In this space three weeks ago, I promised Wildcat followers an unconditional trip to the Final Four in April. Since then, the team that seemingly had everything has appeared hexed. UNH now has lost four of its last five games.
Like a character with special powers in a Stephen King novel, I should have known better.
The first "permanent" full-time job I ever had began on the first of the month. On the fifth, I bought a new car. On the 31st, the company went out of business.
A few years later, I joined a company growing at over a 25 percent rate every year. Its stock sold at over $32 a share. Within a few years, this giant that had employed over 32,000 people was imploding to a fraction of its former size, its stock in free fall and on the way to bankruptcy.
Let’s face it. I have a reverse Midas touch. Much of what I come in contact with turns into what dogs leave on your lawn.
Surely the only reason USCHO’s owner isn’t a millionaire is because he’s got the human boat anchor covering Hockey East.
Well, it’s time to remove the whammy that I inadvertently put on UNH.
For the record, I am now convinced that the Wildcats will not win another game this year. They will not win a single game next year. They will not win another game this decade. They will not win another game this millennium.
There. That should do it. The world can now return to normalcy, so long as the hockey gods don’t read my picks below.
In other league happenings, or in this case non-happenings, rumors have been rampant that Shawn Walsh will be coaching elsewhere next year. So, is there any chance he’ll be leaving Maine?
"No," says Walsh. "I’m really excited about our recruiting class and am anxious to project not just to next year, but [another] year away. I’m looking forward to the future.
"I haven’t talked to anybody and nobody’s talked to me. That’s typical for comments this time of year."
Fox New England will broadcast games on Thursday, Saturday and, if any quarterfinals are still active, Sunday. However, only the Thursday night contest, Providence at Boston College, has been decided.
Speaking of the Eagles, they took two of three league honors given out this week.
Brian Gionta continued his recent monopoly of the Rookie of the Week award, winning it for the third time in four weeks by virtue of his two goals and four assists. Linemate Marty Reasoner took a share of the KOHO Player of the Week award with his four goals and three assists, points which vaulted him into a tie with Tom Nolan atop the list of scorers in Hockey East games.
Sharing Player of the Week honors with Reasoner was Martin Fillion, whose shutout of UNH propelled UMass-Lowell into the number-five playoff seed.
Final Hockey East Standings
Last week’s record in picks: 3-4 (I hate ties!)
Season’s record in picks: 118-65, .645
No. 1 seed vs. No. 8 seed Merrimack (9-24-1, 4-20-0 HEA, 8th) at No. 2 Boston University (27-5-2, 18-4-2 HEA)
Friday, Saturday, Sunday (if necessary), 7 p.m., Walter Brown Arena, Boston, MA
Boston University stayed on a roll with a 5-2 win over Northeastern and a 9-1 stomping of Merrimack. As a result, the Terriers finish with 14 wins in their last 15 games and the top winning percentage in the country. Reportedly, the last BU team to claim the nation’s best percentage was in 1978, a year that ended with a 5-3 win over Boston College for the national championship.
Although the lopsided contest with Merrimack was a preview of this week’s matchup, coach Jack Parker dismissed any carryover effect.
"We wanted to get that record of the best team in the nation as far as winning percentage and continue on our piling up of wins as far as the NCAA tournament selection is concerned," said Parker after the game. "Those two things have no effect for Merrimack, so this game was biding their time for next week.
"They could have gotten beaten, 9-1, or they could have won, 5-4. I don’t think it would have an effect either way. And I don’t think it’ll have an effect on us either way. We know this wasn’t quite as important for Merrimack as it was for us. Next week, it’ll be real important for both of us.
"We’ve played some real battles with Merrimack over the years and know they’re a good team. There just wasn’t much there for them tonight."
BU’s storied senior class of Chris Drury, Chris Kelleher, Mike Sylvia, Tom Noble, Jeff Kealty and Peter Donatelli gave itself quite the regular-season sendoff against Merrimack. All of the senior skaters except Donatelli recorded goals in the blowout.
Of considerably more significance, the Thursday night win over Northeastern clinched a four-for-four record of Hockey East regular-season championships for that class.
