If you’re gonna beat your chest when you’re on top, then you gotta take your medicine when you’re getting whupped.
While “getting whupped” may be hyperbole, Hockey East has been getting knocked on its keister the last six weeks. Back on Oct. 23, this column extolled the league’s strength after a weekend in which it went 12-1-1 in nonconference play (10-1-1 against the traditional conferences) to bring its outside record to 18-6-4. Within another week, six Hockey East teams were in the Top 15 and another dominating season seemed to be underway.
Keep in mind that a Boston University clanged post in its quadruple-overtime contest with St. Lawrence was the only thing separating Hockey East from its second consecutive three-team showing in last year’s Frozen Four. Its nonconference record in 1999-2000 was equally impressive: 12-7-0 vs. the CCHA; 3-3-1 vs. the CHA; 27-16-3 vs. the ECAC; 5-0-0 vs. the MAAC; and 15-8-0 vs. the WCHA. Add it all up and you get a 62-34-4 mark outside the league. Only the most partisan apologist for the other conferences could have claimed anything but Hockey East domination.
Those halcyon days are over. Since Oct. 23, the league has posted a 2-0-1 record against the MAAC and a 4-3-0 mark vs. the CCHA, but was only 3-5-2 against the WCHA. And care to guess how games against the ECAC fared? Try 3-9-1. Ouch!
For the season, Hockey East is now only two games over .500 in contests against the other three traditional conferences. (This is not to slight the MAAC or CHA, which are both in their infancy. At this point, wins against those teams are not really a measure of an established program’s strength.)
Here’s the breakdown on a team-by-team basis. (For formatting reasons, “Maine” has been abbreviated as “UM” and games against the MAAC are not shown. However, MAAC results are included in the totals. Three teams have played against MAAC opponents: UMass-Amherst (0-0-1), UMass-Lowell (3-0-0) and Merrimack (2-0-0). Going into this week’s Merrimack-Niagara series, there have been no Hockey East contests against the CHA. Teams are ordered according to their overall winning percentage.)
ECAC CCHA WCHA Total
BC 1-1-0 3-0-0 2-1-0 6-2-0
UNH 2-1-0 2-0-0 2-0-1 6-1-1
PC 1-1-0 2-0-0 0-0-2 3-1-2
UM 2-1-1 1-1-0 0-1-1 3-3-2
MC 0-1-0 2-1-1 0-0-0 4-2-1
NU 1-0-0 1-1-0 1-1-0 3-2-0
UML 1-1-0 0-0-0 0-0-0 4-1-0
BU 1-2-0 0-0-0 0-2-0 1-4-0
UMA 0-2-1 0-2-0 0-3-0 0-7-2
All this adds up to a 25-23-7 record against the other traditional conferences and 30-23-8 overall. You have to like the 11-5-1 mark against the CCHA and 5-0-1 with the MAAC, but 9-10-2 vs. the ECAC and 5-8-4 in WCHA matchups is a far cry from the last two years’ performances.
A closer look, however, does show that perhaps the situation is a bit better than it appears at first glance. Even when excluding the MAAC contests, only two league teams are below .500 in nonconference play: BU and UMass-Amherst.
Both records may deserve an asterisk. There are recent signs that the Terriers are making a comeback after a brutal start. Furthermore, UMass-Amherst coach Don “Toot” Cahoon has been experimenting in his first year at the Minuteman helm. (More on that below.) UMass’ 0-7-2 nonconference record may be dismissed to some extent as growing pains.
The fact that Hockey East’s fourth through seventh teams — Maine, Merrimack, Northeastern and UMass-Lowell — are posting .500 or better marks against the other established conferences points to the league’s true strength this year, its depth.
“Nobody has the quality top to bottom like we do,” said BU coach Jack Parker at the start of the season. “That’s what makes our league so exciting, game in and game out.”
Other than UMass-Amherst’s anomalous nonconference record, what has hurt Hockey East’s stature this year is its teams at the top. Last year, four teams — BC, BU, Maine and UNH — earned rankings among the nation’s top eight teams virtually wire-to-wire.
Not so this season. As discussed in last week’s column, BU has struggled mightily and Maine has also fallen off its accustomed pace. Providence College’s surprising start has filled some of that gap, but not all of it. Only UNH and BC have earned won-loss records in line with their preseason powerhouse billing.
