This Week in Hockey East: January 15, 1999

So I’m playing a pickup game and I decide to try that backhanded between-the-legs pass that Brian Gionta dished off to Blake Bellefeuille last Saturday for the Fox Sports New England cameras. Next thing you know, the guys in the other jerseys are breaking up ice in the other direction, my teammates are hollering at me for turning the puck over and my back feels like I’m going to spend the next week in traction.

A tip of the fedora to any reader who can best provide the caption for that picture. For starters, here are a couple: "Those who can’t do, write." Or, "First you ditch the double-runners, then you get fancy." And finally, "I’ve watched Gionta skate. I’ve watched Gionta shoot. I’ve watched Gionta pass. And Hendrickson, you’re no Gionta."

Onward to the awards…

KOHO Player of the Week: Brian Gionta (F, Boston College) scored a goal on Friday and then added two goals and four assists on Saturday to gain a split for BC with Maine.

KOHO Rookie of the Week: Darren Haydar (F, New Hampshire) posted a 3-1-4 scoring line to become the nation’s number two goal-scorer with 18 goals.

Heaton Defensive Player of the Week: Anthony Cappelletti (D, UMass-Lowell) scored the River Hawks’ game-winning goals against St. Lawrence and Clarkson, while also leading a defensive unit that allowed just three goals.

Hockey East Standings

(Note: All records below do not include games after Tuesday, Jan. 12)

Record in picks last week: 6-6

(Hey, I correctly picked splits in both the Maine-BC and PC-NU series, but predicted the wrong version of splits and went 0-for-4. Add in a can’t-win tie between Merrimack and BU and you’ve got five of the six wrong picks. Okay, enough pathetic whining…)

Season’s record in picks: 80-43, .650

No. 3 Maine (14-2-4, 7-2-2 HEA, 1st) hosts

UMass-Amherst (5-12-1, 2-7-1 HEA, 9th)

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

Last weekend, Maine completed a brutal road trip that included five games in nine nights with three of the contests against top 10 teams. The Black Bears took three of four points from Denver and Colorado College, topped Boston University, 4-3, and then split with Boston College, winning 2-1 and losing 7-4.

Following the Friday night win over the Eagles, coach Shawn Walsh said, "We’re obviously a team that is a little tired. But this team finds ways to win. We’ve been in a lot of close games and have won a lot of them, so we’re very confident."

Following the loss one night later, he looked back on the five-game trip.

"We’re looking forward to getting home," he said. "If you’d told me that we would be 3-1-1 on this kind of trip, I’d have taken it at the start. But it doesn’t make this kind of a loss any better because this was a game that we could have won.

"We didn’t play well. We knew they were going to play well. We just didn’t live up to our end of the bargain.

"I don’t like to lose. I don’t want these guys to like to lose. It just makes Wednesday’s game [against Yale] all that much more important."

In that midweek game which was previewed last week, the Black Bears were hopping on the bus once again, this time for a "home" game at Portland.

"We’re the state university and I wanted to reach out to the Portland audience," said Walsh. "It’s important to promote the program in southern Maine as well as eastern Maine.

"In a way, it’s a road game in that you get on a bus, but that’s okay. It’s better than what we’ve been through."

Following that contest, Maine’s final nonconference game of the year, the Black Bears host UMass-Amherst. Prior to the loss to BC, the Minutemen had administered Maine’s only defeat of the season, taking three of four points on Nov. 13-14 despite being outshot, 45-14 and 44-19.

"We know they’re a quality opponent, not just because of the loss and the tie," said Walsh. "We’ll certainly prepare for them and work at it.

"There’s no question that they can beat anybody. They played BU very tough in their series. I think they had an aberration more than anything against Northeastern [in an 8-2 loss], based on their scores at Western Michigan, [a 4-3 loss and a 1-0 win.]

"We’re looking forward to an Alfond Arena game and getting our crowd going. It’ll be fun to play a home game."

Walsh also tempted fate by looking ahead to the postseason.