"This could be one of the all-time great BU classes," said Parker. "They certainly have accomplished a lot so far, but I’m sure they realize that the biggest things are ahead of us.
"The Hockey East regular-season championships and Beanpot championships — four in a row for both of them — [are] quite a feather in this class’s cap, but they want to win something big at the end of the year, a Hockey East championship or an NCAA championship, or both. That’s what makes a real special BU hockey team."
Thinking of Merrimack coach Ron Anderson’s national championships in 1971 and 1972, the last back-to-back crowns in collegiate history, Parker added, "But you’ve got to go some to do better than Ron Anderson’s class here. They came in as freshmen and couldn’t play — they played on the freshman team.
"Then, in their sophomore and junior years, they won the national championship and then they all signed [pro contracts]," said Parker, laughing. "They played two years, won both national championships, and said, ‘Hey, you’ve got a nice little league here. We’re going home.’"
At least on the surface, the first step to another postseason crown is a gimme.
An excerpt from Hendrickson’s Dictionary:
going through the motions. See Merrimack against BU, Mar. 8, 1998.
Perhaps the Warriors were playing possum in their 9-1 loss. Perhaps, though, the possum is dead, decaying and stinking to high heaven.
Since starting the season with four wins in their first five games, including one each from top 10 teams Boston College and Ohio State, the Warriors have fallen and they can’t get up. They are 5-23-1 in their last 29, have lost a school-record 12 straight and haven’t beaten a conference team that qualified for the playoffs since Nov. 14.
Even so, there’s no lack of honor in losing an abundance of one- and two-goal games the way Merrimack has down the stretch. In fact, there’s much to respect in an overmatched underdog that keeps working in spite of long odds. The game on Sunday, however, is another story entirely. It’s one thing to go down fighting, but quite another to roll over and die.
"There’s not much I can say," said outgoing coach Ron Anderson after the game. "We were so overmatched today, it didn’t matter what we tried. We didn’t play a smart game or a disciplined game. We didn’t play with much effort either.
"It should provide the ultimate wakeup call. It can’t get any worse. As far as our performance today, we should be totally embarrassed and humiliated."
If the team repeats Sunday’s performance in the playoff games this week, and gives Anderson an I-don’t-care sendoff, it will regrettably be spitting on the accomplishments of the school’s most successful coach.
Goaltender Tom Welby, who as a substitute in the third period showed some spark, not to mention a good right hook in a tussle with Chris Drury, might be a likely candidate for the start. In limited action against the Terriers, he has played well, while Cris Classen played poorly as Sunday’s starter.
"The plan was to get [Welby] some work, ideally with the game still on the line," said Anderson. "We wanted to get him in there under a pressure situation. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way."
PICKS: The Warriors put out a reasonable effort in a Friday night 5-3 loss, but mail in a sad 6-1 season finale. Anderson deserves better.
No. 2 seed vs. No. 7 seed
Providence College (15-16-3, 9-13-2 HEA) at No. 5 Boston College (22-8-5, 15-5-4 HEA)
Thursday, Friday, Saturday (if necessary), 7 p.m., Conte Forum, Chestnut Hill, MA
Boston College almost rolled into the playoffs with a seven-game win streak, one that would have been its longest since a 10-game skein in the 1986-87 season. A mid-week 6-1 victory over UMass-Amherst put the Eagles on the brink.
Then, holding third-period leads of 4-1 and 5-3, BC appeared to have number seven until Northeastern scored three goals in just 54 seconds to grab a lead. Marty Reasoner evened the score, but the Eagles still had to kill two penalties in overtime to gain the tie.
"We had an edge in shots on goal," said coach Jerry York, "but once the momentum went to Northeastern, that’s the most difficult thing in college hockey to stem. Marty’s goal did that. We were down 6-5 and everything was going their way.
"It was a good hard game, the type of game the playoffs are going to have. Our ability to kill the two penalties [in overtime] and stop Northeastern’s surge were key."
BC finishes with 22 regular-season wins, the school’s best total since 1990-91, the last season it advanced to the NCAA tournament.
The Eagles now rank first in Hockey East in team offense, averaging 4.51 goals a game overall and 4.46 within the league. The power play, second overall at 27.5 percent and first within the league at 26.9, has now scored in 13 of the last 14 games.
