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5 Hershey players who stood out against Charlotte

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5 Hershey players who stood out against Charlotte

HERSHEY, Pa. – With the Capitals season ending in the first round of the playoffs, that gave me a chance to head to Hershey to catch a couple Bears games and watch several of the team’s top prospects.

Washington will be dealing with some salary cap constraints in the offseason, meaning there may be a few spots open on the roster next season for some of the prospects to step into. I saw Caps goalie coach Scott Murray at Game 3 on Tuesday and Todd Reirden at Wednesday’s morning skate, so clearly Washington is paying close attention to the prospects in Hershey and how they perform in the playoffs.

With that in mind, here are the players who stood out the most in Games 3 and 4 when I was in attendance:

Nathan Walker, F

Walker was easily the most noticeable player on the ice for the Bears in both Games 3 and 4. He relentlessly battles for the puck, was very good on the penalty kill and is someone an opposing player would hate to have to play against. His tenacity was rewarded in Game 3 as he scored Hershey’s lone goal of the game as he battled for position in front of the net and got his stick down for the redirect.

You can see how this can get him into trouble at times, though. He would rather take a penalty than lose that puck battle, and he also fights for the puck so much, he can be prone to chasing and getting out of position as a result. Still, he appears to be someone who has learned everything he can at the AHL level. If he can be coached into staying in position and not puck chasing, he could be a good fourth-line player at the NHL level.

If the Caps want him, however, they will need to re-sign him, as Walker is an unrestricted free agent.

Garrett Pilon, F

The offensive instincts are all there, it is just a matter of growing into the type of player he looks like he can be. There were a lot of situations in which you could see the play Pilon was going for, but he just could not finish, whether it was getting a cross-ice pass over to a wide-open teammate after drawing the defense to himself, or getting enough power behind his shot. In Game 4, Pilon had a chance to score on a power play as a shot deflected off the boards and back out to him. Charlotte’s goalie was not set against the post and Pilon fired the puck, but did not have enough power behind the shot to beat the goalie.

Pilon needs to gain some power and learn how to finish plays, but the offensive potential is there to eventually develop into an NHL forward.

Vitek Vanecek, G

While all eyes have been on Ilya Samsonov this season, Vanecek has actually been the better goalie.

I have seen Vanecek in training camp a few years and at development camp, and at no time did I think I was watching an NHL goalie. Vanecek, however, is a much better game player than practice player because he was very good in his start in Game 3.

Vanecek is a much more developed goalie, which makes him look much smoother and controlled when he plays than Samsonov by comparison. His ceiling appears to be higher than initially thought, but he is also probably closer to that ceiling than the undeveloped Samsonov.

Vanecek made a jaw-dropping save in Game 3 to deny Dan Renouf on what looked like a sure goal. Vanecek slid to his right, extending the pad to defend the net, but the puck was sent back in the other direction to a wide-open Renouf. Vanecek somehow managed to change the direction of his momentum almost mid-slide to extend the pad and the glove left. He got a glove on the puck for the incredible finish.

Head coach Spencer Carbery called it “as good a save as I've seen all year.”

I still do not see Vanecek as an NHL starter, but I think he is a high-end AHL starter and possible NHL backup.

Connor Hobbs, D

Coming into the AHL, Hobbs was known more for his offense, and he had some room to improve defensively. Watching him play, however, it was the defensive play that really impressed.

The first thing you notice of Hobbs when he is on the ice is his size. The Bears list him at 6 feet 1 inch tall, 200 pounds and he was every bit of it. He would not look out of place at all in the NHL, at least in terms of size.

Hobbs is also very calm under pressure. When facing the forecheck from Charlotte, he never seemed to panic. There was one instance in Game 4 in which he was facing a double forecheck behind the goal line. He turned his body to protect the puck against the first forechecker, turned again as the second forechecker approached, then made a quick pass past both players to start the breakout. There were times where he did appear a bit too relaxed and was pickpocketed down low, but it is easier to teach a player when to feel the pressure than it is to teach him not to panic.

The offense, which was thought to be his strength, just does not seem to be there yet. He has not found a way to create enough space in order to get off his monster slapshot as much as he would like. He does seem to rack up the shots, but it is more from flinging the puck on net from the blue line looking for tips or deflections. There is more to his offense than we have seen yet at this level, and he needs to find it because that is a major part of his game.

Ilya Samsonov, G

There are some goalies that seem to be always in control of every movement and always very calm, such as Braden Holtby. Then there are goalies who subscribe to the Dominik Hasek style of goaltending, which is make everything look as crazy and as difficult as possible at all times. Samsonov, for now, very much falls into the latter category.

Samsonov plays very low, almost as if trying to compensate for his size. He is extremely athletic and can cover just about every spot on the net, but he does so with completely chaotic movements and seemingly little control. That can get him into trouble as with that lack of control, he can drift out of the net while sliding to make the save. On the second goal he allowed on Wednesday, that was exactly what happened as he sold out to make an initial save, but drifted out of the net allowing an easy shot. That is something that can be corrected with coaching as he learns how to control himself and his movements.

But if anyone is worried whether the talent is there or not, don’t worry. The great saves were on display as well.

In the second period of Game 4, Samsonov faced a breakaway shot, made the initial save, then stretched the pad out back to cover the post and make the incredible rebound save.

The talent is there, but this season certainly revealed he remains a work in progress before he becomes the No. 1 NHL starter the Caps envision him to be.

