Friday, June 1, 2007

HERSHEY, Pa. — Athletes and organizations that take things for granted often wake up on the short end of whatever it was they assumed they owned outright. Perhaps that is among the reasons the Hershey Bears are assuming nothing in the Calder Cup Finals.

The Bears, the Washington Capitals’ top farm team, open defense of their 2005-06 American Hockey League championship at Giant Center in Hershey at 7 p.m. against the Hamilton (Ontario) Bulldogs, the primary feeder club for the Montreal Canadiens.

One of the most storied franchises in all of hockey, the Bears have won nine AHL titles and have been in the championship series 10 other times since beginning play in 1938. Hershey won back-to-back titles in 1958 and 1959. Hamilton has been a finalist twice, most recently in 2003.

“Winning last year doesn’t take anything away from this year or what we have to do,” said Hershey coach Bruce Boudreau, who also was behind the bench last season.

“It’s like Christmas. If you have a great Christmas, you’re really looking forward to the next one because you remember what happened during the previous one. There’s excitement. There’s anticipation.”

And this year’s Bears are not the same ones who bruised and battered their way to victory last year. It is a smaller, quicker team even with much of the same personnel.

“We play differently than we did last season,” Boudreau said. “We’re not as physical. I think the strongest thing about the club is we’re a little bit good in a lot of different areas. We’re pretty good on the power play, pretty good on penalty-killing. Our goaltending is very good. We don’t have any name defensemen except for [Caps rookie] Mike Green. Everybody else just comes in and competes hard. We don’t have any All-Stars, any leading scorers, none of that. But we do have good balance.”

That is probably going to make the Bears a tough team to defend, which three other Eastern Conference teams already have discovered. Hershey has a 12-2 playoff record this season; Hamilton is 12-5 against the West.

One of the main reasons the Bears have earned the right to go for two straight is Dave Steckel, a 6-foot-5, 220 pound center from West Bend, Wis., who spent four seasons at Ohio State before turning pro in 2004. He has six goals and 12 points in 14 playoff games this spring, and that doesn’t begin to tell the story.

“He’s probably our most complete player,” Boudreau said yesterday after practice and before meetings. “On another team he would probably be playing on a higher line, but we can’t afford that. He’s a checker who can score. He’s got six goals, but he plays against the other team’s top line every night, every shift. He’s very intelligent. He does an awful lot of things for this team. He takes the big draws. In the room he’s the guy who quiets things down. He just knows what he’s doing.”

He was picked in the first round by Los Angeles in 2001 and has slowly built on his offensive abilities as the rest of his game improved. Despite playing a key defensive role, his goal production jumped to 30 this season from 14 last year, and Boudreau thinks he could go higher.

What the Caps love the most is his ability to win faceoffs, an area in which Washington is sorely deficient. He is also an accomplished penalty-killer, another weak spot.

“Practice makes perfect, and Coach makes us work on taking faceoffs every day,” Steckel said yesterday. “That’s huge to my game, a huge asset. If they send you out there in the closing minutes, you’re there to control the game. Win the faceoff and you do. That’s a big responsibility. You have to make it work.”

Note — The Caps yesterday signed Finnish defenseman Sami Lepisto to a two-year entry level contract. He was picked in the third round, 66th overall, in the 2004 draft.

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