This Week in Hockey East: December 11, 1998

So you want to go to the New Hampshire vs. UMass-Amherst games this weekend? Good idea, since the Wildcats are one of the top teams in the country and the Minutemen have been a very pleasant surprise to date.

When are the games? Well, you go to the USCHO schedules first, of course, but until the last couple days they listed one date with the added note that it might be another.

What’s up with that?

So you consult the official print sources. Whoops! Bad idea.

The UNH media guide says Friday at Amherst and Saturday at Durham. The UMass one says Saturday at Durham and Sunday at Amherst. The Hockey East media guide offers a third alternative, a brilliant compromise of Friday and Sunday, both at Amherst.

And just when you thought there might not be another permutation to this confusion, the league’s press release on Sunday lists the UNH version only to correct itself one day later with the UMass one.

Hey, I thought only married couples communicate that poorly.

In any case, the game is definitely, positively, unquestionably scheduled for Saturday at UNH and Sunday at UMass-Amherst. Be there or be square.

Onward to the awards.

This week’s Hendrickson Forget-the-Box-Scores Player of the Week is Merrimack’s Chris Halecki. Halecki did pick up a beaut of an assist against Providence last Thursday, but we’re not going to hold it against him.

He played a terrific game, offensively and defensively. Not only could he have had easily had another nice assist, he contributed excellent defense. It was no surprise to see Warrior coach Chris Serino add him to the top Warrior line to protect a one-goal lead in the final minute.

And although I only saw the last two periods of Merrimack’s 2-1 loss to BC on Tuesday — there’s this four-letter word called work that may pay the bills but does occasionally interfere with hockey — Halecki continued his blue-collar, pedal-to-the-metal approach that every team needs.

Hey, it’d be nice if everyone could get their time in the limelight, but the grit and hustle of the role players often makes or breaks a team’s fortunes. So a tip of the fedora to Halecki this week.

As for the official league awards…

KOHO Player of the Week: John Campbell (F, UMass-Lowell) recorded a 2-2–4 line in the River Hawk sweep of Northeastern.

Heaton Defensive Player of the Week: Tom Welby (G, Merrimack College) stopped 67 shots over two games against Providence. He backstopped a 3-2 win on Thursday and then gave his team a chance on Saturday, despite being outshot 43-30.

KOHO Rookie of the Week: Ty Conklin (G, New Hampshire) took his record to 5-0 with a 1.00 goals-against average and a .948 save percentage, both tops in the country.

Hockey East Standings

Record in picks last week: 7-2 Season’s record in picks: 57-28, .671

No. 3 Maine (9-1-1, 4-1-1 HEA, 3rd) hosts

Northeastern (4-9-0, 1-6-0 HEA, 9th)

Saturday, 7 p.m., Sunday, 4 p.m., Alfond Arena, Orono, ME

Maine was off last week after winning the Governor’s Cup with a 4-3 win over New Hampshire and a 2-0 shutout of Vermont.

Often, an opposing coach’s viewpoint can speak volumes and Vermont coach Mike Gilligan certainly came away impressed with the nation’s number three team.

"They didn’t give us many opportunities at all," said Gilligan after the loss. "I can’t remember three good scoring chances….We were a step behind them all night long.

"I don’t know if we ever did play with them.

"They know how to spend time with the puck. Their forwards go to open ice and they support the puck. They play hockey the way it’s supposed to be played.

"They do a tremendous job on the man down. It’s the first time we’ve been really attacked when we were [on the power play.] It’s the most aggressive penalty kill we’ve seen and the most successful we’ve seen."

Short of becoming a member of the Friends of Maine Hockey, it’s tough to imagine a more comprehensive endorsement of a team’s play.

As for Maine coach Shawn Walsh, he was particularly pleased with the way his team clamped down defensively in the third period against UNH and throughout the title game.

"Last year was a crazy year for us," he said. "We weren’t in the top 20 in the nation in penalty killing or team defense for the first time in a long time. We’ve asked each guy on the team to make a commitment to that because we were fifth in the country in scoring last year, but it didn’t do us any good. We were left out of the party at the end of the year and we don’t want to be left out this year."

