This Week in Hockey East: January 16, 1998

Only two points separate the first-place and seventh-place teams. Boston University, New Hampshire and Providence have the edge with either two or three games in hand against the rest, but who knows how this league is going to shake out?

Boston College had the best week of them all, taking three of four points from BU (a 4-2 win) and Maine (a scoreless tie). The Black Bears also went 3-for-4, adding a 7-6 overtime barnburner over Merrimack to the tie with the Eagles.

New Hampshire and UMass-Lowell were left all dressed up with no place to go when ice storms canceled their trip to the North Country and tilts against Clarkson and St. Lawrence.

Maine’s Alfie Michaud earned KOHO Player of the Week honors with 51 saves against Merrimack and the 42-save shutout against BC.

BC’s Scott Clemmensen parlayed his 4-2 win over BU and shutout against Maine into a Rookie of the Week award.

Last week’s record in picks: 4-4

Season’s record in picks: 79-44

No. 3 Boston University (13-3-2, 6-2-2 HEA) vs.

Northeastern (12-6-2, 6-4-2 HEA)

Friday, 7 p.m., Matthews Arena, Boston, MA TV-SCNE

Saturday, 7 p.m., Walter Brown Arena, Boston, MA WABU-TV68

Boston University saw its recent 18-1-4 stranglehold on Boston College broken with a 4-2 loss at Conte Forum. As a result, the Terriers complete their regular season series with the Eagles with a 1-1-1 record, that, coincidentally or not, matches their record against UNH.

"It seemed like we were trying not to make something bad happen instead of having fun playing," said coach Jack Parker. "Now, something they would consider awful has happened — they lost a game to BC. That’ll happen more often.

"They’ve got to get used to playing hard and enjoying the process and not thinking, ‘I hope we don’t lose.’ We can’t play that way against anybody, especially against Boston College."

Parker experimented by moving freshman Carl Corazzini to right wing on Chris Drury’s line, breaking up the long-time pairing of Drury with Mike Sylvia. By the third period, however, Parker had put his two top-scoring forwards back together again.

"With Albie O’Connell out, we wanted to get a little more balance on the three lines," said Parker. "But I thought that Corazzini, a freshman, was having a hard time playing with Drury. You feel a lot of pressure to get the puck to him. I thought Corazzini played well, but all in all would have been more comfortable playing with his buddy Scott Perry."

With all four of his left wings sidelined for parts of the season, Parker has had to shift players from other positions to cover for the absences. The latest such adjustment was moving freshman defenseman Keith Emery, who had been the seventh man on the blue line depth chart, to left wing where he scored the second goal against BC.

"He’s a hockey player," said Parker. "He knows how to play. We’ve been really banged up… so it was [mandatory] that we find some other guys that could play left wing. We lucked out that Emery is such a smart player that he could just jump in there.

"I don’t think he’d practiced a day there until we played him there one game. He will be very valuable to us that way. He’s almost like a couple guys who have played with us in the past that can move up or back depending on where the injuries are.

"We’ll see where he goes in the next few months. In the long run, we’ll always consider him a defenseman, but it’s nice that he can play up front."

Parker will also be looking at shifting a center or right wing to the left side so he won’t get caught again without players comfortable on that side.

Following the loss to BC, the Terriers went into the final minute of play against Providence tied in a scoreless game. Only a Jeff Kealty goal with 36 seconds remaining prevented an overtime. The 1-0 win appeared to be the latest evidence that the Ice Dogs are sputtering in the offensive end.

"I don’t think there’s any question that we hadn’t generated as much offense as we’d like up until the Providence game," said Parker. "But I thought in the Providence game, we generated a lot of offense; we just didn’t score goals. But we had a lot of opportunities. Their goalie played real well and our goalie played really well too. It could have been a 5-5 game.

"But since even before break, we hadn’t been generating much offense. That happens sometimes when half your forwards are freshman. They’re also doing a good job of mugging Chris Drury. He’s having a hard time getting on track.

"When we get people healthy and get O’Connell and [Tommi] Degerman back, we’ll have a little bit more size and a little bit more maturity and a little bit more experience up front. That will take some of the pressure off Chris and also give us a little better opportunity on the power play, which is where we’re really hurting.

