This Week in Hockey East: February 7, 1997

Hockey East Preview: Feb. 7-10, 1997 by Dave Hendrickson

It’s another dream matchup for the Beanpot — Boston University and Boston College in the title game. Even the moribund Fleet Center might hear some noise for that one.

Lost in the Beanpot publicity bonanza has been the resurgent play of not only a dominating UNH squad but more notably, a Merrimack team which is now earning respect around the league. The Warriors are 7-4 since Christmas and could still achieve home ice.

But the key for all the teams clustered in the middle of the standings is not home ice, but the playoff pairings: the lowest two qualifiers face New Hampshire and Boston University. Get out the golf clubs in that case. But all other potential matchups could conceivably go either way. Maine, if eligible, and Boston College would be favorites, but far from prohibitive ones. Home ice amounts to gravy on the potatoes of avoiding the two powers until the Fleet.

Last week’s record in picks: 6-3 Season record in picks: 101-58

The Beanpot: Championship Game No. 4 Boston University (15-6-5, 12-2-3 HE) vs. Boston College (11-13-3, 7-8-3 HE) Monday, 8 p.m., Fleet Center, Boston, MA WABU-68

"We’re going to have a tough game against BU," said Boston College netminder Greg Taylor before BU’s semifinal game had even started. Such is the nature of the BU-BC rivalry. Upon hearing a few knowing chuckles, the cool senior added without batting an eyelash, "If they’re the ones that end up being victorious."

The comment symbolizes the bone-deep rivalry between the two schools.

"I don’t know what it is," said BC captain David Wainwright, "but that team … they bother me. I’m really looking forward to playing BU."

BU’s Matt Wright made it clear that the feelings were very mutual.

"It’s always like BC is on your back," said Wright. "Once you settle that, you can move on to the rest of the season. It’s like there’s the Beanpot, the Hockey East playoffs, the Finals, and then there’s BC. It’s like its own tournament. No matter how many times we beat them, if they beat us once it’s all forgotten."

The Terriers will go with Tom Noble in net, following Michel Larocque’s performance in the 7-1 semifinal win over Harvard. Larocque will play against UMass-Amherst on Friday.

"It’s very simple," said Parker, when asked about the secret to BU’s "Beanpot Magic." The Terriers will be appearing in their 13th championship game in the last 14 years, and 30th in 34.

"Ricky Meagher, Mike Eruzione, Peter Brown, Tony Amonte, Shawn McEachern, Chris Drury, Shawn Bates…. We have very, very good players every year. Fortunately for us, when I foul the team up, it’s usually in December and we get straightened out by the time the Beanpot comes around."

"I always say that if the Beanpot were held in late November or December, we wouldn’t be nearly so successful. But sooner or later we figure out what we have to do, and we are blessed with real good players and they get the job done.

"Not only is it the talent, but it’s also the type of kids we get. They want success, but they also know how to handle it. The best part about my job is that our best players, our most-skilled players, our most important players, 99 percent of the time have also been our best players character-wise. That’s a great thing to have. Chris Drury is an example of that."

Parker recently moved longtime defenseman Shane Johnson to forward. This has given the Terriers four full lines for one of the few times all season. The team has responded with well-distributed scoring, with six and seven different goal scorers in their last two games, including Johnson against Harvard.

"[Shane] has played defense for us all four years," said Parker. "Two weeks ago we moved him to forward because we thought we needed more determination up there. But he’s given us a lot more talent than we thought. Not only is he playing hard, but he’s a real clever player."

On the other side of the ledger stands Boston College, which beat Northeastern 4-1 to advance to its third title game in the last four years.

"Our senior class has a chance to win two Beanpots in their four-year tenure," said BC coach Jerry York. The Eagles beat Harvard 2-1 in overtime in 1994.

"That would really be an accomplishment. I’m really excited about being in the finals. Our team, despite our won-loss record, is potentially a very dangerous team.

"Our skating is the key to our game. If we skate well, I think we can play a high level of hockey. But defensively and offensively we still have to shore up a lot of different areas. Our faceoffs need some work, and we’ll work on that. Our ability to make plays three-on-two and two-on-one is something that we’re getting better at, but I don’t feel that this is a finished product by any means."

One focal point of BC strength is the newly-constructed top line of Marty Reasoner, Jeff Farkas and Blake Bellefeuille, all of whom played in the recent World Junior Tournament.

"The ability of Chris Masters to be a center [on our third line] and also the play that [second-line center] Jamie O’Leary has had, has enabled us to put Blake, Marty and Jeff (all centers) all on the same line," said York. "They have a tremendous amount of skill and when they use each other they become a very, very effective line."

