Washington Capitals Prospects Turning Heads with the Red-Hot Hershey Bears

Robert Wood@@bleachRWreachrCorrespondent IFebruary 5, 2014

Washington Capitals goalie Philipp Grubauer (31), of Germany, against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

The Washington Capitals have blown hot and cold this season. 

The Caps have held true to form in the last five weeks, compiling a 5-8-4 record since the first of the year. They are now 25-23-9 overall, earning 59 points and 13th place in the Eastern Conference standings

Luckily for Capitals fans, there is another team they can watch that has heated up recently and is winning hockey games on a consistent basis: 

The Hershey Bears. 

The Capitals' AHL affiliate is 8-2-0-0 in their past 10 games and 11-3-1-0 in the new year. The Bears have used this hot streak to overcome a frigid start and surge back into the playoff picture.

Hershey currently has a 24-15-3-3 record and is in fourth place out of five teams in the East Division standings. However, Hershey is only two points out of a three-way tie for second, and is only seven points out of first place. 

More importantly, Hershey is eighth in the Eastern Conference standings and would participate in the playoffs if they started tomorrow. Plus, Hershey has at least one game-in-hand on every team ahead of them in the conference standings and five games-in-hand on the conference-leading Manchester Monarchs. The Bears are in good position to move even further up the conference ladder. 

In the meantime, Capitals fans will be pleased to know that the Hershey Bears' resurgence is being fueled by several prominent prospects. 

In fact, of the 20 prospects listed by HockeysFuture.com as part of the team's most recent prospect report, four have been instrumental in lighting a spark under the Hershey Bears. 

The discussion of this group begins on defense, as is the case with any general discussion of the Capitals' prospects. Of the 20 prospects on the list compiled by Hockey's Future, seven are defensemen and two of them have been playing well for Hershey during the hot streak. 

Standout defensemen Nate Schmidt (No. 8 prospect) and Cameron Schilling (No. 13) have been joined by forward Michael Latta (No. 10) in heating up the Bears. 

The following table shows the statistical output for these three prospects over the course of the last 10 games, in which the Bears compiled that 8-2-0-0 record: 

Bears' Last 10 Games: Stats for 3 of Caps' Top 20 Prospects
Nate SchmidtD8011-2150.00
Cameron SchillingD10123+5128.36
Michael LattaC103710+4933.321
HockeysFuture.com, TheAHL.com

Schmidt was solid yet unspectacular in the eight games he played for the Bears. He missed two games while fulfilling a single-game call-up for the Capitals on Jan. 21. Schmidt's performance with the Bears both recently and for the entire season runs counter to his surprising success for the Capitals in 2013-14

Meanwhile, fellow blueliner Schilling was near spectacular in playing all 10 games for Hershey. He contributed offensively, finished as a plus player and stayed out of the penalty box for the most part. For the season, Schilling has three and eight assists for 11 points to go with a plus-12 rating and 73 penalty minutes. 

But of the three highly-rated Capitals prospects who excelled during this 10-game stretch, Latta turned the most heads. By scoring three goals with seven assists in the last 10 games, Latta now has six goals and 13 assists in only 23 games played. He also racked up three fighting majors in these same 10 games, including two in the Jan. 12 game against the Albany Devils. Latta now has six FMs for the AHL season and ranks third on the team in that category, according to HockeyFights.com

In addition to this trio, there were three other Capitals prospects who may have ranked outside of the Hockey's Future list but still managed to propel the Bears during their hot spell. See for yourself: 

Bears' Last 10 Games: Stats for 3 Other Caps' Prospects
Ryan StoaLW9178-112156.7
Brandon SegalRW10459+1172814.3
Jeff TaffeC105712+143315.2
The AHL.com

Ryan Stoa played well enough to earn himself a call-up to the NHL. However, the only thing he earned after that was a stick to the face from assistant coach Calle Johansson during a pre-game skate and seven or eight stitches to sew up the laceration before quickly returning to Hershey, according to Tim Leone of PennLive.com

If and when he does make the Capitals' lineup, Stoa will provide the team with more depth in the forward ranks. The Hockey News describes the 26-year-old as a "versatile depth forward with a little upside" and lists him as fifth on the Capitals' depth chart at left wing. Plus, the Minnesota native has 37 games of NHL experience dating back to the 2009-10 season.  

Brandon Segal, on the other hand, does not figure to crack the Capitals' lineup in the near future, ranking seventh on the team's depth chart at right wing. At 30 years old and with 103 games of NHL experience spread in five stints with four different teams, Segal can only be described as a journeyman. 

But that has not stopped the British Columbia native from torching the AHL in the last 10 games. And Segal has been the firebrand for the Bears' offense all season long, leading the team in goals, assists, points, power-play goals and points per game. 

And then there is Jeff Taffe, a man whose last name practically requires that he play for a hockey team owned by a candy company.

A Minnesota native like Stoa, Taffe could actually be considered more of a journeyman than Segal. He is 32 years old and has played 180 NHL regular season games for six different teams over seven stints. 

Taffe has struggled to catch on at the NHL level, and he does not even register on the Capitals' depth chart, according to The Hockey News. But he has been red-hot at the AHL level both during these 10 games and for the season as a whole. Taffe currently leads the Hershey Bears in shots on goal and is second in both goals and points. 

But one prospect has been hotter than all the rest: Philipp Grubauer

Ranked fifth on the HockeysFuture.com prospect list for the Capitals, Grubauer struggled in his last two starts with the Caps.

On Jan. 17 against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Jan. 19 against the New York Rangers, Grubauer allowed six goals on only 22 shots in the two games combined. 

In the wake of his cold snap, Grubauer quickly extinguished any smoldering doubts about his ability to be the team's No. 1 goaltender with his play in net for the Bears. 

In fact, the following table shows that Grubauer has actually played better for Hershey during the team's last 10 games than he did over the course of the entire AHL season: 

Bears' Last 10 Games: Stats for Philipp Grubauer vs. Entire Season
LAST 10 GAMES43-1-0-0239:42116110.94861.501
ENTIRE SEASON137-5-0-1793:51383353.922302.272

Four of the goals that Grubauer allowed in this recent stretch came in his only loss during that period, a 4-1 defeat to the Adirondack Phantoms on Feb. 1. But he also posted a shutout, and it happened to come against the archrival Wilkes Barre-Scranton Penguins on Jan. 26

Grubauer's season numbers are still impressive, despite not obtaining the minimum number of 900 minutes played to qualify for the AHL's goalie leaders. If he did qualify, Grubauer would rank seventh in goals-against average and eighth in save percentage

Led by Grubauer and the rest of these prospects, Hershey can stay hot enough to secure a spot in the Calder Cup Playoffs and even improve their seed in the process. This would of course give Capitals fans something to cheer about, as the flicker of light that is their team's postseason hopes begins to grow dimmer with every disheartening defeat. 

Better yet, some of these prospects could be recalled to the Capitals to help the big club get hot and make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the seventh straight season. 

Flames would be rekindled. Hope would be restored. Prospects would improve. 

Note: All minor league statistics updated through Feb. 4 courtesy of TheAHL.com unless noted otherwise. All NHL stats are from NHL.com unless noted otherwise. 


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