Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top Ten Stories of 2009 -- Number 3: The Farm

And now, in this series of top ten stories for the Caps in 2009...

Number 3: The Farm

“It is thus with farming: if you do one thing late, you will be late in all your work.”

-- Cato the Elder

For those of you who aren’t up on your ancient Romans, Cato the Elder wasn’t a hockey player, but he knew of battles, and he knew of farming, and he could probably appreciate the mixture of the two with respect to the 2009 year that was had “down on the farm” for the Washington Capitals franchise. More to the point, he could appreciate – and Caps fans should – the importance of the “patient urgency” attached to growing things, in this case young hockey players for the long run.

It was quite a year down on the farm. But it didn’t start in 2009. The seeds were sown in draft picks and free agent signings dating as far back as 2002, before the Capitals had a relationship with either the AHL Hershey Bears or the ECHL South Carolina Stingrays. They were sown on August 11, 2004, when the Capitals and the Stingrays began their affiliation, on April 26, 2005, when the Caps and Bears forged their working agreement.

But it was in 2009 when the patient urgency yielded a bumper crop of successes down on the farm. For South Carolina, 2009 did not start in very promising fashion. The Stingrays broke out of the gate in the new year rather slowly, posting a 4-8-2 record in January. February didn’t start much better with two losses to start the month. But then came what might have been a turning point on February 6th, when the Stingrays hosted the Florida Everblades. South Carolina took a 2-1 lead into the first intermission, but gave the lead away on a couple of Everblade tallies in the second period. Whatever took place in the locker room in the second intermission, it had an effect on left wing Trent Campbell, who scored 41 seconds into the third period to tie the game, then again at 3:28 to provide the winning margin in a 4-3 Stingray win.

The come-from-behind win propelled the Stingrays into quite a run down the stretch. Starting with that win South Carolina finished February on an 8-3-0 run, to which they added a 12-2-1 stretch in March and April to close the regular season. That 20-5-1 overall record from February 6th forward catapulted the Stingrays to a second-place finish in the South Division of the American Conference and a first round matchup against the Charlotte Checkers, against whom they finished 10-5-1. But it was a record obtained in an odd fashion with South Carolina going 5-0-0 in the first five games, 0-4-1 in the next five, then 5-1-0 to close out the season against the Checkers.

It looked as if the scale would tip once more toward Charlotte, as the Checkers took Games 1 and 2 by identical 5-3 scores. But when the series moved to Charleston, the Stingrays took control, winning Game 3 by a 4-2 score and Game 3 by a 4-1 margin. The pivotal Game 5 – the getaway game for the Stingrays before heading back to Charlotte to close the series – featured haymakers being thrown from the get-go. But after the teams notched six goals in the opening period, South Carolina getting four of them, the Stingrays poured it on in periods three and four to win going away, 8-3. It was enough momentum for South Carolina, who scored the first two goals in Game 6, then hung on for a 4-3 series clinching win.

The second round series against the Everblades, who finished with the league’s best record, featured a more back-and-forth set of games with the teams exchanging wins in each of the first five games of the series, the Stingrays having the advantage of having won Game 1, 3 and 5. Game 6 would feature more of the same, with the teams first exchanging single goals in the first period, then exchanging two goals – South Carolina getting the first two, then Florida the next two. The Everblade side of the exchange was part of a furious finish in the last two minutes of regulation with a goal at 18:31 to draw Florida within a goal, then the tying marker at 19:41 to send the game into overtime. But barely nine minutes in, Zach Tarkir ended the series with assists from Travis Morin and Maxime Lacroix (a pair of Capitals draft picks) to send the Stingrays to the Conference final against the Cincinnati Cyclones.

South Carolina pounded the Cyclones in Game 1, 7-4 and made short work of their opponent thereafter. The Stingrays swept Cincinnati in four games, outscoring the Cyclones 17-10 in the process, setting up a Kelly Cup final against the Alaska Aces. South Carolina drew first blood in Alaska by using a three-goal third period to erase a 2-1 Aces lead and take Game 1 by a 4-2 score. The Stingrays broke on top in Game 2 with the Tarkir, Morin, Lacroix trio teaming up to get the goal and put the Aces back on their heels – Lacroix getting the goal, the others the assists. But the Aces didn’t allow another and scored three of their own, the last an empty netter, to even the series on home ice before heading to South Carolina.

