The second half of the AHL season is well underway and the Providence Bruins continue to fight for their playoff lives. There is still over two months remaining, but if the season ended today the P-Bruins would be home watching the postseason. With a record of 23-19-5-1, Providence holds the 10 seed in the Eastern Conference. Their 52 points, however, are only three points shy of the eight seed as well as the six seed, as five teams are competing for the final playoff berths.
Providence continues to be paced by Alexander Khokhlachev in scoring, as the young center has 33 points (11g, 22a) to lead the club. While David Pastrnak is likely in Boston for the rest of the year, Seth Griffith has filled in for him admirably. Griffith, who spent plenty of time in Boston himself this season, has 14 points (7g, 7a) in just 13 AHL games with a +7 rating. He isn’t as exciting as Pastrnak nor does he have the NHL potential he does, but Griffith definitely can make things happen offensively.
Providence will need him with several contributors sidelined with injuries. Khokhlachev did not play yesterday due to a lower body injury and his status is uncertain. Matt Lindblad, Bobby Robins and Joe Morrow also remain out with injury, and Morrow will likely know the status of his injury in the upcoming days. Morrow took a gruesome hit to the knee during Friday’s 4-2 win over Manchester, hitting the ice in agony upon impact. This is not the first injury to his knees and the result of his MRI, scheduled for yesterday, is not yet known.
In net, top prospect Malcolm Subban has been recalled to Boston and is enjoying his first NHL stint. Boston backup goalie Niklas Svedberg is on a conditioning stint with Providence, and once that it is complete he will likely take Subban’s place with Boston. Svedberg has played three games with the P-Bruins, going 2-1 with a save percentage of 90%. Goaltender play has been strong all season for the club, as Jeremy Smith and Subban have played at extremely high levels each. Subban, though only 9-10-2 has a solid save percentage of 92.1% and a GAA of just 2.47. Smith has been their best goalie, as he is top five in the league with a save percentage of 92.7% and a 2.22 GAA.
Providence, which has split their games so far this weekend, will look to get two points in a tight playoff race today at home as they face the Springfield Falcons, currently the four seed in the Eastern Conference.
After a convincing 45-7 victory over the Colts in the AFC Championship, the New England Patriots are once again Super Bowl bound. This will be the sixth time in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era that the team will compete for the Lombardi Trophy, and if they hope to win their fourth title together they will have to beat last year’s champions in the Seattle Seahawks.
This game features many compelling story lines and match-ups. The greatest coach and quarterback combination looking to firmly cement their place in history versus a team looking to become a dynasty. The first meeting of these two teams since the Patriots lost in Seattle back in 2012, which was the first time anyone heard the outspoken Richard Sherman trash talk his opponent after a game. A great Patriots offense versus a great Seahawks defense. The top two corners in football playing against each other in Sherman and Darrelle Revis. How can the Patriots stop “Beast Mode?” How will the Seahawks try to contain Rob Gronkowski? There are so many to get into, but there are a few that stand out above the rest.
For starters, any comparison to this year’s Patriots team and last year’s Bronco team that got annihilated in Super Bowl is unjustified. Despite having the top offense in the NFL, the team’s mental and physical toughness was nowhere near Seattle’s. Denver had never really had any adversity or doubt on their way to the Super Bowl, and right away when it hit they folded big time. This Patriots team is much tougher mentally and physically on both sides of the ball and won’t be intimidated by Seahawks. They have dealt with adversity right from week one, including many questioning whether or not the team could be contenders. They also had a tough six game stretch in which they played several teams atop their respected divisions. To think that what happened to the Broncos last year will happen this year to the Patriots is completely unfounded.
Offensively, Brady and the Patriots will have their hands full with “The Legion of Boom.” This is no doubt the toughest defense the team has played all season, though there were some takeaways from the NFC Championship game that could bode well for the offense. The Patriot offense loves to throw the ball short and quick over the middle of the field and near the sideline. The Seahawks allowed those throws to be successfully completed against the Packers. When targeting their second cornerback Byron Maxwell, Green Bay was able to get four plays of at least 12 yards and five total first downs on such throws. This number could be even higher if the team hadn’t been conservative and tried to run the clock out. The Packers also had success on quick throws over the middle to TE Richard Rodgers, who had three catches for 30 yards on these throws. Replace Rodgers with Gronkowski and this could be a significant advantage for New England.
