The Playoff Race
It’s only January, but the playoff outlook is already more and more fascinating. Hockey East put four teams in this week’s
U.S. College Hockey Online Top 10: #1 UNH, #5 Maine, #6 BU and #9 BC. When you add in Northeastern, which also garnered support, and look at its third-place position in the standings, you have five teams of considerable strength.
If the season ended today, the Hockey East playoffs would feature the following matchups: #1 New Hampshire hosts #8 UMass-Lowell or UMass-Amherst. #2 Boston University hosts #7 Providence. #3 Northeastern hosts #6 Merrimack. #4 Maine hosts #5 Boston College.
Of course, there are a lot of variables to the above pairings. Providence has several games in hand since it has played only 10 league contests to everyone else’s 12 or 13. And one team may have already completed most of its games against the league iron while another hasn’t.
So it’s all very speculative right now, but a few things are worth noting. First, with an apparent separation between the top five teams and the other four, there’s a big difference between finishing third and fourth. A third-place team is likely to face either Merrimack, a Providence team that has cashed in its games in hand or one of the UMass schools. A fourth-place team could be taking on an opponent in the nation’s Top 10.
From the other perspective, it doesn’t much matter whether a team finishes fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth. No matter what, you’ll likely be facing a Top 10 opponent, or a near runner-up. That’s quite different from last year when UNH, BC and Maine comprised The Big Three and there was a significant difference between finishing fifth or sixth. Or, say, 1993 when Maine and BU were head-and-shoulders above the rest and only seventh and eighth formed a dead man’s land.
No matter what, it’s all so competitive at the top that the league is all but guaranteed to have a great postseason tournament.
"I look at the race sometimes as a fan and sometimes as a commissioner," says Joe Bertagna, who fills both roles for Hockey East. "What differentiates the two is that the commissioner wants a lot of people in the FleetCenter.
"Last year, we had three teams of championship caliber and, as it turned out, they all won one championship. [UNH won the Hockey East regular season crown, BC the Hockey East tournament and Maine the NCAA championship.] All of them draw a lot of people and there was no prohibitive favorite. That’s a great combination to bring people in. The only thing that could have been better is if a BU could have gotten [to the FleetCenter] ahead of a Providence because of BU’s following.
"Right now, there isn’t a prohibitive favorite again. UNH has been up there for a while, but they have all those one-goal games that have people thinking that they’re still human. BU is up there, but a lot of people are surprised that they’re there. And Northeastern has come from the other side and surprised a few people.
"If you look at those top five, the difference between finishing third and finishing fourth is huge. The one question mark probably is Providence because there was a time there when it looked like they’d put a string of games together and, all of a sudden, they got swept by UMass, tied Army and with Keefe leaving, people aren’t sure where they’re at.
"From where I sit, it looks like we’re going to have schools that bring a lot of people, all of whom have a great chance to win. That’s a great combination."
Hockey East and the St. Louis Rams
The BU Terriers may just be Hockey East’s version of the St. Louis Rams. Both teams just kept winning from October through December while doubters questioned how good they really were. Now it’s the middle of January and it’s clear that they are both very, very good, indeed.
By taking three of four points from Boston College and then Maine, the Terriers have raised legitimate postseason hopes for their fans.
"I thought coming in that they were playing as well as anybody in the country," said Maine coach Shawn Walsh after this weekend’s series. "I like the looks of this BU team.
"They’ve recruited extremely well the last two years. They’re reaping the rewards of it. They’re a young team that is very excitable, but I thought the [Chris] Heron-[Tommi] Degerman line played well.
"That’s what you need. You need that chemistry of a good senior class and a good freshman class like we had last year when we won it all."
BU coach Jack Parker likes what he sees in his Terriers, but recognizes that the competition will be stiff just to emerge from the league.
"I think the best teams in Hockey East are going to have the ability to accomplish something in the national tournament," he says. "There’s no question about that. We’ve proven that in the past throughout the nineties.
"I guess we’d all like to start proving that again in the new millennium. I think that will come to fruition. I just hope that it’s us.
"There are an awful lot of good teams. It could be Northeastern. It could be BC. BC has struggled a little bit, but BC still has a heckuva team. [Maine] is a great team. And for UNH to go up and split in Maine in a big game [means] UNH is a great team.
"We’re hanging around with the great teams, I think. I don’t think anybody is calling us a great team, but I think we’re in the hunt anyways."
Walter Brown Arena, which used to be one of the toughest places to play for opposing teams, became downright hospitable last year when the Terriers fell to a 5-8-2 record at home. This season, however, they have made Babcock Street their turf once again, posting an 8-0-2 mark.
"This year, we obviously have a better team," says Parker, "but I think last year’s team was jittery at home. I think they realized we weren’t as good as past BU teams and almost didn’t want to be here in front of the home fans. We really struggled with that last year.
