This Week in Hockey East: December 12, 1997

If ever there was a need to prove that axiom, one look at the league standings says it all. Four of the top five teams — Northeastern, Boston University, New Hampshire and Providence — arguably have the top five goaltenders in the league.

Marc Robitaille, Michel Larocque, Tom Noble, Sean Matile and freshman Boyd Ballard have not only the five best goals-against averages, they also have save percentages of .907, .934, .924, .905 and .914, respectively.

In particular, Robitaille and Ballard have sparked the league’s two biggest surprises, Northeastern and Providence.

On the flip side, Hockey East’s biggest disappointment has been the Maine Black Bears, whose goaltenders have slumped in recent weeks.

Ballard won the league’s Rookie of the Week award for the third time after stopping 65 of 69 shots to lead the Friars to a surprisingly lopsided sweep of the Bears.

Hockey East’s KOHO Player of the Week is New Hampshire’s Jason Krog, who scored four goals and added an assist in a weekend sweep of UMass-Lowell. Krog now leads the country with an 18-18–36 scoring line. His plus-minus also stands at a stellar plus-18. Perhaps it’s too early to concede the Hobey Baker Award to Chris Drury after all.

Hockey East also recognized nine defensemen around the league. Blueliners rarely are given their due, since their accomplishments aren’t as easily measured as scoring totals and save percentages. The nine are: Providence’s Richard Miller, Northeastern’s Mike Jozefowicz, New Hampshire’s Jayme Filipowicz, Merrimack’s Darrel Scoville, UMass-Lowell’s Mike Nicholishen, UMass-Amherst’s Tom O’Connor, Maine’s Brian White, Boston University’s Tom Poti and Boston College’s Mike Mottau.

A sparse docket of games this week makes up in quality what it lacks in quantity. No. 1 Boston University travels to No. 4 New Hampshire, where the Wildcats affixed the only loss to BU’s 11-1-1 record. Fans planning on attending the game should note that it is on Friday, not Saturday, as had originally been listed by the league.

Last week’s record in picks: 4-6 Season’s record in picks: 64-30

No. 1 Boston University (11-1-1, 6-1-0 HEA) at No. 4 New Hampshire

(12-3-0, 6-3-0 HEA)

Friday, 7 p.m., Whittemore Center, Durham, NH

Boston University kicked off its three-game extended weekend with a Thursday-night 4-2 win over Merrimack. The Terriers then took on Boston College in a home-and-home series that became an outstanding advertisement for college hockey. Amidst exceptional fan enthusiasm, the Terriers topped BC 5-1 in a game that was much, much closer than that, before squeaking out a 3-3 tie at home with a last-minute six-on-four goal.

The Terriers had entered the weekend in sixth place in Hockey East and in first place in the ECAC.

Say what?

At the time, BU stood at 3-1-0 against Hockey East foes and 6-0-0 against those from the ECAC. Although no one in the ECAC office would be putting the Terriers in the league standings, the 12 points would have been good for first place. In Hockey East, however, the Terriers had been bypassed by teams playing as many as five more league games.

The three games — two wins and a tie — vaulted the Terriers into a third-place tie with four, two and three games in hand still remaining, respectively, against first-place Northeastern, second-place New Hampshire and their third-place neighbor BC.

On Thursday night, Merrimack stopped Chris Drury’s streak of points in 45 straight BU wins. His linemates, Mike Sylvia and Tommi Degerman, were also blanked.

"I don’t think that line, as a whole, played as well as they’ve been playing," said BU coach Jack Parker. "But Chris certainly played hard and had some chances. It’s nice to have guys step up when he doesn’t score and it’s nice to win a game when he doesn’t score.

"But I feel more comfortable when he gets goals," he added wryly.