Same Old Pads, Same Old All-American
What does a goaltender do when he’s a little off his game?
UNH All-American Ty Conklin tried to figure that out earlier this year. He wasn’t awful. Fans at the Whittemore Center weren’t tossing slices of Swiss cheese onto the ice in his dishonor instead of throwing the fish.
He was no sieve. He still was better than merely average. He simply wasn’t quite at the All-America level he’d displayed last year.
In 1999-2000, Conklin posted a 2.49 GAA and .908 Sv% to go with a 22-8-6 record. After eight games this year, however, his numbers were less impressive: 3.02, .871 and 4-3-1.
“I wasn’t happy with the way I was playing,” he said a few weeks ago. “I’d have a good period or two and then I’d have a shaky period. I’ve always prided myself on being consistent, but I was going through a lot of peaks and valleys the first six, seven, eight games.”
What was the problem?
“If I knew what the problem was, I would have changed it right away,” he said. “I had no idea.”
“I just wasn’t getting the bounces,” he said.
Translation: he had no idea what the problem was.
Conklin’s turnaround came when his team needed him most. On Nov. 11, the Wildcats had just lost three games in a row and held a 1-0 lead over Providence going into the third period. One night earlier, the Friars had overtaken UNH from the exact same position.
Conklin came out of the locker room and stood on his head for much of the game’s final 20 minutes, prompting PC coach Paul Pooley to say, “That’s why he’s an All-American.”
In his last five games — a stretch started that night — Conklin has allowed only five goals on 143 shots (a microscopic 0.99 GAA and .965 Sv%). Not coincidentally, the Wildcats are undefeated (3-0-2) in those contests.
“He’s back to his All-America form,” said UNH coach Dick Umile.
“I feel good,” said Conklin. “I felt good actually the last two games [before that night against Providence,] but I didn’t come out with a win.”
Fans, not to mention writers, like to understand the mind of a great athlete and are fascinated by the impetus for hot streaks. As a result, this writer sought insight into Conklin’s mental approach.
When asked what was going through his head between the second and third periods of the 1-0 game against Providence, he replied, “Nothing.”
A second or two passed in pregnant silence.
Rejected headline: Key To Goaltending — Don’t Think!
“I mean,” Conklin added, “the same thing that goes through your head at the start of the game. When you start changing what you’re thinking or start second-guessing yourself, that’s when you get into trouble.”
Fair enough. Conklin was then asked if any of his third-period saves stood out as the toughest.
“No,” he said. “They don’t stand out for me.”
Rejected headline no. 1: All Saves Are Tough
Rejected headline no. 2: All Saves Are Easy
Rejected headline no. 3: What Saves?
When it was pointed out laughingly that Conklin wasn’t exactly helping, he grinned in acknowledgement.
“They really don’t stand out for me,” he said, shrugging. “It could be a shot from the red line or a shot from the top of the crease. As long as it doesn’t go in.”
Conklin wasn’t trying to be difficult. He wasn’t the first goaltender who found it easier to make great saves than explain the mystical process that led to them.
Finally, he came up with a bone he could throw to the writer starving for a story angle. And a tasty bone it was.
“Actually,” he said, “I went back to my pads that I had last year and they feel a lot better.”
A writer could take that one sentence and run with it in any direction. Story angles don’t get much better.
A writer could go over the top and conjure images of a team bonfire being ignited. The evil new pads would be tossed onto the inferno while everyone chanted, “It’s all your fault! It’s all your fault!” Or those same pads could be attached to cement-filled skates, taken out to sea and tossed overboard.
It was the perfect story angle whether the writer was thinking bizarre or conventional.
“I’m not blaming the pads or anything,” Conklin then added to this writer’s dismay, “but I think I was just putting too much pressure on myself and over-examining everything.”
No! Blame the pads! Blame the pads!
A minute earlier, this writer would have been delighted with “I was just putting too much pressure on myself and over-examining everything.” Or a discussion of how backup Matt Carney’s performances against BU and Minnesota-Duluth have given Conklin a mental breather and allowed him to focus on the tougher team those two weekends.
