Hockey East Playoffs: Quarterfinals by Dave Hendrickson
The second season begins with New Hampshire and Boston University the heavy favorites, based on their regular-season dominance. Providence, however, could be poised for some serious playoff deja vu and Merrimack is playing as well as anyone in the tournament.
Darkhorses Boston College, UMass-Lowell, UMass-Amherst and Northeastern will be looking to get to the FleetCenter and then roll the dice.
Hockey East Final Standings
Last week’s record in picks: 5-2 Season record in picks: 120-71
No. 1 seed vs. No. 8 seed Northeastern (8-23-3, 3-19-2 HE) at No. 7 Boston University (20-8-6, 16-4-4 HE) Friday, Saturday, Sunday (if necessary) 7 p.m., Walter Brown Arena, Boston, MA NESN
Boston University took two games at home to gain a share of the Hockey East crown and grab the top seed. First, the Terriers knocked off a resurgent Merrimack squad, 2-1. Then, in one of the most highly-touted games of the year, they beat UNH 5-1. After that game, coach Jack Parker explained how the Terriers held the third-highest scoring team in the nation to only one goal.
"We used our first two lines against their first two lines all the time," said Parker, who had the last change at home. "I think Chris Drury is one of the best defensive players in college hockey besides being a great offensive player. Shane Johnson is a defenseman playing left wing on that line so he gives it a lot more oomph defensively. [And on our other top line, Shawn] Bates gave us a fabulous game defensively."
Michel Larocque (of Gibraltar) again played a strong game between the pipes. Larocque has emerged from Tom Noble’s shadow to become one of the top goalies in the league in just his sophomore year. His recent strong performances forced Parker to abandon his usual rotation and play Larocque against both Merrimack and UNH. Larocque responded, saving 48 of 50 shots on the weekend, earning him Hockey East Player of the Week honors.
Although the Terriers have consistently played strong defense this year, the offense has experienced peaks and valleys. "A couple guys are snakebitten, " said Parker, pointing in particular to Mike Sylvia and Bates. "I think they’ve all played hard all year, but the puck has jumped in the net for Drury, but for the rest of them it comes and goes sometimes.
"It’s amazing how consistently Sylvia plays and yet his consistency doesn’t show on the scoresheet. Sometimes he gets on fire and gets a few points and then all of a sudden, even though he’s playing just as well and and getting opportunities, the puck just isn’t going in the net for him."
Sylvia had a big breakaway goal, however, to open the UNH game. After tallies by Johnson and Jeff Kealty, Chris Kelleher’s missile from the blue line proved the back-breaker.
"Chris Kelleher is one of the best-kept secrets in Hockey East," said Parker. "Jon Coleman gets a lot of ink and a lot of talk but Chris Kelleher is having a heck of a season for us and he had a heck of a game."
Typically, when BU has struggled, it has been lack of up front depth that has hurt them. They’ve played many games with only nine forwards, and recently resorted to double-shifting Chris Drury. That move, however, transformed one of the top players in the game into a tired mere mortal.
As a result, the play of a newly-formed fourth line consisting of Pete Donatelli, Bobby Hanson, and Greg Quebec gave the Terriers other three lines a big boost. Donatelli, who seems tentative on lines with the bigger stars, played aggressively against UNH.
"That line played great," said Parker. "They kept our legs for us and they gave us some real good opportunities, especially Pete Donatelli. I thought he played a great game.
"If we can stay healthy and not lose anyone else, we can have four lines again. The way the fourth line has played, we’re really happy with that. Billy Pierce has done a great job moving to third line center after the departure of Brendan Walsh.
"I thought Dan LaCouture played great. He really gave that line [with Pierce and Matt Wright] some speed and some quickness. He set up a goal and played extremely well."
With the way that Parker was generously handing out plaudits, the zamboni driver perhaps was wondering, "What am I, chopped liver?" Even so, Parker’s pats on the back are deserved for a team that sustained considerable losses but still won their fourth straight regular season championship, a Hockey East record.
The measuring stick for Terrier teams, however, is the post-season, which they will open against Northeastern. Had BU not beaten UNH, they would instead be playing UMass-Amherst.
"The last time we played them, we beat them 5-4 here in a real battle," said Parker. "They are a bigger rivalry of ours than UMass so it gets us [digging in] our heels a little bit because we don’t want Northeastern to come in and beat us. We’ll have our hands full with them. I’m sure that [Bruce Crowder] will have something up his sleeve to try to change things around."
