• Check out the Free Press founder's new Rhode Island/New England sports blog
  • http://providencesportsscribe.blogspot.com/

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Hockey Log: Special Edition

Frozen Four Preview: Battles of unquenched thirst

Boston College, yet again standing as the east coast’s final hope for an NCAA crown, will take on a rather personal task in the semi-final. You know, given that they spilled the 2006 title at the hands of Wisconsin, which hosted its own regional this year.

Wait, hold the phone on that.

Well, it appears North Dakota somehow shook off the badgering menace that usually comes with visiting someone else’s campus in the national tournament and actually overthrew the home team in overtime, 3-2, at the Kohl Center to usurp that free ride to the Frozen Four. Take heed, folks; the Wrigley Field Parade Committee is waiting next in line.

Anyway, the Eagles (23-11-8) shall lock twigs with the Fighting Sioux (28-10-4) in their seventh NCAA tournament tilt over the last decade, dating back to a 3-1 BC triumph in the 1999 West Regional. More specific to the current generation, these clubs will have their fourth consecutive post-Vernal Equinox tangle in a rematch of the infamous 40-minute game last October that was suspended due to Stanley Cup Final-like weather conditions that gagged the Conte Forum.

In the time that they had for that game, though, the Sioux and the Eagles scraped out an XL serving of shots (28-24 count, North Dakota favor) and penalty minutes (14 by BC, 10 by UND, three sets of coincidental minors). No surprise given that this matchup is traditionally a lock n load tempest of rocketing rubber and battering bodies.

What should have floored the fans that night was the fact that contesting crease keepers John Muse and Jean-Philippe Lamoureux neutralized all the rubber that came their way for a 0-0 final. In previous three meetings, all in post-season play and all with Lamoureux (or Jordan Parise) staring down Cory Schneider, the victor has garnered six goals while the loser clicked no fewer than three times.

This time around, the Sioux might lay claim to the upper hand given that, for all of his impressive acrobatics, the BC rookie Muse may be a touch shagged out at this point. Conversely, Lamoureux is a three-time Frozen Four goer and a starved no-time champion. If the molecular mix of special teams implodes again –as it is liable to do when the Eagles and Sioux face off- experience in the cage may tip the scale.

Then again, Boston’s bloated offense –led by Hobey Baker finalist Nathan Gerbe, who is similarly starving for a title- is on one of its best productivity streaks. Four Eagle puckslingers have exceeded 40 points this season versus only two –TJ Oshie and reigning Baker champ Ryan Duncan- for North Dakota.

All in all, though, UND looks to be the hottest member of the pool, having gone on a 16-0-3 romp through the stretch drive of the WCHA season before spilling their shot at a conference title in a semi-final loss to Denver. For them, that’s a trivial speed bump at this point. Five of their conference cohabitants were granted a shot at the ultimate prize, and they are the only ones with their coupon still intact.

While Hockey East mesmerized this coast with its ultimately self-consuming campaign of ten-way parity and the WCHA spoiled itself as usual, the giants of the long-suffering CCHA have collectively looked like the CCCP on the national leaderboard. It is thus fitting that it should have an unofficial second conference championship game to decide who will fight to keep the NCAA trophy in commissioner Tom Anastos’ territory a little longer.

Two football-famed institutions in Michigan and Notre Dame will make for the nightcap. The Wolverines (33-5-4), who snatched both regular season encounters in mid-January, have but five losses to speak of through 42 games, all but one of those shortcomings being decided by a mere goal, two in overtime.

The skating Irish (26-15-4), meantime, pulled a couple of Rudys in the West Regional, tossing away New Hampshire, 7-3, before zapping conference rival Michigan State’s title defense with a 3-1 win in the final.

Therefore, the obvious question hovering over Notre Dame’s trendy solid gold lids is how much more puck luck can be mustered. Head coach Jeff Jackson and sidekick Paul Pooley certainly don’t need an Intro. to Michigan lecture to know what they’re confronting.

