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This Week in Hockey East

College Hockey:
This Week in Hockey East: November 29, 1996

Hockey East Preview: Nov. 29 – Dec 3, 1996 by Dave Hendrickson

New Hampshire now owns first place. Their sweep of Boston College, combined with BU’s tie against Merrimack, puts the Wildcats a point in front of the Terriers and seven points ahead of third place Providence in league standings. With the season at only the quarter pole, it has turned into a two-horse race for first, and a seven-horse race for third. Since this week features the Governors’ Cup and a busy slate of non-conference games, UNH is guaranteed another week at the top.

Last week’s two seemingly brain-dead picks — more charitably referred to as "gutsy" — almost became reality.

UMass-Lowell sweep in Orono? The improbable almost happened. The River Hawks won the back end of the series in overtime and had held a 4-1 lead after one period in the opener before losing 5-4, also in OT.

As expected, BU belted Merrimack at home in the opener of their series. But the slash-and-burn nature of their win made this column’s prediction of a Warrior 3-2 surprise back at Volpe a potential cause for ridicule. But Merrimack bounced back for a 3-3 tie and almost grabbed both points when Kris Porter broke in on a breakaway with 16 seconds left. Michel Larocque (of Gibraltar) foiled Porter, however, and the Warriors settled for the tie.

Last week’s record in picks: 7-3 (Tuesday games pending) Season record in picks: 40-19

Governors’ Cup Maine (5-5-1, 1-4-1 HE) vs. UMass-Lowell (6-4-0, 4-4-0 HE) Friday, 5 p.m. No. 4 New Hampshire (9-2-0, 8-0-0 HE) vs. No. 7 Vermont (7-3-0, 2-3-0 HE) Friday, 8 p.m. Consolation Game: Saturday, 4 p.m. Championship Game: Saturday, 7 p.m. All Games at Gutterson Fieldhouse, Burlington, VT

Vermont is playing like a team that can do differential equations but can’t add, can write Pulitzer-prize winning novels but can’t spell, and can cook pate de fois gras but can’t boil water.

After beating a murderer’s row of New Hampshire, Boston University, Miami, and Lake Superior to start the season, the wheels have fallen off the Vermont bandwagon. In the six games that followed their number one ranking, they posted a clear-cut victory margin only in Sunday’s 4-1 contest against UMass-Amherst. In the other five, they barely escaped Colgate and Union with one-goal wins, and lost to Cornell (no shame there), Rensselaer (who would later be shutout three straight games), and perennial doormat Dartmouth. Did someone slip something into the bubbly the Catamounts were toasting themselves with?

The cliche "if you can stop St. Louis and Perrin, you can stop Vermont" has been spoken countless times. In the past, however, no one has been able to stop the French Connection. This year, however, teams have contained the two with surprising regularity. Going into Sunday’s game, the pair’s names were missing from the lists of ECAC scoring leaders.

New Hampshire comes off a weekend sweep of Boston College, 8-3 and 4-2, extending their winning streak to eight games. The Wildcats have now swept four straight Hockey East opponents.

And they’re getting stronger. The much-heralded Sean Matile made his debut in goal on Saturday and impressed. "That gives us some depth," said coach Dick Umile. "Now we have two good ones in Sean and Brian Larochelle." Larochelle, who played poorly in some games early in the season, has settled down. Although rarely spectacular, he now gives the Wildcats solid netminding.

"They might have the best collection of forwards in the conference," said BC coach Jerry York after the sweep. "Everybody’s got one or two top ones, but they’ve got a group of four or five. And they didn’t even play [Tom] Nolan so they’ll be even stronger when he comes back."

Maine coach Greg Cronin upped the ante in the praise of the UNH forwards. "They might have the best group of forwards one to nine in the country," he said.

Nolan’s chances of playing in the Governors’ Cup are considered slim. Greg Dumont, injured in the Friday game, will have his hip pointer evaluated and could play.

Eric Nickulas, one of the best of UNH’s many snipers, netted his 50th collegiate goal, a significant achievement so early in his junior year. "He’s a prolific goal scorer," said Umile. "He can skate and he has a pro shot."

