This Week in Hockey East: January 2, 1998

Marc Robitaille earned Koho/Hockey East Player of the Week honors
as well as Mariucci Classic MVP for his role in the tourney win,
especially his 40 saves in the championship game.

Robitaille was also named the Heaton/Hockey East Goalie of the Month. In December, he posted a 4-0-1 record, a 1.97 goals against average and a .932 save percentage.

BC’s Mike Lephart’s hat trick in the Badger Showdown consolation game earned him Hockey East Rookie of the Week honors.

Last week’s record in picks: 5-4 Season’s record in picks: 70-35

Merrimack (6-9-1, 2-6-0 HEA) at UMass-Lowell (6-7-1, 4-4-1 HEA)

Sunday, 7 p.m., Tully Forum, Lowell, MA

UMass-Lowell’s hopes for a strong second-semester start were dealt a blow when All-Hockey East defenseman Mike Nicholishen contracted a bad case of mononucleosis just before leaving for Ontario for the holidays. Nicholishen, a vital cog at the point on the power play and an exceptional defender frequently matched against the Drurys, Krogs, Kariyas and Reasoners of the league, had also missed several games prior to the illness with a knee injury.

That double whammy becomes all the more ironic considering his ironman streak of never missing a game in his first three years. He has yet to return to the campus and is not expected to play again until late January.

"We don’t have another Mike Nicholishen," says coach Tim Whitehead, "but what we’re looking for from our players is if every guy improves his game five percent or so, we can make up for him being out of the lineup. Certainly, all of the guys on our defensive corps can play five percent better. This is a great opportunity for those guys to prove that to their teammates.

"So we’re not looking for one guy to do it. We’re looking for a team effort where they say, ‘Hey, our best player is down. If everyone gives a little extra, we can easily make up for that.’ If we do, we’ll be a better team in the long run for it."

After a Friday night clash against Colgate (previewed below), the River Hawks host Merrimack in their only league contest in the next five games. As such, the game might be an opportunity to pull out all the stops, shorten the bench and for one game sacrifice long-term development for a short-term win. Then, return to balancing long- and short-term against nonconference foes.

"It is the more important of the two games, but we’ll just have to wait and see how that first game goes and react from there," says Whitehead. "But that might happen.

"We’re going to have to wait and see how the Friday game goes. At this point, we have to take it one game at a time and see who does step up their game for us. We plan on everyone getting a lot of ice time this weekend, but we’ll just have to wait and see."

Merrimack opens the week on Friday against Niagara (previewed below) before this Sunday night clash between old-time Division II rivals. Does anything special remain from that old Merrimack Valley rivalry?

"That’s all gone," says coach Ron Anderson. "I don’t think any of the coaches were around during the old rivalries and certainly none of the players. We’ve both improved our programs to the point where it’s not rock ’em, sock ’em, knock ’em down, drag ’em out affairs any more. It’s more trying to play hockey."

Instead, the Warriors are simply looking to crank it up after a layoff since Dec. 6 that was punctuated only by a 3-3 tie with Dartmouth on the 20th.

"We’ve played one game in a month, so we’re anxious to play," says Anderson. "The upside is that we’re fresh, we’re eager and we’re hungry. The downside is that it’s like starting the season all over again in a new training camp. So we hope to pull it all together in one week."

Although the Warriors can certainly point to some lost first-semester opportunities against nonconference foes, they really can’t be too upset with their 2-6-0 league record, even though it puts them in next-to-last place. All eight games pitted them against the top five teams in Hockey East standings, all of which have spent time in the top 10 rankings.

As a result, the Warriors will be looking to duplicate the turnaround they fashioned last year when they posted an 11-5-1 regular season record after Jan. 1.

"We’re always better in the second half," says Anderson. "I guess we’re just the kind of team that gets better as the season goes along and we play more games. That seems to be the makeup of our personnel. I see this year as being the same, especially since we’re coming off a year where we graduated eight seniors. We had a bunch of holes to fill.

"We’ve come out of the first semester ahead of where we were last year and I think our first semester schedule this year was tougher than our first semester schedule last year. So all indications are that we’re ahead of where we were last year.

"That leads to optimism for the second semester, yet very cautious optimism. We have a chance to make a run. We look at the standings and we look at the difference between us and the first-place team and the first thing you look to is that there are three more games that the first-place team has played than us, so there are a lot of points that can be made up in a hurry.

"We’re done with New Hampshire; we’ve already been to Maine and played two; and we’ve played BC, Northeastern and BU. We think the schedule is going to come around for us and we think we’re going to play better in the second half as well. So we’re looking forward to it."

