A New Number One
Hockey East lost one number-one ranking over the weekend, but picked up another.
Boston College’s split with Minnesota — more on that later — not only knocked the Eagles from the ranks of the undefeated, it also toppled them from the top spot in the rankings for the first time this season. BC fell to number three.
Nonetheless, Hockey East still retained top billing with defending national champion and former #2 Maine moving up to #1. Maine swept its games with Ohio State, 3-2 and 3-1.
"I chuckle because last year we were never ranked number one in any poll," says Black Bear coach Shawn Walsh. "It shows you that it doesn’t really matter. That’s an extrinsic thing. I’m much more interested in the fact that internally our team knows what we have to do to play well."
Walsh hadn’t been so sure about that prior to the trip to Ohio State.
"I thought we found ourselves as a team in the course of the weekend," he says. "We’d been searching for what we had to do to play well. We’d been winning, but it had been sloppy and not the way we want it to be.
"We tightened defensively very nicely. And on Sunday especially, our forwards worked very hard off the puck and it created great speed. We really had our short passing game going."
Goaltenders Matt Yeats and Mike Morrison, who had each given up three goals one week earlier against New Brunswick and Canisius, took major strides forward in the quest to fill Alfie Michaud’s skates.
"The previous week was more our sloppiness," says Walsh. "[Against Ohio State] our goaltending was terrific. It was clearly very, very good both games. They’re very consistent and I couldn’t ask anything more out of both of them….We’re getting goaltending every bit as good as we did last year at the start."
This week, the Black Bears will be the last Hockey East team to commence its league schedule, hosting Northeastern and Providence.
"They’re both physical, intense teams that are extremely well-coached," says Walsh. "They’re clearly two teams that are dangerous. It will be Hockey East at its best.
"Both teams are veteran teams. Providence has all their defense back and Northeastern has almost its whole team back. But right now I want us to worry about Maine and continue to play the way we did on Sunday."
Northeastern coach Bruce Crowder is far from dreading the tough trek to Orono to face the #1 Black Bears. In fact, he feels just the opposite.
"That’s part of playing the league," he says. "I’m excited about it. It’s like going to Wisconsin. You learn things. They don’t give out championships in November and we’ve got to get better and better.
"It’s a great situation going up there. We’re going against the national champions and they’re undefeated. I don’t think our kids are going to have any problem getting up to play. Those are the type of games that as an athlete you live to play."
Maine’s foe on Sunday will be Providence College. Friar coach Paul Pooley echoes Crowder’s sentiments.
"Obviously, it going to be a difficult game, but I’m excited about it," says Pooley. "We haven’t beaten them there in a lot of years. We’ve got six days to prepare for them. It’s going to be a challenge, but I’m going to be challenging our players to go up there and respond."
How the West Wasn’t Won
It wasn’t exactly the stuff of John Wayne.
"Okay, men, let’s head West and…go .500!"
With then-#1 Boston College and #2 Maine taking on admittedly dangerous but unranked Minnesota and Ohio State, respectively, two sweeps appeared to be a distinct possibility. And while Northeastern entered Wisconsin’s 14,385-seat Kohl Center as the underdog, a split wouldn’t have been a shock at all.
Instead, Hockey East had to be satisfied with a mere .500 record in its latest foray into CCHA and WCHA country. As noted above, Maine swept Ohio State 3-2 and 3-1.
Boston College, however, had to settle for a kiss-your-sister split. On Friday, the Eagles fell behind, 4-0 but roared back to tie the game, 5-5, only to cough it up in overtime.
"It’s a game where we were down 4-0 early," said coach Jerry York after the game. "It’s a tough way to play."
While BC did rebound the following night with a 4-1 win, the trip still had to be disappointing for a team that by the end of the season could conceivably count its losses on one hand.
And that is not to disparage the Minnesota Golden Gophers, who may not look out of place by season’s end as a top-10 team. They may only be 1-4-1, but their six games have been against #1 Maine, #2 North Dakota, and #3 Boston College. (Note to Minnesota coach Don Lucia: quit padding your schedule.)
But BC could be like Michigan three years ago, when the Wolverines lost only three games heading into the NCAA tournament and were expected to defeat, if not destroy, even those teams with top-10 aspirations.
The not-to-be-forgotten Northeastern Huskies dropped both games at Wisconsin, but did anything but embarrass themselves. Their Friday-night loss, 4-2, included an empty-net goal and their loss on Saturday by an identical score included three Badger power-power goals.