Noble, supplanted by Larocque last weekend, will open the series in the Terrier crease. Tommi Degerman, who has missed the last few weeks with a knee injury, is not expected to play.
Northeastern gave BC a tough time before losing 7-5 on Friday, and then closed out the season with a 4-2 win over UMass-Lowell. The win had a distinctive freshman flavor for the rebuilding Huskies, with Marc Robitaille recording 39 saves and Todd Barclay tallying two goals. Scott Campbell, a junior, added two goals and three assists on the weekend to seize the team scoring lead. The Huskies are finally scoring goals, averaging five a game in their last three, despite being held to under three over the entire season.
"I thought we played pretty strong on the weekend," said coach Bruce Crowder. "Even in the loss to BC we didn’t quit. We made it a one-goal game before BC got an open-netter. I like the commitment in the kids and their work ethic.
"Then it was nice to finish up the regular season with a win. Hopefully that’s going to help us in the playoffs."
One unexpected scoring source of late has been Eric Goclowski, a walk-on who scored his first goal and added two assists against BC. In his last three games, Goclowski has totaled six of his seven career points.
"He’s one of those kids who was always sitting in the wings and you wondered whether you should give him a shot or not," said Crowder. "We did give him some opportunities throughout the year, but then he had a good weekend against Merrimack two weeks ago and he also played well against BC. He’s making the most of his opportunities. He’s one of those kids who had paid the price and was tired of sitting. Now he’s trying to make the most out of his playing time."
Even though BU swept the series with Northeastern, including an 8-1 debacle early in the season, a strong performance in a 5-4 loss in January gives hope to the Husky cause.
"All in all, I think we match up," said NU coach Bruce Crowder. "If I had to have my pick whether I was going to play UNH or BU, I think BU would be a little better, because we’ve just had some closer games with them. So it becomes more of an encouraging factor for us.
"UNH absolutely took it to us for three games in a row. At least [against] BU, we played them pretty strong the last time in there. At least there’s some of that confidence there that will be with the team in practice this week.
"But it’s really a David and Goliath thing. Obviously they’re the number one seed and we’re the eighth. Except for the Maine situation, we really shouldn’t be in the playoffs. We’ll just get our kids ready to go, get them playing the best that they can and who knows what will happen."
When asked how specifically he might prepare for BU, the ever-quotable Crowder quipped, "Probably through video, and [any] other thing we can find on them. I’ll go to the different synagogues and churches."
PICK:It wouldn’t be a total shock to see this one go three games, despite the mismatch on paper. Northeastern may be the best 3-19-2 team in memory. That said, look for BU, 5-4 and 6-3.
No. 2 seed vs. No. 7 seed UMass-Amherst (12-21-0, 7-17-0 HE) at No. 6 New Hampshire (25-9-0, 18-6-0 HE) Friday, Saturday, Sunday (if necessary) 7 p.m., Whittemore Center, Durham, NH
UNH beat Providence 7-5 on Friday to give itself the chance to take full ownership of its first regular season Hockey East crown. A win or a tie against BU would do the trick. Instead the Wildcats lost 5-1, settling for a half-share of the title and second seed in the playoffs.
If tying a game is kissing your sister, then losing half the league title in a head-to-head 5-1 loss is kissing your Aunt Edna, the one who reeks of bad breath and cheap perfume.
"Obviously we lost the game in the second period," said UNH coach Dick Umile. "There was just a two- or three-minute stretch that they took the game away from us. I thought the game was up for grabs except for that stretch.
"I don’t think they shut us down offensively just because we didn’t score goals. I thought [Larocque] played well and… we just didn’t put it in the net.
"We were disappointed after the game. We talked about it Monday prior to practice. But the bottom line is that we shared the regular season championship. The head-to-head competition only affects where you’re seeded. Now we just hope to move on to the FleetCenter and have the opportunity to win the Hockey East championship."
The Wildcats, who appeared to be revving up for the playoffs with a seven-game win streak, now must look to rebound after losing three of their last four. With the top offense in the league and the second best defensive ranking, UNH can still put together a championship season.
"In the playoffs it’s always important to play good defense and do well in specialty situations," said Umile. "Those are the key components. We also want to control the number of shots and do what we do well." Anyone who has watched the Wildcats this year will know what they do very well: fill the net, early and often.
