Thursday, February 9, 2012

Friars Puckbag: An Assortment Of Observations On PC Men’s And Women’s Hockey

Stick salute to former Friars’ stopper and soon-to-retire PC women’s goalie coach/Cox Sports color analyst Bob Bellemore, who garnered the AHCA women’s hockey assistant coach award this week.

Seeing last week’s installment of Saturday Night Live, the first new episode since bench player Paul Brittain’s abrupt departure, evoked memories of Tim Army’s last three seasons behind the Friars’ bench, when an overcrowded dressing room led to inevitable midseason precipitation. Think Bryce Aneloski, Joe Lavin, Alex Velischek, etc.

PC women’s recruit Molly Illikainen is among the 10 finalists for Minnesota High School Hockey’s coveted Miss Hockey award. To date, she has charged up 28 goals and 17 assists in 18 games for her Grand Rapids/Greenway team.

So far, four months and 26 games into his tenure, men’s head coach Nate Leaman has not overseen a losing streak longer than three games. The Friars will need to pluck at least one point out of Friday night’s home date with Maine to keep it that way.

A win over the Black Bears, who sit seven points ahead of them for fifth place in Hockey East, could also be a prerequisite to salvaging PC’s hopes for home ice in the conference quarterfinals.

Barring a bonus encounter in the postseason, which is better than possible, the PC women’s senior class is already assured a lifetime winning record against rival New Hampshire at 7-4. But they will need at least a split of this weekend’s two-night visit to Durham in order to secure a supra-.500 showing at the Whittemore Center. After a 0-2 start in their freshman campaign, the class of 2012 has since won three straight in the once-notorious road venue.

On the whole, the results are hardly immediate, but there are a few subtle signs as to freshman Shane Luke’s impact and influence on the PC men. The team is 2-6-1 since his belated debut, but Luke has chipped in five points, has not gone more than two straight games without appearing on the scoresheet and is in rare company with Steven Shamanski and Matt Montesano as the only Skating Friars with a positive rating (plus-4 apiece).

Saturday’s matinee with UNH will be forward-turned-defender Jess Cohen’s 100th career game. Cohen has yet to miss a game in her two-plus years of collegiate experience. But she will likely need to help the Friars to an appearance in both the 2012 and 2013 Hockey East championship game just to tie Katelynn Laffin and Erin Normore’s program record of 143 career outings.

The men’s team is 2-0-3 dating back to the start of last season against UMass-Amherst, which will host their season series finale up at the Mullins Center on Saturday. Although neither side has swept the other since 2005-06, a tie or win for the Friars will allow them to finish undefeated against the Minutemen for the third time in five years. They went 2-0-1 in that matchup in 2007-08, 1-0-2 last season and a 1-0-1 going into Saturday’s bout.

Club hockey made its Friartown debut last weekend with a home-and-home set versus Boston University. The newfangled team will engage crosstown rival Brown University at Meehan Auditorium Friday night. This author must offer some kudos to his former colleagues at the Cowl for shedding some light on what would otherwise be a little-known fact.

This Date In Providence Bruins History: February 9

1997: After spilling 2-0, 3-2 and 5-4 leads―and briefly trailing, 4-3, in the interim―Providence wrests away a 7-5 barnburner from the visiting Carolina Monarchs, enough to grant them a six-game winning streak and eight wins out of nine tries.

2002: Andrew Raycroft answers 40 out of 41 shots, allowing the offense to pace the P-Bruins to a fight-filled, 4-1 win at the Springfield Civic Center.

2003: The P-Bruins win their first-ever meeting with the Manitoba Moose, claiming a 4-2 decision to extend their team-record home unbeaten streak to 16 games.

2007: Nathan Dempsey, Petr Kalus and Matt Lashoff each register three points in regulation before Ben Walter scores in overtime to top the Worcester Sharks, 5-4, at The Dunk.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

All-Star Hosting Rights Underscore P-Bruins’ Durability, Fan Base’s Leadership

Providence is to the AHL what Toronto is the NHL. No playoff appearances in recent memory, yet consistently one of the league’s best performers at the turnstiles.

The Providence Bruins are on the cusp of rounding out two full decades of existence, in which time they have never finished outside of the top 10 on the AHL’s attendance leaderboard. They may or may not salvage a surprise playoff passport in the forthcoming homestretch, but a third consecutive finish among the league’s five best draws is most likely.

Of the still-living franchises, only the Hershey Bears, Chicago Wolves, Grand Rapids Griffins and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have been comparably dynastic at the gate in recent memory. Like Providence, all four have finished within the top 10 every season and placed among the top five on multiple occasions since 2002-03. And all five are on pace to be among the 10 best draws in 2011-12.

