Upon Further Review
I admit it. I was wrong.
(Is there a doctor in the house? My wife just fainted.)
In this year’s Season Preview I found myself stuck between a rock and a hard place. Hockey East’s top five teams seemed clear: Providence, Maine, New Hampshire, Boston College and Boston University. An extremely young UMass-Amherst team appeared destined for good things eventually, but for the cellar this year.
In between stood Merrimack, Northeastern and UMass-Lowell, in no particular order. The order was my rock and a hard place.
I liked Merrimack’s chances if its defense matured and could get scoring out of its second line. I also liked the looks of some of Northeastern’s freshmen, at least on paper, and felt they might be the missing ingredient along with more consistent goaltending.
And I thought UMass-Lowell was a potential home ice team, except… except for the fact that the River Hawks would be losing Yorick Treille, Laurent Meunier and top recruit Baptiste Amar for up to nine league games during the Olympics. That would constitute over a third of Lowell’s Hockey East schedule. To lose that much talent for so many games in a league where last year only 11 points separated last place and playoff home ice and only seven points separated fifth place from ninth seemed potentially fatal.
So without a good candidate for eighth place, I opted for the River Hawks.
It took me all of one game to realize I’d miscalculated at least a little. It took two games to realize I’d miscalculated a lot. After viewing a third Lowell game — its fourth of the season — I realized that “miscalculate” was a euphemism for “Hendrickson, you are a moron!”
To defeat Niagara in the season opener was one thing. To knock off Boston College, 7-2, on the road was another, but could potentially be dismissed since the very young Eagles were missing Ben Eaves. The total domination of Providence, however, for 39 minutes prior to a penalty-infested third period acted like smelling salts after a kick to the head. Devin Rask was on the Friar sidelines, but not even Mario Lemieux could have counteracted Lowell’s control in those two periods of Hockey East’s projected top team.
“It shows that we can be a dominant team when we execute our goals and our plan for that game,” said UML coach Blaise MacDonald. “This is a very harmonious team. There’s a real caring climate in the locker room. You’ll win some games and lose some games in the future, but I think that element will lift us up to where we want to go in the long haul. This is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Several factors could lead the River Hawks to an impressive finish in that marathon: a lineup that includes eight seniors (plus another two who are injured) and six juniors; the size that leads to winning battles down low; and well-rounded contributions that bode well for surviving the Olympic departure of Treille, Meunier and Amar.
“They’re real good right now,” said Providence coach Paul Pooley after the loss on Friday. “They’re probably one of the better teams in the league. They’ve got eight seniors, a new coach and a lot of energy.”
The experience factor is considerable. Not one of the eight seniors or six juniors is a marginal contributor.
“We could be the oldest team in the country,” said co-captain Chris Gustafson.
Age by itself, however, isn’t an automatic solution.
“Experience is useless unless you access it and learn from it in the future,” said MacDonald. “We’ve been able to do that.”
Despite graduating several of their biggest players up front, the River Hawks are still winning the battles down low and in the corners in the same way that they did so effectively last year down the stretch.
“We went into the [Providence] game thinking we matched up with them well,” said Gustafson. “We went in thinking that down low our defense could outmuscle their forwards and get the puck out of our zone. Our forwards, we assumed were bigger and stronger than their defensemen and would be able to cycle it down low.
“And I think that for the two-thirds of the game [that we dominated], I would attribute to our forwards cycling it so well down low. That’s the best I’ve seen our team do it this year. That’s going to take us a long way.”
Surprisingly, Pooley even expected Lowell’s control of the puck.
“I told the guys they were going to be in our zone and they would cycle the puck and maintain possession,” he said. “We were going to have to bend, but not break and wait for our opportunities and go two-on-one and three-on-two. But we didn’t weather the storm enough to give ourselves a chance….
“It’s no secret,” he said. “They beat us low…. They deserved to win it.”
Perhaps more important than any other factor, though, is the breadth of contributions coming from the River Hawk lineup. Scoring is coming not just from the veterans up front, but also from a defense that after just four games has almost as many goals as returnees from last year totaled in an entire season.
“It’s the systems we’re playing this year that are affecting the offense we’re getting,” said Gustafson. “We’re not taking too many chances. We’re just trying to get in there when we can.”
Penalty killing has been another major strength. Lowell already has two shorthanded goals and has now killed 18 straight infractions. Hidden from cursory views of the box scores is how the man-down units have played so well that they’ve goaded frustrated opponents into penalties themselves. Against Providence, first Steve Slonina and then Dan Fontas contributed in exactly that fashion.
“The penalty killing has been great,” said MacDonald. “We have three units up top: Slonina and [Ed] McGrane [are] dangerous as a penalty-killing unit. [Geoff] Schomogyi and Fontas work so well together. They have that sixth sense. Mark Concannon and Yorick Treille played outstanding [against PC] and did a great job.
