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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.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Personal Column

It's gripping for the people of record too

Only now is it really hitting me. Now that I've had a chance to really slow down from everything and not have to peek back up at another pressing commitment.

Upon taking three hours of my Friday afternoon to watch the proceedings of Stanley Cup Final media day on the NHL Network, I naturally recall when I myself was on site in Detroit back in December writing up Friar Puck's participation in the illustrious Great Lakes Invitational for this site.

And if I watched the three hours of nonstop Penguins and Red Wings interviews with just the right mindset, it will serve to hone my hunger for more of that sliver of authentic professional journalism action I tasted at Joe Louis Arena.

There's any and every reason for a aspirant sportswriter to liken his or her pursuits to those of the very citizens they chronicle. You pick and look up to your idols from the major league ranks of the business. In a hockey-specific case, you thirst to feel your diction matching the flaring flow of those NHL prospects down at ice level.

And, of course, you look for those breaks that could ultimately cement your foundation to reach the top level. When those breaks come along, you approach it the way a Phil Kessel or a Milan Lucic approaches his first training camp and pre-season game slate.

When the stage is for real, as the Joe Louis Arena press reservation sure was for me that weekend, you're in a meticulous limbo between molding into the crowd and emphasizing why they let you in and feeding off of your veteran peers so as to pick up the axioms of competitive game day coverage.

To be honest, after picking up my official pass and following an usher upstairs, I only took a glance over the monumental building's beautiful red bowels for one-fiftieth of a second before -no, amidst- plugging in the computer and stringing out a few fistloads of pre-game notes. There was no time to be as awed as I rationally should have been.

Between the whistles, how much different was it really from, say, when I used to set up shop over the bleachers at the state-of-the-art barn of Shattuck-St. Mary's?

One major thing: I had company, and plenty at that. The Michigan student radio tandem to my left, and a young stringer for Michigan Hockey Magazine to my right. (Incidentally, the latter of those three was there to get the scoop on Friars' blueliner and Michigan native Matt Taormina. Filling her in on the Friars and analyzing the action of all four tournament games made for productive, energizing conversation.)

Back downstairs in the conference room, what was so different about thrusting analytical questions to a player/coach at the podium with dozens of other reporters itching to do likewise?

Other than making sure you've got something concise and intelligent primed for delivery, nothing.

There's another playing-to-reporting parallel right there. While you want to rest assured that you didn't stumble or ask something that was comparable to a blind giveaway in the neutral zone, there's no sense in comparing/contrasting yourself with the rest of the horde. Certainly not at this step; especially since the augmented audience below the press box peering down at the players did not automatically increase my reader's ruck.

All I knew was, the PC hockey SID and the Red Wings media office read just enough of the Free Press to convince them I could claim a vacant seat in the press box. That's enough to make me think of the now-declining Bruin Glen Murray, who back in 1992 was summoned away from his junior club in Sudbury, Ont. for one clash with the Quebec Nordiques, inserted a goal that night, then hurried back to the OHL for the rest of the season.

It's something. It emboldens your ego. It nourishes your desire to do more of it as well as the self-assurance that you can hack it in that environment.

From one angle, those covering the Cup who clustered their fill of preliminary notes Friday are only different from me and the reporters-in-training I befriended in experience and accordant credibility. I have to crack a little grin just thinking that come face-off for Game 1, somebody will be in press chair #67 kneading descriptions of Sidney Crosby and Pavel Datsyuk's functions.

Who, for love of the game, wouldn't want some sort of a role in that?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Celtics Commentary

Rivalry re-released for a new generation

When I reel my mind back four years, I suddenly feel like an idiot.

In 2004, I happened to be living in the Detroit area and the talk of the town was the Pistons thawing out their long-forgotten glory days and barnstorming into an NBA championship series against the Lakers.

For all the years I spent away from New England, I never gave an inch to my original allegiances, but when my blue-and-red, "Going to work" peers looked to me, I casually shrugged and reasoned, "Hey, I'm a Celtics fan, so I hate the Lakers. Go Pistons. Sure, why not?" Or else, something to that effect.

Fair enough reasoning, right? Not entirely.

Wherever Johnny Most is these days, he had to have been glaring down at me with at least a dollop of venom. Any Cs fan who really reads and reviews his history text would have looked at that matchup and folded his arms in indifferent disgust.

But what better could I have known? The Pistons' resurgence aside, the Celtics had done nothing to match it. Therefore, the mutual hostilities that once defined these two franchises were on salted ground, especially for those who were born around the 1980s-1990s borderline, right when the Celtics characteristic dominance ran dry.

And even those who are able to gleefully recall Larry Bird's famous steal in 1987 as well as the Pistons' vengeance the following spring didn't appear all that stirred up when these franchises converged again back in 2002. That might just be the retrospect talking, but six years and yet another Boston nosedive after the fact, there wasn't anything special about that run or series.

This time around, it's foolproof. The Pistons are an established reckonable -stepping into their sixth conseuctive conference final- and the Cs have deflected every single doubt that the skeptics and sages have thrust at them.

Unlike 2002, when the Pistons themselves were still clad in question marks, both the heroes and the enemies are now glamorously seated in Cheers. Everybody knows the names of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and getting to know the likes of Rajan Rondo, James Posey, Sam Cassell, etc. every day. Everybody also knows Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, and definitely ex-Celtics draftee Chauncey Billups.

By the time the reformed Celtics had finished their first go-around with the Pistons back on December 19, the older and wiser bystanders grinned pleasurably. They all knew that this matchup meant something again and the entire mass was all the more convinced that this was the the ultimate titanic tussle in the East.

After all, that night it took the Pistons every last second and a breath-taking balk by Allen at the free-throw line to drape the first home "L" on the Cs' 2007-08 transcript. Up till then, Boston was a convincing 12-0 in regulation games on the Garden floor.

And wouldn't you know it? The Celtics commence this series Tuesday night on the parquet riding a rather vital 8-0 home record through the first two playoff rounds. All things considered, the playoff egg may require a little extra careful monitoring.

Similarly, the Pistons have a little Palace pimple-cleansing on their minds as well, having lost their only regular season home date to the Celtics on January 5, 92-85. That was only their third loss in Auburn Hills out of 15 outings and they finished a not-so-shabby 33-8 there.

Also note that Detroit proved its post-season home vincibility -something that even the Hawks didn't do- by means of a 90-86 falter to Philadelphia in the opener of Round 1.

All this in mind, there is potential for one of these giants to finally wrestle down the supernatural home court mystique that has defined this NBA post-season. What's really harrowing, though, is that that road win -whoever claims it- might not automatically decide the series. Either team, subsisting on its own accomplishments, could still recompense even if it spills another home game in this series.

At least, that's what Celtics fans would hope. When they look at the six shortcomings in Atlanta and Cleveland and say a road win has to happen sometime, they mean it really has to happen. It won't necessarily seal the deal, but it would add a comfy coat of mail.

Anything that would give one an extra breath of assurance watching this series. History implies it was that way before, when the Pistons were trying to dethrone the almighty Celts, and it's that way again with the roles reversed.