Many of the yards gained on these plays did not come after catch, so it will be interesting to see if the shifty Patriot receivers can get yards after the catch. Seattle’s defense is tremendous at swarming to the ball and making tackles, so the Patriots will have to adjust to this. One thing to try is challenging Sherman and Earl Thomas. Sherman is dealing with an elbow injury that left him in a lot of pain Sunday and Thomas is coming off a dislocated shoulder. Both will play in the Super Bowl, but if they have trouble tackling or are a step slower because of their injuries, the Patriots can and will take advantage. The Patriots will also need to take advantage of something Green Bay did not, third down and short situations. Several times at key points in the game, the Packers had third down and less than three yards to go on the stingy Seahawk defense and could not convert. Most notably the Packers could not convert these situations in the red zone, settling for field goals inside the Seahawks one yard line. That cannot happen against a team like Seattle.
Moving to the Patriots defense, this unit can be highly effective come Super Sunday if they can contain Marshawn Lynch. With no elite receiver to rely on, the Seattle offense relies heavily on running the ball and using that to set up their passing game. Belichick is known for taking a team’s best player away and in this case that is Lynch. With such depth at cornerback like Revis, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington, and Logan Ryan, the Patriots can trust these players with one-on-one match-ups and focus on stopping the ground game. Despite their epic comeback in the NFC Title game, Seattle really isn’t built to comeback. They are a clock management, ground and pound, mistake free offense. As mentioned the team doesn’t have a true number one receiver, so if they are forced into passing situations, the Patriots would consider that a win.
Of course there are the obvious things a team must do to win, such as overall third down conversions, limit penalties, pressure the quarterback and protect yours. That goes without saying. However, if the Patriots are to come away with their fourth Super Bowl Championship, many of these match-ups could give them an edge.
It is no secret that the Boston Bruins have struggled in the first half of this season, mostly due to injuries. As a result, the team has relied on players from Providence being sent up and down to fill the voids. Now add in plenty of injuries of their own and winning games for the P-Bruins has become quite the challenge. Among some of the players out with injury are Ryan Spooner, Joe Morrow, and Bobby Robins, not to mention the fact that rookie star David Pastrnak had been away in the World Junior Championships and in Boston. Tuesday saw the team play shorthanded with only 17 skaters active for the game, one short of a full lineup.
Despite all this going against them, they have persevered through it all to remain in the playoff hunt. This includes the game they played shorthanded, as with five seconds left in regulation Ethan Werek netted a game winning goal to give the Bruins a gutsy 3-2 road victory. Even with that win, playing shorthanded seemed to have really taken a toll on the team over the weekend. After a 4-2 win over the Sound Tigers, the team looked gassed both offensively and defensively. Providence went over 100 minutes without scoring a goal and played very sloppy defense as well.
Currently the team sits in eighth place in the East with 38 pts, though they are only two points out of fifth. They are getting tremendous play in goal from both goaltenders, but Jeremy Smith has gone above and beyond the call. He is off to one of the best starts of his career and is on pace to set career bests in goals allowed average and save percentage. When Providence signed Smith it was expected he would give young Malcolm Subban a solid AHL backup as he continues to grow. While Subban has been very good in net as well, Smith is challenging the youngster for more playing time. The team has been good about getting both an even amount of time, though it was previously thought that Subban would get more time than Smith.
As previously stated, injuries and call-ups have created problems for the P-Bruins depth, however the line of Alexander Khokhlachev and Pastrnak has been able to create chances. Pastrnak especially has shown that he is slick with the puck and can make offensive plays out of seemingly nothing. The only question is how long he remains with Providence as that kind of spark is something Boston could use right now. It wouldn’t be shocking to see him called up within the next week or two.
by MATT HOSMAN
In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, six Division 1 basketball teams are vying for berths in the postseason. Generally, teams from Massachusetts are competitive nationally, and this season is no different. The teams span a wide range of leagues, giving fans the chance to see them compete against schools from all over the country. Regularly, these teams compete for their respective league championships and berths in the NIT and NCAA tournaments. A seventh team, UMass Lowell, is not eligible for postseason contention due to its NCAA reclassification last season but has improved steadily over its first year-plus as a Division 1 program.
Boston College (ACC)
Key Wins: Providence, New Mexico
Key Losses: Massachusetts, Dayton, USC
Remaining Non-Conference games: UMass Lowell, Harvard
Key home ACC games: UNC, Notre Dame, Louisville, Virginia
ACC Tournament: March 10-14 in Greensboro, N.C.
