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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Personal Column

Many changes, a few not-so-minor constants

As a journalist-in-training, I literally cannot tell a lie. And so, I shall admit up front that my night out at the Dunkin Donuts Center for the Providence Bruins’ 3-1 triumph over the Manchester Monarchs yesterday evening fulfilled one of the most prominent, patent items on my checklist as a Providence College student.

Those who have checked out this publication since its younger days may recall another special diary-esque entry that recounted my first venture to a PC men’s basketball game. Just consider this “Dunkin Nostalgia: Part II,” or better yet “The Climax of the Quest” after a handful of preludes with the Dunkin Dominicans and the Friar Fanatics.

Not to devalue those experiences–especially considering the fact that the only game I took in this year happened to be the fĂȘted Pittsburgh upset- but I simply operate under a puck-centric partiality. Always have, always will.

Plus, I had never attended any major hoops events of any sort in my younger years on this coast, so it’s the P-Bruins and the P-Bruins alone that could team up with my sporting spirit and kindle a Rip van Winkle/William Wordsworth type of revelation.

Look, you just have to have paved the same sort of eccentric backstory I have in order to understand the resultant eccentricities to my personality, okay? By the time I had enrolled here, it had already been a full decade since I was grudgingly removed from Rhode Island and the Spoked Ps had conducted an even 400 regular season home games plus umpteen stirring playoff bouts (apparently something big happened on or around the night of June 13, 1999) in my absence.

And all last year, it was theoretically within my reach once more. The puck was loose in a thirsty scrum on the porch of the net. But other commitments –chiefly those specific to Friars’ beat reportage- bought the goalie time to smother it and summon a whistle.

Now I sort of know what it’s like to be on a team that sculpts a Cyclopean regular season transcript, only to be zapped from the playoffs in a premature stage. Missed opportunities like that make for a summer’s worth of seemingly irredeemable itches.

And for the first 35 out of 40 home dates this season, the exact same virtual defense was doing the exact same impeccable job. But last night, I caught my break and –with an assist to a few new friends who agreed to tag along- splashed the nearly 12-year-old drought.

With such a gaping passage of time, nearly every detail was bound to be different. Yet it still came together and hit with a somewhat baffling force.

Yes, most of these altered aspects were understood in advance: the very name of the arena, the personnel laboring at ice level, the modernized Jumbotron.

Beneath that, though, there’s so much more: the arena’s playlist collection was less diverse in the former days, so it was always the Black Box’s “Strike It Up” escorting the players to the ice for every period. Last night, it was the regionally contagious “Sweet Caroline” in one instance and “Crazy Train” another.

There was a time when there was no such luxury as a video board to present the action “As Seen on TV” style over center ice, so it was just the logo perched over the main dot, barring any significant developments in the game. In the riveting event of a Bruins goal –I still fondly recall- crudely but amusingly animated graphics were flashed concomitant with a wailing siren to acknowledge it.

The previous home game I attended (May 9, 1997) was broadcast on WPRO –one of this city’s crispest, most identifiable radio stations- by Dave Goucher –now in his ninth year as the radio voice in Boston. That game was also delivered to a NESN TV audience with Tom Caron and Bob Norton in the booth. And at the next daybreak, there sat a lush recap in the Providence Journal.

The game-winning goal scorer was Landon Wilson –who sealed a 2-1 triumph of the Springfield Falcons that sequentially matched “The Hockey Song” (home team falls behind in the first, ties in the second, wins in the third) and then stuck around long enough to open the scoring in the Cup-clinching game two years later. Wilson was last seen with Dallas Stars before a demotion to the “A” this season.

The Falcons’ roster included a fan favorite enforcer named Rob Murray, who is now obliged to discipline these very Bruins as their head coach.

The goaltending card for that evening was a long-forgotten Boston University alumnus named Derek Herlofsky for the victorious home boys against established NHLer Manny Legace, then just whetting his blades with Springfield, who promptly rebounded from a 2-1 loss the next night to claim Game 5 of the New England Division Finals and expel the Bruins from the 1997 Calder Cup Playoffs.

That would effectively end the tenure of a second-year head coach, Bob Francis. He would be pulled up to the Hub to serve as one of Pat Burns’ sidekicks and later won a Jack Adams Award with the Phoenix Coyotes in 2002. (Like Herlofsky, though, he hasn’t done much to lure the limelight lately).

All of those elements have departed –for better, worse, or no particular effect. But to act on a concept instilled in my philosophy class, at least one element has to have stayed the same through this protracted process of inevitable change.

Truth be told, that specimen of sameness was just a little harder to pinpoint than I thought it would be. But, hey, it was still that same glimmering black-and-gold Spoked P beaming up at all the onlookers, was it not? And I safely assume it has been all this time.