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Hershey is having a beary good start to the holiday season after record-setting Teddy Bear Toss

Hershey is having a beary good start to the holiday season after record-setting Teddy Bear Toss

It's one of the greatest holiday traditions in minor league hockey. 

The Teddy Bear Toss, put on by the Capitals' American Hockey League affiliate Hershey Bears each holiday season, collects thousands of stuffed animals to donate to more than 30 local organizations including schools, food banks and the Children's Miracle Network and the American Cancer Society. 

As soon as right wing Riley Barber scored the Bears' first goal during Sunday's game, 10,000 fans began hurling the plush toys onto the ice.

The Teddy Bear Toss is always a sight to see, but this year was historic.

The awesome Bears fans donated so many toys that it caused the team to delay the game 45 minutes as they rounded them all up. On top of that, it was announced that a record-breaking 34, 798 toys were collected.

34, 798; a new world record previously set in 2015 by the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League. The record-high for the Bears was 25,017 back in 2017.

Not only did the Bears go on to beat the Binghamton Devils 6-3, but a lot of people are going to be having a beary good holiday.

Click the media player above to watch the historic event

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Capitals prospect report: Ilya Samsonov earns first AHL win

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Capitals prospect report: Ilya Samsonov earns first AHL win

Things were not going too well for the Hershey Bears or for prospect goalie Ilya Samsonov at the start of the season.

The Bears did not earn a single point through their first five games. Samsonov, meanwhile, struggled through his first starts and then suffered a lower-body injury that kept him out for about a week.

Things, however, are finally starting to look up.

Samsonov returned from his injury to earn his first AHL win on Saturday. He stopped 19 of 22 shots against rival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and also stopped both shootout shots he faced in the 4-3 win. Samsonov is now 1-3-0 on the season with a .860 save percentage and 3.70 GAA. Those stats certainly aren’t great, but the switch from European hockey to North American hockey is typically a difficult one. He should improve as the season moves on.

Just as Vitek Vanecek was forced to take the net briefly with Samsonov out, Samsonov may be given a similar task this week as Vanecek is dealing with an upper-body injury. Hershey has games on Friday, Saturday and Sunday so it certainly seems probable that Samsonov will get at least two of those starts.

Other Capitals Prospect Notes

·        The hot start continues for Liam O’Brien who scored two more goals over the weekend. He currently leads Hershey in both goals (6) and points (7). O’Brien looks like a high-end AHL player, but I am skeptical of his NHL prospects. He would certainly be a fourth line type of player, but if he can show he can be offensively productive and not just someone looking for the first opportunity to drop his gloves, there is still a chance, albeit a slim one, for him to climb into the NHL roster.

·        Riley Barber was held without a goal through the first six games of the season, but finally found the back of the net twice over the week with a goal in both Saturday and Sunday’s wins. Barber led the Bears in goals last season with 20 which made his slow start to the season a bit of a surprise. He is still someone hoping to break into the NHL so let’s see if these two goals open the scoring floodgates a bit for him.

·        Fresh off his player of the week honors,  Vanecek stayed hot with a 34-save win Sunday over Lehigh Valley. In his last five games, Vanecek is 3-1-0-1 with a .938 save percentage and 1.97 GAA.

·        While everyone has Samsonov penciled in as the Caps’ future starter in net, Vanecek is intent on disputing that. “Vitek wants to show people what he can do because I think he is getting a little bit lost behind Samsonov,” Bears vice president of hockey operations Bryan Helmer said. “He’s like, ‘hey, I’m still down here, too.’ He has that little bit of motivation to make himself better and … if he keeps going the way he’s going, he’s going to be successful in the NHL. If it is with Washington, it’s a pretty good one-two punch with Samsonov and Vitek down the road. To be honest, I think [Vanecek’s] ceiling is right up there with Samsonov. He’s getting better each year he has been over here.” Read Chris Kuc’s full story on Vanecek here.

·        Shane Gersich scored the shootout winner to lift Hershey past Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Saturday.

·        Beck Malenstyn scored his first professional goal in Saturday’s win.

·        Alexander Alexeyev was named the WHL On the Run Player of the Week on Monday. Among defenseman, Alexeyev is tied for first with seven goals and tied for second with 20 points.

·        Alexeyev’s recent play caught the eye of The Hockey News’ Ryan Kennedy who named him one of the hottest prospects in the hockey world. He wrote, “The league’s player of the week, Alexeyev is a Washington Capitals first-rounder who plays a great two-way game, complete with size and skating. At his best, he can control the play and right now his 20 points through 15 games ties him for tops among defensemen in the league. NHL arrival: 2020-21” Read the full article here.

·        Kody Klark signed an entry-level deal with the Caps last week. Naturally, plenty of people reached out to the proud father Wendel Clark for his reaction. “He’s extended his game, he’s earned three more years of trying to get to the next level,” Wendel said of his son. “Now he has to put the weight on, but I’ve told him there are no skinny guys in the Clark family, it’ll come.” See the full story here on Canoe.com. Clark has had a bit of a slow start to the season in the OHL, but he managed a goal and an assist on Sunday and hopefully, that will spark a hot streak from him.

·        It’s been a tough start to the season for the University of New Hampshire, as the Wildcats entered this past weekend without a win. They are winless no more, however, thanks to prospect defenseman Benton Maass, who scored the overtime-winning goal over the Catamounts of Vermont on Saturday.

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