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Bears Battle Pirates in Eastern Conference Finals

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
The AHL’s Eastern Conference finals series pits the past and the present of Washington’s AHL affiliates. The Hershey Bears will take on the Portland Pirates in a best-of-seven series to determine which club will represent the Eastern Conference in the AHL’s Calder Cup finals. This is the first season of Washington’s affiliation with the Bears; prior to 2005-06, Portland had served as the Capitals’ AHL farm team for more than a decade.

Game 1 is at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland on Wednesday night followed by Game 2 on Thursday. The series returns to Hershey for Games 3 and 4 at the Giant Center on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.

The Bears roared through the divisional portion of the 2006 Calder Cup playoffs, vanquishing the Norfolk Admirals and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins without suffering a single setback. In the process, the Bears became just the fourth team in league history to sweep consecutive best-of-seven sets in the Calder Cup playoffs. The 1987-88 Calder Cup champion Bears were the last team to accomplish the feat. That ’87-88 crew remains the only club in the league’s seven-decade history to blaze through the playoffs undefeated (12-0).

Bears goaltender Frederic Cassivi and his defense have combined to limit the opposition to a mere three even-strength goals in Hershey’s eight playoff games in 2006. The Bears have not allowed an even strength goal over the last 195:15 and have permitted just one during the last 351:41. The Bears have played 501:52 of hockey in this postseason and have trailed for only 19:58 of that time. Hershey has scored the game’s first goal in seven of its eight games with seven different players finding the back of the net.

Cassivi is 8-0 with two shutouts, a 1.67 GAA and a .937 save pct. in the postseason. He leads all AHL goaltenders in wins and shutouts, is second in GAA and third in save pct.

The Bears’ underrated defense took a battering in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton series. The Bears lost Mark Wotton and Lawrence Nycholat, two of the team’s top three defenders, for all or most of the last two games of that series. Nycholat has practiced some with the team over the last week, but Wotton has not.

Twenty-year-old rookie Jeff Schultz has stepped in and done a capable job of filling in, but the Bears don’t have much depth on defense at this point. Left wing Louis Robitaille has spent some practice time at defense, his natural position. Jeff State was summoned from Reading of the ECHL and has been practicing with the team. It’s anyone’s guess as to what the Hershey backline will look like when the puck drops for Game 1 on Wednesday night.

Hershey has seven forwards who scored 20 or more goals in the league during the regular season. The Bears have nine forwards who are scoring at that rate or better during the playoffs. Each member of the team’s top three lines has scored at least two goals in the Bears’ eight playoff games to date. Graham Mink and Dave Steckel lead the way with five each. Seven different Bears have accounted for the team’s total of 13 power play goals.

Kris Beech leads the Bears in playoff scoring with 10 points (four goals, six assists). Boyd Kane paces Hershey with a plus-11 defensive rating.

Hershey’s power play is clicking at a 21.3% rate during the postseason, third best among the 16 AHL playoff teams. The Bears have killed 84.2% of their foes’ power plays during the postseason, the sixth best rate in the league.

Three of Portland’s best players this season – forwards Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Dustin Penner – are skating for the Mighty Ducks in the NHL’s Western Conference finals. Getzlaf and Perry were recalled early in the season after playing fewer than 20 games with the Pirates. Penner was Portland’s second-leading scorer during the regular season when he piled up 39 goals and 84 points in just 57 games. Penner had two goals and five points in four playoff games for the Pirates.

First year pro Ryan Shannon led the Pirates in regular season scoring. Just a season removed from a successful collegiate career at Boston College, the 23-year-old Shannon totaled 27 goals and 86 points during the regular season to rank second among all AHL rookies in scoring. With eight goals and 14 points in a dozen playoff games, Shannon leads all rookies in both categories. Anaheim signed the 5-foot-9, 178-pound pivot as an undrafted free agent in April, 2005.

Another undrafted free agent is making quite a name for himself in the 2006 Calder Cup playoffs. Portland center Zenon Konopka played junior hockey with the OHL’s Ottawa 67s before signing with Pittsburgh as a free agent in Sept. 2002. He spent two seasons with the Penguins’ organization, but played primarily in the ECHL. In 48 AHL games during those two campaigns, he managed just seven goals and a dozen points.

