Stanley Cup Preview

Chris Pronger and Mike Richards have been phenomenal for the Flyers so far. Don't expect things to change in the Stanley Cup Finals.

I wonder how many people picked the Chicago Blackhawks and the Philadelphia Flyers to play for the Stanley Cup in September? I did. I definitely was not alone.

The Blackhawks were the ‘sexy’ pick in the West. They had a young, talented roster that made it to the Conference Finals the year before and added Marian Hossa in the summer. Duncan Keith had emerged as a premier defenseman in the league and Brent Seabrook had made incredible strides as well. Sure there were questions about how Christobal Huet would handle a full season as a starter, but with a defense boasting the likes of Keith, Seabrook and Brian Campbell, he didn’t exactly have to be Tony Esposito.

The Flyers looked like a team in much the same mold. The Flyers were arguably just as deep as Chicago up front, led by 46-goal-scorer Jeff Carter. The addition of Chris Pronger, one of the most respected and at the same time despised defensemen in the league, to a lineup that already featured Scott Hartnell, Daniel Carcillo and Mike “Bobby Clarke Jr.” Richards had visions of the Bullies dancing in the heads of the Philadelphia faithful. Of course, they still had not solved the same problem the team had had since Ron Hextall was between the pipes, but surely Ray Emery had turned his game around in Russia and was ready to return to his 2007 Playoffs form.

Two deep and dynamic groups of forwards. Two star-studded defenses. Two big questions in net.

Chicago came flying out of the gate to start the regular season and remained one of the top teams in the West all season. When Huet and his .895 save percentage did not cut it for the ‘Hawks, they gave 26-year-old Antti Niemi a shot. All the back-up-turned-starter-turned-Conn-Symthe-dark-horse did was go 26-7-4 with seven shutouts. The Blackhawks finished second in the West, one point behind San Jose for the top spot.

For the most part, Chicago’s playoff run has been a cake walk. It took the ‘Hawks six games to dispatch both Nashville and Vancouver before sweeping away the top-ranked Sharks in the Western Conference Finals (see Byfuglien, Dustin). Captain Jonathan Toews is leading the playoffs in scoring with 26 points and Niemi has been excellent in net when they have needed him to be.

The Flyers on the other hand had a very different route. After starting off a disappointing 13-11-1 and finding themselves in 10th place in the East to start the month of December, the Flyers fired head coach John Stevens and brought in former Cup-winner Peter Laviolette. The Emery experiment was a failure as he was hampered by injury and inconsistency before going down for the season after surgery on his right hip. Journeyman goaltender Brian Boucher filled in and general manager Paul Holmgren brought in back-up Michael Leighton, who had played under Laviolette in Carolina.Despite a revolving door in net, and injuries up front the Flyers limped into the playoffs on the last day of the season, courtesy of a shootout victory over the New York Rangers.

If you picked the Flyers to make it this far after the season, and weren’t from Philadelphia, would you mind picking up a couple lottery tickets for me?

The consensus was that the New Jersey Devils, with their mix of gritty U.S. Olympic heroes (Zach Parise and Jamie Langunbrunner), the addition of Ilya Kovalchuk and one of the greatest of all-time between the pipes, would make short work of the inconsistent and injury-riddled Flyers. Richards and Boucher had other plans, and in one of the most surprising first round upsets, Philly ousted the Devils in five games.

Next came the Boston Bruins, and we all know what happened there. Not only did the Flyers become only the third team in NHL history to come back in a series after being down 3-0, but Leighton came on in relief of the injured Boucher in game five and gave up only four goals in three games.

The Flyers silenced any remaining critics by shattering Montreal’s dreams of a 25th Stanley Cup and first Finals appearance since 1993. Leighton shutout the Habs three times and it only took five short games to knock them out, despite a possible sabotage attempt at the Bell Centre.

And that, my friends, is how we get to where we are today – anxiously awaiting the start of the Stanley Cup Finals. The series starts Saturday, where the United Center will be the setting for game one. The Blackhawks may have been Cup favorites all year long, but Philadelphia matches up with them as well as any team in the league.

