Does Hockey East Have A Big Five?
Over the past few seasons, four Hockey East teams — Boston College, Boston University, Maine and New Hampshire — have been dominant on the national stage.
Of the 12 NCAA berths earned by the league over the last four years, the Big Four have accounted for all of them. Since the most recent decade began in 1990, Hockey East teams have earned 34 berths. All but five of them went to the four perennial powerhouses, the exceptions being Providence (1991, 1996), UMass-Lowell (1994, 1996) and Northeastern (1994).
It looked that way at the beginning of this season, too. The Big Four would be a tough nut to crack.
Lowell coach Tim Whitehead said, “For anyone that finished in the bottom half last year, something special has to happen to get into that top half of the league.”
Well, “something special” may be happening at Northeastern. While BU and Maine have gotten off to so-so starts, the 4-1-0 Huskies stand one period removed from a perfect record and a legitimate shot at the number one ranking in the country. Had they not given up five goals on 14 Notre Dame shots two weeks ago, they would have had a better claim after upsetting Wisconsin last weekend than anyone else.
What if… Woulda-Coulda-Shoulda. If “if ands and buts” were candies and nuts, we’d all have a Merry Christmas.
The fact is that they did give up those five goals in the second period against Notre Dame. Just like the fact is that they did give up a soft goal against Wisconsin with 15 seconds remaining to let the Badgers back into a game that should have been wrapped up.
Goaltending remains a concern, as is Northeastern’s ability to export consistently their success at the Dog House to the road. But there are plenty of reasons for Husky fans to assume that the impressive win over Wisconsin — not to mention the season-opener against St. Lawrence — was no fluke.
And the top one is maturity. The junior-senior leadership rallied the Huskies to an overtime win after the deflating goal with 15 seconds remaining in regulation.
“Maturity is one of the things we’re counting on this year,” said coach Bruce Crowder. “We gave up a really weak goal and could have folded the tent, but the kids rebounded and we went after them in the overtime.”
That maturity is also why they won one night earlier.
The Friday night contest against UMass-Lowell was exactly the kind that buried Northeastern last year. Keep in mind that the Huskies sported a .500 record against the Big Four last year. It was the teams lower in the standings that did them in.
“These games are the easy ones to coach,” said coach Bruce Crowder after upsetting Wisconsin. “If you can’t get up for a team coming in that’s number one in the country, then you shouldn’t be playing the sport.
“That’s why [Friday night's] game was so important. It was a real character builder for us, winning up at Lowell. That’s an area we had to get better at and we did.
“I told the guys all week that there was only one game this week and that was on Friday night.”
Crowder then added with a smirk, “[After that win] I surprised them and told them there was a second game this weekend.”
As expected ,the defense has been strong. Perhaps also as expected, the goaltending has been inconsistent.
The big surprise has been the scoring. The top line of Graig Mischler at center with sophomore Mike Ryan on one wing and freshman Scott Selig on the other has been just about as effective as any in the league. In five games, they have 11 goals.
“As a coach, you’re constantly looking for perfection,” said Crowder. “But they’re very offensive and they’re very skilled. There are other parts of their game that we want them to get better at, but [they are scoring] like we’re hoping for.”
In particular, Ryan appears to have come into his own after struggling as a freshman. Last year he scored four goals total; he now leads Hockey East with seven.
“I’d like to tell you it’s coaching, but it’s not,” said Crowder. “It’s just that the kid is working hard.”
The offensive strength of the first line has taken some of the scoring pressure off the second unit. Willie Levesque and Chris Lynch, who have had several different left wings, are grinders who don’t bury the puck consistently. The first unit’s success has covered that up and let the twosome grind away effectively and have strong nights like Lynch’s hat trick against Lowell along with the nights when all their shots find the pipe or the goaltender.
On a down note, the Huskies have lost Matt Keating to a wrist that was cut by a skate in practice. He will be out until December.
On the plus side, freshman Trevor Reschny has been effective in the early going, totaling three goals and being a constant breakaway threat.
“I hope [beating Wisconsin] sets the bar high for us,” said captain Jim Fahey. “We’ve got a great team in there.”
While it certainly is possible to overstate the importance of games in October and November, the upcoming weekend may tell a lot about Northeastern’s fortunes. The Huskies travel to Boston College on Friday and then host Maine on Saturday.
“They’ve got to get in their mind that they expect to win every time they go out,” said Crowder. “It’s not going to happen every night, but if you have that mentality, it’s going to carry you a long way.”
Quip of the Week
Northeastern’s win over the River Hawks last weekend snapped a regrettable streak for Crowder. Since leaving for Northeastern in 1996, Crowder was winless in seven attempts back at Lowell.
“I guess that’s why I left,” he said, “because if it took me five years to win here, I’d have been fired anyway.”
UMass-Amherst got a big victory on Friday, shutting out Merrimack, 3-0. It marked the first time in five years that the Minutemen opened their league schedule on the plus side.
Unfortunately, they followed that with an ugly game on Sunday, losing to Boston College, 9-5.
“We felt on Friday night that we had organized a little bit for the first time this year,” said coach Don Cahoun. “I was hoping we could carry it over from there, [but] we were a little disheveled again.
“It was very similar to the game [that opened the season] against Wisconsin when it was 9-6. Hey, they just have more guns than we do right now.
“But a lot of it is that I’m letting these guys run and play a little bit to show me what they can do and not play very defensive-oriented. That’s going to help the younger kids develop, but it’s going to expose some of our weaknesses against some of the teams that are more prolific than we are.”
Indeed, Cahoon has a couple freshmen who could develop into significant contributors. Thomas Pock has scored three goals already. Scott Horvath has two and adds a physical dimension to the UMass front line. Horvath is 6-3, 228, and plays every bit of that.
Cahoon minces no words when asked about how he evaluates the benefits of playing more conservatively for better short-term results as opposed to more offensively to aid in the long-term development of players like Pock and Horvath.
“[There's] no fear of failure,” he said.”You can’t just sit here and worry about what’s going to happen in the short term.You’ve got to look at this thing on a long-term basis.”
Recovery at Alfond
Hockey fans everywhere had to be pleased to see coach Shawn Walsh welcomed back behind the Maine bench on Friday night.
However, Walsh wasn’t the only one at Alfond Arena who was recovering from kidney cancer. Anne Britt — mother of Richard Britt, the Maine trainer who died in a tragic accident two years ago — was also in attendance. Like Walsh, she also had a cancerous kidney removed by Dr. Gennaro Carpinito, uncle to Maine forward Niko Dimitrakos. Despite the recent surgery, she was in her regular seat to cheer on Shawn Walsh and her Black Bears.
Reportedly, Anne Britt’s operation was a s
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