And although there isn’t much to say about Brian Gionta and Reasoner that hasn’t already been said, the twosome has continued to score like gangbusters.
Reasoner, the league’s co-Player of the Week, totaled four goals and two assists on the week, including his first collegiate power play. As stunning as that fact may be, readers should remember that in his freshman year, Reasoner acted as more the playmaker for David Hymovitz than the finisher himself. Now, his 27 goals are proof that he finishes with the best of them.
Gionta is threatening many of the freshman scoring marks at the Heights. His 27 goals just passed Steve Heinze’s second-place mark from 1988-89 and tie him with Richie Smith (1972-73) for the team record. In points, he’s closing in on Ken Hodge’s 64 points in 1984-85 and Smith’s total of 58.
In mid-January, Boston College smoked its quarterfinal opponent, the Providence College Friars, 6-0 and 8-0, sending their freshman goaltender Boyd Ballard into a terrible slump. On Feb. 6, however, PC bounced back with a 3-3 tie.
"The two blowout games were not indicative of the teams," said York. "I thought the tie was more indicative of the two clubs. It’s going to be a battle.
"I had a chance to watch them [Friday] night against New Hampshire. Ballard is playing in goal and appears to be playing very well.
"Last year, two bottom teams advanced, so that’s a good warning to all the home ice teams. It should be a good series."
Providence lost to UNH 3-2, but erased any lingering doubts that Ballard is back to his early season form.
"He was unbelievable," said coach Paul Pooley. "He was tremendous. It could have been a lot worse."
The Friars honored their two seniors, Mike Mader and Nick Sinerate, the only remnants of Pooley’s initial freshman class.
"Mike has played forward and defense and been a great team guy," said Pooley. "He’s changed positions and done whatever he was asked to do. He’s always in great shape and he’s just a solid individual.
"He hasn’t played all that much all the time, but he’s playing pretty well right now in his senior year."
He’s actually playing well enough to move up to right wing on PC’s top line with Mike Omicioli and Fernando Pisani, giving the combination more size and also providing the shakeup that Pooley deemed necessary.
Sinerate remains more of a hustling role player than a first-liner, but nearly became the hero with several great chances in his final home game.
"He came here and played a lot his first year because we didn’t have the numbers, but then didn’t play much," said Pooley. "He’s really hung in there and been an asset to the program.
"He’s just a good kid, who adds a lot in the dressing room. He’s always worked hard, was in good shape, never complained and was just a quality kid you want to have on your team."
Whether Providence can both muster the offense it needs to be successful against BC and shut down the high-flying Eagles remains to be seen. Other than a two-game sweep of Merrimack recently, the Friars have only scored 19 goals in their last 14 games, during which they only won one and tied two others.
"Obviously, Boston College is a tough test for us," said Pooley. "We’ve got to be patient, play very, very smart puck control and wait for the opportunities. We’ve just got to dump it in and be real smart on the forecheck, have numbers back and see what we can do.
"They’ll probably outshoot us for the most part, but hopefully we’ll give them shots from the outside. When we get an opportunity to score and transition the puck, we have to."
One particularly glaring mismatch is the PC penalty kill, operating at a 76 percent efficiency, against the highly-effective BC power play.
"We have got to stay out of the penalty box," said Pooley. "If we’re in the penalty box, we’re going to get beat. We’ve got to play five-on-five hockey and make sure we take care of the puck.
"They’re going to outshoot us, but we’ll get good goaltending. If we score a power-play goal and stay out of the penalty box, I tell you what, that’s playoff hockey. All you want is an opportunity."
PICKS: BC is just too tough. The Eagles sweep 5-2, 4-3.
No. 3 seed vs. No. 6 seed Maine (14-14-4, 10-11-3 HEA) at No. 7 New Hampshire (23-9-1, 15-8-1 HEA)
Friday, Saturday, Sunday (if necessary), 7 p.m., Whittemore Center, Durham, NH
New Hampshire looked to be mostly back on track with a 3-2 win over Providence, a game that close only because of Boyd Ballard’s superb goaltending. But just when it looked safe for UNH fans to be in the same room with sharp objects again, Lowell shut the Wildcats out, 3-0, to give them their fourth loss in five games.
