Thursday, November 17, 2011

P-Bruins Log: Old Nemesis Legace Back In His Old Springfield Nest

The Springfield Falcons have not won a playoff series since they dislodged the Providence Bruins, four games to one, in the 1997 New England Division finals. They have since undergone three NHL affiliation changes, eight coaching changes, an arena name change and 10 Calder Cup playoff no-shows, including the last eight years running.

But for what it’s worth―which could very well be little more than a walking, talking, breathing specimen of nostalgia―the Falcons have an integral part of their best years back in town: goaltender Manny Legace.

One of only 12 remaining Hartford Whalers’ draft picks still active in North America or Europe and a veteran of 367 NHL games, Legace is back in his first professional domain on a professional tryout.

Since coming on board Oct. 20, he has appeared in four of a possible 10 games. That would include each of the last two after an injury sidelined him for two weekends.

If he makes it three outings in a row with Friday’s visit to the Dunkin Donuts Center, Legace will likely evoke bitter memories for the more seasoned sects of the Providence faithful.

Of their three playoff series triumphs since their 1994 inception, the Falcons have claimed two at the P-Bruins’ expense, bumping them off in back-to-back years in the 1996 first round and 1997 second round.

Legace, who shared the workload with Scott Langkow during those two seasons and playoff runs, was in Springfield’s crease for both handshake games against Providence.

He entered the first round of the 1996 playoffs on the heels of claiming the Baz Bastien Award as the AHL’s top goalie and retaining the league’s best goals-against average. In Game 4 of the best-of-five opening series, he compressed his own open wound after letting the Bruins leap out to a 3-0 lead and watched his teammates delete that whole deficit in the middle frame.

From there, the Falcons forced overtime and skated off with the series when Jason Simon beat P-Bruins’ stopper Rob Tallas at 2:41 of the sudden-death session.

A year later, Legace and Co. took continuous fits against Providence, losing the 1996-97 regular season series, 3-7-2. But after both teams pulled off memorable comebacks in the best-of-five first round against their regional rivals―Providence rallying from a 2-0 series deficit to beat the top dog Worcester IceCats and the Falcons doing to same against Portland―Springfield breezed to victory in the best-of-seven conference semifinal meeting.

Legace whiffed on his attempt to close out a sweep of the P-Bruins in a fall-from-ahead, 2-1 decision in Game 4 at what was then dubbed the Providence Civic Center. But the following night, in front of his own rooters at “The Nest,” he backstopped a 3-1 victory.

From there, the Falcons fell short seven games against the eventual champion Hershey Bears. And they have gone 0-3 in the postseason ever since.

Legace’s log has been comparatively more glamorous, to say the least. By the turn of the century, he had landed a steady job with the Detroit Red Wings, partaking in their 2002 Stanley Cup championship. In four consecutive NHL seasons between 2003-04 and 2007-08, he consumed at least half of the workload with the Wings or St. Louis Blues.

But since 2008-09, which he split between the Blues and their Peoria-based farm club, Legace has gone the rise-and-fall route. Over the past two-plus seasons, he has donned the jersey of the Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Wolves, Iserlohn (Germany) Roosters and, for one game this year, the San Antonio Rampage.

The 37-year-old Legace is one of five active AHL stoppers who have seen at least one full season solely in The Show, only to slip back into the continent’s second-best circuit. But none―including former Patrick Roy understudy David Aebischer (now with St. John’s) and Philadelphia playoff backstop Michael Leighton (Adirondack)―have been around as long and all have played at least 153 fewer NHL games.

A pair of former Providence goalies have penned similar diaries themselves and ostensibly skated through their closing curtains at the conclusion of 2010-11.

A now 36-year-old John Grahame, who springboarded a career of 224 NHL outings with the 1999 Calder Cup title, came back from a season in Russia spent the last two years with the Adirondack Phantoms and Lake Erie Monsters. Hannu Toivonen crammed 61 outings into three years between Boston and St. Louis, likewise went overseas to his native Finland in 2008-09, then played for Peoria and Rockford the last two seasons.

Neither has scraped any blue paint for extramural action this season. But for the indefinite moment, Legace still has a flame to stoke.

And for those who have immutably supported the Falcons for 18 seasons, dating back to the inception of the franchise and his own professional endeavors, he is around for a symmetric swan song, at the very least.