You Can’t Win With A Sieve
If you’ve ever been behind the bench, you know how deflating it can be to allow a bad goal. Or two. Or three.
If one gets past an otherwise dependable goalie, you might hear, “C’mon guys. Suck it up. He’s bailed us out before. Let’s bail him out this time.”
But when it happens on a regular basis, it’ll test the resolve of even the most resilient of teams. The shoulders slump, the heads bow and the expletives fly. The air grows heavy and the wind goes out of the sails.
It’s bad enough if the rest of the team is sufficiently dominant to overcome the adversity, but in a league like Hockey East that features tough opponents night after night, the rest of the team can suck it up time after time after time and still not survive. Like salmon trying to leap waterfalls to reach the spawning grounds, tenacity alone won’t get the job done.
The lower reaches of the standings are littered with good teams boatanchored by poor goaltending.
There may be no better example than UMass-Lowell last year. The River Hawks were outshot in only four games all year yet escaped the cellar only via the tiebreaker to finish 4-16-4 within the league and 11-20-5 overall.
No, that’s not a misprint. They were outshot in only four games.
A save percentage of .866 would be considered very sub-par goaltending in most circles. Yet in games in which the Lowell goaltending met at least that minimal standard the team posted a 10-2-4 record. In the games below the .866 line the record was 1-18-1.
Again, no misprint. 10-2-4 above the mark; 1-18-1 below it.
Still think you can win with poor goaltending?
It happens even to the perennial powerhouses.
In 2000-01, Boston University stumbled out of the gate after losing Ricky DiPietro, posting a 2-8 record in the first two months in part because of poor goaltending. The Terriers would eventually finish 14-20-3, a very un-BU-like season. Eventually then-freshman Sean Fields would emerge and become a prominent netminder, but in 2000-01 BU’s goose was cooked.
In 1996-97, Maine struggled in the early going as Alfie Michaud was thrown to the wolves following All-American Blair Allison’s sudden departure. By midseason Michaud’s save percentage stood at .832 and he had interim coach Greg Cronin complaining in the post-game about Michaud “flopping around like a fish out of water.” Like Fields, Michaud would become a very strong goaltender, but the growing pains were painful indeed.
Or take New Hampshire in 1995-96 or Lowell in 1994-95, the year between its two NCAA quarterfinal appearances.
Poor goaltending sinks ships.
Which is what has been happening so far this year for Northeastern. Off to easily the worst start among league teams, the Huskies are 0-5-1 and aside from the opening game tie with Colgate don’t even have a one-goal loss to hang their hats on. In all six contests, the NU goaltending has fallen below the .866 save percentage mark that proved so pivotal for Lowell last year.
“You need that position to be playing well in this league to be successful,” NU coach Bruce Crowder says. “If you look at the teams that are off to pretty good starts, they’re getting some pretty good play out of their goaltenders.”
Tim Heneroty and freshman Adam Geragosian have only been between the Northeastern pipes for a single game each. (And this writer wouldn’t be surprised at all if Geragosian eventually becomes a strong collegiate goalie. His father, Mike, after all, is one of the most widely-respected goalie coaches around and Adam has played a lot of games at a high level of competition.)
More puzzling, however, is the case of Keni Gibson (.843 Sv%). The junior burst onto the scene two years ago, finishing with a 2.65 GAA and a .905 save percentage despite struggling down the stretch either because he’d run out of gas or because he suffered a crisis of confidence following Northeastern’s tough loss to BU in the Beanpot title game. (Prior to that marquee contest, he’d posted a 13-4-1 record, allowing as many as four goals only twice; from that point on, however, he surrendered four or five goals in all but one of the final seven games, all but one of them losses.)
Last year, his save percentage numbers (.907 Sv% overall, .898 HEA) were comparable to the season before, but the losses accumulated (6-12-2, 2-11-1 HEA) and his GAA soared to 3.58 in league play. Perhaps the defense post-Jim Fahey was just too porous, but even so Gibson just wasn’t playing at the same level he had as a freshman pre-Beanpot.
“I wish we could [put a finger on what has happened],” Crowder says. “Obviously, we were sitting back in his freshman year feeling pretty good about our goaltending position. And last year he had a stretch of five or six games that he only let in six goals and looked great.”
