Hockey East enters the final weekend of the season without a single position set in the playoffs. The regular season crown could go to either Boston College or Providence, the latter of which could finish anywhere from first to fourth. New Hampshire and Maine could finish as high as second or could fall out of playoff home ice. Boston University’s place in the standings potentially ranges from third place down to seventh, two spots out of the cellar. Whether it will be Merrimack or UMass-Amherst that takes the final playoff berth may not be known until late Saturday night.
All of which prompted BU coach Jack Parker to observe a couple weeks ago, “One of the reasons why we’ve had all the struggles we’ve had and are also still in the hunt for home ice is because the league is so balanced. No one has a 2-17 record so everyone has a hard time every night. But if you win a couple games, you can jump into it.”
Not even the individual statistical races are set. Brian Gionta (32 points) holds a slim lead over Devin Rask (30 points) in the scoring race. Ty Conklin (1.92 GAA) has a slightly more comfortable lead over Scott Clemmensen (2.15 GAA), but goals-against can be a volatile statistic. The ITECH Three-Stars Contest shows Conklin (24 points) with only the slimmest of margins over Gionta (23 points).
The NCAA Picture
If the NCAA field had been selected after Friday night’s games, Hockey East would have placed four teams in the tourney. Boston College, UNH and Providence have been in the Pairwise Ranking Top 10 for the entire stretch run. Maine joined them at number 10, nestled right behind Providence and UNH, after Friday night’s overtime win over Merrimack. Contributing to the rise were key losses by Western Michigan and Wisconsin.
However, the volatility of the last few slots became abundantly clear one night later when Maine slid all the way back to number 15. The Black Bears could manage only a tie with Merrimack, but might have expected their Record in the Last 16 Games category to actually improve since the tie was replacing a loss. (Their Dec. 10 loss to Boston College had been the oldest game of their last 16; after Saturday’s game it was no longer included in the 16.)
Instead, the Black Bears fell to 15 due to the tie’s negative impact on the other categories and even more so because of wins by the five teams that bypassed them: Clarkson, Nebraska-Omaha, Denver, Wisconsin and Western Michigan. The first three finished off weekend sweeps, while the latter two recovered to split.
In fact, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see almost the same level of uncertainty two weeks from now as we look to the league semifinals. There will likely be a razor-thin margin between making and missing the tournament this year.
Tickets Going Fast
Tickets for the Hockey East championship weekend at the FleetCenter on Mar. 16-17 are selling at an unprecedented rate. Sales recently passed the 20,000 ticket barrier, the earliest that threshold has ever been passed. While it isn’t known whether that represents an even 10,000 – 10,000 split between the semifinal and final dates, it still points to the likelihood of a packed house on both nights.
“Up until two or three years ago, we didn’t sell 20,000 tickets for the whole event,” says Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna. “So this is terrific given that we don’t even know who is going to be there.
“I don’t want people to think it’s sold out already and not buy tickets, but certainly the interest has been great and we’re on schedule to maybe sell the thing out again.”
No FleetCenter In 2003?
Hockey East is facing a tough decision regarding its 2003 tournament. The FleetCenter will not be available during the weekend that the championship round is now scheduled to occur.
Since 1990, Hockey East’s sixth year, it has played its semifinal and championship games at the Boston Garden or its successor, the FleetCenter. Add in 1987 and 1988 as two more Garden years and the league has established a tradition on Causeway Street. Ticket sales for this year certainly show that it’s a successful one.
However, two circumstances have conspired to force Hockey East to either adjust its schedule or look elsewhere in 2003.
“BC and the FleetCenter bid for the NCAA basketball tournament round [in 2003,]” explains Bertagna. “They checked with all the schedules. They thought they did everything the right way. And they got the bid.
“So on the weekend of March 21st and 22nd of 2003, the FleetCenter will have basketball. [There was] the expectation that our tournament would be the previous weekend, the 15th and 16th.”
Unfortunately, after the basketball deal was signed, the NCAA moved the Frozen Four to one week later than originally expected, from April 5 to April 12. Working back from that point, the league championships now fall on Mar. 21-22, when the FleetCenter will be hosting NCAA basketball.
“So right now we don’t have access to the FleetCenter on that date,” says Bertagna. “We have to make a decision of whether to go to a different building or stay in the FleetCenter a week earlier.
“If we go a week earlier, the teams will have a week off before they go to the regionals and then they’ll have another week off [before the Frozen Four]. At that point in the year, that doesn’t affect that many teams. You’re only talking about those teams that advance to the [NCAA] Tournament and those teams that make it through the regionals that will have that double-week off.
