This Week in the Hockey East: January 13, 2000

Keefe’s Departure

It was not a good week for the Providence College hockey team. First, UMass-Amherst swept the Friars, who had been making a strong bid for Top 10 consideration, 2-1 and 3-1. Then, on Tuesday, they announced that senior Jerry Keefe was leaving the team for personal reasons.

Last year, Keefe led the high-flying Friars, Hockey East’s top offensive team, with 52 points on 16 goals and 36 assists. The point totals placed him 15th in the country and sixth among players returning this year. Even though linemate Mike Omicioli was graduating, Keefe was still expected to combine with Fernando Pisani and someone, anyone, to make up one of the league’s top lines.

It didn’t happen that way.

Keefe got off to a slow start — only one assist in the first five games — before going on a minor roll, assisting in six of the next seven games. He then suffered an ankle injury, however, missed three games, and when he returned totaled only a single assist in the five games leading up to his departure.

"I think coming into the year I may have put too much pressure on myself," he said from his home on Wednesday. "I was expecting to have a big year. It was just a different situation for me at the beginning of the year.

"Things happened and I started losing a bit of confidence. I think I gripped the stick a little too tight, not getting off to a great start in the first few games and it just snowballed a little bit."

Keefe, always an entertaining player to watch, finished his season with no goals and nine assists in 17 games. Despite his drop in production, he was still getting time on the power play and on one of the top two lines all the way through his final game. He might well have gotten back on track down the stretch and been a key figure in putting Providence College on the bubble for an NCAA berth.

"It was obviously a tough decision," he said. "I just think my situation there wasn’t what I expected coming into the year. Things didn’t really work out for me. I was hoping for a different situation from a player’s standpoint."

As a result, Keefe is now looking at pro offers, while planning to finish his degree over the next two summers.

"I’m not jumping to the first thing that comes out," he said. "I’m letting my agent take care of it. He’s trying to find the best deal and situation for me. I’m not exactly sure where I’m going yet. I could be leaving tomorrow or I could be here until the beginning of next week. I’m not really sure yet. I have to meet with a few teams."

Above all, Keefe wants to make clear that this wasn’t a bitter parting and he stills hopes for the best for Providence College hockey.

"I don’t want to disrupt the team and I would never say anything bad about Providence College because my three and a half years there were great for me," he said. "I just feel that for my hockey career, the best thing for me would be to pursue a pro career.

"I would never say anything bad about Coach Pooley or the program down there. For three and half years, I had a great opportunity to get a Division I scholarship there and they gave me that opportunity. I just thought that the best thing would be to move on and play somewhere else.

"I wanted to leave quietly. Obviously, people are going to want to know why and I can understand that. I’m not sour on anyone. I didn’t leave on bad terms with the coaching staff or anything like that. I had a lot of good friends there and I hope they do well. They have a good team there and I think they can do some good things."

Those Hot Minutemen

After last weekend, which Hockey East team would have been considered the hottest?

UMass-Amherst could stake a pretty good claim. With four wins in a row over strong opponents to raise their record to 8-9-2, the Minutemen just might have achieved their high-water mark since their return to Division I play in 1993.

The streak began with a 4-2 win over a Harvard club that is currently atop the ECAC standings and continued with a 3-2 overtime win against a St. Lawrence team that has been in and out of the Top 10 rankings.

But what turned "pretty warm" into "hot" was last weekend’s sweep of Providence College. The Friars had entered the series with nine wins in their last 10 games and appeared to be not only the prohibitive favorite but poised to move into the Top 10.

"The odds were not stacked in UMass’ favor," says coach Joe Mallen. "We were looking at Providence being probably the hottest team in the country, and just had a great deal of respect for what Paul Pooley has done down there with that team. They’re playing great hockey.

"Maybe the first night we caught them a little overconfident. We really went after them and outhit them and outplayed them and outshot them and really got the breaks we needed.

