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This Week in Hockey East

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This Week in Hockey East: Feb. 12, 2009

Not A Word About “That Tournament in Boston”

College hockey fans outside of Route 128 often get exasperated this time of year.

It seems to them that an inordinate amount of attention goes to That Tournament in Boston, the allure of which escapes them.

“Why not write about my team?” they either say or imply.

Okay, you’ll get your wish. Not one word about that tournament or even the musical fruit included in its name. (The sidebar doesn’t count. Hey, results are results.)

Onward, then to the first of three teams.

Maine: Coming Back

Although Maine struggled mightily after the New Year, going 0-6-1, the Black Bears have righted the ship of late. They followed up a win over Massachusetts with a split last weekend at New Hampshire.

Goaltender Scott Darling earned Rookie of the Week honors after shutting out the Wildcats on Saturday, stopping all 31 shots. While he’s had the same ups and downs as his teammates, his overall play has been strong: a 2.07 GAA and a .920 save percentage.

“Scott has had a great freshman year,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead says. “He had an excellent start. In the second half, a lot like our team, he cooled off a bit so I kept him out for a few games.

“He did a great job of refocusing and sharpening up his practice and getting things into perspective and enjoying the game again, not putting so much pressure on himself.

“He had a tremendous game the other night against UNH. It was not an accident. He had practiced very, very well leading up to that. I knew that he was ready to get back in.”

Two other freshmen lead the scoring, Gustav Nyquist (who may remain sidelined this week) and Brian Flynn.

“Gustav and Brian have really been a great addition,” Whitehead says. “They have contributed in so many ways. They play in all situations: first and last minute of the game, power play, penalty kill, four-on-fours.

“The big thing is that they both compete so hard and neither one is a high penalty minute guy. They both are great competitors and are tough, they take hits and win lose pucks in addition to their skill and poise with the puck.

“They are very well rounded players and have a surprising amount of composure and poise for freshman players. We are very pleased with them both.”

Darling, Nyquist and Flynn are just part of the youth movement in Orono this season, a distinct departure from the veteran squads of recent years. Out of the top 12 Maine scorers, all but two are freshmen and sophomores.

“We saw some of that inexperience in January,” Whitehead says. “We had games that we were in position where we could have won or tied, and some of the nerves came out. We were holding our sticks a little tightly.

“I was not that surprised. Obviously, it was a little frustrating, but at the same time they just need to play games and gain that experience and be in those situations that bring success in the future.

“We have been fortunate to win a couple of those tight games recently. We have had some success in those tense moments. I think that is what it is going to take: more opportunities to be in those key situations to learn from your mistakes and gain confidence from your successes.

“It is just going to take time, probably more time than I would like. At the same time, we are going to have to be patient, but continue to push them.

“It has been fun. They are a very coachable group and they certainly want to learn. They are working hard and their attitudes are good, so as long as those things are there, they will keep getting better.”

Whitehead is stressing an approach that ignores the standings where the Black Bears are as close (in points) to home ice as finishing out of a playoff berth.

“We can’t look too far ahead so we really are just focusing on one game at a time,” he says. “With our group, perhaps that was one the issues [in our January struggles]. We had a good fall semester and perhaps some of our guys were looking too far ahead and not focusing on the task at hand.

“We’ve gotten back to focusing on improving every day and every week. We’ve gotten back to focusing on just one game at a time.”

Providence: Hanging In There

The Providence Friars donned their Dracula capes early in the second semester, coming back from the dead after an 0-8-1 start within the league. Three straight wins and seven-out-of-eight points to kick off 2009 showed that life remained in their season.

The biggest difference has been chronicled previously in these pages. In the first semester, both PC goaltenders posted save percentages of 85 percent. No team is going to win with those numbers.

Enter Alex Beaudry, a second-semester freshman, who led the Friars to the three straight wins. Though the losses have returned, most recently a sweep last weekend at the hands of Vermont, Beaudry continues to give his team a chance. He holds a save percentage of .908 and a GAA of 2.97.

“It’s the most important position in our sport,” PC coach Tim Army says. “He’s provided stability back there. Our kids have a lot of trust in him and as a result we’ve played with more poise and played more consistently since he’s come to school.

“That’s reflected in our offensive numbers. We’ve been able to play with the lead more. The dynamics of the game change when you’ve got the lead. He instills confidence in our club.”

