Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Big rally, late tally keep Suns (8-0-0) on a roll

Philly falls 6-5 (OT shootout) and 5-4

Express Staff Writer

Suns wing Blake Jenson gathers the puck and heads up ice, center Ryan McDonald trailing, during Friday?s 6-5 (OT shootout) Suns victory. Photo by Willy Cook

"Nothing made sense," was Sun Valley Suns coach Chris Benson's comment after Friday's 6-5 overtime shootout win over the Philadelphia (Pa.) Independence in a hockey game that had a little of everything.

Maybe it was a hangover from Wednesday's full moon, but things were unusual even for the Suns.

The broken pipe and hole in the ice. A broken leg suffered by defenseman Ivars Muzis. The Suns' rally from a 5-0 hole. Two shorthanded goals in a minute. Two concussions in a game. Paul Baranzelli's shootout goal, his hat trick for the abbreviated 50-minute game.

Indeed, Benson's nonsensical observation could have applied to the entire two-game Brotherly Love series, which the undefeated Suns (8-0-0) swept 5-4 on Scott Winkler's goal with 12 seconds left in regulation Saturday.

As they say, when you're on a roll, you're on a roll.

But you're never undefeated without great goaltending. The Suns continued to get it from Friday's starter Ryan Thomson (29 saves), who stopped all three Independence shootout attempts, and from Saturday's backstop Colin Zulianello (32 saves), who befuddled Philly.

"With our injuries we didn't exactly have our strongest defense on the ice Saturday but Colin played great and made some huge saves," said Benson. "The boys kept working hard against a Philadelphia team that has been solid every time they've come to Sun Valley."

Riding high, the Suns still have a score to settle when they travel to Jackson Hole's Snow King Center in Wyoming for a two-game series with their archrival Moose Friday and Saturday, Jan. 12-13 at 7:30 p.m.

The Moose (11-9 away, 15-4-1 home) lead 26-13-1 in the nine-year series and the Suns have never swept Jackson Hole—going 3-0-1 in 1997-98, the first winter of the rivalry.

Jackson Hole might be considered the underdog this time, since the Moose (4-2) have shown defensive liabilities in giving up 29 goals in six games. The Moose swept the Aspen (Colo.) Leafs at Snow King Center last weekend, 8-7 and 8-7 (shootout). They split four home-and-home games with McCall's Mountaineers.

To bolster the defense, coach Benson said he hopes 6-0, 200-pound blueliner Jeremy Schreiber of Medicine Hat, Alberta will join the Suns for the trip to Jackson Hole and hopefully for the rest of the season.

Schreiber, 25, born on the Fourth of July, was an outstanding defenseman for the University of Alabama-Huntsville Chargers from 2002-06, recording 21 goals and 86 points in 128 games over four seasons. He was a three-time first-team selection on College Hockey America (CHA) post-season All-Star teams and played a little minor league hockey this fall for the Charlotte Checkers.

Benson said Schreiber is coming here to work as an accountant and play hockey.

Check the Express Web site for Suns season stats and a hockey summary from the Philadelphia games. See next week's Local Life for more Suns photos from the Philly series. Be sure to read Jon Duval's latest diary on the Web.

With apologies to Duval, who has been writing some fine diary pieces about this year's Suns team, here is a diary trying to sort out an eventful weekend in the old barn called Sun Valley Skating Center.

Friday: A hole in the ice

11:00—Eight hours from game time, Sun Valley Skating Center manager Cory Lovoi notices a broken pipe under the ice in the indoor rink. The plumbers arrive at 2 p.m. and dig up and fix the pipe. Lovoi starts making ice again about 4 p.m. He's going to need all of four hours to fill the hole. Coach Benson gets the news. He hopes the game can be played with a one-hour delay.

Lovie gets the #1 star before the first puck is dropped.

7:00—Few fans know about the delay, so original Suns player Hermie Haavik arrives on time to watch a hockey game and finds the rink doors open, frigid air seeping in and nobody skating. Suns players help out, scraping up ice around the hole by the blue line and filling it. Haavik thinks he's back in Duluth. Incredibly, he finds the son of a former Duluth Heads of the Lake player. They talk. Time flies.