"In the end, it’s going to be a great national tournament and there are a lot of teams that could win it," he said. "But I said a couple weeks ago that the toughest part of winning the national title in the East is going to be coming out of Hockey East because New Hampshire is a great team, BC is a great team and Maine is a great team.

"It’s one of those years when I hope all three of us are in different brackets, because you might get all three of us out to Anaheim if that happens."

After gaining the split at Western Michigan, UMass-Amherst came back East and suffered an 8-2 loss to Northeastern.

"When we split out at Western Michigan, we were a little bit rusty the first night, but the second night I thought we played real well," said coach Joe Mallen. "Obviously [goaltender] Mike Johnson played real well. He got a shutout in his first game. It’s pretty good to win a 1-0 game based on playing enough defense to be able to win a game like that."

As for the loss to the Huskies, the less said the better.

"We just have to chalk it up to one of those nights where everything that could go wrong did go wrong and just get ready for this weekend," he said.

On the weekend, the Minutemen will attempt to get out of the cellar with games at Providence and Maine.

"It’s a very difficult week for us from the standpoint that we play at Providence on Friday night and then we play at Maine on Sunday and they don’t play on [Friday or Saturday] night," said Mallen. "That definitely is going to make it a little bit tougher. These are also two small-rink games and we’re used to playing on a big rink.

"But overall, Providence has been up and down a little bit. They had a nice win against Northeastern the other night and then kind of let one slip out of their hands the second night.

"Maine has just been playing terrific hockey, despite the second game against BC. That was probably the culmination of a lot of games in a lot of nights.

"What we have to do is get back to playing the way we played earlier in the season. And that was with a very, very disciplined defensive style and a very, very disciplined team not taking very many penalties. That’s really where we need to go right now. The rest will fall in place if we can just get back to those two things."

PICK: Maine gets its revenge, 4-1.

No. 4 New Hampshire (15-4-1, 7-2-1 HEA, 2nd) vs.

Merrimack (9-9-1, 5-4-1 HEA, 5th)

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

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

New Hampshire continued its strong play into 1999, splitting its games in Colorado — defeating Colorado College, 4-1, before losing to Denver, 4-2 — and then sweeping last week, 4-1 over Clarkson and 4-2 over St. Lawrence.

"The team had a very strong weekend," said coach Dick Umile. "We [defeated] Clarkson and St. Lawrence, two teams that are traditionally there at the end, two of the better teams in the ECAC. We had a very good weekend."

The loss to Denver two weeks ago did pour gasoline on the fire built by Wildcat fans who’d like to see Ty Conklin take over the goaltending responsibilities full-time rather than share them with Sean Matile. UNH outshot DU, 32-19, but lost nonetheless with Matile between the pipes.

The statistical disparity is admittedly staggering. Conklin is 9-0-0, with a 1.23 GAA and a .939 save percentage. Matile, on the other hand, has struggled to a 6-4-1 record with a 2.98 GAA and a .853 save percentage.

That said, the Wildcats don’t have any weekends until the final one of the regular season where they have two games against teams over .500. As a result, Umile can choose to play Conklin against the stronger of the two foes each week while giving Matile a little more time to come out of his funk.

After all, the senior did post a 25-12-1 record last year with a 2.52 GAA and a .908 save percentage. While he hasn’t earned the right to start the big games at this point, his experience could still come into play down the stretch and into the playoffs.

This weekend, the Wildcats face a Merrimack team with a .500 record under former UNH assistant coach Chris Serino.

"Well, I’m not surprised," said Umile. "Merrimack has some good forwards and Chris has them playing real hard and playing in all three zones. They’re playing very well right now and obviously we respect them.

"We respected them before and we respect them even more now with Chris having worked with us. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of excitement and enthusiasm with his team as well with our team."

Merrimack took three of four points last weekend from Boston University, tying, 5-5, on the road before winning, 4-2, at home. The win came despite being outshot, 44-24, as goaltender Tom Welby had a big game.

"Three out of four for us from anybody isn’t bad," said coach Chris Serino. "We’re playing okay. We’re making mistakes, but we’re competing. We’re playing hard and we’re playing more consistently for longer periods of time right now.