Freshman defenseman Eddie Wood saw his first action after being sidelined since the preseason and now, with Robert Ek returning from an injury, creates a logjam on the blue line for the weekend.

"The emergence of Eddie Wood this weekend was really helpful to our team, stepping in for Ek," said Walsh. "And [freshman] Eric Turgeon has played well for us, too. We have eight solid defensemen who can play.

"We feel that Doug Janik will make the World Junior team so that will take care of itself after the weekend, but we’ll have to see what happens."

The situation is a marked contrast to last year, when Walsh had to convert forwards A.J. Begg and Anders Lundback to defense to fill holes. Although one solution to the logjam would be to move one of the two back up front, it’s a change Walsh is hesitant to make.

"They’re both playing so well on defense that I don’t know if I want to," he says. "They both give us a different ingredient. Anders gives us the mobility and A. J. gives us the physical presence.

"They both seem comfortable back there. People forget, those are two guys that played defense last year in the run to the Hockey East championship game. They’re unsung guys who made the move from forward to D and since they made that move, our team has turned around."

Unlike an earlier layoff this year, Maine has been practicing through this lull in the schedule.

Even though Northeastern has been struggling in the win-loss column of late, Walsh still expects a tough series.

"Everybody that has played them talks about how hard they work," he said. "Bruce Crowder is going to have a well-coached team. They showed what they are capable of when they came back from being down 3-0 and beat BC.

"I respect Bruce, having worked with him. He’s a great hockey man and it’ll be a typical Hockey East series."

Northeastern continued its tough times last weekend, dropping two to UMass-Lowell, 2-1 and 4-1. The Huskies have now lost 8 of their last 10 games.

"I thought our effort was pretty good both nights, but I don’t think we were playing smart," says coach Bruce Crowder. "We’ve got a long way to go.

"We’ve got to start executing a lot of the little things a lot better. We’re looking to go right to number 10 right off the bat, but you’ve got to count from one to nine first before you get to number 10. We’ve got a lot of areas we need to improve on and we’re just going to keep working on them.

"Finishing is a big one. People say that finishing is the biggest one, but we also have to do the little things like how we come out of the zone and how we have ice balance. There are a lot of little things that are missing right now that are very important to creating offense."

There are also some missing bodies that aren’t helping things either, but that isn’t expected to change this week. Billy Newson, out with a shoulder injury, isn’t expected back and neither is Arik Engbrecht, who has missed the entire season with a back problem.

Of course, traveling to Orono for a series doesn’t make it any easier to right the ship.

"Hey, I’m not the schedule-maker," says Crowder. "We put ourselves in this position. so we’re just going to have to continue to try to improve ourselves. Sometimes when you play teams like Maine, it brings out the best in you. Hopefully, that’s going to be the case this weekend."

Crowder won’t be pointing to the Huskies’ Nov. 13 upset of then second-ranked and undefeated Boston College as a comparable situation to this week’s trip to the Alfond Arena lions’ den.

"That’s ancient history now," says Crowder. "And I think one of the things that’s developed with us is looking too much at history.

"We’ve got to look ahead and what we have is what we have. We have to work within our means. As a coaching staff, we have to make ourselves better to the point where we win hockey games."

PICKS: The Black Bears put two lumps of coal in the Husky stockings, 4-1 and 3-1.

No. 5 New Hampshire (9-3-1, 5-2-1 HEA, 1st) vs.

UMass-Amherst (4-8-1, 2-4-1 HEA, 8th)

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

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

New Hampshire split with Boston College, posting the Jekyll-and-Hyde scores of a 6-1 win and a 6-3 loss.

In the opener, the Wildcats had to weather the BC storm for most of the first period before counterpunching in the final minute with two goals just nine seconds apart. They then dominated the rest of the game, including a second period in which they held BC to only one shot.

"Obviously, we’re pleased with the win," said coach Dick Umile after the game. "We played a tremendous second period, but [we weren’t] great in the first half of the first period.

