This Week in Hockey East: February 28, 1997

Hockey East Preview: Feb. 28-Mar. 2, 1997 by Dave Hendrickson

Maine’s five-day, three-game sweep of UNH and BU (twice) proved that postseason or no postseason, they are now back among the Hockey East and national elite. Providence College also ended the weekend smiling, its sweep of UMass-Lowell clinching a home-ice berth in the playoffs.

Since early January, everyone has been looking ahead to this Saturday’s BU-UNH contest with great anticipation. Having the first- and second-place teams slugging it out for the regular season crown on the final weekend must certainly warm the cockles of NESN executives’ hearts. Many of the games telecast this year have been one-sided; this game could make up for that and then some.

The Merrimack-Boston College match that evening could also prove pivotal, deciding which of the two teams gets playoff home ice against each other.

Hockey East Standings

Last week’s record in picks: 4-3 Season record in picks: 115-69

No. 3 New Hampshire (24-8-0, 17-5-0 HE) at No. 7 Boston University (18-8-6, 14-4-4 HE) Saturday, 7 p.m., Walter Brown Arena, Boston, MA NESN

Depending on how these two teams fare on Friday night, this game will likely determine the Hockey East regular-season champion. Ironically, both teams are coming off resounding losses to Maine. After a short-handed New Hampshire squad traveled to Orono in mid-week and lost 5-1, BU had a mile-wide opening to grab the regular season title. The Black Bears, however, had other ideas. They swept BU convincingly, 3-0 and 7-2.

"We had our heads handed to us," said BU coach Jack Parker. "They played extremely well. We were back on our heels most of the time. In general, Maine played well and we didn’t."

The Terriers missed three significant players. Jon Coleman reaggravated a previous shoulder injury and is day-to-day for this weekend. Tommi Degerman, out with knee ligament problems, missed the games and will definitely not play this weekend.

And Brendan Walsh is gone. Parker booted the enigmatic forward off the team. It wasn’t Walsh’s first offense. Earlier in the season he’d been left home from a road trip and then later incurred a one-game suspension for violating team rules. This time, however, he won’t be back. According to Parker, Walsh is "gone for good."

Turning to the upcoming games, Parker said, "We’ve got to regroup and get ready for the stretch run. Hopefully we can get ourselves ready to sweep this weekend instead of getting swept and be Hockey East champions.

"The key to both games will be goaltending and special teams. Team defense and goaltending are always important in big games. I think that will wind up true against both Merrimack and UNH."

Since BU swept UNH early in January, the Terriers could presumably establish a significant psychological advantage if they can make it three straight. Parker, however, brushed such talk aside.

"That’s very overrated," he said. "Next time you could instead say that your number is up. And sometimes the team that lost the last game gets more up the next time. [So it could actually work against you.] But in order to be the regular season co-champion, we have to beat UNH in the last game so we won’t worry about how that will feel down the road. We’re more worried about what it gets us right now."

UNH lost seven players for their 5-1 loss at Maine because of suspensions following a postgame brawl against Providence. Although the Wildcats will miss Eric Boguniecki and Jayme Filipowicz for Friday’s rematch against the Friars, they expect a full lineup on Saturday against BU.

"The whole weekend is going to be good matchups," said UNH coach Dick Umile. "The BU-Merrimack game and Providence-UNH, those are four good teams — along with what Maine’s been doing lately — that are playing well.

"The last time we went down there we didn’t play very well, [losing 9-4 before returning home to lose 3-2]. But it’s just like years past or other previous games at this point. They don’t mean much of anything. Whatever happens Saturday night won’t be because of those last two games."

PICK: At other points in the season it might have come down to BU’s considerable home-ice advantage. Not now. When BU’s paper-thin depth is exposed, they become very vulnerable. UNH 6-4.

