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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Hockey Log: Sunday Edition

Lost grip
PC men in ultimate seven-month recovery program

The rink-going breed of Friar Fanatics ought to be feeling an unprecedented void in their passionate sternums this Sunday morning. They are neither rising to attend to the morning-after sores of another quarterfinal collapse –as was the custom seven years running- nor rabidly searching (in vain) for a time accelerator in keen anticipation of a Friday excursion to Causeway Street –a privilege they have not savored since 2001.

Instead, they are the Blues’ fans of 2006, the Bruins’ Buffs of 1997, and the Red Wing Rooters of some year not inclined to fall in the near future. They are acclimating to the aftershock of an emotional headshot that comes with seeing their team utterly miss the postseason for the first time in their 25 years as a Hockey East tenant and first miss-out overall since 1976.

Not to toss another quota of kindling to the laptop loiterers in their offseason peer-to-peer counseling program, but that’s an end to 33 straight years of bonus hockey. An end to a streak merely three years younger than the existence of Schneider Arena and Professor of Puck Jack Parker’s tenure at Boston University. A streak merely four years younger than New England’s Stanley Cup drought.

No one can claim they didn’t see this hit coming –especially since its metaphorical dealer snowballed in size as he approached the fettered fan base in the corner. And by the time the Friars had spilled a 5-1 decision to their fellow folders from Merrimack three weeks ago, head coach Tim Army delivered a candid “One on!” holler.

There were still four games yet to be played, but what exactly were the odds of a turnaround?

Rather expectably, those bystanders who are immune to burnout are now hailing the four years left on Army’s contract the same way Democrats, Greens, voluble left-leaning outsiders, and even a few moderate Republicans and Libertarians observed the re-election of since-dispatched President George Bush in 2004.

The same sort of toe-curling phrase clangs in their heads: four more years; four more years; four more years.

And after just one year of this incomprehensibly callous nature, the fan base wants to compress and bandage the bleeding on their own. Not going to happen, as far as the horizon can tell.

Instead, the man who captained the inaugural Hockey East championship team now has a chance to rinse out the vitriolic vinegar that comes with rounding out the league’s silver anniversary in such anticlimactic fashion. And his followers can either get with the program –i.e. a program that is engaged in a far more densely competitive league than in the two preceding decades- or graciously turn in their passports to the Friends of Friar Hockey Room.

“It's not fun to have it on my watch,” Army said bluntly one week to this date after a 3-0 submission to BU cemented a 7-22-5 run. “But it's a process. I believe in a lot of the things that we're doing. We have to shore up some areas.”

That’s likely going to be the best you’ll hear from any Friar Puck personnel for a while yet. So, take it or leave it.

To be fair, Army opted not to mention a few frank hindrances –though to do so would not repeal the damage they inflicted on this particular season.

Number 1: while shoring up most every fundamental area of the game is advisable, it will have to be done by first slimming down team membership. Without question, congestion ensued in that dressing room where there were no fewer than 29 rostered individuals at a time (albeit a few perpetually injured). A recipe for internal stuffiness and competitive dysfunction kicked in at its hardest during the winless calendar months of November and February.

Six seniors are taking off and at least three newbies figure to come in, so it’s best slow down on the recruitment for next season and just build a quality-over-quantity foundation around radiant rookie Matt Bergland and glue guy John Cavanagh.

One other thing: even those who support Army’s mulligan best not buy into the repeated “springboard” notion he applied to the BC and BU series.

The adage of “playing for pride” is better understood, but regardless of the results, a seven-month respite is an absurdly spacious hunk of time to carry any achievements over. It’s sort of like the character from Monty Python’s Flying Circus who at the beginning of a skit vies to clear the English Channel (he ultimately plunges two feet from the shore on the seat of his trunks).

It is far more realistic and more advisable, then, to just kick ice chips over the 2008-09 debacle and let the calendar Zamboni give you a fresh sheet altogether for the coming autumn.

So, yes, like the man of the ice house said, it really has “just been one of those years.” If it happens again, then maybe there is a genuine problem.