Freshman Mike Souza netted two goals on the weekend, his fourth and fifth goals in eleven games. Not bad for a team’s fourth-liner.

New Hampshire has already recorded more road wins this season than all of last year. "We’re older," said Umile. "We’re still a pretty young team, but last year we were a very young team. We’ve also been able to get established in our routine now that the Whittemore Center is finished."

UNH opens the Governors’ Cup against the struggling Vermont Catamounts.

"I guarantee you that they’ll un-struggle against us," said Umile. "They may have lost to Dartmouth but Dartmouth always gives them a hard time."

Maine played the biggest game of their year on Friday night. Holding an 0-3-1 league record going in, they could not afford another weekend disaster against visiting UMass-Lowell. The opening period could not have gone worse. After giving up a power-play goal, the Black Bears then picked up a five-minute major, during which Lowell scored two more times. After a Maine goal, Lowell added what could have been the coup de grace, scoring with just five seconds left in the period to make it 4-1. But placed in the biggest gut-check moment of the season, the Black Bears responded with a thrilling 5-4 win in overtime.

"I told them after the first period," said coach Greg Cronin, "that they were playing well and that if they took care of defense and didn’t force the offense we’d be fine. And we shut them down.

"The next night I was more disappointed in a Maine hockey team than I’ve ever been in my seven years here. We were playing against a team ahead of us and had an opportunity to get back into the upper echelon of the league standings. But they just took it to us. They outhustled us, they beat us to loose pucks, they just flat outworked us.

"The teams are pretty evenly talented," continued Cronin. "It just came down to gritty play and they got their fingers dirtier than ours."

On the plus side, goaltender Alfie Michaud rebounded with some strong performances. "Michaud was terrific," said Cronin. "Fillion was too for Lowell. But Alfie didn’t have any chance on the goals [on Saturday]. It was just a complete breakdown on D by an upperclassman."

The Black Bears, who started the season short-handed, now read like a list of the walking wounded. Dan Shermerhorn sustained a deep thigh bruise and has been battling an MCL problem all year. Bobby Stewart has a wrist problem and a deep thigh bruise. Shawn Mansoff separated a shoulder and Jeffy Libby has a nasty hip pointer. Cronin doesn’t expect any of the four to play this weekend.

"I was impressed with Lowell’s tenacity," said Cronin. "They work hard and Tim Whitehead has them focussed on the specific objectives he wants them to achieve."

"It was just a great week for college hockey," said UMass-Lowell coach Tim Whitehead. "Two overtime games and great crowds.

"The best part of the weekend for us was the way we bounced back from the tough loss on Friday," said Whitehead. "I don’t think our kids expected to be up 4-1. They let down a bit, and Maine had a great comeback. After that loss we had to decide if we were going to come back and win the next night or fold. It was a tough challenge for our kids, but they hustled their way to a big win.

"This may sound strange," continued Whitehead, "but I think our game the previous weekend against Army helped prepare us for the Maine fans. Army had a great crowd and they were very loud. They had a good third period against us and by the end of the game the noise level was pretty high. That helped us, I think.

"We’ll probably have another close game in the Governor’s Cup," he said. "Another tough game between two young, hustling teams. Then, no matter what happens, we’ll play a great team the next night. Vermont and UNH are very similar teams. They have very explosive offenses with great goaltending."

PICKS:

UMass-Lowell vs. Maine: Give UMass-Lowell the advantage between the pipes and in team health. Maine looks to be missing too many important players. Lowell 5-3.

New Hampshire vs. Vermont: This has "title game" written all over it. If the two teams were playing at the same level, the Gutterson faithful would make the difference. But UNH is at the top of their game now and Vermont isn’t even close. Still, this looks like a barn-burner, 5-4 New Hampshire.

Consolation Game: Vermont stomps the limping Black Bears 5-1.

Championship: It’s midnight for Lowell and the stagecoach just turned into a pumpkin. New Hampshire 7-2 over UMass-Lowell.