"Sometimes when you get two regular goals and two on the power play, it looks like you’ve got some offense. Our power play has been anemic lately."

Drury, considered to be a near shoo-in for the Hobey Baker Award going into the season, is only 12th in Hockey East in overall scoring with 13 goals and 11 assists in 18 games.

"The puck isn’t going in the net for him as easily as it was jumping in last year," said Parker. "That will turn around any moment. There’s no question that everyone is keying on Chris Drury.

"I think there could be a little more enforcement of the rules, especially with the clutching and the grabbing with Chris, but I’m not worried about him getting up there in the 30-goal category. He’ll be there soon. It’s just a matter of him breaking out. He had some great chances the other night, but the puck just didn’t go in the net for him."

O’Connell remains questionable for this week’s home-and-home with Northeastern, as is Degerman. Both are out with shoulder injuries. Degerman is the better bet to play, but the Terriers could have both or they could have neither.

In facing Northeastern, BU has the opportunity to take first place away from the upstart Huskies, who were picked to finish last but have sat atop Hockey East since the beginning of December. Pragmatists have pointed out that the Huntington Avenue underdogs have yet to face BU, UNH or Maine and have attached an asterisk to their position in the standings.

"They’re just like Lowell was when Bruce [Crowder] was there," said Parker. "People weren’t giving them credit and then all of a sudden, there they were.

"Northeastern has had a great run. They’ve done it with what is not surprising, great goaltending and great team defense. They’ve beaten a lot of good teams and they’re a team to be reckoned with."

Northeastern dropped its only game last weekend, 6-4, to Providence. The loss snapped an eight-game unbeaten streak in Division I play.

"I didn’t think we played well," said coach Bruce Crowder. "Providence came out and took it to us in the third period. It was 4-4 and a pretty even game going into the third, but they stepped it up a notch and we weren’t able to keep pace. It wasn’t even so much the 6-4 score, but I think they hit three goalposts in the third period. They pretty much dominated us the last 20 minutes.

"Obviously, we’re going to take things from the game and minimize the mistakes that we’ve been doing. We had actually been a little fortunate in the last few games in terms of getting away with things that we’re not going to get away with down the road. Providence showed us a little better our mistakes. We’re just going to try to regroup here a little bit."

The BU match-up gives the Huskies the opportunity to prove their doubters wrong. Their comparatively weak schedule to date will be forgotten with an impressive weekend against the third-ranked Terriers.

"It’s a good opportunity for us," said Crowder. "Everybody’s been talking all year about how we’ve been doing this and we’re doing that, but we haven’t played this team or that team. Now we’re playing this or that team. I’m looking forward as a coach just to see where we are and how we match up."

Although some teams have tried matching a checking line or defensive pairing against Drury, Crowder isn’t so sure that such a strategy makes sense for his team.

"I don’t know if we have the capability of matching a line against them," he said. "I don’t know if many teams in the country have the ability to match a line against them. I just want our guys to go out there and play.

"I think there’s going to be a nice atmosphere on Friday with SportsChannel coming in here and doing the game. For us, we’re looking forward to playing BU just to see where we stand."

PICKS: The Huskies almost pull it off at home, losing 3-2, and then take it on the chin, 5-2, at Walter Brown Arena.

No. 4 New Hampshire (14-4-1, 6-3-1 HEA) at Maine (9-7-3, 6-5-2 HEA)

Friday, Saturday, 7 p.m., Alfond Arena, Orono, ME

New Hampshire got as far as Burlington, Vermont last weekend on the way to the North Country, but the promise of power outages and ice storms sent them back to Durham. For the Wildcats, the game cancellations couldn’t have come at a worse time since their last game was on Dec. 31.

"We scrimmaged amongst ourselves this weekend and tried to make it as game-like as possible," said coach Dick Umile. "We had two good scrimmages with some pretty good guys going against each other, but it’s not the same as playing games.

"You don’t get the exact game situations. No matter how much you prepare for it and try to make it game-like, it isn’t. So you do the best you can do and, who knows, maybe the rest helps you, maybe it hurts you. You don’t know until you get there. We just have to start up as if we’d played this past weekend and get ready for a weekend of hockey up in Maine."

Although it isn’t yet definite, the games aren’t likely to be made up. There are no weekends when teams both have only one game, and with the travel time required for the trip, weekdays aren’t an attractive alternative.

