(Photos by Caps Outsider) It was all about the fans Saturday night...
The Ripple Effect: Hershey & Reading
File photo by M. Richter
If there was a silver lining to the lockout, it could be found in the minor leagues. In the absence of the National league, the American Hockey League [AHL] got more coverage and higher quality play. And just in time, the Capitals moved their ECHL affiliate from South Carolina to more gas-friendly Reading, Pa, allowing more fans to catch more up and coming prospects.
But now that NHL play looms on the horizon, the affiliates are again at the beck and call of the big league. Call-ups and send-downs have already begun with training camp expected to begin Sunday and regular season play next Saturday. So what does this mean for Washington’s own Bears and Royals?
In Chocolate Town, the personnel ripples are expected to be relatively minor. Braden Holtby and Dmitry Orlov are making the trip to Washington, Philipp Grubauer and Brett Flemming are trekking west to Hershey and Reading is getting a few guys in return as well as signing a player or two to fill in their gaps.
The Bears currently sit on the Eastern Conference playoff bubble, squarely in the midst of a three-way-tie for seventh. The Providence Bruins (lately home to such familiar faces as Chris Bourque and Christian Hanson, both 2011-12 Hershey Bears alumni) have three games in-hand over Hershey, who in turn holds a single regulation win over the Manchester Monarchs. While losing Holtby and Orlov will hurt, it’s unlikely that either loss will spell the difference between success or failure with the Bears. That being said, all teams are likely to see a higher number of call-ups as the NHL’s compressed schedule leads to the inevitable spike in injuries.
The other fallout that the Bears will see from the soon-to-be-underway NHL season is a bit more team-specific. The Bears are due to host the 2013 AHL Outdoor Classic on Sunday, January 20, against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. The NHL’s condensed schedule is set to kick off on Saturday, the 19th, and is likely to steal a fair bit of Hershey’s thunder on the great stage of hockey coverage. The Outdoor Classic is the only outdoor game on the AHL’s schedule this year, due to the cancellation of the 2013 Winter Classic and its affiliated festivities.
It’s worth noting that Hershey is getting off rather lightly in comparison to some of the other teams in the AHL when it comes to call-up carnage. The Oklahoma City Barons, farm team of the Edmonton Oilers, reflects the other end of the spectrum — they’re losing four of their top performers to the frozen North as the NHL reconvenes.
After a slow start to the season, the Royals have been on a hot streak for a little over two months now. Thanks in part to a steady Grubauer in net and the offensive output of defenseman Denny Urban, they’ve lost only four games since November. Both were selected to play in the ECHL All-Star Classic, scheduled for January 23.
Almost immediately after the announcement of the CBA agreement Sunday, Grubauer and Flemming were called up to Hershey to replace Holtby and Orlov. Urban has been with the AHL’s Worcester Sharks since December 30.
In expectation of the end of the lockout, coach Larry Courville, tapped as assistant coach for the All-Star team, first acted on the goalie situation. Having already lost backup Brandon Anderson in December, the departure of Grubauer would have left only Sergey Kostenko in net. The 20-year-old Russian has played only one game this season due to shoulder surgery in the summer that delayed his conditioning. Ten-year veteran Drew MacIntyre was brought in earlier this month, since winning both games he’s played.
Courville addressed the defensive issue with a signing on Thursday, acquiring Mark Mitera while on the bus from Kalamazoo, Mich. to Wheeling, W.Va. “I don’t wanna count on Washington or Hershey to send somebody. I wanna act now and protect ourselves,” said Courville just before the signing was announced.
Reading’s already deep offense received two more additions Wednesday with Alex Berry and Matt Pope being sent down. Berry returns after being called up amidst November’s 11-game win streak while Pope makes a quick trip back from the west, having played one game with the Royals last Friday.
The Royals have a comfortable first-place lead in the Atlantic Division, a little less so in terms of the entire Eastern Conference. They are third in the ECHL overall, behind the Alaska Aces and Ontario Reign. The league-leading Aces have been one of the hardest hit teams, losing big names Scott Gomez and Brandon Dubinsky along with four other players, including Caps property Joey Crabb. Crabb is the 12th top scorer in the ECHL with 38 points in 35 games.
While Courville won’t have to worry about completely revamping his team (barring injuries), he and the Royals are determined to keep the top spot going into the second half of the season. Citing defensive play, the coach and director of hockey operations still sees room for improvement, “Teams are successful when [we’re] making sure that we’re ready to play every night, not being too loose and not taking things for granted.”
M. Richter contributed to this article.