Which evokes one more important past/present contrast: the P-Bruins are in their 17th season of existence, yet have now long outlived all but two of their 28 AHL cohabitants. Only the Hershey Bears (77 seasons) and Rochester Americans (53) have been more durable.

Think about that. While other markets of all sizes have constantly gained, lost, and/or regained a reasonably accessible hockey team, the Baby Bs have gone right along slaking sport-hungry Rhode Islanders every winter.

And that hunger is still genuinely strong and healthy, for it sure looked and felt like last night’s reported attendance of 7,759 actually reflected both the box office and the turnstiles. You don’t see that everywhere.

But I saw it downtown last night. Scratch that. I partook in it…again…finally.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Women's Hockey Writer's Choice Awards

Proficiency and pride coalesced for Lacasse
Rookie goaltender a runaway MVP choice

Given the inherently superior gutsiness in goaltending, just how surprised should Friartownies be with the flattering superficial makeover Genevieve Lacasse took on about the halfway mark of her first season in a collegiate crease?

While her new fan base was just getting to know her through October and November, Lacasse’s face mask silently conveyed a “Country First” ideal. That is, she did not appear ready to slacken her Canadian pride and purge the red Maple Leaf/Anonymous Skater emblem sported by all of the Bastion of Hockey’s international ambassadors.

Perfectly understood, when you really think about it. Any deviation from that patriotic get-up might incur the wrath of Don Cherry or something.

And yet, it wasn’t long before Lacasse was sporting a minimalist monochrome lid. And not much longer thereafter did that ambiguity give way to a gaudy display of Providence pride: a black background with the Rhode Island State House front-and-center and flanked by the city skyline, action portraits of her predecessors on the side flaps, and inspirational quotations on the back.

The new look is just another telling testament to Lacasse’s ardent commitment to the Friars, though her stats delivered the same message from her October 4 debut onward: a 15-11-1 record, .933 save percentage, and 1.94 goals-against median.

And so, when the 2008-09 installment of PC’s Skating Sorority convenes one more time for the program’s awards ceremony, the Hockey East Rookie of the Year and ITECH Goaltending Champion ought to magnetically haul in the program’s MVP crown.

Lacasse maneuvered around three incumbent keepers en route to consuming 76.5% of the season’s total crease time and bolstering the Friars’ lone element of consistent stability. While the strike force charged up a cumulative 86 goals on the year, Lacasse authorized a mere 54 in 29 appearances. As a whole, the goalie guild averaged a mere 2.12 goals-against, just slivers below the offensive median of 2.36 goals-for.

Lacasse’s personal game log included six shutouts, eleven one-goal decisions (five of them victories and discounting empty netters), the team’s lone shootout victory, 10 bushels of 30-plus saves, and only three goal counts of four-plus.

Simply put, she more than verified the adage of a goaltender “giving them a chance to win.” On a jutting number of occasions, she forced them to win.

Elsewhere, Lacasse’s creasemates and classmates round out the rest of the Free Press’ informal picks for the 2008-09 women’s hockey awards scroll, properly underlining PC’s strongest position of the past year and sustaining the still-merely-professed promise of wholesale talent replenishment:

Most Improved Player- Still not a full-timer on the game day roster until after the Christmas respite, freshman forward Abby Gauthier swiftly cemented that area and proceeded to up her scoring transcript from a 2-1-3 to a 3-7-10. While her collection of registered shots (23) is significantly shallow compared to the majority of her associates, she discharged 10 of them within the final month of the season whilst complementing a handy grind line with the likes of Katy Beach and Jean O’Neill. And this after she had notched mere six SOG in her first 15 ventures.

One other noteworthy change from the younger stages of the season: Gauthier paid five trips to the penalty box in her first 11 games. She retained a perfectly pristine disciplinary record in the next 22, never so much as being tabbed to serve a bench minor.

Unsung Hero- Forgive the apparent forecast of a 2007 rerun. But the fact is that Lacasse –like Jana Bugden before her- backboned the Friars from start to finish. Yet she occasionally flaunted her humanity, too. And in those events senior stopper Danielle Ciarletta –like Lauren Florio in the not-too-distant former days- was raring to keep the ice in the crease solid. Admittedly, her data wasn’t nearly as dazzling –especially her 2-5-2 record. But when Ciarletta was on duty, the Friars only inserted 16 goals, three strides below her 19 goals-against.

Better cushioning on the scoreboard beyond her control would have indubitably given Ciarletta a more palatable transcript to go with that not-so-shabby .905 save percentage and 2.33 GAA.

Seventh Player- For nearly the full second half of the season, freshman defender Jennifer Friedman linked up with team captain Brittany Simpson to formulate an inseparable starting unit.

Friedman never really followed up on a curious scoring outburst from the thick of January, but over the final 16 games, the understudy fed off the seasoned Simpson to –if nothing else- unveil more of her home base tenacity, both during 5-on-5 and shorthanded segments.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com