This Week in Hockey East: February 14, 1997

Hockey East Preview: Feb. 14-18, 1997 by Dave Hendrickson

After a scintillating Beanpot championship game, the return to league play this week will be hard-pressed to maintain either the excitement level or the quality of play shown at the FleetCenter.

The jockeying for third to sixth place continues, with Providence potentially starting yet another late-season run under Paul Pooley. They play a home-and-home with sizzling New Hampshire, though, so their recent push could be stalled. Merrimack had been the hottest second-tier team in the league until the Friars pounded them 9-4 on Saturday. Their home-and-home with Boston College will prove pivotal to both teams’ playoff positions.

After overachieving all season long to hold onto third place, UMass-Lowell has now dropped five straight and faces the daunting BU Terriers in another home-and-home. Maine, waiting to hear the results of their NCAA appeal, plays two at UMass-Amherst before entertaining UNH on Tuesday in what promises to be the best game of the week.

Last week’s record in picks: 6-2 Season record in picks: 107-60

Providence (12-16-1, 9-9-1 HE) vs. No. 3 New Hampshire (23-6-0, 16-3-0 HE)

Friday, 7 p.m., Whittemore Center, Durham, NH Saturday, 7 p.m., Schneider Arena, Providence, RI

In their only action of the week, New Hampshire beat UMass-Lowell 4-0.

"We played a little better last weekend," said coach Dick Umile. "We didn’t give up as many good scoring chances." The previous weekend, of course, was a pretty tough act to follow. UNH outscored Northeastern and UMass-Amherst a combined 17-1.

When Jason Krog opened the scoring a mere 54 seconds into the UMass-Lowell game, it marked the 23rd time in 29 games the Wildcats have gotten on the board first, many in the first few minutes. Although Umile is happy with those numbers, he also said, "We have a lot of confidence, whether we get the first goal or not."

Sean Matile, who has played and won UNH’s last six games, recorded his second shutout in a row and third of the season. Surprisingly, his three shutouts set a new Hockey East season record, an especially impressive feat since he’s played in only 12 games this year because of earlier ineligibility and medication problems.

Matile likes to roam far from the net to help his defense, especially on the Olympic ice surface at home where the demands placed on defensemen to get back for the puck are maximized.

"It’s an important part of the game," said Umile. "The top goaltenders, both in the NHL and in college, can all handle the puck. It gives a team an extra edge."

Although UMass-Lowell outshot the Wildcats 38-31, Matile faced the problem of all netminders on dominant teams. While their team is controlling play in the offensive zone for long stretches, a goaltender must stay physically loose and mentally sharp. UNH dominated the first 17 minutes of the game, allowing the River Hawks no serious chances. Lowell then swarmed around him in the period’s closing minutes. Matile proved up to the challenge during that flurry and for the rest of the game.

"With this team, I know I’m not going to get a lot of shots on most nights, so I just have to concentrate," said Matile after the game. "I really don’t care if I get eight shots or eighty."

Voters for postseason All-Rookie teams will have a tough choice between Matile and Northeastern’s Marc Robitaille. For most of the season Robitaille has looked like a consensus pick, an ironman playing well on a weak team. Matile’s recent play, however, makes the choice difficult. He now boasts staggering statistics in league play (1.99 goals against average and a .941 save percentage) and still-impressive numbers including all games (3.03 GAA and .911 save percentage).

Working against him will be his limited role (12 games) on a great team, compared to Robitaille’s 27 games while performing for the league’s worst. Robitaille has also shut out three teams this year, but two were in non-league contests. To this eye, they’re neck-and-neck at the turn.

Providence took both games last weekend against teams that had been coming on strong. The Friars beat Boston College 4-2 and Merrimack 9-4. In fits and starts, they are showing signs of once again becoming the playoff behemoth they’ve been ever since coach Paul Pooley took over.

"Our first thought [against BC] was playing good defense," said Pooley. "I think we did that. Our penalty-kill did a good job against their power play. And [Mark] Kane played well in net. When he had to make the big save, he was there.

"[Saturday night against Merrimack] was a funny game. We jumped on them early, but they were coming back in the second period. It was 4-2, but the tide was turning for them and they were on the power play. Then Russ Guzior scored a shorthanded goal. That was the major goal of the game. It deflated them a bit. We played with more confidence and played well for the rest of the game."

