Though his performance contradicts it, Pheonix Copley wasn't supposed to play for the Hershey Bears in the American Hockey League this season.
Originally penciled in for the ECHL, Copley's fortunes started to change when the Bears' No. 2 goaltender, Eddie Pasquale, needed additional hip surgery that sidelined him for the season. Having signed an entry-level contract with the Washington Capitals in March 2014, Copley was first in line to complete the tandem with starter Philipp Grubauer.
"Grubauer's been our MVP. It's his show, so to speak," Hershey Bears coach Troy Mann said. "But it's very refreshing as a coach to know that we have a guy like Copley, that if he needs to go in for whatever reason, he's certainly capable of winning hockey games for us."
The Bears, currently in the midst of the AHL's Calder Cup Playoffs, are headed into Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Hartford Wolf Pack on Friday at 7 p.m. ET. But it was the early heroics of Copley in their first-round series against the Worcester Sharks that helped them oust the San Jose Sharks affiliate three games to one.
With Grubauer having been recalled by the Capitals because of an illness that led Braden Holtby to miss Game 2 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the New York Islanders, Copley made 103 saves on 108 shots in the first three games of the series, including a 41-save effort in Game 1, to stake the Bears to a 2-1 series lead before Grubauer's return last week.
Hershey Bears goaltender Pheonix Copley (17-4-3, 2.17 goals-against average, .925 save percentage) has helped backstop his team, which are currently competing in the AHL Eastern Conference semifinals. (Photo: Michael McSweeney)
Despite the playoff wins and the stellar regular-season stats (17-4-3, 2.17 goals-against average, .925 save percentage), the 23-year-old from North Pole, Alaska, is still working day in and day out on improving his game.
"It's good to get experience, and with experience it improves confidence," Copley said. "But I'm just going to keep working with [Capitals associate goalie coach] Scott [Murray] and making sure I'm prepared for the next chance I get.
"Overall, it was a great year to learn and develop, and I think working with Scotty and getting my feet wet really helped me. His commitment is pretty unbelievable."
Copley's own commitment to his craft is impressive in its own right, something Mann is quick to point out.
"He's pushed Grubauer to be better because [Copley's] work ethic is just tremendous in wanting to get better," he said. "I think as a coach that's all you can ask for with your players. That's one of Copley's best attributes: his willingness and his drive to be better."
Hershey has been home to many of Washington's recent goaltending prospects, helping develop not only Copley and Grubauer, but also current NHL regulars Holtby, Michal Neuvirth (Islanders) and Semyon Varlamov (Colorado Avalanche).
"One of the things [Washington's] done is let them progress slowly," Mann said. "All these guys have spent some time developing, and Washington has done a great job of that."
Before making the jump to the NHL, Neuvirth won back-to-back Calder Cups with the Bears and was recognized with the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the MVP of the 2009 playoffs, when he tied the AHL record with 16 playoff wins.
Going beyond watching film or working on technique in practice, part of the development process is learning from the goalies who have made their way to a permanent spot up top, observing what works for them and what will lead to an NHL call-up.
"I've watched Holtby for a couple years, and the way he prepares for games and the way he focuses, it's amazing," Grubauer said. "Working with guys like Holtby, [Nicklas] Backstrom, and [Mike] Green every day. … Growing up, I saw those guys on TV. It didn't hit me right away, but two, three days later, it hit me what we had accomplished as a team."
Grubauer became the first German-born goalie ever to start a Stanley Cup Playoff game when he earned the win against the Islanders. The 23-year-old didn't know he'd be starting until that morning and had no idea the significance that his win carried back home.
"I'm always representing Germany. It doesn't matter the situation, on or off the ice," Grubauer said. "I didn't even know I was the first guy to start a playoff game. That's a huge honor. Hockey's not that big in Germany, and anything I can do to help that or make it bigger and get more recognition for German hockey, it's important."
Grubauer finished the 2014-15 season in Hershey with a 27-17-5 record to go along with a 2.30 GAA and .921 save percentage. He helped the Bears close out Worcester in Game 4 on May 1, becoming just the fifth goaltender ever to win playoff games in the AHL and NHL in the same postseason, and got the start against Hartford in Game 1 on Wednesday, making 41 saves in a 2-1 overtime loss.
"In hockey, you have to have a short memory," Copley said. "Whether you have a great game or a bad game, you have to move on. You can't let that affect how the next game goes. [You] have to go in the same way every game, whether the previous game was a great win or a bad loss."
Perhaps one of the more interesting goalie tandems in the AHL -- Copley and Grubauer were born and raised two continents and an entire ocean apart -- the two share that unique relationship only goalies can have. Each speaks highly of the other on a personal and professional level, and they've combined this season to form a formidable, not-easily rattled presence in net.
"They're always pulling for each other, and there's no jealousy in either personality," Mann said. "At the end of the day, both their goals are to make the NHL and to help the Hershey Bears win hockey games."
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