"It was encouraging to the point that we played better than we did at Lowell [the previous Sunday]," says coach Bruce Crowder. "These were the fourth and fifth games of the season and at that point you want to be getting better and I thought we got better.
"I thought we competed extremely well. You get out there and there’s always the adversity of the crowd and other things you have to battle when you go out there. I thought we played pretty consistent and pretty hard, but we just didn’t get anything for our efforts."
Surprisingly, freshman goaltender Mike Gilhooly, who had looked strong in previous games, played only 3:33 on the weekend. He was expected to split the weekend with Jason Braun, but had problems with his skates on Saturday, prompting Crowder to leave Braun in the nets after the equipment difficulties surfaced.
"We got good goaltending out of Jason Braun both nights," says Crowder. "He played a great game on Friday night and made some key saves. I just decided to leave him in there the next night so he basically played almost all of that game."
Sadly, when the team returned to Boston, Braun stayed behind to be with his father, who has been battling cancer and took a turn for the worse.
"Jason’s got other things to worry about than playing hockey," says Crowder, "but his dad got to see him play twice."
Here’s hoping for an improvement in the elder Braun’s condition. Our thoughts are with you.
Crowder doesn’t expect to have his sophomore goaltender back this weekend for the trip to Maine, so Gilhooly should start and be backed up by fellow freshman, Todd Marr, who has been hampered by back problems. The Huskies will also be without forward Chris Lynch, who was hit with a game disqualification for butt-ending and, as a result, must serve a one-game suspension.
BU Will Not Finish Eighth
One weekend into the season, the first "What are you, nuts?" email arrived. "How could you pick BU to finish eighth?" it said on the heels of BU’s wins over Air Force and Alaska-Anchorage.
As detailed in the
Hockey East Season Preview, concerns about BU’s goaltending and defense prompted the controversial projection.
"It’s hard to pick a Jack Parker-coached team this low," the preview read, "but the Terriers finished only five points out of the cellar even with Michel Larocque in the nets. A strong recruiting class will have to deliver from the first drop of the puck."
Well, the freshmen have done exactly that. Having seen just one BU game — this past Saturday against Providence — it’s clear that this is the best group of recruits to arrive on Babcock Street in several years.
The most important member of this class is goaltender Ricky DiPietro, in part because he looks terrific and also in part because Michel Larocque left behind a gaping hole in the BU nets. It’s ridiculous, of course, to pronounce any goaltender The Answer after just one game. But DiPietro will bring back memories of Garth Snow with his stickhandling and sure looked like the real deal when it came to stopping the puck.
"There’s no question that he adds another dimension to the game and makes it easier on the defensemen," said Parker after the 3-2 win over Providence. "One of the hardest things in hockey is going back to get the puck when someone’s bearing down on you, pick it off the wall and try to get it out of the zone. [With DiPietro] they can hold people up for a second and let him get it out of the zone for them.
"He made some great decisions and he can really execute. We recruited him knowing he was really good at that. But we also recruited him knowing that he can stop pucks and that’s the most important thing.
"He took the pressure off his teammates by getting it out, but the most important thing he did was he made 25 saves. I was real happy with his overall performance. Mostly, he looked real poised."
Defensemen John Cronin and Mike Bussoli are the next important links to a strong season, considering the total lack of depth at that position, followed by forwards Brian Collins, John Sabo and Ryan Priem.
Currently Collins and Cronin lead the team in goals scored with four and three, respectively, while Bussoli and Sabo have also broken the goal-scoring ice. "I knew that Johnny Sabo would be a real crowd-pleaser and he is," said Parker. "John Cronin is as good a freshman defenseman as we’ve had here in a long, long time. He’s a real smart player. He knows how to get the puck out and play offensively as well. All the freshmen played well."
As a result, it sure doesn’t look like an eighth-place finish anymore for BU, unless DiPietro’s performance against Providence was a fluke or there are significant injuries on the blue line. The odds are still against BU earning home ice, but the Terriers have leapfrogged several teams in the Hockey East Five-To-Nine Lottery.
So, how about no more hate mail from Commonwealth Avenue?
The Case of RPI Fans vs. Dave Hendrickson or Sense of Humor 101
Judging from the venom in a couple emails received, some Rensselaer fans took the 15-0 UNH-RPI "prediction" in last week’s column as a serious one. They further lambasted me for being incapable of picking against Hockey East in nonconference games and were offended at my Hockey East homerism.