Instead, a newly created second line stepped to the fore. Albie O’Connell, a winger throughout his BU career, moved to center between Chris Heron and freshman Juha Vuori. Although the White line — so named because of the color of its practice jerseys — scored three goals against Merrimack, by Tuesday, O’Connell was back on the wing. Vuori stayed on the second line with Heron, however, and O’Connell went to the third. Vuori, after a slow start in which he didn’t get a point in the first three games and scored a goal in only one of the first six, is now the Terriers’ top freshman scorer with six goals and four assists.

"When we recruited him, we thought he’d be doing this right off the bat," said Parker. "He really struggled the first few games. He struggled getting used to the face mask. He hadn’t played with one in a couple of years. He had trouble getting used to the smaller rinks, because he’d been playing on the big rinks in Europe.

"And the speed of the game is a little more controlled mayhem here than it is in Europe, where it’s more like soccer."

Having made the adjustments, though, he is now rising to expectations.

"He should progress faster [than the other freshmen] because he’s a lot older," said Parker. "He came in as an older freshman, and we expected him to step in and play. He had been scoring before he got on [the Heron and O’Connell] line, and he deserved to be on the second line."

Drury got back on the scoresheet in big ways in the two games against Boston College. Not only did he score two goals on Sunday and add a third with an assist in the 3-3 tie, he came through when his team needed his efforts the most.

In the first game, with the score tied 1-1 and the Terriers getting outshot 15-3 in the second period, he got open for a breakaway and, of course, scored. (Does anyone have a better percentage on breakaways?) In the rematch, with his team down 2-1 and killing a penalty, he scored a huge shorthanded goal. Then, with a minute left and down 3-2, he won a key offensive zone faceoff cleanly, leading to Mike Sylvia’s tying goal.

As clutch performers go, Drury is one of the best — BU’s Reggie Jackson.

"There’s only one Chris Drury," said Parker.

While the cluster of games gave the Terriers a chance to start cashing in their games in hand, it also presented four games in nine days, ending with this Friday’s game against UNH.

"We’ll be real concerned about our legs up there," said Parker. "It’s a big rink. Maybe [it’ll be a problem] or maybe we’ll be sharp because we’ve just finished playing.

"I guess it might be one too many games, but we go on break after that and they’d rather play than get ready for exams, I know that."

New Hampshire extended its winning streak to six games, and eight in its last nine, with 6-2 and 5-2 wins over UMass-Lowell.

"Any time you win two hockey games against a pretty good team like Lowell, the team has to overall play well," said coach Dick Umile.

Although the Wildcats put away the home game early in the third period, the rematch in the tight confines of Lowell’s Tully Forum stood at 2-2 with only four minutes to play. Then, like Drury against BC, Umile’s stars came to the fore. Jason Krog made a great play, combining with Derek Bekar for the game-winner. Less than two minutes later, Krog scored again.

With Mark Mowers sidelined due to the concussion he received a week earlier, Tom Nolan, Bekar and Krog came up big, scoring two apiece at home. In addition to Krog’s heroics at Lowell, Bekar scored and assisted on a goal and Nolan assisted on two others.

All four are major Hobey Baker Award candidates. In the national scoring race, they rank first, Krog with 36 points; second, Nolan with 31; fourth, Bekar with 24; and eleventh, Mowers with 21.

"Maybe Jason Krog is ahead of them just because of what he’s done, but they’re all pretty good players," said Umile. "It’s great to have a couple of them, and when I say ‘a couple of them’ I mean all four."

Fourth-liner Chad Onufrechuk replaced Mowers on his line with Nolan and Dylan Dellezay so the other two lines could remain intact. That looks like a likely scenario for the BU matchup as well. With just one game between now and post-Christmas tournaments, skipping that game can best leverage the break into the greatest recuperation time for Mowers.

"It hasn’t been officially stated yet, but we’re planning on him not playing," said Umile early in the week. "If he were to play it would be a pleasant surprise, but we’re going on break right after Friday’s game. In my mind, I’d just as soon have him get healthy and not play this weekend."

