This Week in Hockey East: February 21, 1997

Hockey East Preview: Feb. 21-22, 1997 by Dave Hendrickson

Boston University and New Hampshire made Hockey East a two-team race for the regular-season crown so long ago that fans might easily ignore two other teams that are playing very well down the stretch. In fact, since the Christmas break, Maine and Merrimack have supplanted the two powerhouses as the league’s hottest teams.

Maine 11-2-0 .846 Merrimack 7-3-0 .700 BU 6-2-3 .682 UNH 7-5-0 .583

Although the above doesn’t account for scheduling differences, there’s no dismissing the Lazarus act done by Maine and Merrimack, both of which looked dead in the water at the Christmas break.

Maine must consider this week’s three games against Boston University and UNH — the latter won by a 5-1 score — as its "playoffs." With the the denial of the Black Bears’ NCAA appeal, they have only those games and a finale against UMass-Amherst to close out their season.

Merrimack, on the other hand, now stands poised to earn its first playoff home ice since moving up to Division I. Coach Ron Anderson and his squad deserve admiration for not rolling over after a 3-11-1 start. They have rebounded with a vengeance, winning six out of their last seven. Considering the struggles that program has endured, fans of the underdog will have an obvious favorite come playoff time.

Hockey East Standings

Last week’s record in picks: 4-6 (ugh!) Season record in picks: 111-66

No. 4 Boston University (18-6-6, 14-2-4 HE) at Maine (21-10-1, 13-7-1 HE) Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m., Alfond Arena, Orono, ME

After hearing that its NCAA appeal had been denied, Maine showed no letdown, beating UMass-Amherst 6-4 and 8-1. The games prompted UMass coach Joe Mallen to say, "From what I saw on Saturday night, they played as well as BU or UNH have played during the course of the year."

Cory Larose earned Rookie of the Week honors with two goals and four assists on the weekend. He has recorded 10 goals and 24 assists in 31 games this season, tops among Hockey East rookies.

"He’s been terrific," said Maine coach Shawn Walsh. "He’s really made a case to be Rookie of the Year. [Not only did] he get six points, he did it when the game was on the line early in both games. He really was a dominant guy."

Another freshman, goaltender Alfie Michaud, has dramatically turned around his season. He has played in four straight games after previously sharing duties with Javier Gorriti, allowing only a single goal in the last two.

"We made a decision last week that we were going to go with Alfie," said Walsh. "Maybe not every game, but he’s certainly our number one guy. He showed this weekend that he’s ready for it. He wasn’t, earlier in the year, but he proved himself in January when he was Rookie of the Month. His confidence is up and he’s playing better."

The youngsters are playing well even though Walsh chose not to adopt a rebuilding philosophy in the absence of a post-season.

"I owe it to our players to try to win each game," he said. "Forget about the future. The future is going to happen by itself. Our players are developing fine. We’ve only had four seniors in the lineup in this stretch of being 13-3 since December 20th.

"I think what’s speeded up the development of our young players was [Jeff] Tory, [Brett] Clark, [Blair] Allison and [Tim] Lovell leaving. All of these young guys have gotten their ice time, guys like David Cullen. I think he’s coming into his own.

"These guys deserve to have fun and feel good about themselves. We certainly do right now. My number one priority is to see how we stack up against two truly great teams [UNH on Tuesday and BU on the weekend].

"It’s a great schedule, because we can actually consider this a national tournament week because the calibre of the opposing teams will be Final-Four calibre. You can’t ask for anything better. We’re just doing it three weeks ahead of time."

Maine opened its "national tournament week" with a 5-1 win over a UNH squad depleted by seven players suspended after a brawl with Providence. That win all but ensures that the Black Bears will finish third in Hockey East. They now look to continue that success against a BU team they beat 3-1 last month.

"BU has a style of play that is very predictable," said Walsh. "That’s because they’re well-coached. Jack does a good job of having them play his way and it’s a fairly obvious way. We’ve had success with them over the years, over an eight- or nine-year span, so we just have to play our game.

"I’m fully cognizant that they will probably play better than they played against us in January because they want revenge. So we’ll have to raise our level. I think it’ll come down to execution on both team’s parts.

"Anyone who loves college hockey will love this series."

BU coach Jack Parker poured cold water on Walsh’s "national tournament week" concept, hardly surprising given the strained relations between the two.

