This Week in Hockey East: Nov. 29, 2001

The Best Team in Hockey East?

They’ve got plenty of competition, but the New Hampshire Wildcats are making a pretty strong case as the league’s top team right now. Their total domination during major stretches of last weekend’s games with No. 14 Ohio State and previously undefeated No. 4 Denver were eye-catching to say the least.

They outshot OSU 24-7 in the first period on Saturday and then essentially matched that one night later, outshooting the Pioneers 24-8 over the first two periods. In the opening 20 minutes, Denver had only one shot from within the blue line. This wasn’t going against Mother Theresa and the Sisters of the Poor; this domination was inflicted on one of the few teams in the country with an unblemished record, 9-0-0, one that was ranked second in the country at the time.

And while Ohio State could claim, with some justification, that it adjusted poorly to UNH’s Olympic ice sheet, Denver had no such gripe. The majority of WCHA ice surfaces are Olympic-sized.

“I was very impressed with New Hampshire tonight,” said DU coach George Gwozdecky after the 5-2 loss. “They completely outplayed us in the first period. We had some small spurts in the second and third, but they controlled the game, they controlled the territory.

“If it hadn’t been for [goaltender] Adam Berkhoel, things would have been well out of hand early in the game. … Adam gave us a chance to get back into the game, gave us a chance to make it a game.

“Their transition game was very good. They use the width of the ice extremely well. They moved the puck and caught us flat-footed an awful lot.

“When we were able to wrestle the puck away from them, their coverages were outstanding, especially early in the game. We just did not have a lot of room to move. They cut off a lot of the passing lanes until we made a little bit of an adjustment. … UNH is the best team we have played so far.”

What’s notable is that New Hampshire’s quick starts in the two games were not the exception but rather the rule this year. As noted by UNH radio broadcaster Dick Osborne, the Wildcats have outshot every single team in the opening frame, most by large margins:

Oct. 13 Vermont, 11-3
Oct. 18 Merrimack, 15-4
Oct. 20 Rensselaer, 16-6
Oct. 26 Northeastern, 15-7
Nov. 2 Merrimack, 14-10
Nov. 4 BU, 13-5
Nov. 9 Lowell, 18-8
Nov. 10 Lowell, 11-10
Nov. 17 Providence, 21-8
Nov. 24 Ohio State, 24-7
Nov. 25 Denver, 13-3

That adds up to a total of 171-71 or an average shot advantage of 15.5 to 6.5.

Folks, those kind of numbers will win you some hockey games.

“It was a great win,” said UNH coach Dick Umile after topping Denver. “I thought the team played well. We beat a very, very good team…. I told the guys they got an ‘A’ for it.

“I thought we matched up well going into the game and obviously I was very pleased again with the first period. As of late, we’ve been coming out in the first period and setting the tone. If we could just finish off a couple of those, it might make it a little bit easier, but it’s never going to be easy with the teams that we play.”

Arguably, this is the only possible note of concern for worrywart Wildcat fans. Against both Ohio State and Denver, the early dominance translated into only a one-goal lead. You’d like to see a bigger margin for such impressive territorial play. Instead of leading the league in offense, the Cats are third at 3.82 goals per game (behind Maine’s 4.58 and BU’s 4.00). However, UNH does stand atop the defensive rankings, allowing only 2.09 goals per game.

Much of that comes from winning the specialty team battles night in and night out. The Wildcats have not only the top power-play ranking in Hockey East (26.5 percent), but also the top penalty kill (89.1 percent). This amounts partly to a continuation from last year and partly a role reversal. Last season, they posted a record-setting 93.5 penalty kill percentage in league games, but were next-to-last on the power play (11.8 percent).

“We’ve always been pretty good at the special teams here,” said Umile. “I know that last year there was a lot of talk about our power play, [but] we’re a year older. We’re using the majority of the same people, but they’re just moving the puck better and making better decisions. Obviously, the puck is going in for us, but we’re doing basically the same thing we did last year with basically the same personnel.”

Despite all the success so far, Umile isn’t looking for his team to go about beating its chest and trashtalking about its strength.

“We’re still in November, so we have a way to go,” he said. “But the guys are improving…. If we’re somewhere in there nationally, that’s great for the program and for the university.