Providence (15-17-1, 12-10-1 HE) at No. 3 New Hampshire (24-8-0, 17-5-0 HE) Friday, 7 p.m., Whittemore Center, Durham, NH WMUR-TV9

Providence swept UMass-Lowell 6-1 and 5-2 to run their February record to 6-1-0 and clinch home ice for the playoffs. In all probability, they’ll be hosting in the playoffs the same River Hawks that they beat three times this year by a cumulative 19-5 score.

"Defensively we played pretty well," said PC coach Paul Pooley. "We lost our man a little bit but when you have [Lowell’s Shannon] Basaraba, [Greg] Koehler, and [Neil] Donovan, those guys are good offensive hockey players who can make you miss. We got away from our game early [on Saturday but eventually] we played pretty well, shutting them down."

Netminders Dan Dennis and Mark Kane split time on the weekend. In contrast to the inconsistency of the Friar goaltending earlier in the season, Dennis and Kane now give Pooley two options.

"Mark [Kane] played [on Saturday] because he deserved to play," said Pooley. "He got us started a few weeks ago and won a big game for us and then played well against BC and Merrimack. Danny played well against UNH and [Friday night] against Lowell. It’s nice to have both of them going and feel confident in both of them. Danny will start against UNH and we’ll see what happens after that."

Pooley is also getting contributions from unexpected sources. Fourth-liner Nick Sinerate was named Hockey East Player of the Week two weeks ago and has continued to play well since. Sinerate’s sometime-linemate Doug Sheppard earned this week’s Rookie of the Week honor.

"Nick understands his role," said Pooley. "He bangs. He has the ability to score because he’s got a good shot. He’s big and he goes to the net. He’s playing with Sheehan and Sheppard… and they’re all playing pretty well on what is supposedly our fourth line. Nick has played really well for us and given us a spark."

Another sparkplug has been Mike Omicioli. Pooley benched him earlier in the season, but the 5-5 sophomore now centers PC’s top line.

"Last year before the FleetCenter I sat out because I was injured," said Omicioli. "I was bored so I was really pumped up when I came back. Right now I don’t want to be out of the lineup anymore so I’m just going to play hard every minute."

Earlier this month, the Friars split a home-and-home with UNH, first dropping a 9-5 road game after taking a 4-2 lead into the third period. Back at Schneider Arena they grabbed a 3-2 win that was marred by a postgame brawl, resulting in suspensions to seven players from each team.

"We won’t repeat that," said Pooley. "There’s no way. That’s over and done with in our minds.

"Obviously it’s going to be a very loud, hotly contested battle. They’re going to want to blow us out. We’ve just got to keep our heads. We let the crowd affect us last time. Hopefully, we’ve matured since then and we’ll come out ready to play good defensive hockey.

"Our whole team is predicated on defense and our forecheck, our D-zone coverage, and being able to transition [well]. We’ve got to be solid there. I also don’t think we’re shooting the puck as much as we should. I think we’re passing up opportunities and sometimes that’s cost us. And we’ve got to keep working on our specialty teams."

Could UNH be looking past this game to their Saturday night marquee matchup against BU?

"I don’t think we’ll be looking past Providence at all," said Umile. "We’ve played each other twice now and they’ve won one and we’ve won one. Providence is playing extremely well right now, and not just defensively. They’re scoring goals too. In the last month and a half they’ve been one of the highest scoring teams. So it should be a really good matchup."

The Wildcats will miss Eric Boguniecki and Jayme Filipowicz, both of whom will serve their second game suspension resulting from the previous UNH-PC game’s brawl.

"We’ll decide who’s going to center in Boguniecki’s spot but the next night [against BU] we’ll just go back to him so we won’t try to do anything drastic," said Umile.

PICK: UNH 4-2.

