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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Hockey Log: Sunday Edition

Gill giving Pens a little more breath
Strength, stature and stamina beat stats for towering blueliner

The Pittsburgh Penguins are in the Stanley Cup Final -starting with Saturday's Game 1 venture to Detroit and after a 12-2 breeze through the conference portion of the playoffs- first and foremost because young guns Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and trade deadline import Marian Hossa score goals. Even Reg Dunlop couldn't dispute that.

The Pens also win because goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury -still fairly unripe at 23- has finally stabilized, and even when he's not healthy -like his ankle was for a considerable stretch in the regular season- backup Ty Conklin smoothly stepped up.

Considering the leaps Pittsburgh has made, from basement-dweller to first-round snuff to Cup finalist in a matter of three years, there's no disputing the value in GM Ray Shero's youth movement strategy. Theo Epstein would give an amen to that. But if they were to rush the magic like they have this spring, the Penguins needed a little more veteranship on both fronts.

They got that in Hossa on the scoring charts and in Friar alumnus Hal Gill on the blueline.

Compared to many of his peers, Gill's offensive output matches the level of Ron Paul's publicity in the Republican nomination derby. He's been that way ever since he was recruited to skate at Schneider Arena in 1993.

He has never surfaced as a Norris Trophy candidate either, whereas the opposing Red Wings boast the two-time reigning recipient, Nick Lidstrom. But as Miracle aficianados might interpret it, the Penguins don't need all the best players, but rather the right players.

Before Gill was plucked from the melting Maple Leafs on the February 26 deadline, the Pens' roster didn't have any bouncers exceeding 220 lbs. Now they have a 6-7, 250 lb. tower of power working for them and other than the expected initial grunts and groans that come with relocation, there have been no complaints.

Ordinarily, a deadline spending spree like the one Shero pulled is a surefire buildup before the playoff letdown. It happens to some franchise or other every year. Potent as the new depth chart may be, it's virtually impossible to gel in time to translate that Cup caliber to a champagne shower.

In this case, if nothing else, the tweaking has hastened the Pittsburgh progressive drive. While filling up on sparkling, unmistakable draft commodities was a respectably patient strategy, it wouldn't have hurt to mold in some fresh and fervent, yet well-seasoned bodies.

Gill fits that qualification. He already carries a decade's worth of familiarity with The Show but has garnered nothing in the way of a crack at spring glory. Between nine years in his childhood dreamtown of Boston and one in Toronto, he only advanced to the second round once in 1999.

The franchise he did that with, the Bruins, is still looking to rekindle that feat. And had he been bypassed in the last minute trade talks, Gill would have been destined for an April golf outing for the third consecutive year.

Instead, he's making his first legitimate run for the holy grail by gamely offering the Penguins a can't-hurt physical force that only the mightiest defenders can dish up. With only one point, an assist in Game 3 of the third-round Philadelphia series, to speak of through Pittsburgh's three-round, 14-game romp to the final, he has subsisted on savory camera attention for fanfare.

Prime example: Game 2 of the conference semi-final bout against New York. With his Rangers scraping out a last-ditch tempest, though with a then insurmountable 2-0 deficit working again them, screening mosquito Sean Avery decided to set the tone for Game 3 his own, personally defining way: by taking a whiff with his twig at Fleury. Even as the final buzzer and "We win" horn wailed throughout Mellon Arena, Gill found it necessary to counter any nonstatistical statement Avery was trying to make.

Gill pitched his gloves and hustled Avery into the right corner, arousing a one-minute sugar rush scuffle between both parties. Once Avery was pulled out by officials and guided to the dressing room, the Penguins carried on with the standard high fives and helmet taps. They subsequently moved on to Manhattan to snatch Game 3 and pace themselves to a 4-1 series triumph.

The depth and length of Pittsburgh's playoff run has also emboldened Gill's long-held ironman rep. Since his second year in the Hub, he has missed no more than six games per season. Only twice in nine 82-game blocks has Gill failed to lace up more than twice.

This regular season, he logged an aggregate 81 games played between the Buds and the Pens, technically disrupting his perfect availability due to the move.

He has since pushed that to 95 outings, but only now is he at the peak of the venture.

String of sting
This is the aforementioned Conklin's second venture to the NHL's final frontier in the last three seasons and second as a desginated backup. Only two years ago, opposite ex-Friar Fernando Pisani with Edmonton, he saw a not-so-glorious sliver of Stanley Cup championship action. He stepped in for the wounded starter Dwayne Roloson with six minutes left in Game 1 only to offer up a choppy, wrap-around deciding goal to Rod Brind'amour. Two weeks later, Brind'amour yanked the Cup (much too eagerly as commissioner Gary Bettmann had hardly finished his presentation speech) in front of the Oilers.