The Wolverines, led by another Hobey hopeful in Kevin Porter and goaltender Billy Sauer’s runaway +64 rating, have been a yearlong constant around the top of the polls, usually trading off with Miami of Ohio, whom BC abolished in overtime last week.

A story in every scenario

No matter what pair of schools moves on to Saturday’s final frontier, there will be an intriguing storyline.

BC-Notre Dame would be yet another gridiron tradition transferred to the rink. Hockey’s “Holy War.”

Not unlike UND, Michigan has a saturated recent history of high-stakes action with the Eagles. Since their get-together in the 1998 championship (the Wolverines’ last title), they have since encountered in the 2001 semi-final, 2004 regional, and several mid-season weekend tournaments. Most recently, the Wolverines commenced their 2007-08 campaign with a quirky 4-3 OT win over the Eagles –decided by an own goal- back on October 12 at the Minnesota-hosted Icebreaker Cup.

Similarly, the Sioux in the last two years have bumped Michigan in the regionals for the right to face and succumb to the Eagles in the national semi-final. And about that nickname; the battle over the tribal mascot in Grand Forks never seems to let up. Neither does the program’s ability to push away every movement that’s thrown at them the same way Lamoureux often does an opposing puck salvo.

But if North Dakota advanced opposite Notre Dame (in a battle of NDs) it might get a few more people pondering this: for all the Native American nickname controversies, how come the Irish never protest an Indiana school representing them with a belligerent leprechaun?

Odds and Ends

· The Eagles will be vying for the program’s and conference’s first NCAA banner since 2001. And they will do it on the same pond where, that same year, longtime Hub hero Ray Bourque finally got his Cup with the Avalanche.

· The last time the Eagles ventured outside of the Bay State was for a home-and-home series with the Friars back on March 1. BC has since throttled PC at home in the Hockey East quarter-final, snatched the Lamoriello Trophy at the Garden, and scraped out its regional thrillers at the DCU Center.

· On that note, the city of Worcester doesn’t get much more pleasant for the Golden Gopher cult in Minnesota. Two years removed from the Holy Cross shocker, “The U” ended its 2007-08 season at DCU Center with a 5-2 falter to their fellow Maroon and Gold Machine.

· Both the Eagles and Wolverines have already whetted their appetites with a pair of significant tournament triumphs. In addition to their respective conference banners, BC claimed the Beanpot while Michigan –throttling the Friars, 6-0, along the way- won its long starved-for Great Lakes Invitational over the holidays.

· This will be the first time that the Frozen Four has been held in Colorado since 1976, when the late Herb Brooks’ Minnesota powerhouse topped Michigan Tech in Denver, but not before the infamous semi-final Bloodbath with Boston University (pop in the movie Miracle –as the four current competing teams just might do at some point this week- and you’ll remember that reference.) In the tournament’s youngest years (1948-1957), the Frozen Four was always conducted at Colorado Springs’ Broadmoor Arena.

· Irish blueline bouncer Christian Hanson is the son of Dave Hanson, aka #16 Jack Hanson of the Charlestown Chiefs.

Friar Briefs

PC alumna Karen Thatcher charged up two goals and a +4 rating in Friday’s 8-1 US steamrolling of Germany in the preliminary round of the Women’s World Championship in China. On Saturday, Mari Pehkonen pitched in a helper on Heidi Peltarri’s decider in a 6-1 Finnish thumping of Japan. The Finns confront rival neighbor Sweden at 12:00 Sunday before the Amerks tangle with Japan at 3:30…Last week, Friars Kathleen Smith and Matt Taormina were tabbed for their respective All-New England teams by the New England Hockey Writers guild…Well into the thick of his pro career –and to think he was still the arguable fan favorite at Schneider three weeks ago- Cody Wild has two assists in nine games with the AHL’s Springfield Falcons. Trevor Ludwig has the same scoring data through four appearances with the Iowa Stars…Soon-to-be Friars Ashley Cottrell and Genevieve LaCasse will vie for a U19 national championship Sunday when their Little Caesar’s club faces the Chicago Mission. Cottrell, who signed an NLI back in December, already has five goals in as many tournament games while LaCasse has shared netminding duty with Brittany Ott. The USA Hockey title game is slated for a 2:00 draw in West Chester, Penn.