And whether it was in the AHL or IHL, each of the aforementioned have hosted at least one All-Star Game more recently than the Baby Bs. Grand Rapids (1997 and 2004) and Hershey (1996 and 2011) have held two apiece in the interim, as have the Portland Pirates.

So while there are 16 other cities that have not seen a midseason classic since the P-Bruins helped to bring it back in 1995, there is no disgrace giving the game a second shift next season, which was confirmed in Wednesday’s press conference.

One week after playing its special exhibition on a thoroughly neutral pond in Atlantic City, the AHL was apt to abandon that experiment effective in 2013.

Wednesday’s announcement indicates league president Dave Andrews and his board of governors want to plant their All-Star magnet in an established, healthy market. They want to let the crowds watching the Eastern Conference combat the Western Conference to be constituted by a nucleus of an exemplary fan base supplemented by following tourists.

Andrews said it himself on Wednesday that “the Providence Bruins organization has been a cornerstone for the last two decades.”

The third-longest-tenured franchise in the circuit, the P-Bruins had their leanest year at the gate in 2007-08, when they placed 10th out of 29 teams with a nightly median audience of 6,107. And that was in spite of that team’s plow to the summit of the AHL standings and threat to eclipse the records set by their otherworldly predecessors from 1998-99.

Since that season, the results between the boards have withered. Yet the Bruins have ascended the attendance leaderboard with final average figures growing from 6,343 to 6,770 to 7,324.

An egregious start and futile homestretch cramming session en route to a second straight playoff no-show failed to curb fan support last season. On the contrary, Providence had its best finish on the attendance list (fourth) since 2003-04 and drew its greatest outpouring of spectators since 2004-05.

With that kind of upswing under these sorts of circumstances after that business nadir of four years ago, the P-Bruins and the Dunkin Donuts Center are the right label and right facility to draw attention to the AHL. Those flocking in from other markets or taking in a rare minor-league hockey television fix next Jan. 28 are all the more likely to absorb and transmit the host city’s passion for pucks.

Barring new trends between now and then, some of the most logical candidates for the 2014 All-Star Game include Lake Erie (Cleveland), Milwaukee, Peoria and San Antonio.

Either that or perhaps the peerless multitude of neighboring fan bases will follow the Divine City’s lead and ultimately prove itself worthy of providing future hospitality. Springfield, another classic AHL city, has seen its yearly attendance hover consistently within the 3,000-range since 2003-04 while the two Connecticut clubs have repeatedly drawn 5,000 or fewer for five-plus years.

Those cities and/or others could improve upon that by feeding off what stems from the 2013 AHL All-Star Classic at the Dunk.

It worked that way in 1995 when it was the Providence Civic Center. “Our league is a much different league than it was 18 years ago. Our thanks go to Providence for helping us kick that off and re-define who we were,” Andrews said Wednesday.

There is no reason to think it won’t work that way again.

Deraney’s Friars Need To Spread Eagles Wings

Boston College is liable for the termination of both the Providence College men’s and women’s hockey teams’ most recent playoff runs. Friartownies who support both programs are bound to still have visions of Nathan Gerbe turning a fruitful 360 on Ryan Simpson’s porch and Kelli Stack smuggling a sudden-death strike through the five-hole of Genevieve Lacasse.

But with his team’s arrangement as of the 2011-12 homestretch, women’s bench boss Bob Deraney can and should pluck a key element from each of those vinegary memories to give Friar Puck a long-awaited winning formula without fail.

Between a deceptively poor record (12-15-3 with four games left in the regular season) and a senior class starving for a sound legacy, the PC women cannot ask for a better inspirational tandem than BC’s 2007-08 men and 2010-11 women.

The artist formerly known as the Tim Army Corps spent its last postseason appearance in 2008 serving as the first victim of a nick-of-time resurgence on the part of Jerry York’s BC Eagles.

The BC men were 17-11-8 on the year entering the postseason. Factor out the two extra games that come with the Beanpot and the Eagles’ 34-game transcript read 15-11-8. But either way, the Lamoriello Trophy and automatic bid were a must if they wanted to return to the NCAA bracket.

Only a brittle two-point differential allowed BC to host the best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinals early that March. But two 5-1 triumphs later, it was fast-evident that Gerbe and Friends were finished shrouding their aristocratic persona now that the second season had commenced.

