Hershey Gives Caps Sweet Taste of Success

Chris Bourque, after scoring in Game 2 of the Calder Cup finals, is one of several Hershey Bears whom the Capitals are counting on in the future.
Chris Bourque, after scoring in Game 2 of the Calder Cup finals, is one of several Hershey Bears whom the Capitals are counting on in the future. (Sean Simmers - AP)
By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 4, 2007

HERSHEY, Pa. -- While the Ottawa Senators and Anaheim Ducks battle for the Stanley Cup, the eyes of Washington Capitals executives are fixed on another championship series.

The Hershey Bears, Washington's top minor league affiliate, are playing for a second consecutive American Hockey League title -- and, perhaps more important, providing a glimmer of hope for their rebuilding parent club, which has finished last in the NHL's Southeast Division three seasons running.

"It's been a struggle [in Washington] with the way things have gone," said 21-year-old defenseman Mike Green, one of the Capitals' brightest prospects. "Coming down here has helped my confidence and given me a taste of a winning atmosphere. It's teaching all of us how to win in Washington."

But Washington isn't on Green's mind at the moment. That's because the Bears, a potent collection of recent high draft picks and AHL veterans, are on the verge accomplishing something special in Hershey, the chocolate capital of the world and home of one of hockey's most storied franchises.

With nine AHL titles and 10 other championship series appearances, the Bears are aiming to become the league's first back-to-back champion since the Springfield (Mass.) Indians in 1990 and 1991. The Bears last repeated in 1958 and 1959.

"It's getting closer, but you don't want to look too far ahead," said defenseman Jeff Schultz, who like Green hopes to secure a full-time job in Washington next season. "Because if you're looking at the big prize, you get distracted."

That appeared to be the case in Game 1 of the Calder Cup finals on Friday night. A powerful thunderstorm knocked out the power at Giant Center, delaying the opening faceoff by nearly 30 minutes. Then the Bears suffered a power failure, losing 4-0 to the Hamilton Bulldogs, an affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens. It was Hershey's first regulation loss of this year's playoffs and the first time the Bears have been shut out since last season.

Coach Bruce Boudreau shuffled his lineup and his forward combinations for Game 2, and the Bears responded with a 4-2 victory that evened the best-of-seven series. Prospects Jakub Klepis and Chris Bourque each scored even-strength goals and goaltender Frederic Cassivi, a 31-year-old with only 13 NHL games on his résumé, came up with 20 saves.

Game 3 is tonight in Hamilton, Ontario.

Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis made the short journey on his private jet for the opener. He watched from the suite of Bears General Manager Doug Yingst. (Capitals GM George McPhee was unable to attend because he's in Toronto for the NHL draft combine.)

"I like to come down to show the players that I'm here, that I'm supporting them, that they're important to the Capitals," Leonsis said. "When you look around, the most successful NHL organizations have a strong relationship" with their minor league club.

Separated by only 130 miles, Hershey's close proximity has proven to be beneficial for the Capitals, who can easily shuttle prospects back and forth. In January, the clubs extended their agreement through next season.

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