Guzior’s play sums up the Providence season in a microcosm. Their leading scorer last season with 20 goals, he’s spent much of this year unable to throw the puck in the ocean. In the closing minutes against BC, however, he tallied an empty-net goal to seal the win. The score, empty net or not, might have acted as a bung-puller for Guzior, allowing the two-goal bubbly to flow the next night against Merrimack.

"He had two or three breakaways against BC and didn’t score on any," said Pooley. "The empty-netter may have relaxed him a bit in the sense that he had so many good chances that game before he scored into the empty net. The next night against Merrimack his first one maybe wasn’t a great goal; he just went over the blue line, took a slap shot and scored. The other one he worked hard in the corner, came out and just jammed it in. Getting him going will help us a lot."

Of perhaps even greater significance is the surprising play of sophomore goaltender Mark Kane. Kane rode the pine for much of this season while Pooley tried to get Dan Dennis on track. Dennis, an All-Hockey East selection last year and a preseason pick this year, struggled.

"Obviously Dan can’t be happy that he’s not playing," said Pooley, "but Mark’s won four in a row and he’s earned the right to be in there. What we want from Danny is for him to say, ‘Hey, I’m a competitor. I know that Mark deserves to play, but I’m gonna work my butt off and get my game back. And if the opportunity arises for me to get called upon, I’m going to be ready to play and show what I can do.’ That’s the type of attitude we need from him right now.

"There’s no question that Mark deserves to play. He’s played well. He gives our team jump. He talks, he moves the puck well, and he’s playing with confidence. That gives our team confidence because we can relax a bit more because we aren’t letting in the goals that we were earlier. That’s given us a little more opportunity to score, feel better about ourselves, and maybe take chances at times. Instead of being back on our heels, we’re going forward."

As well as his team is playing, however, Pooley knows he’s running into a buzzsaw against UNH.

"Obviously we have to try to limit their scoring opportunities because they are very, very talented," he said. "They can beat you just ad-libbing out there one-on-one, playing shinny hockey, because of their skill. We can’t get into that game. We’ve got to try to control the ice and dictate tempo as much as possible, especially on that big sheet of ice up there on Friday night. We also need to stay out of the penalty box and keep it five-on-five."

PICK: New Hampshire sweeps, 5-3 and 5-2.

No. 4 Boston University (17-6-5, 13-2-3 HE) vs. UMass-Lowell (13-16-0, 9-10-0 HE) Friday, 7 p.m., Tully Forum, Lowell, MA WNDS-TV50 Saturday, 7 p.m., Walter Brown Arena, Boston, MA NESN

BU rallied back against UMass-Amherst, using five power-play goals to beat the Minutemen 6-3. They had to also come back in the Beanpot championship game, via a Dan LaCouture goal only 22 seconds after falling behind 2-0, and a tying score about a minute later. Captain Bill Pierce got the game-winner on a breakaway and a Chris Drury open-netter iced the thrilling 4-2 win.

"The building sounded pretty good," said BU coach Jack Parker after the game. The FleetCenter, a mausoleum for sleepy Bruins and Celtics games since its opening, came alive for one of the top rivalries in college hockey. "I thought this was going to be a real test for the FleetCenter to see how enthusiastic the crowd was and how enthusiastic the players were. "I thought the emotion could be felt on the bench and on the ice. Now all we have to do is make sure we put 17,000 in the building," Parker said. "We know now we can get the roar of the crowd out there. It certainly was pumping us up and BC up. "This was quite a show with BC and BU in the Beanpot final. Playing as well as we had against each other in the first three games of the year [in two 5-5 ties and a 6-4 BU win that included an open-netter], no matter who won the game it was going to be good for our history and our rivalry and something good for college hockey in Boston again. And that’s certainly how I felt tonight. It was a great college hockey game to watch.

"It was nice to have Tom Noble show once again why he does a lot of things well and win. There’s a lot of goalies who do a lot of things well, but Tommy’s got the will to win. He’s won a lot of third periods because he’s just said, ‘That’s enough!’ and he certainly said that tonight."

UMass-Lowell didn’t have quite the same thrill in their Alumni Cup competition with UMass-Amherst. Their budding rivalry has little of the history of BU-BC, but over time could turn into one of the better ones. Lowell lost the Alumni Cup 6-4 on Saturday after losing to third-ranked New Hampshire 4-0 the night before. The losses now give the River Hawks a five-game losing streak dating back to their 3-1 win over BU.

"Actually we played real well on the weekend," said UML coach Tim Whitehead. "Unfortunately it didn’t bounce for us, but we’re not going to panic or anything. You can’t always use wins and losses as a barometer for how well you’re doing. Sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t.

