Hockey East Preview: "Ice Wars" by Dave Hendrickson
"Ice Wars," Hockey East’s title for this weekend’s semifinal and championship games, will see two surprise entrants. Everyone expected regular-season co-champions Boston University and New Hampshire to advance, but Boston College and UMass-Lowell became the first two schools to not only upset a higher seed, but to sweep.
In fact, sweeps were the story around college hockey last weekend; of the 17 nationwide contests, only the ECAC’s Vermont-Princeton matchup went to a third game.
Unfortunately, the most startling news came from UNH, where head coach Dick Umile suffered a heart attack. After further treatment at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass., he has returned home and hopes to be a spectator at this weekend’s games. College hockey fans everywhere are pulling for Umile, one of the true gentlemen of the sport.
(Rankings shown below are the Pairwise Rankings, the criteria used by the NCAA for tournament selection.)
Last week’s record in picks: 5-3 Season record in picks: 125-74
No. 6 seed vs. No. 1 seed UMass-Lowell (15-20-1, 9-14-1 HE) vs. No. 10 Boston University (22-8-6, 16-4-4 HE) Friday, 5 p.m., FleetCenter, Boston, MA NESN Saturday, 5 p.m, Consolation Game, FleetCenter, Boston, MA Saturday, 8 p.m, Championship Game, FleetCenter, Boston, MA NESN
Regular season: Jan. 24: @UMass-Lowell 3 Boston University 1 Feb. 14: Boston University 6 @UMass-Lowell 1 Feb. 15: @Boston University 5 @UMass-Lowell 5
In recent years, the BU Terriers have enjoyed the benefits of an opening-round bye in the NCAA regionals. This year, sitting at 10th in the NCAA pairwise criteria,, they run the risk of losing that advantage and dropping to a number-three — or lower — seed.
A team that wins both its conference’s regular-season and tournament crowns, however, receives an automatic bye regardless of its ranking position. Although BU and UNH shared the regular season title, BU won the playoff tiebreaker, and as a result could still grab the bye over higher-rated teams with a fifth Hockey East title.
They began that quest with a sweep of Northeastern
7-1. Dan LaCouture scored two goals and added three assists, earning him co-Rookie of the Week honors with BC’s Blake Bellefeuille. With Jon Coleman nursing a sore shoulder that has bothered him since January, Chris Kelleher moved to the fore as he has so often this season, picking up three assists.
"Chris Kelleher has given us an unbelievable year," said BU coach Jack Parker. "He should be All-Hockey East, All-American or something."
The Terriers now take on a UMass-Lowell squad that has given them a surprising amount of difficulty.
"We’ll have our hands full," said Parker. "We were 1-1-1 with them during the regular season. They played extremely well against us and they’re obviously playing really well now after going down and beating Providence twice.
"They present a lot of problems because they get great goaltending. Fillion has played great; we’ve seen him play fabulous. They’re a real good transition team with a lot more offense than people want to give them credit for. And they do a great job on special teams. They’ve got an explosive power play and they’re terrific killing penalties.
"Those are the things that usually win games: how you play in your zone, how good your goaltender is, and how you are on special teams. In the short term those are always big things and they’re real good at those, so we’re looking for a real tight matchup."
Although many figure that regular season co-champs BU and UNH are a fait accompli for the title game, Parker isn’t thinking too much about that matchup which his Terriers swept during the regular season.
"I would love to be able to play UNH in a fourth game because that would probably mean that we got to the finals," he said. "I would hope we wouldn’t be playing in a consolation game. But they’ll have their hands full with Boston College and we’ll have our hands full with UMass-Lowell. Neither one of us is an absolute shoo-in to get to the finals."
While everyone expected BU to beat Northeastern, few expected the same from UMass-Lowell against Providence. The River Hawks entered the playoffs 0-9-1 in their last 10, and had experienced only one lead in their last eight games. Their power play, once near the top of the league, had fallen on hard times. In their 10-game winless streak, they’d been held to two goals or fewer eight times.
To make matters worse, they were facing a Providence team that had not only been hot down the stretch but had smoked the River Hawks head-to-head in three February games.