So all attention turns to the two games in Orono. Although the defensive shell that Maine employed against BC was forced by manpower shortages, Black Bear coach Shawn Walsh could opt for the same approach against UNH, the top offensive team in the country.

"If he does that this weekend, who knows?" said Umile. "It’s a situation you prepare for each week. You don’t know what teams are going to do. We could go up to Maine with the small rink and they come after us. If that’s the case, we have to deal with it.

"The guys are aware when teams are playing a trap and whether they’re defensive or aggressive. You just have to be ready for both and fight through whatever forecheck or setup is there. We’ll worry about that when the weekend comes."

Maine opened a three-point weekend with a bizarre 7-6 overtime win over Merrimack. The Black Bears led 6-3 in the third period, but faced a five-minute major and five-on-three disadvantage with the lead down to 6-4 and eight minutes left. The Warriors scored once on the major penalty and added an extra-skater goal to send the game into overtime. A Marcus Gustafsson tally just 1:20 into the OT, however, gave the Black Bears the two points.

"It was just two different games," said Walsh. "Until the incident happened that changed the complexion of the game [with eight minutes left], I really liked the way we played. We gave up one even-strength goal. I was very pleased, because we were coming off that long layoff. We played well."

Although the Black Bears escaped the Merrimack contest without the third-period penalties hurting them, the game disqualifications given to Shawn Wansborough and Brian White combined with other absences and injuries to leave them woefully shorthanded against BC.

As a result, Walsh opted for a very defensive strategy, one which paid off with a point against the Eagles.

"Sorry to have to bore you guys to death," Walsh said to the press after the game, "but that’s what we had to do. It was Pat Burns hockey.

"This was a big point for us. We’ve put ourselves back in the picture for home ice, where I wasn’t sure that was the case after [being swept in early December by] Providence.

"We played eight freshmen tonight. When we get some regulars back in our lineup, that’s going to help our lineup a lot."

As goaltender Alfie Michaud walked by, Walsh said, "If this guy isn’t Player of the Week, I don’t know who will be. Way to go, kid."

Walsh turned out to be correct. Michaud totaled 93 saves on the weekend, including 42 for the shutout against BC, to take league’s top weekly honor.

"I don’t like to look to the past, but last year I turned it up a couple notches the last half of the season," said Michaud after the BC game. "I know I didn’t have a very good first half [of the season.] I’m going to make up for it.

"It’s a lot easier when you’re not facing those second shots. I saw everything out there and the guys did a nice job of clearing out the rebounds. I’m just happy we came out of here with a point."

Walsh points to Michaud’s strong play starting against Lowell in December following the disastrous weekend at Providence.

"I take a lot of the blame for Alfie’s first half," said Walsh following his goaltender’s shutout. "I wasn’t as sharp as I should have been in terms of [how we were] covering open people. [Now,] we’ve decided to let Alfie see the puck. If we don’t make him have to worry about any back door plays, he’ll stop it.

"That’s what happened tonight. He saw the shots and he made the saves. That’s what happened the whole second half of last year.

"He’s a great goaltender when he’s allowed to play goal. When he had to worry about the back door [earlier this season] because of our young defense, it was killing us. It took me a while to figure it out."

The Black Bears now enter their toughest stretch of the season. In their next five games, they face UNH three times and BU twice. If they can survive that sequence, the home stretch is a lot more inviting: three games with Northeastern, another three against UMass-Amherst and two more against Nebraska-Omaha.

PICKS:Maine’s best bet is catching the Wildcats rusty on Friday night. UNH squeaks that one out, 4-3, and takes the back end 5-3.

No. 10 Boston College (12-6-3, 6-4-2 HEA) vs.

Providence College (12-6-1, 6-4-0 HEA)

Friday, 7 p.m., Conte Forum, Chestnut Hill, MA

Saturday, 7 p.m., Schneider Arena, Providence, RI

Boston College broke an unenviable 1-18-4 skein against BU with a 4-2 win that had Eagle fans proclaiming the death of the gorilla that had been hunkered down on their backs.

"We’re getting there, but we’re not there yet," said coach Jerry York. "It’s a significant win when you beat a team of that caliber, but that’s only our second win over them in our last 25 games.

