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Bears Begin Pursuit of Ninth Calder Cup Title

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
While 16 NHL clubs begin the pursuit of the Stanley Cup, 16 AHL teams will undertake the task of chasing the Calder Cup, that league’s championship trophy. The Calder Cup is named for Frank Calder, who served as the NHL’s first president from 1917 to 1943. During his term as the NHL’s president, Calder helped form the American Hockey League in 1936.

Twenty-five different cities have seen their AHL team take home the Calder in the circuit’s first 69 seasons. The original Cleveland Barons, who played in the AHL from 1936 to 1972, won an all-time record nine Calder Cup titles. The Hershey Bears, the Washington Capitals’ AHL affiliate, are second with eight Calder Cup championships, most among all current AHL franchises.

This spring the Bears are making their first playoff appearance since 2002-03 and they are coming in on the heels of the team’s fourth 100-point season in its 68-year history. The Bears finished up 2005-06 with 103 points, tied for second most in franchise history. Two of the three previous 100-point Bears teams went on to claim the Calder.

Tomas Fleischmann
 Tomas Fleischmann
The Bears won their first Calder Cup in 1946-47 and their most recent one in 1996-97. The ’96-97 club had 101 points. The 1987-88 Bears recorded a franchise record 105 points and roared through the postseason undefeated, going 12-0. During the previous affiliation between the Capitals and Bears a quarter-century ago, the Bears won the 1979-80 Calder Cup title. Gary Green started that season as the Bears’ head coach, but was hired to replace Danny Belisle as the Capitals’ bench boss in early November. Doug Gibson took over as player/coach for the Bears, and he piloted the team to an improbable Calder title; the Bears finished that season four games under .500 at 35-39-6.

Having racked up 100 points in the regular season bodes well for Hershey. Including the 1996-97 Bears, eight of the last nine Calder Cup champs finished the regular season with at least 100 points.

The first challenge for Hershey in this year’s Calder Cup playoffs is the Norfolk Admirals, the third seeded team in the AHL’s East Division. The Admirals finished the season with a 43-29-4-4 record, good for 94 points, the most Norfolk has accumulated in its six seasons in the league. Norfolk won seven of the 10 regular season meetings between the two teams this season, but both clubs are at more or less full strength going into the playoffs. That was not necessarily the case during the regular season when six of the 10 meetings between the two teams were decided by a single goal.

Because of some venue issues, the series will open in Hershey on Wed. Apr. 19 but will shift immediately thereafter to Norfolk for Games 2 and 3. Instead of playing the first two at home after winning home-ice advantage during the regular season, the Bears will play Games 1, 4 and 5 and 6 (if necessary) at home. The Admirals would have home ice for a seventh game if it is necessary. For Hershey, the importance of Game 1 becomes magnified as does the importance of avoiding a Game 7.

Hershey Bears
Hershey finished the season with 262 goals, most in the East Division and third most in the Eastern conference. The Bears head into the postseason with seven 20-goal scorers on the roster, the most the team has had since 1999-00 when it also had seven, one of whom was current Capital Brian Willsie.
Tomas Fleischmann
Jared Aulin

This year’s pack was led by Tomas Fleischmann with 30, followed by Kris Beech with 26 (including eight in just 10 games with the Bears), Eric Fehr with 25, Graham Mink with 21, Colin Forbes with 21 (including 11 in 36 games with Hershey), and Boyd Kane and Joey Tenute with 20 each. Seven different Bears also reached double-digits in power play goals scored.

The seven aforementioned forwards along with Jared Aulin, Chris Bourque, Boyd Gordon, Jakub Klepis, Brooks Laich (reassigned from Washington at the conclusion of the NHL season) Louis Robitaille, Dave Steckel and Stephen Werner give Bears head coach Bruce Boudreau 15 strong options to fill 12 forwards’ sweaters as the playoffs get underway.