“We’re going over the boards ready to kill extremely confident that we’re going to get the kill. It’s a great opportunity to get the momentum swing back our way.”
Of all the positive surprises and unexpectedly strong contributions, MacDonald is loath to pick out a biggest one.
“That’s a difficult question for me to answer because they’re all kind of new to me,” he said. “You can’t feel a guy’s spirit and soul and his competitiveness on tape. In the heat of battle on Friday and Saturday nights, you can define a person’s being athletically.
“There are a lot of guys that I love. I’d have a hard time picking out one person because it’s so balanced. There are so many guys contributing in so many ways.”
Earlier in his Lowell career, Gustafson lost 25 in a row to nationally ranked teams. (Thanks to the Lowell Sun‘s Chaz Scoggins for that note.) Now, however, the senior can point to four wins in the last five contests against nationally ranked teams spanning back to last year.
“We feel we belong,” he said. “Definitely! We think we can play with anyone.”
This week’s USCHO.com poll reflects that sentiment with the River Hawks now at number nine.
“It’s kind of early to worry about national polls,” said Gustafson. “It’s nice, but my eyes are on the big prize.”
And the big prize is…?
“The big prize,” he said, “is sitting in our brand new lounge, eating some pizza and waiting for the national polls and seeing who we’re going to play in the nationals.”
A trip to the NCAAs? Don’t bet the rent check against it.
At the Other End of the Spectrum
After being picked to finish first in Hockey East, the Providence Friars find themselves in last place with the worst overall winning percentage in the league (1-4-0, .200). Not only did they lose to Lowell last Friday, but they followed that up with a loss to UMass-Amherst at home two days later.
“Obviously, we’re not playing like a team that got picked to win Hockey East,” said assistant captain Peter Fregoe after the loss to Lowell. “We’re playing like a team that was picked to finish fifth. We got dominated and it’s just not acceptable.”
Devin Rask was out of the lineup on Friday night due to injury, which prompted some lineup shuffling, but returned on Sunday.
“There are no excuses for us not playing well,” said Fregoe. “It’s not because of the lineup.”
Junior Jon DiSalvatore added, “We have all the tools of the team that should be picked to finish number one, whether it be by default or not, [a reference to not receiving any first-place votes, but still finishing first in total votes]. We show signs of team that is going to be dominant in this league, but whatever is going on this early in the season is just [not fulfilling that promise.]
“We’re still a young team in a lot of areas and we have to learn in certain situations how to win: coming back behind, holding the lead, scoring the first goal and not give away two periods every game.”
Coach Paul Pooley can’t be happy right now, but pointed out, “We’re very, very young even though we’re picked to be very good. We’ve got a lot of growing to do as a hockey team.”
A sell-out crowd of 7,884 at Kelley Rink got to see the Boston College 2001 national championship banner unfurled in a pre-game ceremony prior to last Friday’s win over Notre Dame. In case you just returned from a trip to Pluto, the Eagles earned their title back on April 7, when they defeated North Dakota, 3-2, in overtime at the Pepsi Arena in Albany, N.Y.
“The rink crew did a terrific job of lowering it down slowly so it gave you a chance to rethink the scenario,” said BC coach Jerry York. “I thought of Coach [“Snooks”] Kelley. I don’t know why, but I just thought of him as a coach and playing [for him] at BC and all of those years thinking, ‘Hey we’d like to get banner!’ and finally actually getting one to hang.
“He used to talk about that back in the early sixties, saying, ‘Hey, let’s decorate McHugh Forum with some of these banners.’ So I thought back to that real quick.”
Laughing, York then added, “Then I thought about some of those players that we wish were still around: the [Brian] Giontas, the [Bobby] Allens and the [Scott] Clemmensens.”
BC could have held the celebration one week earlier during its home opener against UMass-Lowell, but instead opted for a night against a nonconference foe which is still one of its biggest rivals, Notre Dame. With the hockey and football teams facing off during Rivalry Weekend, the timing couldn’t have been better.
“The protocol was a concern to us because [the start of the game] was going to go late,” says York. “We certainly didn’t want to put a conference game in that situation. [Notre Dame coach] Dave [Poulin] said the protocol would not be a big problem.
“Plus, we’ve got such a great rivalry with Notre Dame. We knew we’d have a big crowd. It was a fitting weekend with the hockey and the football games. We made it a special impact weekend on campus.”
Has Hockey East Sold Out To BU?
One reader wrote to complain about last Sunday’s BU-Merrimack game on Fox Sports New England:
“I’m watching the BU/Merrimack game on Fox Sports New England, and I’m already disgusted with the new play-by-play announcer. THREE TIMES so far in the first period, when tossing to [a] break, he has said ‘You’re watching BU HOCKEY on Fox Sports New England.’ I’m a Maine fan, not a Merrimack fan, but I’m still insulted by the obvious favoritism.”