"It’s hard to beat the number one team; we’re not the only ones that have a hard time beating BU. They’ve controlled Eastern hockey here for a number of years.

"Certainly, we have better players now. That’s evident when you watch. But it’s one victory; let’s not make a mountain out of it."

Goaltender Scott Clemmensen surrendered goals on the first two shots he faced, but shut out the Terriers from that point on.

"That was really important for him, especially starting down, 2-0," said York. "It’s hard to hang in there. It was good, strong play by him."

The Eagles then almost completed a four-point, BU-Maine weekend, but had to settle for a scoreless tie after outshooting the Black Bears 42-17.

"We got three out of four points and even more importantly, we played well both nights," said York. "It was just a different type of game than what we’re used to. I thought we reacted well to it. We got a lot of shots. It made it kind of a dump-and-chase kind of game for us.

"You’ve got to learn to play all types of games. The trap is coming back into vogue in hockey, so we’ll have to respond to whatever style we see."

In Providence, the Eagles are taking on a team that has built its reputation on defensive play in past years.

"You have to be able to adapt to any style," said York. "In a league of this number of teams, there are going to be a lot of different types of styles. We just have to adapt and play through it."

Providence almost took four points on the weekend as well, but had to settle for two. The Friars opened with a 6-4 win over Northeastern.

"The difference certainly wasn’t goaltending, because both goaltenders played very well," said coach Paul Pooley. "We played well, but every time we broke down, they scored. We worked hard and we were physical, but it was touch-and-go. It could have gone either way."

Their game the next night against BU could have gone either way, too, going scoreless until the final minute when Terrier defenseman Jeff Kealty scored to send the Friars home disappointed.

"The goaltending was great for both sides," said Pooley. "Boyd Ballard was great and [Tom] Noble played very well, especially in the first period when we were on him a little bit.

"It was a good game. Both teams played well defensively and had some opportunities. It was a game that we could have won. I was disappointed that we didn’t. They had a couple injuries and were coming off an emotional game against BC. We had started feeling pretty good about ourselves after beating Northeastern.

"But it was just one of those things. That’s why they’re champions. They find a way to get it done."

As has been the case since Pooley took over three and a half years ago, the Friars have been getting it done in recent weeks on the strength of team defense.

"That’s the key for us," he said. "We’re not going to open it up against teams and have any success.

"We’re playing pretty well system-wise. It seems when we’re breaking down, a couple times we’re breaking down one-on-one as opposed to breaking down as a team."

The PC blue line, however, has been banged up. Richard Miller has been out with a stress fracture in his foot. He could return this weekend. Dave Gunderson separated a shoulder, returned for three more shifts because the team was short, but then got hit again. This forced Pooley to move freshman swingman Mike Farrell back on the blue line, where, according to Pooley, "He was outstanding."

Up front, where Jerry Keefe has been out with a broken thumb and appears another three weeks away, Providence has been inconsistent.

"When the guys that need to score for us score, we play well," said Pooley. "In the games against Dartmouth and Colgate" — all losses — "our big guys didn’t score. But against Northeastern, Fernando [Pisani] had four points. Against BU, he wasn’t there. He didn’t score.

"When Drury scores for BU, they have a chance to win. When [Mike] Omicioli and Pisani are on for us, we have a chance to win. The other guys are doing a great job of scoring and chipping in, but Mike and Fernando get most of the ice time, so that’s what we have to have happen."

Pooley and his staff will be studying the tapes of BC this past weekend — both games were on TV — in preparation for the upcoming home-and-home series.

"They’re a very, very good hockey club," he said. "They can dangle. They’re very skilled. We know what makes us stay in the ballpark with them. We’re going to have to beat them with defense, get good goaltending and stay out of the penalty box. There’s no secret to that."

PICKS:The Eagles sweep 3-2, 4-3, in a two-game set that could go either way.

Merrimack (7-12-1, 2-8-0 HEA) vs. UMass-Amherst (3-13-2, 0-8-1 HEA)

Friday, 7 p.m., Mullins Center, Amherst, MA

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

Merrimack scored 13 goals in two games and didn’t get a point. The Warriors rallied to force overtime against Maine, but fell 7-6. They then took Colgate into the third period even, but lost 10-7.

