Parity Without Mediocrity
"Our league is a war." —PC coach Paul Pooley
this week’s poll.
Not only did three Hockey East teams make the Top 10 — #1 New Hampshire, #3 Maine and #10 Boston College — but three more received votes: Boston University, Providence College and Northeastern.
When two-thirds of the league warrants such consideration, that’s an exceptional show of strength.
But check out the case for parity, as well.
#1 New Hampshire is 7-0-1 atop the league standings, but six of its seven wins have been by one goal and the other would have made it unanimous if not for a marker in the final two minutes.
That doesn’t in any way diminish UNH’s accomplishments, of course, which have been well-deserved. The Wildcats are playing exceptional defensive hockey. But it does show how small the margin of error is in Hockey East this year.
Or look at it this way. Clearly, the six teams garnering consideration in the national rankings have displayed parity within their own ranks. What about the other three, Merrimack, UMass-Lowell and UMass-Amherst?
UMass-Amherst hasn’t claimed a league win yet, but in nonconference games has beaten St. Lawrence, Harvard and Notre Dame. That trio ain’t chopped liver. And within the league, the Minutemen have lost one-goal games to the top two teams in the standings, UNH and BU (twice).
UMass-Lowell has already knocked off Northeastern in convincing fashion and can also count one-goal losses to UNH (twice) and BU, not to mention tight games against Maine and in a third contest against New Hampshire.
Merrimack holds a 4-5-1 record within the league, including wins over BC and Providence College, as well as a tie against Maine.
"I don’t think that there has been a year ever in college hockey in any league that it was so competitive from top to bottom," says BU coach Jack Parker. "This is as tight a league as we’ve ever had. Literally every night, you can flip a coin who’s going to win the game.
"Last year I thought that Northeastern was the best ninth-place team there’s ever been in college hockey, but I truly believe that this year from top to bottom [it’s even tighter]."
Which raises the specter of another very good team being the odd man out come playoff time.
"I remember talking to UMass after our series and they were worried about staying out of the cellar," says Parker. "They had to stay up with Lowell. And I thought that Lowell and UMass were two real good hockey teams.
"It didn’t dawn on me that those guys were worrying about being in the cellar because they’re so good. It’s bizarre that they’re worried about winding up ninth.
"And obviously, anybody can beat anybody if you get into the playoffs. It doesn’t matter if you’re eighth or sixth or whatever, you can win. So the playoff fight will be something this year and it won’t so much be the top four, but the top eight."
Two Great Weekend Series
Can it get any better than this?
#1 UNH travels to Orono for a two-game set against #3 Maine while one of the most storied rivalries, Boston College vs. Boston University, resumes along Commonwealth Avenue.
VCRs should be whirring since all four games will be televised. The UNH-Maine series will be shown throughout the Downeast State via the Black Bear Network (consisting of WAGM Presque Isle, WABI Channel 5 in Bangor and WPME UPN 35 in Portland). And TV68 will cover the Saturday night BC-BU tilt, while Fox Sports New England begins its Game of the Week presentations with the Sunday contest.
"UNH and Maine has become a big rivalry along with BC-BU even though this one obviously isn’t as long in years," says New Hampshire coach Dick Umile.
As such, the Alfond Arena faithful can be expected to provide a healthy home ice advantage for the Black Bears, with the #1 vs. #3 angle providing even a few more decibels.
"We’ve gone up there in different positions over the years," says Umile, "and the crowd has always been great as it is here [at UNH] or when we go down to Boston. It’s a great crowd and it’s one of the fun places to play in college hockey.
"Whether we’re number one, two or three [in the nation] doesn’t make any difference at this point. We’re going up there to compete to stay on top of Hockey East."
UNH is riding a 12-game unbeaten streak, during which the Wildcats have allowed more than two goals only once. That defensive prowess has overcome a limited offensive output, particularly on the power play.
"The key will be which team can transition best defensively and handle the specialty situations," says Umile. "Specialty teams are always important when we go up there. We have to stay out of the penalty box and not spend too much time playing shorthanded.
"And when it’s UNH and Maine, it always comes down to transitional defense. They’re a quick transition team and so are we."
Maine is fresh off wins over Colorado College and Denver to win the Norwest Denver Cup on New Year’s Day, followed by a 2-2 tie on Tuesday against Cornell.
"I like our chemistry right now," says coach Shawn Walsh, "I like the way we played in Denver and against Cornell and we’re looking forward to the addition of Barrett [Heisten] and Doug [Janik] coming back from the junior team, but obviously UNH presents a special problem with how well they’re paying defensively.
"It should be a very exciting series. The whole month of January will be a test of highs and lows because so many of the top teams are playing each other and this starts it off.