Men's Lacrosse 10, Mt. St. Mary's 5

Time well spent

Friars set pace early to top Mountaineers

At the 4:41 mark of Saturday’s first quarter, Mt. St. Mary’s coach Tom Gravante called a superficially rational timeout, his team already having relinquished two goals to the Friars.

At nearly the same point of the second quarter, PC boss Chris Burdick, his guys now up 4-1, was compelled to ask for his own freeze-frame. The Friars were engaged in a prolonged, futile swarm around the Mountaineer cage after they had just shaken off two man-down segments –one 30-second and one a full minute- to start the frame.

But seven seconds after play resumed and fresh group of cleats was deployed, midfielder Mark Dillon picked up Bobby Labadini’s frozen play top right, churned around a block of challengers, and thrust home his second of four goals on the day. Providence proceeded to match its first quarter output and pace itself to an eventual 10-5 victory, bulking them up to 4-0 at the half of their MAAC schedule.

In front of a more-than-brimful audience drawn to the field by the Alumni Weekend festivities and barbeque, the Friars revved up their own griller comfortably early and exploited a curious discrepancy between themselves and the 2008 installment of the Mountaineers. Once a guaranteed roadblock in PC’s annual endeavor for a MAAC banner and NCAA ticket, Mt. St. Mary’s this year is in deep refilling mode with 16 freshmen out of 30 rostered players.

Up until the fourth quarter, at which point the Friars had curtained their scoring for the day, the Mountaineers thawed out enough to stir more lengthy trips to the attacking zone and translated it to three pride-salvaging strikes, all assisted by senior Joe Derwent (game total 1 goal, 4 assists) and two scored by promising frosh Jon Rodrick.

Well in advance of all that, however, the likes of Dillon (4 goals and 1 assist); Jackson Fallon (3 goals, 1 assist); Colin Tigh (two goals) and Robert Lamontagne (goal-helper package) all charged up their own multi-point transcripts for the Friars.

Dillon, who pole-vaulted over Bennett Murphy (one assist) for the team lead with 17 points, sparked the salvo 50 seconds into the game, accepting a return feed from Fallon and converting a high straightaway toss.

Less than three minutes later, after a similar back-and-forth game of catch with Fallon, Dillon found Lamontagne open along the far post. Lamontagne connected on a bounce shot for the 2-0 lead.

Granvante’s subsequent timeout did anything but instill quick relief for the Mountaineers. They needed to gulp another PC goal courtesy Fallon 28 seconds after play picked up before Derwent eventually put them on the board at 6:16, recovering an errant feed at the brim of the Friars’ zone, strolling in, and sneaking one inside the left post.

Tigh restored his club’s three-goal edge at 9:18, looping around the far half of the net unassisted and unchallenged.

The scoring pattern of the second quarter echoed that of the opener with Dillon, Fallon, and Tigh augmenting the difference to 7-1 between the 4:41 and 13:15 marks.

With a slim 19 ticks to spare until the half, Geery Grant revived the Mountaineer sideline by making things 7-2. But in that narrow window, Burdick settled his boys down with another timeout before Dillon picked up the play and made another conversion visually identical to what he conjured ten minutes earlier with 0:04 remaining.

MSM goalkeeper Kyle Overs relieved starter T.C. DiBartolo and generally compressed the wounds in the second half. For the bulk of the third quarter, Providence preserved the time-of-possession imbalance and tacked on two more spaced-out strikes via Fallon and Dillon.