"Last year was a step back and we expected a step back, but from a competitive point of view was disappointing. It wasn’t the record that bothered me. It was that we didn’t play hard enough.
"This team has more skill, they have a better record, but more importantly, they compete all the time. They play hard and even when they get knocked down, they get off the canvas and come back up again."
The official statistics list him at 5-10, but it might be more like 5-9.
No matter. Freddie Meyer, who played his first game for BU on Dec. 27, is a big-time player and an invaluable addition.
Injuries to John Cronin and Colin Sheen in the first half had reduced BU to just four healthy defensemen, but with Meyer on the scene and Cronin back in the lineup, the Terriers now have a full complement.
But Meyer provides a lot more than just another body out there.
"Freddie Meyer looked like an All-American out there," said Parker after the rookie’s performance against BC two weekends ago in just his third and fourth collegiate games.
After a win over Maine last Saturday, Parker added, "I like this Freddie Meyer kid after his fourth game. He looks like a hockey player.
"He’s a very poised kid. He can play defense and he can play offense. I thought he was our best defenseman tonight. He had a great game."
Meyer honed his considerable offensive and defensive skills as part of the U.S. National Development Team in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the same mother lode of talent where BU got freshmen Ricky DiPietro and John Sabo and sophomore Pat Aufiero.
"So far it’s been a great transition," says Meyer. "The guys are great. Coach is great. Coach Parker has been giving me a lot of playing time: power play, penalty kill and even strength. That helps out the confidence, which goes a long way.
"The guys have been great helping out in practice with learning different systems and things like that."
Often an offensive defenseman is expected to just learn the defensive ropes in the early going and hold off on the flashier side of things, but Parker, while expecting strong defense from Meyer, has unleashed the freshman’s more creative side.
"Coach Parker just wants me to play my game," says Meyer. "He doesn’t want me to change anything up. He just wants me to do what I’ve been doing my whole life.
"So far it’s been going great. Hopefully, it just continues to get better."
Two Perspectives on Vermont
Although Vermont’s travails are primarily an ECAC topic, Bertagna and Parker offer the additional insight that comes from years of association with UVM coach Mike Gilligan, athletic director Rick Farnham and assistant athletic director Jeff Schulman.
"I spent 15 years in that league," says Bertagna, a long-time ECAC commissioner before moving to Hockey East. "So I worked with the Vermont people closely. They’re great people, and I mean Gilligan, Farnham and Schulman.
"From what I understand, they did everything above and beyond what a school can do. Any rumors they heard, they checked out. They talked to the kids. They weren’t sitting on their hands.
"It’s just very unfortunate, because they’re good people. I feel very bad because they aren’t the kind of people who would just hope a problem would go away and not deal with it. From what I’ve heard, they dealt with it directly and then the kids let them down, which is too bad."
The question of what a league or school can do to prevent what happened at Vermont is easily posed. Getting a reassuring answer, however, isn’t easy.
"As long as you’re proactive, and I believe they were, [that’s all you can do]," says Bertagna. "I believe they heard a rumor and they went out and got to the kids before anything happened and spoke to all of them. If the kids are then going to go out and do something anyway, you can’t hold that against the school.
"It’s very unfortunate. The Vermont people are classy people and I’m sure they did everything that could have been done. If the kids aren’t going to listen or level with you, there’s a limit to what you can do."
Gilligan, who has accumulated 249 wins at the Catamount helm, is considered by many observers to be in jeopardy of losing his job, even if he did everything possible to avoid the current embarrassment. He makes for a convenient scapegoat, whether guilty of anything or not.
"Mike Gilligan has had a track record at Vermont that speaks for itself," says Parker. "If he’s potentially in trouble over the actions of some 20-year-olds, I’d say that that is a bad indictment of the University of Vermont and the state of Vermont.
"I don’t have any idea of what happened as far as how severe it was or how much they lied, etc. Dropping hockey [this year] is a drastic situation. They took some drastic measures, so I guess they needed some drastic measures. But if the final drastic measure is, ‘We’re going to hang this on somebody’ [that would be wrong]. Coach Gilligan wasn’t with those guys.
"I think it would be absurd to do anything to a guy who has had an absolutely fabulous track record, winning and losing, character-wise with the types of teams he’s had over a long period of time, graduation rates and everything else.
"He recruits great kids for the most part. His teams play hard. And it would be a shame if some kids ruined Vermont hockey a year and then Vermont hockey in the future if anything happened to Mike Gilligan."
Notes Around the League
Tickets for the Hockey East semifinal and championship games at the FleetCenter on Mar. 17-18 go on sale this Monday, Jan. 24th at 11:00 a.m. They can be purchased at either the FleetCenter box office or Ticketmaster (www.ticketmaster.com) at (617) 931-2000.