8:00—The game starts, its format two 25-minute periods to get everyone home by midnight. Philadelphia's fired-up squad comprised of former Division 1 college skaters from Penn State, the University of Delaware and UCLA jumps out to a 5-0 lead. The slow-starting Suns, having yielded the first goal of a period for the eighth time in the last 13 periods, are getting shots but aren't getting enough traffic in front of big Philly roller hockey goalie Mike Viscuse.

8:40—Someone says the Suns have never, ever trailed 5-0 at the end of the first period.

9:05—Shortly after scoring his first goal, Suns defenseman Ivars Muzis breaks his leg below the knee on what Benson describes as an "uncalled leg check," by a Philadelphia player in the Suns defensive zone, along the blue line. Muzis writhes in pain near the recently repaired hole in the ice.

Big mistake for Philly. You just don't want Vilnis Nikolaisons to get riled up about something done to his good Latvian friend Ivars Muzis. Later, coach Benson says the thing that woke up the Suns was the injury suffered by Muzis. "Then, we started to play with a sense of urgency," he says.

9:10—Center Jamie Ellison gets his 215th Suns assist on a centering pass that left wing Ryan Enrico tips past Viscuse for a power play goal and a 5-2 game. Thirty seconds later, Suns defenseman Eric Demment gets cross-checked on the chin by a Philly check in the neutral zone and collapses in a heap, finally staggering off. He suffers a concussion and leaves the Suns with yet another lost blueliner. Meanwhile, Baranzelli hammers away with three slappers gloved by Viscuse on a five-on-three power play. He's as upset as any of the Suns.

9:14—Picking up their intensity more and more, the Suns penalty killers try to kill off a five-on-three. Nine seconds into it, Baranzelli drifts in, finds himself with a clear shot and rockets it home for a shorthanded goal. At the other end, goalie Thomson flashes out his glove and catches a Mike Weyermann deflection on a Matt Ciancia shot from the point. It was a thing of beauty.

9:15—A bulldog when he senses a break, Enrico fights off a Philly player at his own blue line and carries the puck across the midline, followed closely by Nikolaisons and captain Chris Warrington—all skating at full speed. Vilnis drops the puck for Warrington, who shoots quickly and Nikolaisons directs it home for yet another shorthanded goal, 5-4. The fans in the "Beer Garden" peanut gallery go nuts and dislodge a piece of plexiglass. Lovie comes to the rescue again while Philly tries to figure out what happened to its lead.

9:21—Philly's Ciancia hits the crossbar on another power play. At the other end, Ellison sneaks away while his fellow forecheckers harass the Independence as they try in vain to break the puck out of their zone. Ellison inevitably gets the puck. Viscuse scrambles. Several Suns shots go off in rapid succession. The peanut gallery waits for another happy explosion. And Baranzelli calmly puts the puck home, 5-5.

9:55—If you ask Suns veteran John Miller, he'll tell you that his apparent game-winning goal was scored before the scoreboard clock hit 0:00. The officials rule otherwise. In all the commotion, everybody forgets that you're supposed to play the five-minute overtime with four skaters a side. Thomson makes two fine saves in the final 36 seconds of serious Philly pressure to keep it 5-5.

10:05—While others waited out the delay in warmth of The Duchin Room, Hermie Haavik has been in the rink over three hours. "I'm cold," he says.

10:10—Former University of Delaware skater Adam Lewis shoots first in the sudden-death format. Thomson stops him with his right pad. Ryan McDonald shoots high, slamming the puck off the plexiglass and agonizing over it. Thomson is huge again, using his left shoulder to deny Delaware's Weyermann. Baranzelli cruises in, checks out the girl in the balcony, finds Viscuse's five-hole for the score and skates away like nothing has happened. Philly's Ciancia loses control of the puck as he bears down on Thomson. It skitters harmlessly wide. And the Suns erupt in madcap celebration around Thomson.

