Looking at the action across the country this week, four games involve Top 10 teams playing each other.
All four are in Hockey East.
#1 UNH faces #6 Boston University in a home-and-home series, while #5 Maine hosts #9 Boston College for two at Alfond Arena.
VCRs should be whirring since the three of the four heavyweight tilts will be broadcast in one part of New England or another.
New Hampshire reached a milestone this week when it earned its first-ever unanimous number-one ranking. Although the Wildcats had to settle for two ties with Northeastern over the weekend, they’ve still suffered only one loss in their last 17 games.
"We were lucky to get it tied up on Friday," says coach Dick Umile, whose squad got the equalizer in the final minute with goaltender Ty Conklin pulled. "But I thought we played well on Saturday and had an opportunity to win it. It was a good weekend of hockey."
Ironically, UNH’s success has continued despite weak performances on the specialty teams. The Wildcats have fallen to a stunning next-to-last place in penalty killing (14.1 percent) and are only one spot higher on the power play (81.9 percent). Northeastern blanked New Hampshire on all of its 12 man-advantage opportunities over the weekend, while the Huskies went 3-for-13 (but surrendered two shorthanded goals).
"The interesting thing [against BU] will be to watch each other’s power play," says Umile. "[BU] has had some success lately, but ours hasn’t been very good. I thought we moved it well once during our game on Saturday night, but our power play was not good this past weekend."
That said, there are a lot of similarities between the two clubs, according to Umile.
"They’ve got speed; we’ve got speed," he says. "They’re getting good goaltending. We’ve got good goaltending. [They] transition well, move the puck well, and generate good scoring opportunities. That’s BU’s style. They like to push the pace and so don’t we.
"So it’s going to be good defense and [especially] playing good transitional defense that is going to be important.
"If you look at the specialty teams, maybe they’ll both balance out. Maybe we’ll both have a good weekend or we both won’t. But if one has a better one than the other one, then that could be interesting."
Boston University’s special teams have run hot-and-cold this season, but emerged this past weekend from a drought with a 5-for-11 effort on the power play. It was only just a week ago, though, that coach Jack Parker was quipping about declining a penalty.
"I look at UNH and see that they have a lot of similar problems [to ours] in that they’re not getting the puck set up as much as they’d like," says Parker. "I think coming through center ice and having the ability to get it set up in the zone is probably the most important thing for any power play and both of us have struggled at that even though we’ve gotten a little better of late.
"For both teams, it could be at any time that they get back on track. There’s enough talent on both clubs to have a good power play and sometimes teams just get pressing and they get concerned about it and it makes it more difficult.
"We’ve got seven power-play goals in our last five games, which is a pretty good stretch for us, but we certainly haven’t had a good year on the power play as yet. But I do believe that our best hockey is ahead of us on the special teams, especially on the power play."
Goaltending, of course, is critical to penalty killing and Terrier freshman
Ricky DiPietro has excelled. He’s been nursing a groin problem, however, which made Sunday’s start against Yale by
Jason Tapp all the more important. Tapp, who hadn’t seen action in the five games since DiPietro returned from the World Junior Tournament, got the rust off and gave his partner a rest.
"It was nice to get him some time off and he’s been off a couple days in practice so we’ll see how he feels," says Parker. "But, in general, we’re pretty sure that Ricky can go in one of the games and he may play both."
The home-and-home series may well feature two games with substantially different styles, considering the Olympic ice surface at UNH and the smaller sheet at BU.
"The games play out differently every time you play up there and then get back to the smaller rink," says Parker. "There’s less physical contact in the big rink. I think it’s less of an emotional game.
"There seem to be peaks and valleys as far as the tempo of the game is concerned. There are times when not a lot is happening and everyone is real cautious and all of a sudden some club has quite a flurry in the big offensive zone.
"In our rink, it’s much more of an emotional game. It’s much more of a high-intensity, high-tempo game with more consistent offense. The puck is usually in one end or the other end. There’s usually something happening. So, in general, these games do present two different pictures."
No matter what the style, a lot is resting on this series. UNH and BU are one-two in the
league standings with a gap of four points and a game in hand separating the Terriers from third-place Northeastern. And with five exceptionally strong teams in the league, the points in the two games could prove vital in the jockeying for an NCAA berth and possible first-round bye.
"I don’t think there’s any question that the outcome will have a [major impact] on the national rankings," says Parker. "And it’s big for both teams as far as keeping the distance between us and the rest of the guys behind us [in Hockey East].
"It’s imperative that you finish in the top four in this playoff picture and finishing in the top two or three is an even bigger deal than finishing fourth, with the five teams vying for those four spots.