Both teams are riding hot goaltenders. Both teams are getting Conn-Smythe-worthy performances from their captains. But only one team can win it, and I’m going with the Flyers for three reasons.

1) Chris Pronger

Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren acquired Pronger this offseason for precisely this reason. Pronger’s playoff performance, for the most part, has been spectacular. He has showed up all the critics who questioned how much he had left in the tank after a disappointing showing in the Olympics. Pronger has been a workhorse averaging nearly 29 minutes, tops in the playoffs. He’ll be on the ice against the Byfuglien-Toews-Kane line all night long and he has the size to handle Dusty B. Plus, Pronger has the experience. He won the Cup with Anaheim in 2007 and made it the game seven the year before with Edmonton. You can make a convincing argument that he was the most valuable player on both of those teams, and I for one think he’ll have his name on the short list by the time this series ends.

2) Mike Richards

With all due respect to Mr. Toews in Chicago, is there a captain in this league that does more for his team? Richards is second in playoff scoring with 21 pionts. He’s scored or set up crucial goals throughout Philly’s remarkable run. He registered five points in the Flyers’ four-game comeback over the Bruins and three in the game five clincher over Montreal. But Richards may be even more valuable without the puck on his stick. He has been a catalyst for an excellent Flyers penalty kill and he’s not afraid to lower the shoulder and make a run. He’s rock-em sock-em hockey player who’ll do anything to will his team to victory, just ask Montreal. And, with the return of Carter from injury, he’ll have another option on the power play, making the Flyers even more dangerous.

3) Marian Hossa

Forget all the ‘curse’ talk with Hossa. There has been nothing supernatural about his playoff performance. Hossa has all but disappeared for the ‘Hawks in the past two rounds. He registered only three points in the series against Vancouver and only a single point in the sweep of San Jose. While he continues to contribute with solid two-way play, it looks like he is shaping up for another Finals disappearing act. Sure, Chicago has plenty of depth at forward, but so does Philadelphia, and their stars are producing. If the Flyers are able to contain Toews and co., Chicago is really going to need Hossa to step it up, and I just don’t see that happening.

With all that said, this has the makings for a classic Finals match-up. Let’s just say I don’t think fans are going to have that empty feeling that they had after the Conference Finals ended so abruptly.

Prediction: Philadelphia in seven

‘Burg advances to Regional Tournament with win over Wellston

The Wheelersburg Pirates only needed six innings to punch their tickets to the Regional Tournament. Starting pitcher Bryce Hall was effective enough and had more than enough help at the plate to defeat Wellston 15-5 in the Division III District Final.

“My control wasn’t the greatest but my teammates really had my back today,” Hall said. “I just went out there and threw what I had and gave it all I had.”

Hall gave up two runs and struck out seven Golden Rockets over five innings to earn the victory and shortstop Adam Elliot singled in a pair of runs in the bottom of the sixth to mercy rule Wellston.

“[The hit] felt good,” Elliot said. “Everybody was talking about who was going to get it.”

Wheelersburg (28-1) ended a remarkable run for the Wellston Golden Rockets, who after starting off 0-4, won 15 of their last 16 games to make it District Finals.

“It was unfortunate that we played a team that was just as good or just as hot as we were at that time,” Wellston head coach Jim Derrow said. “Basically, give them all the credit in the world, but we have nothing to hang our heads about.”

The Wheelersburg bats spotted four runs in the bottom of the first to chase Wellston starting pitcher Jeff Matteson after just 2/3 of an inning. Michael Grey came on in relief of Matteson, and went 4 1/3 innings giving up seven runs on eight hits.

Hall struggled with control issues throughout the evening, but relied on a filthy breaking ball to shut down the Golden Rockets when he needed to.

The southpaw senior kept base runners to a minimum and kept those who did reach honest. He caught Matteson napping in the top of the first and used his pickoff move with little to no discretion throughout the game.

“I like to keep people off balance on the bases so they can’t get too many easy bases on me,” Hall said.

“Bryce is a senior that has kind of waited his turn and I was really proud of him,” Wheelersburg head coach Mike Estep said. “That’s him going out and being competitive, you know, and finding a way to battle through maybe even when he didn’t have his best stuff.”