Of course, the case isn’t closed on Gibson. Lowell’s Chris Davidson (2.33 GAA. .912 Sv%) looked to have played himself out of D-I hockey last season, but has been the Comeback Player of the Year so far. The number of goaltenders who have fallen into a funk and then emerged better than ever is considerable.
“Sometimes goaltenders try to do too much,” Crowder says. “Instead of, hey, you try to stop the first shot, let [us] worry about everything else, they think they have to be Jacques Plante, Bernie Parent and Patrick Roy all in one. Winning will solve a lot of problems.”
Aye, there’s the rub.
When a goaltender is struggling, the rest of the team either tries to compensate or gets deflated. Either way, it can become a vicious cycle.
“What happens a lot of times is that you get [defensemen] who are apprehensive and instead of playing the position like they should be playing, they’re worried about doing somebody else’s job,” Crowder says. “That’s where things start to break down and maybe you get a little more tentative than you should be.
“It’s like the fires out in California. You’ve got to find a way to contain it and get each kid to do his job and go from there.”
Easier said than done, of course.
“It’s all-encompassing because [goaltending] is where your foundation is,” he says, “whether it’s your penalty killing or defensive zone coverage or even offense. The forwards are saying we have to score more goals to give us a little more breathing room, the D are saying we have to stop more goals so they’re not scoring.
“Right now our situation is kind of a double-edged sword. We’re not producing offense and we’re not having great team defense. That’s an area where we need to improve so we’re going to continue to work on it.”
As for how to get the goaltender himself out of his funk, there’s no one answer. Some players respond best to an in-your-face challenge and others need to be propped up with reassurance.
“You have to know the personnel that you’re dealing with,” Crowder says. “It’s no different than anything else. There are some forwards you can get in their face and there are some that if you do that you’re going to lose them. You’ve got to know the kid and put a little understanding that [there's a] confidence factor and [you understand] what he’s up against.”
In the meantime, Crowder has to hope that Gibson returns to his freshman form when he looked like the Huskies’ next Marc Robitaille. If not, the search will continue, but it isn’t easy. Goaltenders project to the next level probably worse than any other position.
“There have been a lot of teams in this league over the years that have brought a kid in who they thought would be a go-to kid and for whatever reason it didn’t work out,” Crowder says. “You just have to keep plugging.
“The hardest thing whenever you’re recruiting goaltenders is that they’re usually on the top of their game. If they’re [going through] a lot of adversity they’re probably not in a position to be recruited by colleges. So things are great, things are hunky dory.
“The thing that’s tough is figuring out how kids are going handle adversity and disappointment, and can they bounce back from a bad two or three games. Those are the things that [are difficult to project] unless you have a sports psychologist in your back pocket that you can whip out and have him give the kid a test. You have to rely on people who know him and get a feel for the kid during the recruiting process. Under the NCAA rules, you’re not allowed to go spend a week with a kid and see how he’s doing.
“Sometimes you don’t know. Marc Robitaille was probably the last goaltender in North America to get any [scholarship] money. He was overlooked a lot and then he comes in here and does a great job.”
Great job as in All-American. Great job as in Northeastern’s last home ice berth. Great job as in… off to the pros, sadly for Husky fans, after his sophomore season.
But When They’re On…
Who would know better than New Hampshire coach Dick Umile what it’s like to have not just good goaltending, but great goaltending? An All-American (in the form of Michael Ayers and Ty Conklin) has been between the pipes for Umile in three of the last four years.
“There’s no question that the game starts from the goal out,” Umile says. “They can cover up a lot of mistakes. Nights when you’re not scoring, they keep you in the game. When you make mistakes, they cover up for you. There’s no substitute for great goaltending.”
In With A Bang
UNH freshman Jacob Micflikier hasn’t spared any time making a first impression on Wildcat fans. The 5-8, 180-pound native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, who paid his dues in the USHL last year, has already scored six goals in five games, including a Texas Hat Trick against Union. As a result, he was honored with Hockey East’s Rookie of the Month and Player of the Week awards.
“You never know what they’re going to do at this level, but he’s obviously playing very well,” Umile says. “We thought he was capable of doing this. When were we at Niagara he centered a line of Sean Collins and Steve Saviano and Saviano scored four goals so [Micflikier] had a real good game there.