But it hasn’t happened again. Clearly, all PC parties in and out of control need this break to re-rationalize and restructure. That’ll be Step One of the ultimate recovery process.

Tap Lake Whittemore?
There is a little too much evidence –especially on the men’s end of the spectrum- to lift this shot off the ice, but there is far too much evidence on the women’s front to keep this case mum. The fact is, Boss Bertagna and perhaps his associate governors across the NCAA ought to consider regulating the dimensions of their rinks in light of the New Hampshire women’s emboldened conference dynasty.

All three coaches –i.e. PC’s Bob Deraney, Boston College’s Katie King, and the host club’s Brian McCloskey- addressed the Wildcats’ unique advantage in one form or another at last week’s tournament. Naturally, none of them outright complained or exulted, but besides incredible pre-organized resolve, how else do you explain the start-to-finish minority rule of the shorthanded Cats?

It doesn’t get any easier for any of their adversaries –especially conference cohabitants. Heading into yesterday’s national tournament tilt with Minnesota-Duluth, UNH was a pristine 14-0-3 at the Whittemore Center this season. Since shuffling from the ECAC to the newfangled WHEA in 2002, they are a cumulative 104-9-13. All nine of those falters were against fellow bigwigs from other conferences.

There was a time –circa the 1950s- when the Montreal Canadiens were so disproportionately potent on their power play that the NHL decided to start terminating two-minute penalties whenever the attacking team converted. Perhaps the same concept will be applied here.

Or it won’t, in which case March may just become exponentially agonizing for all Friartownies, Connecticans, and Bostonians, and flat-out tedious for interested observers.

Case well made
BU backstop Kieran Millan –who by sheer grace inserted the one missing chip in the Terriers’ system this season- should facilely collect the Pro Ambitions Top Rookie prize at this week’s banquet, but one has to credit UMass centerpiece Casey Wellman for his last-minute acceleration.

For a time, the Friars’ own Matt Bergland and Maine’s Gustav Nyquist had buried all of their puckslinging chasers through their two-way footrace. By the holidays, they had 16 points apiece, Wellman 12. Then for the next dozen ventures, Wellman paired up with classmate T.J. Syner and underachieving junior Will Ortiz. It worked for a time –seeing as he piled on nine points in their first five games together- but he eventually tapered off once more and has since taken Syner along with him on a taste-test spree with a handful of other right side supplements.

The ultimate result: a 3-6-9 transcript in the final eight games of the regular season, enough to finish with 33 ahead of Nyquist’s 28 and Bergland’s 27. And Syner himself eventually thawed out to snap a personal six-game drought cultivate one point in each of four consecutive games on the cusp of the curtain.

Quick Feeds: The PC women latched on a fourth recruit for the next incoming class upon hearing Wednesday’s verbal commitment from forward Nicole Anderson of Shakopee (Minn.) High School…Hopefully, in light of the derisory end to a Big East basketball experiment that admitted all 16 tenants to the postseason, only to see the top eight seeds still standing by Thursday’s quarterfinal, Hockey East chieftain Joe Bertagna is all the more resolved to resist the egregious all-inclusive format his WCHA and CCHA counterparts continue to embrace. Eight out of 10 in the men’s sector and six of eight in the women’s is far enough. End of discussion…Out in the Midwest, a harrowing case of the Providence Reds’ bird flu appears to be threatening the Bowling Green Falcons’ hockey program. The washed-up one-time powerhouse that produced U.S. Olympic legends Ken Morrow and Mark Wells –not to mention functioned as Boston College skipper Jerry York’s springboard- could take the first great fall for the University’s reported $6-10 million deficit…Skimming the latest Pairwise Top 25 leaderboard, it seems the only two teams under direct pressure from the newfound “Wisconsin rule” (i.e. no sub-.500 at-large bids) are WCHA cohabitants Alaska-Anchorage (14-16-5) and Minnesota State-Mankato (15-16-6). Both would simply have to throttle out of the blue to the automatic bid, in which case they would surge to a winning transcript anyway. The resultant assurance that this will be a strict tournament of winners is even more refreshing than the prospect of more than two (perhaps up to four or five) Hockey Easterners on the bracket.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com