So what happened? Lowell swept the Friars,
"I was very proud of them," said UMass-Lowell coach Tim Whitehead. "Especially how we played without one of our captains, Ryan Sandholm, and one of our defensemen, Wil Tormey. The guys really stepped up like they have all year in those type of situations and picked up for those guys. That was one of the things I was most proud of. The guys that filled in for those two did an excellent job."
Neither player is expected back this weekend, so repeat relief performances will be needed.
"We tried to play strong team defense and keep things simple," continued Whitehead. "We didn’t do anything fancy. We just played together with everyone on the same page."
"Lowell played very well," said Providence coach Paul Pooley in defeat. "They did what they had to and you have to give them a lot of credit. They were really physical with us, and I think that was the deciding factor."
Whitehead, in response, noted, "We work hard on our off-ice training, but we’re a very young team so I think we can certainly get stronger than we are. But that’s something we take very seriously."
Pooley sees the physical angle as an important facet of Lowell’s play against BU.
"The one thing Lowell can do is be very physical," said Pooley. "In the playoffs, the intensity goes up and the game changes. They let you play hockey, as opposed to being in the penalty box all night. I think that’s the type of game that Lowell can get into and be successful at because they’re strong, they work hard and they played the game to a T on Friday and Saturday night."
Like BU, Lowell is advancing to the tournament semifinals for the fifth straight year, tops in the league. They do not, however, pose a team of grizzled veterans. The River Hawks have played up to 10 freshmen this year, which could result in errors stemming from playoff inexperience.
"We’ll have the 10 freshmen who won’t have been there," said Whitehead, "but all the other guys have been there since we’ve made it every time the last four years. It’s up to our upperclassmen to make sure that our freshman aren’t taken in too much by the moment and stay focused. Our upperclassmen have done a great job all year so I don’t think this weekend should be a problem."
PICK: BU has taken these playoff matchups the last three years. It’s looking like four. BU 5-3.
The title game remains virtually too close to call, but BU’s superior defense wins out over UNH’s superior offense, 4-3. (If Lowell wins the semifinal game, look for either BC or UNH to take the title.)
No. 5 seed vs. No. 2 seed Boston College (15-18-3, 9-12-3 HE) vs. No. 7 New Hampshire (27-9-0, 18-6-0 HE) Friday, 8 p.m., FleetCenter, Boston, MA NESN Saturday, 5 p.m, Consolation Game, FleetCenter, Boston, MA Saturday, 8 p.m, Championship Game, FleetCenter, Boston, MA NESN
Regular season: Nov. 22: @New Hampshire 8 Boston College 3 Nov. 23: New Hampshire 4 @Boston College 2 Jan. 25: New Hampshire 5 @Boston College 2
New Hampshire swept UMass-Amherst
8-2, while all eyes remained on Coach Umile.
The Wildcats had stumbled into the playoffs, losing three of their last four.
"We had a long layoff there," said assistant coach Chris Serino, referring to 10 straight days without a game. "I think just now we’re getting back into synch after that layoff. It’s tough to go [that many] days without playing at this point and time in the season. You can only practice so much. I think we’re starting to get back into synch right now."
Back in synch, that is, only to find that your coach has suffered a heart attack. The team opened their Saturday night game against UMass-Amherst a bit slowly, after hearing the news at the team breakfast.
"I’m not making excuses, but this has been a very long day for us today," said assistant coach Chris Serino after the game. Serino, along with fellow assistant Brian McCloskey, filled in for Umile.
"To kids, a head coach is kind of invincible. And then all of a sudden that invincible object wasn’t invincible anymore, and that had a major affect on our kids. I saw it in their eyes when I told them this morning, and I was worried about what would happen tonight.
"But our two senior [captains] Tim Murray and Eric Boguniecki gave us great leadership. Our players played under what might not seem like real adverse conditions but they were.
"There’s not a coach in the country that cares more about his players than [Umile] does, and these kids know that…. It was like the head of a family going down. That’s what happened to us tonight. It wasn’t easy.
"It was an emotional strain and it’s a credit to these kids for what they did."
After failing to make the FleetCenter the last two years, the Wildcats are excited about a return to "The Dance."
"It’s always exciting to go there," said Serino. "I’m not going to tell you it’s just another [game]. It’s an exciting thing for our players. Our kids work awfully hard to get there. [Some people said some negative things about our players after the brawl at Providence but that] was not a reflection of our team. We’ve got good kids here that work hard every day.
