Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 In Review: Rhode Island Hockey’s Top Stories Of The Year

Convention Center Cup
Already scheduled to start the new season with Boston’s Black and White intrasquad scrimmage at the neighboring Dunkin Donuts Center, the P-Bruins got a bonus when their parent club won its first Stanley Cup since 1972.

With this being the Bruins’ first title since placing its prospects in Providence and the two teams fostering the longest active AHL-NHL alliance, it would have been a crime against nature not to let Rhode Island fans have a turn with the trophy.

Fortunately, what started as a no-guarantees push by Mayor Angel Taveras became a reality in the dusk of the offseason. And on Sept. 8, locals joined Providence captain and Boston Black Ace Trent Whitfield, Bruins’ assistant GM Don Sweeney and Providence-turned-Boston PA announcer Jim Martin to receive the Cup at the Rhode Island Convention Center.

Less than two weeks later, Providence alumni and ring-bearing Boston players Johnny Boychuk, Brad Marchand, Adam McQuaid, Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas all returned to The Dunk to skate in the scrimmage.

Quite the storybook culmination to the two New England capitals’ second full decade of puck partnership.

Cavanagh Leaves Too Soon
The calendar began on a tragic note for the state’s compact hockey community when, on Jan. 6, Warwick’s own Tom Cavanagh was found dead in the parking garage at Providence Place Mall. His untimely passing at the age of 28 was ultimately ruled a suicide and the details as to his struggles with mental illness gradually unfolded over the ensuing weeks.

Cavanagh, a former ironman at Toll Gate and Harvard University and journeyman with three AHL New England teams, had been released from the Springfield Falcons two months before his death. His last point was an assist on opening night against the P-Bruins at The Dunk.

A member of a vast, puck-loving clan, Cavanagh’s funeral was attended by the entire Falcons’ team as well as the men’s teams from Harvard and Providence College, alma mater of his younger brother, David, and cousin, John Cavanagh.

Friars Discharge Army
After three years of exponentially evident futility, the PC men’s program finally conceded that not all dream matches come true.

One week removed from missing the Hockey East playoffs for the third time in as many years, East Providence product and former Friars’ captain Tim Army was relieved of his head coaching duties.

Army had initially rolled up an almost respectable record of 41-56-11 over the first half of his tenure, but then saw his alma mater’s run of 24 consecutive conference playoff appearances end. Upon failing to restore the program’s relevance on two mulligans, he gave way to Nate Leaman, who was formally introduced May 3.

So far, Leaman has this year’s Friars sitting fifth in Hockey East with games in hand and above the .500 fence with an 8-7-1 national record. That already matches PC’s win total from 2010-11.

Cassidy Inherits Murray’s Mess
Not unlike the Friars, the P-Bruins have been brooking an unprecedented string of irrelevance. Upon missing the Calder Cup playoffs in consecutive years for the first time in their existence, the Bruins’ top farm club saw GM Peter Chiarelli fork out head coach Rob Murray and elevate assistant Bruce Cassidy.

So far, that tweak has yet to summon the same results as Friar Puck. Apart from two four-game winning streaks, the Baby Bs are still floundering and quickly buried all encouraging memories of their 12-6-1 play-for-pride homestretch from the end of last season.

Nearing the halfway mark of the 76-game schedule, Providence is second-to-last in the AHL’s Eastern Conference. And unlike the parent club, they are at or near the bottom of the league’s offensive and defensive leaderboard.

Digit Done
In keeping with the inadvertent motif of the year, Brown University and women’s head coach Digit Murphy ended their 22-year alliance after the program’s single-worst season in four-plus decades of existence. The Bears had been on a steady downward spiral since 2005-06, their winning percentage worsening or failing to improve by the year.

After four straight seasons of single digits in the win column and three straight campaigns of 20 or more losses, Murphy gave way to Amy Bourbeau, who was 4-5-5 behind the Brown bench at the time of the December deceleration.

Lacasse Edits Record Books
In one valiant losing effort against Boston College in the Women’s Hockey East semifinals March 5, PC junior goaltender Genevieve Lacasse broke Jana Bugden’s program record of 2,555 career saves. One period later, she broke Northeastern counterpart Florence Schelling’s hours-old record of 44 stops in a single WHEA postseason game.

Now in her senior season, Lacasse eclipsed Bugden in another category Nov. 19 when she blanked Vermont, 3-0, for the 15th shutout of her collegiate career. And she will enter 2012 needing one more victory and at least 13 opportunities to top the Friars’ charts under that heading.

Two Providence Teams Crash Whale Bowl
The two-week Whaler Hockey Fest in neighboring Connecticut this past February featured two of hockey’s best Ocean State-Nutmeg State rivalries, and in both cases, Providence dampened the home party with a victory.

On Sunday, Feb. 13, the PC women’s team edged UConn, 4-3, thus sweeping their three-game season series. Six nights later, in the marquee climax of the Fest, the P-Bruins deleted 2-0 and 4-3 deficits to top the Connecticut Whale in a shootout, 5-4.

The AHL game set a league attendance record with an audience of 21,673 on hand at East Hartford’s Rentschler Field.

Environmental Wake-up Call
After a Feb. 17 game between Johnson and Wales and Curry College at the Rhode Island Sports Center, 28 members of the visiting Curry team were hospitalized with various symptoms that are readily attributed to the rink’s Zamboni fumes. Exposure to nitrogen dioxide required a majority of the players to remain in the hospital for a full two days.

The North Smithfield ice facility responded by acquiring an electric resurfacing machine in the offseason.

A Bear For The Buds
The Brown men’s program splashed a seven-year drought by having its first entrant in the NHL Draft since 2004. Defenseman Dennis Robertson, currently a sophomore with the Bears, was chosen 173rd overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Two other Brown alumni made a slightly bigger splash in The Show as Aaron Volpatti and Harry Zolnierczyk broke in with the Vancouver Canucks and Philadelphia Flyers, respectively.

Mounties Still At The Summit
For the second consecutive season and the third time in the school’s history, Mount Saint Charles Academy garners the state championship in both boys’ and girls’ hockey.