10:25—Game over. Thomson's girlfriend Emily Andrews gives the winning goalie a big hug. She says that he played pretty well for someone with a pulled groin whose shoulder has been out of its socket.

Jon Duval observes, "It was the best game of the season. It was the worst game of the season." One Boise State Bronco fan estimates the game deserved an eight on the zero-to-10 Bronco excitement meter. Muzis finds out later he's gone four-to-six weeks with the leg.

"Nothing made sense," Benson sums up.

Saturday: Stealing one at the end

7:50—First period finally ends and Jamie Ellison's best friend Bobby Noyes has whistled a total of 38 penalty minutes as tonight's referee. Suns players are becoming so disgusted by the interruptions that Ellison himself is intervening to keep them out of further trouble when the whistle is blown. Extra penalty killing and power play work is doubly hard on two-way players like Nikolaisons, who need to be on the ice. He's pooped. Benson says, "It's tough getting in the flow with so many penalties. Without Ivars and Eric, our defense was kind of reeling."

8:35—Zulianello makes an unbelievable save with his glove on Weyermann at the corner of the net. Weyermann shakes his head in disbelief. Shorthanded again, the Suns kill off another five-on-three. Noyes remembers there's another team on the ice and calls two interference penalties on Philly. Nikolaisons takes a couple of whacks at slapshots then skates off on a change. Replacing him is Winkler, who takes a pretty cross-ice pass from Ellison and buries a power play goal, 2-2.

8:42—Forward Jon Duval, bravely filling in on defense, is starting to struggle a bit. He gets caught in deep and Zulianello has to stop a walk-in by Philly's Greg Barber. Duval thanks Zulianello with a whack on the pad. A minute later, defenseman Jami James makes a long pass up the ice to Enrico, who does the wise thing and gives it to Nikolaisons. Vilnis shoots and Enrico tips in his ninth goal for a 3-2 lead. Only 11 seconds later, Nikolaisons picks off a Philly pass and doesn't even think about passing. He shoots. He scores! Viscuse never has a chance.

That one was for Ivars, 4-2.

8:43—Only 13 seconds later, the puck floats in the air in Zulianello's crease. A Philly player bats it down into the net, illegally playing the puck with his hand, in Zulianello's estimation. Noyes disagrees and allows the goal, 4-3. Benson says, "Their third goal was suspect. He played it with his hand." Now Zulianello is beside himself. He jabbers at Noyes the rest of the game and makes some saves out of pure ferocity.

9:25—Noyes whistles Baranzelli for his fourth penalty of the game and goalie Viscuse skates off the ice in favor of a sixth attacker. While he's off, Philly's Ross Cowan scores the equalizer, 4-4. Baranzelli gets a misconduct and is ejected with a game misconduct for having five penalties. "Actually, I count six," says Benson, surveying the scoresheet afterwards. Almost delirious now with Noyes, Zulianello draws an interference penalty, his second of the game. The Suns still kill off a five-on-three.

10:05—With lightning-quick passes between Ellison and Nikolaisons setting the table, Enrico skates in on Viscuse and is hooked by Ricky Podulka to prevent a sure go-ahead goal. The Suns go on the power play with 1:04 left in regulation. McDonald pokechecks the puck along the boards and keeps it in the zone.

It rattles around for a while and the Suns pursue it with reckless abandon. The last time winger Winkler looks at the clock, there are 30 seconds left. But there are only 12 seconds showing when he finds himself with the puck, a tough but not impossible angle and an empty net. Where the heck is Viscuse? He should be at the corner of the cage, Winkler thinks. Oh well, might as well shoot.

Score! Game over! Viscuse screams bloody murder, calling for interference. His teammates agree. Apparently, poor little Ryan McDonald was tying Viscuse's shoelaces together in the crease while Winkler was lining up the game winner. Afterward, Noyes says he never saw it. The Suns shake Noyes' hand somewhat warmly afterward. Skating off, Philly players universally give Noyes icy stares.

It made as much sense as anything that happened. Baranzelli, of course, leaves wearing the George Jacket.

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