"They didn’t really come after us and we weren’t handling the puck very well when they were sitting back on their forecheck. They were transitioning off that and Ty [Conklin] had to make some good saves. But after the first ten minutes, we got going."

The single shot allowed to BC in the second period came one week after holding UMass-Lowell without a shot in the first period of the Governor’s Cup consolation game.

"Our team defense has been great," said Umile. "It’s been the key to our team this year. We’ve been doing that all year, but against a great team like Boston College with players like [Jeff] Farkas and [Brian] Gionta, that says a lot for our team defense."

Added senior captain Steve O’Brien, "[The defensemen] got up in their faces and didn’t let them get any scoring chances. We gave our forwards a chance to take the puck up ice with nice, crisp passes."

UNH got almost perfectly distributed scoring with rookie phenom Darren Haydar getting two while singletons went to Mike Souza, Matt Swain, Eric Lind and Jason Krog.

"That’s what we want," said Umile. "We want the scoring to be spread out. The little guy [5-9, 160-pound Haydar] — got a couple goals again so that was good and Jason dished the puck pretty well.

"Whatever it takes to win. As long as we get more than the opposition."

BC salvaged the split, however, back at home with a 6-3 win, a score that belied just how close of a game it was.

"Maybe we just weren’t gritty enough in putting the puck in the net," said Umile after the game. "We didn’t get outplayed, that’s for sure. It was the difference between them putting the puck in the net and us not.

"I don’t think it was from a lack of effort, but we didn’t win. I’m disappointed that we didn’t get it done down here."

Swain, a sophomore who got into only 12 games last year, has graduated to the second line and scored twice on the weekend to now total five goals.

"And some of the other guys, [Corey-Joe] Ficek are playing great for us, too," said Umile. "[Johnny] Rodgers stepped in [on Saturday] and also did a good job."

The Wildcats now rank second in Hockey East in team defense, 2.37 goals-against overall and 2.47 within the league.

Following the series, BC sniper Jeff Farkas commented on the UNH defense.

"They play tough down low and move the puck out of the zone real well," he said. "They shut people down. There are a lot of great players on [Boston College] and we only got 23 shots [in the win]. That says a lot about the defense. That’s one of the best defensive teams we’ve played."

On the injury front, Matt Dzieduszycki will play this weekend despite straining his rotator cuff last Friday night. Mike Souza, however, is questionable after sustaining a knee injury at the first-period buzzer on Saturday. He hasn’t skated since the injury and will undergo an MRI on Thursday to see if there is any cartilage damage.

UMass-Amherst is coming off a weekend of heartbreakers, two 3-2 losses to BU.

"It really was a bitter pill to swallow," says coach Joe Mallen. "We felt that we outplayed them both nights and didn’t come away with a point.

"The first night at BU was a very, very evenly-played game. All the statistics were even, the shots on net, the quality chances, the faceoffs and the rest. On the final goal, no BU player even touched the puck."

From the UMass perspective, defenseman Tony Soderholm was hit from behind with no call on what became the game-winner. As he fell down, he made contact with the puck, it caromed off Dean Stork’s skate and trickled between goaltender Markus Helanen’s legs.

A fluke goal to top all flukes and the game-winner to boot.

"The second night we had plenty of chances," says Mallen. "We had two breakaways. The difference was Michel Larocque. He played very, very well the second night.

"And I’ve got to give Albie O’Connell a lot of credit. He made a real nice move with under two minutes to go in the game. He came down, cut across and shot through a screen and scored a nice goal. But we had plenty of chances to win the game before that and Larocque came up big in a lot of those chances."

O’Connell and Larocque, two of BU’s four impact seniors, represent a stark difference from their Minutemen counterparts. Make that counterpart. Forward Bryan Fitzgerald, who entered the season with four career points, is the lone UMass senior who dresses on a regular basis.

That experience could have been the deciding factor considering that the Minutemen led after two periods at BU and were tied after two periods at home, yet came away with not a single point.

"The two heroes for them on the weekend were Michel Larocque and Albie O’Connell, guys who are seniors," says Mallen. "They are certainly getting good play out of their young guys and we’re getting good play out of our young guys. But those are two seniors who stepped up and provided the leadership they had talked about needing."