Merrimack (14-16-2, 10-10-2 HE) at No. 7 Boston University (18-8-6, 14-4-4 HE) Friday, 7 p.m., Walter Brown Arena, Boston, MA

Merrimack’s "magic number" for a first-ever home ice playoff berth stands at one. Their dramatic turnaround, captured

statistically by radio color broadcaster Mike Machnik, appeared to be stalled last weekend. They opened with a 1-1 tie at Northeastern — a lost point that in retrospect would have clinched home ice.

"It was wide-open hockey," said MC coach Ron Anderson. "We both had about 35-40 shots. Both goaltenders played very well. Their guy stopped us on five breakaways so we had to tip our hat to him."

MC’s Martin Legault continued his excellent play which recently netted him the school’s all-time career saves record which now stands at 3,054.

"The one area that’s been the most stable for us the last four years has been our goaltending," said Anderson. "He played very well as a freshman and has continued to get better, save for a couple of periods when he had a couple injuries. He’s been very, very consistent for us all four years and I couldn’t be happier for him.

"There is a good side and a bad side to making a lot of saves. Obviously your team is giving up a lot of shots, but on the other hand he’s played very well for us and done a tremendous job."

Following the 1-1 tie, the Warriors then faced a potential major disaster, trailing the Huskies at home 6-3 in the third period. Previous Merrimack teams might never have come back, but this year’s team scored four goals in four minutes to pull out the "W".

"We’re a team that’s learned how to win," said Anderson. "That’s a big part of it. With pretty much an upperclassmen team, it’s supposed to be that way. When you have that level of experience, you need to find ways to pull out games. I was really pleased with our response to that situation, getting the job done and getting the win, whether it was dramatic or not."

One freshman who is also getting the job done is Drew Hale, winner of Hockey East’s Rookie of the Week award two weeks ago. The distinction, rare among defensemen in general comes as an even greater surprise to a defensive blueliner.

"Sometimes defensemen who score a lot of points get a lot of recognition but a lot of times defensive defensemen don’t," Anderson said. "Drew has come in and been very solid for us. He was one of those guys who was unheralded but so was Steve McKenna when he came here four years ago and he turned out to be pretty good. He’s a little different type of player but Drew plays mostly the same kind of game, staying at home and playing good defense. He’s a character-type kid, a very honest, sincere player both in his attitude and his efforts. He’s going to be a very solid player for us."

Merrimack will need solid play against a BU team slapped awake by Maine’s sweep. "No matter who you play at this time of year it’s all playoff hockey," said Anderson. "Everybody is trying to gear up, getting on top of their game as they head down the stretch run into the playoffs.

"Everybody knows BU hockey and for them to lose a couple last week, you know they’re going to be working hard to get their ship righted. I expect a real tough game.

"We said at the beginning of the year that we wanted to be in the thick of things in the last two weeks of the season and we wanted to be playing our best hockey. What we expected, and what we wanted is what we’ve got. So now we have to enjoy that situation and say, ‘Hey, we got ourselves where we wanted to be, so now let’s make sure that we apply ourselves, play our best, and be on top of our game and see what happens.’"

Behind the other bench, stands Parker. Over the past three years, the Warriors have entered the third period against BU either leading or tied seven out of eight times. Although BU has gone on to post a 5-2-1 record in those games, it hasn’t been easy for the Terriers.

"Over the last three or four years they’ve really played us tough," said Parker. "They’re playing the best hockey they’ve ever played in this league right now. We’ll have our hands full. The biggest problem there is that both of their goalies have played extremely well against us. We have to make sure we get to the net and put some pressure on. At the same time, we’ve got to make sure that we move the puck out of our zone because they’re a real good forechecking team."

PICK: BU 4-3.

UMass-Amherst (12-20-0, 7-16-0 HE) at No. 10 Maine (23-10-1, 15-7-1 HE) Saturday, 7 p.m., Alfond Arena, Orono, ME

Talk about going out with a bang! Maine completed a stunning week in which it took apart UNH 5-1, and BU 3-0 and 7-2.

