Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Playoffs have begun . . . in the AHL

The playoffs have already started . . . in the AHL, that is.

Last night, Hershey opened a five-game sprint to the end of the regular season with a 6-1 smacking of the Norfolk Admirals, perhaps ending the Admirals’ ambitions to finish at the top of the Eastern Conference. Hershey has a four point lead with four games to play, and one game in hand over Norfolk.

But no sooner is that challenge met then the Bears have to face Wilkes-Barre/Scranton tonight at Giant Center. Hershey will, in fact, play a home-and-home this week against the Penguins (the teams meet at Wilkes-Barre on Friday) that will, no doubt, have a playoff feel to it. The Bears and Penguins each have four wins in the season series to date, and the clubs have split the results on each other’s ice (the only odd result – a shootout win for Hershey on February 12th).

If Hershey has incentive this week, it is in the ugly way they lost the last meeting to the Penguins on April Fools Day. Carrying a 2-0 lead into the last five minutes of the contest, thoughts of whether Frederic Cassivi would hang onto a shutout evaporated as the Penguins scored three goals – the last two coming in a 13-second span – to escape Giant Center with the 3-2 win.

Winning both games would clinch the top spot in the league for the Bears; losing both would almost certainly leave the Bears looking up at the Penguins in the final standings. And, it would be a statement – not a pleasant one for Bears fans – in that the Penguins would have won the last three games of the season set.

Both clubs are 8-2-0 in their last ten games. Hershey is likely to get a boost from the addition of defenseman Mike Green, center Tomas Fleischmann, right wing Eric Fehr (injured) and left wing David Steckel.

So, for the Bears – and the Penguins and the Admirals (all with at least 104 points) – the playoffs have begun.

Michigan State University . . . National Champions

Take that, Boston College . . . and Maine . . . and Notre Dame . . . and for good measure, you too, Meeeechigan.

The Green and White are national champions of NCAA Division I men’s ice hockey, a product of one of the more thrilling finishes to a final one would ever want to see – a 3-1 victory over a high-octane Boston College Golden Eagles squad last night in St. Louis.

It’s been 21 years since the last MSU ice hockey championship – 1986 against Harvard in the final – and this has to be among the more satisfying championships in any Spartan team sport. The program has struggled – comparatively speaking – since coach Ron Mason was kicked upstairs to the AD’s chair. Rick Comley – no slouch as a coach himself (he has a national championship as coach of Northern Michigan in 1991 and nine Hobey Baker finalists to his credit) – has been the target of much grumbling among the Spartan faithful . . . well, gee, The Peerless doesn’t understand why there should be any pressure on a guy who is replacing a coach for whom the Central Collegiate Hockey Association’s championship trophy is named, one who is still his boss.

MSU became the second three-seed to play in a national final (Boston College was the first, last year) and the first to take home the trophy. Figures. The Spartans are as lunch-pail a group as there is in collegiate hockey, one built on the pillars of sturdy defense and goaltending. And what a story the goaltending is. Jeff Lerg – 5’6”, 155 pounds (all of it heart) – begins each game day by dilating his lungs, he being asthmatic. Then he straps on the equipment that makes him look more “mite” than “mighty.” But at the end of the day – or in this case, three days and two games – Lerg gave up three goals on 58 shots in 120 minutes. Lerg is the latest in a line of superb goaltenders for the Spartans, none greater than Ryan Miller – a Hobey Baker winner with a record of 73-19-12, 1.54, .941 in three years at MSU. But Lerg has something Miller never earned at State – a championship.

The Spartans fell behind in both games of the Frozen Four tournament, but as has been the case all year for a team that was largely an afterthought in the CCHA and in the NCAA tournament, they plugged along. Falling behind to the arguably more talented Golden Eagles in the final, MSU scratched back with a tying goal from Tim Kennedy at 9:53 of the third. But Kennedy was just warming up. With the clock winding down and overtime looming, Justin Abdelkader rang the puck off the post behind BC netminder Cory Schneider. Eventually the puck found its way behind the Eagles’ net, and Kennedy won his battle against a BC defender, spinning to steer the puck in front. Abdelkader wouldn’t be denied this time, snapping the puck past Schneider with 18.9 seconds left and setting off a Spartan celebration – how ironic that a Boston team was undone by a Kennedy.

