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On verge of Calder Cup Final, Hershey prospects catching Caps' eye

On verge of Calder Cup Final, Hershey prospects catching Caps' eye

Back in 2010, when the Hershey Bears last won the Calder Cup, defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner, center Jay Beagle and goaltender Michal Neuvirth used the experience to springboard themselves into the NHL and never looked back.

It took them another season or three, but 2010 Bears alumni Cody Eakin, Mathieu Perreault and Braden Holtby did the same.

Following their 8-2 rout of the Toronto Marlies Wednesday night, the Bears find themselves one win away from a series sweep and a return to the Calder Cup Final.

“Quite a few of our guys have gone through Hershey and won championships in Hershey,” MacLellan told NHL Radio Network. “It’s like the NHL. It’s a high level of play at the end of the season and all of our guys are getting better. Chandler Stephenson is getting better, (Riley) Barber is getting better. (Jakub) Vrana, (Nathan) Walker. We’ve got a bunch of young guys going through a tremendous learning opportunity here. It’s just a great opportunity for them to play at a high level.”

Through 15 games, Vrana, 20, is tied for the AHL lead with seven playoff goals and ranks fourth in the league with 12 points. Stephenson, 22, has one goal and four assists in 11 games; Barber, 22, has one goal and one assist in 12 games, and Walker, 22, has one goal and three assists in 14 games.

On the back end, the Bears are receiving significant contributions from three AHL rookies: Bowey (6 assists in 15 games), Tyler Lewington (3 goals, 1 assist in 15 games) and Christian Djoos (1 goal, 5 assists in 15 games).

All three defensemen are 21 years old and have gotten strong direction from Bears assistant coach Bryan Helmer, who was also a member of that 2010 Calder Cup team.

“Madison has come a long way just like every one of our rookies,” Bears coach Troy Mann said after Wednesday night’s big win in Toronto, where the Bears can close out the series on Friday night. “Our goal as a coaching staff is to try to get them to improve on a month-to-month basis and that’s what we’ve done.

“To be able to be at this point in the playoffs with three rookie defensemen, hats off to the organization and the individual kids themselves for listening to the coaching staff, being very coachable and improving on a game-to-game basis. Even though Madison is kind of the higher profile of the three, I think Lewington and Djoos deserve just as much credit as Madison.”

Whether or not the playoff performances of Vrana and Bowey will vault them into full-time jobs with the Capitals next season remains to be seen. Vrana missed  three months of the Bears’ regular season with a broken wrist but managed 16 goals and 18 assists in 36 games.  Bowey had four goals and 25 assists in his first 70 AHL games. MacLellan said he believes both players will see their first NHL action next season.

“I don’t anticipate them playing a full season, but I think in a call-up role next season they should get 10 to 20 games, I would think,” MacLellan said. “And then the following year I think I’d be looking for them to crack the NHL lineup.”

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Caps make second blue line addition, acquire Jakub Jerabek from Montreal

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Caps make second blue line addition, acquire Jakub Jerabek from Montreal

The Capitals continued to retool their scuffling blue line on Wednesday, acquiring 26-year-old defenseman Jakub Jerabek from Montreal in exchange for a fifth-round pick in 2019.

The move comes a couple of days after GM Brian MacLellan dealt a conditional third-round selection to Chicago for swift skating Michal Kempny.

Both Jerabek and Kempny are left shot, puck-moving defensemen who move well and make crisp outlet passes. Both also hail from the Czech Republic.

RELATED: BRADEN HOLTBY BLAMES HIMSELF FOR TAMPA LOSS

The team sees Jerabek as a No. 5 or 6, I’m told.

On Wednesday, the Caps also officially said goodbye to Taylor Chorney, who was claimed off waivers by Columbus. Chorney will report to the Blue Jackets.

The Caps were off on Wednesday as they made their way Florida for Thursday night’s meeting with the Panthers, so it’s unclear how Coach Barry Trotz intends to deploy his new defensemen.

But it’s probably safe to assume that Kempny will move into a spot within the top four with John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen.

