This Week in Hockey East: January 31, 1997

Hockey East Preview: Jan. 31-Feb. 3, 1997 by Dave Hendrickson

The Beanpot dwarfs all remaining Hockey East action this week. Northeastern, Boston College and Boston University will all need to avoid looking past their Friday contests and ahead to the biggest college hockey event in the East.

Aside from the Beanpot, however, there remain many key games in the congested third through seventh place in the standings.

Last week’s record in picks: 6-5 Season record in picks: 95-55

The Beanpot Northeastern (6-17-2, 2-14-1 HE) vs. Boston College (10-12-3, 6-7-3 HE) Monday, 6 p.m., Fleet Center, Boston, MA WABU-68

Last week Boston College edged UMass-Amherst, 3-2, before dropping a 5-2 home game against New Hampshire. The Eagles struggled offensively, generating chances but not finishing.

"Goals were tough to get for us this weekend," says BC coach Jerry York. "Part of it was the fine play of both goaltenders, [UMass’s] Brian Regan and [UNH’s] Sean Matile. But after viewing the tapes, I think we’ve just got to cash in and bury some chances."

Although three goals were enough to beat the Minutemen, the following night the Eagles outshot UNH 35-31, but their lack of a goal-scoring touch resulted in a loss. Trailing 3-2 with 18 seconds left in the second period, they gave up a pivotal fourth goal. The 4-2 score held until a Wildcat open-netter.

"New Hampshire is an outstanding hockey team," says York. "And I thought we were dead-even with them."

Not all the Eagles are struggling to fill the net. Tony Hutchins, a recruited walk-on, tallied his eighth goal of the season against UMass-Amherst, and has now scored in six of BC’s last eight games. Hutchins has progressed from fourth-line player to not only getting a regular shift but also acting as the second power-play unit’s bruiser in front.

"It took him a while to get started here at BC," says York. "But right now he’s got a very, very bright future. He’s certainly been red hot as a goal-scorer the last month."

"Red hot" also describes the Maine Black Bears. BC travels to Orono on Friday before returning to open this year’s Beanpot.

"Without a doubt all our attention is on the Maine game," says York. "These are important games now as we head down the stretch. We won’t look at the Beanpot until Saturday and Sunday."

BC’s foe, Northeastern, stuck with Maine for two periods before the Black Bears broke open the 2-2 game with five unanswered goals. The Huskies then extracted revenge from UMass-Amherst, a team that had swept them the previous weekend, shutting out the Minutemen 4-0.

Against Maine, NU coach Bruce Crowder opted to play seldom-used freshman Judd Brackett instead of his workhorse, Marc Robitaille, also a freshman. "We’ve got to make some decisions that pertain to the future and recruiting," says Crowder. "I just thought it was a good opportunity. Sometimes kids come in in those situations and they’re unbelievable. I thought he played pretty good, considering he was going against one of the better teams in the country. It was 2-2 going into the third period and they exploded in the third, but a lot of it wasn’t Judd Brackett’s fault. It was us blowing defensive coverages. He was just the recipient of all the red lights going on."

Robitaille returned against UMass-Amherst the following night and posted the shutout. "We played a lot better defensively," says Crowder. "We had some opportunities to score and we took advantage of some power-play opportunities at the same time. We didn’t get rattled with the penalties against us, either."

This marks Crowder’s first Beanpot. Referring to himself as a "freshman" in that regard, he says, "Most of the kids, no matter where they’ve come from or what they’ve done, have played games of some kind of caliber like that. Maybe not in front of 17,000 fans, but maybe a crowd of 5,000 or 3,000 when the arena was jammed. We’ve just got to keep things on an even keel.

"BC is playing some pretty good hockey. They tied BU twice, and even though they wound up on the back side of UNH, they’ve got some great young talent there. They’re very explosive. The first time against them we didn’t get a lot of opportunities, so maybe we’re going to have to open things up a little bit and maybe create a little bit more offense. It’s the Beanpot, so anything goes, anything crazy can happen. I’d be more than happy to see that."

PICK: Boston College 4-3.

The Beanpot Harvard (7-10-2, 6-6-2 ECAC) vs. No. 5 Boston University (13-6-5, 11-2-3 HE) Monday, 9 p.m., Fleet Center, Boston, MA WABU-68

"It seems like we’re egomaniacs with an inferiority complex," says BU coach Jack Parker. "’Hey, we’re real good, we’re BU hockey, but aw, geez, we’re not that good.’ We’re not quite sure of ourselves."