"This past weekend we were really pleased with the effort that the guys showed. Unfortunately, we outshot both UNH and Amherst on the weekend and still lost, but we’ve been on the other end of that earlier in the year so we can’t complain. There are no excuses, they just came out on top. It all evens out in the end. The effort is there, we’re just a little snakebit as far as putting it in the net.

"We’re really excited about getting the enthusiasm behind the Alumni Cup. That was a nice win for Amherst. We’re excited about keeping that tradition going each year and it’s something we want to build. That’s becoming a big rivalry."

Whitehead faces a tough challenge getting his young team out of its losing streak and ready for Boston University.

"There are no easy games," said Whitehead. "We’ve played BU [and won] so we know that we can beat them. On the other hand, we certainly know that they can beat us. They’re a tremendous team. It’s definitely going to be a challenge for us this weekend."

PICK: BU sweeps 4-2 and 6-3.

Maine (18-10-1, 10-7-1 HE) at UMass-Amherst (12-17-0, 7-13-0 HE) Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m., Mullins Center, Amherst, MA

Maine resumes play after a week off; prior to their break, they bested BC in an 8-6 shootout before losing 5-4 in overtime to Merrimack. The Warriors tied that game in the last minute with an extra skater and posted their second win over the Black Bears, Maine’s only two blemishes in an 8-2 record in 1997.

"We actually played [Merrimack] fairly well," said Maine coach Shawn Walsh. "We out-attempted them 71-48. They got very good goaltending and opportunistic goal scoring. It makes you look at yourself a little closer and there’s some areas we want to try to improve on but we don’t want to overreact either."

Recently, blueliner David Cullen was named Hockey East Player of the Week. "He’s really coming into his own," said Walsh. "His confidence and his strength are catching up with his puck skills. He’s always been good with the puck. It’s a Cullen trademark, the good soft hands and sense. "We’ve moved him to our top power-play unit and he’s really helped them. We were seven for nine on the power play over the weekend. He’s a very, very good offensive player who is improving dramatically defensively."

Goaltender Javier Gorriti, who Walsh has rotated in the nets to take the pressure off Alfie Michaud, has been sick and still wasn’t practicing as of Tuesday. He also played poorly in the BC game before getting the hook. As a result, this weekend Michaud could see his first full back-to-back games since November. The top recruit has settled down after a rocky start and, in contrast to the walk-on Gorriti, is likely viewed as the Black Bear future between the pipes. As such, he could command more than a split of playing time down the stretch.

Maine travels to UMass-Amherst for two games on their large ice surface. How well the Black Bears use their speed there could prove decisive.

"The biggest thing you have to do is stay close as units and not get too far ahead of the puck. We did a good job of that at Northeastern which isn’t as big as UMass’s rink but it’s bigger than regulation.

"I also want us to get a little better focus. We drifted a little bit in that last Merrimack game. We’d kept up great intensity and I just didn’t sense that same enthusiasm, if you will, that we’d had in our previous 10 or 11 games. Maybe that was a wakeup call."

UMass-Amherst hung with Boston University for two periods on Friday but lost 6-3.

"For the second time we’ve played [BU], we played even with them five-on-five," said UMass-Amherst coach Joe Mallen. "We actually outscored them five-on-five 3-1. I thought there were some questionable calls by the officials in the second period that allowed them to get back into the game. You have to deal with those things but obviously when you go five-on-three with BU a couple of times, you’re opening the door for them to take advantage of it.

"I thought we played a good game and had a chance to win it. It’s the second time this year that at home we entered the third period tied with BU. That’s a good sign."

They then took the Alumni Cup, awarded annually to the winner of the Amherst-Lowell series, with a 6-4 win. The Minutemen also took home the Cup last year, in its first year of existence.

"When I first came on here three and a half years ago, UMass-Lowell and Bruce Crowder wanted to start this Alumni Cup between the two schools," Mallen said. "My first thought was that I didn’t even have a team yet. [We waited two years and started it last year.] If you’d told me we were going to win it the first year, I’d have told you you were crazy." If you’d told me we were going to win it the first two years I’d have told you that you were even crazier. For us to win the Alumni Cup two years in a row may not be the Stanley Cup, but for us it’s a huge step in the right direction. They’re an established program and have played very well the last 10 years."

The win over Lowell also proved notable since that gave the Minutemen another series win to go along with ones they’d already taken against Providence and Northeastern.

