This Week in Hockey East: March 20, 1998

In a mind-boggling upset that has rivaled the Beanpot in the mass media attention it has garnered, the Warriors pulled off the biggest David-over-Goliath upset since, well, they beat Northeastern in the NCAA Division I tournament 10 years ago.

Although a number-eight seed has knocked off number one before — Northeastern over Boston College in 1991 — that was in a single-elimination quarterfinal. In best-of-three series, only three teams had advanced on someone else’s home ice: No. 5 New Hampshire over No. 4 Providence in 1990 and last year’s two upsets, No. 5 BC over No. 4 Merrimack and No. 6 UMass-Lowell over No. 3 Providence.

In just this one postseason, the league doubled its quarterfinal upsets within the three-game format, adding No. 6 Maine over No. 3 New Hampshire and No. 5 UMass-Lowell over No. 4 Northeastern to the Merrimack shocker.

So much for the home-ice advantage.

Which also will make for an odd Hockey East banquet this Thursday. It’s a good bet that this year’s presentations will go to an unprecedented number of players who’ve already been eliminated from the league tourney.

The coaches make these selections, not the media, but let’s look at the choices this writer would make, if given a ballot. Keep in mind that deserving candidates always get omitted. There are too many great players that have to fit in too few open slots, so please limit your hate mail to those offering cash bribes for a change of heart. I can’t be bought, but I can be rented.

Hockey East All-Rookie Team

Although it actually doesn’t say anywhere that the coaches must select one goalie, two defensemen and three forwards, they are still encouraged to do so. As a result, we’ll follow suit even though that means ignoring all but two of this year’s bumper crop of stellar freshman defensemen.

Forwards: BC’s Brian Gionta and Lowell’s Brad Rooney and Jeff Boulanger.

There were some tough omissions here, most notably BC’s Mike Lephart, but Rooney and Boulanger sneak by because they’ve achieved roughly comparable scoring totals while together on a line with fellow freshman Kyle Kidney. Lephart had more help, paired with Blake Bellefeuille and Jeff Farkas.

Picking Gionta (25-25–50), though, was the classic no-brainer. This kid leads the nation in freshman scoring, leads all of Hockey East in league goals and is just so much fun to watch, it ain’t funny.

Defense: BC’s Bobby Allen stands head and shoulders above the rest of this class. If this kid doesn’t make All-Hockey East in the not-too-distant future, something is seriously wrong.

Although there’s tremendous competition for the other spot, this vote goes to Northeastern’s Mike Jozefowicz. On a team that took home ice in the playoffs despite finishing with a defensive rotation of five freshmen, Jozefowicz displayed consistent excellence.

Apologies to: NU’s Arik Engbrecht and John Peterman, BC’s Rob Scuderi and Marty Hughes, UNH’s Eric Lind, BU’s Joe DiPenta and Maine’s newly-converted defenseman Anders Lundback.

Goaltender: A tough call between Providence’s Boyd Ballard and BC’s Scott Clemmensen.

In a squeaker, this vote goes to Ballard. Clemmensen was certainly more consistent, even setting a new NCAA regular-season record for consecutive shutout minutes. But he had a much stronger team in front of him and was tested far less often.

Ballard did slump for about a month starting in mid-January, but performed spectacularly until then and finished strong, too.

All-Hockey East Team

Forwards: This category is flat-out impossible. With seven of the top 10 scorers in the country, how can you possibly pick only six?

Here goes: Chris Drury, Marty Reasoner, Derek Bekar, Mark Mowers, Jason Krog and Tom Nolan.

The omissions are both inexcusable and unavoidable. Toughest to leave out: Rejean Stringer, Kris Porter, Martin Laroche, Steve Kariya and Brian Gionta. When in doubt, the picks went to those who were both excellent playmakers and finishers.

Defense: More tough choices, but the picks are: Tom Poti, Chris Kelleher, Mike Mottau and Mike Nicholishen.

Toughest omissions: Darrel Scoville and David Cullen.