"We played very, very well," said coach Shawn Walsh. "It’s encouraging for the future because we’re relying on so many young players. A guy that deserves a lot of credit is Grant Standbrook. He’s gone out and recruited one of the best recruiting classes in the country. With all the negatives being thrown about verbally, it didn’t affect his recruiting. He went in different directions and found other players.

"We’ve also been very lucky with injuries in the second half. This week we caught these two teams who are in a battle for the championship but at the same time they were beaten up. We weren’t and we really took advantage of it."

A key component to the second-half Black Bears success has been the power play. Over the last seven games they have converted 20 of their 42 chances, lifting them head and shoulders above everyone else in Hockey East (31.1 percent in Hockey East games and 29.1 percent overall).

"We’ve kept it simple," said Walsh. "Stevie Kariya is a key because he gets the puck and wheels with it so well and he’s so good in tight situations. Our point men — [David] Cullen, [Jeff] Libby, [Jason] Mansoff, and [Corey] Larose — have all been very effective." Cullen, a sophomore, earned Hockey East Player of the Week honors for the second time in five weeks.

The fans apparently are back in full force at Alfond Arena, both in numbers where they set a new attendance record of 5,543 on Saturday, and in volume.

"They were very supportive," said Walsh. "It was like the old times. The biggest thing that has occurred is that our second half has brought the excitement back. I think our fans have been spoiled [by the team’s success in previous years] and entered into a relaxed mode almost. What I see now is a renewed exuberance and an appreciation of our players."

The team’s number ten ranking is their first top ten appearance since the start of the year. In all probability, they would rank higher if not for the NCAA sanctions keeping them off some voters’ ballots.

"I don’t know where we should be rated but I think our record is certainly right up there among the top five teams in the country," said Walsh. "You’d have to say that the only team that has surpassed us in the second half is Michigan. So if you base it on how we’ve played in the second half, then we’d have to be one of the top teams in the nation. If you base it on the whole year, we’ve got to be somewhere in the picture.

"It’s a shame that we’re not in [the Hockey East playoffs] because that wasn’t an NCAA ruling, it was a league ruling. It’s just too bad because you play your playoffs for revenue. We’re going to lose a lot of revenue in our league. And also I think the New England fans would enjoy seeing us.

"But that’s okay. It’ll pass. We’re already looking forward to next year.

"We only lose four seniors, [Dan Shermerhorn, Jason Mansoff, Reg Cardinal and Trevor Roenick]. The four we lose are very, very good…. So looking towards this weekend, this is the one game for us to honor those four who stayed loyal to the program.

"We want to dedicate the game to those four seniors who made the decision to come back. Believe me, they’re happy they did that now. They’ve meant a lot to the rebuilding of the program. We owe it to them to go out and play as well as we can."

Last week UMass-Amherst lost 3-2 to Boston College.

"It was a great late-season game," said UMass coach Joe Mallen. "We came out of the blocks early and probably had nine shots in the first five or six minutes. The bottom line of the game was [BC goalie] Greg Taylor. He had four or five just great saves.

"We also had — I believe in the second period — a disputed goal. We thought it went up underneath the crossbar and in and bounced out but the goal judge couldn’t see it and the referee didn’t see it. Play actually stopped… then they discussed it and ruled no goal. You can’t change those things. We had plenty of chances and it was a very well-played game in both ends of the ice. To me, it looked more like a playoff game which I thought was good. We just couldn’t beat Taylor.

"The interesting thing about the game is that I recruited both goalies," said Mallen, an assistant coach at BC before taking the head position at UMass-Amherst. "I guess I should have done a lousier job recruiting Taylor."

His own goaltender, Brian Regan, passed 2,000 career saves recently, one of only five such juniors nationally.

"I think Brian Regan is a very underrated goalie in this league," said Mallen. "He’s had to play on a brand new team for three years and he’s a tremendous goalie. He’s got great angles, great reflexes, and great movement. We’re hoping that the best is yet to come for him."