This is not to say that an NCAA championship piloted by Ashley Cottrell, a la Gerbe and his 11-9-20 log over eight postseason games, is within remotely realistic range for these Friars. But a Hockey East pennant and concomitant bid to the national Elite Eight continues to elude Cottrell, Lacasse and their talent-laden classmates.

Anything short of that would render the class of 2012’s time in Deraney’s capstone class incurably disappointing. Their performance between now and March 4 will likely decide the presence or absence of postseason hardware as well as a winning or losing record for their senior season.

As far the elements within their control go, incentive is the Friars’ X-factor from here on out. They can cultivate that by emulating the copilots of the very team that derailed their most promising bid for a berth in the Hockey East championship game last March.

As early their first postseason endeavor in 2008-09, Deraney likened his then-freshman class―complete with Lacasse, Cottrell, a radiant rookie in Laura Veharanta and nascent staples in Kate Bacon, Jen Friedman, Christie Jensen and Abby Gauthier―to BC’s troika of goaltender Molly Schaus, Kelli Stack and Allie Thunstrom.

The latter corps had enrolled at Chestnut Hill two years in advance of Lacasse, Veharanta, Cottrell and Co. and rapidly set the tone by lifting the Eagles to their first-ever NCAA tournament and Frozen Four berth. Four seasons later, Thunstrom had graduated while Stack and Schaus returned from an Olympic sabbatical with an expressed thirst to attain an elusive conference crown, which they were denied as juniors by New Hampshire.

And in a semifinal confrontation at Boston University’s Walter Brown Arena, Schaus and Stack were the two immediate deciders when the Eagles dislodged the Friars, 3-2, in overtime. Schaus held forth through a four-goal, seesaw third period and into the bonus round before Stack inserted the 96th goal and 206th point of her collegiate career and the eighth game-winning strike of her senior season.

Moments later, Deraney spoke volumes on two fronts in his postgame address. Of Stack, he said, “A world-class play by a world-class player. I tip my hat to her. You can’t be ashamed when something like that happens to you…We kept her in check most of the game.”

Of his own international ambassador, who repelled 58 BC shots that day, he said, “she’s a difference-maker, she’s a game-changer. I’m really proud she plays with us, and I’m glad that we have her for one more year.”

Did you catch that? One more year.

There was your difference in that 2011 semifinal struggle: Stack was a senior, Lacasse was a junior. But a year later, PC’s otherworldly class is on its last call and on the heels of back-to-back-to-back baptismal fires in the Hockey East semifinals.

Fittingly enough, the Friars fastened themselves into the 2012 Hockey East playoff picture last Saturday with a startling, 6-2 throttling of the then-No. 4-ranked Eagles, whose loss tripped them up in their footrace for first place with Northeastern.

Hmmm, didn’t the ostensibly underachieving BC men from 2007-08 set the tone for a timely turnaround by beating Providence, who had won their regular-season series, by a four-goal margin?

Be mindful that Florence Schelling and the Huntington Hounds are harboring an equally unquenched hunger for Hockey East banner glory and will likely ride into the postseason as the top seed with both the league’s top offense and defense. But so long as the Friars Xerox a few pages from books of BC’s past, serendipitous bounces should be the decider in this dance.

This Date In Providence Bruins History: February 8

2002: The P-Bruins play their first home game against a former International League team, losing to the Houston Aeros, 3-0.

2003: Rhode Island native and Mount St. Charles alum Jeff Jillson scores his first goal as a P-Bruin to draw a 1-1 knot with Manchester. Later on, Ivan Huml deletes a 2-1 deficit and Chris Kelleher tunes the mesh in the final minute of regulation for a 3-2 victory at Verizon Wireless Arena.

2006: Eight individual point-getters fuel a four-goal third period to trounce the Lowell Lock Monsters, 5-1, at Tsongas Arena.

2008: After Worcester’s Pat McGinn singlehandedly usurps a 2-1 lead with two unanswered power-play goals, Mikko Lehtonen copies him on the P-Bruins behalf. Lehtonen draws a 2-2 knot at 3:35 of the third period, then scores the eventual winner with 96 seconds left in regulation.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

This Date In Providence Bruins History: February 7

1997: For the second time in as many games, the P-Bruins win after authorizing the first goal, taking a 4-3 decision from the Albany River Rats and extending a redemptive winning streak to five games.

2003: In the team’s final meeting with the Saint John Flames, Andy Hilbert pitches in two goals and an assist and the penalty kill holds off 12 of 13 power play onslaughts en route to a 4-1 win at The Dunk.

2007: Martins Karsums has a hand in all three third-period goals, assisting on the first two and inserting an empty-netter to beat the Hartford Wolf Pack, 4-2, at The Dunk.