"So I’d say that there’s a lot riding on both of those aspects, but I think that more than anything else, both teams would like to affirm that they belong and that they feel good about themselves and that they can beat quality opponents. We will provide each other that opportunity as well."
Maine was off last week after dropping three of four points to BU. That put the Black Bears at 2-2-2 since Jan. 4, but coach Shawn Walsh sees no cause for alarm.
"We played eight games in 17 days, six of them away from Alfond against the likes of Colorado College, two with New Hampshire, two at BU, and Denver on the road," says Walsh. "We went 4-2-2 so I’m fairly comfortable in the national picture with what we just accomplished. Three of them were without [Barrett] Heisten and [Doug] Janik and [two] without Niko [Dimitrakos].
Clearly, though, this weekend is a big one for the Black Bears.
"Every series now becomes more and more important," says Walsh. "Clearly, this is a series for positioning as you head into the stretch run.
"My biggest concern is Friday night coming off that layoff and getting right back at it. We started back up [practicing on Monday]. We’ve got to make sure that the rust is taken care of. We did a good job of that before we went to Denver [after the Christmas break], so I’ll try to mirror what we did practice-wise that week.
"We did more [intrasquad scrimmaging] and tried to emphasize certain specific hard-work things that you typically can’t simulate in practice."
It’ll be a shock if goaltender
Matt Yeats doesn’t get the start both nights. Walsh opted for backup
Mike Morrison in the first game of the BU series since Yeats had started five games in just 12 days. Morrison didn’t play well in the 5-4 loss, but Yeats looked good in the 3-3 tie the next night.
If Walsh’s "no comment" about Morrison’s play didn’t speak volumes, the endorsement of Yeats that came one night later certainly did.
"[He was] solid," said Walsh. "I kick myself for not playing him [in the first game]. You think I’d learn."
In terms of the rest of the Black Bear personnel, Tommy Reimann has been cleared to play his first game since Nov. 7. Although the forward is apparently over his post-concussion syndrome, it’s likely he’ll need another week to get into game shape.
Niko Dimitrakos may return after missing the BU series with a shoulder injury.
"Niko is a key guy, but I’m not going to rush him for a late-January series," says Walsh.
And Martin Kariya is scheduled to return to the lineup after also missing the BU series. The freshman had been suffering the lingering effects of a bout with the flu.
"It was a coach’s decision [to sit him], but it was partially because he was still under the weather," says Walsh. "He’ll play. In fact, he was one of our better forwards against Northeastern in early December and I’m not going to forget that."
The Maine power play has scored an eye-opening 14 goals in the last five games (4-for-7, 4-for-9, 2-for-7, 3-for-8 and 1-for-7) to move to the top of that category in league statistics at 23.4 percent.
"We’ve got the right people there now," says Walsh. "It took me a while to figure out who’s going to be out there. We’ve got good personnel, they complement each other and they seem to know to know their roles."
Boston College, however, is second in the league in both penalty killing and the power play, so it will be a clash of strengths between the two clubs.
"Special teams will be huge," says Walsh. "They penalty kill very, very well and they’re very dangerous when they penalty kill. So we’re going to have to be on top of that. And obviously, when you play BC and their arsenal, you have to be defensively on your toes."
As usual, Maine’s defensive approach won’t be to pair its best checkers against BC’s big guns, even though the Black Bears will have the last change at home.
"I’ve never been big on matching lines per se, so I’m not going to be worried about that," says Walsh. "As a team, I want our players knowing who’s on the ice and taking care of it that way."
Despite gaining only a split last weekend against Providence, Boston College still has put together a 9-2-1 run dating back to Nov. 30. Unfortunately, only four of those nine wins have come in league action, leaving the Eagles with a slightly uphill battle to avoid going on the road for the Hockey East playoffs.
"We want to focus on securing one of those home ice spots," says coach Jerry York. "We have 11 games left and they’re all important. But when you’re playing a team that is involved with you [in that fight for home ice], it makes it doubly important.
"We understand that we’re in quite a battle. A lot of the coaches are saying that to get to the nationals, the hardest thing is to get out of this league. They won’t let five teams from our league to go to the nationals, but certainly at this stage it doesn’t seem out of whack to say that all five should qualify."
While this writer would contend that five teams from a league will be selected to the NCAA tournament if they deserve to based on the criteria, York’s point is well taken. In all probability, the Hockey East slugfest will send at least one of the heavyweights down to the canvas and out of the postseason.
Which will just make the two games at Alfond Arena all the more exciting, as if they needed the boost.
