Photo: Kyle Mace/Chocolate Hockey
Back in the 2009-2010, the Washington Capitals dominated the NHL’s regular season, capturing the franchise’s first-ever Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s best regular season team. While the Caps lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round that year, their top minor league affiliate, the Hershey Bears, had different fortunes in the playoffs, winning their their second consecutive American Hockey League championship. It was the storied team’s 11th Calder Cup.
Six years later, Braden Holtby, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, and Jay Beagle — all stars from that championship Bears team — guided Washington to another Presidents’ Trophy this season. But once again, the Caps made an early playoff exit. The Bears, however, are still playing hockey in June, competing in their first Calder Cup Finals since their championship in 2010. But after Friday night’s 5-3 loss to the Lake Erie Monsters, Hershey faces a 0-2 series hole, though both games in the series have been relatively tight affairs.
“It’s not over by any means,” said Aaron Ness, who had two points in eight games with the Caps this season. “We’re excited for the challenge, we’re excited for the next game, and we’re ready to go.”
After not qualifying for the playoffs last year, the Monsters, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ AHL affiliate, have steamrolled every team they’ve played so far this postseason, going 13-2. Counting the end of the regular season, Lake Erie has won 22 of their last 26 games. They swept the Ontario Reign, the reincarnation of last year’s Calder Cup-winning Manchester Monarchs, in the Western Conference Finals.
“You just gotta stick with it,” Zach Sill, who played 10 games with the Capitals this year, said after the game. “It takes four wins to win a series.”
The problem is Lake Erie already has two.
Starting Monday night, the next three games will be played in Cleveland, with a four day break in between Games Three and Four to accommodate the NBA Finals. The Monsters and Cavaliers both play at Quicken Loans Arena and it appears LeBron gets first dibs.
The Monsters are a fast team and their aggressive forecheck hampered the Bears’ ability to exit their defensive zone at times. But as the game worn on, Hershey was able to break free and camp out in the offensive zone, pushing Lake Erie near the breaking point.
Lake Erie scored the games’s opening two goals before Sill put home his own rebound on a five-on-three power play. But the Monsters responded, partially thanks to suspect call on Ryan Stanton, who suited up for the Caps in one game this season. Stanton’s penalty lead to a power play goal and 4-1 lead for Lake Erie.
The Bears would whittle the lead down to one on goals by Liam O’Brien, a veteran of 13 games with Washington, and Tyler Lewington, one of the Caps’ defensive prospects. Hershey unleashed a flurry of chances in the final minutes, only to be stonewalled Monsters goaltender Anton Forsberg.
“I thought we deserved better, but at the end of the day, we’re down 2-0,” Bears head coach Troy Mann said.
Forsberg has not lost a game this postseason, going 7-0 with a goals-against average of 1.49. Mann called Forsberg’s performances over the first two games of the series “dominant.” He made a myriad of great stops in Game 2, including a stunning glove save.
Forsberg can handle the pressure. He already bested Holtby, the likely Vezina Trophy winner, this season. In early January, Forsberg came in cold off the bench after Jackets starter Curtis McElhinney went down with an injury. He played brilliantly, making six saves in overtime before beating the Capitals in a shootout.
The Bears are putting up a brave face, but not without reason. The last time Hershey was in the Calder Cup Finals, the Bears dropped the first two games at home to the Texas Stars, led at the time by Jamie Benn. Mann was then an assistant coach for Hershey.
“Last time I checked I got a Calder Cup ring at home,” Mann said.
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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