2010: With 12 out of 17 skaters contributing points, the P-Bruins finish a home-and-home sweep of the Worcester Sharks with a 6-1 romp at The Dunk.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Can Hot-Streaking P-Bruins Withstand IceCaps?

Amidst an active 6-0-1 unbeaten tear, the Providence Bruins have officially crept back into Calder Cup playoff contention. They enter Tuesday night’s start to a two-night stay in St. John’s in a virtual tie with the Portland Pirates for 10th place in the Eastern Conference and two points behind Connecticut and Worcester for a postseason spot.

Too good to be true? Well, truth be told, it just might be. And the truest of the Baby Bs’ black and gold could be yanked out of hiding Tuesday and Wednesday.

Maybe now is the time to mention that Providence has mostly made much out of minute output of late.

True enough, during this streak, the Bruins have gained invaluable ground with three wins over the fellow welterweight Springfield Falcons and flustered the Sharks by taking three of a possible four points. Their averages in the way of offense, defense and both sides of the special teams’ spectrum for the last seven games have been immensely better than that of their overall 47-game scope.

But one critical area has actually dipped in the most recent span. Whereas Providence has averaged 28.57 shots at the adversaries’ cage in 47 ventures, the data in that category stands at 25.14 within the current 6-0-1 run.

Of late, only top gun Carter Camper, Calle Ridderwall and too-often-off-target Jamie Arniel have chipped in a nightly average of two registered stabs or more. And everyone continues to habitually evaporate in the attacking zone as games wind down.

This midweek set with the Atlantic Division-leading IceCaps will give a better gauge as to the P-Bruins’ posture, for it will surely test the weaknesses that have been idled for the better part of the last three weeks.

More than anything, stamina will have to recur as a concern at some point. In their last six wins, the P-Bruins have scored first and held the upper hand through both the first and second intermissions.

But over their last seven outings, they have been outshot in the third period by a cumulative basketball-blowout tally of 97-46. They have been outscored in the closing stanza, 8-3.

Three times in its last four games―all wins, mind you―Providence has charged up exactly four shots on goal in the third period while letting the opposition crack double-digits at the other end.

In Saturday’s 3-2 triumph at Adirondack, goaltender Michael Hutchinson was tasked with safeguarding a 3-1 advantage and subjected to a 22-shot salvo while the Bruins pelted Phantoms’ Michael Leighton with only four stabs.

Two weeks ago, the P-Bruins and host Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins each mustered seven SOG in both the first and second periods, in which time Providence sculpted itself another 3-1 lead for Anton Khudobin.

But upon controlling the shooting gallery in the closing frame, 12-4, the Eastern Conference-leading Baby Pens salvaged a point by deleting the deficit and forcing overtime.

At the 40-minute mark of a Jan. 22 home date with Springfield, the Bruins upheld a 4-1 lead on the scoreboard along with a 15-13 edge under the SOG heading. By night’s end, the latter had devolved into a 29-19 disadvantage, though Khudobin had just enough of a cushion to stamp a 4-3 regulation victory.

Facing the third-most potent and arguably the most balanced strike force in the AHL for the next two nights, Providence cannot simply bank on Khudobin or Hutchinson stealing the climactic phases of the next two games.

Besides pure production, the IceCaps are one of the league’s busiest puckslinging bunches as it is. They trail only the Grand Rapids Griffins for the most shots per game with a median of 33 per night.

It is worth noting that the IceCaps are immediately trailed on that leaderboard by Worcester, the only team in recent memory to surmount the P-Bruins on the scoreboard. In a Jan. 21 confrontation at DCU Center, the Sharks smoothly peppered Hutchinson with 34 regulation shots (14-9 edge in a scoreless third period) and then penetrated him on their fourth try in overtime.

That was also the only game out of their last seven that did not see the Bruins leading at either intermission (1-0 deficit after one and 2-2 draw after two).

They could have taken less out of that night than the single regulation point. And unless they have, in fact, attained an elevated compete level, they could relapse into more regular empty nights as early as Tuesday.

Providence is fortunate enough to have no further engagements with the IceCaps after Wednesday. And 19 of the P-Bruins’ remaining 27 games will be against those currently sandwiching them on the Eastern Conference leaderboard between seventh and 13th place.

Still, the validity and viability of their momentum could be determined while in Newfoundland. Nothing guaranteed on that front.

Starting to Believe in the “Curse of Spygate?”

At the rate the New England Patriots’ fortunes are going, in about 60 years or so, Dan Shaughnessy’s great-grandson will be publishing a 200-page tome detailing and diagnosing decades of endless futility for the franchise. And it will all be traced back to the conventional epicenter of legendary Boston sports curses, namely the greater New York City market.