"It’s a matchup we look forward to," says York. "There are certain weekends of the season that you can circle and say that they are special hockey weekends. This is one of them.
"[Alfond Arena] is a difficult place to play. Everybody understands that in the league. It’s a difficult place to play not because of where it’s at or the size of the rink, but because Maine has a lot of good hockey players and they’re well-coached. That’s what makes it difficult."
Difficult or not, York sees his team as ready for the challenge.
"We’re in a pretty good frame of mind," he says. "We’re getting balanced scoring, as witnessed by [Sunday’s 6-0 win over Providence]. All four lines scored and we’re playing very, very solid defensively.
"For us to be successful at Maine this weekend, we’re going to have to be able to continue that, be solid in our own end and limit the number of chances that Maine will have. We know that they’re going to have some chances, but we want to keep the number of shots down and play solid D.
"Special teams are always a factor in big weekend series. We’re trying to improve in those areas. Maine presents some problems on both sides of the special teams.
"We’ll have to really concentrate on playing hard without taking many penalties. That can be accomplished with a good disciplined approach to the hockey game. We really want to cut down on the number of penalties to five or six a game. That should be what we really strive for."
York has broken up the mega-line of Jeff Farkas, Brian Gionta and Blake Bellefeuille. Farkas is now centering Jeff Giuliano and Mike Lephart, while Marty Hughes has moved up from defense to join Gionta and Bellefeuille on the left wing.
"That’s been the most significant change we’ve made all year," says York. "Marty has been a very positive influence on our team up front. He’s got terrific puck patience. You see that on defense, but now as a forward, too, helping us in the offensive zone.
"I think he’s going to mesh very well chemistry-wise and just in terms of his playing ability with Brian and Blake. I really like the looks of it."
Freshman Krys Kolanos, who has picked up momentum of late, now anchors the third line between Ales Dolinar and Kevin Caulfield.
"Krys is playing a lot better," says York. "He an 18-year-old freshman and it takes a while. There are only a few Kariyas or Leetches that come in and just light up the league as a freshman.
"It’s a growing process. I think we’re seeing a much more comfortable Krys now. He’s playing better and smarter. He’s worked on his strength and I think he’s going to have a real good second half here."
Between the pipes,
Tim Kelleher now holds the third-lowest goals-against average in the nation (1.69), second only to Michigan State’s Ryan Miller among netminders from the four major conferences. Kelleher ranks fifth in save percentage (.931).
His partner in the BC tandem,
Scott Clemmensen, allowed four goals on 23 shots in last Saturday’s 4-3 loss to Providence, dropping his statistics to a 2.72 GAA and .884 save percentage. While the two netminders have virtually identical won-loss records, the growing disparity in the other statistical categories has some wondering if the 50-50 split should be abandoned.
"The statistics we’re concerned about are Ws and Ls," says York. "And both have helped us in that area. They give us a real good chance to win.
"We feel very fortunate to have what we feel are two very solid goaltenders. We haven’t had that here since I’ve been at BC. It’s difficult to do, but if you can have goaltenders like Scott and Timmy push each other and make each other better, [that’s ideal]."
When asked directly if he’s committed to a rotation, York’s answer is unequivocal.
"No question," he says.
The Russian Rocket
The NHL may have Pavel Bure, but Merrimack has its own Russian Rocket in Alex Sikatchev, who played his first game on Jan. 9 against UMass-Lowell after becoming eligible.
"I’m not so sure about how good a player he’s going to be this year, but he’s going to be a real good player [eventually]," says coach Chris Serino. "He’s got an uncanny ability to score. His problem is that he’s a kid who hasn’t played a game in a year and a half.
"He doesn’t know anything about systems of defense, which is tough for him. I debated whether to play him [or have him redshirt the year]. I played him and it’s a decision that I probably made with my heart and not my head.
"But the kid has worked so hard to get to play that to sit him out the rest of the year [to retain a year of eligibility] for his sake, I didn’t think would be a good decision.
"He’s getting better every day in practice and he’s going to put some points on the board for us down the line. This year what will he do? I don’t know, but he’s going to put points on the board, I’ll guarantee you that. He’s a very skilled, good hockey player."
Of course, Sikatchev isn’t just battling defensemen for the puck. He’s also battling the English language.
"The problem with him is that he’s just learned a whole new language," says Serino, who adds with a smile, "and my English isn’t so good anyway. Some of the terms I use, you have to be around me a while.
"I’m telling this poor kid, ‘Hey, when we’re breaking out, you’ve got to flood,’ and he’s looking around thinking a flood is water up to his neck.