"The second night when we went down there, Providence really came out and outplayed us, especially in the first period and most of the second period. But Markus Helanen really played well. He’s been playing at a very high level since before Christmas and the Notre Dame game.

"He played very, very well and it just seems that some of those bounces that we didn’t get in the first half, we’re starting to get in the second half."

Indeed, back on Dec. 4, UMass-Amherst sustained a brutal loss to BU when the puck hopped over the stick of a defenseman, allowing a Tommi Degerman strike to the heart with just 17 seconds left in overtime. Against St. Lawrence, however, the Minutemen returned the favor, getting a Jay Shaw goal with just nine seconds left in OT.

"These four wins against the top 12 or 15 teams in the country are a huge boost of confidence for us," says Mallen. "That gives us a lot of legitimacy. We didn’t push the panic button after the first half. We just stuck to our guns, stuck to our system, and tried to keep guys optimistic and upbeat. They’ve responded, but we have a long way to go.

"At this point right now, we’re playing smarter and getting a little better goaltending and getting scoring from different guys, which is something that we drastically needed. We’re really looking forward to the rest of the season now."

Although Tuesday night’s loss to Maine might take some luster off the "hot team" label, the Minutemen remain a club that no one can take lightly. The next two weekends they’ll face crucial home-and-home series with Northeastern and Merrimack, two of the teams they could be jockeying with for playoff position.

"People keep talking about how solid of a team Northeastern is," says Mallen. "We saw them earlier in the year and they beat us, 4-1, but we felt that we could play with them. We know that Bruce Crowder-coached teams are going to work really hard, play physical and be real good on special teams. A lot of the game comes down to goaltending in that series. They’ve shown that they can beat a lot of good teams, like the damage they did on Maine earlier.

"And Merrimack has played a lot of good hockey with a split against [MSU-]Mankato, a team that had beaten North Dakota. Merrimack has had a lot of big wins.

"January is a very important month for us because we have a very tough end of the season schedule coming up. It’s now, in January and certainly in February, a matter of who can get hot down the stretch and produce wins. But that starts right now. This is a crucial time for us based on the teams we’re playing."

A Busy Goaltender

When Jimi St. John suffered a broken collarbone in practice last Tuesday, Cam McCormick knew that he’d be busy in the UMass-Lowell nets. (St. John is expected to be out four-to-six weeks.) But McCormick may not have expected to be quite as busy as he was this past weekend.

On Friday night against Northeastern, he was heroic in defeat, stopping 43 of 44 shots during regulation including 24 of 25 in the third period, before surrendering the game-winner on the Huskies’ fifth shot in overtime.

The freshman then followed that with 34 saves on 36 shots in another overtime game on Sunday, this one a 3-2 win over Merrimack.

"I like playing every game," said McCormick after the win, "but I don’t know if I like facing 70 shots or whatever it was this weekend. [It was 85.] I like playing every day, but the shots could be down a little less."

McCormick enrolled at UMass-Lowell in January, 1998, but had to sit out a year because of playing in a few major junior hockey games. With three years of eligibility remaining for the goaltender, UML coach Tim Whitehead opted not to burn up a full year and redshirted the British Columbia native for the rest of the 1998-99 season.

All of which meant that he went a year and a half without official game action. His Oct. 24 win over Northeastern was his first since Dec. 19, 1997.

"Right now I’m taking this first year as a learning season, getting my feet wet again," said McCormick. "I think I’ve made a lot of progress since I first came here, even in my first half-semester here.

"Walshie [UML goaltender coach Ed Walsh] has been working with me pretty hard, trying to get me compact and using my size. Instead of staying back in the net and using big motion, Walshie is getting me to stay out more and stay compact and helping me improve everything about my game."

It seems to be working. At least based on this last weekend, McCormick is in a groove.

"If you want to call it a groove, go ahead," he said. "I just go out there and try to play as best as I can, give it 100 percent and hopefully give the guys a chance to win every day."

