Washington Capitals prospect Aliaksei Protas is making a case for this year’s AHL Playoffs MVP award if the Bears can win five more games. Despite playing on Hershey’s third line and second power-play unit, Protas has been the Bears’ most consistent player on the scoresheet in all three of their postseason series to date.
The Belorussian winger is Hershey’s only point-per-game skater and his penchant for making game-breaking plays of late, especially in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals, has them one win away from the Calder Cup Finals.
Protas scored his first career AHL playoff goal against the Charlotte Checkers in Hershey’s first game of the 2023 postseason. His impressive backhand, forehand move before roofing the puck in Charlotte’s net gave Hershey a 2-0 lead in the game.
Backhand-forehand-SHELF for @protas_21’ first career Calder Cup Playoffs goal!
🍏 Anas pic.twitter.com/5HOLz1Ifv8
— Hershey Bears (@TheHersheyBears) April 28, 2023
After Hershey dropped Game Three in a poor effort for their first home playoff game, Protas came back in Game Four to shut down any sort of Checkers series comeback attempt. He scored two goals in the clinching victory and would post five points overall (3g, 2a) in the four-game series.
Pro gives us our first lead of the night!
🍏 Snively pic.twitter.com/8XIAXpY5kA
— Hershey Bears (@TheHersheyBears) May 5, 2023
Protas was quieter in the Atlantic Division Finals against the Hartford Wolfpack, but still managed to come up with two primary assists in Hershey’s three-game series sweep.
The first of those assists sparked a comeback in Game One and the Bears would make quick work of the Wolfpack from there.
What a 🚀
🍏 Anas pic.twitter.com/CYUBY43j6S
— Hershey Bears (@TheHersheyBears) May 12, 2023
Protas would go scoreless in the first two games of the Bears’ Eastern Conference Finals against the Rochester Americans, but has quickly heated up once the series left Hershey and went to Rochester. In the first road game, Protas came up with yet another primary assist and put away the empty-net goal that sealed Hershey’s Game Three win. His best work in Rochester was yet to come though.
With the Bears down 2-0 in the third period of Game Four and the series looking like it could head back to Hershey tied up at two wins apiece, Protas kicked off the comeback win with a primary assist to Lucas Johansen.
JoJo gets us on the board with his second of the playoffs!
🍏 Anas pic.twitter.com/rVQJSn7FNl
— Hershey Bears (@TheHersheyBears) May 30, 2023
The Bears would add goals from Logan Day and Mason Morelli to take the lead over Rochester which forced the Amerks to pull Subban with two minutes remaining in regulation. And, just as he started the comeback, Protas put a cap on any hopes of Rochester taking the game to overtime.
With the Amerks camped in the Hershey zone, Protas raced for a loose puck, stick-checked his opponent, and took possession at the blueline. While he could have likely scored an important goal for himself as a player not fully cemented on an NHL roster at this point, Protas instead opted for the unselfish play and found the veteran Morelli at center ice for the empty-netter. The tally would have made Protas the team-leader in goals.
With the two assist night, Protas hit point-per-game status with 11 points (4g, 7a) in 11 games. Those 11 points lead the Bears and see him ranked tenth overall in the AHL Playoffs currently.
Every single player ahead of Protas in the scoring race, including members of the Coachella Valley Firebirds, have played more games due to Hershey earning a first-round bye and making quick work of their first two opponents, explaining the vast discrepancy in points despite Hershey’s dominance as a team.
Protas has tallied a lot of those points due to a dangerous partnership he has formed at five-on-five with both Sam Anas and Capitals prospect center Hendrix Lapierre. Anas is second on the Bears in scoring with 10 points (3g, 7a) while the rookie Lapierre has chipped in five points (2g, 3a). Protas also plays a big role on Hershey’s second unit power play as the main netfront presence.
Protas credits group camaraderie for both his own success and the team’s tear through the playoffs.
“It’s great, we have so much fun together,” Protas told John Walton earlier in the postseason. “Great group of guys, great group of persons down here, great players. We’re just having fun battle for each other together and that’s why we’ve been successful.”
— Hershey Bears (@TheHersheyBears) May 30, 2023
If the Bears do end up closing out the Americans in the Eastern Conference Finals and then beat either the Milwaukee Admirals or Coachella Valley Firebirds in the Calder Cup Finals, Protas could be one of the favorites to win MVP along with the Maryland-born Anas and goaltender Hunter Shepard.
In the AHL the winner of that award receives the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy. Previous winners, among others, include Olie Kolzig, Carey Price, Michal Neuvirth, Chris Bourque, Robin Lehner, Tomas Tatar, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Tyler Bertuzzi, and Andreas Johnsson.
After a season that saw him play 58 games with the Washington Capitals at the NHL level and be one of the Caps’ very best forwards when it comes to process stats, Protas is now racking up the points in high-pressure AHL games.
This will likely be his swan song in the AHL and he’s absolutely making the most out of it.
Headline photo: Tori Hartman/Hershey Bears
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