They are averaging 6.30 goals-against in Hockey East games, two more than any other team, and 5.10 overall. All three goaltenders who have seen action now have goals-against averages over six in league games.

Right now, the Warriors can’t win for losing. When they open it up, no one can stop them. Unfortunately, they can’t stop anyone else either and they lose a shootout. When they play more defensively, they lose 3-2 games instead.

"We’re happy with the way we’re playing offensively, but we’re doing that at the expense of team defense," said coach Ron Anderson. "With inexperience on defense and inexperience in goal, we have to play better as a unit defensively. The tradeoff is not a good swap."

Anderson rode his thoroughbreds almost exclusively down the stretch against Maine. The drastically shortened bench put the game into overtime, but couldn’t hold on for the point.

"You can’t win with six or seven players, so you try to stretch your lineup as much as you can over the course of a game," said Anderson. "But when it gets to critical junctures, everybody shortens their bench a lot. Obviously, when we were down by three in the third period, it might have been too late to shorten the bench, but we couldn’t have done it much sooner than that. Fortunately for us, we had enough to get it back, we just didn’t have enough to pull it off in the overtime."

Anderson made two interesting moves midway through the game against Colgate, breaking up the second line of Martin Laroche, Casey Kesselring and Sandy Cohen. Laroche joined Kris Porter and Rejean Stringer — all three are in the top five nationally in scoring — on the first line. Kesselring, the team’s number four scorer, moved to the blue line.

"They weren’t having a good night anyway, so we put all the eggs in one basket," said Anderson. "That line did well, but I’m not sure what we’ll do this weekend. It’s pretty dangerous to have them all together."

Dangerous for both sides. Laroche scored a hat trick; Porter’s two goals put him atop the nation in that category with 24 and he added two assists; Stringer’s three assists added to his nation-leading total of 29. The flip side, of course, is that the second line went away. With parts of the Merrimack defense struggling, Kesselring could stay on the blue line.

"We’ll have to look at him in practice this week to see if he can really play back there," said Anderson. "It was just a matter of disassembling that line in the middle of the game so he became available. Our defense was having some problems as well, so he provided another body for us to take a look at back there."

Anderson also tried another body between the pipes in the Colgate game. Roland Sperlich got his first start of the year, but was yanked after three first-period goals. Cris Classen replaced him, but surrendered six more in less than 28 minutes, so Sperlich returned. He gave up Colgate’s final tally.

"He’s a freshman that we’re trying to get some playing time for," said Anderson. "It’s a chance for us to get a look at him. He didn’t play particularly poorly, but I don’t think either starting goaltender played particularly well. [Both coaches] rolled the dice a little bit" — Colgate started backup Shep Harder before summoning Dan Brenzavich for the final period — "and it was still a pretty good game until we actually got our [goaltending] starters in there. They gained the advantage at that point."

After the lost weekend, eighth-place Merrimack turns to two games against ninth-place UMass-Amherst this weekend. Although the Warriors faced a murderous first-half schedule that helped put them near the cellar, eighth place is eighth place. If they are going to make a second-half move, these two games reach an almost must-win status.

"All you have to do is look at the standings," said Anderson. "Anybody can add. Obviously, they’re important games for us.

"On the other hand, we’re not even halfway through our Hockey East schedule yet, so there still are a lot of games to play. It’s not like this week will make or break the season for us, but it’s an important weekend for us, no question about it."

UMass-Amherst teetered on the brink of disaster, following up the previous week’s 5-0 loss to Army (its most lopsided win over an aligned Division I team in many years) with a 6-2 loss to Air Force on Friday night. A third such loss on Saturday might have gotten the band to playing "Nearer My God to Thee."

The Minutemen salvaged the weekend, however, and perhaps the season, with a 3-0 win over the Falcons.

"On Friday night, their coach was quoted as saying that it was the best he’d ever seen a team of his play in 15 years," said coach Joe Mallen. "They got unbelievable goaltending from Aaron Ratfield. We couldn’t score early and they wound up building a lead and went from there.

"The win on Saturday night hopefully was a step in the right direction for us. Some of the things we showed on Saturday night were pride and getting back to some of the basics that we need to do to win hockey games. It was a strong effort. Let’s hope that there’s some positive momentum going into our Hockey East schedule."

