This Week In Hockey East: Jan. 18, 2001

The Friars A’int Going Away

Providence will be facing a big test against Boston College this weekend, but the league’s biggest surprise looks to be solidly in the first-place race. BC and New Hampshire were expected to finish near the top, but not so for the Friars. Hockey East coaches picked them in the preseason to finish fifth.

Throughout the year, whenever Providence stumbled, observers wondered if midnight was tolling for the Cinderella team. Instead, the Friars have rebounded each time and now hold a four-game winning streak and are 5-1-0 since the break.

“If there’s any secret,” says coach Paul Pooley, “it’s that we’re getting strong play from the leaders of our hockey club, our seniors and specifically Matt Libby, who’s playing like an all-star.

“Jay Leach is certainly following suit and playing very well for us, as is J.J. Picinic and Adam Lee and Boyd [Ballard]. Boyd had a tough game [a week ago against UMass-Amherst], but has played consistently for us.

“It’s not so much that they’re playing on the ice great all the time, which they are, but it’s off-ice, too. Taking control of the dressing room and leading our young group of players. Any time that you have a successful team, it’s your leadership and specifically the seniors.”

Providence trails only Boston College in team offense with 3.67 goals per game. The Friars’ top line of Devin Rask, John DiSalvatore and Peter Fregoe has been one of Hockey East’s most effective trios. Rask ranks second in league scoring with 31 points while his two wingers are tied for 13th with 20 apiece.

The PC offense, however, extends beyond the first line. When DiSalvatore left to play in the World Junior Tournament, PC’s offense didn’t skip a beat because Drew Omicioli filled in on the line and recorded a seven-point Player-of-the-Week weekend. Last week, he added another four points.

That amounts to a major U-turn for a player who spent time on sidelines due to a coach’s decision just before the break.

“You play the guys who are playing,” says Pooley, who brushes off the “doghouse” label for Omicioli’s time off. “The players make you play them. The coach doesn’t just decide he’s going to play this guy.

“Drew, I think, was putting pressure on himself and trying to do things he shouldn’t have been doing and getting frustrated. He got off his game. We had a talk and the opportunity presented itself when Jon DiSalvatore made the World Junior team… Drew came up big for us.

“The thing that he’s doing is he’s using his assets, his speed and his shot, where before he really wasn’t. He’s sticking to the system and doing the things that he needs to do and he’s having success. He’s learning what he needs to do to be successful as a hockey player.”

The defense has been a major surprise, considering that it has been comprised of either three or four freshmen every night. Libby and Leach have played exceptional hockey. Libby has provided unexpected offense, contributing nine goals and 16 assists for 25 points after totaling only eight points last year. That ranks him as Hockey East’s top-scoring defenseman and ties him for fifth-leading scorer overall.

But what has been most important hasn’t been the offense from the blue line, but the defense. PC trails only Maine and New Hampshire with a meager 2.24 goals allowed per game. As strong as the performances have been by Libby and Leach, they haven’t been able to play 60 minutes each. Freshmen Regan Kelly and Stephen Wood have made major contributions as well as fellow frosh Dominic Torretti. A fourth rookie, Jason Platt, has been limited by injuries and has split a starting position with sophomore Shawn Weiman.

The youngsters have made the occasional mistake, however, and that’s where sophomore goaltender Nolan Schaefer has earned the right to be considered among the top players in the league. Thanks to Schaefer, and a lesser extent Ballard, mistakes are rarely resulting in the red light going off behind the Providence goal. Schaefer leads Hockey East with an unconscious .943 save percentage, 1.69 goals against average and an 8-3-1 record.

“He’s getting hungry because he feels good about himself,” says Pooley. “He’s challenging himself and wants to play.”

Two weekends ago, he earned Hockey East’s Defensive Player of the Week Award by allowing only one goal in over 104 minutes against UMass-Amherst. He shut out the Minutemen on Friday, but was even more impressive one night later. Ballard started, but had an uncharacteristically weak performance and got the hook. Down 4-0, Schaefer led the Friars to a comeback win and sweep of UMass.

“He came in and shut the door for us and gave us a chance to get back into the game,” says Pooley. “He gave our team a big boost. Sometimes goalies don’t think they’re playing so they don’t prepare, but Nolan was ready to go in and he did a good job.

“It’s nice that Boyd and Nolan work together because Boyd has played some good games. He played a great game at Ferris — [a 4-2 win] — for us. It was just one of those things that it wasn’t his night and Nolan came off the bench and picked him up.”

With the entire Providence team picking each other up, the Friars appear to be in the Hockey East race to stay.

