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Capitals’ AHL affiliate cultivating a winning mindset

Hershey has claimed AHL title three of the past six seasons

Center Mattias Sjogren (right) has benefited from playing in the Swedish Elite League. He won a silver medal with Sweden at the World Championship last season. (Rod Lamkey Jr./The Washington Times)Center Mattias Sjogren (right) has benefited from playing in the Swedish Elite League. He won a silver medal with Sweden at the World Championship last season. (Rod Lamkey Jr./The Washington Times)

At the NHL level, the Washington Capitals are seeking their first Stanley Cup. But their top minor league affiliate, the Hershey Bears, are used to the sweet taste of victory: They've won 11 Calder Cup championships in the American Hockey League, including three in the past six seasons.

Winning is the standard.

"I think there are certain teams that expect to win every year, whatever league you play in, and we're no different in Hershey," coach Mark French said. "We've had very good success since we've been with Washington, so as a coach you're thankful that you have the type of depth that we usually have there."

This year could be special, too. An offseason of retooling for the Capitals also was one of restocking for the Bears, who brought back Boyd Kane and Graham Mink and also will get several players on Caps contracts who are experienced AHL players, such as wing Jacob Micflikier and goalie Dany Sabourin. Add that to a mix that already includes goalie Braden Holtby, defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Sean Collins - and minor league scoring ace Keith Aucoin - and it's no surprise Hershey will be one of the favorites to win it all.

"I love it," said Mink, a right wing. "I've been in organizations or areas where there's not as much pressure from the city standpoint or from the organization standpoint. It matches well and meshes well with my personality. I want to win every game every night, and I'm very comfortable in Hershey, and I don't look at it as pressure at all."

Last year didn't mesh with Hershey's usual winning ways. The Bears' stabilizing force on the blue line, Collins, was on recall with the Caps, and Holtby struggled after being sent back down to the AHL (.893 save percentage in playoffs). The result was a first-round exit.

Holtby called it something of a wake-up call.

"We've kind of gotten over the fact that that's going to happen, that it's going to come easy," he said. "I think we have a bit of a chip on our shoulder from last year. I think there's a lot of excuses we can put into it, but the bottom line is that we didn't win."

Perhaps more than any other NHL club, the Capitals foster success at the minor league level, whether it's with the Bears or South Carolina Stingrays (ECHL).

French noted that player development is "first and foremost," but that doesn't just include blue chip prospects such as Holtby and Orlov, and it explains why Collins and Patrick McNeill likely be the top defensive pair and Sabourin could start more games than expected.

"We really try to focus on the process," French said. "We want to develop their life skills; we want to make sure that today we're getting better. We don't focus on the wins and losses — we focus on the process and make sure we're doing the right things."

But there's no hiding the fact that wins and losses are how the Bears are measured. And if things go according to plan, last year was a blip and 2012 will feature a 12th Calder Cup banner being raised at Giant Center.

ONE STEP AWAY
A few guys Capitals fans could be seeing this season in the event of injuries and also down the road:

1. Braden Holtby, G, 22: Until the arrival of Tomas Vokoun, 2011-12 was supposed to be Holtby's chance in the NHL. But he's still young and now must prove he can win in the playoffs in the AHL.
2. Cody Eakin, C, 20: Some seasoning in Hershey couldn't hurt Eakin, who already possesses a nice all-around game but needs to play against grown men and get stronger.
3. Mattias Sjogren, C, 23: The big Swedish center can push people around after a few years playing professionally overseas, but his skating could use some improvement.
4. Dmitry Orlov, D, 20: It's always encouraging when European players are eager to come over and play in North America. In his first full season with the Bears, he'll try to refine defensive part of game.
5. Brett Flemming, D, 20:  Kitchener Rangers coach Steve Spott at Caps development camp in July called him a true "hockey player" because Flemming has impressive grit and some offensive skill, too.
Top prospects not in Hershey: C Evgeny Kuznetsov (KHL), LW Stan Galiev (QMJHL), G Philipp Grubauer (ECHL)

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