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Saturday, May 16, 2009

P-Bruins Commentary

A virtual consolation series
Bs, Caps pit farm teams after respective downfalls

Based on what this author witnessed all this week, the two most sorrowfully shaven NHL fan bases in the aftermath of the conference semifinals are those of Boston and Washington.

Wednesday night’s decider between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin’s respective spheres of influence –a 6-2 punch by Pittsburgh- was an abysmal downer for all Capitals buffs as well as all nonpartisan, interested observers. And for the genuine puckheads of this region, Thursday’s foul falter at TD Banknorth Garden is better left to another commentary, or to sit and speak for itself.

Bottom line, it is safe to conclude that Bruins and Capitals fans are both rightfully and dutifully fretting for a means of staving off harsh withdrawal symptoms after their respective season-long hustles ended in homemade heartbreak when, in an alternate universe, they are gearing up for a priceless 1-seed-versus-2-seed bid for the Prince of Wales Trophy.

But while it cannot annihilate the sting as a whole –especially for the losing side- the next best thing is coming in the form of a series between the franchises’ respective AHL teams. Starting tonight out in Chocolatetown, USA, the Providence Bruins and Hershey Bears will play for the Triple-A version of the Eastern Conference title and the passport to the Calder Cup Final that comes with it.

No doubt, a concomitant Boston-Washington card would have made for an overwhelmingly intriguing follow-up to Hershey’s Game Seven victory over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Penguins’ child club. But still, if one can withstand the irresistible puns, a Providence-Hershey series Bears plenty of natural hype in its own right. Many brands of intrigue are still Bruin in the minors.

First off, we might as well cash in and call this the Ultimate Ursine Series. After 17 years of the P-Bruins and Bears coexisting, it’s high time that one-line opportunity arose.

Beyond the teams’ fraternal surnames, there’s the fact that Hershey is the sturdiest AHL market, having hosted the Bears since 1938. Right after the Rochester Americans, a 1956 establishment, the next-eldest living franchise happens to be the Spoked-Ps, whose 1992 advent flooded a sorely craved pond long after the beloved Rhode Island Reds bolted for Binghamton in 1977.

As part of their 51-year stay, the Reds conducted five postseason twig-locks with the Bears. The Calder Cup made its third of now five stops in the Divine City in 1949, when Providence won the final series, four games to three. The Bears subsequently bumped the Reds out of the opening round in 1958, 1962, and 1964 and nabbed their fifth of now nine championships, four games to one, in the teams’ final get-together in 1974.

Thirty-five years later, two of the league’s most definitive cities collide once more. Not unlike the enticing Chicago-Detroit series set to commence in The Show, it can’t be bad for publicity purposes.

Neither can the saturation of Bruins’ influence on the Bears then and now. There was a time –specifically, the 1940s and 1950s- when Hershey functioned as Boston’s training grounds, fostering, among others, Don Cherry.

Today, one of the Caps’ top prospects and fourth-year AHLer is Chris Bourque, the Son of 77, who brandishes a team-high 10 assists through the first two rounds and is tied for sixth amongst all league playoff point-getters (12). (Incidentally, Hershey was partnering with the Colorado Avalanche when the elder Bourque was fast-tracking on Mission 16W to round out his glamorous career.)

Right behind Bourque on the Bears’ scoring charts, with 11 playoff points to his credit, is Keith Aucoin, who sported the “P” in 2002-03 and 2004-05.

Conversely, the Baby Bs’ point-based puckslinger, Johnny Boychuk, played the full length of the 04-05 season, his first as a pro, in Hershey. His offensive output has swollen from a 3-12-15 transcript that year to 20-45-65 this regular season, coupled with seven playoff points and counting, a team MVP trophy, and the 2009 Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s top defender.

As of this write-up, there have been no encouraging indications of rapid reassignments from the newly idled parent clubs –e.g. Byron Bitz back to Providence or Simeon Varlamov back to Hershey. And, useful and youthful vigor aside, definitely don’t bank on any extended activity for, say, Milan Lucic and Alex Semin.

That might bolster the turnstiles, but the help should not be desperately needed. With the aforementioned Bourque and Boychuk, not to mention Tuukka Rask, Vladimir Sobotka, Martin St. Pierre, and Zach Hamill for the Bruins and Alexandre Giroux, Graham Mink, and the like for the Bears, it’s plainly a couple of quintessential AHL crops serving quintessential AHL markets.

All fans in and around both the commonwealth capital and the nation’s capital know that a youth movement is anchoring their long-term hope. This third-round showdown one level below only hints that there’s more to come.

That said, if only this series –which will ultimately transfer to the Dunk for Games 3, 4, and 5 next weekend- could arouse more copious media coverage. Shoot, this author all but wishes he had the requisite means of giving it due coverage.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

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