"That’s what I’m dealing with. [I’ll say,] ‘Lock on a guy!’ and he thinks a lock is what you put on a door. He’s looking at me like I’m nuts. He knows English and can converse with you, but the problem is that he doesn’t know my English.
"But there aren’t that many people that know my English."
When Sikatchev is informed in the locker room that a writer wants to speak with him, a teammate quips, "Hey, Babooska, wanna translator?"
Babooska? One can imagine that, like most Americans, the teammate’s knowledge of Russian goes little further than Stolichnaya and Moskovskaya.
Not to worry. Speaking in measured English, Sikatchev does fine all by himself. "Last year, I played junior and it was not so fast hockey," he says. "So there is a difference. And [before that] I played in Russia and they played more tactical, not physical, hockey. This is a lot of physical hockey, physical shifts.
"[My first game] was good. A lot of speed. A fast game.
"It’s good. I’m working hard."
An Unsung Rookie
Name the top-scoring freshman in Hockey East games.
BU’s Brian Collins? UNH’s Lanny Gare? Maine’s Martin Kariya?
No to all three.
BC’s Krys Kolanos? Northeastern’s Mike Ryan? Providence College’s Jon DiSalvatore?
UMass-Amherst’s Tim Turner? Lowell’s Ed McGrane?
Strike three, you’re out.
With a 7-5–12 mark in league games, Merrimack’s Anthony Aquino ranks first in freshman scoring in league games. And aside from PC’s Peter Fregoe (who is considered a sophomore in terms of eligibility even though this is his first year), Aquino is tops in overall rookie scoring as well with 11 goals and eight assists for a total of 19 points.
When he came into the league, what caught most eyes was that the native of Mississauga, Ontario was only 17 years old. Since then, however, he’s shown that he’s more than some peach-fuzzed curiosity. The kid can play.
"He’s got  points and he should be a sophomore in high school," says Serino. "Let’s be realistic. Look at the prep schools and the junior teams. Any 17-year-old is a 10th grader in high school. The kid is playing major college hockey and he just turned 17 years old. And he’s an August birth [date] so he’s almost an ’83.
"He’s playing fabulous. He gets better every game. His weaknesses early were that when it came to grinding down low, he wasn’t sure what he could do and couldn’t do against bigger, stronger kids. Now he’s getting stronger.
"I said this when we took the kid: When he starts out, give him time because by Christmastime you’re going to see a helluva player. And I think you see a helluva player. He’s an exciting college hockey player."
Notes Around the League
Boston University goaltender Rick DiPietro has become renown not only for his ability to stop the puck, but perhaps even more so for his flamboyant puckhandling style. The freshman is anything but bashful.
So when Jack Parker spotted DiPietro entering the interview area following a shutout of UMass-Lowell, the Terrier coach quipped, "If he’d get a little bit more confidence, I think he’d be real good."
Not surprisingly, DiPietro had a response.
"[Coach Parker] is always busting my chops about showboating with the puck and stuff, but it’s all in fun," he said. "I bust his [chops] back, so it’s really not too much of an issue."
Maine has wrapped up another recruit for next year, forward Mike Mantenuto out of the Walpole Stars of the Eastern Junior Hockey League. Mantenuto has been an EJHL all star for the last three years.
Against BU two weeks ago, Brendan Walsh was coming off for a change as the Black Bears broke up ice. When Matthias Trattnig scored, Walsh was still standing on the ice next to the boards and he skated over to join the celebration.
Although alert Terrier fans noted that technically six skaters were on the ice, both coaches downplayed the issue.
"Walshy stayed on once we scored the goal," said Maine coach Shawn Walsh. "Probably, knowing Walshy, [he was] trying to get a plus."
UMass-Amherst had only a single Hockey East point at the close of 1999, but since then has swept the three-game season’s series with Providence and taken three of four points from Merrimack. The Minutemen are now tied for sixth place.
Is time running out on UMass-Lowell’s playoff chances, considering the River Hawks’ 2-10-1 league record?
"Yes and no," says coach Tim Whitehead. "You know, I think you’ve got two seasons in Hockey East. You have a regular season, and you have a playoff season. Some of our guys have been around for that.
"I think it was three years ago, we were in second or third place [at the] end of January. Then we couldn’t win a game in February. Everyone counted us out. And we ended up in the FleetCenter, and for some of the guys it was the thrill of their lifetime.
"So yes and no. We have to start chipping away at the standings for the rest of the regular season to make sure we’re in the playoffs, first of all. But that’s not out of the picture.
"If we do chip away and chip away, we can make the playoffs and get back to that FleetCenter. And that’ll be a great experience for the guys. So there are some things to shoot for this season."