To start making a move in league standings, the Warriors will need to break an unenviable streak against Lowell. Since a 5-4 overtime win on Mar. 6, 1993, they have lost seven straight games at Tully Forum. With Tully closing later this month, this represents Merrimack’s last chance to end the skein.

They may get an extra hand in that effort. Laval native John Pyliotis — now how’s that for a Quebecois surname? — joins the team from the St. Jerome Panthers. Considered a banger, the 5-11, 180-pound forward could still sit out the semester to preserve a year’s eligibility, but would seem more likely to jump into the fray immediately.

PICK: Merrimack 4-3.

Colgate (10-4-0, 6-2-0 ECAC) at UMass-Lowell (6-7-1, 4-4-1 HEA)

Colgate (10-4-0, 6-2-0 ECAC) at

Providence College (11-4-1, 5-3-0 HEA)

Friday, 7 p.m., Tully Forum, Lowell, MA Sunday, 2 p.m., Schneider Arena, Providence, RI

Colgate travels to Lowell and Providence for two nonconference games, having topped Northeastern 6-3 in its only previous action against Hockey East. The Red Raiders feature the ECAC’s top scoring offense, averaging 4.43 goals a game.

Four of their forwards are in the ECAC top 10 in scoring: Jed Whitchurch (1-19–20), Andy McDonald (8-10–18), Dru Burgess (13-3–16) and Tim Loftsgard (7-9–16). The hot-and-cold Burgess scored 11 goals in Colgate’s first eight games, was then held scoreless in the next five, but is back at it again, scoring twice in last weekend’s Syracuse Invitational Tournament.

Freshman defenseman Cory Murphy (4-6–10) is the ECAC’s second leading scorer among blueliners. He has been named Rookie of the Week twice, a rare honor for a defenseman.

Additionally, goaltender Dan Brenzavich is posting the best stats of his career (2.81 GAA, .903 Sv%) and has been named Player of the Week three times.

(For a more detailed look at Colgate from an ECAC perspective, check out this week’s ECAC Preview.)

UMass-Lowell comes off the break without Nicholishen (see above) and without playing a game while facing a high-scoring Colgate squad that has already played in a post-Christmas tournament.

"We’re going to have to be real sharp," says Whitehead. "It’ll be a good challenge coming back from the break and facing them right away. We’re just going to have to be ready to go from the drop of the puck because they played this past weekend.

"They’ve had those two games after the break under their belt, so that’ll be a factor. We’re going to have to play a defensive game and try to shut them down. The longer the game goes, the better off we’ll be."

Providence looked to have a great shot at taking the Sheraton/US Airways Classic since the three other teams were all in rebuilding seasons, but the Friars lost to Dartmouth 4-1 in the championship game after controlling Vermont in the first round, 5-1. Forward Jerry Keefe and defenseman Leigh Dean, both sophomores, earned berths on the all-tournament team.

"I thought the weekend was okay," says coach Paul Pooley. "Against Vermont, we played better as the game went along. Against Dartmouth, we took some unnecessary penalties that gave them an opportunity to get a lead. Then their goalie played very, very well to shut us down in the third period, even though we had some chances.

"Boyd Ballard played well and gave us the chance to win the game if we could have come back to score some goals on some power-play chances. They scored two goals on the power play and then we didn’t score any. We just took too many penalties.

"They really played well and deserved to win. They outworked us. It was unfortunate, because I thought we could have won that game if we came to play right off the bat. But that happens. I give Dartmouth a lot of credit."

The Friars, who have been flirting with top 10 status in recent weeks, absorbed their first nonconference loss of the year against the Big Green and fall to 6-1-1 in action outside Hockey East. They now look to get back on track against Colgate, a team they last played at Schneider Arena almost 14 years ago.

"It’s going to be a tough game," says Pooley. "I don’t really know much about them, but we have to get back on track and work hard and do the things we’re capable of doing.

"We’ve had some injuries. Nick Lent didn’t play last weekend. Nick Sinerate hurt his ankle in the game against Vermont. And obviously Jay Leach was out [with the U.S. Junior team]. So we were playing a little shorthanded, but we’ve played hard for the most part. We have to continue to improve and make sure we come ready to play all the time."

PICKS: If you put Mike Nicholishen back in the lineup and give the River Hawks a post-holiday tuneup to level the playing field, they’d get the pick. But the loss of "Nicco" makes the difference. Colgate 5-4.