Until the three service academy games, the Minutemen had been playing tough against good teams. No one likes to lose, but the games could at least be considered progress along the pothole-infested road from expansion team to becoming one of the elite. The lopsided losses in the first two service academy games, however, raised the specter of a team that had become discouraged with its record and had quit.

"The one thing we do have here is some really hard-working kids," said Mallen. "The biggest problem we’ve had has been goal scoring. What’s been happening is that we’ve gotten ourselves into a jam where we’ve had breakaways and two-on-ones and great scoring opportunities, but not been able to score.

"Then they’ve come back and gotten a goal. That’s taken a lot of wind out of our sails in some games. With a couple of goals here and there in the first or second period in any of those games, then it becomes a different game.

"We were also playing at Army and at Air Force. I thought the games were well-officiated this weekend, but you do run into different officiating in different leagues. And a capacity crowd at Army is 2300 and they had 2900 in the building.

"We’ve been in so many games down to the wire, that those two games were a little bit of frustration on our part. There’s not much we can do about that now. We just have to move forward. We still think that we can beat anybody in this league on any given night. We just have to prove it."

One of the biggest surprises has been Tim Lovell’s lack of scoring. The former All-Hockey East forward figured in all of the team’s first six goals in the season’s opening two games. Since then, Lovell has scored only three points in the last 16 games, although he didn’t play in three of them. His last point came on Nov. 22.

"Going back to the Princeton game [on Dec. 12], he severely sprained an ankle," said Mallen. "He played both games this past weekend, but he hasn’t been 100 percent for quite a while. That certainly puts a dent in our power play, our penalty kill and our regular scoring.

"He should be 100 percent by Friday night for Merrimack. He can give us the offensive spark. With the exception of the two service academy games, we’ve been one goal away a lot of nights.

"He went out of the Princeton game after four shifts and he went out of the Vermont game with a penalty, which was his fault, but if you count those two games, he’s probably missed five of the first 15 games. That makes a big difference, especially with his leadership."

If a healthy Lovell can make a difference, so too can top recruit Jeff Turner, who saw his first action against Air Force after breaking his leg in the season’s first practice. Turner, one of the top scorers in the United States Hockey League (USHL) last year, required three screws in his leg and a ligament to be reattached because of the injury. He’s a speedburner who could be an important contributor in the second half.

"He had a major, major injury," said Mallen. "His comeback, to be able to come back at this time, was nothing short of courageous. I’m not so sure that one guy can turn your whole team around, but the impact of him being out the whole first half of the year [was significant.]

"I thought that Jeff could anchor a second or third line for us. Those two lines have really been without a lot of stability. That’s the key about Jeff coming back, because now we can have that kind of stability on the second and third lines. That’s been a real shortcoming on our part."

Whenever a speed-oriented player suffers such a severe injury, sometimes he doesn’t fully return to 100 percent until the following year.

"The instincts are there," said Mallen. "His instincts in both games were very good. Now he just needs to get up to speed in terms of his timing. When he does that, we’ll see a very good freshman player for us."

A lot rides on this weekend for the Minutemen. Although the season is only half over, the cluster of seven teams all within two points of themselves at the top of Hockey East leaves Merrimack as their best bet for climbing out of the cellar and qualifying for the eighth and final playoff spot.

"They’re a good team and they can score a lot of goals," said Mallen. "We have a lot of respect for them. We’ve just got to be very careful defensively with Porter, Stringer, Kesselring and those guys. They definitely have some of the better firepower in the league.

"But it’s a two-way game. We need to score some goals, but we also need to keep them off the board. So we’re just going to stick to our basic game plan.

"We have to win as many games as we can in the second half. Our team, on a lot of nights this year, has risen to the level of play of the opponent. We’ve played well against BC and BU and against different teams for long stretches. Now the question is, what level are we going to play this weekend?

"All of our team understands the significance of these two games. We’re at a point where every game is a ‘must win’ game for us with the record we have so far."

PICKS: Merrimack plays it tighter to the vest and sweeps 5-3 and 4-2.

Yale (12-4-0, 9-2-0 ECAC) at UMass-Lowell (8-8-2, 5-5-2 HEA)

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

Like New Hampshire, UMass-Lowell missed out on its trip to Clarkson and St. Lawrence last weekend. In the River Hawks’ case, sitting out last weekend was especially galling since the team had been playing its best hockey of late.