"Shawn says a lot of things," said Parker. "This is not the national championship, this is not a playoff game, it’s a regular-season game for both teams. It counts for one, it doesn’t count for the other. That’s all it is. It counts for us, so we’ll definitely be up. Whenever we play Maine we’re up for it."

This past weekend Parker watched his club open with a clear-cut 6-1 win over UMass-Lowell. Michel Larocque kept the Terriers in the game during a wide-open first period before BU seized control in the second and the third.

"Both goalies are playing great," said Parker after the win. "Noble played great in the Beanpot the other night. It’s almost like it’s one-upsmanship. One guy puts on a show and spins a three-hitter and the next guy tries to pitch a two-hitter. That position has been our most consistent all year long."

The fourth line of Bill Pierce, Brendan Walsh and Matt Wright continued its recent offensive contributions. The line scored the tying and winning goals in the Beanpot championship and then figured in three of the six goals on Friday night.

"They’re playing real well," said Parker. "They’re playing real smart. I’m very, very happy for those guys, all three of them. They’ve worked really hard all year. Billy Pierce has really been snakebitten. Brendan has had a great year. Matty has been up-and-down but has been playing great of late. To see them chip in with some goals and some nice plays is great. It’s very, very important to have that line going."

Parker then watched in dismay as the River Hawks came back to tie BU 5-5 on Saturday. In a telling moment, Parker referred to the tie as a loss, a Freudian slip if there ever was one.

"I thought we were a completely different team in a 24-hour span," Parker said. "We didn’t play nearly as focused or as hard. Lowell played much harder than us. I was very disappointed in our overall effort. Frankly, that hasn’t happened too many times this year. Maybe twice we haven’t shown up this year and that was one of them.

"[Tom Noble] wasn’t the reason we lost; I don’t think he played real sharp but he didn’t play horribly either. He wasn’t the problem. The problem was all six defensemen played horribly, unfocused and lackadaisical. We had about half of our forwards playing well and the other half out to lunch."

The Terriers now trail New Hampshire by two points in the standings, but hold two games in hand. With UNH inactive this weekend, this series gives BU the opportunity to cash in the extra games and move into first place.

"These games are two points in the league so they’re important to us," said Parker. "We’re playing a team that’s not going to be in our playoffs, so it’s not that important to them but they’re really important to us. We’re trying to stay abreast of, and [within] striking distance of UNH. Anyway you look at it, it’ll probably come down to the last weekend of the year."

PICK: BU 5-4 on Friday. Maine 4-2 on Saturday.

UMass-Lowell (13-17-1, 9-11-1 HE) vs. Providence (13-17-1, 10-10-1 HE) Friday, 7 p.m., Schneider Arena, Providence, RI Saturday, 7 p.m., Tully Forum, Lowell, MA NESN

Providence appeared on the verge of a major upset on Friday, leading third-ranked New Hampshire 4-2 going into the final period. But the Wildcats showed why they’ve earned the nickname

"The Detonators" by scoring seven, count ’em, seven goals to blow the game open.

"We just made a lot of mental mistakes," said PC coach Paul Pooley. "Three faceoff goals and two back-door goals on their power play. We made poor reads off two center-ice faceoffs and off an end-zone faceoff just didn’t pick our guy up. It was unfortunate. I thought we were playing very, very well up to that point."

Saturday night back at Schneider Arena, they took the lead and held it for a 3-2 win. "It was a game of inches," said Pooley. "We played very well. We got our sticks on a lot of passes and blocked a lot of shots that didn’t get to the net. Our [penalty-kill] was good…. Specialty teams were very big. We scored two power-play goals and killed off some key penalties down the stretch."

Dan Dennis returned after being supplanted by sophomore Mark Kane for the last four and a half games. "Danny really answered the bell," said Pooley. "Danny really played solid in his net and looked like he had that spark back again. That was good to see.

"It’s Senior Night here on Friday and you always want to start your senior [so he’ll play]. But I feel we have two goaltenders right now, Mark Kane and Dan Dennis, who both have the capabilities to play."

Overshadowing the game, however, was a postgame brawl that resulted in the suspensions of seven players from each team. The suspended Friars include Leigh Dean, Travis Dillabough, Josh MacNevin, Mike Mader, Mike Omicioli, Tom Sheehan and Nick Sinerate.