With two key players from last year’s 8-22 team transferring out (Ryan Anderson to Arizona and Joe Rahon to St. Mary’s), the Eagles look will look to younger players and their veteran captain Dennis Clifford to provide leadership. So far, BC has been paced by returner Oliver Hanlan (16.0 ppg) and Southern Miss transfer Aaron Brown (15.5 ppg). First-year coach Jim Christian has seen BC be competitive in every game, with their biggest loss only being 12 points. The Eagles have one more important non-conference game coming up as they host UMass Lowell on Dec. 29 before opening their ACC schedule at Duke on Jan. 3.
Massachusetts (Atlantic 10)
Key Wins: Boston College, Florida State, Northeastern
Key Losses: Harvard, Providence, LSU
Non-Conference games remaining: Iona
Key Home A-10 matchups: Davidson, Rhode Island, Dayton
A-10 Tournament: March 11-15 at Barclays Center, Brooklyn
The Minutemen have had one of the better offenses in the country this season averaging 73.7 points per game, but they have struggled on the defensive end, as they are 308th in points allowed per game (73.5). Veteran forwards Maxie Esho (14.2 ppg) and Cady Lalanne (13.3 ppg) lead the scoring for UMass, but they have not found their guard play. In the absence of starter Seth Berger, Jabarie Hinds, a transfer from West Virgina, has stepped in and filled his role. The Minutemen host Iona on Dec. 30 before beginning Atlantic 10 play on Jan. 3 against St. Bonaventure. They look to make it back to the NCAA tournament for the second straight season.
Boston University (Patriot)
Key Wins: Norfolk State, Quinnipiac
Key Losses: Northeastern, UNH, Harvard, UMass-Lowell
Non-Conference games remaining: Wentworth
Key home Patriot League games: Holy Cross, American, Bucknell, Army
Patriot League Tournament: March 3-11; games played at the home of the higher seed
3-7 Boston University has taken their lumps a little bit this season, taking some teams deep into games, but struggling to get over the top and finish games. Cedric Hankerson has been the high scorer for the Terriers thus far, averaging a solid 19.0 points per game. He also averages 4.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game, showing his versatility on the court. John Papale is another key name for Terrier fans, contributing 9.5 ppg and 4.0 assists. BU took a tough road trip to #1 Kentucky in November and trailed only 40-35 at the half before ultimately falling 89-65 in Lexington. The Terriers have a busy week this week, hosting Division 3 Wentworth on Dec. 29 and traveling to Holy Cross on Dec. 31 before opening Patriot League play the next week. Former BC assistant Joe Jones looks to take the Terriers back to the NCAA tournament, where they were ousted last year by Illinois.
Key Wins: Boston University, Florida State, Santa Clara
Key Losses: Harvard, Massachusetts, St. Mary’s, Cal Poly
Remaining Non-Conference games: Richmond, Detroit
Key Home CAA Games: UNCW, College of Charleston, Towson, Drexel
CAA Tournament: March 6-9 in Baltimore, Md.
The Huskies of Northeastern started their off strong, winning each of their first four games before a loss to UMass took them off their path. The Huskies play very unselfish basketball, averaging 14.9 assists per game. Senior Scott Eatherton leads NU in scoring at 16.4 ppg. Junior guard David Walker, who dropped 23 points in an opening night victory over BU, shoots 89.3 percent from the free throw line. Northeastern travels to Richmond for a New Year’s Eve matchup with the Spiders before tipping off CAA play on Jan. 3 at Delaware.
Key Wins: Houston, Massachusetts, Northeastern, Boston University
Key Losses: Holy Cross, Virginia
Remaining Non-Conference games: Arizona State, Grand Canyon, St. Rose, Boston College, Bryant
Key Home Ivy games: Columbia, Princeton, Yale, Brown
Ivy League Tournament: None; regular season winner becomes league champion
The 7-2 Crimson are 33rd in the country in points allowed per game at only 58.3. They are led by their senior forwards Wesley Saunders (18.3 ppg) and Steve Moundou-Missi (8.9 ppg) on both the offensive and defensive ends. Along with their scoring, the Crimson rank 20th in the country in blocks per game at 5.8. Harvard was ranked 25th in the preseason AP poll, but fell out of the rankings after an early-season loss to Holy Cross at the TD Garden. The Crimson play at Arizona State on Dec. 28 and continue their West Coast trip at Grand Canyon on Dec. 30 before returning home for the New Year. Harvard looks to take another trip back to the NCAA tournament this season.