(If any first round picks prove incorrect, the consolation/championship picks remain the team out of the Vermont-UNH bracket.)

Boston College (4-5-1, 2-3-1 HE) & No. 2 Boston University (8-1-1, 7-0-1 HE) at Clarkson (5-4-0, 3-2-0 ECAC) Friday & Saturday, 7:30 p.m. & 7:00 p.m., Cheel Arena, Potsdam, NY

No. 2 Boston University (8-1-1, 7-0-1 HE) & Boston College (4-5-1, 2-3-1 HE) at St. Lawrence (2-7-0, 2-3-0 ECAC) Friday & Saturday, 7:30 p.m. & 7:00 p.m., Appleton Arena, Canton, NY

Merrimack’s Eric Thibeault stole a point from Boston University last weekend. BU bombarded the Warriors with 50 or more shots in both games. But after the Terriers dismantled the Warriors 9-1 in the series opener, Thibeault stoned them in a 3-3 tie, recording 49 saves.

Coach Jack Parker experimented with his power-play unit which has struggled this season. Parker opted for three defensemen — Tom Poti, Jon Coleman, and Chris Kelleher — on the outside of the umbrella formation with Chris Drury and Shawn Bates down low. The experiment worked flawlessly in the opener, when BU scored four times in eight chances. But in the rematch, they went 0 for 9. Their most egregious failing came in overtime, when they could not capitalize on a 47 second five-on-three.

Hobey Baker candidate Chris Drury blamed himself for not picking up the scorer on Merrimack’s tying goal, but his offensive heroics are threatening to use up all available superlatives before the season is even a third over. Drury piled up another three goals and two assists on the weekend.

Boston College dropped both games of their series with UNH, 8-3 and 4-2. They outshot the Wildcats in both games and controlled play for long stretches. Goalie Greg Taylor broke his glove hand during an off-ice workout last Tuesday and is expected out for at least two to three weeks.

"Despite both losses we have to be encouraged by how we played," said BC coach Jerry York. "[On Saturday] we played 40 minutes of excellent hockey. But that’s not going to give us much success at this level. We have to play a full 60 minutes. We have to cash in on more of our goal scoring opportunities. Shoot more like snipers and bury our chances. "We’re just going through a tough time scoring goals," said York. "We may look into some line changes. We’re getting a lot of chances to score goals. We just have to turn the red light on. It’s one thing to talk about chances, but you’ve got to bury it in the net. You go through stretches where it hits something and goes in, but now were going through the opposite. We’re not getting much ‘puck luck.’

"I was happy with the play of [goaltender] Mike Correia," continued York. Correia substituted for the injured Taylor. "That was a big question going in, but I thought he played very well."

So York remains stuck at career win number 498.

Clarkson could be the place where York gets his 500th career victory. If so, it would be a fitting irony. York began his coaching career there, first as an assistant and then moving up to the head role 24 years ago when Len Ceglarski moved to Boston College.

Dan Murphy backbones the Golden Knights in goal. He ranks as one of the ECAC’s best. Murphy leads the league statistically, posting a 2.01 goals against average in league competition (2.60 overall) and a .949 save percentage (.915 overall). Last week he shut out Rensselaer while facing 36 shots and then gave up only two in a 2-1 loss at Union.

Todd White scored 72 points to dominate Golden Knight scoring last year and earn second-team All-ECAC honors. He’s back at it again with eight goals and nine assists in just nine games, putting him at the top of ECAC scoring leaders. Fellow senior co-captain J.F. Houle has tallied six goals and eight assists and ranks third in league scoring.

Defenseman Mikko Ollila finished second in ECAC Rookie of the Year voting. He and fellow blueliners Nicholas Windsor, Matt Pagnutti, and Scott Ricci, form a solid group.

ECAC Correspondent Jayson Moy notes that Clarkson has had trouble with defensive trapping teams. BC and BU don’t fit that mold, however. Both teams instead preach aggressive forechecking.

League coaches selected Clarkson to finish second in their preseason poll. They haven’t yet lived up to that billing, but remain a dangerous team.