Surprisingly, another freshman, Matt Berglund, leads the offense. Although Berglund was highly regarded in the recruiting process, veterans like Pierce Norton, John Cavanagh, and Matt Taormina would have been expected to remain atop the PC statistics. Though they’ve all had good seasons, Berglund has topped them with 23 points.

“He plays with a lot of speed,” Army says. “He works hard both sides of the puck. He kills penalties, he plays on the power play, he plays a regular shift. He’s got really good offensive instincts, an innate sense of the game. [He does the] little things.

“He’s got an instinctive understanding of the game which complements his puck skills and his ability to play at a fast pace. He skates really well, but he plays at that pace with the puck as well.

“You never really know with your freshmen what type of impact they’ll have. We thought he’d be a prominent player on our team and he certainly has been, being our leading scorer from day one.”

Not that, as a local football coach would say, Berglund is ready for induction into the Hall of Fame.

“As with all freshmen, it’s a big jump and there are moments when they have success and moments when it become difficult for them,” Army says. “But he’s maintained a pretty good level of consistency throughout the year.

“He’s intense, he works real hard, and he’s not afraid to get his nose dirty. We’re obviously real excited about his play this year and certainly about what his growth will be like over the next three years.”

Regular readers of this column will know that Army isn’t stressing how many points the team needs to recoup to earn the last playoff berth.

“We’re looking ahead to Friday and no further,” he says. “We use our last games as a reference point and then get ourselves set for Friday night.

“We’ve dug ourselves a pretty good hole, being 0-8-1 by Christmastime, so we just need to come out and play well and play it game by game. We’ve been able to do that and get ourselves back into the race.

“Last weekend was a bit of a lost weekend because we didn’t get any points but that’s over. The only thing we can control is how we get ourselves ready to play the best possible game on Friday.”

New Hampshire: Close…

Unlike last year’s regular season, in which New Hampshire quickly ran away from the rest of the pack, this year’s edition would be better characterized by “close but no cigar.” The Wildcats emerged from a borderline disastrous November to record (in games not including Boston University) an 8-0-1 record heading into last Saturday’s rematch with Maine.

Yes, BU did sweep UNH, but let’s face it. The Terriers are stacked this year. They’ve swept plenty of teams and will continue to do so. That one lost weekend does not constitute reason for embarrassment.

Still, by usual UNH standards, that’s close but no cigar. A sweep is a sweep.

Getting shut out on Saturday by Maine, a rival but one that been struggling, following a 4-1 win the night before qualifies for the same term.

Will this team earn playoff home ice?

Probably.

Will it grab a berth in the NCAA tournament?

Possibly.

Will it win either the Hockey East regular season, the league tournament, or be still my heart, the NCAAs?

Weeeeellllll… we’ll have to see. It kind of looks like “close but no cigar” right now.

Then again, check some of the recent national champions. Boston College, last year: a pedestrian 11-9-7 in Hockey East, good for fourth place. Michigan State, the year before: 15-10-3 in the CCHA.

The pieces to the puzzle may well be there for UNH. Coach Dick Umile certainly likes what he sees.

Starting with the end where championships are won and lost.

“I like the way the team is competing,” he says. “Defensively we have gotten much better as a team. The guys defend very well in their own end and we’re not giving up as many scoring chances.

“That was a concern in the month of November. We’ve done a much better job.”

Up front, the Wildcats haven’t been the explosive powerhouse night in and night out that fans have come to expect every year. Witness the shutout on Saturday. But they’ve exploded on some nights and you only need to get hot at the right time. The Wildcats are working at it.

“Offensively we probably have been somewhat inconsistent, mostly with our power play,” he says. “Some nights offensively with our forwards there isn’t enough puck support but overall I’m pleased with the forwards offensively.

“The area we’ve struggled with is inconsistency on the power play. It needs to be more consistent especially when you’re getting towards the end here and we’re all competing for positions in the league and fighting for home ice.”

Right now, UNH leads BC and Lowell by only a point for fourth place.

“That’s always one of our goals at UNH, to get home ice,” Umile says. “You want to win the regular season [championship], but you definitely want to get home ice. The league is so darned difficult. When you get into a two-out-of three playoffs, you’d much rather play at home than travel.

“It going to be a real battle. If you’re sitting in fourth place, you can be in seventh real quick depending on what happens on one weekend.”

And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…

Happy Birthday, Nicole.

You’re a wonderful daughter and will always be my little girl.

Love,

Dad

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.


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