The baffling Terriers dropped 3-1 games against UMass-Lowell and Maine last weekend. How can the league’s second-leading offense, one that averages 5.25 goals a game, become suddenly so impotent? This makes their second scoring drought of the season, but the last one occurred immediately after Dan LaCouture left the team and before Tommi Degerman’s arrival. Their offense became Chris-Drury-or-bust. But now with Shawn Bates playing well, LaCouture back in the lineup, and the addition of Degerman, the Terriers shouldn’t be struggling so mightily to score goals.

"We’re in a grand funk as far as our scoring ability and our ability to get to the net," says BU coach Jack Parker. "We gave up 14 and [21 shots over the weekend] so we’re playing hard defensively, but we’re not getting anything accomplished offensively. We looked tired and almost disinterested at times. We didn’t have anywhere near the emotion and zip I thought we’d need…. We had a lot of guys who looked legless. We’ve played a lot of games with only three lines and an extra forward and that’s really worn us down."

Drury in particular seemed to be worn down after being blanketed by Lowell and kept in check by Maine. For the first time all season, he appeared ineffective; Drury has been held scoreless only five times all season, and BU has lost all five, two of them this weekend. BU has lost only one game all year, 6-4 to North Dakota, in which Drury scored.

Parker decided, after the loss to Maine, to rest his players for a couple of days, hoping they will have an extra jump in their stride when they return.

"Sometimes the Beanpot has jacked us up and gotten us going," says Parker. "Hopefully that will happen again this year."

The Crimson have hung around .500 all season, but have now lost five of their last seven. After a 6-1 trouncing of RPI, they went on 17-day break, not returning until this past Tuesday when they lost a 7-5 slugfest against New Hampshire. They played the fourth-ranked Wildcats even for parts of the game but surrendered on an Eric Nickulas third-period goal and an empty-netter.

Rob Millar leads their scoring with seven goals and eight assists in 12 league games, including a goal against UNH. Freshman J.R. Prestifilippo continues to shoulder the load and play well between the Crimson pipes.

Harvard did score once on the power play against UNH, but it still continues to flounder, showing only a 10.3 percent success rate. The penalty-kill, however, ranks a more reasonable fifth in the ECAC at 83.3 percent.

PICK: Boston University 5-2.

No. 5 Boston University (13-6-5, 11-2-3 HE) at Providence (9-15-1, 6-8-1 HE) Friday, 7 p.m., Schneider Arena, Providence, RI

Providence split games with the ECAC last week, downing Dartmouth 5-2 before losing 3-2 to cross-town rival Brown. In both games PC jumped out to 2-0 leads, but according to PC coach Paul Pooley lost to the Bears because of an ineffective power play, taking retaliatory penalties and mental errors. Pooley was, however, happy with the penalty killing and goaltending. Mark Kane tended the nets against Dartmouth, Dan Dennis against Brown.

Friar freshman have led the goal scoring recently, contributing 14 of the team’s last 21 markers. "Nick Lent has really responded," says Pooley. Lent has tallied five of the recent freshman strikes. "Fernando Pisani is playing his best hockey the last couple games. They’ve stepped up to the table. I’ve been really impressed. [Jerry] Keefe is playing better. [On the blue line] Leigh Dean and Josh MacNevin are playing real good hockey for us and I think Rich Miller can play for us too.

"It’s great for us to have them step up, but what we need are our older kids to step up too, because those are the kids you win with. This is the time that our seniors need to get going. Instead of hurting us, they need to be plus players, getting the key goals, making the plays. That’s what we need for us to be successful.

"I’m really happy about the freshmen. And I think some of our sophomores are playing hard. But last year we had [our seniors] all step up to the table, and everybody else was supportive of them and said, ‘Hey, lets grab on to them and go forward.’ That’s what we need to have happen this year."

Of the senior forwards, Pooley reserved his praise for Tom Sheehan. "He’s playing his best hockey. He’s doing a great job on the penalty kill. He’s winning key faceoffs. He’s been out on five-on-threes in the last couple games and has done a great job."

Pooley continued to juggle his lineup in search of the right combinations. The top line now consists of sophomores Mike Omicioli and Jon Cameron and freshman Pisani. Keefe, Stefan Brannare and Russ Guzior make up the second. David Green, Travis Dillabough and Lent comprise the "checking" third line.

The decisions are not so clear-cut on the power play. "Our power play has really killed us this year," says Pooley. "With the power play we lose the momentum in games."

Pooley laughed about the timing of BU’s two losses last week. "I guess we’re getting them when they’re a little mad," he says. Realizing that the Beanpot will follow just three days after, he adds, "Let’s hope they look past the Friars.