St. Lawrence, picked for fourth in the preseason, has been a major disappointment at 2-7-0. After finishing third last year they graduated Player of the Year runner-up Burke Murphy, as well as Jeff Kungle, a second team all-league defenseman and winner of the Defensive Defenseman award.

However, they did return three award-winners: ECAC Coach of the Year Joe Marsh, second-place Defensive Forward of the Year Joel Prpic, and defenseman John Poapst, a member of the ECAC All-Rookie team. In fact, they returned all of their top ten scorers from last year except Murphy and Kungle. Not to mention both goaltenders, Clint Owen and Jon Bracco.

So why 2-7-0?

To begin with, Marsh suspended goaltender Clint Owen, the stronger member of the rotation, for the first half of the season for breaking unspecified team rules. Then they dropped all four non-conference games to start the season. First they lost twice on the road to a strong St. Cloud team. Then Lake Superior State and Miami, two CCHA heavyweights, beat them at home. They have since posted a 2-3-0 record against ECAC teams.

SLU’s last game, however, must rankle Coach Marsh and all the Saint faithful. Playing against a Rensselaer team so impotent that it had been shut out three straight games by teams barely over .500, St. Lawrence allowed six goals and 59 shots, including 27 in the third period. Were all those shots racked up during power plays? No, Rensselaer had three power plays the entire game. Appalling.

Jayson Moy credits the high shot total to the Engineer’s success on faceoffs and their resulting strategy to fire all opportunities on net. Maybe so, but 59 shots?

PICKS:

Boston College at Clarkson: It would be the Hollywood version of York’s 500th: he gets it in Potsdam, New York where it all began for him. But Greg Taylor’s broken hand is forcing a script rewrite. Clarkson 5-3 over BC.

Boston University at Saint Lawrence: If Rensselaer can get 59 shots against the Saints, how many will the Terriers get? 559? BU rolls, 9-0.

Boston College at Saint Lawrence: What looks like a gimme for York’s 500th becomes the game that the Saints wake up. SLU stuns BC, 4-3.

Boston University at Clarkson: BU could be ripe for an upset here, but Chris Drury will do something spectacular in the final three minutes to win it for the Terriers, 4-3.

Western Michigan (5-4-1, 3-4-1 CCHA) & No. 7 Vermont (7-3-0, 2-3-0 ECAC) at Providence (5-5-1, 4-3-1 HE) Friday & Saturday (W. Michigan), 7 p.m., Schneider Arena, Providence, RI Tuesday (Vermont), 7 p.m., Schneider Arena, Providence, RI NESN

Providence swept Northeastern 4-3 and 8-0. The Friars had dropped to 0-5-1 in their last six games, so the sweep came at a most opportune time.

"We played well enough to win on Friday," said coach Paul Pooley, "and obviously very well on Saturday. Our offense down low in the zone was particularly effective.

"I was especially pleased with the play of the Lake, Coe, and Sheppard line. Because of them we had two lines that were really playing well this weekend. The other lines only played okay. We’re still missing everyone some of the time, and that needs to change."

Dan Dennis stopped 69 of the 72 Northeastern shots on the weekend, lowering his league statistics to a a 2.95 goals against average and a .914 save percentage. Hockey East named him Player of the Week for his performance.

"Dan has really picked up his play in traffic," said Pooley. "Earlier this season he was fighting the puck when there was traffic. Now he’s seeing the puck really well and is controlling his rebounds better."

The Friars host Western Michigan for two games before a mid-week contest against Vermont. "It’s nice to have these very, very competitive games and then get back to Hockey East for two games. We had a lot of fun last year going out to Western Michigan [where we split] and are really looking forward to these games."

Western Michigan, picked to finish fifth by CCHA coaches, has feasted on weaker opponents while going 0-3 against Lake Superior and Michigan State.

Prior to the season, first-team All-CCHA goalie Marc Magliarditi left the team for pro opportunities, leaving a gaping hole in the Broncos lineup. The team had already graduated four of its top five scorers.