"I thought we played pretty good on Friday night even though it was a 5-5 tie. But I didn’t think we played as well on Sunday. I thought BU played better than we did.

"I guess that’s the way the game goes. Welby played a very good second period for us [in the win] and then I thought we played well in the third period, but we could have been out of it before that if he didn’t make a couple big saves."

Welby now holds an 8-8-1 record, a 3.00 GAA and a .912 save percentage.

"At times, he over-competes," said Serino. "We’ve got to get him to channel his energy in the right direction. Especially playing at BU, he wanted to do too much. I think that’s what caused goals on Friday night and early in the game on Sunday.

"But [goaltender coach] Mike Geragosian does a nice job with him and calmed him down and got him back to concentrating on the puck more."

The Warriors now begin a brutal four-game stretch with series the next two weekends against UNH and Maine.

"I think [UNH] is right there with anybody," said Serino. "I have the utmost respect for Richard [Umile]. He’s a great coach. They’ve got a great defense, they’ve got scorers and they’ve got goaltending. It’s a pretty hard combination to beat.

"We have a month where we’ve had BU twice, and have Maine twice and UNH twice. It’s not a cliche. We’ve just got to play one game at a time. We don’t have the ability to look past anybody or say, ‘What if we win two or three?’ Next thing you know, we’ll be in a six-game losing streak.

"That’s the way we’ve approached [this week] and that’s the way we approached the BU games. Hopefully we can play some good games. If we give ourselves an opportunity to win, then we’ll get some."

They’ll be going without defenseman Stephen Moon again this week. The 6-5, 240-pounder missed the first nine games of the season with a knee problem. A recurrence sidelined him once again for the last three.

"Doctors are going to check him [on Wednesday] to see if in fact he has to do something with the knee surgery-wise or if he can play with it the rest of the year in pain without doing much damage," said Serino. "It’s tendonitis that keeps flaring up at the top of his knee. We just don’t know yet."

PICKS: UNH sweeps, 4-1 and 4-3.

No. 6 Boston College (12-6-2, 7-4-0 HEA, 3rd) hosts

Northeastern (7-11-1, 3-8-1 HEA, 8th)

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

Boston College split with Maine, losing, 2-1, before coming back with a 7-4 win. The latter triumph prevented the Eagles from falling to 6-5 in the league, six points behind the Black Bears.

"If our aspiration is to win the league title, Maine was starting to run away with the thing," said coach Jerry York after the win. "We’ve still got to go up [to Maine] and play, so it was really imperative that we get a win tonight."

The series was a battle between two of college hockey’s most exciting players, BC’s Brian Gionta and Maine’s Steve Kariya.

"Those are two players that make college hockey what it is," said York.

On Saturday, Gionta won that battle, scoring two goals and assisting on four others. Although linemate Blake Bellefeuille got the hat trick, Gionta was the straw the stirred BC’s drink.

"He’s a combination of different players," said York, when asked to compare him to past Eagle stars. "There’s some David Emma in him, but there’s the hardness of John Cunniff. He’s just a tremendous package.

"And what you see on the ice, you notice that for sure, but in the locker room, the weight room and the daily activities, he’s just a tremendous person.

"He’s moved it up a notch [since last year]. He seems a little quicker this year. Last year, he fed off Marty [Reasoner], but he’s improved in different areas this year."

For those of you too young to remember the Beatles, the Viet Nam War and mini-skirts — two out of three ain’t bad, according to this typist — Cunniff (1963-66) starred for BC alongside York (1964-67). And David Emma (1987-91) is the all-time leading Eagle scorer with 249 points and won the 1991 Hobey Baker Award.

History lessons aside, BC hosts Northeastern on Friday after a Wednesday clash at Harvard. The Huskies gave the Eagles their first loss of the year on Nov. 13, back when BC was ranked second in the country.

"Northeastern has beaten us once [and we won the other,] so this is the series game," said York. "Despite their won-loss record, we feel they’re a good club. They’ve proven it against us both games. Even the game we won was a tough, hard game."