An empty net goal with two ticks left was the icing on the cake. A club that finished fourth in its own conference, one that was eliminated in the conference tournament semi-final, without a single all-conference player, one that was thought to have a gift in being named to the national tournament, one that if they won would do so with the worst record for a champion in more than 25 years, plugged along and won the prize.

It’s good to be a Spartan this morning…

photos: Tom Gannam/AP, Dale G. Young/Detroit News

After-Math -- Caps. vs. Sabres

We’re done here...

Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

The forced march that has been the season since New Year’s Day is over. The Caps lost, 2-0, to the Buffalo Sabres, giving the visitors the President’s Trophy and inspiring a video tape burning festival in the Caps locker room (well, probably not, but there should have been one).

It wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been, and that might be the best thing one can say at the end of this dreadful season. First, for all the nonsense leading up to the game that this would be a Sabres “home game,” The Peerless was rather unimpressed with the volume of the visiting fans. To be sure, there was a Sabre presence, but the effect was probably overstated given the Caps’ inability to give their fans much to cheer for.

Second, except for two glaring defensive mistakes, the Caps played a solid defensive game. But those mistakes were crippling. On the first, Maxim Afinogenov was allowed to get position (he hustled, the Caps defense didn’t) to drive to the net. Olaf Kolzig denied the first thrust, but Derek Roy (again, where was the follow-up?) chipped the puck home. On the second, Mike Green tried to carry the puck out of the zone with a Sabre draped on him, instead of moving the puck forward. He was picked clean, and Kolzig was left to fend off two Sabres – Dan Paille and Tim Connolly. Paille left the puck for Connolly who cashed the check. And by the is it that Connolly -- announced as a scratch in the pre-game – ends up on the bench?

That was it for the Sabres, and it was enough, because Ryan Miller made Alex Ovechkin’s life a skating hell. Ovechkin had an excellent game – except on the scoreboard. Eight shots – at least four of which required 10-bell stops by Miller – to go with five hits, more than 24 minutes of ice time, and a faceoff win for good measure. He deserved better.

As for the rest of the Caps? It’s one thing to say for public consumption that it’s important to go out on a high note, it’s another to actually show up to do that. The jump, the extra gear, just wasn’t there. One could see glimpses of gritty effort from the likes of Chris Clark, Brook Laich, and David Steckel – the grinders – but the rest of the club seemed not so much looking ahead to April 8th as much as they just couldn’t find the extra level of effort, try as they might.

There were a few abysmal performances yesterday among the Caps, and those were offered by guys who in all likelihood will not be on the roster come September. We’ll leave it at that. But there was one moment that put into stark relief the differences between these teams. It came in the third period, as the clock was winding down to five minutes in the season, the Caps pressing in the Sabres end on a power play. A pass was put right in the wheelhouse of Kris Beech, who had a wide open net to shoot at from the inside of the right wing circle…if he one-timed the puck.

He didn’t.

Beech stopped the puck, wound, and fired, by which time Ryan Miller had re-positioned himself to be able to glove the puck, and the last gasp for the Caps was just that…a gasp.

The Caps didn’t have the skill and the timing to execute that play and make a game of it, and Buffalo slammed the door on the game right there. This isn’t to say Kris Beech was the reason the Caps lost – he wasn’t. But he had that opportunity to get the Caps back into it and was unable to convert. It is a story for the season, one that applies to a lot of his teammates.

The Caps’ season ended, it is time to embark in a new direction – the construction of the next elements of this rebuilt club. Fans are hearing a lot of the right words being uttered . . .

“We’ve done enough rebuilding…”

“We’ll be active this summer…”

And then there is this . . .

Well, fine…but if uniforms is the only thing that changes, The Peerless hopes they enjoy parading their wardrobe in front of an empty arena.