Despite the sweep, Mallen remains optimistic.

"We know we’re playing tough hockey," he says. "My attitude with this team is that we have a great group of kids that are just working as hard as they possibly can. We feel that we gave a very, very strong effort, we outplayed BU, but it didn’t go our way. We just need to keep moving forward and playing this way and the goals will come."

The Minutemen now take on New Hampshire, which will pit the second and third ranked defensive clubs in the league (UNH at 2.37 goals-against overall vs. UMass at 2.58). The home-and-home will conclude the season’s series between the two clubs. The Minutemen dropped a 4-1 decision to the Wildcats on Nov. 1.

"It could wind up like it did last time," says Mallen. "You’ve got two good goaltenders, two good sets of defensemen and two good groups of forwards. But they’ve got [Jason] Krog and we don’t. We’ve got to find a way to keep him off the board. He was the difference last time, [scoring two goals].

"It seems that they’re playing very well right now and they’re always good at home. But we’re looking forward to it. Another four points are on the line and we’ll just have to see if we’re going to get a couple."

PICKS: UNH wins the battle of the defenses, 4-2 at home and 3-2 at the Mullins Center.

Providence College (7-7-0, 4-4-0 HEA, 5th) at Dartmouth (1-3-0, 3-4-0 ECAC)

Friday, 7 p.m., Thompson Arena, Hanover, N.H.

Providence split its series with Merrimack, continuing a win-one, lose-one trend that has followed form all but two weekends of the season.

"The thing that disappoints me," said coach Paul Pooley after a 3-2 loss to open the series, "is that we had a 2-0 lead and we had a great chance to score a goal [but didn’t]. Then they came down and scored and got a faceoff goal and all of a sudden it’s 2-2."

The previous weekend, the Friars gave up nine goals, seven of which were the scorer’s first of the season and another was a player’s second. That same flaw appeared again in the Merrimack loss.

"I thought the top two lines evened each other out," said Pooley. "[But] their third line got a goal and their fourth line got [the game-winner]. We’ve gotten beaten by that lately."

The Friars salvaged the split, however, with a 3-2 overtime win back at Providence. They dominated the game, but had trouble putting the Warriors away because of the goaltending acrobatics of Tom Welby, who earned league honors for his performance in the series.

"It was a good game," said Pooley. "We had a lot of chances to score. Welby played very, very well. It was a nice victory for us, something we thought we needed. Our team responded nicely."

PC’s goaltender, Mark Kane, proved that he’s not exactly chopped liver himself, with solid performances both nights.

"He played well and held us in there [in the loss]," said Pooley. "He made some big saves to give us the 2-0 lead and made some big saves in the third period, too, because we were pressing to score.

"He played well [in the win, too], making a big save on Kris Porter on a breakaway late in the third period."

The Friars now travel to Dartmouth for their final contest of the calendar year.

"We’ve got 20 games left and we’re 7-7," said Pooley. "We certainly want to make sure that we finish this first half above .500 and continue to get better as a hockey club.

"Dartmouth is a hard-working team and seems to outshoot their opponents quite a bit. We’ve just got to make sure that we’re ready to play up there and play a solid 60 minutes of hockey."

PICK: It’s holiday cheer for the Friars, 4-2.

UMass-Lowell (6-7-0, 4-5-0 HEA, 6th) vs.

Boston University (5-8-1, 3-4-1 HEA, 7th)

Friday, 7 p.m., Paul E. Tsongas Arena, Lowell, MA

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

UMass-Lowell is coming off a sweep of Northeastern, 2-1 and 4-1, that put the River Hawks within one game of .500 both overall and within Hockey East.

"Any time you can sweep in our league, it’s a big weekend," says coach Tim Whitehead. "The competition is so tough and you play home and away so it’s a tough situation to sweep."

Senior captain Mike Mulligan contributed two assists against Northeastern in addition to his typically physical, two-way play. He’s now not far off a pace that would allow him to match in his final season his prior three-year point total.

