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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.   

MORE CAPITALS: Caps' MacLellan juggling invisible dollars

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With the season on the line, the Capitals remain confident heading into Game 7

With the season on the line, the Capitals remain confident heading into Game 7

ARLINGTON, Va. – While Capitals fans woke up breathing into paper bags on Wednesday trying not to hyperventilate, the team was all smiles as it skated onto the ice for the morning skate. While the curse of playoff failures past still clearly resonates through a nervous fan base, there was nothing but confidence coming out of MedStar Capitals Iceplex.

“It’s a positive mood,” Carl Hagelin said. “But at the same time, you can see that guys are focused. I think that’s a big part of it, too, being focused going in and knowing that first shift is going to be key.”

The newfound confidence stems from last year’s playoff success which included a dominant 4-0 Game 7 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final.

“I think the last year experience what we have against Tampa helps a lot,” Alex Ovechkin said. “We have the same motivation, we have the same atmosphere. Of course it's not for Stanley Cup Final, it's for second round."

“Until you go through it and you've had success, then you can only talk so much about it,” head coach Todd Reirden said. “Eventually you have to go through it. Our core group has gone through it, and we'll use that as a positive tonight and go about our business."

Unlike last year’s Game 7, however, this one will come in Washington which should give an advantage to the Caps.

The home team has gone 6-0 in this series thus far and Washington has looked like two different teams playing at Capital One Arena and in Raleigh.

While the true advantage of home-ice throughout the league is debatable, clearly it has mattered in this series and, according to the team, the importance of having the home crowd certainly matters to them.

“When the fans cheering for you in your big moment, block shots or kill the penalty and the fans get into it right away, you feel it and it gives you more energy and motivation," Ovechkin said.

"Home ice has been a big advantage in this series,” Reirden said. “I expect our crowd to give us the lift that they have thus far. Right from the start of the playoffs they've given us a boost, I think different than in past years, and it's allowed us to have more success at home.”

One player who will need to step up his game if the Caps hope to extend their season will be Evgeny Kuznetsov. One of the most dominant players in last year’s postseason, Kuznetsov has been held to just five assists and no goals in six games.

Kuznetsov enters Game 7 knowing he needs to be better than he has been to this point.

“I think that is how everyone feels when you lose a game in the playoffs,” he said. “You always feel like you did something wrong and you are not fully there and you know it.”

While the pressure of a Game 7 can wear on some players, however, Kuznetsov said that he looks forward to these moments. Kuznetsov was the Game 7 hero in 2015 when he scored the game and series-winning goal against the New York Islanders.

“Game 7 is Game 7,” Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “It is fun to play.”

In the past we have seen a tentative Capitals team take the ice, play tight and collapse when things did not go their way. A more experienced team will take the ice on Wednesday knowing that things will not go completely their way in the game, but with the confidence that they are good enough to overcome those obstacles, win and advance.

“I just think unexpected stuff happens and being mentally tough is really important in these games and just having confidence and trust in one another,” John Carlson said. “A lot can go astray, a lot can change quickly and with both of the teams’ backs against the wall, that’s what you rely on and fall back on.”

“You’ve got to be prepared for everything,” Reirden said. “In this situation you need to come back to your foundations as a group, as a system, as a team. That never changes, regardless of what happens within the game. So you've got a system and that's your security blanket, and you've got that structure in place. Where the game goes from there is going to be decided by the players executing that system and that game plan. Every [Game 7] plays out a little bit different. There's crazy swings. It's a fun time to be playing in these type of games and our guys will grow from it no matter what."

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NHL Playoffs 2019 Roundup: Bruins, Sharks eliminate Maple Leafs, Golden Knights in Game 7s

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NHL Playoffs 2019 Roundup: Bruins, Sharks eliminate Maple Leafs, Golden Knights in Game 7s

With two Game 7s lined up Tuesday, the daytime was filled with anxiety and curiosity over which teams would come out on top. The Maple Leafs were looking to end a streak of Game 7 losses to their rival Bruins, and the Golden Knights were looking to continue their quest toward returning to the Stanley Cup Final and perhaps getting the job done this year.

However, the games took a wild turn, as Boston was able to easily cruise past Toronto and the Sharks were able to comeback from a 3-0 deficit to win in overtime. Here's how each game played out.

Bruins top Maple Leafs in another Game 7, 5-1

Game 7 seems to happen naturally between these two teams, and yet again, it was Boston who was able to easily win this one with a 5-1 victory.

The beginning of the first period was seemingly quiet, but in the last six minutes, the Bruins turned on the jets. Joakim Nordstrom scored after putting a pass from the top of the circle past Frederik Andersen to make it 1-0 for Boston. Just three minutes later, Marcus Johansson scored on a quick shot that made it 2-0 heading into the second.

John Tavares was able to cut the lead to one early in the second, but Sean Kuraly went top-shelf to restore the Bruins' two-goal lead in the first two minutes of the third.

Charlie Coyle and Patrice Bergeron added two more for Boston to guarantee the win and move onto the second round, and Tuukka Rask made 31 saves in the win. This is the third time in the last decade and the second year in a row that the Maple Leafs have fallen to Boston in seven games in the first round.

Sharks stun Golden Knights with 5-4 OT win

It was an interesting night for the Sharks to say the least. After trailing 3-0 after two periods, it seemed as if the season was over, but a costly major penalty for Vegas led to a comeback and eventual overtime victory for San Jose.

William Karlsson opened the scoring halfway through the first after jumping on a loose puck and firing it past Martin Jones. Cody Eakin added to the lead 10 minutes into the second to make it 2-0, and later, to start the third, Mark Stone struck to make it 3-0.

However, Cody Eakin then cross-checked Joe Pavelski in the head, receiving a five-minute major that led to a lengthy power play for San Jose and changed the momentum of the game. That's when the Sharks scored four goals on the lengthy man advantage.

Logan Couture struck first, scoring on a pass from Kevin Labanc to make it 3-1. A minute later, Tomas Hertl redirected an Erik Karlsson point shot past Fleury to pull San Jose within one. Couture put home his second of the night soonafter, then Labanc had a goal of his own to give San Jose a 4-3 lead with seven minutes remaining.

The Golden Knights were able to tie it with 47 seconds left, as Jonathan Marchessault was able to one-time a feed from Reilly Smith past Jones to make it 4-4. However, the Sharks eliminated Vegas after Barclay Goodrow deked the puck past Fleury in the final minute of the first extra period.

San Jose will face Colorado in the second round, which kicks off Thursday.

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