"They’re good citizens; they do a lot for the community as well as for the hockey program, so all our coaches are really happy for them. They put a lot of effort into this program and now they’re getting what they deserve."
Although the FleetCenter offers a considerably smaller ice surface than UNH’s Olympic-sized home ice at the Whittemore Center, New Hampshire’s home and away records are comparable (14-5 at home, 13-4 away) despite losing their last three on the road.
"I don’t think the ice surface is going to make much of a difference in the game," said Serino. "If you want to win a national championship, after your last [quarterfinal game], you go on the road. If you’ve got a good hockey team, you adapt to any place you play. We’ve got a good hockey team. We can play in a small rink. We can play in a big rink. It doesn’t matter. If we play well, we’re capable of beating any team in the country. I mean that, and I think our players believe that."
This weekend holds special significance for UNH’s national championship aspirations. Winning the tournament will push the Wildcats past Vermont in the Pairwise Rankings, and give them a bye in the regionals. If in doing so they knock off Boston University in the finals, it will also bolster their collective psyches. The flip side, of course, is that a fourth loss to BU would amount to a harsh sendoff into the NCAAs.
In the semifinals, the ‘Cats will take on Boston College, who surprised Merrimack
"They’ve got a young, talented team," said UNH’s Jason Krog of the Eagles. "They’ve got a lot of speed up front. Young guys like Reasoner and Farkas can create a lot of offense. But I think if we play our game and have all systems going on four lines, I don’t think they can play with us."
Krog’s confidence in his team is well-founded, according to BC coach Jerry York, whose team was swept by the Wildcats in the regular season.
"New Hampshire has swept a lot of teams this year, so we’re not unusual in that category," said York. "They’re certainly one of the premier programs in the country. They’re an excellent hockey team and a team that could win the national championship. They have strong goaltending, an excellent defenseman in Tim Murray, who leads their core of defense, and a plethora of outstanding forwards.
"We’re approaching this weekend that if we win both games, we’ll go to the national tournament. That’s a tremendous motivating force for us. As you look around to recent basketball playoffs, teams have done the unexpected.
"BU and New Hampshire are certainly the class of our league, but in any weekend series Lowell and ourselves have to feel that if we get hot, that reward of the nationals is right there for us."
Specialty teams are often the deciding factor in the playoffs which may or may not work to Boston College’s advantage. All season long they’ve boasted one of the league’s top power plays (25.3 percent overall, second in the league), but their penalty killing has struggled. The "PK" provided encouraging results, however, against Merrimack.
"Our ability to kill penalties was key," said York. "[Merrimack] was one for 15, (while) during the season we were almost dead last. We have just not done a good job in that area." Combined with the short-handed goal they scored against the Warriors, their penalty-kill may have turned the corner.
BC also depends more on its freshmen and sophomores than any other team in the league. As such, they might be expected to have playoff jitters since BC’s last appearance at a Hockey East semifinal was in 1992, before any of the current players arrived at Chestnut Hill. According to freshman Jeff Farkas, though, the Eagles won’t succumb to playoff pressure.
"The Beanpot got us ready [for the playoffs]," said Farkas. "Playing BU in the finals in front of 17,000 people made us aware that we can play at this level."
York seconded that emotion.
"The way we look at it, there’s absolutely no pressure on our team. We’re going there with the idea that we want to be successful and get a national bid so everything for us is [upside]. This is a weekend that could top off our season and extend it, so we’re excited about it. We need to stay in it early, get some big saves from Greg Taylor early and capitalize on some chances. We’re pretty excited about where we are."
PICK: UNH could get caught if they’re peeking ahead to BU in the finals, but look for them to take this one, 5-4.
The title game remains virtually too close to call, but BU’s superior defense wins out over UNH’s superior offense, 4-3. (If BC wins the semifinal game, look for them to beat UMass-Lowell, but lose to BU.)
(The loser of this semifinal game should win the consolation matchup.)
Thanks to Eric A. Wong for his contributions to this preview.
Dave Hendrickson is the Hockey East Correspondent for U.S. College Hockey Online.
Copyright 1997 Dave Hendrickson . All Rights Reserved.
Return to Feature Articles Return to News and Game Recaps Return to This Week’s Scores Return to US College Hockey Online