"One of the things we were looking for this year was to see more contributions from our senior class," says Whitehead. "We got that from all three positions against Northeastern. All the seniors had a good weekend. We’re going to need that to be successful this year. It was good to see them leading the way."

The River Hawks now will face BU in a home-and-home series, their last games of 1998.

"We’re going to focus more on us," says Whitehead. "That’s what we did [against Northeastern], we focused on our effort. We’re going to do that again this weekend.

"We obviously have a lot of respect for BU and how they play. They’re a talented young team."

In past years, Boston University has been the measuring stick for the rest of the league, finishing first for five years running. Games against the Terriers were always easy to get jacked up for. Once again, the BU jerseys will get the competitive juices going even though this season the Terriers have spent time in last place and are currently below Lowell in the standings.

"Our guys are always excited about playing BU," says Whitehead with a knowing laugh. "BU is not going to finish last in this league and our guys know that. They’ve got three wins in a row so our guys know that we’ll have our hands full."

Like Lowell, Boston University also swept last weekend, taking two 3-2 contests against UMass-Amherst.

"I thought we played better as the weekend progressed," says coach Jack Parker. "On Friday night, we played pretty well in the third period. We got a couple fluky goals in the third to win the game, but despite those we played pretty well.

"And I thought we played a real solid game [on Saturday] at UMass. It was one of the best games we’ve played as far as being technically sound and playing with a little bit of poise on the road. [Michel] Larocque played very well.

"We continued to take a lot of penalties, but they weren’t really stupid penalties. We were just caught in bad situations. Our defense is young and is taking guys down because they’re getting beat.

"I was impressed with UMass. Both nights they played hard and they have a lot quicker team than they have had in the past. They’re going to give a lot of people trouble. We were lucky to get out with all four points."

Prior to the weekend, Parker had called on his upperclassmen to step forward and provide leadership. Although Tommi Degerman was injured in the first game and had to sit out, Parker’s other seniors — Larocque, Albie O’Connell and Dan Ronan — came through. Larocque stopped 61 of 65 shots and O’Connell got Saturday’s game-winner in the final two minutes.

"Albie O’Connell didn’t play on Friday night because of injury, but he played real well on Saturday," says Parker. "Not just that he got the goal, but he had a helluva night as far as overall effort is concerned and really did a nice job for us.

"Larocque has been playing great. And Danny Ronan played really well for the weekend."

The freshmen and the sophomores also played well, scoring five of the six goals against the Minutemen.

On the darker side, however, injuries are becoming a problem. Degerman may miss the Lowell series with the sciatic nerve problem that sidelined him last week.

And even more seriously, Chris Dyment suffered a knee injury in the first period last Friday and won’t be back until after Christmas. In what may be the medical equivalent of piling on in football, Dyment may also have pneumonia. With fellow freshman blueliner Pat Aufiero still out with a broken wrist, the paper-thin Terrier defense will be struggling to keep its head above water.

"Obviously, we can’t afford to lose those guys for long periods of time," says Parker. "At least the injuries came at a good time. We’ve just got these two games left and then we go on a pretty good break. When we come back, we don’t play any league games until [Jan. 5,] after we go to Minnesota."

In the meantime, though, other players will have to pick up the slack left by their sidelined teammates.

"I thought [defenseman Dave] LoPresti filled in very nicely against UMass-Amherst in a big rink," says Parker. "He might have a little easier time at Lowell with its smaller rink. And we’ve been playing all year without Aufiero anyways.

"We’ll miss Dyment on the power play and obviously Degerman up front, if he doesn’t play. But if the big guys step up, maybe we can get through this.

"Obviously, Lowell had a great weekend, too. We’ll have all we can do to handle them. They’re a team that we’re looking up at in the standings trying to catch, so it’ll be a big series for both of us."

PICKS: BU’s depth problems on defense could turn this into a Lowell sweep, but instead look for both teams to hold serve on their home ice. The River Hawks win, 4-2, before the Terriers get the split, 3-2.

Thanks to Scott Weighart for his contributions to this preview.