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Postseason Farm Report

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
For the third straight season, the Hershey Bears advanced to the AHL’s Calder Cup playoffs in 2008. But for the first time in the last three seasons, the Bears will not be advancing to the Calder Cup finals.

After winning the Calder Cup championship in 2006 and advancing to the finals before losing to the Hamilton Bulldogs in a five-game set, the Bears bowed out of the 2008 Calder Cup playoffs last Friday. The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins ousted the Bears in five games in the East Division semifinals. In each of the previous two springs, the Bears eliminated the Baby Pens in the East Division finals.

Hershey’s roster was in a state of flux for much of the season, as is often the case with minor league affiliates. And many of its stalwarts of recent seasons – players like Tomas Fleischmann, David Steckel, Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, Boyd Gordon, Mike Green and Jeff Schultz – have graduated to the NHL.

The Bears’ bench boss of the last two seasons also graduated to the NHL. Head coach Bruce Boudreau was summoned to Washington on the morning of Nov. 22, and assistant coach Bob Woods took over behind the Bears bench the rest of the way. Woods did a solid job as Hershey’s coach, but he didn’t have the horses – or the comparative stability – that Boudreau had.

Hershey also had to endure a nine-game road trip late in the season, the longest journey in the team’s storied seven-decade history. Given the unusual rigors of the schedule, the change in bench leadership, the fact that the Bears used a team record 51 players and were a younger group than in the last two seasons, Hershey did well to get into the Calder Cup playoffs. The Bears employed 14 different defensemen in 2007-08, and none was able to play in more than 60 games.

A win over the Pens in Game 1 at Giant Center might have made for a different and better postseason script, but the Bears dropped that one in overtime. Needing to win at least one of the next two in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Bears were unable to get it done. They fell into a 3-0 series hole, and managed to stave off elimination with a 3-2 overtime win on home ice in Game 4. Veteran goaltender Frederic Cassivi put on a show for the home folks in that game, essentially stealing the contest for the Bears. With younger goaltenders on the horizon in the Washington chain and in Hershey, it may have been Cassivi’s final Giant Center performance.

Fehr’s third period goal evened the score in Game 5, but the Baby Pens put the Bears away with four unanswered goals in the final frame.

Several Bears had fine 2007-08 seasons in the AHL. Returning vets Chris Bourque and Kyle Wilson led the way offensively. Bourque totaled 25 goals and 63 points in his third AHL season, and he also got his first taste of the NHL in four games with Washington. Wilson had 30 goals and 61 points in his sophomore season in the circuit. Wilson was the only Bear to appear in all 80 regular season games.

Veteran defenseman Josef Boumedienne returned to North America for the first time since 2003-04 and was one of many Bears who were hampered by injuries. “Boomer” was effective when healthy, posting seven goals and 42 points to go along with a plus-18 in just 52 games. Equally as important, he served as a mentor for rookie Bears blueliner Sami Lepisto. The duo of Boumedienne and Lepisto was Hershey’s top blueline pairing.

Lepisto was one of several freshmen to acquit themselves well in their first full season in the AHL. He registered four goals and 45 points along with an impressive plus-29 defensive rating in 55 games with the Bears. Lepisto was Washington’s third-round (66th overall) choice in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, the same draft that brought Alex Ovechkin, Schultz, Green and Bourque into the Capitals’ organization.

Right wing Andrew Gordon was Washington’s seventh-round (197th overall) selection in that 2004 draft. Gordon signed with the Caps after his junior year at St. Cloud St., and was excellent with the Bears after a brief stint with the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays. Gordon finished his first AHL season with 16 goals and 51 points in 58 games. His plus-22 was the top mark among all Hershey forwards, and his five points led the team in playoff scoring.

Center Andrew Joudrey was another late-round (eighth round, 249th overall) selection who was an AHL rookie in 2007-08. He finished with 11 goals and 25 points in 61 games. Free agent signee Jay Beagle had 19 goals and 37 points in 64 games as an AHL freshman.

Rookie netminder Daren Machesney – a product of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft – went 22-10-2 with a 2.55 goals against average and a .916 save pct. in 38 games between the pipes for the Bears.

With a handful of talented freshmen likely to be clad in the chocolate and white in 2008-09 and several returnees likely from this year’s team, the Bears figure to be in good shape for next season.

Hershey’s playoff misfortune was South Carolina’s gain. Upon the Bears’ exit, Hershey assigned forwards Gordon and Steve Pinizzotto and defensemen Grant McNeill and Patrick McNeill to the Stingrays. In Gordon, Pinizzotto, Stephen Werner, Travis Morin, Patrick McNeill, Sean Collins and Sasha Pokulok, the Stingrays currently have seven players who are signed to Washington contracts. Werner and Morin currently rank among the ECHL’s top 10 playoff scorers.

Jared Bednar’s first season as Stingrays head coach was a successful one, as he piloted South Carolina to a 47-22-2-1 mark during the regular season, good for a second place finish in the South Division and the second best regular season mark in franchise history. Bednar spent the previous five seasons as an assistant to former Stingrays coach Jason Fitzsimmons. A defenseman during his playing days, Bednar played on both previous Kelly Cup winners in South Carolina.

South Carolina fell into an 0-2 hole in its opening round playoff series against Augusta, but roared back to take the next three and eliminate the Lynx in the best-of-five set. The Stingrays then got out to a 2-0 series lead over Gwinnett,  but needed the full five games to eliminate the Gladiators.

Seeking their third ever Kelly Cup championship and their first since 2001, the Stingrays are now in the third round of the ECHL playoffs, needing just one more win to eliminate the Columbia Inferno and move on to the American Conference championship. South Carolina has won eight of its last 10 games.

South Carolina’s goaltending is in the capable hands of veteran Davis Parley and rookie Josh Johnson. Both netminders won 20 games during the regular season and both have at least three playoff wins to date.

Travis Morin is another late-round Washington draft choice who has enjoyed success in his first full season as a pro. Morin totaled 34 goals and 84 points during the regular season to place third in the league’s scoring race.  He was tied for seventh in the ECHL in goals.

Last summer, winger Marty Guerin participated in the Capitals’ first summer rookie camp at their new Kettler Capitals Iceplex home, He impressed enough to earn a spot on the South Carolina roster this season, and he totaled 18 goals and 50 points in his first season pro after four years at Miami of Ohio.

Now, Guerin leads all ECHL skaters with nine playoff goals and is tied for the league lead with 13 playoff points. He notched a hat trick in South Carolina’s Game 2 win over Columbia on Tuesday night.

Pokulok’s first season as a pro (2006-07) was a difficult one; he played in just one AHL game and 16 ECHL contests because of pair of concussions. This season, Pokulok skated in 44 games with the Bears and was reassigned to South Carolina late in the campaign so he’d be eligible for playoff duty. Including both regular season and playoff games, Pokulok has 11 assists and is a plus-13 in 17 games with the Stingrays. He is logging plenty of ice time and has been utilized as South Carolina’s shutdown defenseman in the playoffs, with good results.

The Stingrays are now one win away from advancing to the American conference finals. South Carolina’s next game is Friday when it travels to Columbia for Game 3 of its best-of-five set with the Inferno.

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