Elliot led the way for the Pirates offense going 4-for-5 with two doubles and four RBIs. Senior designated hitter Ryan O’Leary scored twice and hit a pair of doubles while right fielder Dakota Luster went 3-for-3 with three RBIs.

Wellston plated a pair in the top of third making it 6-2 at the time. Senior Ryan Darnell brought in Matteson with a sacrifice bunt and Derrick Loudermilk singled in Jake Arthur before Hall struck out Grey to end the inning.

The Golden Rockets did not touch Hall for the remainder of the outing.

Nick Kemper came on in the top of the sixth to relieve Hall but struggled with control as well and allowed Wellston to get back into the game.

Kemper walked Grey to start off the inning before retiring the next two batters. Right fielder Jared Norris kept the Rockets alive with a single and Matteson drew a walk to load the bases.  A wild pitch allowed Grey to score and Cody Willkett singled in Norris and Matteson to bring Wellston within five, but Kemper was able to pick him off to end the inning.

In the bottom of the sixth Derrow decided to bring Ryan Darnell, who pitched a complete game gem the night before, to try to hold off the Pirates. Unfortunately for Wellston, Darnell looked like a pitcher who had thrown seven innings less than 24 hours earlier, and was unable to record an out.

He gave up a leadoff single to Hall and Luster followed with his second double of the night. Darnell walked the next three batters bringing in two before being replaced with Matteson.

Matteson walked O’Leary to bring in Brett Hood and Elliot finished off the Golden Rockets with the two-run single.

“You can’t give teams like this extra outs and that’s what we did tonight,” Derrow said. “We knew we had our hands full and we’d have to play very well.”

The Pirates will advance to the regional tournament for the third straight year. The ‘Burg will take on the winner of the McDermott District, either Williamsport Westfall or Lucasville Valley, in the semifinals Thursday May 25. Regardless of their opponent, Estep and the Pirates will take the same approach.

“Whoever it’s going to be, it’s going to be a challenge,” Estep said. “It’s a four game season and we’ll just take it one at a time at this point.”

Profile: OU TE coach Brian Haines

There is still long ways to go in the coaching career of Brian Haines, but for now, things seem to have come full circle.

The former Ohio graduate assistant was named the new tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator for the Bobcats in February, replacing University of Toledo-bound Scott Isphording.

This is Haines’ first full-time coaching position, and it came sooner than many would expect. After all, there aren’t too many Division I football coaches under the age of 30.

But Haines, 27, does not like waste time dwelling on the fact.

“To be honest with you – the age – I’ve not thought of it that way,” Haines said. “I’ve thought of it as, ‘I’m ready for my position.’”

His resume certainly speaks for itself.

Haines is a 2004 graduate of Marietta College, where he had a storied career at wide receiver. The Williamstown, W. Va. native is fourth in receptions and fifth in receiving yards all-time for the Pioneers.

After graduating, Haines swapped his pads and helmet for a whistle and visor. He began working on his master’s degree and served as a GA for the Pioneers until 2007.

Then he decided to make the move.

“For me, playing there for four years and working there for three, that was all I knew at the time and it was just time to move on,” he said.

Haines applied for the same position at OU and took over as the offensive GA. The move came naturally for Haines, whose wife, Mary, is from Athens.

He worked closely with offensive coordinator Tim Albin, as well as wide receiver coach Dwayne Dixon, during his first stint with the Bobcats.

“I made a real good connection, you know, with the entire staff,” Haines said. “Especially here, if you work hard, that’s all they ask for. That’s what Coach [Frank] Solich expects and that’s what Coach Solich gets.”

Haines made quite a reputation for himself during his first tenure with OU, and not only for his coaching prowess.

“He did an outstanding job as a graduate assistant in that capacity. He was like a full-time coach for us,” Albin said. “He chipped in in a lot of ways, not only during the season, but in the offseason with recruiting.”

After two seasons with the Bobcats, Haines felt he was ready to take the next step, but the transition did not come easily. He pursued a full-time job “anywhere,” but could not get his foot through the proverbial coaching door.