Umile traveled to Conte Forum on Sunday to see his opponent this week take on BC.

"It was everything that it was built up to be," he said. "It was exciting to go to the game and see a great crowd of 7,000 people for college hockey on a Sunday afternoon. It says a lot for the area and the teams. Right now, BC, BU and UNH are three real good teams that are playing pretty good hockey."

Umile specifically got to see Michel Larocque stop 29 of 30 shots. Given BU’s goaltender rotation, the Wildcats will be facing Larocque, who leads the league with a 1.69 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage.

"I was hoping maybe Jack would change it up," said Umile laughing. "I tell, you what, he played fantastic, but Tom Noble is playing pretty well too.

"We’ve got some pretty good goal-scorers and he’s a pretty good goaltender. We’ll see who wins the battle."

Since the teams have already split a home-and-home, this game marks the last time the two teams will meet prior to the playoffs. As such, the game assumes an even greater importance, even though it still is only December.

"I think it’s a certified Big Game," said Umile.

Prepare for another dandy.

PICK: Larocque is playing better than any goaltender in the league right now. Mark Mowers is almost certainly out. Tilt towards BU. The Terriers, however, are playing their fourth game in nine days, with the critical caveat that the last two were emotional, physical energy-sappers against BC. And the game is at the Whittemore Center. Tilt towards UNH.

UNH 4-2.

Maine (7-7-1, 4-5-0 HEA) at UMass-Lowell (6-7-1, 4-4-1 HEA)

Friday & Saturday, 7 p.m., Tully Forum, Lowell, MA

UMass-Lowell dropped two to No. 4 New Hampshire last week, 6-2 and 5-2, though the latter game stood at 2-2 with four minutes left.

"We actually had a pretty good week in terms of effort and sticking to our game plan," said coach Tim Whitehead. "The first night we got a little bit away from it, but the fact that there were so many four-on-fours turned it into a bit of a weird game.

"The second night we had a game with a lot more flow. We were able to establish our game plan and stick with it. I was definitely proud of the guys and how they played.

"There was just a great play by a great player, [Jason Krog], to win the game. That was pretty much it. The guy was even covered in the slot, but somehow he found a way to put it in the top corner."

The River Hawks played without All-Hockey East defenseman Mike Nicholishen , who had appeared in 130 straight games before hurting his knee in a Dec. 4 practice. He is not expected to play this weekend.

The power play, on which Nicholishen had been a fixture at one point, went 0-for-4 in both games.

"We had some decent chances both nights," said Whitehead. "Obviously, losing Nicholishen hurt us a little bit there. We’ve had a couple of spells when we haven’t had any power-play goals and then we’ve gone on a tear. It’s definitely not something we’re overly concerned with."

One week earlier in the Governors’ Cup, Whitehead had noted that some of his top players hadn’t been contributing at their expected levels. Had this problem continued?

"There are still a couple of our key players that aren’t playing their best hockey right now," he said, "but it’s definitely not from lack of effort. They’re just not sharp right now. Marty Fillion is one, obviously, and a couple of the kids that normally put the points up on the board.

"I definitely don’t see any reason why that shouldn’t swing back the other way this weekend. They haven’t played their best the last couple weekends, but they’re certainly working hard. It’s not like we’ve got lazy kids or anything. They’ve played well at other times for us this year."

In hosting Maine, the River Hawks are taking on another team on a losing streak. Lowell has dropped four straight; the Black Bears have lost three.

"I think it’ll be a real good weekend," said Whitehead. "You have two teams that both got swept last weekend, so they’ll both be pretty hungry. It’ll be a good weekend between two teams that work hard and have talent. I would expect a couple of one-goal games.

"I’m expecting a snowstorm," he added with a laugh, making reference to the propensity for blizzards to greet the Black Bears and, unfortunately in the past, keep fans away from what was typically a big-draw weekend.