"We came out Friday and played a good, solid hockey game, just what we needed to do," said coach Richard Umile. "Ballard played real well, but we stayed right in there and played the kind of hockey you need to play at this point of the season.
"Then we came out Saturday, didn’t score on a five-minute major, and from there on in, we just stunk. We played with no intensity. Obviously, I’m extremely disappointed in what happened.
"I don’t think they dominated us in scoring opportunities, but they physically took us out of the game. We were never a factor. We should be playing more physical. Some guys are, but not enough of the right guys are doing it.
"Some guys competed hard, but half the other guys didn’t. That was the difference in the game. All of their guys competed hard. We only had half of our guys show up."
With New Hampshire unable to move up to second place or fall below third before the Lowell shutout, a convenient rationalization could be offered that the Wildcats simply had little to play for. Exhibits A and B for that argument would be North Dakota’s and Michigan State’s losses on the same night with both of those teams having clinched first place in their conference.
"That would be easy for me to admit to and say that we already had it locked up, but we needed to come out and have a solid weekend to feel good about ourselves going into the playoffs," said Umile. "We didn’t do that.
"Plus, I just don’t like the way we played the game. We didn’t play with intensity. I don’t ever like to admit that somebody physically outplayed us. We’re very capable of matching people physically.
"We tried to handle the puck instead of grinding it out, which we needed to do Saturday night. We continued to try to make fancy plays and turned the puck over all night. That’s the disappointing part of it."
As a result of their recent fall from first place, the Wildcats face Maine, a very tough sixth seed, instead of facing an easier first-round opponent.
"Nobody has an easy game the first round," said Umile. "I’m not even going to say BU and Merrimack, because they’ve proved that they’ve had good matchups over the years, regardless of what happened Sunday. It just shows how strong our league is this year.
"If this tells you anything, it’s that if you don’t pay attention and play well the first round, you won’t be continuing."
Steve O’Brien, who suffered a mild concussion against Lowell, didn’t skate on Monday, but is expected to play.
Tom Nolan, however, could be another story. Nolan, tied for first place with Marty Reasoner in league scoring, injured his neck on a Lowell hit from behind. His availability won’t be known till later in the week.
Playing without Steve Kariya last weekend, Maine came back for a 5-5 tie with UMass-Amherst, a team that did "not go gentle into that good night."
"UMass played pretty hard," said coach Shawn Walsh. "The hardest thing to do is to eliminate a team’s season. They really played with a lot of spirit. It was encouraging to see how we reacted to being down 2-0 and without Steve."
Kariya, who suffered a collapsed lung one week earlier, remained in the hospital until last Friday and, at this writing, is considered doubtful for the weekend. A mid-week appointment with his doctor could change that prognosis, however.
On the positive side, Walsh moved Anders Lundback back to defense three weeks ago and the highly-skilled freshman from Sweden has thrived at his new position.
"It gives us a real jumpstart back there," said Walsh. "He’s such a great skater and he’s 200 pounds. What he hasn’t done this year is finish. So it gives us a definite new look offensively from the blue line, which is something we haven’t had much of, other than David Cullen."
In addition to his regular turn in the defensive rotation, Lundback is also playing a point on power play, a role he held at times prior to the position change.
Maine now looks to a surprise matchup against New Hampshire. Most fans, as well as this writer, assumed last week that Maine would complete a season’s sweep of UMass-Amherst and UNH would get back on track with a win over Lowell. All of which would have resulted in a quarterfinal series against Northeastern.
Instead, the Black Bears face a sleeping giant in UNH, a team that three weeks ago was the odds-on favorite to win the league.
"It’s intriguing," said Walsh. "I certainly didn’t think we’d be seeing them. I love their talent level up front. I just think they’re an entertaining, exciting team."
In the post-Thanksgiving Governors’ Cup, UNH had its way with the Black Bears, 7-0. In mid-January, Maine lost two more, one by a 2-1 margin and the other a much-closer-than-the-scoreboard, 5-0. In their fourth meeting of the year, the Black Bears finally prevailed, 3-1.