And that's just one of many candidates for Conklin's #1 bittersweet stab at a title. In 1999, he was on guard for the New Hampshire Wildcats when they fell to rival Maine in overtime for the NCAA championship. Four years later, he backstopped the Hamilton Bulldogs to victory in the longest Calder Cup final marathon in history (a quad-OT, 2-1 Game 2 triumph) only to fall short in seven games to the Houston Aeros. To add extra vinegar, the deciding game was played before a Hamilton mass of 17,428 -the largest audience for an AHL championship game up to that time.

Unless Fleury pulls a Roloson at some point this series, Conklin is likely to retain his bench door-holding duties. But would he take the opportunity if it arose? Well, he kilned a soothing 18-8-5 record in 33 regular season games, the most taxing stretch he's had in a while, and this high-pressure stage would be only a dollop less alien to him than it is to Fleury.

Would he take a cathartic sip out of Lord Stanley's mug either way? That probably needn't even be asked.

Cases in points
Speculation as to how various NCAA conferences might or might not toy with their respective OT formats in the coming season are picking up wind. In a Tuesday release, insidecollegehockey.com laid out such options as the NHL's four-on-four, then shootout procedure, the international approach of a ten-minute five-on-five bonus round, or an original format that would have teams go five-on-five then shrink it to a four-all lineup if need be.

Of course, the report also pinpointed the muddle this would potentially -no, more like assuredly- bring when the time comes for polling, pairwise rankings, and vital non-conference contests.

Simple solution: Step 1) all conference commissioners lay their ideas before a nonpartisan committee. Step 2) that committee tells every league to keep the 5-minute deal as is (like it or not, shootouts just aren't coming) and give a point to those teams who are zapped in that situation.

Contrary to the outspoken one-dimensional definition of "loss," the event of OT slippage is best categorized as a "regulation tie." Remember that term? It straightforwardly means that while you were beatable tonight, you were too much to vanquish in the standard sixty-minute stanza.

Don't bother employing a points factor in a team's overall 34-game transcript, but at least consider how often they pushed the opposition beyond the limit, even in a shortcoming effort. In any case, don't let this become a baseball-like mess where every league does its own thing (put the bat down, Brandon Webb).

Three of a kind
Incidentally, Pittsburgh's advancement with Gill on board makes this the third consecutive Cup final with a Friar graduate involved. Pisani sparkled with the startling Cinderella Oilers in 2006, pitching in a league-leading 14 goals in the effort that ultimately pushed Carolina to seven games. Last June, the steel-nosed, foil-fisted GM Brian Burke watched his concoction of Ducks bring the title to Anaheim.

What's more, the last time the Penguins skated after Lord Stanley, and won it all, they had another former Friar in Peter Taglianetti pitching in. Tim Army's former classmate charged up three assists in the 1991 playoffs and had his name etched on the Cup once more in 1992, though he saw no post-season action that year.

Quick Feeds: PC women's defender and budding two-way connoisseur Amber Yung has been invited to Team USA's U22 camp, set for the final week of June in Lake Placid. She will be joined by eight conference rivals -Megan Fardelmann, Molly Schaus and Kelli Stack of Boston College, Allyse Wilcox of Boston University, Amy Hollstein of Connecticut, Kacey Bellamy and Maggie Joyce of New Hampshire, and Linsday Berman of Northeastern- and receive tutelage from ex-PC skater and skipper Jackie Barto. Not surprisingly, the Cyclopean WCHA leads the list of American campers with 13 out of the aggregate 34...Seven other Hockey East participants and a grand total of 18 US collegians will be working out with Team Canada's U22 women's squad...Along with Gill, the Penguins' backline/backstop firm has four other Hockey East alums in goaltender Conklin (New Hampshire), and defenders Brooks Orpik (Boston College), Rob Scuderi (BC), and Ryan Whitney (Boston University)...Detroit's only figures of potential local interest are third-unit defenseman Brad Stuart, unbelievably a Bruin not that long ago, and spare enforcer Aaron Downey, who played that same role on the P-Bruins' Calder Cup team in 1999...The Celtics-Pistons series shifts scenery to the Palace of Auburn Hills for this long holiday weekend. What's the connection to hockey? Besides the untimely overlap with Game 1 at Joe Louis Arena? For passionate puckheads, there is a distressing flaw in the Pistons' street address: 5 Championship Drive. That, of course, is a nod to the three NBA championships and two WNBA Shock banners draping in the building. It neglects to acknowledge the old IHL Turner Cup title won by the late Detroit Vipers franchise in 1997...The ever-insightful New England Hockey Journal's final grades for the PC men: C- in both offense and goaltending, A- on defense, and a B- overall.

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