Although, Dillon’s finale, coming with at 13:05, had an extra dollop of fulfillment as it snapped the Friars’ daylong EMO deficiency.

Thursday, April 3, 2008


Whoa, Canada!

Double dose of beans ready for Ontario Friday

This is spring fever at its best, eh? Even the Arctic air of Canada shouldn’t be able to tone down the spiking buzz surrounding the Bruins and Red Sox simultaneous visits to Ontario.

In the provincial capital of Toronto, you’ve got the reigning world champs dropping in after they cleared the hectic hurdles of excess stardom in Tokyo and Tinseltown for an impressionable mini-sweep of Oakland. After a nice day off on Thursday, the Sox will look to build on their best start (3-1) in recent memory versus a Blue Jays team –former Friar John MacDonald and all- just coming off a road tussle with the reformed Yankees.

Thirty minutes after the first pitch at Rogers Centre, over in the national capital, the aspiring Cup contenders will lock their twigs with the Senators. After they extracted half of a win from New Jersey at Prudential Center –the other House That Lamoriello Built- the 40-28-12 Bruins will look to squeeze a few more drops of Superglue on their still unsolidified playoff berth. Ironically, the iffy-looking Sens, who clammed up before Bruins Buffs at the Garden last Saturday, will just be rolling in from a visit to the provincial rival Maple Leafs.

Pretty cool combo. But, in the words of Beantown athletics fan Denis Leary, let’s face the facts. We have to make a choice; just like we did in mid-September when the Sox battled the Yanks opposite a Patriots-Chargers bout; just like we did when the Bs were making an early impression at the expense of the Blackhawks while the Sox were constricting the Rockies in Game 2 of the World Series.

Now, unlike the Tim Horton’s patrons providing all of Friday’s hospitality, most of the Dunkin diners around here will probably disagree with the following sentiment. But the fact is, the rink-based matters are what rank highest this time.

Yes, while NESN’s main network is putting Globe writers on the air an hour before game time to spend 15 minutes of breath on when the heck Curt Schilling might be seen on the mound again, hockey fans will be grinding through local listings to find the benchwarmer “plus” network that will begin its coverage thirty minutes before face-off at Scotiabank Place.

Even though, at night’s end, the Red Sox will have 157 games still to work with, including a still-full plate of Fenway dates. Conversely, the Bruins’ agenda will probably still be undecided. It will partially depend on Thursday’s fate of both the stalking Washington Capitals and Buffalo Sabres. And they will have more chance to assert themselves in their home finale against Buffalo on Saturday.

Well, what can you do? Ever since the Bs ruined the perfect Patriots Day 2004 by spilling Game 7 of their series with Montreal (hours after the Marathon and a decisive Sox triumph of the Pinstripes), New England has rejoiced over two Fall Classics. That number matches the number of consecutive playoff no-shows and coach firings on the Bruins’ part.

That said, it’s only a given that whereas two Bruins’ home games back in October were converted to matinees, you won’t see any role reversals this time. Maybe you would if the Maple Leafs were in the equation since Jays’ fans are notorious for wandering away from their seats to watch their national pastime on the concourse. But the Leafs had their final post-season hopes shriveled last week with a loss to none other than the Black and Gold.

But enough about our northern neighbours, eh? Something wicked gratifying is potentially in store for New Englanders: that being all four major franchises (five if you toss in the MLS Cup-finalist Revs) earning second season credit in the span of one year. Hard as it may be, try to imagine that the Bruins are not out of it yet.

It’s nights like these where it really ought to hit you: a fan base is a team of teams. At least Saturday’s ballgame is slated for a good-and-early 1 PM pitch well before the Bruins do “Shirts Off Our Back.” And the Sox will hang up their new pennant in broad daylight next Tuesday, at which point the Bruins would at best be fostering for a playoff opener no earlier than Wednesday.

As for Friday, thank goodness for the diverse lineup of media outlets: television, radio, online scoreboards, boston.com blogs. Anything that helps you balance your loyalty.