"We’ve played probably our worst game of the year against them and our best game of the year against them," said Walsh, "with a couple other real good games in between.
"I look at it like a racquetball situation. They’re clearly the better team, but the more you play somebody, the closer the two opponents get. This will be our fifth and sixth games.
"Clearly, we have to play great defensively and get some breaks, because they obviously have the great players up front."
PICKS: This series all comes down to which New Hampshire team shows up.
If the Wildcats of three weeks ago take the ice, Maine will be hanging up its skates after the weekend. There are only a few teams in the nation that can cope with that squad and the rebuilding Black Bears aren’t one of them, despite their strong play down the stretch.
But if the Wildcats continue to play like pod-persons from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," expect a Down East flavor in the FleetCenter on Mar. 20.
The pick? UNH pops out of its trance and sweeps, 4-3 and 5-4, despite gallant play by the Black Bears.
(But, as noted in the introductory comments, don’t tell the hockey gods.)
No. 4 seed vs. No. 5 seed UMass-Lowell (14-15-3, 11-10-3 HEA) at
Northeastern (20-13-3, 13-8-3 HEA)
Thursday, Friday, Sunday (if necessary), 7 p.m., Matthews Arena, Boston, MA
Northeastern finished the season with four killer games, two against UNH, and singletons against BU and BC. Once again, the Huskies rose to the challenge against those top-10 teams, taking five of a possible eight points.
The top line of sophomores Billy Newson, Todd Barclay and Roger Holeczy has been red-hot of late. Newson has 13 points in the last six games, Holeczy nine in the same span; and Barclay has two hat tricks in the last nine.
Perhaps of even greater significance, however, has been the performance of Northeastern’s other units. Without much fanfare, for example, Sean MacDonald has led freshman scorers (along with Brian Cummings) with 19 points while shouldering a major defensive role.
"We’ve asked a lot of Sean," said coach Bruce Crowder. "We’ve had him against some of the bigger lines in a little bit of a checking mode. He’s a real competitor and he’s working hard. Very quietly, he’s having himself a very good freshman season.
"Like a lot of freshman, where he’s lacking is just strength, but he’s going to get a lot stronger over the years. He’s got great hockey sense and grit. I think he’s got a bright future."
Another quiet cog in the NU machine has been fourth-liner Kevin Welch. In the 6-6 regular-season finale against Boston College, Welch drew a key penalty through sheer hustle and determination. The Huskies scored on the resulting power play.
"He’s sitting and biding his time a little right now, but he’s given us 110 percent every time he gets out there," said Crowder. "We’re going to need all four lines this week against Lowell. This is a series that could go three games — three games in four nights — so it’s not going to be easy."
NU’s five freshman defensemen could be joined by junior David Dupont this weekend. Dupont is recuperating from a knee injury suffered in the first round of the Beanpot, 10 games ago. He’s back to skating and has been cleared for action, but still needs to get back in game shape and get his timing back.
Bobby Sheehan, another injured blueliner, will be evaluated later in the week, but seems a longer bet to play this weekend.
If neither Dupont nor Sheehan are available, Brent Thomas will again be moved back to defense. The tough luck junior — he suffered from mononucleosis his freshman year and a broken leg the following season — has provided important flexibility to the Husky coaching staff in the wake of serious injuries to all three non-freshmen blueliners.
"That’s a tough thing for a kid," said Crowder. "All of a sudden, it’s the last two weeks of the season and you’ve got to play defense. He doesn’t have a lot of defensive time on his resume, but he’s been fantastic."
The walking wounded up front include Matt Keating, whose arm was in a sling following the BC contest, and Barclay, who netted a hat trick after team doctors considered taking him to the hospital for X-rays on his wrist.
"Maybe he should get banged on the wrist more often," quipped Crowder.
Crowder will be looking to the stands for more of the seventh-player advantage Northeastern fans gave their team against BC during a three-goal outburst in just 54 seconds.
"Our hats are off to the crowd," he said after the game. "All of a sudden, they’re into it, they’re jacked up and they’re getting things done. That’s what home-ice advantage means. You’ve got the crowd behind you and, all of a sudden, before they can cool off their hands from clapping, you got another one. Hopefully, the students are ready and revved up to go on Thursday night."