MORE CAPITALS: GET TO KNOW MICHAL KEMPNY

That figures to leave Brooks Orpik and Jerabek on the third pair, while rookies Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey jockey for position as the next man up.

Kempny is expected to make his Caps’ debut on Thursday night.

Is the Caps’ D corps better? Well, that remains to be seen. But it had become clear to MacLellan and Co. in recent weeks that the status quo was not going to cut it. This month, in fact, the team has allowed 39 goals in 10 games. Only the Rangers (40) have allowed more in the same span.

With the trade deadline looming next Monday, the Caps now have roughly $617,000 in cap space, according to www.capfriendly.com, and are at the roster maximum of 23 players. So they would need to make a move in order to add another body.

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Braden Holtby puts loss to Tampa solely on his own shoulders

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Braden Holtby puts loss to Tampa solely on his own shoulders

The mood in the Capitals locker room following a 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday was one of frustration. Forty minutes of strong play from Washington amounted to nothing because of a disastrous opening first period in which the Lightning jumped out to a 3-0 lead.

No one in the locker room was more frustrated than Braden Holtby.

"Obviously you don't want to go down three," he told reporters after the game. "That's on no one else but me. The third goal, especially the third, fourth goal, that's the difference in the game. I thought we played a really strong game against a really good team. We should have got a better result and that's on me why we didn't."

Tampa scored three goals in the first off of only eight shots. For the game, the Lightning managed to pierce Holtby four times off of only 19 shots.

RELATED: WHY THE CAPS LOST TO THE LIGHTNING

Frustration seemed to boil over on the fourth goal when a normally stoic Holtby was visibly upset after allowing Nikita Kucherov to beat him on a breakaway in a play similar to what we saw in the All-Star Game.

See for yourself:

"The key to getting better is learning from your mistakes and obviously I didn't do that," Holtby said. "I was just trying to play it patient. I wasn't trying to cheat towards that move and he came at it a different way. That's on me for not recognizing it. That's not a goal I can give up in that situation after our team battled the way they did, especially in the third."

The frustration Holtby feels likely is not the result of one goal, but the culmination of a recent slump that continues to plague the Vezina winner.

Holtby has lost four straight starts and has given up at least four goals in each of those games.

While Holtby was quick to take the blame for Tuesday's loss, head coach Barry Trotz was quick to defend his netminder.

"No one takes the loss," he said. "We all take a loss. I take a loss, the group takes a loss and Braden's part of the group. ... He's had a little tough stretch. It's no different than, we've got guys that haven't scored in 15, 20 games. It's no different than a player."

The challenge now is overcoming that slump.

For a slumping skater, Trotz could try different line combinations or play someone in different situations over the course of the game. Getting a starting goalie out of a slump, however, is more difficult. Most of the work has to be done in practice with the hope that it will carry over into the next game.

"You analyze how the goals are going in, what you're doing differently," Holtby said. "There's always some stuff that you can't control and stuff that you can and it's focusing on those contrallables that you can make a difference at. Like the first goal in Chicago, the last two goals here, those are goals that I could and should stop. You get to practice the next day and you focus on that and work hard until you figure it out so you don't do it again."

MORE CAPITALS: CHECK OUT THE 3 STARS OF THE GAME FROM CAPS-LIGHTNING

Part of the problem in Washington is that team defense is the Caps' biggest weakness. For most of the season, and even in years past, Holtby has made up for much of the team's mistakes on the backend. Now that he is slumping those mistakes become much more glaring and costly.

"The goaltenders in this league are erasers," Trotz said.

Lately, Holtby has not been able to erase those mistakes.

But the team has already moved to address the defense. Brian MacLellan added a puck-moving defenseman in Michal Kempny to help the team get the puck out of the defensive zone more quickly. Waiving Taylor Chorney could also signify another move may be coming before Monday's trade deadline.

As for Trotz, even during the slump, he made clear his confidence in Holtby has not wavered.

"He has been a rock since the day I've been here the last four years and he's been an elite goaltender and I look at him that way."