Coming out of the break, they had smoked Colgate 7-1 and Merrimack 8-4. Scott Fankhouser was playing between the pipes better than at any time of his collegiate career and Greg Koehler and Jeff Boulanger were leading a suddenly torrid offense.

This case of hotstreakus interruptus was about as welcome as the case of mono that sidelined All-Hockey East defenseman Mike Nicholishen.

"We did some scrimmaging at the end of last week, but then we gave them two days off," said coach Tim Whitehead. "We wanted the guys fresh this week. Then we practiced very hard on [Tuesday and Wednesday], so we should be ready to go by Saturday."

Saturday will be Lowell’s only game against the weekend, but it’ll be a tough one. Yale is one of the top defensive clubs in the country.

"We definitely have a lot of respect for how they play the game," said Whitehead. "Any time you’re playing a team that has their goals-against as low as they do, you know that you can’t make any mistakes. If you do, and they get a couple-goal lead on you, it’s going to be tough to come back on them. They don’t give up a ton of shots and they don’t give up a ton of goals. We’re going to have to be sharp ourselves defensively and make sure we don’t turn the puck over."

Nicholishen has been cleared to practice, but isn’t likely to see action until the following week against Providence.

Mark Fontas has finally gotten through the NCAA Clearinghouse and is now eligible to play. The offensive defenseman from the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers had been in limbo, unable to even practice with the team, until receiving Clearinghouse approval.

"He’s learning some of the systems," said Whitehead. "It’s going to take him some adjustment to know what we’re doing on the ice as a team. That’s another hurdle for him."

With Chris Libett out until February with a torn medial collateral ligament in his elbow, Fontas could see some action. Shawn Hebert, who missed the Jan.4 Merrimack tilt returns.

Yale has "pulled a Northeastern" this year. The Bulldogs finished tenth last year in the ECAC and were projected in the preseason coaches’ poll to stay right there. Like Hockey East’s Northeastern Huskies, however, Yale has leaped to the top of its league and now holds a five-point lead on the field.

Unlike Northeastern’s youth-movement resurgence, the Bulldogs are featuring experience, playing only one freshman on a regular basis.

Ray Giroux, one of the top defensemen in the country, leads the ECAC in blue line scoring with a 4-12–16 line in 16 games. What’s more, he’s great defensively, too. The tandem of Giroux and Daryl Jones (1-7–8), is a force to be reckoned with.

The veteran Yale blue line combines with goaltender Alex Westlund, until this year one of the best-kept secrets in college hockey, to boast the ECAC’s stingiest defense, allowing only 2.25 goals a game.

The Bulldog’s limited offense (3.25 goals a game) is led by the flashy Jeff Hamilton (11-12-23). Their special teams are remarkable. Their power play (20.3 percent) leads the ECAC and their penalty kill (87.2 percent) ranks second.

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

PICK: Yale 4-2.

Brown (4-11-1, 4-7-1 ECAC) at

Northeastern (12-6-2, 6-4-2 HEA)

Tuesday, 7 p.m., Matthews Arena, Boston, MA

Northeastern will be coming off its put-up-or-shut-up I-don’t-get-no-respect weekend with Boston University. This Tuesday night match-up then sets off all kinds of alarms. If the Huskies do well against BU, will they be full of themselves and emotionally drained? And if they don’t do well, will they be on an emotional downer?

"If we were a real established team, that could happen either way," said coach Bruce Crowder. "But with us still being so young and every game being so important for us to use to get better, I don’t see it being a problem that way.

"We had a chance to see Brown play pretty much two games out in Minnesota. The first night, they played Minnesota real tough. The next night, I thought they played even better against Notre Dame.

"And they beat Dartmouth this weekend and Dartmouth beat Providence 4-1. The way the hockey season is going this year, you just can’t look past anybody."

Brown is led by captain Damian Prescott (11-7–18) and John DiRenzo (5-11–16) up front and unconventional goaltender Jeff Holowaty (4.01 GAA, .894 SV%).

Although their 4-11-1 record isn’t impressive, the Bears have two wins and a tie in their last three games.

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

PICK: Northeastern 5-2.