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AHL success trickles up to Capitals

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 9, 2009

HERSHEY, Pa. | Eventually, Michal Neuvirth is going to face adversity. When he does, he will remember when he made three saves in the final 15 seconds of Game 4 of the Calder Cup Finals - with his team up a goal and down two skaters - to preserve a 2-1 victory.

The Hershey Bears are one win from capturing the Calder Cup for the second time in four seasons, and they will try to clinch the American Hockey League championship Tuesday night at Giant Center. For the Washington Capitals, the success of their top minor league affiliate has helped foster success at the NHL level and is a key part of how they want to develop their players.

"You've got to start at this level, and you look at how it has all progressed. ... A lot of guys in Washington right now are guys who were here during the championship run [in 2006]," Hershey coach Bob Woods said. "I think it is important to develop, but it is better to develop in a winning environment. Once guys get a taste of it, nothing else is good enough."

Added Hershey general manager Doug Yingst: "I think the philosophy, and it comes from Washington and certainly from Hershey, is that you win and develop and you don't develop and win. I think guys develop by winning. I think in our brief history with the affiliation, that has proven right."

Trying to find the right balance between winning and developing players is the task every AHL franchise is charged with, but the affiliation with Hershey has provided the Capitals and Bears some unique benefits.

The combination of Washington's deep pool of prospects and Hershey's commitment to adding AHL veterans gives Woods maybe the deepest and most talented roster in the league. This is the third time in four years the Bears are playing for the championship, and these deep playoff runs provide a chance to accumulate experience that wouldn't be possible otherwise.

It is tough to say how much translates from the AHL to the next level, but playing in situations like the one Neuvirth faced Sunday night certainly will aid the young goaltender.

"I think a lot of it has to do with confidence. If the team is winning, you become confident and it is just contagious," forward Quintin Laing said. "To me, you have to learn how to win, whether it is the [ECHL], AHL or NHL. There is a certain way you have to play and certain sacrifices you have to make.

"Look at Dave [Steckel] as a good example up there. He was awesome down here in the playoffs, and up there he was one of their best players. I think that had a lot to do with him learning how to win here and having the confidence to get it done on that stage."

The Bears play in front of some of the largest crowds in the AHL, and there will be more than 10,000 squeezed into Giant Center on Tuesday for Game 5. Hershey's proximity to the District makes it possible for Caps fans to make the trip, and there was plenty of red, white and blue mixed in with chocolate and white in the crowd.

"I've never heard a building as loud as it was [Sunday] for the starting lineups," said defenseman Karl Alzner, who played in 30 NHL games this season. "And I've never heard anyone's name get cheered for louder than [Neuvirth] was - in person at least."

The Bears' success isn't an anomaly: South Carolina, Washington's ECHL affiliate, secured the Kelly Cup by defeating Alaska in seven games.

Bruce Boudreau led Hershey to the title in 2006 and the final round in 2007. Now that he is the bench boss with the Caps and his former lieutenant, Woods, is in charge here, there is a relationship between the franchises that doesn't exist in every NHL-AHL partnership.

"I think it is so helpful," Boudreau said. "The feeling of winning - I mean, our guys who have been through it know what it takes, the sacrifice that is involved. You are willing to work so hard because the feeling of winning is so overpowering. If you haven't been through that, you can only guess what it is like.

"If these guys are fortunate enough to win [Tuesday] or in the next two games, they will give a better effort in training camp, and they will be better players because of it."