HERSHEY, Pa. – Injuries and call-ups have been an early storyline for the Hershey Bears, changing their roster dramatically over the first month of the 2021-22 season. The Chocolate and White have struggled a bit over the past few weeks, and it’s easy to see that the player losses have been contributing to that. Despite the present difficulties for the Bears, it’s worth recognizing the success that their players have enjoyed in the last couple of weeks with the Washington Capitals, as Garrett Pilon became the latest player to make his debut with the Capitals this season.
The biggest loss for the Bears in the early going has no doubt been Connor McMichael, who cleaned up a lot of awards and led Hershey in scoring during the 2020-21 season. McMichael, simply put, is fun to watch and creates a lot of offense, and although it was only a matter of time until he went to the NHL and stayed there, the hope was that he’d have one more year in Hershey to help the team pursue a Calder Cup. McMichael could still land in Hershey if Washington gets all of their centers off of the injured list, particularly Nicklas Backstrom, who has not played at all yet this season due to lingering issues from an offseason hip surgery. His absence paved the way for McMichael, who has two goals and four assists in 14 games with the Capitals this season, and could have much more. He has been well received by the Caps so far for his overall play, but on an entry level contract, could easily go to the Bears in the postseason if Washington has an early exit. McMichael would be the last player Washington would send to Hershey unless they get fully healthy at center.
Another player lost from last season’s squad was a bit more expected, but defenseman Martin Fehervary looks like he has far more NHL experience than his stat sheet would otherwise suggest. Fehervary has become a key part of Washington’s lineup, and has added two goals and three assists in 17 games as well as a plus four rating. His presence on the backend has become so important it’s hard to imagine Washington without him this season, and it’s a large part of why the Capitals have been so successful so far this season.
Washington has a lot of prospects in Hershey, and when their injury list started with right winger T.J. Oshie, the Capitals looked to Brett Leason to fill in that position with his first NHL call-up early in November. Leason has enjoyed success so far with the Capitals, registering two goals and an assist in nine games played after tallying a goal in five games with the Bears to start off the season. With right wing forward Anthony Mantha out with injury since Leason’s recall, it may turn into an extended stay for him in Washington, and all the skills he’s shown in Hershey have translated well. Responsible at both ends of the ice, Leason’s two-way play has been as important as the points he’s registered so far this season.
It seemed like only a matter of time before Axel Jonsson-Fjallby would get a look in Washington. The Capitals’ brass has been high on the speedy Swede for a few seasons now, and he’s made the most of his opportunity so far. Jonsson-Fjallby has registered an assist in six games but very nearly got his first NHL goal earlier this week that was unfortunately waved off due to offsides. It’d be easy to see his role increase with the Capitals in a fragile state, particularly as such a lethal part of Hershey’s penalty kill over the years, and it’s only a matter of time before the points start rolling in.
Aliaksei Protas was recalled earlier in the month with center Nic Dowd out with injury. Protas has been utilized in a few different bottom six roles in six games with the Capitals, occasionally teaming up with Leason like they did in juniors and in Hershey, and is still waiting for his first NHL point. Protas has been impressive in his brief AHL stay both last season and so far this season, and continues to adjust well to the North American style of play. He has five points (one goal, four assists) in eight games with the Bears so far this season.
As mentioned earlier, Garrett Pilon was the most recent player to make the jump to the NHL with the Capitals in more roster uncertainty. In his second game after making his debut at the tail end of last season, Pilon earned his first NHL goal on a deflection in Anaheim that helped Washington earn a point in what eventually became an overtime loss. He spent a large portion of last season on the Washington taxi squad following an incredible start to the season in Hershey, and continues to show why he’s among the AHL’s best scorers.
Last and certainly not least, goaltender Zach Fucale made Capitals history by earning a shutout in his NHL debut with the team with a win over the Detroit Red Wings. Fucale was summoned after former Bear Vitek Vanecek rested following a rough conclusion to a prior game, and in a back-to-back set of games, Fucale took one of the road starts. Fucale has routinely been among the AHL’s best since joining the Bears, and his impressive performance no doubt has him high in the minds of Capitals coaches for a recall.
It is easy to see that once some or all of these parts return to Hershey, the Bears will once again reassert themselves as one of the best in the Eastern Conference.
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