Online Auction

You are remembering the online auction of the special “Walsh” jerseys to benefit the Coaches Foundation, aren’t you? Click here to bid on what may become a valuable collectible, or may simply be a goodwill gesture to college hockey coaches in need.

The auction runs from 8 a.m., Jan. 19, to noon, Jan. 25.

Congratulations

Congratulations to Boston College coach Jerry York for his selection as the USA Hockey Coach of the Year. Long known as one of the true gentlemen of the game, he has also been one of the most successful.

Last year was a particularly rewarding one for York. He reached the 600-win plateau, a milestone achieved by only five other coaches, while his team advanced to the Frozen Four for the third straight time.

A tip of the fedora to Jerry York.

Condolences

It was sad news indeed to hear of the passing of Joel Perlmutter. I never met the man, but he certainly was respected far and wide. He’ll be missed.

Tyrone The Terrific

Can there be any doubt that UNH goaltender Ty Conklin is in the zone? In his last four games he has given up a total of two goals. Other than an atypical performance against Dartmouth in the first game after the holiday break, the Hobey Baker candidate has allowed only seven goals in his last 10 games. That amounts to a 0.69 GAA and a .974 save percentage. His record during that stretch has been 7-0-3, with two of the three ties being shutouts!

Jaw-dropping statistics!

Writers sometimes have to ask questions with obvious answers just because they need a quote. That seemed to happen after the Maine – UNH series two weeks ago in which Conklin stopped all but one of 64 shots.

One writer asked Conklin, “What’s your confidence level? How strong do you feel?”

The goaltender with a funny bone answered, “I feel awful actually.”

After the appreciative laughter, he went on to give a serious answer — “I feel good, but it’s a reflection of how the team is playing.”

Suffice it to say that if Conklin has been feeling awful, then almost every goaltender in college hockey can only aspire to feel that poorly.

No Quitters In The Bottom Tier

As it stands now, Hockey East breaks into three tiers: the top tier (Boston College, New Hampshire and Providence); the middle tier (Maine and Boston University); and the bottom tier (UMass-Amherst, Northeastern, Merrimack and UMass-Lowell).

This is no impenetrable caste system. It wouldn’t take much of a winning streak for teams in the bottom tier to move into the middle. But that’s how things shape up at the moment.

In a sense, the race in the bottom tier is every bit as fascinating as the one in the top. With four teams fighting for three playoff berths, no one is running the white flag up the pole as positions change in the standings after almost every game. The four will also be seeing plenty of each other over the next two weeks.

UMass-Amherst (6-14-2, 5-7-0 HEA, 10 points) rebounded from a Friday night loss at Northeastern to gain an important split back at the Mullins Center on Saturday.

The Minutemen face all of the other three members of the bottom tier over the next two weeks, a sequence that will factor mightily in which team is the odd man out.

Northeastern (8-9-3, 3-6-3 HEA, 9 points) appeared to be ready to move into the middle tier with its win over UMass on Friday, but couldn’t score one night later and lost 2-0 (really 1-0 with an empty-netter).

As a result, the Huskies remain vulnerable. After a home-and-home against UNH this weekend, they’ll face Merrimack and UMass-Amherst one week later in key bottom-tier games.

Merrimack (11-12-2, 4-8-1 HEA, 9 points) appeared to be gaining some serious negative momentum when it lost its third straight on Friday to UNH, 4-1, and then trailed 3-1 in the third period on Saturday at the Whittemore Center.

If Merrimack was dead and buried in the Hockey East race, however, someone forgot to tell the Warriors. They came back to tie the game and escape with a point that may ultimately decide who makes the playoffs and who doesn’t. They then took on Boston College in a contest that few thought would even be close and defeated the Eagles, 6-3, to climb all the way out of the cellar.

The next two weekends are potentially make-or-break time for the Warriors. They’ll face UMass-Amherst twice and Northeastern once.

UMass-Lowell (10-9-2, 3-7-2 HEA, 8 points) recently took games from Northeastern and Merrimack to climb out of the cellar temporarily, and rode a four-game win streak into its lone league contest of the weekend, that against Boston College.

The River Hawks were anything but intimidated by the high-flying Eagles, going home with a close-but-no-cigar 2-1 loss. The next two weeks there’ll be one head-to-head matchup against UMass-Amherst, sandwiched by games against BU and Providence.

How will it all turn out?

Who knows? What looks like three tiers may just be a mirage. Only six points separates last place from playoff home ice, with the distance even a little less when a game in hand is factored in. Heck, only nine points separates last place from first, so almost anything can happen.

Northeastern coach Bruce Crowder probably says it best.