Goaltender: Actually the easiest category. Three stand out, so only one must be slighted. And the winners are: Michel Larocque and Marc Robitaille. Condolences to Sean Matile.

Major Awards

Coach of the Year: Bruce Crowder. Mandatory drug testing for anyone who argues with this pick.

Rookie of the Year: Brian Gionta. Another runaway vote.

Player of the Year: Marc Robitaille. Nowhere on the ballot does it say whether this award should go to the player who meant the most to his team or whether to the player considered to simply be the best. Given the choice, then, the vote goes to Robitaille, who clearly meant far more to his team than any other player in the league.

Back to the week at hand…

UMass-Lowell goaltender Martin Fillion took the KOHO Player of the Week award for the second straight time. His 2.01 goals-against average and .943 save percentage in Lowell’s three-game set with Northeastern proved decisive.

Merrimack’s John Pyliotis earned Rookie of the Week honors with four goals and three assists in the Warriors’ stunning series over Boston University. Last week’s record in picks: 4-6

Season’s record in picks: 119-67, .640

Hockey East Championship Round

No. 2 seed vs. No. 8 seed No. 3 Boston College (24-8-5, 15-5-4 HEA) vs. Merrimack (11-25-1, 4-20-0 HEA)

Friday, 5 p.m., FleetCenter, Boston, MA FOXNE

No. 5 seed vs. No. 6 seed UMass-Lowell (16-16-3, 11-10-3 HEA) vs. Maine (16-14-4, 10-11-3 HEA)

Friday, 8 p.m., FleetCenter, Boston, MA FOXNE

Championship Game: Saturday, 8 p.m., FleetCenter, Boston, MA FOXNE

And then there was one.

Boston College became the only home team to advance,

winning the opener 4-3

on a Marty Reasoner goal with four seconds left and

finishing Providence off 6-3

one night later.

Reasoner has been on fire, totaling 23 points in the last nine games, prompting Providence coach Paul Pooley to observe, "He’s really picked his game up since the last time we played them. In the 3-3 tie [on Feb. 6], he wasn’t anywhere near where he is right now. He’s really elevated his game."

Pooley also noted the strong play of the Eagle defensemen.

"Their defense is tremendous," he says. "I don’t think defensively they’re great, but they have a lot of speed and they move the puck so well."

While Reasoner and linemate Brian Gionta have garnered most of the attention, the blueliners have been instrumental in reducing BC’s goals against average from last year’s 4.67 in league games to 3.25. That doesn’t tend to generate a lot of postgame media attention, but it does win games.

"Our defensive unit is like a family," says freshman Bobby Allen, whose great play stopping a three-on-one without a shot last weekend typifies the impact he’s made in all three zones. "We pick each other up if we make a good play, so it’s more a matter of impressing our peers than anybody else. Guys let you know when you make a good play. I’d rather satisfy my teammates. That’s what makes me feel good."

Perhaps the most overlooked member of the BC defense, however, is junior Brendan Buckley, who doesn’t have the offensive skills of his fellow blueliners, but hits like a freight train.

"He’s really had a great second half," says BC coach Jerry York. "He’s strong on the puck and he’s playing very, very physical. You need that type of player. They can’t all be flashy. He’s a good, solid, hard-nosed player."

With all the pieces seeming to fit together, Boston College is now undefeated in its last 10 games, and stands 13-2-3 in 1998.

"Right now, we’re playing as well as we’ve played all year," says York. "Scotty Clemmensen has given us a good, solid effort in goal. Our defense is moving the pucks out of the zone very well. And our forwards are capitalizing."

As a result, conversations in York’s office now involve talk of potential byes in the NCAA tournament and the advantages of a berth in the Eastern Regional as opposed to traveling out West.

"It’s great to be talking like this," York says with a smile. "It’s been a long time.

"We’ve assembled a team here that’s going to be good now and for a long time. We’ve got a lot of good young players. We’re going to be a national [power], which we’ve always been except for the speed bump [the last few years] that’s lasted a little too long for me. We’re right back in that core of teams."