Rivalry du jour

Last week featured two of Hockey East’s best rivalries, #1 New Hampshire vs. #3 Maine and Boston College vs. Boston University. The former provided the highest-ranked teams while the latter showcased unmatched tradition.

"When it’s BU-BC, it’s like it’s a different sport," said BU coach Jack Parker, whose Terriers took three of four points from the Eagles. "Not only the players, but the fans. You can’t get a ticket at either place. The phone is ringing off the hook.

"I know [on Sunday] in our building we must have had 50 former Terrier players here who wanted to see the BU-BC game. They’re not running in every other night to see us play other teams. But they have to see the BU-BC series. That gets everybody jacked up."

So now that the excitement has died down, are we about to embark on a vanilla weekend of fans sitting on their hands, and the passion meter hitting its high point during the all-important hot dog vs. pizza decision at the concession stands?

Well, not exactly.

There’s yet another great rivalry in town this weekend, Maine vs. BU. While this matchup doesn’t boast the long history of BC-BU, it has still been one of the best Hockey East has had to offer over the last dozen years or so.

"Maine is a rival of ours and UNH is a rival of ours, but there’s no rival like BC is," said Parker. "So you never get as excited and the crowd never gets as jacked up about BU against anybody else as they do for BU-BC.

"But this is an important game in the standings and obviously we’ve been battling Maine over the last decade as far as results and bragging rights. They’re a solid team. They’re well-coached and we think they’re a great program, and we’ll have to be ready for them as well.

"If anything, I think the BC weekend will help us as far as feeling good about ourselves and feeling like we’ve got one thing accomplished this year: we got off to a good start against BC.

"You can’t underestimate the importance of that series to either school. You can really go far after having a win against BC and you can really get down if you’ve had a loss against BC. I think it’ll help us to stay focused and to feel good about ourselves, but certainly not overconfident.

"Maine is in the same boat. Maine has us this weekend and then BC goes up there. So everybody this month has real big games. UNH has got a bunch of them. This is a huge month for all the teams in the upper echelon of the league as far as the standings is concerned."

Ricky DiPietro was brilliant in the BU-BC series and has quickly established himself as one of the top netminders in the league. Even so, Parker isn’t so sure that DiPietro will start both games against Maine.

"Obviously, Ricky is the guy we’re going to go to here for a while," said Parker, "but I also don’t want to sit [Jason] Tapp too long either. We’ll see how they both go this week. Ricky will obviously play at least one of the games and we’ll decide later on whether he plays both."

The two clubs met on Dec. 10 at Alfond Arena and the Black Bears came away with a 4-2 win. Parker sees goaltending, defensive play and special teams as the keys to the rematch.

"The usual factors in winning and losing will play out pretty easily in this series," he said. "Right now, they’re going really good on the power play. So specialty teams and how good your goaltending is will be real important.

"There’ll be opportunities for both clubs. Both clubs put pressure on people. You’re going to have to be able to defend in your own end and defend in man-down situations.

"Up in Maine, they put a lot of pressure on our defense, so we’re going to have to figure out how to get the puck out of our zone and get control of it in our zone. They’re a team that can really cycle down low. If we can protect below the dots well and get it out of our zone, that’ll be a key part of the game.

"And if we can either stay out of the box or defend penalties well, we’ll be okay, too."

While BU got the upper hand on BC, Maine split its weekend series with UNH. The Black Bears stunned the Wildcats on Friday night, 9-4. One night later, they fell behind, 5-1, rallied to 5-4, but came up short in quest for the equalizer.

"It was just a terrific series," said Maine coach Shawn Walsh. "We played very, very well for five of the six periods, but had a bad first period [on Saturday] and got ourselves behind and couldn’t make it up.

"But give UNH credit. They played extremely well the second night. The sign of a good team is how they come back after a loss and they did a great job."