The River Hawks certain impressed Parker, despite BU winning 5-0.
"It’s amazing the puck doesn’t go in the net for them ’cause they play so hard," he said after the game. "It’s the second time they outshot us. They outshot us badly in our rink last time and in the first half of the game tonight. And yet the puck’s not jumping in the net for them.
"I still think that team’s going to give a lot of teams problems. I’m glad we got four points in those two games against them. They’re a solid team and really a well-coached team. They play real hard. [Even when] the score’s 2-0, 3-0, they never stop.
"They had some unbelievable chances that just wouldn’t go in the net for them. A couple great saves by Ricky [DiPietro] a couple times, but Ricky didn’t have anything to do with a few of them. They just found a way wide or found a way weirdly out of the net. They must be shaking their heads.
"I told a couple people who run the rink here that I’m not sure if we’re as good as our record, and I absolutely positively know that Lowell’s not as bad as its record."
New Hampshire is healthy for the two big games against BU this weekend. In the all-time series, the Terriers hold a decisive 82-28-11 record, but UNH is 2-0-4 in the past six. Five have gone into overtime.
In the two ties last weekend with Northeastern, 11 different players registered at least one point. Only Mike Souza, Darren Haydar, John Sadowski and Jason Shipulski registered multiple points.
Senior co-captain Mike Souza has climbed his way up the all-time UNH career scoring list and is ranked 26th with 142 points. Souza needs two points to pass Umile, who registered 144 career points from 1969-72.
Northeastern winger Ryan Zoller scored a goal and added an assist in Friday’s tie with New Hampshire. The interesting twist is that he was filling in on defense.
Senior captain Roger Holeczy played in his 132nd consecutive game over the weekend and now needs just three more to break the all-time school record held by Jay Heinbuck.
The Huskies’ least favorite TV show must be "60 Minutes." Six of their last eight games have gone into overtime, in which they are 3-1-2.
Northeastern has killed 33 of the last 35 opposing power plays. Ironically, the Huskies also allowed two shorthanded goals on the same power play against UNH. And they still tied the nation’s number one team.
Providence College coach Paul Pooley surprised many when after pulling goaltender Boyd Ballard, he replaced him with third-string sophomore Jamie Vanek instead of number one netminder, Nolan Schaefer. The move itself worked out, however, since Vanek didn’t allow a goal, but the Friars still lost, 4-3.
They are now 1-5-1 in 2000.
Last week’s question developed from the Jan. 16 BU-Maine clash, during which the Terriers scored the tying goal off "The Steve Thornton Faceoff."
Thornton played for the Terriers from 1991 through the 1995 national championship and was the quintessential unsung hero. He typified the player who casual fans overlook, but teams can’t win without.
The trivia question asked what four team awards did Thornton win?
The answer was: Most Improved Player (1991-92), Unsung Hero (1992-93), Spirit (1994-95) and Most Valuable Player (1994-95).
A tip of the fedora to Bob Murgia, who provided the first set of correct answers ahead of a handful of other fans.
This week’s contest returns to the theme of brothers who went to rival schools. Maine’s Dave LaCouture and his brother Dan, who attended BU, were answers to a previous "brothers" question.
In light of the upcoming Maine – Boston College series, this week’s potential stumper is: what two brothers went in separate directions, one becoming a Black Bear and one an Eagle?
Send your responses and snide remarks to Dave Hendrickson.
And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…
Here are a few thoughts gleaned while the 757 I was riding bounced through the skies.
I’m not a totally white-knuckle flier, but it was a bad coincidence to be looking at VH1’s Top 100 songs yet again and see number 98, La Bamba by Ritchie Valens, just as we hit the worst turbulence. (Valens died in a plane crash.) You know the airline movie is a real stinker when you can skip the headphones, glance up every 10 minutes or so, and still figure out just about everything that happened. And feel that you didn’t miss a thing.
The flight attendants had a fun time trying to scrounge up spoons for passengers’ cereal. It seems that someone packed plastic knives for the breakfast meal.
It was truly sad news to read that former Boston College and NHL star Kevin Stevens was arrested on a charge involving crack cocaine. Stevens totaled a 71-99-170 line at BC, played on the 1988 U.S. Olympic team, and scored 275 goals with 314 assists for 589 points in the NHL. Truly sad…
On Sunday night, will the Tennessee Titans still be in it by the time I’ve eaten the last jumbo shrimp? Or will the pre-game show still be going?
Thanks to Scott Weighart for his contributions.
Maine pictures from Hockey East Online (www.hockeyeastonline.com). All rights reserved.