While there is no playoff stretch drive for Washington this March, both of the Capitals’ two minor league affiliates are involved in exciting runs as they head into the final weeks of the regular season.
Up in Hershey, the Bears are preparing to defend their 2006 Calder Cup championship, the ninth title in the franchise’s glorious history. Hershey is aiming for just the fifth 100-point season in its 69-year AHL history, and its first ever set of back-to-back 100-point campaigns. With a 39-14-6-5 record, Hershey has the fewest regulation losses of any team in the league. The Bears have 16 games remaining, including nine at home and 11 against teams that would be out of the playoffs if the season ended today.
Hershey’s best ever regular season came in 1987-88 when the team set franchise marks with 50 wins and 105 points. Both of those records are within reach this season. The Bears have attained back-to-back Calder Cup titles once previously (1957-58 and 1958-59) and are aiming to become the first AHL team to repeat since the 1990-91 Springfield Indians. Bears bench boss Bruce Boudreau is looking to become the ninth coach to win consecutive titles. Six former Calder Cup championship coaches are now employed as NHL head coaches.
Before the Bears can concern themselves with repeating, there is the matter of the remainder of the regular season. Hershey trails front-running Norfolk by five points in the AHL’s East Division standings, and the Bears are a single point ahead of third place Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. On their way to the title last season, Norfolk and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton were the first two teams the Bears eliminated. Hershey has one games remaining with Norfolk (Apr. 7 at Giant Center) and four games remaining with the Baby Pens (home on Apr. 1 and 8; away on Mar. 30 and Apr. 13).
Hershey plays in Worcester this Friday before returning home for its next five games. The Bears will finish the season with three road games in three nights, Apr. 13-15.
Last season’s championship team featured seven players who had 20 or more goals during the regular season. The 2006-07 Bears have five 20-goal scorers, and a couple more (Chris Bourque, Kyle Wilson) who could reach the 20-goal plateau. Goaltenders Maxime Daigneault (18 wins) and Frederic Cassivi (15) both have a shot at 20 wins this season. According to the Bears media guide, Hershey has never had two goaltenders win 20 or more games in the same season.
Hershey will definitely be worth watching the rest of the way, and the Bears hope to be primed for another long playoff run.
Down south, the ECHL South Carolina Stingrays have caught fire. The Rays swept a set of three games in three nights last weekend, then hopped their bus to Florida where they downed the South Division-leading Everblades on successive nights earlier this week. That’s five wins in seven nights, but the Rays can’t let off the gas yet.
This weekend’s schedule is crazy: the Rays and Everblades head back up to North Charleston Coliseum for a Friday night game in South Carolina. The Stingrays must then board the bus to Pensacola for a Saturday date with the Ice Pilots. Then the Ice Pilots will follow the Rays back to South Carolina for a rematch on Sunday. That game will mark the end of five games in six nights and eight in 11 nights for the Stingrays.
South Carolina will then be able to catch its breath with just two games in the next 10 nights before finishing up the regular season schedule with four of its last five games on the road.
With 10 games remaining on the schedule, the Stingrays are in fourth place in the South Division standings, six points behind third place Gwinnett. The Rays are two points ahead of fifth place Augusta and four points in front of sixth place Charlotte, and Charlotte has four games in hand on South Carolina. South Carolina’s remaining slate includes three games at Augusta, two at Gwinnett and one home contest against Charlotte.
The Rays have made the playoffs in every season of their existence, and are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the first of their two Kelly Cup championships. South Carolina is getting back to full strength personnel-wise, and might be peaking at just the right time. If you’ve got a mind to pay a visit to the Rays, they’re bringing back the alumni from that 1996-97 championship team for the final home game of the season. That’s Sat., Apr. 7 against the Texas Wildcatters.
Don’t forget to peek in on the Bears and the Rays as they wind up their seasons with some exciting divisional races. John Walton of the Bears and Mike Kelly of the Stingrays are both terrific play-by-play men.
Let’s hope the Caps of the future have long and rewarding playoff runs at both levels this spring.