"We’re looking forward to an exciting weekend. This is what college hockey is all about."
The BC-BU series will mark the 200th game between the two archrivals. That’s a lot of sieve chants!
#10 Boston College enters on an impressive six-game winning streak during which the Eagles have risen to the top of the league in almost every statistical category (see the right sidebar).
"For us to continue to be successful," says coach Jerry York, "we’re going to have to continue to play very solid defense. That’s from the goal out. Tim [Kelleher] and Scott [Clemmensen] will each play a game.
"And they’re going to have to make some saves. BU is going to generate a lot of offense. We’re convinced of that just watching them play. So we’ll need good goaltending.
"We’re certainly going to need good play from our forwards, capitalizing on some scoring chances and creating scoring chances. Emotion certainly plays a big part in this series, so we’ll need to stay poised as we each play in front of our home fans."
Brooks Orpik returns from the World Junior Tournament, giving BC a full complement of six defensemen again, but forward Tony Hutchins will miss the next four-to-six weeks with a fractured bone in his hip area.
During their six-game winning streak, the Eagles have outscored their opponents, 28-9, a far cry from their offensive struggles of mid-November.
"When we’re skating, we create a lot more offense," says York. "But when we stand around and watch, our offensive chances go down to very few. During this stretch now, we’ve been skating very well. Skating is the key to our game."
The BC man-advantage unit has also been clicking, going 7-for-17 over the last three games.
"We’re a real cohesive unit now on the power play," says York. "We’re moving pucks to spots that create good chances. And we’re burying some of those chances.
"We’re doing a good job on the PK, too. Our special teams have really led our resurgence in our six-game winning streak."
Which is a point that has certainly caught the attention of the Boston University coaching staff.
"Our biggest problem with BC is how good their power play is," says coach Jack Parker. "They put five pretty talented guys out there who can really move the puck and really make plays. There’s no question they’re premier players in college hockey: [Brian] Gionta, [Blake] Bellefeuille, [Jeff] Farkas and [Mike] Mottau.
"It doesn’t matter who the fifth guy is. Those are the four guys that run it and they’re as good as there is in college hockey. That’s the thing that scares us the most. We’ve got to stay out of the box and when we do get penalties, we’ll have to be really efficient in killing them off because they can really go after you."
BU’s fate could rest on how the four Terriers who are returning from the World Junior Tournament — Pat Aufiero, Rick DiPietro, John Sabo and Dan Cavanaugh — respond to the flight home and the resulting jet lag.
"All four will be in the lineup," says Parker, "but we’ll see how much we play all four depending on how loose or tight they are."
A Netminder Without Notoriety
What Hockey East goaltender leads the league in save percentage?
Hmmm. Maybe one of the new guys. Rick DiPietro?
Tim Kelleher or Matt Yeats?
Okay, okay. You’ve made your point. Who is it?
Cris Classen. The Merrimack senior tops the league with a .936 save percentage in eight games, followed by Schaefer (.930 in eight) and Conklin (.924 in 17).
Before the season started, most observers, including this one, had Classen pegged for only a handful of games and those against weaker nonconference opponents. He had only played six games plus mopup duty last year and Tom Welby appeared to be The Man between the Warrior pipes.
Instead, he’s now bidding for the number one spot, with wins in his last five starts. Classen’s streak includes tough games in which his team has been outshot 43-16 (a 2-0 shutout over UMass-Lowell on Nov. 21) and 41-22 (Sunday’s 4-1 win over MSU-Mankato).
"After the first game at Mankato," says coach Chris Serino, "I was going to play him the next night, too, but he’d gotten too dehydrated. But he’s starting for us this weekend against Lowell.
"The way he’s playing right now, he’s going to play at least half of the games, if not more. He’s worked real hard for it. I’m real happy for him.
"He’s such a nice kid that everyone wants him to succeed. When he makes a big save, the emotion he gives to our bench is huge, even more so than a regular guy making a big save."
Classen also gives Serino the example every coach hopes to show his team: a player whose perseverance has paid off.
"Some kids moan and groan about not playing," says Serino, "but they don’t take advantage of the time they get. Instead of complaining, Cris worked. He’s a kid who took advantage of the opportunity. When he played, he did his job and now he’s getting more playing time."
A Little Controversy
Something must have gotten into the WCHA water when Minnesota-Duluth was allowed to violate the unwritten rule that you never assign an official to a school he is an alumnus of. It’s just begging for controversy, which is exactly what resulted when BU fell to the host Bulldogs, 8-5, in a game refereed by Bill Mason, who played for the school from 1981-85.
After the game, the Boston Herald quoted an unhappy Parker, who felt his team had gotten the short end of the officiating stick.