First off, 15-0 was a joke. That seemed as obvious as the nose on my face, which unfortunately is saying something. I certainly hope that a few people got a chuckle out of that prediction to balance the offense that others took.
Which is not to say that I was expecting a Rensselaer win. I wasn’t. After all, last week’s ECAC column had some fun detailing that team’s brutal performances in their games which I’ve attended over the last few years. Namely:
New Hampshire 2, Rensselaer 0 on 3/25/94 Mass-Lowell 5, Rensselaer 2 on 11/19/94 Mass-Lowell 3, Rensselaer 0 on 11/13/96 Boston University 6, Rensselaer 0 on 10/18/97 Mass-Lowell 8, Rensselaer 4 on 10/24/98 New Hampshire 9, Rensselaer 3 on 12/21/98
Frankly, I was beginning to wonder if the RPI team song was the old Platters hit, "The Great Pretender." Clearly, the Engineers played some great games during those five years. But I sure hadn’t seen any. A mere mediocre performance would be a big step forward.
And so I made my H-rated prediction. (H is for humor.) And was wrong, but only by three (touchdowns).
Rensselaer was anything but mediocre. UNH fans who might be tempted to dismiss the loss as merely the result of some great goaltending by Joel Laing will be wrong. Laing was terrific, but the RPI defense completely outplayed UNH’s. And Brad Tapper is an offensive force to be reckoned with.
Onward to the second charge. Namely that I’m constitutionally incapable of picking against Hockey East teams in nonconference games, especially when paired against an ECAC team. The facts, however, don’t support that case. Prior to last weekend, I picked the ECAC team in five of the seven games between that conference and Hockey East.
Finally, am I a Hockey East homer? No. My first season preview for USCHO three years ago bore the title, "Hockey (L)East?" because that’s how I saw it. Last year, on the other hand, the league looked exceptionally strong by midseason and earned top billing by placing three teams in the Frozen Four.
Sometimes, you’re the windshield. Sometimes, you’re the bug. Year in and year out, Hockey East tends to be the windshield. But if it’s a "bug" year or a "bug" team in the league, that’s what I’ll say.
I am not, to paraphrase one incensed Engineer fan, Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna’s stooge. Joe Bertagna doesn’t need me for that. He does a great job of being a stooge all by himself.
Last week’s trivia question was: What Hockey East player missed so many games last year that the team apparently forgot his name? (It’s misspelled on his jersey.)
And the answer: Northeastern defenseman Arik Engbrecht, whose jersey added an extra "r" to make it Engrbrecht.
The previous week, no one got the correct answer, while this time it was a race to see who could get their email across the finish line first. Imagine the fan who after several late nights watching the World Series fell asleep early Thursday evening, woke up, read this column in the wee hours and submitted Engbrecht’s name at 1:50 in the morning only to miss out by an even quicker response.
Craig Powers earned the tip of the fedora for not only getting the answer right, but by also being the quickest draw of them all.
As for this week’s question, here it is: at UNH there has been a long-standing tradition of tossing a fish onto the ice when the Wildcats score their first goal of a game. In Whittemore Center history, how many total pounds of fish have been tossed?
Unless someone actually gets the exact poundage, the tip of the fedora will go to the closest guess. (No, there won’t be any responses to your guesses to allow you to narrow it down.)
Once again, mail your responses to Dave Hendrickson. Media representatives are excluded.
League Honors (Oct. 29-31)
KOHO Player of the Week Cory Larose, Maine (SR F) netted two game-winning goals on the road against Ohio State this weekend for the Black Bear sweep.
Rookie of the Week Rick DiPietro, Boston University (G) made his home ice debut against Providence and registered the 3-2 win with 25 saves.
Defensive Player of the Week Mike Mottau, Boston College (SR D) registered 1-3-4 against Minnesota on the weekend to achieve the 100 career assist mark at the Eagles’ blue line.
And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But… Was last weekend’s Indian Summer weather (in New England, at least) an irresistible temptation to pull out the golf clubs or what?
Yours truly loses his short game completely once the college hockey season starts. There’s no time to practice if you’re busy calling coaches, checking for split infinitives and incorrectly predicting 15-0 scores.
But three birdies on the back nine were tantalizing enough to wish for just one more weekend of weather like the last. Just one more, pretty please…
If you’re still awake, we’ll get together at some Frozen Four and I’ll tell you about that time at the eighth hole at Pebble Beach. I’d driven to the edge of that famous cliff. My heart was pounding as I surveyed the postage-stamp green below…
Hey! Who’s that snoring in the back?