Holy Cross (Patriot)
Key Wins: Harvard, NJIT, Albany, Brown
Key Losses: Sacred Heart, Canisius, Hartford
Remaining Non-Conference games: None
Key Home Patriot League games: BU, Bucknell, American
Patriot League Tournament: March 3-11; games played at the home of the higher seed
Holy Cross has a very balanced offensive game, with no standout scorers. However, seniors Malcolm Miller (11.9 ppg) and Justin Burrell (11.4 ppg) lead the team in that category. The Crusaders tough inside play is indicative of their 5.4 blocks per game, which is good enough to be in the Top 30 in the nation. Holy Cross is on a two-game skid, but look to break that against a struggling BU team on Dec. 31 before opening up Patriot League play.
UMass Lowell (America East)
Key Wins: Sacred Heart, NJIT, Fordham, Boston University
Key Losses: Ohio State, URI, Cornell, Dartmouth
Remaining Non-Conference games: Boston College, Brown
Key Home America East games: New Hampshire, Vermont (at Tsongas Center), Stony Brook (at Costello Athletic Center)
The River Hawks look to build on a 10-18 season last year in their first season at the Division 1 level. Coach Pat Duquette looks to build his team by recruiting nationally as UMass Lowell only carries two players from Massachusetts on their roster. Sophomore Jahad Thomas is the leading scorer, averaging 14.6 ppg and 5.5 rebounds. The River Hawks went on a six-game winning streak at the end of November, but have since lost their last three games. They have one remaining non-conference game (at Boston College on Dec. 29) before America East play starts. They won six conference games last year and aspire for more.
It wasn’t easy, but the Patriots were able to squeeze out a 17-16 road victory against the Jets Sunday afternoon. The Jets have earned much deserved criticism given their poor play all season, however they played well in this game. They fought hard in what was essentially their Super Bowl, and expecting them to lie down and not play their hated rivals close wouldn’t be smart. By no means was this the Patriots best game on either side of the ball, and while execution by New England had much to do with it the play of the Jets cannot be discredited.
When teams game plan for the Jets, usually the strategy is to let quarterback Geno Smith beat them. Smith and the Jet offense is known for making bad decisions with the football, leading to turnovers and good field position for the opposing offense. That’s what the Patriots tried to do. For the most part, they did a good job stopping the Jets’ running attack with the exception of a few plays. Vince Wilfork did a great job clogging up the middle of the field and forcing Chris Ivory and Chris Johnson to try making something out of nothing. They made Smith beat them. However, he delivered accurate, key throws in big spots, something that hasn’t happened all season long. Despite having one bad turnover, he made solid decisions and played as well as he’s played all season.
Another thing teams know is that Rex Ryan and his defense will create problems for even the best offenses. Even throughout this dreadful stretch over the last few years, their defense has been solid and overlooked. Teams have had little success running the football on their defensive line, along with stopping the pass rush. These trends continued Sunday, as the Patriots never had a consistent running attack and certainly did not contain the pass rush. Tom Brady was constantly under pressure from both the normal three or four man rushes and blitz packages. The Patriot offensive line struggled in this game, and without Dan Connolly at guard there seemed to be communication break downs up front that led to the struggles. It has been an up and down season for this group and a successful playoff run will revolve around consistency from them.
A combination of Geno Smith being smart and the defense getting pressure on Brady would seem to be a good combination for a Jets victory. However, the Patriots offense played much more determined in the second half, going with a quick, up tempo attack. This was in large part to Danny Amendola stepping up and having his best game of 2014. Without having Julian Edelman as the go to guy in the slot, Amendola needed to have a good day and he did so not only in the passing game but also in the return game. He led the team with eight receptions including key first down catches along with putting the offense in good field position. His role will likely be condensed once Edelman returns, though it is nice to see that he is capable of coming up big.
The Jets always seem to play the Patriots well, and that was the case on Sunday. If the Jets knew they would be able to get consistent pressure on Brady while Smith didn’t completely cost them the game, they would take that every time. I felt the game would be closer than most people thought, so the final score did not concern me as much. I would, however, be concerned with the Pats up and down offensive line, as teams like Seattle and Denver have the ability to do what the Jets did.