"Obviously we need to play a tight-checking game, be disciplined and stay out of the penalty box. Our special teams and goaltending have to be strong. It’s always going to be a tough physical game against them."

(BU is profiled above.)

PICK: Boston University 4-2.

Northeastern (6-17-2, 2-14-1 HE) at No. 4 New Hampshire (20-6-0, 13-3-0 HE) Friday, 7 p.m., Whittemore Center, Durham, NH

UNH’s two road wins, 5-2 over both Merrimack and Boston College, combined with BU’s two losses to vault the Wildcats back into first place in Hockey East.

"Obviously we’re pleased to be back in first place," says UNH coach Dick Umile. "Those were two important games. I thought we played very well."

Goaltender Sean Matile played both games, his first back-to-back action of the year, and stopped 69 of 73 shots. The performances earned him Hockey East Rookie of the Week honors, his first such designation. He also played in this Tuesday’s 7-5 win over Harvard.

"I told both goalies going into the weekend to be ready to play," says Umile. "I just felt that Sean was playing well and we went with him. At this point both goalies need to be ready to play and we’ll just take it game by game."

Matile had gotten off to a great start after missing the first nine games because of ineligibility. But his play took a sharp downturn when he struggled to adjust to medication prescribed after a mid-December seizure. Feeling sluggish, his performances suffered until he bottomed out in a 9-4 loss against BU. Matile lost his regular turn in the goalie rotation with Brian Larochelle. Finally acclimated to the medication, he now appears to be back with a vengeance.

"That was important for him to [play well back-to-back] to prepare for the games down the stretch," says Umile. "I don’t know what the crystal ball says, but this is an important time heading into the last four weeks of the regular season. Whichever goalie is playing well is going to play."

Matile’s snaring of the Rookie-of-the-Week award marks the second straight time a UNH player is so honored. Last week forward Mike Souza was named for his three goals and two assists. Souza had previously earned Rookie of the Week and Rookie of the Month distinctions in December.

"I know that we’ve got some pretty good freshman players in the league this year," says Umile, "but Mike is going to be a definite Rookie of the Year candidate. He’s playing extremely well. We’re starting to use him on the power play too." One look at UNH’s roster of forwards should show that Souza earning power-play time could be the highest compliment of them all.

The Wildcats open the weekend against Northeastern.

"That’s always a good matchup," says Umile. "They’re coming off a solid win over UMass-Amherst. We know they’ve lost a lot of games by one goal. There’s a lot of parity in Hockey East and you’ve got to come out and play every single night. I don’t expect anything other than a solid game."

Northeastern, profiled above for its Beanpot game, enters the contest on the high of a 4-0 win over UMass-Amherst. In the first series, however, UNH took Northeastern to school, to the tune of 7-3 and 9-4.

"They blow games out against everybody," says Crowder. "We’re going to have to play smart. We’re going to have to make sure we don’t beat ourselves, taking penalties the way we did [two weeks ago] against Amherst."

PICK: New Hampshire 5-2.

Boston College (10-12-3, 6-7-3 HE) at Maine (17-9-1, 9-6-1 HE) Friday, 7 p.m., Alfond Arena, Orono, ME

Maine took on the first-place and last-place teams last weekend. By the time th Black Bears were done, first-place BU wasn’t in first anymore and the rejuvenated Bears, almost given up for dead earlier in the season, had rebounded to third place. Winners of eight of their last nine, they even began attracting Top Ten votes.

In the third period of their weekend opener against Northeastern, they stood deadlocked at 2-2 before a five-goal explosion blew away the Huskies. The performance was in many ways characteristic of the team’s recent play. The same team that couldn’t seem to throw the puck in the ocean earlier this year now can score in bunches.

Surprisingly, the Black Bears are doing this with diminished scoring from their two preseason stars, Dan Shermerhorn (10 goals and five assists) and, to a lesser extent, Shawn Wansborough (11 goals and 16 assists).

"They’re both playing great," says Maine coach Shawn Walsh. "They were excellent on the weekend. Their roles have changed a little bit. I’m asking them to play a more all-around defensive game as opposed to putting them out for all of the power plays. We use three power-play units now whereas we might have been focusing on one before. Any time you win eight out of nine, you need your upperclassmen to lead you and those guys have led us very well.

"The strength of our team is our depth. It’s not any one individual. We’ve really evened out the ice time, playing a lot of freshmen on our specialty teams. So we’re much more balanced now.

"There’s tremendous parity in college hockey right now. The major junior effect of the great, great players going there has leveled out the playing field of college hockey. So if you get good goaltending, you can win if you’ve got some good players. And we’ve got some good players."