"It’s unfortunate that emotions ran over," said Pooley before the suspensions were announced. "A lot of animosity built up between the teams quickly. At the end of the game some things happened that maybe shouldn’t have happened. When you look back in hindsight, emotions got the best of everybody.

Some reports indicated that coach Umile and Pooley were none too happy with each other. "No, I don’t think that," said Pooley. "That gets blown out of proportion for the most part. We were out there trying to get our players back and away from everybody. We were obviously talking back and forth but it wasn’t anything personal. It was, ‘Hey, you take care of your players and I’ll take care of mine.’ That type of thing. Then it just erupted.

"It’s a negative thing and you don’t want to dwell on it. It’s not part of the game and its unfortunate that it happened. It’s going to hurt both of our teams. I gave [the league] a tape of what happened because I don’t want to hide anything. I want to come forward and just deal with this thing as up front as I can because it’s not going to go away."

The short-handed Friars will face Lowell on Friday at home. They will then welcome their suspended seven back for the final regular-season game to be played at Lowell’s Tully Forum. In taking on the River Hawks, they face a team that seemed headed south before grabbing a 5-5 tie with BU.

"They’re very resilient," Pooley said. "I think [the tie] was a real emotional boost for them. It’s a big weekend for us that’s going to [go a long way in deciding playoff positions.] It’s unfortunate that this thing last Saturday night could decide the outcome of the game.

"We feel we’re playing really well right now. Both goaltenders are playing well and our specialty teams are coming around and our lines are balanced. We’re playing hard and we’re excited no matter how many guys we’ll have. We’re not going to use that as an excuse.

"We feel we’re coming together. People have accepted their roles. We seem to be responding to the situations we’re put in, whether we’re checking or on the power play or on the PK. You have certain people you know you want to put out onto the ice in certain situations and that’s really comfortable. Early in the year I didn’t know that. People had not emerged. It’s good to know that we have certain people that can do certain things really well at this stage."

Lowell struggled in a 6-1 Friday night loss to BU at Tully Forum.

"Our guys are working hard and trying to generate more shots on net, which we’ve definitely done the last three games," said UML coach Tim Whitehead after the loss. "But that’s a tough team to spot a goal against and that’s what happened.

"We definitely wanted to come out and get a couple in the first and we had our chances — quality chances — but they didn’t fall for us. We just can’t let ourselves get frustrated because we’re getting the chances."

Lowell took advantage of those chances the following night, coming back with a surprising 5-5 tie at Walter Brown Arena. "Coming back" was the operative phrase, as the River Hawks overcame 2-0, 3-1, 4-2, and 5-4 deficits, continuing their 340-minute stretch without a lead.

"The guys showed a lot of composure and did a nice job going into BU’s rink," said Whitehead. "BU was obviously a team that was playing really well. We were playing well too, but weren’t getting any results for it. After losing the night before 6-1, coming out with a comeback tie like that was a big step for us [even though ties aren’t] exactly where we want to be at."

Senior tri-captain Neil Donovan was selected to play for Team USA in the World University All-Star Game against a Canadian university all-star squad. The game will be played April 4 at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.

"He’s been a great leader on and off the ice," said Whitehead. "He leads by example on the ice. He’s a very hard worker. He’s always the first guy here at practice. He’s working on his game before we even get on the ice as a team. He sets a great example as a guy who plays well in the big games and gets some really big goals for us. Whenever we need a big play, he’s the guy who does it for us."

The River Hawks now go head-to-head with Providence. A sweep by either team would seem to give the victor home ice and the loser a seat on the bus to someone else’s rink.

"They’re a strong team and they’re playing really well," said Whitehead. "They’re a good defensive team so it’ll be a great challenge for our guys. We’re excited about it."

The back end of the series will mark the final regular season game played in the Tully Forum. The River Hawks will move to a new, on-campus facility next year. They will be honoring their 30-Year Anniversary Team as part of the final-game ceremonies.

PICK: PC’s seven absentees tilt the scales toward Lowell 5-3 in the opener. PC comes back to gain the split 4-3 in Lowell’s barn.