Justin Caldwell ranks third in CCHA scoring with 10 goals and five assists in league play. Mike Melas also lists in the top ten with 3-8–11 league numbers. Joe Corvo, a league All-Rookie pick on defense last year, is third in team scoring totals.

Providence then plays the enigmatic Vermont Catamounts, profiled above.

"We’ll have certain people on the ice against St. Louis and Perrin," said Pooley. "The primary responsibility of those players, both forwards and defensemen, will be to contain those two."

PICKS: Providence sweeps the visiting Broncos 4-3 and 3-2 but can’t handle Vermont, dropping that one 4-2.

Merrimack (3-6-1, 2-5-1 HE) at Dartmouth (3-3-0, 2-3-0 ECAC) Friday, 7 p.m., Thompson Arena, Hanover, New Hampshire Rensselaer (5-4-0, 3-1-0 ECAC) at Merrimack (3-6-1, 2-5-1 HE) Saturday, 7 p.m., Volpe Complex, North Andover, MA

Merrimack took it on the chin against BU on Friday night, losing 9-1, but came back with a 3-3 tie at home on Saturday.

"It was a bittersweet weekend," said Merrimack coach Ron Anderson. "The good sign is that we responded with a strong effort on Saturday night. But Friday we just got steamrollered."

Goalie Eric Thibeault was immense in the tie, stopping 49 of 52 shots. "We’re really pleased with the way he’s developed," said Anderson. "He didn’t come in as a significant player. But by his junior year he had developed consistency and the ability to play at this level. It’s a credit to his work ethic and determination. Now he gives us two strong goaltenders."

Anderson moved John Jakopin back to defense, pairing him with Drew Hale for a Twin Towers 96. Jakopin had played on the blue line until midway through last year when he was shifted up front to fill a power forward role on the top line. He responded to become the Warriors third-leading scorer in just the half season. This year, however, he has battled a baffling illness that he is only now emerging from. His bulk down low, along with Hale’s, helped contain the Terriers in the second game.

"We’re not sure if we’re going to leave him there," said Anderson. "He seems to feel more comfortable at defense, but the coaching staff thinks he’s a bigger impact player at forward. We’re also quite young [on the blue line] so we’ll have to consider that as well."

Anderson looked ahead to the games with Dartmouth and Rensselaer. "We have a lot of respect for Dartmouth. They just beat Vermont, so you have to respect that. And RPI has always given us troubles. We’ve had problems matching up with them in the past. Both teams have better records than ours, so we’ll just have to build on what we did on Saturday."

Dartmouth may have a better record, but they sure aren’t used to it. In the past ten years the Big Green haven’t come within spitting distance of a .500 record. Last year they finished 7-21-3.

But look who’s posted a 3-3 record to date. And look who knocked off Vermont, not by a fluke one-goal margin, but by a 4-1 score. They’ve also knocked off Colgate, a squad that gave Hockey East teams fits early this year. This is not your father’s Big Green team.

David Whitworth and Ryan Chaytors lead Dartmouth scoring with six points. Bill Kelleher and defenseman Owen Hughes haven’t caught fire yet, but have historically been big contributors, posting 84 and 58 career point totals, respectively.

But the goaltending of freshman Jason Wong has opened the most eyes. Splitting duties with Scott Baker, Wong has posted a 2.25 goals against average and a .913 save percentage.

Rensselaer has displayed a schizoid personality this year. After opening the season with a respectable 5-3 loss against BU, the Engineers ripped off four straight W’s, including the shocker of the season, a 4-2 win over Vermont at Gutterson. Flying high, they then crash-landed. Three straight shutout losses to teams in the middle of the standings.

But just when it became tempting to dismiss the earlier wins, the Engineers looted and pillaged St. Lawrence 6-3, attempting 59 shots, including 27 in the final period.

Their offense is led by Eric Healey (40 points last year) and Alain St. Hilaire (19), but three straight shutouts against unranked foes speaks volumes. Probably. Rensselaer remains a tough team to get a handle on.