Defenseman Tom O’Connor returned to action on Saturday after missing time due to a knee injury. "He felt that he could give it a go [against Lowell] so we put him in the lineup," said Mallen. "That was a big boost for us. I don’t know how coincidental it is, but for five games we were in a slump and he was out of the lineup every game. All of a sudden, he returns and we win."

Every point in the standings is critical now for UMass-Amherst. They have a remote chance of taking playoff home ice, but also could be one of the bottom two seeds, drawing UNH or BU in the first round.

"No matter what, we can’t fear anybody," said Mallen. "If it’s BU or UNH, that’s fine. But the fact is that we’ve played very well against Providence, BC, Lowell and Merrimack. They’ve all been tight games. To put ourselves in the position to go to one of those places or perhaps have them have to come to us, that would be huge."

The Minutemen now face two games with a Maine squad that has played excellent hockey since Shawn Walsh’s return. Of the four remaining UMass games on the docket, three are against the Black Bears.

"It seems like right now they’re surging forward," said Mallen. "That loss against Merrimack must have hurt a little bit, but it seems that all the pieces are back into place and they’re playing a real good brand of hockey. Any time you face one of Shawn’s teams, you’re going to see a real well-organized and well-executed game plan.

"The one thing they have right now is a lot of speed, and in a big rink that should be an interesting matchup. But they have proven they are a beatable team this year. They aren’t undefeated. We’ve just got to play our best game."

PICK: Maine 5-3 and 5-4.

Merrimack (11-16-1, 7-10-1 HE) vs. Boston College (11-15-3, 7-9-3 HE) Friday, 7 p.m., Conte Forum, Chestnut Hill, MA Saturday, 7 p.m., Volpe Center, North Andover, MA

BC lost 4-2 to Providence before their Beanpot championship game against arch-rival BU. The Friars, a tough team to beat under coach Paul Pooley in the last months of the season, may have also caught the Eagles glancing ahead to their Monday night game.

That title contest against BU turned into an epic battle. The Eagles seized a 2-0 third-period lead only to have the Terriers rebound within seconds and soon knot the game at 2-2. A breakaway goal, BC’s Achilles’ heel all season long, decided the contest.

"Greg [Taylor] gave us every chance in the world to win the hockey game," said coach Jerry York after the game. "But our other players did too. Our forwards and defense did everything necessary to give us a chance to win the Beanpot, but we just had a miscommunication that sent Pierce in for the [breakaway]. We had a chance to win it against an excellent hockey team, certainly one that deserves to be ranked in the top five or six teams in the country.

"I’m disappointed, of course, because we lost the game, but certainly not disappointed in anything else but the play that lost us the game…. Our goal is to win the Beanpot and we didn’t do that so we’re disappointed in that respect, but not in the effort we had.

"Our team is becoming a better team, but we still have a ways to go in a number of areas. There’s improvement in this team but we’re still a little bit away from being a championship-level team. Tonight’s game was a championship-level game, but we haven’t been as consistent on the year as I would have liked. But this particular game was a well-played game."

Merrimack has been on a much-ignored roll since the start of 1997. In that time they’ve gone 7-4, including the only losses Maine has sustained during that same stretch. They continued that with a 7-2 win over Northeastern on Friday night, but then hit a 9-4 brick wall against Providence.

"To be honest, I thought we played better on Saturday night," said coach Ron Anderson. "Friday night I thought we played pretty casual in the first period, but fortunately for us we got some breaks and capitalized on their mistakes.

"Against Providence, we outshot them 42-28. We played well offensively, but our whole team just didn’t play well defensively and they executed when we made mistakes. The forwards didn’t pick people up on the backcheck very well. We didn’t do a very good job in the neutral zone. Our D had trouble controlling players down low. And our goaltenders didn’t give us a real outstanding effort. That’s not meant to be negative. Providence just played well, took it to us, and we’ve just got to be ready to go at it again this Friday."

On a positive note, senior Rob Beck scored his 100th point in the Providence game. "Robbie’s been a stellar performer for us for four years," said Anderson. "If anything, he’s been the model of consistency both from an offensive and a defensive point of view. It’s a tremendous credit to him and the kind of kid he is. The fact that he’s a dean’s list student and a two-year captain just speaks volumes about the value that he brings to our program."