“But it’ll be [a question of] is it a good time to have a week off? You can go scout a team you might face in the nationals. You might be able to rest some tired players. Or if you are a team that catches fire late in the year, is it going to slow your momentum?”
The week off didn’t hurt UNH in 1998 after Maine upset the Wildcats in the league quarterfinals. They advanced to the Frozen Four. On the other hand, one year earlier in similar circumstances Vermont looked a step slow in the early going and dug itself a hole against Denver and lost.
Furthermore, many Eastern fans still view the one-week layoff in 1992 between the Hockey East and ECAC tournaments and the NCAAs as a primary reason why every single Eastern team lost its first game, even those with byes facing presumably tired opponents.
It’ll be a tough decision, but it’s also hard to envision the league walking away from the great success it’s had at the FleetCenter.
NCAA Byes, Take Two
Here’s an update on last week’s column and its coverage of the NCAA Tournament byes issue.
“I know the coaches are confused, but they shouldn’t have been if they were at the meeting in Florida,” said selection committee chair Bill Wilkinson. “The minutes were probably out in August or September. They had all the information about the change that was going to take place.”
As it turns out, that isn’t the case, which makes the confusion described last week all the more understandable. The topic of byes was never discussed with the coaches in the spring at their convention, and therefore was not in the minutes of those meetings. The change was made in July by the selection committee without the input of the coaches. Which has many of them upset.
“The coaches want to be heard,” says Bertagna. “The two committees, the hockey committee that Billy [Wilkinson] chairs and the rules committee that I chair, do have an obligation to listen to and get input from the coaches.
“Sometimes the coaches feel that they can decide the issues, [but that isn’t the case]. For example, if they say that they want to vote unanimously to get rid of the facemask, well, the rules committee can recommend that, but it’s not going to happen because we’ll get overruled by the NCAA.
“[However], at least procedurally, the membership should be heard before an issue of great import gets voted on by either committee. If we came back from the rules committee and said that we were going to a two-ref, two-linesmen system and never discussed it, that would be somewhat irresponsible on our part.
“This change about the byes is so significant that for it to have emanated from [the selection committee’s] July discussion in Idaho and not have been discussed in April [at the Coaches’ Convention] has a lot of coaches upset.
“We found the minutes of that meeting and it was not discussed. There were five pages of very detailed minutes kept by [the NCAA’s] John Painter. He had emailed me in June and I saved them. There is no discussion at all about that.”
So while the bye change was announced on the NCAA website and on USCHO in July, it was never discussed at the coaches’ meeting in April. The fact that so many missed the July announcement can be traced not only to the more momentous decisions of dropping the number of each conference’s automatic bids from two to one and the awarding of an automatic bid to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, but also to the absence of discussion on the topic in April, as would have been the norm.
“It’s going to be a fairly cantankerous session this April [at the Coaches’ Convention,]” says Bertagna. “I hope for Billy Wilkinson’s sake that he gets some help because last year he was the only committee member at that meeting.
“There are four people on that committee, but he’s the only coach. The others [Ron Grahame (Denver assistant athletic director), Ian McCaw (Northeastern athletic director) and Jack McDonald (Quinnipiac athletic director)] are all administrators. They’re not normally at that part of the convention.
“The athletic directors either don’t go down there or they go down early in the week. Our ADs meet Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and then they go home as the Coaches’ Convention starts on Thursday.
“It makes it tough for one guy [Wilkinson] to stand up there and answer all the questions because he’s not the committee. It was a group decision, a group vote. Unfortunately, he’s probably going to have to face the fire.
“It’s not fair to him to leave him and the NCAA liaison to face the hostile crowd. So hopefully the whole committee will be there and will get a good airing of it. I’m sure it’s going to be pretty vocal.”
It may have already happened by the time you read this, but Hockey East will be bringing the first place trophy to Boston College on Thursday for its game against Northeastern. A tie will clinch the Eagles’ first regular season title since 1991 and the trophy will be presented after the game.
It will also give the school a sweet back-to-back achievement since its basketball team was presented with the Big East trophy one night earlier for its last-to-first turnaround season.
Revenge Is Sweet
Providence’s Drew Omicioli scored three goals in a sweep over UMass-Lowell last weekend, a delicious irony for the junior who fractured his elbow against the River Hawks on Jan. 27. He missed the next four games before playing in a limited role against BU two weeks ago. Last weekend, he was penciled in on the Friars’ fourth line until Cody Loughlean suffered an ankle injury and Omicioli stepped in next to Devin Rask and Peter Fregoe on the top unit. He responded with a shorthanded goal in the first period and the game-winner in the third. One night later, he got another game-winner in a 2-1 contest.