"The only thing I’ll say about the referee is that his name is Bill Mason, and he played at UMD," said Parker.
Notes Around the League
Northeastern suffered two major losses when leading goal-scorer Todd Barclay separated a shoulder and stellar defenseman John Peterman sustained a knee injury that may require surgery. Barclay will be out until at least March. Peterman could be gone for the season.
Merrimack, which has struggled at times to score, should have at least one line to threaten on a consistent basis now that Greg Classen, Anthony Aquino and John Pyliotis have been put together.
Best headline of the last few weeks: Farkas 5, Vermont 4.
Providence College’s Jon DiSalvatore sure has hit his stride. The Hockey East Rookie of the Week and Month has scored two goals in three of the last four games. He now stands at 9-4–13, tied for second on the Friars in goals scored and fourth in points.
UMass-Lowell’s Mark Fontas and Jeremy Kyte have transferred.
Last week’s contest involved a boatload of trivia about Scrooged, this writer’s personal favorite film version of A Christmas Carol.
Here are the questions and answers.
Q1: Bill Murray, playing a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge in the form of a top TV executive, is called Frank Cross. What is Cross’ middle name? A1: Xavier, as seen on his coffin during the visit from the Ghost of Christmas Future.
Q2: Early in the movie, Cross tells a stagehand to affix antlers to a mouse in a particular way. What is it? A2: With staples.
Q3: What is Cross’ philosophy of treating people badly on the way up? A3: You also get to treat them badly on the way down.
Q4: Cross and his brother walk past a group of jazz musicians early in the movie. Who is playing trumpet? A4: Miles Davis. (Anyone who asks, "Miles who?" is hereby sentenced to 100 hours of listening to the Backstreet Boys.)
Q5: What unconventional audience does the head of the network suggest that Cross try appealing to? A5: Pets. "You know how Kojak had his lollipop? How about a detective who dangles a string from his finger?"
Q6: The Jacob Marley character, a long-dead fellow TV executive, was legendary for what achievement? A6: Creating the mini-series.
Q7: What does Cross’ rival order at dinner? A7: The California Health Plate, no dairy.
Q8: What is the occupation of the Ghost of Christmas Past? A8: Taxi driver. The fare meter clicks back from 1987 as the two go back in time.
Q9: As shown by the Ghost of Christmas Past, what did Cross’s father give him for Christmas? A9: Five pounds of milk-fed veal.
Q10: As shown by the same ghost, what did Cross later buy his girlfriend Claire for Christmas? A10: She bought him a copy of The Kama Sutra. He bought her Ginsu knives.
Q11: Who plays the Ghost of Christmas Present? A11: Carol Kane.
Q12: The Ghost of Christmas Present whacks Cross in the nose with a particular kitchen appliance. What is it? A12: "The @#$^% hit me with a toaster!"
Q13: Where does Cross meet the Ghost of Christmas Future? A13: In an elevator.
Q14: Other than Tiny Tim, who says, "God bless us, every one!" at the end? A14: Calvin, the youngest son of Cross’ secretary. He had previously been unable to speak.
Q15: As the credits are rolling, Cross utters a line from "Little Shop of Horrors." What is it? A15: "Feed me, Seymour!"
Mike Chevrette earns a very well-deserved tip of the fedora for nailing all but question three.
Now — finally! — on to this week’s trivia question. After the
Dec. 28 Niagara – Merrimack game Purple Eagle coach Blaise MacDonald said, among other things, "Hockey is a slippery game played on ice."
This phrase can be traced back to two other coaches. Who are they? (If you only know one of them, go ahead and respond. Few, if any, will get both.) Mail your responses to Dave Hendrickson.
And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…
Here are a few random ruminations from the holidays.
While it was a shame that so many of the holiday tournaments were long distances away, I did enjoy some excellent high school hockey at the BB&N Holiday Hockey Showcase. Pingree won it in consistently dramatic fashion, from Bob "Reggie" Lemelin stopping all three chances in a first-round shootout to Paul Knight’s overtime goals in both the semifinal and championship games.
ESPN’s choice of Michael Jordan as the Athlete of the Century befuddles me. In Jordan’s own sport, Wilt Chamberlain was more unstoppable and Bill Russell won more championships. Athletes from Jim Thorpe to Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders excelled in multiple sports in ways that Jordan could not. And, most importantly, Bobby Orr, Babe Ruth, Chamberlain and Russell changed their sport in fundamental ways that Jordan did not. I just don’t get it.
And in a lighter vein…
One neat thing about Dec. 26 is eating apple pie for breakfast.
I stopped making New Year’s resolutions when I kept breaking them by the Orange Bowl.
Thanks to my editor, for his patience while awaiting this column, unconscionably late due to a nasty bout with the flu.