The Stingrays put the Aces in a headlock in the first two games in Charleston, winning Game 3 by a 4-2 score, then getting a shutout from James Reimer in a 5-0 blowout to put the Aces on the brink of elimination. But the Aces weren’t quite out of effort. Alaska exchanged a pair of goals apiece with the Stingrays in the second period of Game 5, then battled South Carolina to a scoreless third before going to overtime. Colin Hemingway made sure there would be hockey in Anchorage at least one more time, ending the game 17:22 into overtime, giving the Aces a 3-2 win.

Alaska made sure that returning home would yield benefits, coming from two goals down to take a 3-2 decision on a goal by former Stingray and Capitals farm hand Matt Stefanishion with less than four minutes left in regulation. Game 7 unfolded in much the same way as did Game 6. Goals late in the first and early in the second period gave the Stingrays another 2-0 lead. Alaska got one back midway through the second, but South Carolina restored their two goal lead barely a minute later and took a 3-1 lead into the third period. But there was Stefanishion again to make things interesting late, getting a goal with 1:45 left to draw the Aces to within one. The Stingrays drove the last nail in the Aces’ coffin, though, getting a shorthanded empty net goal from Pierre-Luc O’Brien to seal the win and the Kelly Cup for the Stingrays.

The Stingrays would finish the year on a 36-15-1 run, starting with that win over the Florida Everblades on February 6th. But it wouldn’t top what was going on up in Hershey, where the Bears were adding to a long and storied history.

In a way, Hershey rang in the year much the same way South Carolina did – they got pasted by the Providence Bruins, 7-2, in the first game of the new year. Michal Neuvirth was tending goal in only his third game with the Bears and frankly wasn’t giving much indication that he would have much success in Hershey after going 6-7-0 in South Carolina. With this game he had allowed 14 goals on 73 shots in three games, going 1-2 in the process. But the Bears – and Neuvirth – would get their skates under them. Hershey would win nine of their next 15 games to post a 9-4-3 record for January, and Neuvirth would not lose another game in regulation in the month (3-0-2, 2.10, .935).

February was another story. The Bears could barely tread water for the month, going 5-5-2, a month that feature three losses to the Binghamton Senators (two in extra time) and a four-game losing streak, three of the losses coming on home ice at Giant Center. In March and April, as the Bears were heading toward the finish of the regular season, they compiled an 11-6-2 record, but even with the winning record there were ominous signs. Hershey could manage only a split of four games with arch-rival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for the month and would finish the regular season on a 2-4-1 run. It wasn’t the way to head into the playoffs.

But what they did have going in was a hot goaltender…sort of. Michal Neuvirth, who took that pasting back in the first game of the new year, would lose only three more games in regulation in 15 appearances over the rest of the regular season. The 2009 portion of his season looked like this – 8-4-3, 2.59, .917, and he won five of his last six decisions.

In Round 1 of the Calder Cup tournament the Bears drew the Philadelphia Phantoms, a team the Bears finished 7-3-2 against during the regular season. They made quick work of Philadelphia, beating the Phantoms in Game 1 and 2 in Philadelphia to end the Phantoms’ history in Philadelphia on a sour note (they are now the Adirondack Phantoms), and beating them in Games 3 and 4 in Hershey to set up a Conference semi-final battle with the Penguins.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was not a team against which the Bears had much success in the regular season, going 2-5-3 overall. If there was an advantage for the Bears, it was in having home-ice advantage, and they used it well in games 1 and 2. But it wasn’t without suspense. Hershey took an early 2-0 first period lead in Game 1, but the Penguins came back with a pair in the second to tie the game. The Bears restored some momentum on a late second period goal to take a 3-2 lead into the third, then built on it with an early tally in the last frame. The Penguins got one back to give some concern to the Giant Center faithful, but Alexandre Giroux ended the suspense with a goal to give The Bears a 5-3 win.

Game 2 was utterly lacking in suspense on the scoreboard. The Bears put up three goals in seven minutes late in the first period, and Neuvirth made it hold up, allowing only a late third period goal to spoil the shutout in a 3-1 lead, sending the Penguins home down 0-2 in games. With Game 3-5 on Penguin ice, the task for the Bears was to get at least one so that they would have no worse than two chances to clinch on home ice. They had their chance in Game 3, getting a power play goal early in the third period to take a 2-1 lead on the scoreboard and get within shouting distance of a 3-0 stranglehold on the series. The Penguins came back, though, getting a power play tally of their own in the 17th minute of the third period to send the game to overtime. Mark Letestu sent the Penguin fans home happy with a goal at 4:48 of overtime to get the Penguins back to 1-2 in the series.