Maine then won a Tuesday night "sandwich" game against UMass-Amherst, 4-2. The Black Bears struggled last year at the Mullins Center, but received a strong performance from goaltender Matt Yeats, who had not played well and gotten the hook in the loss to UNH.

"Yeats didn’t play as well as he would have wanted or we would have wanted on Saturday night," said Walsh, "but [I played] him against UMass. I want to make sure that he knows I have confidence in him.

"The Saturday night game was a totally wide-open game. I would have liked to have seen him play a little better, but I’m no more ready to pull the plug than when Ty Conklin didn’t play very well on Friday night and they didn’t pull the plug on him. You’ve got to show confidence in your top goalie."

Backup Mike Morrison, who earlier in the season split time evenly with Yeats, finished the third period on Saturday without giving up a goal and started in a 2-2 tie with Cornell on Jan. 4.

"Morrison did play well and he’s starting to practice better, so I would expect him to play at some point," said Walsh. "We’ll make a decision as we get closer to the weekend."

Walsh doesn’t expect a repeat in the BU series of the wide-open games against UNH.

"When [Maine and UNH] play on a small sheet, whether it’s Anaheim or our game in the Alfond last year or these last two games, they seem to be wide open," he said. "There are so many transition opportunities that it just seems to go with the nature of the games.

"It comes down to your ability to finish. We had nine or 10 odd-man rushes against them and didn’t score on any of them. Ty played very well and we weren’t very patient or poised with the puck in the offensive zone. They capitalized on some of their rushes and odd-man situations, so that was a real big difference in the game.

"[Against BU] it’ll be very different than the UNH series. They’re strikingly different teams. BU is much improved with [Freddie] Meyer coming in and solidifying a real weakness on their team, their depth on defense.

"It should be a great series. They’re playing exceptionally well. Them getting three points against BC says it all. They’re just a much more well-rounded team than they were earlier in the year when we saw them.

"And obviously, DiPietro can individually single-handedly win a game. He’s playing terrific. He may be the most valuable player in the league."

DiPietro Honored and the St. Sebastian’s Connection

DiPietro, who helped lead the U.S. Junior Team to a berth in the World Junior Tournament medal round, was honored with the Directorate Award as the outstanding goaltender of the tournament. In the 23-year history of the tournament, only one other American, Alan Perry in 1984, has won the award. DiPietro was also the only American voted to the All-Tournament Team by the media.

"It was a great honor," said DiPietro. "The hockey out there was great and you really couldn’t ask for a better team. We got shut out of the medals" — due to a shootout loss to Canada in the bronze medal game — "and that was pretty disappointing, but overall I thought we played really well and took a step up for USA hockey."

This past weekend’s series with BC also pitted DiPietro against Tim Kelleher, a former teammate at St. Sebastian’s. DiPietro left after his sophomore year, opting for the U.S. National Development Team in Ann Arbor, Michigan, while Kelleher stayed at the prep school.

"I went to school with him for two years," said DiPietro. "So I knew him pretty well and we played together a lot. So it’s kind of a rivalry/friendship type of deal going on, seeing who can outdo the other one."

Maine sophomore Mike Morrison preceded the two freshmen in the St. Sebastian’s nets and then added a post-graduate year at Phillips Exeter before heading to Orono.

Notes Around the League

An enterprising Merrimack fan made a surprising find underneath the Volpe Complex stands: a 3/4-inch NESN broadcast tape of the March 3, 1991 Hockey East semifinal game between Providence College and Boston University. One can only imagine what other artifacts lurk there. Maybe yours truly should search for his lost marbles…

The Warriors’ Russian Rocket, Alex Sikatchev, made his debut this past weekend against UMass-Lowell. More on him next week.

Merrimack lost a heartbreaker in that game, coming back from a 2-0 deficit to send it into overtime, but then losing on a Chris Bell goal at 2:04.