But once the canines were grinding on the “old pads” bone, it wasn’t about to be surrendered.
And so this writer offers the following comparison for your appraisal, assuming the switch back to the old pads occurred roughly at the time of the second Providence game. (This exact timing is almost certainly off by a game or two, but never let the facts get in the way of a desired conclusion.)
New pads (Oct. 6 through Nov. 10): 3.02 GAA, .871 Sv% and a 4-3-1 record.
Old pads (Nov. 11 to present): 0.99 GAA, .965 Sv% and a 3-0-2 record.
Too much pressure? Over-examining everything? Carney?
I think not!
Same old pads. Same old All-American.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Minnesota Moves To The Bay State?
Is UMass-Amherst coach Don “Toot” Cahoon the next John Mariucci?
Mariucci, who coached at Minnesota from 1952 through 1967, became known as The Godfather of Minnesota Hockey by recruiting players primarily from within the state. In an era in which Western teams often concentrated on talent north of the border, Mariucci was an iconoclast who became a legend. With few exceptions, Golden Gopher rosters eventually became populated purely by native sons.
So what does that have to do with the Minutemen? Their list of recruits (see sidebar) includes one eye-popping fact: all six players come from Massachusetts. Since only six of the 26 Minutemen on this year’s roster come from the Bay State — five more come from other parts of New England — the signings signal a fundamental shift in UMass recruiting philosophy.
“At the outset I said that I felt that the school was the flagship program for the state of Massachusetts and Massachusetts has a great legacy in hockey,” says Cahoon. “I definitely wanted to make inroads there and was going to make a real overt effort to do so. So I suppose people can read [a lot into the six Massachusetts players we signed.]”
Of course, what proved to be a stroke of pure genius at Minnesota hasn’t worked anywhere else. A state has to produce a boatload of talent and there can’t be much competition for it. Even Minnesota has recently broadened its recruiting beyond state boundaries in a few selected exceptions to its tradition.
With plenty of other tough competitors going after the Massachusetts kids, Cahoon isn’t limiting himself to recruiting just inside the state borders.
“We’re leaving ourselves open to the world of recruits just as everybody else does,” he says. “But we thought it was real important that we reestablish a presence within our own state.”
The biggest roadblock to in-state recruiting at UMass has been the presence of several powerhouses in the same geography. There are seven Hockey East or ECAC teams in Massachusetts, with three more just over the border (UNH, Providence and Brown). Maine and Vermont make it an even dozen New England competitors for the same talent base.
During the early building of the program, the local UMass recruits tended to be those players who fell short of being offered deals at BC, BU or any of the other higher profile schools in the region. Since winners are rarely constructed from the scraps that have fallen off other teams’ tables, then-coach Joe Mallen looked further afield.
Cahoon, who was ingenious as a recruiter in a tough situation at Princeton, is either making inroads on his competitors or will be fighting an uphill battle on the ice in the seasons to come. Only time will tell, but Cahoon is optimistic that he’s getting the talent he needs to succeed.
“These kids are all very good players,” he says. “I think we certainly got in in the early going and established ourselves early.
“I’m not in charge of running other schools’ recruiting programs, so to what extent we encourage kids to look our way as opposed to going [the other schools’] way remains to be seen. I know that some of these kids were intrigued by those other schools. In Timmy Warner’s case, for instance, he visited many of the schools. Greg Mauldin visited a couple of other schools.
“So I think these people were all considering those types of schools as well. But to say that we took them away from any one of them, that’s another thing in itself. I’m not that bold.
“I certainly am really happy with the kids that we’ve got. I’ve worked at Lowell in the past and at BU in the past and these are kids that I would have gone after in those circumstances.”
Cahoon is still chasing another defenseman, but feels that the six signed recruits have what the program needs to take strides forward. His present roster has an abundance of size — 17 of the 26 players are six feet or taller– but needs an upgrade in athleticism. The signees would appear to offer more of the latter than the former.
“We’ve improved the level of athleticism,” says Cahoon. “We’ve improved the skating ability, the speed dimension and the puck skills. We truly went after kids who can make a play.
“And we tried to measure character and competitiveness.”
In all likelihood, those last two requirements tie into the present team’s travails. Building a program is not for the athletic faint of heart; there have recently been plenty of character checks for the Minutemen. In the last eight games, they’ve lost seven and tied UConn.