Providing silver lining in the lopsided loss’s cloud was freshman Cris Classen playing in the nets in the third, his first full period of action. With Martin Legault and Eric Thibeault both graduating next year, Classen could go a long way in determining the Warriors fate next year. Although he allowed two goals on six shots, Anderson was happy with Classen’s work.

"I think he’s fine," said Anderson. "[He’s been] in a tough situation because there hasn’t been a lot of ice time because the other guys played so well. Through his work in practice, though, he looks fine. He’ll be able to step right in and help us next year . When we’ve gotten him into games, he hasn’t looked nervous or jittery at all. He’s stepped right in and played well."

Like any Beanpot viewer, Anderson sees some very strong components to the BC squad.

"They’ve got some awfully skilled players, up front in particular," he said. "They have the ability to beat you with their goal scorers and the ability to beat you with their goaltending. We’re going to have to play well in both ends of the rink. Their forwards are very opportunistic and if we make mistakes, they’ll be all over them. "We have to try to get back to a solid defensive game and eliminate our mistakes. And we’re going to have to work very hard in the other end because they’ve got an outstanding goaltender in [Greg] Taylor and we’re probably not going to get any easy goals."

PICK: BC makes it four sweeps around the league this weekend, 6-2, 4-3.

Northeastern (7-20-2, 2-17-1 HE) at Army (15-11-2, 1-10-2 vs. aligned D-I) Saturday, 7 p.m., Tate Rink, West Point, NY

Northeastern had posted a string of one-goal defeats early in January which had at least been encouraging. Recently, however, they’ve showed signs of unraveling with lopsided losses of 7-1 to UNH and 7-2 to Maine and Merrimack. Aside from a win over UMass-Amherst and a well-played loss to BC in the Beanpot opener, the Husky ship appeared to be taking on water. A 2-0 win over Harvard in the Beanpot consolation game, however, was a positive boost.

"It was a nice win coming off the Merrimack game on Friday [which we lost 7-2]," said Crowder. "We played well defensively and stuck with our system, a lot like we did last Monday night, only this week we didn’t break. The kids played hard and we got some good goaltending.

"We’ve had a lot of things go against us this year. It’s nice to be on the other end of a close game.

"We played really good team defense as a unit of six. It’s something we’ve been preaching all year. It was nice for the coaching staff to see that level of defensive commitment."

Freshman Marc Robitaille recorded his third shutout of the season, setting a school record. Considering the team’s meager seven-win total, the mark becomes an impressive achievement. At season’s end Robitaille will battle UNH’s Sean Matile for a spot on Hockey East’s All-Rookie team. Although his statistics can’t hold a candle to Matile’s, they reflect to a great extent their status on last- and first-place teams.

Crowder has been forced to experiment with new faces on the blue line. Forward Jonathan Calla spent several games there before moving back up front. Brad Mahoney, the senior transfer from Maine, not only moved back to D four weeks ago but is now part of their top-four rotation despite never having played the position before.

In the win over Harvard, Justin Kearns rebounded from a Crowder-imposed seat in the stands against Merrimack to score and assist on the two goals. Although Kearns escaped Mahoney’s game disqualification punishment during the penalty spree that buried the Huskies at the end of their Beanpot opener, Crowder took a stand against the lack of discipline and also benched Kearns, his leading scorer for the Friday night game.

Army has split their last four games. They dropped both games against D-I conference teams, 4-3 against Yale and 8-1 to Union. They also beat Canisius 7-4 and Royal Military College, their Canadian counterpart, 7-3.

The two wins achieved Cadet milestones. The win over Royal Military marked Army coach Rob Riley’s 200th in his career. The win over Canisius was his 150th at Army. The Army-Royal Military contest, touted as the oldest continuous international rivalry in sports, was the 66th meeting of the two teams.

Going into the Canisius game, Frank Fede (36 points) led Cadet scoring. Andy Lundbohm (30), Greg Buckmeier (29), Bill Morrison (26), Joe Sharrock (25), and Anthony DiCarlo (23) follow. Although goaltender Daryl Chamberlain’s statistics (3.65 goals against average and .877 save percentage) suffer in comparison to his in previous years, they reflect Army’s tougher schedule this season.

PICK: The Huskies get a much-needed win 3-2.

No. 3 New Hampshire (23-6-0, 16-3-0 HE) at Maine (18-10-1, 10-7-1 HE) Tuesday, 7 p.m., Alfond Arena, Orono, ME

(These two teams are profiled above.)

PICK: UNH wins the shootout, 7-6.

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

Copyright 1997 Dave Hendrickson . All Rights Reserved.

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