So, through the wonders of networking, Haines was offered a GA position at West Virginia University, the team he grew up rooting for in Williamstown.

“It (West Virginia Football) is the only thing that the state has. There’s no other professional sport,” Haines said. “It’s the show everybody wants to see.”

He once again coached with the offense, this time focusing on the running back position as well as working with slot receivers. The entire time he worked closely with offensive coordinator/spread offense virtuoso Jeff Mullen.

“There’s a lot of people that would like to be involved and know what he’s (Mullen’s) doing and what he’s thinking,” he said. “While I was there, I was kind of like his ‘right-hand’ man.”

The Mountaineers went 9-3 during the regular season, good for third in the Big East, but were downed by Florida State in the Gator Bowl New Year’s Day.

Meanwhile, the Bobcats finished the 2009 with a 9-4 record, their best since 2006. The Mid-American Conference East champions punched tickets to Detroit for the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl, but fell to Marshall 21-17.

After the 2009 season, Haines once again decided to chase his dream of a full-time coaching position, and his pursuit led him back to a familiar setting. When he heard about the OU coaching vacancy left by the departure of Isphording, he applied immediately.

“I think going away for a year and then coming back definitely made me a better product,” he said. “I think that Coach Solich saw that and I saw it as well. When you get around different programs – different people – you see different things done the other way and it really opens your eyes.”

Haines’ approach to the position has already started to open eyes of many on the OU coaching staff, including Albin.

“The time at West Virginia was nothing but beneficial,” Albin said. “He’s able to bring some ideas – some different thoughts – to the table as far as their scheme and some of the things they did with their offense.”

Max Manin, a former student assistant coach who worked closely with Haines as a GA and again this spring, echoed Albin sentiments.

“It’s like night and day. He’s 100 percent business now,” Manin said. “I think that [his time at West Virginia] had a lot to do with him maturing.”

His players have noticed a contrast between Haines and Isphording as well. Redshirt freshman tight end Jordan Thompson noted the obvious.

“He’s younger,” Thompson said.

While Haines avoids focusing on his age, players and the coaching staff recognize some of the benefits.

“That’s a plus I think” Albin said. “He brings a lot of enthusiasm to our practices and I think that rubs off onto the other coaches as well as the team.”

“There’s just something different about a younger guy talking to you,” Manin said. “More importantly than them being able to relate to him, he can relate to them. He can kind of realize, you know, if a kid’s having a tough day.”

But his age is not the only thing that stands out about Haines and his approach to the tight end position.

“Coach ‘Hainesy’ is really big on not only knowing what we’re doing, but knowing the 10 other positions on the field,” Thompson said. “He always talks about the big picture.”

Haines is certainly a man who appreciates the importance of the “big picture.” It’s that appreciation that helps him carry out his other role with the team as recruiting coordinator.

“One guy can help your program and one guy can hurt your program. You’ve got to do your research,” Haines said. “Right now is when every team across the country is winning or losing games, you know, we’re talking two, three years, four years down the road.”

Haines takes a very meticulous approach to recruiting, a fact that is not lost on the rest of the coaching staff.

“In the recruiting aspect of it, he’s very detailed and highly organized,” Albin said. “The recruiting coordinator part is vital to your program. Good players make good coaches.”

In the end, that is what Haines wants to be – a good coach.

“I think every coach wants to be a head coach one day, but as for me, time will tell,” Haines said. “My next move would be years and years down the road, after just being a sponge around Coach Mullen and Coach Albin.”

And while Haines ultimately has the “big picture” in mind, his focus is completely on the here and now.

With 12 returning starters and four returning All-Americans, the Bobcats will enter next season as a favorite to compete for the MAC crown.

“We’re close. We showed it last year. We’ve just got to take that next step,” Thompson said. “I definitely think the table’s set.”

OU has a glut of weapons on the offensive side of the ball with the likes of LaVon Brazill and Terrence McCrae at wideout, but Albin said he also plans to get the tight ends more involved, especially Thompson.

“The tight end catches, I think, will increase as time goes along,” Albin said. “I’d be shocked if his (Thompson’s) catches don’t at least double this fall.”