So what of the present? Fold the tents and wait for next year?
“We’re trying to encourage people to stay positive,” says Cahoon. “We knew when we took this job on that there were going to be stretches that were going to be difficult. We’re certainly in that type of stretch. Positive energy can go a long ways.
“I’ve got a group of kids that are working real hard. They’re not necessarily working real smart at this point and I include the coaching staff in with that. We’re all part of this. We need to solve this together.
“Like a lot of other people, I’ve been coming to the rink for a lot of years. I enjoy going to the rink. I hope to continue to feel that way and I want the people around me to feel that way.”
A win in either of the final two games before the break would certainly raise the enjoyment levels around Cahoon, but with the matchups at Providence and at Maine it’ll be an uphill battle.
“The fun is in the winning,” says Cahoon. “In terms of staying in the league race, obviously the points are critical. But at the same time, you’ve got to free yourself to be able to play without the fear of failure, without worrying about the consequences if you don’t win and you don’t get the points.
“It’s kind of a Catch-22. My job is to try to solve some of the problems and create a good development program so that we’re building a team. Part of the dilemma that we’re in right now is that we’ve tried a lot of different things, line combinations and defensive pairs. We’ve had forwards playing defense. We’ve had this thing all over the place.
“I have to begin to make more of an effort to get this streamlined. Obviously, the impact the recruits will have in the future will affect some of that. But even with this team as it is presently, I maybe have to package it a little more neatly and not have it all over the place.”
In all likelihood, the Minutemen have been sacrificing some of the present to improve the future. Would they have a point or two more if they were still predominately playing a defensive, trapping style of a game? Quite possibly. But does an emphasis on playing the trap have a negative impact on recruiting? Again, quite possibly.
“It’s hard to [say], but most of the guys that I’ve been around don’t want to be in the trap alignment 100 percent of the time,” says Cahoon. “At the same time, people like to play for successful programs and if the trap helps you succeed and you’re winning, then that can play a role.”
According to Cahoon, however, the key for recruits is not how the Minutemen are playing now, but how they will be playing in the years to come.
“I don’t think that the kids that chose to attend UMass,” he says, “are looking at this program today thinking for a moment that that’s what the program is going to be like a few years from now.”
More Recruiting Thoughts
Here are a few additional comments on the league’s recruits.
If the BU recruiters grab many more players from Ann Arbor, maybe they’ll rename the team the BU National Development Team.
A Few Random Notes
And if true, what is school athletic director Timothy Dillon doing letting his coach back on the ice after a slap-on-the-wrist five-day suspension. That’s outrageous.
Last week’s contest referred to a defenseman from another conference who had played a Hockey East team that weekend. The player’s last name added a vowel to that of a former defenseman on the opposing Hockey East team.
The answer was St. Cloud’s Brian Gaffaney and UMass-Amherst’s Mike Gaffney. Only one reader, Tim Doherty, answered correctly. His cheer is:
This week’s question concerns the double double goose egg in Hockey East last week. UNH and UMass-Lowell skated to a scoreless tie on Saturday; four days later, BC and Northeastern duplicated the feat.
The question asks for all four teams when was the last time that they were involved in a scoreless tie, if ever? Also, when, if ever, was the last time that Hockey East had two scoreless ties in the span of eight days or less?
If you know at least two of the five answers, send them to Dave Hendrickson and take your shot at the first post-Christmas cheer.
And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…
A few random notes for this last column heading into Christmas.
It wasn’t entirely my fault, though. The timer that was set beeps only for a minute before shutting off. A minute? What kind of timer is that?
I can see from the faces of the jury that I’m still going to be found guilty.
On the positive side, though, the overdone pumpkin bread wasn’t totally useless. If the basketball had somehow gotten punctured, we’d have had a reasonable replacement.
And enough already as well about Al Gore winning the popular vote. It’s irrelevant. Both sides strategized based on the Electoral College being what counts.
On the other hand, it boggles the mind that so many have opined that the current process be over with simply because they are tired of it. It’s one thing to finish things up because of deadlines built into the law, but quite another to argue for completion just because of the country’s increasingly short attention span.