They’re also getting the good goaltending. After a tough start between the pipes, the Black Bear netminders are getting the job done. Javier Gorriti’s 2.77 goals-against average trails only BU’s Michel Larocque. And Alfie Michaud is now showing why Maine recruiters expected him to be the answer. Michaud has won all his last three starts while posting a 1.33 GAA and a .955 save percentage.

Steve Kariya leads the team with 14 goals and 25 assists. A member of last year’s All-Rookie team, he scored a key breakaway goal last weekend to down BU.

"He’s turning into one of the elite players in the league," says Walsh. "He was such a factor [against BU]. He scored once, he turned their D twice, and walked right in on Larocque. I thought when we recruited him he could be an All-American by the third year and I think I’m on target. I think he’s got a real chance because he’s got Paul’s work ethic and he’s got Paul’s intensity at getting better."

Maine’s top four defensemen — Jeff Libby, Jason Mansoff, Brian White and David Cullen — are unsung contributors to the team’s success, according to Walsh. Unsung may no longer be an appropriate term, however. Cullen was named the league’s Player of the Week for his strong defensive play, along with a goal and three assists.

According to Walsh, having a lead is pivotal to this team’s success. "I don’t know if we’re a good come-from-behind team. I know we’re becoming a very good team protecting a lead. Like that team that we had in 94-95 that went to the national championship game. We weren’t an explosive team but we played very, very smart. It’s not the individual parts that win hockey games, it’s the sum of the parts. And the sum of the parts for Maine right now is a good sum."

Looking ahead to the BC contest, Walsh says, "I think it’ll be a great game between two of the improving teams in the nation. They certainly have great individuals. Their key players seem to have come back from the World Junior [Tournament] with great confidence. Their freshmen are playing as well as our freshmen. And Greg Taylor is an excellent goalie. So I look for it to be a terrific game."

(BC is profiled above.)

PICK: Maine 5-4.

Merrimack (8-15-1, 4-9-1 HE) at UMass-Amherst (11-14-0, 6-10-0 HE) Friday, 7 p.m., Mullins Center, Amherst, MA

UMass-Amherst dropped two league games last week, 3-2 to Boston College and 4-0 to Northeastern. The Minutemen had swept Northeastern the previous weekend.

"I thought the BC game was a well-played game," says UMass coach Joe Mallen. "Although the number of shots were a little tilted [in their favor], the quality of our chances were huge. We had great, great scoring chances but we just couldn’t score against Greg Taylor. We really put a lot of energy into that game and left a lot on the ice.

"I thought coming back the next night against Northeastern we just didn’t play at the intensity level that we needed. To beat one team three times in Hockey East is an uphill task no matter who they are. Not that it can’t be done, but it’s very difficult, especially when two of the three are in their building. Robitaille played real well for Northeastern and we just couldn’t get our power play going."

With a game against league-leader UNH following this Friday’s Merrimack contest, there could be some temptation to look ahead to their giant-killer opportunity. Not so, says Mallen.

"We’re well-focused on the Merrimack game. We have to take all the games one at a time now. The disappointing thing for me is that with a win against Northeastern we could have moved into sixth place and been just a point out of fifth. We just couldn’t come up with those two points. There are a lot of points left on the line these last five weeks. We still feel that we have a good chance to move above where we are right now.

"The thing about Merrimack is that you have to solve their goaltending. We just really need to play our style in our rink."

Merrimack comes off a split weekend, losing 5-2 to UNH before besting Lowell 4-2.

"On Saturday night we played the kind of game that we have to play," says Merrimack coach Ron Anderson. "Low-scoring games give us a chance to win. When we give up five we’re going to have a tough time. Friday night we worked hard, but it just got away from us."

The Warrior power play, ranked last in the league and dormant for much of the season, is showing signs of life. With a large statistical gap to overcome and few remaining games, they’ll almost certainly finish last in power-play efficiency, but have operated in the twenties in the last five games.

"It’s getting there," says Anderson. "I’m not worried about the overall percentage because there’s nothing we can do about that at this point. I’m looking at where it’s at right now. Part of the power play being effective is that some of the guys we need to score goals are starting to score goals now. We’re working on it. I’d just as soon people look at our overall power-play efficiency because then they might overlook it. But for the last five games it’s been pretty good."

Anderson looked ahead to the matchup against UMass-Amherst.

"They’re real tough in their rink," he says. "They’ve got that big ice surface and they make a lot of things happen. They spread things out pretty well. We’ll have to make sure we don’t run around and get out of position. We’ve got to concentrate on a solid defensive effort. We’ll get our share of goals but we need to make sure we don’t put ourselves in a position where we need more goals than we’re capable of."