“The kids know where they are [in the standings,]” he says. “There are no secrets. We’ve got to make some ground up. … But we’ve got [24] more points available to us in Hockey East games so there’s a lot of hockey to be played.”

The Godfather Line

Ethnic origins usually go right over this writer’s head. However, it was amusing to read Boston Globe old-timer Bob Monahan describe Merrimack’s line of Anthony Aquino, Nick Parillo and Marco Rosa as the “red, white and green line” in his game story of the team’s dramatic upset of Boston College, 6-3.

For those who don’t understand the reference, those are the colors of the Italian flag. All three forwards, not to mention coach Chris Serino, share that ethnic bond. The trio totaled 11 points in the BC upset — Aquino and Rosa each got a goal and three assists while Parillo added two goals and one assist.

If you have a playful mind and a clean conscience when it comes to prejudice, that can lead to some interesting headline possibilities for the trio. We’ll skip the “M” word and offer up the following possibility for Tuesday night’s stellar win:

Merrimack’s Godfather Line Makes Eagles An Offer They Can’t Refuse

(Members of the Political Correctness Police can send all complaints to ligh[email protected]_a_break.com.)

What’s Up With Gionta?

Most players would love to have 13 goals and 12 assists at this point in the season. For three-time Boston College All-American Brian Gionta, however, it amounts to a slump. The dynamo finished with 33 goals and 23 assists last year, but points aren’t as easy to come by now. He’s been held without a point in the last two games and six of the last eight.

BC coach Jerry York isn’t worried about Gionta, though.

“His work ethic never stops,” says York. “He’s a human pinball out there. But he goes through stretches where nothing goes in the net for him.

“Last year at this time, he had a similar number of goals but he finished with [33]. Once he gets a few, his goalscoring touch seems to come back.”

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question asked: who is Hockey East’s top all-time career scorer? (League games only.) The answer is UMass-Lowell’s Jon Morris, who recorded 74 goals and 103 assists for 177 league points.

As reader Chris Sayles points out, Morris did benefit from playing in 121 Hockey East games, far more than today’s maximum of 96. During Morris’ playing days, Hockey East played an interlocking schedule with the WCHA in which those games counted in league standings and statistics.

None of which, of course, takes away from the fact that Morris was a tremendous player during Hockey East’s earliest years.

The first to answer correctly was Bob Murgia. His cheer is:

“Let’s Go Terriers!”

This week’s question asks what year (in the nineties) did UMass-Amherst resume varsity hockey? Also, what year had it been dropped? And finally, name the two coaches involved.

If you can at least guess at two of the three, send your answers to Dave Hendrickson.

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

  • If you are flying United Airlines this month, be sure to grab a copy of their in-flight magazine, Hemispheres. In it there’s the first short story by Harlan Ellison in a couple of years.

    Ellison is getting up there in years and has had some physical problems of late, but he’s one of the great writers of our time. (If you’ve never read “Jeffty Is Five” or “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” or any of his other many masterworks, please promise me that you won’t go to your grave without righting that wrong.)

    He’s also one reason why I’m a writer today. (My entire audience stands up en masse and chants at Ellison, “It’s all your fault! It’s all your fault!”) After reading one of his stories, I sat down and tried to write a story for the first time in my life. It was a piece of garbage, but I felt like lightning was coming out of my fingertips. I was instantly hooked.

  • U2’s new album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, is as good a new release as I’ve heard in a long time.
  • VH1’s list of Top 100 Albums puts “Dark Side of the Moon” at number 51? That, folks, is enough reason to ignore the rest of the list.
  • California Angels manager Mike Scioscia complained last year that Mo Vaughn’s weight problems caused him to be a liability on the basepaths and in the field. You don’t say! I am shocked and chagrined!

    Of course, Mo the Mouth says there’s a reason. That sprained ankle he suffered in April of 1999 was still bothering him 18 months later. Yup, it’s his ankle, not his inability as a professional athlete to care enough to get into even moderate shape.

    It’s one thing when folks like us lose the Battle of the Bulge. It’s inexcusable, though, for a professional athlete.

  • If you ask me, Toronto got the better of the David Wells deal.
  • The Oakland Raiders have been anathema to me ever since they combined with referee Ben Dreith to sink the Patriots in the AFC title game a couple decades ago. But I’d have been delighted if one of the Raiders had knocked the ball out of the grandstanding hands of Shannon Sharpe on Sunday. Showboat in the end zone all you want, but not until then.
  • I’m already craving the jumbo shrimp that will be at the Super Bowl party. Maybe I should lighten up on Mo Vaughn? Nah!

    Click here for information about Dave Hendrickson’s latest short story, “Yeah, But Can She Cook?” It has both s*x and humor. Dave is good at one of them.