Boston College defenseman Mike Mottau became the all-time BC leader in points and assists by a defenseman this past weekend. The Eagle captain now stands at 24-113–137 for his career. He passed Tom Mellor, who totaled 135 points from 1969-1973, and Tom Martin, who assisted on 111 goals from 1959-1961.
Boston University is only 3-for-42 on the man advantage over the last nine games, prompting Parker to say, "Our power play is anemic. It’s almost, ‘Pick the flag up, ref, and put it back in your pocket. We don’t want the penalty.’"
The Terriers celebrated their 450th game at Walter Brown Arena on Sunday by continuing their unbeaten streak (8-0-2) there this year. Since the inaugural 1971-72 season, they are 315-106-29 in the building.
Maine’s Niko Dimitrakos reinjured his shoulder in the final practice before the BU series and missed both games. The Black Bears are off this week, but face Boston College (twice) and UNH in their next three.
Merrimack coach Chris Serino was probably too hard on himself, but showed stunning candor after
Saturday’s 6-3 loss to UNH. When his team went down, 4-1, with 5:38 remaining in the third period against the number one team in the nation, Serino pulled starting goaltender Cris Classen in favor of third-stringer Jason Wolfe.
The Warriors quickly scored two goals separated by only 10 seconds and it was a 4-3 game with almost three minutes still on the clock. UNH rallied, however, with a goal 48 seconds later against Wolfe and added another with five seconds remaining.
"Sometimes as a coach, your players don’t play well and give themselves an opportunity to win," said Serino, "but there’s other times as a coach that you do a [shoddy] job, and you don’t give you players a chance to win. I did a [shoddy] job for my team down the stretch. They played their [butts] off, and I didn’t give them a chance to win.
"If I’m going to stand in front of them and tell them when they do a [shoddy] job, I’m going to tell them when I do a [shoddy] job."
UMass-Amherst has lost three straight but in that stretch outshot Maine, 37-26, and Northeastern, 44-27 and 32-18. The Minutemen are averaging 30.68 shots per game now, fourth in the league, but that’s getting them only 2.50 goals per game, which is next to last.
UMass-Lowell defenseman Kevin Bertram scored two goals against BC this weekend and now leads the team with eight. He has five on the power play, the only River Hawk with more than one.
Specialty teams continue to haunt Lowell. The Hawks have scored just 12 goals on the man advantage, but have allowed 23 on the penalty kill. They rank last in Hockey East in both percentages.
New Hampshire freshman Colin Hemingway scored not just his first collegiate goal, but his first two on Friday.
So much for the idea that Northeastern would falter without the scoring of Todd Barclay, sidelined with a shoulder injury until March. The Huskies’ sweep over UMass-Amherst gives them five straight wins in league games for the first time since the 1985-86 edition put together a seven-game winning streak early in the season.
Freshman goaltender Mike Gilhooly stopped 42 shots on Friday, including 20 in the third period and 18 over the course of 10 Minuteman power plays. His partner in the Husky pipes, Jason Braun went 30-for-32 in stops one night later. In his last five games, Braun is 4-1-0 with a 1.74 GAA and a save percentage of .935. Three of the four wins came in overtime.
NU coach Bruce Crowder recorded his 150th career victory on Saturday.
Providence College has got to be the streakiest team in Hockey East, if not all of college hockey. The Friars opened the season 2-6, then went 9-1 to get close to a Top 10 berth, only to fall to 0-3-1 against UMass-Amherst (twice), Army and Brown.
PC has compiled an 8-3-1 record against non-league opponents, but is only 3-7-0 in Hockey East games.
Last week’s question looked at the BU-Maine series and asked what two brothers went in separate directions, one becoming a Black Bear and one a Terrier.
The correct answer was Dave LaCouture, who played for Maine from 1989-1993 and served as alternate captain on the 1993 national championship team, and his brother Dan, a Terrier for much of the 1996-97 season.
One common incorrect response was John and David Cullen. The two All-Americans were cousins, not brothers. Close, but no cigar.
A tip of the fedora to Todd Cioffi, who not only was the first to answer correctly but also offered the years that the LaCoutures played.
This week’s question stems from Sunday’s BU-Maine clash, during which the Terriers scored the tying goal off "The Steve Thornton Faceoff." Thornton played from 1991 through the 1995 national championship.
The question is: what four team awards did Thornton win? Mail your responses to Dave Hendrickson for your shot at USCHO fame and glory.
And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…
The best line I heard all week came from the Dennis and Callahan radio show on WEEI. The duo relayed the plight of O.J. Simpson, who requested an airline to upgrade his seat to first class (no doubt so he could more effectively continue his ongoing search for Nicole’s true killers).
Not only was he denied, but Simpson and his current lady friend — the latter of which might be said that while she still has her head, she has no brain — were in coach seats that were not adjacent.
When Simpson asked the passenger who was between them if he’d mind switching places, the response was a gem.
"Would you mind switching places with Nicole?"
Thanks to Jim Connelly for his contributions.