Games 3 and 4 were object lessons for the Bears in terms of letting teams off the hook. The Penguins scored the first four goals in Game 3 and won going away, 6-3 to tie the series. Then, in Game 5, the Bears couldn’t find a way to solve backup goalie Adam Berkhoel, who held the fort long enough to allow the Penguins to get a lead in the first, then some insurance in the second and an empty-netter in the third on their way to a 4-1 win and a 3-2 lead in the series as the teams headed back to Hershey.

Game 5, facing elimination, Michal Neuvirth put his stamp on the series with authority. After allowing 11 goals on 80 shots in taking the three losses in Wilkes-Barre, he was a wall in Game 6. The Bears got a goal in the first to stake Neuvirth to a lead, but the young goalie faced 14 shots in the second period, turning away all of them to give the Bears momentum heading into the third. His teammates took over from there, getting a goal in the first minute of the third period and another on a power play three minutes later for a bigger cushion to work with. Neuvirth didn’t seem to need it, though, finishing the game with 30 saves on as many shots in a 3-0 shutout, setting up a Game 7 against perhaps the Bears’ most hated rival.

If you’re going to make a statement in a Game 7, it is perhaps no better than to do it getting a goal in the first minute of play. The Bears did just that on a goal by Keith Aucoin. It was part of a 13-6 shot advantage that the Bears enjoyed in the first period, Neuvirth once more turning away all that he faced. The Bears added a goal in the second, and another in the third. But the story would be Michal Neuvirth. The rookie netminder would turn away all 24 shots he faced, completing his seventh consecutive period of shutout hockey and notching for the first time in the history of the Calder Cup tournament shutouts in Games 6 and 7 of a playoff series. It set up a Calder Cup final against the Manitoba Moose.

We cover a lot of the ground in this series in a number of posts made during the finals in June. We won’t cover it again here. But there did seem to be a ‘there’s no stopping us now” quality to this series after the Bears dispatched the Penguins. More to the point, there was a “no way we don’t stop you” quality, as Michal Neuvirth dominated the series in goal. In the six-game final, Neuvirth finished 4-2, 1.61, .941, and one shutout. That, and his 16-6, 1.92, 932, four shutout performance for the tournament earned him the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as Calder Cup MVP.

It was quite a 2009 for the two franchises. As of this morning, South Carolina is 47-23-7 for 2009 with a Kelly Cup Trophy in it hands. The Hershey Bears finished 2009 with a record of 49-23-9 and added the tenth Calder Cup to their collection. These franchises are not only reflections of excellence in their own right, but serve as breeding grounds for the next generation of Capitals. Although most of the prospects Caps fans might recognize are playing at Hershey, there are those among them who have spent time in South Carolina.

Andrew Gordon split time with the Stingrays in the 2007-2008 season, going 8-6-14 in 11 games there. He played 80 games for a Calder Cup champion in Hershey last year and has had a couple of short stints in DC with the Caps. He is currently tied for fifth in scoring in the AHL. Sean Collins played in 31 games in South Carolina in 2007-2008. The next year he played in 39 games in Hershey and even chipped in 15 games with the Caps. He is a plus-11 in 27 games with the Bears this year.

Last season, no fewer than 16 players played in both Hershey and in Washington (this does not include Brian Pothier, who logged 31 games in Hershey in his comeback from a concussion). In fact, of the team that took the ice in the Calder Cup-clinching game against Manitoba last June, 13 saw time with the Caps in the 2008-2009 season. Eight players who have skated with the Caps this season dressed for that Calder Cup-clinching game last June. If you don’t think this relationship has meaning and is beneficial to all the parties, then we don’t think you’re paying attention.

And it is in that relationship that the excellence displayed in Charleston and Hershey has special meaning in 2009. The experience and the success gained there by the kids in the system are as important as the skills they possess. Winning breeds winning, up and down the chain. It creates expectations, it instills confidence. It becomes a habit learned and carried forward. That it would come within five years of the establishment of the relationship between the Caps and these two franchises (Hershey also having won a Calder Cup in 2006) speaks to the “patient urgency” of growing your own prospects and bringing them forward in due time, giving them not just a taste, but a sense of responsibility with the big club as they make their way toward what we hope as Caps fans will be long and successful careers in Washington. For that reason, the hard work down on the farm rewarded with championships is a top story for the Caps in 2009.

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