Farkas, who is making a late-season Rookie of the Year surge following his return from the junior tournament, earned Hockey East co-Rookie of the Week honors with Providence’s Fernando Pisani. The league bestowed the award on Farkas based on his two goals and two assists against Maine. He then added a goal and an assist against Northeastern.

"Jeff Farkas has been on fire," said Wainright. "He’s gotten at least a point in every game [since returning from the junior tournament]. He’s having a lot of fun out there."

Reasoner, Farkas, and Bellefeuille also comprise an integral part of the Eagle power-play unit which adds freshmen Mike Mottau and Kevin Caulfield.

"For most of the year, we’ve had a fine power-play unit," said York. "But where we’ve had problems is on the penalty kill. For a variety of reasons we just haven’t been able to defend very well when we’re down a man…. I feel very good about our power play. And I feel better about our penalty kill. We’ve had to rely on Greg [Taylor] to be our PK guy for too long."

Boston College’s occasionally-suspect defense played well against Northeastern, but faces a sterner test in BU. Their propensity for giving up the breakaway could be exposed by Drury, Bates and company. Taylor bails them out time after time, but this game could turn on how many times he’s asked to.

Wainright, who picked up a game disqualification against the Huskies, will sit out the Friday night game against Providence, but will return against BU.

PICK: Although this marks Boston College’s best chance for a Beanpot in years — much better than when they won it in 1994 — BU’s defensive superiority wins out 3-2. Greg Taylor will be heroic even in defeat.

The Beanpot: Consolation Game Harvard (7-12-2, 6-7-2 ECAC) vs. Northeastern (6-19-2, 2-16-1 HE) Monday, 5 p.m., Fleet Center, Boston, MA

This contest could come down to a battle of freshmen netminders, Harvard’s J.R. Prestifilippo and Northeastern’s Marc Robitaille. Both have played well all season long and made big saves in the Beanpot semifinal before succumbing to superior opponents in the third period.

"He’s been simply outstanding," said Harvard coach Ron Tomassoni about Prestifilippo. "He’s played way beyond our expectations. We thought he was going to be very good, but he’s given us the opportunity to win almost every game we’ve been in. That’s all you can ask from a goaltender."

"We’ve been a team that has struggled over the season to score goals. We’ve been only scoring about 2.5 goals a game, but [until the loss to BU] been only giving up 2.7. So we’ve played pretty good defense and he’s a pretty big reason why. He’s a talented boy. He’s very competitive and he’s very tough mentally. He’s mature beyond his years."

"He’s a goalie that is always focused," added Harvard captain Ashlin Halfnight. "I’ve never seen anybody work as hard as he does in practice. It’s always a battle, and he always wants to stop every single shot."

Also pivotal for the Crimson will be their much-maligned power play and offense in general. Going into the Beanpot, Tomassoni had waxed optimistic, based on recently scoring six goals against RPI and five against UNH, two very good teams. But BU shut down the Crimson offense and sent Tomassoni back to the drawing board.

Harvard ranks as the youngest squad in Division I hockey. With 17 of their 26 roster spots claimed by freshmen and sophomores, they boast an average age of 19.6 years old.

Northeastern coach Bruce Crowder complimented his own freshman duffel bag, despite Robitaille’s giving up a soft goal that turned into the game-winner for BC. "The kid played tremendous," said Crowder. "It was just a shame to see a goal like that beat him."

What Crowder found even more shameful was the onslaught of penalties that iced his own team.

"I was proud of the way the guys played for the first forty-seven minutes," said Crowder. "They gave it their all. They played hard. It was a 1-1 game and anything could have happened at that point. The thing I’m extremely disappointed in is the way my team handled themselves late in the third period.

"We took the game out of our hands. We maybe had a chance to come back and wound up getting into a penalty situation. It was a lack of discipline. We killed penalties for the last five minutes instead of trying to [get back in it]. Hey, we were only down by two goals. That’s something that’s going to be handled."

Crowder recognizes the limitations of his last-place squad.

"The kids we have here are the kids that we have here," he said. "The only thing we can do is keep a positive spin as much as possible on everything that happens. I can’t call Jack [Parker] or Jerry [York] and make a trade for the playoff run. What I have is what I have. I’ve got a lot of really good hockey players that are playing hard for me, and those are the guys that I want to continue to work with and get this program to where I want it to go."

With a 6-19-2 team and no Beanpot championship to light a spark, could the Huskies roll over and die?