"In the overtime we chased the puck around in the defensive end instead of playing areas and closing on the puck," said coach Chris Serino. "We just didn’t finish. There was a fine line between getting five instead of two."

The loss couldn’t have come at a worse time since Merrimack takes on UNH this weekend in a home-and-home series.

"Everybody in the world is going to predict that we’ll lose two to UNH," said Serino. "Let’s call a spade a spade. There are two tiers in the league. A win [against Lowell] would have pushed us away from the one tier and closer to the top tier."

For UMass-Lowell, the win was just what the doctor ordered. The River Hawks had not only lost six straight, they’d seen sister school UMass-Amherst leapfrog them with a sweep over Providence, relegating them to last place prior to the win.

"It was very important [to get the win], especially the way it happened," said coach Tim Whitehead. "We had the lead, but they came back and tied it up in the third period to put it into overtime. So it was exactly the kind of game that has been haunting us for the last several games.

"That’s why it was especially important to wipe that stigma off the guys’ heads because we’ve had a couple of those. It’s a big confidence boost being able to persevere, be strong, and win a game like that."

The River Hawk power play, which has struggled all season (10.3 percent, last in Hockey East), looked ineffective at times, but did bury one opportunity to make it 1-for-11 on the weekend.

"We have to keep it simple on the power play," said Whitehead. "That’s an area of our game that we have to keep working on. The guys have to understand that we’re not going to miraculously all of a sudden have a 5-for-6 game. Our goals on the power play are going to be ugly ones. We’re going to have to earn them. I think that’s starting to sink in.

"We have to approach the power play much like we do five-on-five, and that is to outwork the other team and get a loose puck and make the most of it. If we stick to that philosophy, I think we’re going to chip away at our power play."

So does anything remain from the legendary Merrimack Valley rivalry between the Warriors and the Chiefs-turned-River-Hawks?

"It was unbelievable when both teams were contending for the Division II national championship," said Whitehead. "There was so much more at stake. But there’s pride at stake now and I know both teams always come to play. All our games with Merrimack are highly contested."

The win was Lowell’s first this season on the road, where the River Hawks had been 0-10-1. Also, standout defenseman Ron Hainsey is out indefinitely with a concussion suffered in the World Junior Tournament semifinals.

Ken Farrell, a transfer from Iona College who scored 19 points in 14 games there, has been added to the UML roster.

UMass-Amherst is healthy going into the weekend. Brad Nizwantowski’s first collegiate goal was also the game-winner on Friday. Boston College coach Jerry York has broken up the Mike Mottau-Bobby Allen tandem.

"We’re trying to get a little more balance in our power-play units," said York after Saturday night’s 4-4 tie. He then looked at a sheet indicating the ice time for his Eagles squad. "Motts [Mottau] played 33 minutes tonight. Those are [Ray] Bourque-like numbers."

York did opt for Mottau and Allen together, however, in the final minute of Saturday’s game as well as a key four-on-three power play on Sunday.

While splitting up the two defensive stars, York has put his three biggest guns up front together on one line. How’d you like to be a defenseman facing a Jeff Farkas, Brian Gionta and Blake Bellefeuille trio?

The Eagles have reached a verbal agreement with BCJHL recruit Chuck Kobasew.

Boston University was 1-for-28 on the power play over six games before getting two in the third period on Sunday.

"We don’t have a lot of poise," said coach Jack Parker. "We’re very young, especially on the points. We don’t have a power-play unit anymore. We just play whatever line is up. We have three lines that play the power play and we try to play whichever one is up to keep people fresh because we haven’t really found anything that’s really clicking for us yet."

The arrival of Freddie Meyer, however, could change that lack of poise at the point. On Sunday, he faked a defender into a slide, walked around him and then fed the puck down low to Tommi Degerman for the game-tying goal. Look for more on Meyer next week.

Power plays proved instrumental in the Sunday win over BC. The Terriers failed on three early opportunities, including a five-on-three, but got two in the third period and killed all six Eagle chances, including a 1:25 two-man advantage.