Surprisingly, Northeastern posted a 4-4-1 record against the top three teams in the league, all nationally ranked in the top ten, but went 0-2-1 against its quarterfinal foe, UMass-Lowell. All three of those games, however, came in the month of November, so Crowder and his staff will be looking closely at last week’s FOX Sports New England game between the River Hawks and UNH.
"Both teams know a lot about each other," said Crowder, who coached at Lowell prior to moving to Northeastern before last season. "It’s going to be a tough series. They’ve been able to explode. They’re a very good team and they’re very well coached. I know they’re going to be ready."
After facing the likes of Chris Drury, Marty Reasoner, Brian Gionta and UNH’s Fearsome Foursome of Derek Bekar, Mark Mowers, Tom Nolan and Jason Krog the last few weeks, NU netminder Marc Robitaille doesn’t consider the Lowell forwards any easier.
"It’s a little tougher to play a team like that," he said. "It’s like playing us. You don’t know who to cover. They don’t have one person to shadow. They play as a team in the Crowder mold.
"I have to take every shot as if it was from a Reasoner or a Drury. I have to bear down. This is the playoffs and I need to play my best hockey."
UMass-Lowell shut out New Hampshire, 3-0, to close out the regular season with five wins in its last eight games.
"It was an important night for our team," said coach Tim Whitehead. "We knew if we won, we’d finish fifth instead of sixth. That was important, plus we hadn’t beaten New Hampshire this year. Finally, it was Senior Night and a sellout crowd.
"We’ve been getting more and more comfortable in our rink, but we felt it was important to put our stamp on it. We’d been in there a month, but still felt like we were a visiting team, so we wanted to play well in front of our home crowd before the season was over."
Martin Fillion earned Hockey East co-Player of the Week honors with the shutout.
"I’m proud of how he’s come on at the end of the season, down the stretch run as a senior," said Whitehead. "He worked very hard in practice during February and again this week. Hopefully, that will carry him into the playoffs and he just picks up where he left off."
Lowell’s five wins in the last eight games include victories over BU and UNH, not to mention a last-minute loss to BC. The River Hawks could be coming on at just the right time.
"I don’t think we’re peaking yet," said Whitehead. "We haven’t played our best hockey, but we’re continuing to step forward. That’s important this time of year. We’re not where we want to be yet, but the win over New Hampshire at home should certainly help us confidence-wise going into the playoffs.
"But the guys know they’ve got a big challenge ahead of them this week. It just may help them get a little more focused because they’re playing with a little more confidence."
Last year, the River Hawks faced Providence in the quarterfinal series just one month after losing three games to the Friars by a cumulative 19-5 score. Entering the matchup with an 0-9-1 record down the stretch, Lowell swept the series and then only lost to NCAA finalist Boston University 3-2 at the FleetCenter.
As a result, Lowell’s 2-0-1 advantage in this year’s series with Northeastern doesn’t mean much to Whitehead.
"That was over three months ago, so I don’t think there’s going to be much of a carryover at all," he said. "Our guys know as well as anybody, having gone through it last year, that the playoffs are a new season.
"That’s a positive for us. Northeastern finished ahead of us, but our guys are looking at it as if that doesn’t matter. The only advantage is that they’ve got the home ice advantage, but both teams are at 0-0 right now.
"Our guys certainly have a lot of respect for what Northeastern has done this year. They’re certainly not going in overconfident. We anticipate a real up-and-down, hard-nosed type of series."
Hard-nosed, indeed. This should be the most physical quarterfinal series of the four, based on both teams’ recent play.
"It should definitely be a hard-hitting weekend," said Whitehead. "It’ll be exciting and fun to watch. I definitely think that both teams are similar.
"We’re going in as the underdogs, on the road and not having had as good a season, but our guys are really looking forward to it, knowing that we can compete with them this weekend."
PICKS: This one goes three. Lowell wins 4-3, but Northeastern bounces back 3-2 and 2-1, with the deciding game in overtime.
Fasten your seat belts — it’s gonna be a rough one.