Mallen has seen first-hand the Maine second-half juggernaut, losing to them twice at home two weeks ago, 6-4 and 8-1.

"I thought the Maine team I saw the second night when they beat us 8-1 was the best team we had played against all year long," he said. "I thought offensively they looked good, defensively they looked good, they looked good on their special teams and their goaltender made the saves they needed. I was pretty disappointed obviously to lose at home by that score, but when I saw them beat BU 7-2 one week later, it just reinforced what I thought about their team. They were just doing everything right.

"Win, lose, or draw we’re going to wind up playing one of the hottest, and one of the top three teams, in Hockey East for the last game. [Then in the playoffs] we’re going to play one of the top two teams for the next two out of three, so we’ve got to prepare a game plan right now that will keep us in those games.

"The one thing [we might be able to use] is that Maine probably enjoyed a little more success in the big rink here, whereas at their [regulation-sized] rink maybe there’s a way we can bottle them up a little more.

PICK: Maine 6-2.

Northeastern (7-22-3, 2-18-2 HE) at Boston College (12-17-3, 8-11-3 HE) Friday, 7 p.m., Conte Forum, Chestnut Hill, MA

Boston College bounced back from recent disappointments to beat UMass-Amherst 3-2.

"I thought we played well," said coach Jerry York. "Even though we only scored three, I thought we had some good chances offensively. It was good to see our goals against stay at two. I thought we played very strong defensively. We’re technically solid in many aspects of the game which is very refreshing and very positive for us as we enter the last two games of the season."

After being swept the previous week by Merrimack, including an 11-5 stinker in the second game, York put his enigmatic squad into Training Camp Phase II. Although many good teams have lost to Merrimack down the stretch, the Eagles poor play in the 11-5 loss proved difficult to fathom for anyone who had earlier seen their impressive games against arch-rival BU.

"I think [the training camp] was a good theme for us," said York. "We got back to hard work and discipline. There’s no team in the league we can’t beat but there’s also no team in the league that we can’t lose to."

The Eagles maintain a real chance to still earn playoff home ice, needing to beat Northeastern and Merrimack and have Boston University beat Merrimack on Friday.

"I think Northeastern’s played well [despite their record]," said York. "They have one of the top freshmen goaltenders in the country in Robitaille. He’s had three shutouts this year. They were capable of playing Merrimack 1-1 and 7-6, so we’ll fully concentrate on Northeastern, trying to get ourselves to Saturday night when we could get home ice. We still feel we have a shot at it, but Merrimack could beat BU on Friday and it would be all over."

Northeastern followed a 1-1 tie last Friday night against Merrimack with a 6-3 third-period lead before surrendering four goals in four minutes to lose 7-6.

"I thought we were playing some pretty good team defense up until Saturday night and then everything seemed to cave in," said NU coach Bruce Crowder. "I’ve got to give Merrimack a lot of credit. They stuck with it. They could have folded the tent, but they came back and deserved to win the hockey game…. Once it started to go, we couldn’t stop the bleeding."

Despite their poor won-loss record, 18 of the Huskies 32 games have been ties or decided by a single goal.

"So we’re in the games," said Crowder. "There’s been very few times that we’ve gotten blown out. Our biggest thing is just to keep ourselves going and maybe we’ll get a heck of a break when it counts and do something. We went eight games with only scoring 12 goals and then we got six in one game, so for me that’s a positive. Our goals against have been pretty good until everything caved in on Saturday night in the third period."

Their Friday night match against BC represents a rematch of their opening round Beanpot game against BC in which they held to a 1-1 tie going into the third before losing 4-1.

"For us it’s an opportunity to maybe show ourselves better than we did in the Beanpot," said Crowder. "It’s one of those games that we hope the kids will come to play. I think they will."

PICK: BC 4-3.

