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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

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Hockey Log Extra

Three stars of the schedule

Providence College has more or less settled in to its long summer’s nap this week with nothing else but to distribute degrees at the Dunk this Sunday. Accordingly, the Free Press hockey scribe reflects on the topmost highlights from the 2008-09 women’s hockey season.

1. February 6- Friars rally to top Northeastern in OT
You couldn’t keep the crown off of this epic tilt if you tried, for it perfected every on and off-ice element more than any other Friars’ game. A season-high congregation of 417 (still not much, but not nothing either) was bolstered largely by the presence of the annual Skating Strides charity and a flattering guest appearance from the PC pep band. And the central event at ice level packed an intriguingly molecular formula comprised of chiefly international talent and, at times, volcanic emotion.

While the Friars heaved double digit bushels of pucks at Northeastern’s celestial Swiss stopper Florence Shelling in each period, Genevieve Lacasse –engaged in her first of what will likely be many showdowns with the Huskies’ reliable rookie- admitted two goals within the first 24:50.

But Lacasse’s Canadian countrywomen –seniors Erin Normore and Brittany Simpson- collaborated to bite into that deficit on the cusp of the halfway mark. Only 22 ticks later did Jean O’Neill blindly guide home Abby Gauthier’s shot to spot a 2-2 draw.

For the second half of regulation, the not-so-supple Schelling restored her flustering cast-iron ways, swallowing 20 third period stabs while Lacasse pushed away seven to force overtime. The cage custodians had indubitably locked away their spots on the evening’s three star platform.

But the Friars’ Finnish Flare, Mari Pehkonen, crested the international theme and usurped the #1 star slot when she leveled home Gauthier’s feed from the slot with precisely a minute to spare in the bonus round. Schelling’s hard-earned 50 saves on the night were now as good as Irish potatoes circa 1850. Conversely, the packets of Friar Fanatics who bothered to show up feasted.

Within minutes of the walk-off strike, this author swears the Schneider Arena music man raised the decibels on the routine victory anthem, Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days,” while skipper Bob Deraney released a fittingly classic quote: “Sometimes you beat the gods, and I think tonight we really beat the hockey gods.”

2. February 28- Conn descended yet again
Eerily enough, a mere eight days after Boston College had sullied Senior Night starting with Allie Thunstrom’s strike at the 15-second mark en route to a 5-1 decision, the Friars pounced on a spontaneous shot at redemption in the same swift fashion.

In the regular season finale at Conte Forum, Providence had bitten back at the Eagles through a 2-1 shootout decision, effectively earning home ice in their first look at the WHEA’s newfangled six-team playoff format. And so, the senior class had yet one more swing around their home pond in formal game time attire and promising understudy Laura Veharanta wasted no time depositing a feed from Pehkonen a mere 16 seconds into this one.

No one dared to think it at ice level and no one else in the building dared suggest it aloud, but in light of how some of the Friars’ preceding letdowns had panned out, this author suspected it was already over for the visiting fifth-seeded Huskies.

It was. As is the custom in the PC-UConn card and as is a common practice in playoff tilts, an obsessive-defensive tangle ensued and the Friars paced themselves to a 3-0 final on the strength of third period insurance strikes via Alyse Ruff and Pehkonen.

They had literally earned at least a sliver of postseason hosting rights, something unprecedented in the women’s sector and entirely unseen on the PC campus since the men’s program dropped a three-game quarterfinal series to Boston University in 2003. They didn’t waste an ounce of that privilege.

3. January 10- New Hampshire nuisance takes a break
There would be no aftershocks in the climactic stages of the season, but for once, the Friars put a foolproof stamp on their competitive capabilities against the Granite State Goddesses.

A continuous, tantalizing string of “We nearly had it” ties and chin clips –translation: a three-year-old winless streak of 0-10-2 versus UNH- ended in the form of a 5-0 PC triumph before a rare COX TV audience.

Lacasse, one of seven rookies getting their first live looks at the Wildcats, neutralized the whole of her 43-shot workload in a mutual OK Corral matchup. Contesting stopper Kayley Herman, meanwhile, handled five shots too few out of a hefty 36.

True, the season-long shorthanded Cats regrouped and retained their claim to the Hockey East pennant. But the upshot of this particular game was why the three subsequent shortcomings (two regular season, one semifinal) could be more rightly viewed as distressing as opposed to anticipated.

Honorable mentions: Lacasse can decide whether she bears any sympathy for Schelling in the aforementioned February 6 tilt. PC’s own freshman goalie charged up an even 50-save tally amidst a bittersweet 3-0 falter before Mercyhurst on November 21. One night later, the Friars deleted a 2-0 hole within the final five minutes of regulation to draw a 2-2 knot with Niagara, which was barely more epic than, say, abolishing a quick 3-0 hole en route to topping Cornell, 4-3, as they did out in Ithaca to kickstart the calendar year on January 4. But no rendition of the self-proclaimed “cardiac kids” quite had the implications of their regular season finale at Boston College on February 21. The come-from-behind shootout triumph rinsed out gobs of personal BC-induced vinegar and effectively salvaged a bid for home ice in the preliminary round of the playoffs.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com