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5 Reasons We Love the ‘Rays
In minor league news, today was going to be Jersey Auction Day here on Caps Outsider. Between the Hershey’s Kisses jerseys and the All Star Game, there’s been a lot of money changing hands in the AHL world for sweaty laundry. But then things got a little hot South of the Border, so today became a Stingrays Day. As a reminder, the South Carolina Stingrays are the Washington Capitals ECHL affiliate, and are often the brightest spot in the Caps “family” of teams.
In honor of the Stingrays making front page news over on Puck Daddy, we’ve put together a brief list of reasons to love the ‘Rays as a Caps Fan. Enjoy!
1. Prospects, Prospects, Prospects
The ECHL is the bottom tier of the professional hockey “farm” system, which means that most players land there in their first professional season. For many, it’s a random roll of the dice when it comes to where they land – someone makes an offer, and that’s that. For the lucky group who’ve been drafted, the first step toward the NHL is often a team’s ECHL affiliate, and the Caps have 3 players currently on the Stingrays roster. If you see the Stingays mentioned in the mainstream media, it’s generally tied to one of these three names:
– Philipp Grubauer is the biggest name among the prospects, a 20 year old goalie who’s already making a name for himself. He was named Rookie of the Month for January, and Saver (Goalie) of the Month for November. While he hasn’t started a game in the AHL yet, at the beginning of the season he served as backup in Hershey while the Caps played musical goalies with Braden Holtby and Dany Sabourin. He’s a strong and talented goalie, with an incredibly bright future ahead of him.
– Brett Flemming is the other rookie member of the Capitals system currently with the ‘Rays, a defenseman who’s seen time in Hershey as well as his current stint in Charleston. He’s picked up 9 points since moving South around the new year, and by all accounts is settling into the professional lifestyle well. Expect to see him moving up the ranks as well, whether next year or the year after. Barring a trade, we’ll see him in Washington at some point.
– Dustin Stevenson is the sole sophomore in the Carolina prospect circle who hails from the Caps, and he’s off to a slower start than his rookie brethren. He’s a big boy, listed at 6′ 5″, and has been collecting penalty minutes like they’re going out of style. In 52 games, he’s already up to 69 PIM (almost twice last year’s total).
There are several players on the Hershey Bears who started the year with the Stingrays; one has made a permanent transition, and two others are more transitory for the moment. There are also a number of players currently with the Capitals who got their start with the ‘Rays, including goaltender Michal Neuvirth.
Garrett Mitchell is the rookie who’s managed to make the jump stick, and he’s a Caps prospect as well. Lately, he’s been tearing things up on the “Not-a-Fourth-Line” 4th line of the Bears. He has goals in three of his last six games, more than half of his season total. While his numbers on the scoresheet are modest (5G, 2A – 7 total points, although his penalty minutes have been a bit higher with 55 in 39 games), his play has showed continuous improvement since being called up to Hershey in November.
Phil Oreskovic (defense) and Matt Pope (forward) have both been hit-or-miss in their time with the Bears, each on their second call-up this year. While they’ve been watching the game from the press box as insurance against injuries as often as they’ve been dressed on the bench, they’re still a visible reminder of the support that the Bears receive from the Stingrays when it comes to personnel.
The ECHL is a training ground for both players and officials alike. It’s where players get used to the heavy grind of road trips and 3-in-a-row schedules. It’s also where officials get used to calling games in professional contexts, the next step up from working with the 15-20 year olds in Juniors and NCAA games.
Epic line-brawls and penalty collections are a well-known element of ECHL games. For some reason, the Florida Everblades always seem to land in the middle of it when an ECHL team makes the news, and Monday night’s game in Charleston was no exception.
While leading 2-0, the Everblades were credited with a third goal that was scored while the net was a full 40 degrees off its normal orientation. Here’s a link to a Post & Courier article on the incident, including a response from the VP Hockey Operations of the ECHL. Short version: “Bad call. Very bad call.”
For video of the incident, click here and go to the 1:04 mark. In the background, you’ll hear the dulcet tones of Stingrays Play-by-Play announcer Joseph Zakrzewski.
4. They Win When We Need It Most
What’s more impressive than the sealed-the-deal 3-0 lead that the goal gave the Everblades is that the Stingrays came back to win the game 4-3. While the Caps were losing a game against the Sharks 5-3, Philipp Grubauer stopped a penalty shot with 3 seconds left on the clock and brought his team the triumphant comeback win.
5. They Win, Period.
The Stingrays have more wins on the season (29) than either the Hershey Bears (28) or the Washington Capitals (28). The Bears have two games in hand over the Stingrays, but the Caps are 4 games ahead of them into the season.
Earlier in the season, the Stingrays went on a 9 game winning streak that included taking seven of eight games on the road. When both the Bears and Caps were in dismal losing streaks, the Stingrays were winning with regularity.
The Stingrays are an ECHL team, which means they’re never going to receive the kind of attention and coverage that the Caps or the Bears get. It takes a little more work to keep track of them (Twitter is your best bet for direct from the team news, and both Caps Outsider & the Charleston-based Rays the Roof regularly include updates on the team’s season), but there’s a lot of reward to be found in this small-budget team.
The reward is especially sweet for Caps fans, who’ve watched rookie goalies bounce from South Carolina to the Washington pipes with incredible speed (most recently Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby). The first round draft picks might not tend to land on the Stingrays, but sometimes the lower rounders can prove just as valuable in the long run.