After a three-game win streak in mid-January, the Minutemen have hit tough times, dropping nine of their last 10 contests. They’ve had the misfortune to face Maine at the worst possible time, drawing one of the nation’s hottest teams three of the last four games. This past weekend, the Black Bears again took no prisoners, beating UMass 10-3.
"The Maine team I saw was as good as any we played in the league all year," said Minuteman coach Joe Mallen. "If they went into the playoffs they could do a lot of damage in our league.
"The top three teams in the league — BU, Maine and UNH — have posted some lopsided scores against us, but I feel that [against the rest] we’ve been very competitive all year long. A couple games against Maine and UNH got away from us, but so be it.
Right now I feel that our team can pull itself together and get ready to play. We played a heck of a game against BC a week ago. You can’t go too high with the highs and too low with the lows…. No matter what, we’ve got a chance to crank it up and try to make it to the FleetCenter. We’re going to go out and give it our best."
Earlier in the season, the Minutemen almost beat the Wildcats in back-to-back games at home, losing 1-0 and 5-4 in overtime. More recently, however, they dropped a 10-0 embarrassment in the UNH barn where this weekend’s games will be played. Mallen hopes to put games like that one and the ones against Maine behind them.
"Like everybody says at this time of year, it’s 0-0 going into the playoffs and the records are all the same," he said. "We’ve certainly rode the highs and lows, but we’ve done some great things this season. It’s two out of three, let’s wind it up and watch it go."
PICK:UNH 7-3 and 6-3.
No. 3 seed vs. No. 6 seed UMass-Lowell (13-20-1, 9-14-1 HE) at Providence (15-18-1, 12-11-1 HE) Friday, Saturday, Sunday (if necessary) 7 p.m., Schneider Arena, Providence, RI
Providence closed out the regular season with a 7-5 loss to UNH. However, the Friars still finished February with a 6-2-0 record.
"We’ve got to execute, play defensively and understand who we are," said PC coach Paul Pooley. "There’s nothing wrong with the New Jersey Devils or the Florida Panthers. We’re not the Edmonton Oilers, we’re not the UNH Wildcats, we’re the Friars and we’ve got to play the way we’re capable of playing. We’ve got to realize that simplicity is best for us and not the really fancy stuff.
"Up ice, we didn’t give up many bad breaks, two-on-one and three-on-two. It was just down low defensively that we broke down a little bit. But give UNH credit. That’s where one-on-one skill comes in and they can do that."
The Friars now face UMass-Lowell, who they have controlled in all three of their recent games, outscoring the River Hawks by a cumulative 19-5 score.
"It doesn’t mean a thing," said PC coach Paul Pooley. "Absolutely nothing…. You throw the regular season out the window. Start all over.
"At playoff time it’s always the people that execute what they want to do that win, no matter what system they use. If your team executes what you want to do, all other things being equal, especially goaltending and specialty teams, then you have an opportunity to win. The team that wins the one-on-one battles and makes the right decisions at the right time wins hockey games. It’s more mental than physical, I believe."
The Friars, often viewed as a one-dimensional, defense-only team, averaged 5.6 goals a game in February and rank third in scoring among tourney teams. Russ Guzior scored another two goals against UNH. The senior, who couldn’t throw the puck in the Atlantic for parts of the year, now leads the team in scoring with 38 points.
In recent weekends, Pooley has gone with every possible combination of Dan Dennis and Mark Kane in the nets, some weekends giving both games to the hot hand, and other times splitting the games. Dan Dennis, a preseason All-Hockey East pick who has had an inconsistent year, appeared to have won the job back until the UNH game.
Although he settled down in the second and third periods, he opened poorly. Giving up seven goals, even to UNH, is not the way for a goaltender to hold onto his job. Pooley will be evaluating the two during practice this week to determine who gets the call.
UMass-Lowell makes for a near-exact counterpoint to Providence. The River Hawks dropped a 4-2 contest to Northeastern, falling to 0-9-1 in their last 10 games. Defenseman Mike Nicholishen finally snapped a Lowell streak of over 478 minutes without a lead when he scored at the 14 minute mark of the first, but Northeastern came back to tie it up and never trailed again.
"Both programs are rebuilding and from that sense we can kind of empathize with each other," said UML coach Tim Whitehead. "Obviously I wanted to win the game, but at least we lost to Bruce’s team. We tried a lot of things over the month of February, and the good news is that February is over."