The extended forecast as of this writing is for snow on Thursday and "Partly Cloudy" on Friday. Look for the weather system to stall. Get those shovels ready for six inches of "Partly Cloudy."

Although Maine’s recent struggles have been most pronounced in the crease, Whitehead doesn’t see a game plan oriented towards attacking that Achilles’ heel any more than usual.

"We’re not talking about pro hockey players, where you can tell Gretzky to shoot high glove-side," he said with a laugh. "We’re just going to focus on ourselves and play our game. Maybe make a few adjustments, but not with regard to their goaltending.

"I think they’ve got a couple of good goalies, but maybe they had an off-weekend. Their goaltending has certainly done well against us in the past, so that’s not anything that we’re really going to count on. We’re just going to have to worry about ourselves."

Maine ran into a hot goaltender last weekend in Providence’s Boyd Ballard and had the double-whammy of having their own netminding tandem turn frigid at the same time. Brian Masotta backstopped a Friday night 6-2 loss; Alfie Michaud returned to the crease in a 7-2 Saturday night defeat.

Although credit must be given to the Providence players who buried the puck in the latter game, Ballard’s play was so strong and Michaud’s play so weak that a swap of goaltenders would have likely resulted in a Maine win.

"I’ve seen that happen," said Maine coach Shawn Walsh. "Usually, over the years, our teams have done that to other teams. Tonight, it happened to us. What goes around, comes around."

Although Masotta had been somewhat of a question mark after transferring from Rensselaer, Michaud had played very well down the stretch last year after a tough start. It had seemed, then, that he was a known quantity. Although he has shown in the past that he can get the job done, there may be no goaltender in the league with a greater range of peaks and valleys.

Unfortunately for Maine, right now he’s in a valley, if not a canyon. Before last weekend, he was yanked not once, but twice, in the Governors’ Cup championship game. Then things got worse against Providence.

In a sense, this season is acquiring a very deja vu feeling for the Black Bears. Last year at this time, they were 5-7-1 against Division I teams and only 2-5-1 in Hockey East. They then got scalding hot, winning all but two games after Jan. 1, including 12 of their last 13.

"I really liked the way we played," said coach Shawn Walsh after the 7-2 loss. "Except for the goaltending, we played a great game."

Of course, the Black Bears hardly played flawlessly. They are a young team, especially on the blue line where they entered the season with only two defensemen with more than a half-season under their belts — David Cullen and Brian White — and two converted forwards — Shawn Mansoff and Jason Price — shifted to the rear guard. Given those limitations, mistakes were predictable.

Surprisingly, one of the most glaring mistakes was a cross-ice pass out of his own zone by Cullen on the power play that Providence’s Mike Omicioli picked off and netted.

"He handles the puck so much that you’re going to have that," said Walsh. "What we were doing was we were forcing the puck to Steve [Kariya] too much. Anybody in the rink could see what was going on. David thought there was a passing lane and Mike made a good play. He shot the puck, it hit our goalie and went in the net. With Boyd Ballard, that would have been a routine save.

"They made the same mistakes and Boyd Ballard made great saves. You’ve got to make some saves. The third period was ridiculous. It was an example of the whole weekend. We were dominant…. They’d come down, get one shot and score. There’s nothing you can do.

"We’ve got to get our goaltender playing like he played last year. Until that happens, you can’t win."

Sometimes, however, the problem is easy to identify, but the solution is hard to find.

"You just try to practice and see if we can get their confidence up somehow," said Walsh. "I’ve seen it happen before. It’s been happening to Dominik Hasek in the NHL and he’s a pretty good goalie.

"Alfie was really good for us last year, but he’s in one of those funks. We’ve got to help him get out of it, that’s all."

Meanwhile, the power play that had gotten every bounce while going over a 40 percent success rate has cooled down to a more realistic 34 percent.

"We developed a lot of chances," said Walsh. "The one kid in the net stopped us. I’m very happy with how we developed our chances, but we’re not going to score all the time."