"Not my teams," said Crowder. "There’s a lot of question marks going into ’97 and ’98. Guys have seven or eight games left to make the most of that opportunity, to show this coaching staff what they can do for us and how they can help bring this program along."

Without an abundance of talent, Crowder feels he has fashioned a system to give his squad their best chance of success.

"We’re just trying to keep it simple and eliminate a lot of opportunities for the other team," he said. "We want to just play strong defense, and hopefully get some breaks on neutral-zone turnovers."

PICK: Northeastern 3-2.

UMass-Lowell (13-14-0, 9-8-0 HE) at No. 3 New Hampshire (22-6-0, 15-3-0 HE) Friday, 7 p.m., Whittemore Center, Durham, NH

New Hampshire is back to grinding up opponents and spitting them out. Last week they demolished Northeastern 7-1 and UMass-Amherst 10-0 after a midweek 7-5 win over Harvard.

"I thought we had a great weekend," said Umile. "We’re moving the puck real well and our specialty situations have gone well. I’m really pleased."

After the 10-0 debacle, UMass-Amherst coach Joe Mallen said, "That tandem of goaltenders with that group of forwards — you get the defensemen and third line just playing their role — and you’ve got a chance at a national championship."

It’s a thought that slid to the back burner during UNH’s recent mini-slump, but is coming full-circle back to the fore. Although coach Dick Umile is still maintaining a game-to-game attitude, he’s measured his team against the competition and likes what he sees.

"We feel we have the personnel that if we get to the Final Four — we still have to get there — but if we can get there we’ll have a very, very good opportunity to win it," said Umile.

"We have a very solid team and we’re improving each week. But those are all the bonuses. You’ve got to go through the league, through the league playoffs, and through the regional. You’ve got to be lucky. You’ve got to be good. I think we have all the pieces. Whether we get there or not, I don’t know. But if we get there, we can compete with anyone."

Eric Boguniecki, part of their great strength at forward, earned Hockey East Player of the Week honors with five goals and four assists in the three games. He now totals 17 goals and 27 assists, good for third in overall league scoring. The Wildcats as a team are now averaging 5.68 goals a game, second best in the country.

"I’ve never seen it this good," said UNH coach Dick Umile. "They move the puck incredibly well. Hockey is a transitional game and once it goes the other way, they know how to pass and execute. They just read off each other extremely well. These guys are very, very talented hockey players. And they’re unselfish. They just know that good things happen if they just stay with it."

Sean Matile has now backstopped the last five Wildcat games. Completely recovered from his problems with medication side-effects, he’ll be The Man down the stretch after beating out Brian Larochelle. His statistics bear out the decision. He leads Hockey East in league games with a 2.32 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage.

Lowell could be headed in the other direction. Losers of their last three, the River Hawks dropped below .500 for only the second time this season following losses to Merrimack (4-2), Colgate (5-1) and an 8-2 stinker to Providence.

"As a team we just didn’t have a strong game," said UML coach Tim Whitehead after the loss to the Friars. "All of us had an off night. We stick together as a team [and don’t point fingers]. We’ll get better and we’ll be back.

"We can’t put too much importance on one game. Just like we shouldn’t put too much importance on beating BU, we shouldn’t put too much importance on losing to Colgate or Providence. Obviously we want to get to where we’re playing our best hockey when the playoffs hit. We’ve got seven games before that happens."

Perhaps the young River Hawk team became full of itself after knocking off nationally ranked UNH and BU on consecutive weekends. Although they lost the opener of their home-and-home with UNH 9-4, they came back to beat the Wildcats 7-5 at the Whittemore Center. They then trapped BU for a 3-1 win.

"Nothing’s changed just because we got a couple big wins," said Whitehead. "We’re still the same team we were before. I don’t think so, but perhaps our guys do have false illusions about what team we are. I know that we don’t as coaches. We need all 20 guys playing a great game for us to be successful. That hasn’t changed whether we win or lose. They should understand that by now.

"We have to make sure everyone’s on the same page when we head up to New Hampshire. We’re going to focus on us and improving ourselves. Then we’ll deal with UNH when Friday comes around. Our guys have played them before, we been up there, so it won’t be any shocker."

PICK: New Hampshire 7-3.

No. 4 Boston University (15-6-5, 12-2-3 HE) at UMass-Amherst (11-16-0, 6-12-0 HE) Friday, 7 p.m., Mullins Center, Amherst, MA

UMass-Amherst took it on the chin last week, losing 5-3 to Merrimack before UNH punished them 10-0. They have now lost four in a row and face a gauntlet of tough teams down the stretch.