PICK: UMass-Amherst 5-3.

UMass-Amherst (11-14-0, 6-10-0 HE) at No. 4 New Hampshire (20-6-0, 13-3-0 HE) Saturday, 7 p.m., Whittemore Center, Durham, NH NESN

New Hampshire follows a Friday game against Northeastern with a NESN game against UMass-Amherst. The Minutemen scared UNH back in November before the Wildcats escaped with 1-0 and 5-4 (in overtime) wins.

"Every game at this point is scary," says UNH coach Dick Umile. "We always respect our opponents. Whoever plays best will win regardless of what the records are. We just have to be focused ourselves on what we’re doing and do those things well."

UMass-Amherst plays Merrimack before taking on the Wildcats. Minuteman coach Joe Mallen recalls the two prior one-goal losses to UNH.

"Those two games at least set the table for us to go in there with a lot of optimism," he says. "I think that UNH has become a much better team since we played them and hopefully we have too."

PICK: UNH wins the battle of the big ice surface teams, 6-3.

Merrimack (8-15-1, 4-9-1 HE) at Maine (17-9-1, 9-6-1 HE) Sunday, 2 p.m., Alfond Arena, Orono, ME

The last time these two teams met, they split a series at Merrimack. The Warriors took the opener 3-1, but Maine rebounded 6-2.

"I was impressed when we played them," says Walsh. "I thought it was as good a Merrimack team as I’ve seen. They’ve got senior goalies who are both very good so they’re going to be a team that gives anybody fits, as evidenced by their win over Lowell on Saturday night."

"We always seem to play well in that rink," responds Anderson. "We haven’t had much success but I always come out of there thinking that we didn’t play that bad, it’s just that they’re always that good. The atmosphere and the respect we have for that program just gets us pretty focused when we go up there. We’ll just try to make sure we’re as prepared as we possibly can be. The good thing is that it’s a Friday – Sunday weekend for us so it gives us Saturday to set things up for the Sunday game."

PICK: Maine 6-2.

Providence (9-15-1, 6-8-1 HE) at UMass-Lowell (13-13-0, 9-7-0 HE) Sunday, 2 p.m., Tully Forum, Lowell, MA WNDS-TV50

UMass-Lowell stunned BU 3-1 to open the weekend. The win over the Terriers provided more than just a welcome two points in the standings.

"It builds confidence," says UML coach Tim Whitehead. "It certainly doesn’t put us in the next level yet. Our guys aren’t under any false illusions this year. They understand that for us to win we need all 20 guys on the same page and working hard. That’s what they did… and I’m proud of them.

"Definitely, for our team it comes from our upperclassmen, the juniors and seniors. And we’ve even got some sophomores who are playing like seniors. From there the freshmen just follow suit."

One key freshman who is following suit is Chris Bell. Bell scored the game-winner against BU on the power play. One of up to ten freshmen that sometimes dress for the River Hawks, Bell notched his eighth of the season with the tally.

"He came into camp not quite in the shape that the rest of his teammates came in," said Whitehead delicately. "But from the day he got here, he’s worked as hard as anybody. He really has gotten better as the year has progressed…. He’s a talented kid who is just going to keep getting better."

Goaltender Marty Fillion’s performance was pivotal to the win over BU. He prompted opposing coach Jack Parker to say, "I can recall five unbelievable saves that I thought he just stole."

Unfortunately for Lowell fans, the River Hawks followed the upset with a 4-2 loss to Merrimack and a midweek 5-1 road loss to Colgate.

"Merrimack played an excellent defensive game, and they capitalized on the five-minute power play in the third period," says Whitehead. "That was the difference in the game. They were hungrier over the course of the sixty minutes. We played very good second and third periods, but they built up some momentum in the first period and stuck with it. I thought they did an excellent job of executing their game plan and playing good team defense."

Lowell and Providence open their series on Sunday afternoon.

"We haven’t played them yet so we’re excited about starting that series with them," says Whitehead. "They’ve got an excellent team every year so this will be a good challenge for us.

"Our games with Providence will be [tight-checking, close ones] just like our others. We’re not going to be in many three- or four-goal games either for or against us."

"The game against them is huge," adds Pooley. "Last Saturday everybody lost that we needed to. So we’re still right there."

PICK: Another really tight contest between two hard-hat, lunch-pail teams. Lowell 4-3.

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

Copyright 1997 Dave Hendrickson . All Rights Reserved.

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