Aulin, Bourque and Klepis are offensively gifted types who can be used to complement Hershey’s top offensive weapons. Gordon and Steckel are defensive stalwarts who head up the penalty killing corps and are among Boudreau’s most trusted soldiers. Robitaille is a heart and soul, blood and guts type who keeps the opposition honest, and Werner is Washington’s third-round (83rd overall) choice in the 2003 Entry Draft. He just finished his collegiate career at U-Mass and is just getting his first taste of pro hockey. Werner picked up three assists in his four regular season games as a Bear.

Laich is the wild card in the bunch. He started the season as Hershey’s No. 1 pivot, piling up seven goals and 13 points in 10 games before he was summoned to Washington. He ended up skating in 73 games for the Caps, acquitting himself well at both ends of the ice and contributing eight goals and 20 points along the way. If he can pick up where he left off after the rigors of the long NHL season, Hershey has an incredibly deep and diverse group of forwards that should fare well in the Bears’ chase for the Calder.

Kane, Forbes and Beech provide the most past playoff experience for Hershey. Kane captained last season’s Calder Cup champs, the Philadelphia Phantoms. Forbes got his first taste of the AHL playoffs with Hershey back in 1996 and has played in 35 Calder Cup contests (and 13 Stanley Cup playoff games) over the years. Beech advanced to the Calder Cup finals with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in 2005 and has skated in a total of 38 Calder Cup games in his three previous AHL seasons.

Tomas Fleischmann
Lawrence Nycholat
The blueline is very experienced from a regular season perspective, but it lacks some depth because J-F Fortin is sidelined with a sports hernia injury and is a longshot to play in the postseason. Although he played in less than half of Hershey’s games, Fortin ranked fourth on the club in blueline scoring. The Bears’ backline is solid without Fortin, but it is not deep enough to withstand much in the way of injuries.

Lawrence Nycholat finished the season with 13 goals (10 of them on the power play) and 57 points to rank fifth among all AHL defensemen in scoring. He played for the 2002-03 Calder Cup champion Houston Aeros and has a fair amount of Calder Cup playoff experience.

Freshman blueliner Mike Green made the league’s All-Rookie team, totaling nine goals and 43 points in 56 games as a 20-year-old rookie. Green’s postseason experience consists of three single-round series during his WHL days with the Saskatoon Blades.

Green is the least experienced of a grizzled group of Hershey defensemen. Mark Wotton is a 32-year-old veteran of nine AHL and two IHL seasons who led the Bears with a plus-16 defensive rating while chipping in with seven goals and 26 points. Wotton has AHL playoff experience but hasn’t gone on a deep playoff run since he skated in 15 postseason games with the 1995-96 Syracuse Crunch.

Fan and team favorite Dean Arsene finished up his fourth and finest season in the AHL and his third with the Bears, piling up 181 PIM (he was third on the team in that category) in 68 contests. Arsene will be getting his first taste of AHL playoff hockey this spring.

University of Vermont product Martin Wilde is a veteran of four AHL seasons who has also played professionally in his native Sweden. He was a steady hand while appearing in 63 games, his highest total since he played 71 games as an AHL rookie for the 2001-02 Providence Bruins. Wilde’s AHL playoff experience consists of a pair of games with the Bruins that season.

Jakub Cutta is a 2000 Washington draft pick (second round, 61st overall) with five seasons worth of AHL experience and 10 games of playoff seasoning gained during his days with the Portland Pirates. He is a stay-at-homer who can be effective on the penalty kill.

Deryk Engelland is a third-year pro who was promoted from South Carolina of the ECHL in midseason when injuries clawed into the Bears’ backline. The rugged Engelland fared well, putting up 77 PIM and a plus-2 in 37 games with Hershey. At one time or another, Engelland was a junior hockey teammate of Fleischmann, Laich, Owen Fussey and Brian Sutherby.

The Bears also believe that 2004 Washington first-rounder (27th overall) Jeff Schultz might join their bid for the Calder at some point. Schultz is starring for the Calgary Hitmen in the WHL, where his team will play a deciding seventh game against the Moose Jaw Warriors on Wednesday, the same night the Bears open their series with the Admirals. Whether Schultz’s WHL season comes to a close on Wednesday night or later, the Bears hope he can step in and give their defense a boost at some point during the march to the Calder.