Is something going on here?
When Hockey East Director of Media Relations Noah Smith was at Northeastern a few years ago, was he really a Boston University mole? Does Supervisor of Officials Brendan Sheehy secretly whisper to his referees and linesmen to call the games the way Terrier coach Jack Parker tells them to? Does Commissioner Joe Bertagna really wear BU boxers?
Fear not. The Hockey East league office has not suddenly become a bastion of favoritism.
The league has its TV package with FOXSNE, but BU added a package of its own with the station. This is no different than UNH’s arrangement with New Hampshire Public TV and Maine’s with WABI.
The game on Sunday was part of the BU package so it actually was correct to call it “BU Hockey on Fox Sports New England.”
He Said… She Said
Here are two very different accounts of the same play, BU goaltender Sean Fields’ game-saving stop on Merrimack’s Anthony Aquino. The Terriers held a 1-0 lead late in the second period when Aquino broke in on a two-on-one with Marco Rosa. BU had dominated territorially, but a tying goal could have swung the momentum hard into Merrimack’s favor. Instead, Fields kept the Warriors off the board and a strong third period by BU put the game safely into the win column.
Athletes don’t get to this level without demanding a lot of themselves and having the confidence they can achieve their goals. Invariably, they’re also humble to a fault, at least when talking to the press.
Those qualities are showcased in the following “He Said… She Said” accounts of the same play.
Fields: “The defenseman played it perfectly. He just let me have the shooter and just pushed him off to the side. If he keeps doing that there isn’t much to shoot at. So it was a pretty easy save actually.”
Aquino: “It was the exact same goal I scored against UNH. I had the exact same play two-on-one. I had the goalie beat. I had him down and he showed me the top corner.
“[Fields] does that all the time. He did that to me a couple times last year and a couple of times in this game. He really likes his glove so he shows you his glove and then he takes it away.”
As for this writer’s impression, it sure looked like a heckuva save to me.
Last Friday’s Providence-Lowell game saw a rarity: a six-on-three man advantage with over eight minutes left in the game. The Friars trailed, 4-2, and with a faceoff in the River Hawk end, PC coach Paul Pooley lifted goaltender Nolan Schaefer for yet another attacker.
“If they score a goal there, we don’t deserve to win anyways,” he said.
As it turned out, the River Hawks almost did. Not having to worry about an icing call, Jerramie Domish fired a long shot at the net and didn’t miss by much.
To no one’s surprise, the Friars buzzed around the net threatening during the three-man advantage. They could not score, however, prior to taking a penalty for goaltender interference on a scrum in and around the crease. With the advantage down to only a single man, Pooley returned Schaefer to the net.
“You don’t have a six-on-three situation very often, but we didn’t get the puck to the net and shoot it enough,” said Pooley.
Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald analyzed the strange case of being up three men.
“I would venture to say that Paul Pooley didn’t have a chance to practice his six-on-three,” he said. “That’s what’s hard. You pull the goalie and you have a six-on-three and you just pack the net in.
“We weren’t going to extend ourselves. We stayed sucked back in deep and just had confidence that [goaltender] Jimi [St. John] would make the big save. That’s an opportunity to suck some energy out of them when they don’t score.”
Quip of the Week
When one wise guy in the press box cracked to MacDonald that Ron Hainsey, the departed All-American defenseman, hadn’t scored a point for the River Hawks and had, in fact, become pretty invisible, the River Hawk skipper didn’t miss a beat.
“He’s struggling,” said MacDonald. “I’ve done a poor job of coaching him, quite frankly.”
Last week’s question asked which current or former Hockey East coach has won the league’s Bob Kullen Coach of the Year Award more than any other? The tiebreaker went to the first reader who could also identify what years he won.
The correct answer was the late Shawn Walsh, who won the award four times at the helm of the Maine Black Bears: 1988, 1990, 1993 and 1995. BU coach Jack Parker, UNH coach Dick Umile and Northeastern coach Bruce Crowder have each won the award three times.
The first reader to answer correctly with all the right years was Chuck Murray, a message board regular whose winning may strike some as more than a little ironic. Chuck’s cheer is:
“GO UNH!! THE BLUE IS DUE IN 2002!!”
This week’s question asks which team already has six defensemen who have scored at least one goal. Name the team and the defensemen.
Mail your responses to Dave Hendrickson.
And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…
As the radio fell silent and I opened the car door, my one hope was that I wouldn’t turn on the TV inside to the sound of delirious cheering. The image on my ancient TV trailed the sound by a couple seconds, but I didn’t need to look at the screen to know what had happened. The Bronx Bums had done it again. Oy!