The Eagles now turn their eyes toward winning their third Hockey East crown and first since 1990. First up is Merrimack, one of three underdogs to reach the FleetCenter. BC took two of the three regular-season games, with the Warriors’ win coming in October.

As the lone remaining top seed, the Eagles could be prone to overconfidence, especially against a team that only won four regular-season league games.

"That might have been, except for their effort against Boston University," counters York. "Everyone knows how difficult it is to go into Walter Brown and win two games. That gives us even more respect for the Merrimack hockey team. But we have enough already because they have defeated us. Their seeding is of less concern to us because we’ve had tough matches with them this year and we all sat around and watched that game on TV the other night."

The Eagles will be staying on campus rather than moving into downtown Boston hotels like most teams.

The FleetCenter also makes for familiar surroundings, since BC advanced to the league championship round last year and every year plays two Beanpot games there. By contrast, Merrimack has never played in a FleetCenter game and Maine, a potential opponent in the finals, was last there two years ago.

"We feel very comfortable going into the FleetCenter," says York. "We’re familiar with the ice surface and the building, so that helps us prepare for the game. But it’s new also to our freshman [except for this year’s Beanpot]. It’s a learning process for them and we have so many freshmen that play for us."

The Merrimack Warriors stunned college hockey when they

took the opener from BU, 4-1.

A lot of observers, though, entered that one in the "fluke" category and expected BU to exact a decisive revenge. Instead, the Warriors almost made it a sweep,

losing 6-5,

but came back to

take the rubber game, 5-4.

"I basically told them two things," says coach Ron Anderson. "First, that we were in this situation a year ago, where we had beaten a team [Boston College] three times during the season and they beat us in our building in the playoffs the very next week.

"The second thing was that the 34 previous games didn’t mean anything. All that mattered was the two or three games that were in front of us. I think that might have been the key, because it seemed that we summoned the passion that we had at the beginning of the year and lost in the grind of the season.

"But we sure summoned the passion this past weekend. That made us a better team than just going out and playing."

One week earlier, the same two teams had completed the regular season with

BU embarrassing Merrimack, 9-1.

"I don’t think it did anything from our perspective, but it might have been a little smokescreen the other way," says Anderson. "I don’t think so, though. [BU coach Jack Parker] is too smart for that.

"If anything, it bruised our ego a little bit, but it wasn’t something we used during the week at all. It just wasn’t an issue. We weren’t concerned at all with looking back. We were concerned with looking ahead."

After losing the oh-so-close second game, the Warriors might have been excused for thinking that their one great chance had slipped through their fingers. Instead, they came back on Sunday and played a third great game, giving them their first ever trip to the Fleet.

"We always have a pre-game meeting the day of a game at 11:00," says Anderson. "We were very quiet and very reserved. I sensed right then that we were ready to play. There wasn’t a whole lot for the coaches to do."

The result was the school’s biggest upset since 1988 when, as a Division II power and an Independent entry into the Division I NCAA tournament, Merrimack knocked off Northeastern in the opening round and gave eventual national champion Lake Superior State a good run for its money.

"They both feel the same," says Anderson. "The difference is that 10 years ago we had a very talented team that nobody knew about. This year, we have a team that has five or six or seven really good hockey players, but not a lot of depth relative to the teams that we play against all the time.

"I think this probably is more of an upset because we were a little more overmatched this time around than we were 10 years ago. We had an NHL goaltender at that time [Jim Hrivnak] and some pretty good players. People just didn’t know about us."

Although Anderson leaned heavily on his top players, most of them juniors or seniors, against BU, he also got monster series out of two freshmen, goaltender Tom Welby and John Pyliotis.

In his mop-up role in the 9-1 regular-season finale, Welby gained a reputation as the Bob Probert of collegiate goaltenders, getting tossed out for a bout with Chris Drury. That same fire showed through in the quarterfinal series and included some stellar goaltending.