Merrimack (13-16-1, 9-10-1 HE) vs. Northeastern (7-21-2, 2-17-1 HE) Friday, 7 p.m., Matthews Arena, Boston, MA Saturday, 7 p.m., Volpe Center, North Andover, MA

Merrimack fans, as long-suffering a lot as there is in the league, have begun pinching themselves to make sure they’re not dreaming. With their red-hot team making a charge for home ice, they must wonder if they are like the person married and divorced nine times who is convinced that this time it really is true love. Will Cupid pull out his bow-and-arrow and shoot them in the butt one more time?

The arrows stayed in the quiver last week, when the Warriors swept Boston College in a pivotal series, 5-2 and a jaw-dropping 11-5. In the opener, the Warriors caught BC goalie Greg Taylor on a severe off-night and won despite being outshot 38-19. Taylor’s counterpart in the Warrior nets, Martin Legault, received his coach’s plaudits but won the netminding battle essentially by default.

"Our guy played very well on Friday night," said Merrimack coach Ron Anderson. "We came to play but BC played very well. I think our goaltender stole us a game."

Not in his wildest dreams could Anderson have expected the offensive explosion his team set off to win 11-5 the following night. Defenseman Darrel Scoville led the way with a first-period hat trick.

"It was a pleasant surprise for us, a team that doesn’t score a lot of goals," said Anderson. "They had a bad night, the kind of night we had on Friday, except that we survived Friday."

Anderson deflected talk about his team being one of the hottest in Hockey East. "I can’t say whether we’re the hottest team in the league or not because I’m not looking at anyone else. I’m looking at us, making sure that we’re playing our best hockey every night."

"A year ago, we turned this team over to [what is now our] senior and junior classes. We had some discussions at the end of last year and early this year about how this was their team. Now they’re really carrying the team."

Two-year captain Rob Beck stands front and center among the senior leaders. Last week Hockey East named him the Player of the Week after he scored three goals and added three assists over the weekend. The red-hot Beck now has six goals and 10 assists in his last six games.

Legault broke former All-American Jim Hrivnak’s school record for career saves on Saturday, and now totals 3,005. After splitting time early in the year with Eric Thibeault, he is shouldering most of the netminding duties these days.

The biggest surprise during the team’s resurgence has been Merrimack’s goal-scoring prowess. The Warriors averaged less than three goals per game over the first half, but have scored at a 5.86 clip in their last seven.

A key contributor has been the power play. Far and away the worst in the league prior to Christmas (around 10 percent), Merrimack’s man-advantage has climbed near a 25 percent success rate during 1997. Casey Kesselring has also grabbed the league’s longest scoring streak, picking up points in his last 13 games.

The Warriors now take on last-place Northeastern, which received a shot in the arm when Maine’s postseason appeal fell through. The odd man out if Maine had qualified, Northeastern will now have playoff life.

"We’ve been right where Northeastern is right now a lot of times," said Anderson. "[When you’re in that position] all of a sudden you focus on a three- or four-game season. So what’s happened to them over the course of the year… we’re not going to get decoyed by that.

"Our objective is to make sure we stay on top of our own game and play as well as we can play, and not look at anything behind us. After we discuss the past weekend and any problems we had, when we hit Tuesday we’re just looking at what’s coming up on Friday. We’re all right now as long as we don’t do something stupid mentally."

Northeastern hit rock bottom in a free-fall season, losing 2-1 to Army last weekend.

"Our inability to score goals really hurt us," said coach Bruce Crowder. "We put 41 shots on net and their kid stopped 40. Some of them were of the spectacular type and some were ‘let’s hit the "A" or "R" on the guy’s chest.’ It just wasn’t meant to be. I thought we got great goaltending from Robitaille to keep it close, but the guys just have a real inability to finish."

Northeastern’s new-found life in the Hockey East playoffs will likely prove short since it will be staring into either the BU or UNH howitzer.

"We’ve been given a little bit of life per se with the playoffs," said Crowder. "Anything can happen. It’s just that our scenario is that we’re going to have to play some pretty good games when we get into the playoffs to get past the first round.

"Obviously we haven’t fared very well against UNH this year. Even though the results against BU have been the same in terms of wins and losses, I think we played them a little tighter than we did against UNH, so I guess that means ‘Go Terriers!’ We’ll see what happens."

Of course, the playoffs are still a couple of weeks away, and the Huskies have the immediate misfortune to catch Merrimack at the worst possible time.

