eight weeks.

While Machesney is on the mend, the Stingrays dealt for goaltender Billy Sauer from the Florida Everblades Wednesday in exchange for future considerations. The Stingrays opted for a trade instead of signing an emergency back-up goaltender due to the length of time Machesney is expected to be out.

“The injury was such that we couldn’t rely on an emergency back-up for a long period of time,” Carbery told the Charleston Post & Courier. “We’ve seen Billy play and he’s someone that we’re confident can get the job done when he’s called upon.”

Grubauer is expected to get most of the starts while Machesney heals, but luckily for the Stingrays, Grubauer relishes pressure situations. “I prepare to play every game like I’m the starter,” Grubauer said this week.

Bears’ Kane Perfect Choice for All-Star Captain

When the American Hockey League’s All-Star roster was announced, the Hershey Bears were well-represented, and for good reason. Keith Aucoin and Chris Bourque had been all but locked in for the game as the first and second leading scorers in the league, respectively.

But in December, there was one unexpected player named to the roster that brought the Bears’ All-Star representation to three players: captain Boyd Kane. Not only is he participating in the event for the first time, Kane was also extended the extra honor of being named captain of the Eastern Conference team for the All-Star Classic on January 29-30 in Atlantic City.

[Read more…]

Grubauer earning attention in South Carolina

Philipp Grubauer has been terrific in his first professional hockey season with the South Carolina Stingrays, and he’s already stacking up the accolades. Grubauer was named ECHL Goalie of the Week  for the week of October 31 – November 6, a week in which he went 3-0-0 with one shutout and a .960 save percentage.

Philipp Grubauer at Caps Training Camp (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

Last week, Grubauer added another award to his still-early professional career, being named ECHL Goalie of the Month for November. Grubauer went 6-1-1 in November with one shutout, a 1.73 goals against average, and .935 save percentage.

Backstopped by Grubauer, the Stingrays are second in their division and tied for second in the strong Eastern Conference.

Grubauer, a fourth-round pick of the Capitals in 2010, earned the starting spot in South Carolina for the season after the off-season signing of Tomas Vokoun in Washington confirmed that Braden Holtby and Dany Sabourin would be the goaltenders in Hershey.

Capitals associate goaltending coach Olie Kolzig says Grubauer is better served playing the big minutes he does in South Carolina. “Once [the Caps] signed Tomas Vokoun, it was pretty obvious South Carolina would be the best place for Philipp to start and get consistent playing time,” Kolzig said.

So far with that playing time, Grubauer has made being his rookie professional season look easy, sitting near the top of the league leader board in several categories, including wins (third with 9), goals against average (second with 1.82), and save percentage (second with .935).

“It’s actually pretty hard, my first year pro,” Grubauer said during a recent Stingrays radio show. But luckily for the young goalie, he started in the right place to ease him into North American professional hockey – the Ontario Hockey League.

“I got used to playing in Canada, it helped me really a lot playing over in Canada. I got used to the system and the North American style,” Grubauer said.

But when Grubauer is asked what has made him so successful this season, he sticks to his guns. “I just try to play my game and keep it simple. That’s pretty much it,” Grubauer said. “Just try to be confident every night I walk out there, and leave my best out there.”

As the Stingrays continue to stack up the wins this season (they have a 12-8-0-1 record), Grubauer is reminded of the Windsor Spitfires team that he led to a Memorial Cup win in 2010. “Hopefully I can win another championship here in South Carolina,” Grubauer said.

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