"It was a great coming out for him," says Anderson. "Where his career goes from here, who knows, but all season long in practice and whenever he’s played, Tommy has shown a little Billy Smith in him and some of that aggressiveness.

"That stimulated the team. They knew that he was in there and was going to battle for us….He jumped in there and showed us that he’d do whatever he could to help the team. It got the team on the same page."

Pyliotis, the league’s Rookie of the Week, didn’t join the team until the second semester, but recorded a 4-3–7 line in the quarterfinal series as part of Merrimack’s top line with Rejean Stringer and Kris Porter.

"In a short period of time, he has really impressed the whole staff," says Anderson. "We knew he was going to be a good player, but it’s very difficult to join a team in the middle of the season, make the social, academic and environmental adjustments you have to make, and figure out what’s going on athletically.

"We moved him onto that line, not to make that line better, but so we could put Marty Laroche back at center on our second unit. We needed some help there. As it turned out, it was a good move for both lines."

Having caught lightning in a bottle, can Merrimack do it again? There are any number of reasons why not. First, BC appears to have it all over the Warriors in terms of top-to-bottom talent. That, however, was also true of Boston University.

Additionally, the players could be distracted by all the media exposure, will be playing on unfamiliar turf at the FleetCenter and could also be struck down by that most common malady of underdogs, the feeling of being satisfied just to be there.

"We have to concern ourselves with everything," says Anderson. "We have to concern ourselves with the fact that it’s spring break and your routine gets disrupted. We have to concern ourselves with the fact that it’s our first trip into that big building. And we have to concern ourselves with the fact that we’re going to play against an awfully good team with a lot of talent and a lot of weapons, the team that eliminated us last year. We’re very much aware of what they’re capable of.

"The good thing is that we just had three real solid games, so our conditioning should be at its highest level right now. Emotionally and mentally, if anything, we’re going to have to get a rein on that a little bit.

"We’re real happy to be playing this weekend, but we’re certainly going to be playing to win."

UMass-Lowell jumped out decisively in its quarterfinal match-up with Northeastern, winning the opener, 8-2.

Northeastern battled back, though,

taking the second game 3-2

before the River Hawks

advanced with a 5-1 win.

Senior Martin Fillion continued his superb stretch-run play, earning league Player of the Week honors with his 2.01 goals-against average and .943 save percentage in the three games. Fillion saved his best for last, turning away 43 of 44 saves in the rubber game.

"The difference was the kid I recruited about three or four years ago," said Northeastern coach Bruce Crowder after the finale. Crowder left UML following the 1995-96 season. "Fillion was unbelievable. He was equal to the task."

His current coach, Tim Whitehead, also applauds Fillion’s play.

"Exactly like the team, he had some adversity during the year," says Whitehead. "He lost his starting position for a good chunk of the season. That’s tough in your senior year.

"He just did a tremendous job getting himself back focused and practicing hard. Hey, he won the starting job back and he certainly hasn’t given it up. He’s been fantastic."

Special teams proved pivotal, with Lowell scoring a shorthanded goal and going 2-for-4 on the power play in both wins.

Chris Bell led the special teams, with one of the two shorthanded goals and two on the man advantage. Bell now has eight goals in his last eight games this season, and eight goals in seven career playoff games.

"And he’s only a sophomore, too," says Whitehead, adding with a laugh, "I don’t mind that.

"Last year, and again this year, he’s taken his game to another level down the stretch run. That’s what you want out of your players, leadership like that, especially out of a sophomore. He made the All-Tournament team last year at the FleetCenter. He’s a real good team player. He very much supports his teammates. He works hard. He has a knack for making the big play in the big games."

As a result, UMass-Lowell advanced to its sixth straight Hockey East championship round.

"We’ve been to the FleetCenter every year and we take pride in getting there," says senior captain Mike Nicholishen. "But we haven’t had much success once we’ve gotten there. We have played some good games, but I think we’ve gone in there some years almost like we’ve been happy to be there and whatever comes, comes.