Hershey’s goaltending is in good and experienced hands with Frederic Cassivi and Kirk Daubenspeck. Cassivi is an 11th-year pro who is coming off a career year in which he led the AHL with 34 wins and was 10th with a 2.59 GAA. Lifetime, Cassivi is 16-18 with a 2.79 GAA in 38 Calder Cup contests. Daubenspeck is a well-traveled eight-year pro who has 38 games worth of pro playoff experience under his belt. He was 10-6-2 with a 3.13 GAA and a save pct. of .895 during the regular season.

The Bears featured strong special teams all season. Hershey killed off 85.4% of its shorthanded situations on the season, the second best rate in the AHL. The Bears featured the league’s seventh best power play with a 19.4% success rate. Hershey’s total of 111 power play goals ranked third in the league. The Bears were second in the circuit with 572 power play opportunities on the season, an average of seven per game.

Boudreau won the ECHL championship with the Mississippi Sea Wolves in 1998-99; Hershey assistant coach Bob Woods was the leading scorer on that team. Boudreau moved to AHL’s Lowell team the following season, winning 33 games but getting ousted in second round of playoffs. Although Boudreau’s teams have had a great deal of success in the regular season (just two losing seasons in 13 years) throughout his coaching career, his clubs have not advanced to a second round series since 1999-00 when he was with Lowell.

Norfolk Admirals
Admirals rookie center Martin St. Pierre is the only player from either team to crack the AHL’s top 20 in scoring in 2005-06. St. Pierre totaled 23 goals and 73 points in 77 games to finish 19th overall and third among league freshmen in scoring. He is the first AHL Admiral to reach the 70-point mark. Mark Cullen almost certainly would have done so as well; he was on fire for the Admirals before he was promoted to Chicago. Cullen had 29 goals and 68 points in just 54 games, finishing 27th on the league’s scoring ledger. Cullen will be back with the Admirals for the playoffs.

Cullen is one of seven players reassigned from the Blackhawks to the Admirals for the AHL playoffs. He will be joined by fellow forwards Milan Bartovic, Matt Keith, and Brandon Bochenski and by defensemen Michal Barinka, Dustin Byfuglien and Danny Richmond (son of Caps scout and former NHL defenseman Steve Richmond). The influx of bodies from Chicago will give first-year head coach Mike Haviland plenty to think about as far as how he wants to tinker with his lineup.

The Admirals boast half a dozen 20-goal scorers: Nathan Barrett (30), Cullen (29), Keith (26), Carl Corazzini (26), St. Pierre (23) and Bochenski (22). Twenty of Barrett’s 30 goals came on the power play; he led the team in that department. Bochenski scored 15 power play goals while Cullen and Corazzini each had 13.

Richmond, Byfuglien and James Wisniewski are the most offensive-minded of Norfolk’s defensemen. Barinka, Brandon Rogers, Nick Kuiper and Steve Munn also figure to see duty for the Admirals on the backline in the playoffs.

Corey Crawford got the lion’s share of the duty between the pipes for Norfolk this season, posting a 22-23-1 record with a 2.94 goals against average and a save percentage of .898 in 48 starts. Adam Munro saw action in 28 games, spending part of the season with the parent Blackhawks. Munro was 17-8-1 with a 2.72 GAA and a .909 save pct. Expect to see him getting most of the starts in this series; he was 2-0 with an 0.50 GAA against the Bears during the regular season.

The Admirals ranked 20th among the AHL’s 27 teams in penalty killing during the regular season, snuffing out 81.2% of the opposition’s man advantage opportunities. The Admirals’ power play finished 16th in the league with a 17% success rate.

Notes – Norfolk’s Jason Morgan played briefly for Boudreau at Mississippi in 1996-97 … Cullen was a teammate of Nycholat’s on the 2002-03 Calder Cup champion Houston team … The Bears are beginning the 100th Calder Cup series of their storied history … The Admirals have never won a best-of-seven Calder Cup series; the Bears eliminated them in 2001 and 2002.

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