"Ronnie [Anderson] has got them going," said Crowder. "When we went to play them last time, Ronnie mentioned that they were having trouble scoring goals but that they were playing well. Obviously since then, they haven’t any trouble scoring goals against us or Providence or BC. Considering what he’s done, maybe I should go over and watch one of his practices.

"They’ve got good goaltending and are getting some timely goals. This is one of those weekends in the schedule where we’ve got to put some pucks away. We’ve scored only [seven goals in our last five games] and I don’t care who you play, you’re not going to win a lot of hockey games with that."

PICK: Merrimack rolls on, 5-2 and 6-2.

Boston College (11-17-3, 7-11-3 HE) vs. UMass-Amherst (12-19-0, 7-15-0 HE) Saturday, 7 p.m., Mullins Center, Amherst, MA

In the last month, BC has posted a 2-6-2 record, beating only UMass-Amherst and Northeastern, the bottom two teams in the league, and playing impressively against BU and gaining two ties, a loss and a lot of respect.

Nonetheless, the Eagles have played oft-undistinguished hockey in their other five losses. The enigmatic squad fell to new depths last weekend, getting swept 5-2 and 11-5 by Merrimack.

The Eagles exhibit the greatest dynamic range of any team in the league. Their peaks against BU show a highly-skilled team that isn’t far away from being a contender. Their valleys, however, against almost everyone else are baffling. Since the Merrimack series held the key to playoff home ice, BC’s double-dip causes much head scratching.

"I thought Friday night we played exceptionally well, limiting Merrimack to 19 shots on goal while we had 38 shots on them," said BC coach Jerry York. "I thought we controlled the tempo of the play and played very, very well. The score didn’t indicate how well we played. We missed some tremendous scoring opportunities and gave up some soft goals.

"I’m not blaming it all on Greg [Taylor]. Some of the soft goals were the result of miscues on defense. They just had very few chances. As a matter of fact, when we were trying to get back into it, it was 3-2 going into the third period and we had one save in the third period. We had two goals against and one save. We had the puck that whole period but Legault was exceptional. We created chances but couldn’t get any red lights.

"But Saturday night was all Merrimack. We played poorly in all facets of our game. They were extremely strong, so it was a complete role reversal for both teams. Generally you get a split in that type of weekend but that wasn’t the case. Now we have to look forward to three games left in our season.

"We started what we called our brand new training camp here on Monday. We started all over from scratch. Despite the fact that last Monday we played probably our best game of the year against BU [in the Beanpot final] and followed that Friday night with a tremendous effort against Merrimack, Saturday night’s loss just stays in our system because of how poorly we played.

"So we went back to Training Camp Phase II and really worked very hard this week in preparation for the final three games of the season. Hopefully, that will produce some solid results and some victories going into the playoffs."

The Eagles now take on a team in even worse straits. UMass-Amherst has lost seven of its last eight and seems a near certainty to finish next-to-last and face either BU or UNH in the playoffs.

"These are two struggling teams that are looking for something positive heading into playoffs," said York. "We’ll travel down the Pike this Saturday afternoon and look for a typical, hard-fought Hockey East game."

Last weekend UMass-Amherst hung with Maine only to lose 6-4 on Friday and then got whipped 8-1. Is Maine that good, or are the Minutemen playing that poorly?

"I think we ran into a real fired-up Maine team," said UMass-Amherst coach Joe Mallen. "They had the previous weekend off, they’d lost to Merrimack in overtime in their last game, and they had the announcement that they weren’t going to be allowed in the playoffs.

"They really deserve a lot of credit. They were down to their last few games and they played real well. Their special teams executed real well and from what I saw on Saturday night, they played as well as BU or UNH have played during the course of the year."

Mallen, like York, sees similarities in the two teams matched up on Saturday.

"At this point you’re looking at two teams that have lost some games in a row and are trying to get back on the winning side," he said. "The one thing that our team knows is that we’re playing in the playoffs no matter what.

"We’ve got two more games before we get there, so it’s up to us to make the improvement that can put us in a position to do something special in the playoffs. That’s what we’re pointing to now. That’s good team play, good systems play and good discipline on the ice."

PICK: Boston College wins 6-3.

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

Copyright 1997 Dave Hendrickson . All Rights Reserved.

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