Pat Brownlee, Chris Aldous, and Bryan Tapper figure prominently on the blue line. Freshmen netminders Scott Prekaski and Joel Laing have played well to date, but remain wild cards.

b>PICKS:Merrimack 5-3 over Dartmouth and 4-1 over Rensselaer.

Rensselaer (5-4-0, 3-1-0 ECAC) at Northeastern (2-7-1, 1-6-1 HE) Friday, 7 p.m., Matthews Arena, Boston, MA Northeastern (2-7-1, 1-6-1 HE) at Harvard (2-3-1, 2-3-1 ECAC) Sunday, 7 p.m., Bright Hockey Center, Cambridge, MA NESN

"We played one of our better games on Friday night," said Northeastern coach Bruce Crowder, "We just didn’t have any lady luck. Then we played one of our worst games on Saturday. As coaches we just have to make sure we get the right team to show up. Because when we do, we can be competitive with anyone."

The Huskies had been playing a trap against opponents earlier in the season, but did not against Providence. "We didn’t play it much on Friday night, said Crowder. "And on Saturday night we fell behind by so much that it didn’t make sense. We’ll just continue to use whatever we think will work best against the team we’re playing."

Northeastern’s play this year has gone from the peaks of upsetting top ten Michigan State and taking three points out of an Orono weekend to the valleys of several lopsided losses. The 8-0 score was not the first shellacking the Huskies have absorbed this year, nor will it be their last.

Crowder preaches not getting too high after wins and not getting too low after losses. If his young team has taken that to heart, they stand a good chance of winning two games this weekend.

Harvard’s strength this year lies in their defensive zone play. In goal freshman J.R. Prestifilippo relies on quickness and athleticism to get the job done. A strong group of blueliners includes senior captain Ashlin Halfnight, veteran Jeremiah McCarthy, and Ben Storey. Their strength from between the pipes to the blue line has resulted in more than three goals against only once this year.

The Crimson, however, are struggling mightily in the offensive zone. Rob Millar lists in the top ten in league scoring, and Henry Higdon should build on the 27 points he scored last year. But since the opening game of the season Harvard has failed to score more than two goals in any game. Not a recipe for success.

(Rensselaer is profiled above.)

PICKS: Northeastern beats Rensselaer 3-1 and then drops a 2-1 contest with Harvard.

Air Force (4-5-1, 0-2-0 vs. D-I) at UMass-Amherst (3-7-0, 2-6-0 HE) Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m., Mullins Center, Amherst, MA

UMass-Amherst got a "feel good" game in against Army, pounding them 8-0. Gerry Cahill got the natural hat trick in the first period and then Warren Norris added a conventional one later on. The Minutemen picked up three power-play goals in six chances.

They then dropped a 4-1 game against Vermont. Coach Joe Mallen knows from his Boston College playing days how tough the Catamounts are to play at Gutterson Fieldhouse. So dropping this contest was no cause for embarrassment.

In fact, the Minutemen have played quite consistently this year. They’ve dominated the weak teams, split with those teams comparable to them, and lost to the likes of Boston University, New Hampshire, and Vermont. With the exception of the top ten teams that they’ve faced, the Minutemen are 3-2-0.

Air Force played one of their toughest schedules last year and went 4-24-5. They have already matched that win total this year, beating Division 3 schools and sweeping fellow Division I independent Niagara. They lost both of their games against traditional D-I competition, getting the broom from Princeton, 5-2 and 3-1.

Leading the Falcon scoring this year is senior co-captain Todd Lafortune with nine goals and fellow senior Peter Sandness with six. Freshman right winger Nels Grafstrom has made an immediate contribution with a goal and six assists going into last weekend, placing him among the team leaders.

Senior goaltender Pat Kielb is on a pace that will set a school record for most games played in the nets. Last year he recorded a 4.70 goals against average and a .851 save percentage in 31 games.

PICKS: UMass-Amherst 6-1 and 7-2.

Dave Hendrickson is the Hockey East Correspondent for U.S. College Hockey Online.

Copyright 1996 Dave Hendrickson . All Rights Reserved.

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