Friday, January 19, 2007

RALEIGH, N.C. — Jeff Schultz was practicing with his Hershey Bears teammates Wednesday when he got “the call.”

When defenseman Mike Green took a shot off his foot Tuesday night in Ottawa, it left the Washington Capitals down a man and created an opportunity for Schultz.

“Right around noon they pulled me off the ice and told me that I was catching a flight to Raleigh and that I would be meeting the team down there,” Schultz said. “I was next on the list to be called up. I think it shows that management has a lot of confidence in me that I can play here.”

It was the third time this season Schultz, a 6-foot-6, 224-pound defenseman from Calgary, Alberta, was told to report to the big league team, but meeting up with his teammates was still an adventure.

Schultz drove from Hershey, Pa., to Dulles International Airport, but the afternoon traffic proved problematic and he missed his scheduled flight. Instead of getting to Raleigh, N.C., at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Schultz arrived at around 9 p.m.

There can be other logistical issues for minor league call-ups like how many clothes to pack and where to stay. This time the schedule dictated that Schultz could pack light.

“The All-Star Break is next week so I only packed for three or four days because I figure I will be going back down [to Hershey] for that week,” Schultz said. “Then I guess we’ll see how these guys are recovering from their injuries — who knows if I will be back up or not.”

The Caps house their call-ups in a hotel near Verizon Center. Schultz said he has stayed there only one night because of the team’s travel schedule, but Lawrence Nycholat, who was recalled from Hershey on Dec. 23, has logged plenty of time there.

Schultz did not appear in a game the first time he was called up Dec. 2 and was sent back a day later. The Caps recalled him 19 days later and the 20-year old received his first NHL action. He played in four games without registering a point before returning to Hershey.

“He’s a young first-round pick who is a steady player and he’s going to have a really good career,” Caps coach Glen Hanlon said. “We all know this is a tough league to learn on the job. It was the same thing with Greenie [Mike Green] last year.

“Can we expect ‘the Sarge’ to come in here and be a top-2 defenseman? I don’t think it is fair to expect that. We saw some good things with him and some things that when he left to continue to work on and he has. We are excited about his progress.”

Schultz was the Caps’ second of three first-round picks in the 2004 draft. Washington selected Alex Ovechkin No. 1 overall and then used No. 27 (acquired from Boston for Sergei Gonchar) to pick Schultz and No. 29 (acquired from Detroit for Robert Lang) to take Green.

This is Schultz’s first full season as a professional. He joined Hershey during the AHL playoffs last season after completing his junior career with the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League. He has one goal and five assists in 33 games for the Bears.

“It has been a learning experience,” Schultz said. “It is my first year pro, just living by myself and having to fend for myself, there have been some ups and downs. It started off a little slower than I wanted, but it has picked up.”

Schultz acquitted himself pretty well Thursday night in his return to NHL action. He logged nearly 19 minutes and didn’t look out of place. He blocked a team-high three shots and attempted one shot — a hard wrist shot from the point that bounced off Carolina goalie John Grahame and led to a pair of rebound opportunities for Ben Clymer.

He spent 3:04 on the ice with a man down and the Caps’ penalty killing units played well against the offensive-minded Hurricanes. Schultz’s biggest test of the night was a shift early in the second period that lasted almost three full minutes because of an icing call and the Caps’ inability to clear the puck.

“I thought ‘Sarge’ Schultz had a good game,” Hanlon said afterward. “Sometimes you are not as critical with first-year players when they get called up, but you look for the positives. I thought he did a lot of things well.”

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