"This year, it’s my last year and I want to instill in the guys that we’re going in there to win. Even though we’ve got some young guys that haven’t been there, we have some juniors and seniors that have been there a lot.

"We know what it takes. Two good games on the weekend and we can be league champions."

The River Hawks begin the quest against Maine, a matchup between two teams that are playing much better hockey now than they were earlier in the season. The Black Bears won 6-2 on Oct. 31 and 7-3 on Dec. 12, and tied 3-3 one night later.

In the later two games, however, Fillion played less than 10 minutes total and Nicholishen, an All-Hockey East defenseman, was sidelined by an injury.

"They seem to have had our number this year, but I’m looking forward to it," says Nicholishen. "We’ve beaten BU and UNH recently and we just beat Northeastern. We can definitely beat Maine. We’re going to let the guys know that and we’re going to go into the game with a lot of confidence."

Maine bested New Hampshire in its quarterfinal matchup, opening with a

3-2 win in double overtime.

It marked the

12th-longest NCAA game ever,

and the second-longest in Hockey East tournament history. One night later, the two teams battled again into the third period tied, with Maine

gaining the sweep in regulation, 5-3.

"The biggest thing for us is that we’re just halfway there," says coach Shawn Walsh. "We’ve got to win Hockey East. This is just two wins. We’ve got to win the next game and then the next game, and then we’re going to the national tournament."

If so, it should taste like nectar from the gods to Down Easters, whose Black Bears have been banned from NCAA tournament play the last two years, including a total ban on last year’s postseason.

"The players in our program deserve a lot of credit for their perseverance, to go through the sanctions we’ve gone through — which wasn’t their fault — and go through the embarrassment that happened in December [the Bryan Masotta racial incident] and just keep working," says Walsh. "We just kept getting better and better.

"It took me a little longer than normal to weld the pieces together. We don’t have a lot of natural defensive players. Where that shows is when we play teams that we don’t respect. When we play teams that we respect, like UNH and like BU, we play well, because we respect them."

Count on them respecting UMass-Lowell this weekend.

As noted in last week’s column, Anders Lundback is flourishing on defense since Walsh moved him back a month ago. This past weekend, he had a goal and two assists and played well against UNH’s scary forwards. The word "upside" was invented for kids like this.

"Perhaps the key guy on the weekend was Lundback on defense," says Walsh. "He was just outstanding. He generated offense for us from the blue line, which we haven’t been able to do much this year."

Although Maine’s five-hour trek to the FleetCenter outstrips that of the other Hockey East teams, Walsh considers this an advantage.

"We’ve always been a great road team," he says. "Even when we went 42-1-2, we were 24-0-0 on the road. Our one loss and two ties were at home. In some ways, it’s easier to play on the road.

"Maybe with a young team, it’s easier to play on the road because you can focus more. You don’t have the distraction of family and girlfriends. I can control things a little more."

One thing difficult for Walsh to control, however, will be the relative playoff inexperience of his team, which includes up to 15 players who will be experiencing their first Hockey East playoffs.

"We’ve got to focus on execution and not worry about anything else," says Walsh. "Look at the way our kids executed [this past weekend.] For a team as great as UNH was, I think we did a great job of limiting unbelievable chances….I think we’re every bit as good as them right now.

"But we’ve put ourselves in a position where we can’t afford a slipup."

Maine’s opponent, UMass-Lowell, is in similar do-or-die straits.

"We haven’t seen them since December and clearly both teams are much better than they were back then," says Walsh. "Obviously, their goaltending has improved, they’ve gotten more consistent and they’re getting a lot more offensive production, so we’re really going to have to be on our toes defensively."

Picks: Boston College just has too many weapons and too much depth. BC over Merrimack, 4-2.

UMass-Lowell and Maine looks too close to call. When in doubt, go with the hot goaltender. Lowell and Fillion prevail, 3-2.

BC then continues on to the title, topping Lowell 4-3.

(In the case of alternative matchups in the championship game, look for BC to top Maine, and either Maine or Lowell to end Merrimack’s run.)