“We’re really pleased. He’s on a line now with Justin Aikins and Preston Callander, who are good players. He can keep the line going, he adds to the line, he has speed and he [handles himself well] for a little [5-8, 180] guy.”
It might be considered too much of a good thing. Teams love to face off against their big rivals, but UNH might be overdoing it with three major rivalry games in the span of six days. This weekend the Wildcats travel to BU and then host Maine. On Wednesday, they host BC at the Verizon Center in a game that was switched to this date to play in the great new facility.
Umile, however isn’t about to provide bulletin board material for Providence, UNH’s opponent next Friday, or give his own team a chance to consider that contest of lesser import.
“Our next four games will be a challenge for us,” he says. “But we’re in a good position right now and we’ll find out fast how well we can play. It’s a challenge; it’s exciting.”
When asked if it’s easier to prepare a team for consecutive major rivals since there’s no overlooking one team in greater anticipation of another, Umile laughs and says, “I’ll tell you more in a week.”
He then adds, “In our league, I don’t know. Any night in our league that you’re not ready you’re going to get spanked. It’s like the ACC in basketball. It’s always big games. Everybody is a big opponent.”
Anyone notice the identical twin statistics of Maine’s goaltenders, Frank Doyle (1.33 GAA, .942 Sv%) and Jim Howard (1.33 GAA, .941 Sv%)?
My Favorite Email
The name is being withheld to protect the guilty, but here’s a favorite email:
I have to thank you for giving me so much to do on Friday morning to avoid actual work….
Folks, that’s what this column all about: destroying productivity in offices around New England and throughout the world.
Quote of the Week, Take One
BU coach Jack Parker was none too pleased with what he considered chippy play in the Terriers’ game against Maine. Afterwards, he said, “All I can say is that I’m glad we tape the games.”
Even when he doesn’t say a lot, he says a lot.
Quote of the Week, Take Two
Merrimack coach Chris Serino, commenting on traveling to face Maine last Thursday just two weeks after facing New Hampshire.
“That must be the prerequisite for being number one in the country,” he said. “If you have Merrimack coming, you’ll get rated number one.”
Top Fan Contest
Here’s the scoop from the league office:
As part of the celebration of its 20th anniversary season, Hockey East is launching a promotional contest to identify its top fan. All fans, friends and followers of the league are invited to nominate themselves or someone else who would make a strong selection as Hockey East’s top fan. The contest will separate nominees into two categories, current student and general public. Three to five finalists will be selected in each category.
The finalists will then be identified on the league web site, where an online poll will allow other fans to choose which of the finalists in each category is the most worthy to be called Hockey East’s top fan. The results of the fan poll will be used in conjunction with a committee vote to determine the official winner of the contest. There will be one winner in each category.
The winners will be announced in late February. Each winner will receive two tickets to each night of the Hockey East championship tournament at the FleetCenter along with hotel accommodations for two at the Royal Sonesta Hotel, the official headquarters of the Hockey East tournament.
To make a nomination for oneself or another, an individual must submit an essay of no more than 300 words describing why the nominee should be considered, along with a list of three references that could speak to the merits of the candidate. If you are nominating someone else, you may list yourself as a reference for that person. All nominations must be submitted to the league by Dec. 31, 2003.
Nominations may be submitted via email (email@example.com), fax (781-245-2122), or regular mail:
Top Fan Contest
591 North Ave #2
Wakefield, MA 01880
Last week’s question observed that Providence had earned back-to-back Defensive Player of the Week honors, but with two different goaltenders. The question asked what other two goaltenders from the same team had achieved this distinction most recently. The answer was Maine’s Jimmy Howard and Frank Doyle.
First to answer correctly was last year’s Trivia Hall-of-Famer, Ankur Patel. His cheer is:
“Go Cats! Beat Maine!”
This week’s question notes that Maine is off to an unprecedented 7-0 start and asks what Black Bear team began the season with the school’s longest undefeated stretch, when was it broken and by whom? Email my trivia account with your precise answers. The winner will be notified by Tuesday; if you haven’t heard by then you either had the wrong answer or someone else beat you to it.
And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…
Thanks to Justin Pelletier.
USCHO covers Hockey East all week long on the Hockey East Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.