Making matters worse for the power-play unit, however, were the shorthanded goals it allowed on both nights.

"Oh, yeah," said Walsh. "But we have a bigger concern than that. You saw the game."

PICKS: If Michaud returns to form, Maine could sweep; if he stays in a rut, UMass-Lowell could sweep. Look for Lowell to win 5-3 on Friday and Maine to bounce back 4-3 to send both teams into a break until the New Year.

Princeton (6-3-3, 2-3-2 ECAC) and Dartmouth (2-3-1, 1-3-1 ECAC) vs. UMass-Amherst (2-10-1, 0-8-1 HEA)

Friday, 7 p.m., Hobey Baker Memorial Rink, Princeton, NJ Sunday, 2 p.m., Mullins Center, Amherst, MA

UMass-Amherst tied Northeastern 1-1 at Matthews Arena, but lost 5-1 in the return match at home.

"The first night was one of the better games we played all year long," said coach Joe Mallen. "It was a good up-and-down hockey game. Brian Regan played real well in a goaltender’s duel with Marc Robitaille. We had plenty of chances to win the game, but just didn’t bury it. But it was a pretty strong performance, we thought.

"The second game got away from us at the end, but we had breakaways and plenty of scoring chances that we didn’t convert. They converted on a couple turnovers and next thing you know, the game was over."

Of UMass-Amherst’s 10 losses, three have been by one goal — with two of those in overtime — and four have been by two. The Minutemen aren’t having problems with respectability, but rather with getting over the hump in pure wins and losses.

"We’ve just been so close on so many nights," said Mallen.

They’ll look to get over that hump against two ECAC teams, Princeton and Dartmouth, to close out their 1997 schedule.

Princeton is one of the few ECAC teams with a winning record against Hockey East, having shut out Merrimack 2-0 and tied Providence 4-4. The Tigers are led by Jeff Halpern (9-10–19), the ECAC’s leading overall scorer, as well as Casson Masters (5-7–12) and Scott Bertoli (4-8–12).

Steve Shirreffs and Michael Acosta (both 0-9–9) are strong defensemen in front of Erasmo Saltarelli (5-2-3, 2.78 GAA, .906 SV%).

"I’ve got a lot of respect for Princeton," said Mallen. "They’re well-coached. They’re a good team. Last year, they showed a lot of team speed and they seem to be playing well right now. I hate to use the word challenge, but it’s going to be a real challenge for us to go down to Baker Rink."

Dartmouth has traversed a bizarre schedule in which the Big Green have played only six games to date. This Sunday afternoon match-up will mark their first return to action since Nov. 22. Having already taken their break, they will now play every weekend until the end of the season.

Against its weaker opponents, Dartmouth has seen success: Army (7-1), Union (4-0) and Vermont (2-2). Against stronger foes, however, the results haven’t been so pretty: Rensselaer (1-7), Cornell (1-4) and Colgate (2-7).

The paucity of contests to date makes an evaluation of this team difficult. It’s leading scorer, Curtis Wilgosh, has five points. Returning top scorers David Whitworth, Ryan Chaytors and Jon Sturgis have four, three and three respectively. But, again, that is in only six games.

The sophomore goaltending tandem of Eric Almon (2-3-0, 3.77 GAA, .890 SV%) and Jason Wong (0-0-1, 1.55 GAA, .938 SV%) may have to pay the price this weekend for their team’s rust following a three-week lull in competition.

"Under Bob Gaudet, they seem to have a renewed enthusiasm," said Mallen. "Last year, we went up there and played them and lost 6-5. They played, I think, one of their stronger games.

"At this point, we need to use these last two games before the semester break to see if we can build some positive momentum going into the second semester."

PICKS:The Minutemen drop a 5-3 contest at Princeton, but go into the break on a high note with a 4-1 win over Dartmouth.