“Coach asked me to step up,” Omicioli said after the Thursday game. “Just prior to that I think he sensed that I had a little bit of fire in me.
“[After that,] I wanted to stay up there [on the first line.] You have to give it 100 percent every time, but especially when you’re fighting for position.
“When I came back from the broken elbow and played at BU, I was still a little bit sore, but with the rehab now I’m 100 percent.”
So was it extra sweet to do it against Lowell?
“Definitely!” he said. “These guys — one guy — put me out for about two weeks, put me in the hospital for surgery, so, yeah, definitely that put a little fire in me. That put a lot of fire in there. I definitely wanted to get them back, especially on the scoreboard.”
The World Junior Effect
Historically, players have returned from the World Junior Tournament with an extra jump in their step. Providence’s Jon DiSalvatore, however, has struggled. After scoring a goal in his first game back, he’s been shut out with only three assists to show for his efforts.
Providence coach Paul Pooley, however, isn’t overly concerned.
“I think Jon has gotten to the point where he’s probably fighting it a little bit,” he says. “But you know what? As long as he keeps going out there, playing good defensively and making smart puck decisions and shooting the puck, things will happen for him.
“It’s not easy to score in college. It’s a situation where he still has some hockey left in him this year and we’re excited about getting him going. Right now, he’s doing a good job for us.
“I don’t care who scores. I just care about if we win or not and how we play. I know the kids want to score goals, but you know what? That’s not what it’s all about. We just have to learn to play good defense and put the team first. That’s all I’m happy with.
“The year we won the Hockey East championship , our leading scorer had 35 points, but we found a way to win. That’s all we’re trying to do, win hockey games.”
The Weekend’s Biggest Series
The games with the most at stake in terms of the postseason are Providence’s trip for two this weekend in Orono.
Maine coach Shawn Walsh likes the way his team is rounding into postseason form.
“We went through the month of February with just one loss,” he says. “We’re playing awfully well right now.”
The Black Bears have become Cardiac Kids of sorts, winning three of their last seven in overtime.
“Our confidence is really high,” says Walsh. “It’s a much different feeling than we had in January and December. I think we’re also really starting to click as a team. We’ve got some components. We’re healthy.
“We know who our checkers are now. We know who our offensive players are now. The components that make me comfortable about my team are falling in to place the way I want them to.
“I thought [goaltender Matt] Yeats played well [on Saturday.] He needed to get a good game back [after a rough one on Friday.]”
Walsh hasn’t just been focused on each weekend’s games and the Hockey East standings, but also where the Black Bears fit on the national scene.
“We’re looking at the NCAA picture,” he says. “I told our guys that there were four or five teams on the bubble, which we certainly are and we’ve got to do better than those teams. [This] weekend will have a lot to say [about that] and then the playoff performance.
“We certainly are in position to play our way in. If we don’t get it done, some points early in the year that we lost that we shouldn’t have lost will come back to haunt us.
“But we’re in position. That’s what we have to do now.”
Walsh acknowledges that it won’t be easy against Providence even at home.
“Goaltending will be a major key,” he says. “Certainly their top line is their key. This weekend, they got five out of their six goals. But Providence is a very well-rounded, thorough team. I liked watching them. Their freshmen defensemen have really improved, which is natural because every day they go against the Fregoes and DiSalvatores and guys like that.
“They’re just a thorough team. Paul [Pooley] has done a wonderful job. I think we’re a pretty thorough team, too. It should be a great series. It’s a classic way to end the season.”
Like Maine, Providence also enters the series flying high. The Friars have posted a 6-1-1 record since the start of February including a sweep of UMass-Lowell last weekend.
“We’re learning how to play the game smartly,” says Pooley. “We’ve concentrated on our hits, our faceoffs and limiting turnovers all year.
“It doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to be effective. We’re not putting on a show. We’re just trying to win a hockey game. That’s what we’re trying to get our kids to understand. …
“Against Maine we just have to play a simple game. Rather than turning the puck over, we have to go up there and be physical and play good with the puck and without the puck. Those are the things we’ve tried to stress.”
No one knows who will join Fregoe and Rask on the top line. Loughlean could return to the tandem after suffering an ankle injury last weekend. He’s day-to-day. Or Omicioli could stay with the twosome who helped him score three goals last weekend.
“Cody has added a lot of jump to the hockey team the last few weeks,” says Pooley. “If he’s healthy, he gives us some flexibility to move some people around. Drew has obviously done well with that line when he’s played there. We’re just looking for some consistency. Cody would certainly add to the front of the power play when he’s out there.”