With the no-lead streak behind them, Lowell will be looking to keep a much more positive streak going. They’ll be looking to make their fifth straight appearance in the Hockey East semifinals. Only BU can match that same consistency in the last four years.
"We’ve got a big challenge ahead of us with the defending champions," said Whitehead. "They’ve got a great, strong, balanced team. At the same time anything can happen. It’s a clean slate for the playoffs…. We know we’re the youngest team in the league, but we’re going to be focused. We’re going to be the underdogs going in. I don’t mind that role."
PICK:Providence 6-2 and 5-2.
No. 4 seed vs. No. 5 seed Boston College (13-18-3, 9-12-3 HE) at Merrimack (15-17-2, 11-11-2 HE) Thursday, Friday, Saturday (if necessary), 7 p.m., Volpe Center, North Andover, MA
Merrimack went into last weekend needing a single point to clinch its first-ever Division I playoff home ice. The Warriors almost got it against BU, losing 2-1 on Friday.
"Both teams went hard all night, but we made a couple mistakes and you can’t afford to do that against a team as talented as they are because they’ll capitalize," said MC coach Ron Anderson. "We had some chances but [Larocque] played very well for them."
Then, with home ice in the balance, Merrimack jumped out to a 4-0 lead only to see BC claw back, first to 4-2, and then, with the goalie lifted, to 4-3. The Warriors pulled out the win, however, to grab home ice.
"BC has a lot of talent," said Anderson. "We were holding on at the end. I thought we played well early, but they really came on and took it to us later in the game."
Even though Merrimack swept the season’s series against BC, 5-2, 11-5, and 4-3, Anderson feels that the two teams were closer than the sweep would indicate.
"The [5-2] game at their place, they outplayed us badly," he said. "We just won on the scoreboard. This weekend the game was pretty even. The only one that got away was the [11-5] second game of the series. So I don’t think we’ve outplayed them badly at all.
"We have to continue to stay on our game defensively because they’re so talented offensively. You can’t let Reasoner, Bellefeuille, Farkas and those guys get away from you. We have to make sure we stay focused and play hard, honest defense and make sure that we don’t need a lot of goals to win."
Boston College beat Northeastern 7-5 to set up the winner-take-all battle for home ice with Merrimack. Unfortunately for the Eagles, the winner was Merrimack.
"Certainly we were excited about beating Northeastern in a close game on Friday night," said BC coach Jerry York. "That meant a series sweep of all three games for us. Despite Northeastern’s record they’ve been a difficult team for us to play against.
"But just the opposite happened the next night. We lost a 4-3 game to lose that series 3-0 to Merrimack. We woke up late in the game, down 4-0, got it to 4-3 with 43 seconds left and actually had a chance to send it into OT."
Although some coaches, most notably BU’s Jack Parker, feel that a sweep can give the psychological advantage to the vanquished, York laughed and said, "I’d rather have won all three and gotten home ice."
York would like to see the Eagles pick up their scoring pace, something they achieved on Friday night against Northeastern. Blake Bellefeuille, who York shifted off Marty Reasoner’s wing to center another line, notched his first hat trick, earning his third Hockey East Rookie of the Week honor for the feat.
"He’s a natural center," said York. "Over the course of the year you have different needs and I thought we needed to have him with Marty. But now he’s become a seasoned veteran late in his freshman year and we feel he can carry a line by himself. So he’s at center, the pivotal position on a line, and he’s ready for that. He’s had a remarkable freshman year. We’re really excited to have him where he is now, going into the playoffs."
Bellefeuille scored two of his three goals while short-handed, crediting a more aggressive penalty kill.
"We’d like to score [more short-handed] goals," said York. "We’ve given up a lot of them and teams are vulnerable, just because of that that ‘we’re on the power play’ feeling. But you still need to execute and Blake did a great job with the two short-handed goals.
"We’ve been very impressed with [Merrimack’s] play. In [Darrel] Scoville and [John] Jakopin, they have two of the top defensemen in our conference. Certainly Legault has played very well against us, too. We’re going into it realizing that we can win the series, but also realizing it’s going to be a difficult task."
PICK: Does the fearless scribe pick BC over Merrimack a fourth time, after a regular-season strikeout? It’s tough to teach an old dog, especially a stubborn one, new tricks, but this one buys into Merrimack Magic. BC 4-3, Merrimack 3-2, and Merrimack 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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