The Pats were once a budding dynasty, but are now seven years going on eight without a Super Bowl title. In the interim, they have seen three of their last four playoff runs derailed by a former tenant of Giants Stadium, the site of the infamous Spygate scandal.

The team’s last moment of glory took place in the same venue, when they edged the stadium’s namesake and their nonconference New York adversary en route to polishing off the first-ever 16-0 regular season in NFL history. But however retrospective it might be, that festive occasion between Christmas 2007 and New Year’s 2008 set an ominous tone for the near future.

Amidst ongoing outcries against the legitimacy of their seamless standings transcript, the Patriots and their fans thirsted to have it all, to put a Sharpie-strong stamp on their status as the NFL’s team of the 00s.

As it happened, after finishing a perfect regular season at their expense, they would cross paths with the New York Giants once more to conclude the subsequent postseason. And like it or not, in the eyes of most otherwise disinterested Americans, the Jets’ cohabitants assumed the persona of the Mighty Ducks, Big Green and Little Giants to the Patriots’ Hawks, Knights and Cowboys.

And the team that conceded one dose of distinction to Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Partners was not going to let them have the other. In uncanny Hollywood fashion, the Giants ensured that their spontaneous script would come true, and consequently put an indubitable taint on New England’s 2007-08 run, just in case anyone was still dismissing Mercury Morris.

Four years later, this past Sunday, local buffs may have been inclined to point to the Red Sox-Yankees saga of 2003-04 or the Bruins-Flyers pattern between 2010 and 2011. But unlike the local baseball and hockey teams who each rebounded from devastation en route to splashing a protracted title drought, vindication was not to be for the fallen football semi-dynasty.

So soon after rinsing out the vinegar from Super Bowl XLII, the playoff no-show partially induced by Brady’s lost season, the glacial meltdown in the 2009 wild-card round and the 2010-11 stunner against the Jets, the Patriots were force-fed a fresh dose. And it happened on the same stage against the same franchise in similar-enough fashion, with a defensive, seesaw battle decided on the final play.

Now for the inevitable: Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin are being credited with obliterating and succeeding the Belichick-Brady Empire. In addition, Pats fans are reminded that since the night they improved to 16-0, their fans are 0-3 against the Giants and that, dating back to their last playoff title, they are 0-3 against New York teams in do-or-die clashes.

Trace the unfavorable, fall-from-ahead, 21-17 upshot to whatever you please. The score-starting safety, Rob Gronkowski’s ankle, Wes Welker’s butterfingers, etc.

Could it all be because of what happened Sept. 9, 2007 in the former home of the two New York teams? Until these trends reverse, expect the gullible and the grating among Northeastern U.S. sports fans to claim just that.

This Date In Providence Bruins History: February 6

1994: The defending Northern Division champion P-Bruins reach a .500 record for the first time since opening weekend with a 4-3 win over Portland on the strength of Ken Hammond’s third consecutive game-winning strike.

2000: Head coach Peter Laviolette is among those ejected after a second-period brouhaha in an eventual 3-1 home victory over the Springfield Falcons.

2004: Tim Thomas’ 41-save effort preserves a regulation tie, although the visiting Hartford Wolf Pack get away with a 2-1 overtime decision at The Dunk.

2008: Jeff Hoggan has a hand in all three Providence goals, including T.J. Trevelyan’s go-ahead power-play strike that beats the Milwaukee Admirals, 3-2, at The Dunk.

2009: Mikko Lehtonen tallies an assist in regulation, then scores the shootout clincher to top the Manitoba Moose, 3-2, at The Dunk.

2010: After giving up 1-0 and 2-1 leads and trailing at the second intermission, the P-Bruins score three unanswered goals to surmount the Worcester Sharks, 5-3, at DCU Center.

2011: The P-Bruins pay their first-ever visit to Charlotte, where they fall short in a 4-3 decision at Time Warner Cable Arena.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

This Date In Providence Bruins History: February 5

1999: In Roger Maxwell’s Providence debut, the Bruins extend their home winning streak to nine games at the expense of a Saint John Flames team featuring future Stanley Cup-winning stars Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Martin St. Louis.

2003: Andy Hilbert matches the output of the visiting Worcester IceCats with two goals in a 2-2 tie.

2006: Zdenek Blatny and Tyler Redenbach both charge up a goal and two assists, including one helper apiece on Mark Stuart’s go-ahead goal in a 4-3 triumph over Lowell at The Dunk.