Providence makes it a Hockey East split with the Red Raiders, 4-3.

UMass-Amherst (2-11-2, 0-8-1 HEA) at Army (7-7-0, 0-7-0 vs. aligned D-I)

Saturday, 2 p.m., Tate Rink, West Point, NY

The first semester dealt some tough blows to UMass-Amherst, beginning with the bad omen of top recruit Jeff Turner breaking his leg in the first practice and on to the succession of one- and two-goal losses, including three in overtime. The Minutemen, it seems, can’t catch a break.

"To a man, we feel that the record doesn’t tell the full story," says coach Joe Mallen. "We’ve got eight losses right now that have been by either one or two goals. We’re not happy to have the number of losses that we have, but the majority of those losses were to the top 15 teams in the country….

"You don’t want to make excuses for losses, but there’s no question that the people here at Amherst look at Hockey East as being the ACC of hockey. And when they talk to basketball people about the ACC, they just say, ‘Oh, my.’

"Early in the season I was out scouting some games. I went out to see BC play. I went out to see Merrimack play. I went to see Lowell play. And I said to myself, ‘These are really fine hockey teams.’

"I look at our team and say that we have a really good hockey team, too. The results haven’t gotten there, but I do think the league is that strong this year. I think that the wins and losses are showing that our league should be the strongest league in the country."

So with Hockey East being as strong as it is, the onus is on the Minutemen to get some momentum going with a win over Army before resuming league games later in the month.

"Army is the one team that we’ve beaten consistently the last couple years," says Mallen. "However, we have a great deal of respect for Army because we know two things. They’re always going to be very hard-working. And they’re always going to be very well-conditioned.

"This year they seem to be clicking on all cylinders. I think that we’re looking at a real tough hockey game on Saturday. We’re putting a lot of time this week into preparing for them."

Army may be 0-7-0 against the conference Division I teams, but look at how close the Cadets are coming: 4-3 in overtime (Colgate), 2-1 in overtime (UMass-Lowell), 5-4 (Providence) and 4-3 (Merrimack). They continue to get most of their scoring from their big top line of Greg Buckmeier (4-5–9), Jon Toftey (4-4–8) and Andy Lundbohm (1-6–7). Defenseman Darren Clapprood and goaltender Daryl Chamberlain, both seniors, are the top cogs in the defensive end.

PICKS: In the battle of two close-but-no-cigar teams, UMass-Amherst gets the stogy, 3-2.

No. 5 New Hampshire

(12-3-0, 6-3-0 HEA) at Nebraska-Omaha (5-12-0, 4-8-0 vs. aligned D-I)

Wednesday (31st), 7 p.m., Civic Auditorium, Omaha, Nebraska

New Hampshire might have vaulted into a number two ranking if the Wildcats had been able to follow up a 5-3 win over No. 8 Colorado College with a win over No. 4 Miami, but instead fell 4-2 in the Denver Cup championship game. As a result, North Dakota and Miami leapfrogged them while they slid from number three to five.

The best news, however, was that Mark Mowers returned after missing three games. A harrowing hit from behind sidelined Mowers with a concussion that had all concerned thankful it wasn’t worse. The Wildcat captain not only returned, he assisted on two tallies in the win over Colorado College and scored a rebound goal against Miami to narrow the margin to 3-2 before an empty-netter sealed the Redhawks win.

The bad news, on the other hand, was that Tom Nolan picked up a game disqualification for a scuffle following the empty-netter. As a result, Nolan will miss the Nebraska-Omaha tilt.

Nebraska-Omaha has been in a tailspin of late, losing its last five and seven of the last eight. The Mavericks do have wins, however, over Air Force, UMass-Amherst, Union and a sweep over Denver. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the aligned D-I teams the wins came over have a combined 9-35-4 record. Taking on UNH is an entirely different animal.

The Mavericks do have some scoring prowess, though, led by: Derek Reynolds (4-13–17), Billy Pugliese (9-6–15), Andrew Tortorella (6-7–13), Jason Cupp (7-5–12) and James Chalmers (5-6–11). Jason Mitchell (3.03 GAA, .896 Sv%) is the top dog in the nets.

PICK: With four players already in the top 10 in nationwide scoring, UNH hardly needs this taking-candy-from-babies mismatch to fatten its statistics. The 8,000-plus UNO loyalists should be wowed by the best offense in the country. UNH 7-1.

