Earlier this week, the youngest members of the Washington Capitals organization took part in a three-team, nine-game tournament known as the 2018 Prospect Showcase. The young prospects, most of which will spend the lion’s share of their season with the Hershey Bears of the AHL, played a total of three games against the prospect teams of the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Nashville Predators. The purpose of this tournament is to familiarize the players with each other and the pace of the game, in anticipation of the coming season. While these three games may seem trivial, they play a pivotal role in helping the teams’ young players, many of which are participating in their first game after their college or foreign careers, come together and get to know each others’ style of play.
GAME 1: WASHINGTON 4-5 NASHVILLE
And boy did they ever come together. After going down 1-0 on a Colin Blackwell goal off the Predators’ very first shot on goal, the young Caps struck back quickly, with a Mason Mitchell tying goal at 5:34 in the first frame. This friendly contest became much less friendly when Connor Hobbs was driven hard to the boards by Nashville’s Mathieu Olivier, resulting in a fight between Olivier and Caps first-rounder Alexander Alexeyev, who was eager to defend his teammate after what he considered to be a less-than-clean hit on Hobbs.
“When people are hitting my partner and it’s dirty, I should protect him and stand up for him. So there is no questions I should do it.”
After intermission, the Caps came out hungry, posting two goals in the second period; one, a shorthanded tally from the stick of Brian Pinho, and the second as the result of a beautiful passing setup between Lucas Johansen, Garret Pilon, to Shane Gersich. Nashville refused to go away quietly, adding a goal from Yakov Trenin to reduce Washington’s lead to one going into the third period.
Though Maximilian Kammerer was able to bring the game to a tie yet again midway through the final period, Washington was unable to withstand the offensive pressure of the Predators, giving up goals at 2:42 (Olivier), 5:16 (Blackwell), and one final breakaway goal by Olivier to seal the fate of the game.
The Takeaways: The young Caps played fast. Very fast. Their speed, however, was countered by their own mistakes, which was highlighted by new Hershey Bears Head Coach Spencer Carbery:
“I’d say [we were] just a little bit sloppy sometimes with some pucks, and that will happen this time of year. But we need to be harder in some areas. We can’t be as careless, turning pucks over in dangerous areas.”
GAME 2: WASHINGTON 5-0 TAMPA BAY
After giving up five goals to the Predators a few days prior, Capitals rookie netminder Ilya Samsonov cleared a blank sheet against the prospects of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Stopping 21 of 21 shots on goal in the contest, Samsonov’s agility and movement were on full display, holding the Bolts off the scoresheet altogether, and earning himself his first taste of the spotlight on U.S. ice. Samsonov wasn’t the only star of the show, however, as Washington’s Brian Pinho scored his second goal of the tournament on the Capitals’ first shot on net, during the first shift of the game. After setting the early tone, Washington never took its foot off the gas, pushing themselves to a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes of play, behind a goal from defenseman Riley Sutter. With the defense in full-gear, the Lightning’s young talent had a difficult time generating shots, even with top defensemen Lucas Johansen and Connor Hobbs scratched for the event.
With Shane Gersich scoring his second of the tournament in the middle frame, the Caps were in good position when a shot from rookie left winger Beck Malenstyn found twine at the 5:30 mark of the third period. A breakaway goal from Washington’s Kody Clark was the last nail in the proverbial coffin at 9:37 in the third, leading the young Capitals to a 5-0 victory over a strong Lightning team that seemed unfamiliar with each other on Monday night.
The Takeaways: Every man on the ice in red appeared to be more comfortable with one another than they had even two nights prior, leading to a multitude of offensive chances, blocked shots on defense, and outstanding goaltending from Samsonov, posting his first career shutout in an NHL sweater. The defense seemed to be impenetrable, and the offense was firing on all cylinders. If this is any indication of what could be to come in Hershey, fans of the Chocolate and White should be very excited.
GAME 3: WASHINGTON 8-5 NASHVILLE
The Capitals’ final game of the tournament drew itself into an 8-5 slugfest of offensive strength and quickness. Ending the Showcase in Estero, Florida on Tuesday night, the Caps’ kids tied for scoring titles, with Sutter and Pilon ultimately earning five points each in the three games. After coming out roaring in the first, handling a 2-0 lead, the Caps extended their scoring streak with two goals in the second, and four goals in the final frame of the contest, allowing them to walk away with a 2-1 record in the 2018 Prospect Showcase. Washington’s first forward line of Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Garrett Pilon and Riley Sutter managed the first three goals for the Capitals on Tuesday, with Sutter adding a fourth in the latter stages of the game, getting him to two goals in the game. Other Caps goals were scored by Kammerer, Clark, Florchuk, and Malenstyn.
To add to these achievements, 19 of the 21 skaters that Washington fielded during the tournament scored at least one point, including each of the six picks from the 2018 NHL Draft. Capitals goalie Logan Thompson stopped 30 out of 35 shots faced in the final matchup, with Hershey starter Ilya Samsonov sitting out game three.
“Our squeezes were good,” says coach Spencer Carbery, “and we were able to turn that into transition. So it’s one thing to defend well, and to defend your line and create those turnovers, and then it’s a whole another thing to now take that and turn that into offense.”
The Takeaways: Never letting the Preds within less than two goals for the entirety of the finale, the young Capitals players appeared to be more in-sync than ever before. The forward lines were scoring goals, the defensemen were providing key feeds both through the neutral zone and in heavily trafficked attacking areas, and Thompson was sharp in net against a high-scoring Nashville offense that had topped the Capitals with as many goals just three days prior.
My analysis: The young players in the Capitals organization seem primed and ready to take their play to another level in Hershey, and possibly beyond, during the 2018-19 season. With main training camp now underway, many of these young players are still struggling with their first time in front of their new coaches, playing with and against top-tier talent, including names such as Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Niskanen, and Holtby. For many, this is their first professional training opportunity and their first chance at NHL stardom. So far, all of these talented youngsters look to be taking position, at least for the start of the season, in Hershey, alongside Coach Carbery, who worked side-by-side with them during the Prospect Showcase. The Capitals organization certainly has its hands full of promising young talent in every position on the ice, meaning that Hershey may see a better turnout from their AHL squad than we have seen in recent years. No matter where the chips fall or the storylines diverge and convene, the youngbloods in red and white all look eager to prove their worth on the ice to not only their peers and their coaches, but to their fans, as well.