Konopka has been centering a line between Garrett Bembridge and Pierre Parenteau. The trio accounted for four of the five goals in Portland’s 5-4 overtime victory over Hartford on Sunday, the win that propelled the Pirates to the Eastern Conference finals. Konopka had four assists in that game, including a helper on Parenteau’s game-winner. Konopka has recorded at least a point in all 12 of Portland’s playoff games this spring. He finished the regular season with a 12-game scoring streak and is now working on a spree of 24 games with a point overall.

Konopka leads all AHL playoff participants with 23 points and is second with nine goals.

Nineteen-year-old right wing Bobby Ryan joined the Pirates for the start of the playoffs. The second player chosen in last summer’s NHL Entry Draft, Ryan spent the 2005-06 season playing for Owen Sound of the OHL.

Among Portland’s notable blueliners is 20-year-old Ladislav Smid, a first-round choice (ninth overall) in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. Smid fared well in his first North American pro season, and he just turned 20 in February.

The Pirates’ backline also features Maxim Kondratiev, a 23-year-old Russian in his third year as a pro. Originally drafted by the Maple Leafs, Kondratiev went to the Rangers as part of the Brian Leetch deal and then went from New York to Anaheim in the January swap for Petr Sykora.

With 11 points in nine playoff games, Kondratiev is second to teammate Shane O’Brien (14 points) in playoff scoring among defensemen. A third Pirates rearguard, Kent Huskins, is tied for fourth in playoff scoring among blueliners with eight points.

In goal, the Pirates have 31-year-old Jani Hurme, a veteran of 76 NHL contests with Ottawa and Florida. After longtime AHL vet Dieter Kochan suffered a broken ankle in February, the Ducks made a minor deal with Atlanta to acquire Hurme on Mar. 1. The swap got lost in the agate type throughout North America’s hockey media, but it has proven to be a very fortuitous trade from the Pirates’ standpoint. Hurme went 11-5 with a .924 save pct. down the stretch of the regular season, and is 7-4 with a 2.91 GAA and an .898 save pct. in the playoffs to date.

Kochan is nearly recovered from his injury and could see action in the series.

The Pirates lead the AHL with 19 power play goals during the Calder Cup playoffs. Portland’s 19.8% power play success rate is fifth among AHL playoff teams. The Pirates have killed off just 79% of the opposition’s power plays this spring. That rate ranks 15th among the 16 postseason entrants.

Notes – In Konopka, Shannon, O’Brien and Parenteau, the Pirates boast four of the top eight scorers in the 2006 Calder Cup playoffs … Pirates forward Drew Miller is the brother of Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller and the cousin of former Capitals forwards Kelly, Kevin and Kip Miller. All five Millers played collegiate hockey at Michigan State University. Miller signed an ATO contract with Portland at the conclusion of the 2005-06 NCAA season … Pirates center J.B. Bittner was a teammate of Hershey center Dave Steckel at Ohio State University … Portland’s Geoff Peters had a brief four-game stint with the Pirates in 1998-99, when the team was Washington’s AHL affiliate … Former Bear and Pirate Maxime Ouellet made 35 saves to help the Manitoba Moose to a 3-1 win over the Grand Rapids Griffins on Monday night, forcing a Game 7 on Tuesday. Manitoba took a 4-2 lead into the third period in Tuesday’s Game 7, but Ouellet was reached for three goals on 14 shots as the Griffins downed the Moose to advance to the Western Conference finals against Milwaukee.

Washington at the Worlds – Caps head coach Glen Hanlon is piloting Team Belarus in this year’s IIHF World Championships in Latvia. Hanlon led the Belarusians to a 2-1 upset win over Switzerland on Tuesday, moving Belarus into a quarter-final matchup against Finland on Thursday. This marks the first time Belarus has ever advanced to the playoff round … With five goals in six tournament games, Team Russia’s Alex Ovechkin is tied for second among all skaters. Alexander Semin, Ovechkin’s Capital and Team Russia teammate, is tied for 12th in the tournament with three goals. Ovechkin is tied for 10th in the tournament in scoring with seven points; Semin is tied for 16th with six points. Russia takes on the Czech Republic on Thursday in its quarterfinal matchup … Washington left wing Matt Pettinger is representing Team Canada in the tournament. Pettinger has a goal in five games. Canada faces Slovakia on Wednesday in quarterfinal action … Caps assistant coach Jay Leach is serving in the same capacity for Team USA and Washington video coach Todd Woodcroft is filling that same role for Belarus under Hanlon.

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