A lot of things had to go right for the Washington Capitals, Hershey Bears, and South Carolina Stingrays to all make the playoffs and win their respective division in the process. How much? Let’s explore.
HEALTH & DEPTH
The remarkable part of all these teams is how far away the “injury bug” has stayed over the duration of the regular season. Each team has, for the most part, had their main contributors healthy the entire season.
Washington did collectively gasp when Brooks Orpik went out longer than expected, but Taylor Chorney, a footnote in the off season signings, steadied the ship and filled his role nicely. So nicely, in fact, that the Caps awarded him with a two-year contract extension.
John Carlson going down in the same stretch? That was a greater cause for concern. From there, everybody saw how deep into the system the team could reach and still play quality hockey. Ryan Stanton and Aaron Ness, also off-season signings, held vital defensive roles in answering the call from Washington.
Then there are the forwards. Zach Sill, Chandler Stephenson, even Paul Carey showed the team who they could be if given the chance at the major league roster.
Hershey felt the brunt of many of these Washington call-ups, but kept itself in contention all season with roster moves of their own. One, signing NHL veteran Scott Gomez to a PTO, panned out just fine for a few weeks before the former St. Louis Blue opted to sign with Ottawa.
For goaltending, all franchises need to look at the Washington model. With Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer staying healthy at the top, Justin Peters and Dan Ellis kept a stable tandem through much of Hershey’s season, and Mark Dekanich and Vitek Vanecek held serve in South Carolina.
Branden Komm did enough for the Stingrays in the week plus that Vanecek was off representing the Czech Republic at the World Juniors. Komm got traded to Idaho when Vanecek returned.
At every position, the Caps are three teams deep. Some are contracted with the big club and others to the minors, but a deep, healthy roster is reason enough to cheer.
The team leader in scoring on all three teams scored over 60 points: Chris Bourque (80), Evgeny Kuznetsov (77), and David Pacan (62). Then there are the sheer number of skaters who scored between 20 and 40 points. Some of the names may surprise you.
Washington: Karl Alzner (21), Tom Wilson (23), Dimitry Orlov (29), Matt Niskanen (32), Andre Burakovsky (38), John Carlson (39), and Jason Chimera (40). Carlson and Jay Beagle, who barely misses this list with 17 points, did not reach 60 games played and still tallied points for his team.
Hershey: Erik Burgdoefer (20), Christian Djoos (22), Zach Sill (22), Scott Gomez (24), Connor Carrick (26), Aaron Ness (27), Garrett Mitchell (27), Chandler Stephenson (28), Madison Bowey (29), Paul Carey (31), Dustin Gazely (31), Carter Camper (34), Jakub Vrana (34), and Sean Collins (39).
Lump Nathan Walker onto this list at 41 points, and 15 skaters with the Bears this season played what is historically considered a “good” season. To put Vrana up here after missing almost half the season with a wrist injury (only 36 games played) is also incredible.
South Carolina: Patrick Gaul (20), Derek DeBlois (20), Austin Fyten (20), Andrew Rowe (21), Marcus Perrier (21), Kelly Zajac (22), Colin Mulvey (22), Jared Staal (24), Paul Rodrigues (25), and Bobby Shea (29).
If Caleb Herbert spent more time playing in South Carolina and fewer games as a healthy scratch in Hershey, his numbers would be higher than the 14 points in 15 games that he got.
This season, the scoring is not concentrated in the gloves of a few, but with the many. It is doubly impressive how grinder-type players like Wilson, Chimera, Burgdoefer, Sill, Gaul, Perrier, and Shea all scored well above the skill level they are given credit for. Some of these totals, especially with South Carolina, are misleading due to the number of games played. DeBlois, for instance, only played 23 games between infrequent call-ups to Lake Erie (AHL).
LATE SEASON ADDITIONS
The forward swap with the Hartford Wolf Pack shipped off Chris Brown and brought in Ryan Bourque to play with his brother. R. Bourque is a different kind of player than his brother; not one that will put up 25 goals consistently, but he brought a different consistency to Chocolate Town: knowing exactly what you’ll get.
Ryan Bourque plays the same style of hard-nosed hockey, who can also score, that epitomizes men like Sill and Burgdoerfer. Combined, R. Bourque played 75 games and scored 29 points, only five with the Bears.
Washington’s dirt-cheap trade for Mike Weber gives head coach Barry Trotz options on defense. He now has Chorney, Weber, and all those call-up eligible players to choose from should anyone on the roster underperform or get hurt in the playoffs.
As for the Stingrays, signing Zajac was one of the best decisions head coach Spencer Carbery could make. The third of four Zajac brothers started the season with Manitoba (AHL) and moved to Lukko Rauma in Finland (SM-Liiga) before returning stateside. His point-per-game production is carrying over to the Kelly Cup Playoffs, where he has four points in the first two games.
Even with a lot of summer decisions to be made on players who should stay or go, the Capitals organization is well-equipped top-to-bottom for a deep run at the Kelly Cup, the Calder Cup, and Lord Stanley’s Cup. For though Toledo and Missouri block the road for South Carolina; and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Toronto will give Hershey plenty of push back; and all teams are more than willing to stand in the way of Washington’s first postseason glory, the pieces are in place to win the games.
Now, all they have to do is win the games.