Monday, December 30, 2013

Beyond Thunderdome, Pittsburgh and Boston deeply connected through the college ranks

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

The attention, ire, and outrage of fans, broadcasters, writers and league leaders was directed towards TD Garden on the night of December 7 and in the days afterward.

On that Saturday evening, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins literally did battle in the first period of an eventual 3-2 B's victory. The undercard was a clean, hard hit from Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik on Bruins forward Loui Eriksson -- one which left the ex-Dallas Star concussed and out of action since -- along with a rolling knee to the head of Bruins forward Brad Marchand, who was laying on the ice unsuspecting of James Neal's impending circumvention of The Code.

The main event was Orpik's payment for his collision. In a scrum shortly after Marchand was gonged, Bruins forward Shawn Thornton skated behind Orpik, grabbed him by the shoulder, turned him around and punched him twice. The second blow bounced an unprepared Orpik's head off the ice, knocking him out momentarily.

Orpik, a bruising player who has tread the line and gone over it multiple times in his 11-year NHL career, was strapped to a stretcher, sent to the hospital, but later released that night without any other damage than a concussion which landed him on injured reserve. He missed three weeks before returning to action this past Friday in Carolina.

Neal, who had felt the sting of supplemental discipline before, was hit with a five-game suspension.

Thornton, on the other hand, was slammed with the biggest suspension the Department of Player Safety has handed out in the first half of the season -- 15 games. He has already lost a first appeal to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, and has one more shot to have his case heard in front of an independent arbitrator. If nothing is done, Thornton will be eligible to return on January 11 and is set to lose almost $85,000 in salary for his efforts.

Nobody could have envisioned this when ROOT Sports sat down with Boston College head coach Jerry York when the Penguins visited Boston for the first of two appearance this season on November 25.

Before the midway point of the 2013-14 season, the Penguins have featured at least 17 different players with major Division I college hockey experience. Craig Adams (Harvard), Joe Vitale (Northeastern), Beau Bennett (Denver), Chris Kunitz (Ferris State), Paul Martin (Minnesota), Matt Niskanen (Minnesota-Duluth), backup goalie Jeff Zatkoff (Miami of Ohio) and recent call-ups Harry Zolnierczyk (Brown), Andrew Ebbett (Michigan), Zach Sill (Maine) and Chris Conner (Michigan Tech) have featured for the Metropolitan Division leaders. In addition, free-agent goalie Eric Hartzell, who backstopped runner-up Quinnipiac in last year's Frozen Four, signed with the organization.

But there's a crop of six...that's right, six players either on the NHL roster or in the system who have been part of the Millennial dynasty on Chestnut Hill. What's more unlikely, is that three players were teammates on one particular BC team -- its 2000-01 championship squad that was the first in a string of four NCAA crowns this century.

Orpik, two-time Stanley Cup champion defenseman Rob Scuderi and offseason signee forward Chuck Kobasew were integral parts of York's first national title at his alma mater, in a year where BC swept through every title and tournament laid out on the schedule. It culminated in a final push where the Eagles beat the three programs which halted their hopes in the previous years: Maine ('99), Michigan ('98) and North Dakota '00). Following that season, Orpik (a junior) and Kobasew (freshman) departed for the pros while Scuderi graduated and began his rise in the organization.

Orpik has been with the organization ever since stepping on ice in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton the following October, while Scuderi, a 2009 Cup winner in the Steel City, returned this Summer armed with a lucrative free-agent deal and a Cup won with Los Angeles in 2012. Kobasew, the pride of Osoyoos, British Columbia, played for the Flames, Bruins, Wild and Avalanche in varying roles before landing in the city of three rivers. 

The Three Amigos were joined at various times by forward Brian Gibbons and blueliners Brian Dumoulin and Philip Samuelsson.

Gibbons, 25, went undrafted despite helping BC claim titles in 2008 and 2010. Dumoulin is also a two-time winner (2010, '12) taken in the second round by the Carolina Hurricanes four years ago but dealt to the Penguins in the Jordan Staal bonanza, while Samuelsson was a frosh on the 2010 squad, one year after the Pens plucked the Son of Ulf with the 61st overall selection.

“It’s crazy how many players from there are here, especially that I played with,” Samuelsson said to his parent team's site last season. “They must like the Eagles. I think they do (laughs). Coach (Jerry) York has done a great job producing high-end players. I don’t know what the connection is exactly, but I love it.”

One connection is that Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma is a Michigan native and a product of the American college system, having plied his trade at Bowling Green State under -- one guess -- Jerry York from 1988 to 1992.  That also accounts for both schools participating in this weekend's Three Rivers Classic, along with newbie Penn State and host Robert Morris.

Another is team GM Ray Shero, taking his father's advice and choosing education over a rough transient life in the sport, spent four years at St. Lawrence where he served as captain and averaged around a point-per-game. What's more, Shero assistant Tom Fitzgerald's son plays on the current BC team, while ex-Pens Bill Guerin, Ian Moran, Joe Mullen, Kevin Stevens and Doug Brown spent time in Maroon and Gold.

“Coming into a new organization, you’re obviously nervous,” Gibbons said. “You want to make a good impression. I think it helps when you know a few of the guys before you come in. I came in with Phil Samuelsson, so that helped. We kind of went through things together and leaned on each other, so that definitely helps.”

What also might help is the bond of shared memories, like this year's Eagles team, ranked seventh in the latest USCHO poll, who topped Penn State in the Three Rivers Classic finale Saturday night by an 8-2 score after taking out Bylsma's Bowling Green on Friday night in a dominating 5-0 victory.

"All of those moments create memories,” Dumoulin said a couple weeks back. “Fortunately I was able to win most of them. That creates a lifetime memory. It’s something I’ll share with my class and teammates forever. Playing in those big tournaments helped us as a team come together.”

Fitzgerald clocked in with a season high three points on a goal and two assists in the rout, while undrafted junior Destry Straight picked up a hat trick. Pittsburgh native Travis Jeke added an assist in the title game, bringing his two-game total in front of the home crowd to a score and two helpers.

The Penguins and Bruins have already completed their three-game regular-season slate, and may only play each other in the second or third round of the playoffs if both clubs remain atop their respective divisions. BC does not return to Pittsburgh and Robert Morris most likely won't be on the Eagles' full dance card in the next few seasons. Yet, Shero's wisdom, York's guidance and some luck from the hockey gods will likely conspire to keep the BC-Penguins bond intact.

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