For those BC fans who have had to keep themselves away from sharp objects because their team hasn’t played up to their expectations, here’s a statistic. The Eagles are 12-6-2. Last year at this time, they were 12-6-2. Northeastern moved out of the cellar by winning two of three league games last week. The Huskies defeated UMass-Amherst, 8-2, and then split with Providence, losing 5-3 before winning 5-4.

"We’re starting to play better," said coach Bruce Crowder. "We’re minimizing our mistakes. I actually thought we played pretty consistent for six periods. That’s one of the things we were looking for and were able to get."

This week, the Huskies give their fans a sneak preview of their second-round Beanpot match-up, playing Boston College and Boston University.

"Any time the cross-town rivals end up playing, anything can happen," said Crowder. "We’re going into their buildings and hopefully we’ll play the way that we’ve been playing the last two or three games and just continue to improve ourselves.

"Obviously, [Boston College] has a lot of firepower. Gionta is a kid that we’re going to have to be very concerned about. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do some things to throw him off his game."

And as for the FOX TV game against BU on Sunday?

"It’s the first time both teams are going to play each other, so I imagine there’s going to be a little bit of a feeling-out period," said Crowder. "They struggled early, then they won six in a row and [now] they’ve struggled again.

"But they’ve got a great coach over there. He’ll have them ready and we’ll have our hands full."

PICK: The Huskies could pull off this upset, but it looks like BC, 5-4.

Boston University (8-11-2, 5-6-2 HEA, 4th) hosts

Northeastern (7-11-1, 3-8-1 HEA, 8th)

Sunday, 7 p.m., Walter Brown Arena, Boston, MA FOXSNE

After winning six in a row, Boston University has now gone 0-3-1 in its last four games. A week ago last Tuesday, the Terriers lost to Maine, 4-3, and then took only one point in a home-and-home series with Merrimack, tying the Warriors, 5-5, at home and losing, 4-2, on the road.

"The funny part about it is that I think we’re playing much better right now," said coach Jack Parker. "We played a solid game against Maine and two solid games against Merrimack.

"Our best effort might have been our last Merrimack game in which we outshot them, 44-24, but wound up on the losing end. We just didn’t put the puck by the goaltender and they had a couple of goals that maybe shouldn’t have gone in.

"But I thought we played very well and our problems are getting smaller and easier to solve. We’re playing with more enthusiasm and we’re getting more opportunities. It’s a far cry from our horrible performance against Princeton [on Dec. 28, losing 3-0.]

"But we’ve lost three out of our last four games and tied the other one after a spell where we won six in a row. Now, all of a sudden we’re dropping back again. The end results are not what we want, but the progress in how we’ve been playing is noticeable."

One positive has been the return of freshman defenseman Pat Aufiero from a broken wrist suffered in the opening game. He finally returned to play on Dec. 27 in the Mariucci Classic. In the 5-5 tie with Merrimack, he scored his first goal.

"He’s playing extremely well," said Parker. "He’s giving us a little bit better look defensively and a little bit better look from the blue line offensively. He’s a very talented kid. He’s a one-man breakout and he can create things.

"He sometimes will turn it over and keep both clubs in it, but that’s his freshman-itis going on. In general, we think he’s is going to be a great player for us."

This week, the Sunday night FOX TV game is the lone one on the docket for the Terriers.

"We’re both struggling as far as our records are concerned," said Parker. "But we both think we’re playing better right now. There’s still a long way to go in Hockey East and a long way to go in the season.

"We’re just trying to get better and so are they. It’s going to be a big game for both of us."

Northeastern is profiled above in its match-up with Boston College.

PICK: With the game at Walter Brown Arena, the safe pick is a BU win, but here’s a hunch that the Huskies will prevail, 3-2.

Providence College (10-9-0, 5-5-0 HEA, 6th) hosts

UMass-Amherst (5-12-1, 2-7-1 HEA, 9th)

UMass-Lowell (11-9-0, 4-7-0 HEA, 7th) hosts Yale (5-8-1, 4-5-1 ECAC) and

Providence College (10-9-0, 5-5-0 HEA, 6th)

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

Friday, 7 p.m., Sunday, 2 p.m., Paul E. Tsongas Arena, Lowell, MA

UMass-Lowell is now on a roll, having won five straight contests. Last weekend, the River Hawks swept the visitors from the North Country, defeating St. Lawrence, 5-2, and Clarkson, 4-1. They then traveled to Union, and pounded the Dutchmen, 7-1.