"We’re a little beat up at this point," said UMass coach Joe Mallen, whose team faced New Hampshire without leading scorer Rob Bonneau and has missed top defenseman Tom O’Connor during their entire losing streak. Both are day-to-day for the upcoming weekend. "This is a bump in the road. It hurts. On the other hand, we just have to get back to work and get healthy.

"We’ve been basically going with five defensemen now for four games. The problem is on the second night when our five defensemen are a little more fatigued. We’re just not that deep on defense right now. I think we’ve got six good ones, but after that the depth just drops off. We don’t really have anyone that can drop back and do a capable job."

Mallen still didn’t totally excuse his team’s poor play in the embarrassment against UNH. His offense failed to score, his defense proved porous, and his two goaltenders allowed 10 goals on 24 shots.

"Our guys did a really poor job on the one-on-ones in tight to the net," said Mallen. "We didn’t get guys’ sticks up and get into the really close coverage that we’ve been working on all year."

Unfortunately, the Minutemen must try to rebound against, of all teams, BU.

"It’s up to me to provide the leadership," said Mallen. "I’m not going to skate them into the ground. I’m going to do the opposite. I’m going to give them a couple days off and then try to regroup. I’ve been at this for 20 years and you can just see when guys are burned out. They need more rest than they need work.

"We’ve been a streaky team all year. We’re in a downward cycle right now but we’re just looking to have one of those upward cycles towards the end of February and the middle of March. And if you do that you can wind up in the Fleet Center and then who knows."

A look at the schedule proves sobering, however. The Minutemen close with three games against Maine, and single ones against BU, BC, and an away game against UMass-Lowell. They could conceivably lose all six, and then face UNH or BU in the playoffs. Not a pretty picture.

Up first is Boston University.

"The one thing is that BU’s in the middle of the Beanpot," said Mallen. "Our closest games with BU have been at this time. We’ve had 4-1 games, which doesn’t sound close, but for us that’s kind of a mental victory."

(BU is profiled above.)

PICK: Boston University struggles not to look ahead to another Beanpot championship, but avoids disaster, 5-3.

Boston College (11-13-3, 7-8-3 HE) at Providence (10-16-1, 7-9-1 HE) Friday, 7 p.m., Schneider Arena, Providence, RI

Providence lost 6-2 to BU and then stunned Lowell, 8-2. The Friars are now 4-4 since a seven-game losing streak sidetracked their run at a return to the Fleet Center.

"I thought Friday night against BU we played hard," said coach Paul Pooley after the Lowell win. "We had a lot of chances but we just didn’t cash in. You keep running through that wall and sometimes you don’t get results. Well, tonight we got results."

More results will be needed this weekend since Providence finishes with three games against New Hampshire and two against UMass-Lowell. They, like most other teams in the league, could finish anywhere from third to eighth.

"They’re all playoff games now," said Pooley. "Our league is so tight near the midrange that you have to be ready to play. A game like [the win over Lowell] can move you forward but if you lose it could really set you back."

Their eight goals against Lowell matches an earlier-season high set against Northeastern. For a team that has struggled to score all season, the outburst came at an opportune time.

"It’s a big confidence boost," said Pooley. "Some guys feel that they can’t score no matter what they do."

Freshman Fernando Pisani led the scoring with his first collegiate hat trick against Lowell. Pisani and sophomores Mike Omicioli and Jon Cameron have recently formed the Friars top line and have played well together. Pisani’s outburst gives him 20 points on the season. Hockey East honored the rookie for his accomplishments, naming him co-Rookie of the Week with BC’s Jeff Farkas.

"Coach Pooley has a different system than many coaches around the league," said Pisani about his adjustment to D-I play. "In juniors you don’t see that system around. So it’s mostly getting adjusted to it. Right now I’m a little more comfortable."

After Dan Dennis gave up three goals on eight shots against BU, Pooley yanked his All-Hockey East goalie for sophomore Mark Kane. Unfortunately, Dennis has not always performed at all-league levels this year. Kane played well against Lowell.

"Hey, one of the things for us to get better is that our goaltending has to improve," said Pooley. "Danny’s played some good games for us and Mark has played some good games. Whoever gets hot [will play.] But Mark will definitely play on Friday against BC. He deserves that opportunity."

Kane could have his hands full against the Eagles.