Who Gets In? Who’s Left Out?
Will it be UMass-Amherst, which plays New Hampshire twice this weekend, or Merrimack, which has only one game and that coming against BU at Walter Brown Arena? The status quo puts Merrimack in, but with a game in hand the Minutemen could get the one additional point more than the Warriors that is needed.
UMass took a surprising point from Boston College last Friday. One might have suspected that the Minutemen would have a confidence crisis against the high-flying Eagles, but not so.
“I tried to scare the hell out of them,” says UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon with a grin. He then turns serious. “One of the most important issues in trying to grow this program is to try to get these guys to feel good about what they’re doing and to enjoy the process regardless of what the outcome of the games are. That’s sensitive, fragile territory and we’re working real hard in that area.”
Team captain Jeff Turner has been a real leader despite not putting up the points he did last year.
“He’s grown as a player in a lot of ways,” says Cahoon. “Everyone is looking to Jeff to be productive offensively and score points. What he’s learned over the course of the year is that with the type of team that we have, we need to do a lot of other things away from the puck. He’s been much stronger away from the puck the second half of the year.
“As a result of that, he’s so much more dependable, so much more important in situations. As a team, we’ve improved a little bit in that area. It doesn’t show up so much in Ws yet, but it gives us the opportunity to play in games like [the tie with BC] that maybe at the beginning of the year we wouldn’t have been able to play.”
Merrimack coach Chris Serino may not have used his usual quips about a “suicide watch” after Friday’s surrendering of a third-period lead and loss in overtime. The loss was likely too painful, both on its effect on the standings and on how it happened. The Warriors played much better one night later in gaining an important point in a 1-1 tie.
“I put up on the bulletin board [before Saturday] that the next two games are our playoffs,” said Serino after the tie. “If we don’t play them like playoff games, we’ll be home. We’ve got to get some points next week at BU.
“We wanted to win [on Saturday.] You get close to two points at this time of the year and it’s huge. Any points you get are huge, but two would have really, really helped us. To give one away last [Friday] like we did, I don’t know…
“I was so disappointed in the way we played the third [period that] night and the fact that we didn’t pay attention to detail on the winning goal.
“I thought that playing not to lose was gone from here, but it came back for a period and I didn’t like that.
“I was pleased with the [tie] in the way that we played to the [tie]. [In the loss,] we came out in the third period and sat on the lead and just waited and waited and waited. [In the tie,] the only thing we talked about at the end of the second period was that we weren’t going to play just to play. We wanted to win the game. We were going to play to win. And that’s how we played the third period. It was quite a reversal.”
Savastano Gets The Last Word
Merrimack scoreboard operator and audio guru John Savastano was at his best last Saturday when visiting Maine fans began to chant, “Let’s Go Maine!”
Savastano flashed a message on the scoreboard that prompted many a chuckle: “SHUT UP”
The long-time Merrimack supporter, whose brother Rick performs the public address duties, has been known to play the sound of jets taking off when the Warriors face Air Force.
His funniest addition to the Volpe Complex ambience hasn’t been heard in recent years, perhaps the sign of Merrimack’s improving teams. In the past when a game has just gone down the tubes, Savastano played the sound of a flushing toilet.
They Did A Brain Scan And Couldn’t Find A Thing
Maybe it was the adrenaline rush of having made a school-record 60 saves to tie Boston College, but goaltender Mike Johnson uttered a sentiment that may have been as rare as his performance.
“I wouldn’t mind running into these guys again,” he said, causing a few blinks of surprise and perhaps mental note that he needed some oxygen. “I think we can beat them if we play our style and they play theirs. We match up decently.
“We know they’re a talented team and everybody knows that we’re not as talented as they are overall. We just got to beat them with hard work. That’s the only way you can beat a talented team, by outworking them on the offensive and defensive end.”
That confidence may well come in handy. If the Minutemen make the playoffs, they’ll almost certainly be facing Boston College.
Last week’s question asked, who is the youngest player in Hockey East this year?
The answer is sophomore sensation Anthony Aquino of Merrimack, who despite his youth ranks third in Hockey East scoring. If he doesn’t rack up some postseason honors, something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Jeff Cox was the first with the correct answer and his cheer is:
“Lets Go Merrimack! Go Warriors!”
This week’s question asks: what Boston-area school does UMass-Amherst hold the best all-time record against? (Cambridge, Brookline and Chestnut Hill are considered to be in the Boston area. North Andover and Lowell are not.)
Hint: You may need to think beyond the usual boundaries.
Send your answers or wild guesses to Dave Hendrickson.
Thanks to Michael Kobylanski for his assistance.