Boston College (12-17-3, 8-11-3 HE) at Merrimack (14-16-2, 10-10-2 HE) Saturday, 7 p.m., Volpe Center, North Andover, MA

"On some nights this year we’ve been excellent," said BC coach Jerry York. Their four games against Boston University have all been a pleasure to watch and have shown the Eagles at their best. Two weeks ago, however, coming off a riveting Beanpot final, BC got swept by Merrimack. The Warriors now rank as the league’s second hottest team, bested only by Maine.

"We’re fully aware of that," said York. "We saw them at the top of their game a week ago."

Merrimack’s resurgence has finally gotten some attention around the league. Players and coaches have seen first-hand that this is "not your father’s Merrimack team" but casual fans have only recently taken notice.

"I think our win at Maine was the one that really got us believing in ourselves," said Merrimack coach Ron Anderson. "We were working to get ourselves in position to make a run in the second half and we had chipped away and won a couple of games and got back into the pack, but I think going up there and winning up there — that’s the one that got us over the hump as far as our confidence was concerned."

Anderson sees five advantages to grabbing home ice, which could be decided in this game. "1) You don’t have to travel, 2) there’s less demand on you getting there and getting out of some place, 3) obviously you know the rink, 4) it has an impact on the other team, and 5) that means you finished ahead of whoever you’re playing, and that’s a psychological edge as well."

PICK: BC 4-3.

UMass-Lowell (13-19-1, 9-13-1 HE) at Northeastern (7-22-3, 2-18-2 HE) Sunday, 2 p.m., Matthews Center, Boston, MA

The UMass-Lowell ship has been taking on water in recent weeks, going 0-8-1 in their last nine games. With few exceptions, the losses have also not been particularly close. Last weekend Providence swept the River Hawks 6-1 and 5-2.

Lowell has now played their last 464 minutes without a lead. Ending that streak would be a plus as an end unto itself, but would probably also get Lowell playing looser as well.

"It’s been tough because we played so well the previous Friday in the first period [against BU], outshot them 16-10, and a puck bounced over our guy’s stick and they scored shorthanded and came out ahead 1-0," said coach Tim Whitehead. "The same thing happened [Saturday night]. But stuff happens and hopefully the next bounce will go our way.

"We just need that goal in the first period to break through. We’ve had some great first periods against some great teams but it hasn’t fallen in. I have faith in our players that we’ll bounce back down the stretch. We have a lot of character and leadership in that locker room. I’m very confident that they’ll come back."

The primary problem has been a scoring drought. Aside from the 5-5 tie to BU and a 6-4 loss to UMass-Amherst, the River Hawks have scored only seven goals in the last six games and have been shut out in 29 power-play opportunities.

"During our opening run [when we were third in the league], we were at the top of the league [on the power play]," said Whitehead. "That’s important, no question. There’s no surprises this time of year. Teams have us scouted very well. We just have to turn that around."

Whitehead also considers it imperative to reduce the number of penalties to help make scoring easier.

"I was upset with some individuals that took some penalties that hurt us," he said after the latest loss. "We had a couple opportunities to come back but a couple guys lost their composure and took penalties that hurt us. Granted, we killed them off, but you can’t score when you’re killing penalties. I want the guys to understand that for us to be successful in the playoffs we can’t be taking penalties like that."

Looking ahead to the game against Northeastern, Whitehead said, "We always look forward to a game against Bruce [Crowder]. They’ve played a lot of close games this year. Sunday should be no exception."

Crowder sees similarities between the two clubs.

"The two teams are kind of a mirror image of each other right now," he said. "They’re struggling and they’ve been through the school of hard knocks the last three or four weeks so it could be a very interesting game. Who knows, it could be 6-5 even though both teams haven’t been scoring goals.

"For us it’s going to be Senior Night and we’re going to try to make it special for those kids. Hopefully that will enhance things a little bit."

PICK: Northeastern 5-4.

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

Copyright 1997 Dave Hendrickson . All Rights Reserved.

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