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Can Caps 'overbake' prospects in Hershey?

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Can Caps 'overbake' prospects in Hershey?

When Brian MacLellan was hired to replace George McPhee as the Capitals general manager last summer one of his many directives was to restore a strong working relationship with the AHL Hershey Bears.

With new head coaches in Washington (Barry Trotz) and Hershey (Troy Mann), MacLellan wanted the privately owned Bears to keep their autonomy while also aiding the development of the Capitals’ top prospects in a winning environment.

“There’s a synchronicity that goes on between both organizations on a personal level and on a team level,” MacLellan said, noting the growing relationship between Trotz and Mann.

Last season, the Bears and Capitals had strong regular seasons, returned to the playoffs and were knocked out of the post-season in the second round. This season, with the veteran departures of Tim Kennedy, Casey Wellman, Chris Conner and Steve Oleksy, the Bears could have as many as five AHL rookies in their lineup -- forwards Jakub Vrana and Riley Barber and defensemen Madison Bowey, Tyler Lewington and Christian Djoos -- and that will pose a challenge to Mann and his staff.

“It could be the youngest team since the affiliation (with the Capitals) began 10 years ago,” Mann said. “…There aren’t too many American League teams that make the playoffs with three rookie defensemen.”

Tucked in the picturesque setting of Chocolatetown, U.S.A., the Bears are one of the most successful minor-league hockey teams in the country, routinely selling out the 10,500-seat Giant Center. During their 10-year affiliation with the Caps, which was recently renewed for just one season, the Bears won the Calder Cup in 2006, 2009 and 2010, adding to the eight previous Calder Cups in their 76-year history.

“They’re the best fans in the AHL and they deserve a good product,” Mann said. “You get spoiled when you’ve won 11 Calder Cups.”

But, as Mann noted, it’s difficult to make the playoffs with a defense core that boasts just one player, 30-year-old Mike Moore, over 25.

“It’s going to be a little bit different and a lot of responsibility for the veteran guys,” Mann said. “It’s certainly going to be a learning curve and we’re anticipating that. With a couple veteran goalies in there (Justin Peters, 28, and Dan Ellis, 35) it’s going to be crucial for them to be on their ‘A’ game for us early because there’s going to be a lot of teaching of these young kids.”

Capitals assistant general manager Ross Mahoney likened the Hershey integration of Bowey, Lewington and Djoos to the ripening of John Carlson and Karl Alzner as a defense pairing in 2009-10, the last year the Bears won the Calder Cup. He said the Caps would prefer to "overbake" their prospects than to rush them into the NHL the way Connor Carrick and Alexander Urbom were in 2013-14.

Mann said he would like to surround his rookies with a few more AHL veterans to help steer the ship. MacLellan agreed.

“I think winning and developing, they both coincide,” MacLellan said. “You want your young guys in a positive, winning environment and we’ve had that with Hershey in the past. There’s always the balance between playing a veteran player and playing a developing player. Players learn to play from other players.

“You can’t throw a bunch of young guys into Hershey and say, ‘Go at it’ in the American League. The American League is a good league. You need guys that have been around and know the league and know how to win in that league and they need to complement your young guys. You need a good balance between the two and for the most part I think we’ve accomplished that over the years.”

Hershey pieces: Mann said he sees Carrick, 21, being first in line to be a Capitals’ call-up next season. Lewington, 20, a seventh-round pick of the Caps in 2013, sat out development camp with a shoulder injury but is expected to be cleared to participate in rookie training camp in early September. Mann said forward Miles Koules, who recorded 26 goals and 32 assists in 67 games for the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL, could be in line to sign his first pro contract with the Caps, saying he could begin his pro career in Hershey or South Carolina in the ECHL.   

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3 reasons the Caps beat the Sabres

3 reasons the Caps beat the Sabres

The Caps could not shake Buffalo for two periods, but a dominant finish on Saturday helped them pull away for a 5-1 win. Here's how they finally put away the Sabres.

A quick start

Strong starts go a long way towards helping a team in the middle of a slump. It's a confidence boost for a group in desperate need of one and the Caps got that boost on Saturday from Evgeny Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov used his wheels to zip in behind the defense and score just 50 seconds into the game. Washington led 1-0 at the end of the first, just the second time in 19 games they have held a lead after the opening 20 minutes.

RELATED: SEE THE 3 STARS FROM CAPS-SABRES HERE

Andre Burakovsky snapping a second period slump

It looked in the second period like the Caps were caught trying to protect the lead again, but Andre Burakovsky woke the team back up with his incredible highlight end-to-end goal. It really looked like Buffalo was going to tie the game at one, but instead, Burakovsky extended the lead to two. Going end to end the way he did shows a player who is starting to play with some confidence, something Burakovsky has lacked for much of the season.

Ovechkin's two-goal third period

Buffalo would not go away. Sam Reinhart got the Sabres on the board just 14 seconds into the third period and suddenly the Caps found themselves in a one-goal game again. But Ovechkin ended any hopes for the comeback as he struck in the top corner of the net on the power play from the office. He would later add a deflection goal to extend the lead to 5-1, giving a scuffling Washington team the dominant win they so sorely needed.

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3 stars of the game: Caps erupt in 3rd for dominant win over Sabres

3 stars of the game: Caps erupt in 3rd for dominant win over Sabres

The Capitals needed a win in the worst way and they got one, dispatching the Buffalo Sabres in dominating fashion with a 5-1 win.

Washington was locked in a tight game leading 2-0 heading into the third period when Sam Reinhart scored just 14 seconds into the period to pull Buffalo to within one. The Caps then slammed the door shut, scoring three unanswered goals to put away the Sabres.

Here are the three stars of the game.

1. Alex Ovechkin: This was career game No. 983 for Ovechkin, tying him for the franchise record for most games played with Calle Johansson. Ovechkin very fittingly celebrated the occasion with two goals. The first came on a power play goal from the office, but there was no need for a one-timer on this one. The Sabres gave him all the time he needed to aim up the shot and wrist it into the top corner.

He added a second goal late off a deflection from a John Carlson shot.

2. Evgeny Kuznetsov: To say the Caps have struggled at the start of games would be an understatement. In the last 18 games, Washington has held the lead after the first period only once. Kuznetsov made sure this game started off on the right foot as he scored just 50 seconds into the game. He turned on the jets in the neutral zone to turn the edge on Jason Pominville then easily skated around a weak, ill-advised challenge from Robin Lehner before flinging the puck into the yawning net.

It was the fastest goal to start a game by the Caps this season. It was just the start of what would be a four-point night for the Caps' center as he added three assists.

3. Andre Burakovsky: Burakovsky had the highlight of the game with his end-to-end goal in the second period to put Washington up 2-0. He looked like he was shot out of a cannon as he launched himself from the defensive zone, streaked down the center of the ice and in on net to slide the puck through the Lehner's five-hole.

Look how Burakovsky was able to slice through the Sabres' defense. Buffalo had him surrounded, but his speed caught the Sabres off-guard and they were not able to recover in time to actually slow him down.