Niagara (5-4-0, 0-4-0 vs. D-I) at Merrimack (6-9-1, 2-6-0 HEA)

Niagara (5-4-0, 0-4-0 vs. D-I) at No. 1 Boston University (11-2-2, 5-1-2 HEA)

Friday, 7 p.m., Volpe Complex, North Andover, MA

Saturday, 7 p.m., Walter Brown Arena, Boston, MA

Although the "big" game for Merrimack this week is on Sunday against UMass-Lowell, it resumes post-holiday play on Friday against Niagara.

Coached by former BU assistant Blaise MacDonald, the Purple Eagles are composed of nine freshmen and 22 sophomores (no juniors or seniors). They are led by the scoring of Mikko Sivonen (8-3–11) and Peter Desantis (4-7–11) and the goaltending of Greg Gardner (2.00 GAA, .900 Sv%). (All Niagara statistics are prior to this past weekend’s tournament action.)

The Purple Eagles might have looked like a gimme before the season, but since then have proved anything but. Although they still have yet to beat or tie an aligned Division I team, they certainly have given opposing coaches a few gray hairs.

Last year they lost respectably to Yale 5-3 in their only such contest, while this year the scores have been more of the same: 4-2 (Rennselaer), 2-0 (Cornell), 4-3 in overtime (Colgate) and 5-1 (Clarkson).

Small wonder, then, that Merrimack coach Ron Anderson isn’t taking anything for granted.

"I don’t know any teams on the schedule that are automatic Ws," he says. "I wish there was a way to have that, but there aren’t any."

As a result, Anderson can be expected to start top goalie Cris Classen, winner of Hockey East’s Player of the Week award prior to Christmas, over backup Tom Welby, and similarly ride his top horses.

"We need to play our best 21 players," says Anderson. "This time of year it’s time to rev it up and get ready for the stretch run. You play your best players; all the experimenting is done."

Niagara will then go from the proverbial frying pan into the fire, taking on Boston University at Walter Brown Arena. The Terriers should be snarling after being upset 3-2 Tuesday night by Princeton.

Although BU’s senior class led by Chris Drury has been the deciding factor for the Terriers, seven freshmen have been seeing regular action. Juha Vuori (7-5–12) has been the top rookie forward while Joe DiPenta has played well on the blue line. Although forwards Carl Corazzini, Scott Perry, Nick Gillis and Russ Bartlett haven’t matched the older Vuori’s numbers, they still are exhibiting greater confidence as the season progresses. In particular, Corazzini has been flying up and down the ice and could be set to take off.

"I’m pleased with all of them," says coach Jack Parker. "They’ve all gotten a lot of ice time. Obviously, we didn’t pay a big price for playing them a lot. We’re [11-2-2].

"Everyone seems to be getting a little bit stronger and a little bit more confident. Juha Vuori is just playing better and better every game. Joe DiPenta played real well starting out and then had a little bit of a lapse. Now he’s playing real well again. We’re real dependable with guys like Perry, Corazzini, Gillis and those guys. We’re real happy with them."

PICK: Niagara takes it on the chin, losing 4-1 to Merrimack and 6-1 to BU.

Saskatoon Chill Out

No. 10 Northeastern (10-5-2, 6-3-2 HEA) at Saskatchewan, Regina and Queen’s/Saskatchewan

All games at Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. (EXHIBITION) Thursday, 7 p.m., vs. Saskatchewan Friday, 2 p.m., vs. Regina Saturday, TBA, vs. Queen’s/Saskatchewan

Northeastern was the lone Hockey East team to emerge from a tournament with the championship. Led by tournament MVP Marc Robitaille’s 40 saves, the Huskies followed up a 4-2 win over Notre Dame with another 4-2 victory, this one over the host Minnesota Golden Gophers and their 9,000-plus fans. Any win over the Gophers in Mariucci Arena is a significant feat, let alone in a tournament championship.

Freshman defenseman Mike Jozefowicz, sophomore defenseman Aaron Toews and sophomore forward Roger Holeczy joined Robitaille on the all-tournament team.

The Huskies now proceed directly to Saskatchewan, about which coach Bruce Crowder once quipped that "when the cable goes out, you watch the Northern lights."

"We put this together because I felt that we were going to be a young team and the more games that we could play, the better off they were going to be," says Crowder. "It’s basically three exhibition games that aren’t going to count against us one way or the other, but, at the same time, will be an opportunity to add three games to our schedule under the foreign tour umbrella."

PICKS: Who knows Saskatchewan, Regina or Queen’s from a hole in the wall? Who cares? Now isn’t the time to start picking against college hockey’s biggest surprise. Huskies rule, 4-1 against all comers.