📝 by Zack Fisch | AHL On The Beat
Alex Ovechkin isn’t the only one turning heads for the Washington Capitals.
While Ovechkin is an ageless goal scoring wonder, the influx of youth in the Capitals lineup has been a major storyline in the club’s first few months of the season.
A multitude of injuries and COVID-19 protocol issues could have derailed Washington’s season, but the Hershey Bears ― and Washington’s underrated prospect group ― have come to the rescue: Nine players who have skated for the Bears this season have been called up to Washington. Add in recent Hershey graduates Martin Fehervary and Connor McMichael, and a wave of young talent has taken over in the nation’s capital.
“There’s a lot of youth that’s coming inside of the organization,” said Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette. “And you see them when we’re in trouble and they’re contributing so that’s a good thing.”
In recent years, NHL opportunities were limited for Capitals prospects honing their craft in Hershey. Injuries had been rare, and roster spots were hard to come by with one of the NHL’s powerhouse franchises. That’s all changed this season for prospects like Garrett Pilon.
“It’s really exciting,” said Pilon. “The past couple of years there weren’t a whole lot of call-ups, and this year there’s been a slew of injuries which is always unfortunate, but it’s giving a lot of young guys an opportunity which is a good thing. I think it’s especially good to see a lot of guys contribute in some sort of way as well. It’s a huge positive for the organization.”
Pilon is one of seven rookies who have scored their first NHL goal with the Capitals this season, striking on Nov. 17 at Anaheim. He followed in the footsteps of Hershey teammate Brett Leason, who was the first call-up from Chocolatetown this season. After scoring just three goals in his rookie season with Hershey in 54 games in 2019-20, Leason enjoyed a breakout campaign last year with the Bears, and he’s turned that into NHL success, scoring six points (three goals, three assists) in 22 games for Washington. Aliaksei Protas, Leason’s former linemate in Hershey, has also found a regular spot with the Capitals, posting six points (two goals, four assists) in 20 games.
Forward Joe Snively became the latest Bears mainstay to earn an NHL opportunity. An hour before Hershey’s game on Dec. 18 versus Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Snively was pulled from Hershey’s lineup. Just over 24 hours later, the native of Herndon, Va., tallied an assist in his NHL debut for his hometown Capitals in a loss to Los Angeles.
“Snively has been as good as anybody,” said Hershey head coach Scott Allen. “It was extremely exciting to deliver the news to him that he couldn’t play for us that night, and the reason was because he was going up to play his first game in the National Hockey League. He’s our latest call-up, and all of the guys who have gone up have played extremely well and done a commendable job helping Washington be where they are right now in the standings.”
Each call-up to Washington has been meaningful, but there may have been no better story than goaltender Zach Fucale’s NHL debut on Nov. 11. The beloved Bears goaltender finally got his first NHL start at 25 years old after spending over six seasons in the ECHL and AHL. In storybook fashion, the AHL’s 2020-21 Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Trophy winner pitched a shutout, blanking the Detroit Red Wings 2-0 at Little Caesars Arena.
“I’ll paint a picture for you, and the picture I want you to be able to see is me, clapping, cheering, and fist pumping in my living room at the end of that game,” said Allen. “It was an exciting moment, and I’m certainly very proud of Zach. I was so happy for him. He’s come such a long way and has been such a vital part of our team since he came to us last year.”
This season hasn’t been easy for Allen, a 25-year coaching veteran in his first season as Hershey’s bench boss. Roster changes happen daily, and the Bears have been decimated by injuries and the COVID-19 protocol. Despite that, Hershey has maintained a spot in the upper half of the Atlantic Division, and the club’s Calder Cup aspirations haven’t changed.
“When you’re going through tough times, and with the amount of injuries that we have right now and the call-ups that we have, you have to dial in and focus on the positives that come out of this. Seeing these guys live their dreams and play in the National Hockey League is what makes it all worthwhile for sure.”