"BC’s just a very, very talented club," said Pooley. "Offensively they’re very scary. The first two times we played them [goaltender Greg] Taylor was really good. The one game up there that we should have won, we had two goals disallowed. I thought that was one of the games that hurt our confidence. We tied it even though we blew the two goal-lead in the last three minutes. But I thought that game should have been out of reach."

(BC is profiled above.)

PICK: The Eagles just can’t get those Terriers and the Beanpot out of their heads, and fall to Providence 4-2.

Merrimack (10-15-1, 6-9-1 HE) at Northeastern (6-19-2, 2-16-1 HE) Friday, 7 p.m., Matthews Arena, Boston, MA

For the first time this season Merrimack took two games on the weekend, going on the road to beat UMass-Amherst 5-3 and Maine 5-4, the latter in overtime. The win over Maine came only after coach Ron Anderson pulled the goaltender to tie it in the last minute of regulation. Casey Kesselring’s game-winner came with just 29 seconds left in overtime.

The win at Alfond Arena was the team’s first in 18 years and gave the Warriors their first series over the Black Bears since moving up to Division I play. Merrimack’s 7-4 streak follows their worst start (3-11-1) in school history.

"We’ve taken our lumps for a while," said Anderson in his understated style. "We’re very happy. I think we’re playing pretty well right now.

"One of the keys against Maine was staying out of the penalty box. We gave them three power plays and they scored three goals. They’re such an explosive offensive team that you can’t give them many opportunities."

The Warriors are making the best of their own opportunities now.

"Our upperclassmen were working hard but the puck wasn’t going in for them," said Anderson. "They’re getting some bounces now. We’re a team that’s been averaging two point something per game over the season, but in our last three games we’ve been averaging over five. Obviously that gives you a better chance to win some hockey games."

The key line in the offensive resurgence is comprised of Tom Johnson, Casey Kesselring and Martin Laroche. Dubbed the "J-K-L" line by USCHO contributor and Merrimack radio color commentator Mike Machnik, they have posted fourteen goals — including the game-winner in Orono — and twenty assists in the last nine games.

"They like playing with each other," said Anderson. "That’s a big part of it. Sometimes people don’t know it themselves until they play together. You move people around and you keep changing things. When something works and the pieces fit, you leave them together. Fortunately for us we hit on that unit about a month ago and they’ve played pretty well.

"They have respect for each other, they’re working for each other and the scoring is coming from each of them, not just one or two. The fact that they know they all could be on the scoring end of the equation on any given night is important. They’re not an overpowering line but they work well together and they communicate well."

Where do the Warriors go from here? Starved for confidence earlier in the season, do they now harness their success or become intoxicated with it, especially with last-place Northeastern up first on the docket?

"That’s a fine line that you have to walk," said Anderson. "We’re not the kind of team that can get overconfident against anybody. We’ve been down that road many times and we’ll be well aware of it.

"Our objective is to play the best hockey we can play every time we go out there against every team that we play. Some nights that will be good enough and some nights it won’t, but we’ve got to make sure we put our best foot forward every night."

PICK: Merrimack stays on a roll 5-3.

UMass-Amherst (11-16-0, 6-12-0 HE) at UMass-Lowell (13-14-0, 9-8-0 HE) Saturday, 7 p.m., Tully Forum, Lowell, MA

UMass-Amherst, profiled above against BU, travels to Tully Forum for the rubber game of the Alumni Cup, awarded to the winner of the season’s competition between the two state schools. The ice surfaces of the two teams provide the biggest contrast in Hockey East. UMass-Amherst’s Mullins Center, where they have posted all but three of their wins this year, features an Olympic sheet while the Tully Forum is notable for its minimal neutral ice space. Since the Minutemen play better on a wide-open surface, the tight confines of Tully Forum could act as a seventh player for the River Hawks.

(UMass-Lowell is profiled above.)

PICK: Even though both teams are struggling, home ice takes it for Lowell, 5-4.

Merrimack (10-15-1, 6-9-1 HE) at Providence (10-16-1, 7-9-1 HE) Saturday, 7 p.m., Schneider Arena, Providence, RI NESN

Providence, profiled above, hosts the hot Merrimack Warriors.

"Merrimack’s playing well," said PC coach Paul Pooley. "They’re feeling good. I talked to Ron last Sunday and he said that when they work hard and compete, they can play with anybody. I know from having watched them. I saw them beat Maine a few weeks ago. They’ve got some guys who are playing hard just like they always do. When you play hard you get results. And they’re getting good goaltending."

PICK: Merrimack keeps it going 3-2.

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

Copyright 1997 Dave Hendrickson . All Rights Reserved.

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