"[Killing a penalty] not only gets your team jacked up, but it demoralizes the other team," said Parker. "We were demoralized on the bench to the point that we had one power play and then a piece of another power play and then we had a short 40- or 50-second five-on-three power play and we didn’t get a sniff.

"We didn’t get anything going. I could see us just deflate on the bench. I told the boys, ‘Don’t worry about it. The next power play we’ll just decline. We’re playing great five-on-five. We’ll just decline the penalty.’

"That’s what happens. Guys get really depressed when they don’t score, especially on a five-on-three. [BC’s] was much longer, obviously, and we did a good job. When they don’t score, they get down and when we kill it off, we get up. That really boosts you."

Muchas Gracias

A big thank-you goes to Jeff Zolt and the other fans who offered tapes of the UNH-Maine series. I greatly appreciate it.

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question asked the following: 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?

Many readers got the easier of the two, Jack Parker. In fact, at a recent NCAA championship, the notorious Barkan Bash featured T-shirts that proclaimed,

"Hockey is a slippery game, played on ice." — Jack Parker

"Beer is a drink, served on ice." — John Barkan

So it’s no small wonder that Parker was a popular response.

The tougher of the two answers, according to the Boston Herald’s Jocko Connolly, is legendary Harvard coach Ralph "Cooney" Weiland.

Only one person got both Parker and Weiland, so a tip of the fedora goes to Mark Hurlman.

This week’s question looks at the upcoming BU-Maine series and asks what two brothers went in separate directions, one becoming a Black Bear and one a Terrier. Feel free, when mailing your responses to Dave Hendrickson, to editorialize as to which one was the Benedict Arnold.

And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…

VH1 recently announced its list of the 100 greatest rock songs and surprise, surprise, I feel compelled to comment.

Some have complained that the newest song on the list is the 1991 Nirvana hit, "Smells Like Teen Spirit." That bias toward older music, however, offends me not one whit. All you young whippersnappers are going to disagree, but it seems to these ears that a while back popular music took a wrong turn and has hit a dead end. If given a choice between listening to a radio station like WBCN, an old favorite that has run amuck, and visiting the dentist without benefit of novocaine, I’d tell Dr. Pain to fire up the drill.

Others have bemoaned that a non-rocker like Simon and Garfunkel’s "Bridge Over Troubled Water" came in at number 30. But that choice is just fine with me since that song was my introduction to popular music. Sail on silver girl…

But there are some omissions that are mind-boggling.

Nothing at all from U2?

VH1 includes "We’ve Only Just Begun" by the Carpenters — eeeew, gross! — at number 99 and doesn’t include "I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For" (the live, gospel-styled version on Rattle and Hum, of course)?

And how can there be only one Stevie Wonder song, "Superstition" at number 22? That guy owned innovation in around the Innervisions era. Man, if you wanna get me to move my feet, just get that synthesizer cooking on "Boogie On Reggae Woman" and I’m off.

Of course, I’ve been told that most people really do not want to see me move my feet.

Nonetheless, if the list holds nine Beatles’ songs and five by the Rolling Stones — two thumbs-up in principle for both of those — then it must have more than one by Stevie Wonder. Does anyone else remember Paul Simon’s acceptance speech back in the seventies when he won the Grammy for best album? His opening words were, "I’d like to thank Stevie Wonder for not making an album this year."

A slick one-liner, yes, but also a pretty accurate indication of just how dominant the guy was. You’ve got to slide "You Haven’t Done Nothin’" or "Living for the City" or "Higher Ground" in there somewhere.

Ah, well, I guess you can’t please everyone.

Time to slip Innervisions out of its sleeve and put it on the turntable.

What’s a turntable, you say?

You see, a turntable is this thing that plays records…

Oh, forget it.

Thanks to Jayson Moy and Andy Dursin for their help this week.