"The guys are playing well," said coach Tim Whitehead. "We’re playing well as a team, which is most important. We’re focusing on playing defense.

"Before the break, we played some good games, but didn’t get the results. Now we’ve played some good games and gotten the results, so that’s good to see.

"We want to make sure we don’t lose sight of the fact that we don’t have any superstars on our team. I think our guys know that we’ve just worked hard, gotten some breaks and fortunately gotten some results. We’re not under any false illusions that we’re a different team. We’re just playing a little bit more defensively conscious."

That consciousness has also translated into an effective shorthanded unit. Lowell has now killed 45 consecutive penalties.

"Once we killed one or two, the guys started to take pride in it," said Whitehead. "It’s a source of pride for us. We’ve been playing strong defensively with a man down and even up. It’s important for us. When the other team doesn’t get a score on the power play, it brings them down."

Bringing the River Hawks up has been the offense supplied by Jeff Boulanger, who exploded for a hat trick against Union. The 6-2, 202-pound sophomore now has 11 goals on the season.

"He’s tough and he’s [got] heart," said Whitehead. "He plays in all situations. He’s got great hands for a big guy. He gets his share of points. He does it in a hard-nosed way, not a dipsy-doodle way."

The River Hawks have owned the ECAC of late, defeating St. Lawrence, Clarkson and Union most recently to go along with a thrashing of Rensselaer earlier in the year. And Lowell will be traveling to Yale on Friday.

"We’ve still got one more to go, so I don’t want to jinx it by saying anything," said Whitehead with a laugh. "Talk to me after Friday."

The good news, of course, is that the River Hawks have won five in a row. The bad news, however, is that all five have been non-conference games. As a result, Sunday’s afternoon tilt against Providence looms large in Lowell’s bid to move up in the league standings.

"There are just no easy games in our league, so every game is crucial," said Whitehead. "We’ll have to do whatever we can to get back to .500 in the league. We had some tough loses, games that we were in before the break.

"We have to make up for that now. Hopefully, we’re building some confidence here and we can continue to do that over the next two games. [This weekend completes] five games in 10 days. That’s a tough schedule, especially with the trips; we’re not staying overnight.

"So it’s a good challenge for us. The guys are starting to believe in each other. So if we keep that rolling… that should help us confidence-wise against Providence, which is a tough team. We know they’re a tough team. Our guys know that from the past."

(For a detailed look at Yale, see this week’s ECAC Preview by Becky Blaeser and Jayson Moy.)

Providence split with Northeastern, winning on the road on Friday, 5-3, before losing at home one night later, 5-4. On Tuesday, the Friars defeated Brown, 3-2, to take their eighth Mayor’s Cup in 13 tries.

"Obviously, we felt good about [the win on] Friday night. On Saturday night, we played 57 minutes of pretty good hockey. We basically had the game in check and then [Northeastern] took it away from us.

"Give them a lot of credit, but that’s something that just can’t happen for our club if we’re going to continue to climb up the ladder in Hockey East. It was very disappointing, but I give Northeastern a lot of credit for their comeback.

"They got a sniff, and took full advantage of it. We just collapsed in terms of what we needed to do mentally because we felt we had the game in hand and played a little bit like that."

This week, the Friars take on UMass-Amherst and UMass-Lowell, two league teams they have not yet faced this year.

"Lowell and Amherst are two more league contests that we have to be ready to play," said Pooley. "We have to continue to get better, play for 60 minutes and prove that we’re not just a .500 team, but a little bit better."

UMass-Amherst is previewed above in its game against Maine.

PICKS: Providence sweeps, 3-1 over UMass-Amherst and 4-3 in overtime over Lowell.

Thanks to Scott Weighart and Jayson Moy for their contributions to this preview.