Haines is certainly optimistic about his group of players at the tight end position.

“They’re smart, they’re bright, but they don’t act like they know everything,” Haines said. “They’re willing to take coaching, which helps me out.”

Currently, Haines is making recruiting visits in the Pittsburgh area. He has been on the road for the last three weeks. While he admits the “grind” that is the college football offseason has been challenge, it’s one that he welcomes with open arms.

“I want to do everything I can to help Ohio University and its athletics program win football games,” he said. “I’m just trying to take an innovative approach.”

Profile: OSU goalkeeper Matt Lampson

Ohio State starting goalkeeper Matt Lampson. From http://www.ohiostatebuckeyes.com

First and foremost, Matt Lampson is a competitor.

The 6-foot-3, 190-pound starting goalkeeper for the Ohio State men’s Soccer team makes no secret of that. Even going into his first season as a perceived fourth-stringer last fall, the redshirt freshman was confident that he would see the pitch.

“I knew if I got the chance, I would take over as the starter,” Lampson said.

It did not take Lampson too long to grab the starting reigns, and it shouldn’t surprise many that he did. He has been proving a lot of people wrong over the past three years.

Lampson is the reigning Big Ten Co-Freshman of the Year and the Second Team Big Ten goalkeeper.

He is also a cancer survivor.

***

Lampson, 20, first began noticing a bump on his neck part way through his senior year at St. Charles Preparatory School in Columbus. He became worried when he was not allowed to donate at a school blood drive because his hemoglobin level was too low.

“I went in [to see the family practitioner] and they tested the blood. They said, ‘Yeah, your hemoglobin’s low, but just take these antibiotics and you’ll be fine,’” he said.

Lampson’s father, Chris, who is an anesthesiologist at Doctors Hospital in Columbus, suspected there could be more to it. Two weeks later, he had the lump biopsied. The results were harrowing.

Lampson was diagnosed with stage four Hodgkin’s lymphoma shortly after graduation. Stage four is the most advanced form of the disease that takes the lives of around 1,300 Americans every year, according to the American Cancer Society.

While many would be devastated by the news, Lampson had a different perspective.

“The first thing I asked my dad was, ‘What do I have to do to beat this?’” he said. “I never really had the mindset of failure and I think that’s helped throughout my entire life since then.”

OSU head coach John Bluem, who coached at St. Charles from 1979 to 1982, echoed Lampson’s sentiments.

“It’s hardened him, I would think, to the point where he’s a fighter and a competitor,” Bluem said. “When you’re fighting for your life, it’s a lot different than fighting to win a soccer game.”

Lampson had already signed a NCAA National Letter of Intent to play for Northern Illinois the next year, but that would have to take a back seat to months of intensive chemotherapy.

“Because I went to Children’s Hospital, they tend to kill you to make you live,” Lampson said. “They hit you with the hardest drugs because you’re so young and you can bounce back from it.”

Lampson, a pre-med major, was originally scheduled for four rounds of BEACOPP, a chemotherapy regimen that “centered around Cytoxan, which is the most intensive drug they had,” he said.

BEACOPP, which stands for the drugs Bleomycin, Etoposide, Adriamycin, Cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan), Vincristine (Oncovin), Procarbazine and Prednisone, is a roughly month-long regimen where the majority of the drugs are administered through an IV on the first and eighth days of each round.

“I would start on a Monday and sit there for eight hours getting chemotherapy, then I would be done for about a week,” Lampson said. “Everything is killed, basically, from the first day.”

Lampson lost all of his hair and gained roughly 60 pounds during the BEACOPP rounds. He couldn’t even eat ice cream because the treatment made his teeth hypersensitive.  The most difficult part, though, was being kept away from soccer.

“There’s tons of pain in the treatment and nausea and all that, but it really wasn’t as bad because that’s temporary,” he said. “I would still play [soccer], even on the days I got chemotherapy, but I couldn’t last nearly as long. I’d last five minutes before I was like ‘Oh God, I’m so tired.’”

As would any family, the Lampsons had a very difficult time seeing their son struggle. His mother, Mecy, accompanied him to all the rounds and his father kept a website chronicling the treatment.

But, the Lampsons also aren’t the typical family. They have more than 20 pets — a number that is down from past years. To help their son cope with the rigors of each round, they got him a pair of King Charles Cavalier puppies, whom he named Hogkins and Nelson.

“They’re a reminder every day of what I had to go through, and because they’re so incredibly happy,” he said. “It’s a reminder of how happy I should be for my life. They’re my kids. There’s no other way to put it.”

***

On the morning of Sept. 24, 2007, Lampson went into Children’s Hospital for chest P.E.T. scans. His nurse returned later that afternoon with some important information.

“My nurse practitioner, Faye, saw me and said she had some good news that my P.E.T. scans were negative,” he said.

Lampson was declared cancer free. His family now celebrates the day as his “second birthday.”

The doctors, however, recommended an additional two rounds of treatment to ensure the disease was gone. It would be another two months before he could start trying to get his life back on track.

Lampson began training and playing with the Columbus Crew Academy in the spring of 2008, with many of his teammates from the Ohio U-17 team. He helped lead them to a berth in the Academy National Championship that summer before heading to NIU for the 2008 season.

“He had a great run with the Columbus Crew,” Bluem said.  “But, at that time he had already committed to Northern Illinois so it was too late for us to be interested.”

However, Lampson saw little playing time at NIU and grew disenchanted with the program as well as the distance from home. So, he decided to make a call to Coach Bluem.

***

Lampson transferred to OSU in 2009 and began training with the team. He was originally expected to be a depth goalkeeper for at least a season. However, goalkeeper coach Taly Goode recognized that Lampson would not be content in a backup role.

“He came in and battled and didn’t complain,” Goode said. “He knew it was going to be tough and he kind of raised the bar, I think, for the other keepers with his intensity and approach to training. Right away you could see something there.”

Lampson’s hard work paid off and he played his way up the depth chart and into the starting 11.

“He came in and won the job, and I think with Taly’s work with him, he improved quite a bit over the season,” Bluem said.

Lampson put up one of the top performances for a first-year keeper en route to the 2009 Big Ten Title. He went 10-4-3 on the season with nine clean sheets.

Goode, who played three seasons of Major League Soccer with the Kansas City Wizards, said he thinks that if Lampson continues to improve, he might not have to worry about medical school.

“I think if he keeps working at it – putting in that extra work – and keeps being successful on the field, I don’t really see a ceiling for him,” Goode said. “I think he could compete at the next level if he chooses to.”

Even with the hype surrounding his first season with the Buckeyes and his potential future in the sport, Lampson tries to keep himself grounded.

“I’m here for a degree but, if the opportunity arises, I would more than happily take that,” he said. “If I continue to progress as a goalkeeper, I think there’s a good possibility that I might be able to be blessed enough to get drafted.”

Lampson has certainly gotten some great opportunities to measure himself against the pros. Last week the Buckeyes fell 4-0 in a spring scrimmage with the Crew, a team Lampson will continue to train with during the summer.

In March, the Buckeyes went on a 10-day trip to Spain where they scrimmaged four Spanish reserve teams, including La Liga giants Valencia CF. The Buckeyes went winless on the trip, but the experience was invaluable.

“I think we played better after coming back from that,” Lampson said. “I think we played with a little Spanish flare, which I liked.”

Lampson and the Buckeyes will look to build on that style of play during training this summer and heading into the Fall Season. With eight starters returning from last year’s team, Goode knows the Buckeyes will be circled on most teams’ schedules.

“This year, you know, we’ve got the target now that we won, so it’s going to be an interesting challenge to see how the guys respond,” said Goode. “We’re a more talented team this year.”

But, with some key senior losses on the back end, including Co-Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Doug Verhoff, Bluem knows nothing is guaranteed.

“We’re going to be a pretty new back four next year, a new defensive unit, that’s going to need some leadership and strength from their goalkeeper.”

If anyone is up to the challenge, though, it’s Lampson.

“After I’ve accomplished something like beating cancer, there’s nothing I can’t do.”