“We’ll just hang out there someplace. It’ll be nice. We’ll just lay low and be there at the end.”

Press Room Humor

After UNH’s win over Ohio State, Sports Information Director Pete Souris opened the Wildcat portion of the postgame press conference by asking Umile for his general comments, which is standard operation procedure. With a mischievous glint in his eye, Umile tossed a curveball back to Souris.

“Why do I have to start off all the time?” asked Umile. “You know what my general comments are. I’m happy we won the game.”

After the laughter died down, he added, “Let’s change it up.”

Souris quickly improvised and looked to Darren Haydar, sitting next to Umile.

“Okay, Darren,” said Souris, “your general thoughts on the game?”

The laughter erupted again one night later when, having learned his lesson, Souris opened with, “Darren you want to start with some general comments?”

Just Looking to Get Some Ice Time

When freshman Sean Collins arrived at UNH this year, he had modest expectations. Instead, the 5-9 roadrunner has scored nine goals and added eight assists in just 11 games. His 17 points put him atop the rookie scoring race and place him tied for fifth overall in the league .

“It’s gone a lot easier than I expected,” he says. “Coming from a public high school [Reading] to a Division I program, I was just looking to get some ice time this year and then go at it my sophomore year. But [Umile] threw me up on the first line with Haydar and [David] Busch. It’s been [downhill] all the way.”

The opportunity to play with Haydar, one of the most dynamic performers in Hockey East, if not the country, was a surprising development.

“Like anybody else, I was pumped for it,” says Collins. “Playing with Haydar, the game is so much easier. He breaks it down for you. All my goals are because of him and Buschie giving me the puck.”

Not only has Collins found it easier because of his linemates, but also knowing that he’s got plenty of ice time ahead of him each game.

“Playing on the first line is so much easier than playing on the fourth line and just getting a few shifts and not really getting into the game as much,” he said. “Playing on the first line and power play, you’re into the game so you get to get all the experience and it makes you a better player.”

Which is not to say that it was a cakewalk at the beginning. It can be intimidating for a freshman to be placed on the top line.

“The first few games, I was so scared with the puck,” he said. “[But] I got so calm with the puck after the first few games and after the first goal went in. After that, it’s been all calm. It’s been great.”

It’s helped that Haydar and Busch, as well as the rest of his teammates, have been supportive.

“Obviously, it’s hard for a freshman to be put on the spot like that and expected to score goals,” says Collins. “But everybody has been nice and said, ‘Just play your game and the offense will come.’ It’s been real nice.”

Despite his success, Collins isn’t resting on his laurels. He feels that he has to stay on his toes at all times.

“The game is a lot faster up here [in college],” he said. “You have to be on your feet. The physical and mental aspects are so much higher so you have to come prepared every practice and game.”

Like any smaller player, Collins has had to learn how to adapt from facing a lot of opponents his own size in high school to taking on mostly six-footers now.

“You’ve got to use your speed,” he said. “On an ice surface as big as [UNH’s], you’ve got to use your speed and get around those big guys and goalies and get around the grabbing and holding and play your game.”

Surprisingly, he’s actually been most prolific on NHL-size ice surfaces. In five home games on the Whittemore Center’s Olympic sheet, he’s totaled two goals and one assist. At standard-sheet road venues, however, he’s exploded for seven goals and seven assists in just six contests.

However, he’s not letting those exploits or the league top rookie honors fill his head with lofty personal goals.

“I don’t try to think about those things,” he says. “You just want to go out there and win each night. The personal goals will take care of themselves.”

Reading Rockets Reunion

With UNH forward David Busch out of the lineup, Steve Saviano joined Collins on Haydar’s line, reuniting the Reading Rockets duo that terrorized schoolboy opponents a couple years ago.

“All three of us fly,” says Collins. “We sure a’int the biggest, but we [get] the job done.”

A’int the biggest is right. The trio averages under 170 pounds with Haydar and Collins the enforcers at 5-9 to Saviano’s 5-7.

“It could be the smallest line in college hockey you’ll ever see,” says Haydar with a laugh.

The promotion for Saviano was a welcome one for the sophomore, which also allowed the second line of Josh Prudden, Lanny Gare and Colin Hemingway to stay intact.

“Playing with him for three years at Reading was a great experience,” says Saviano. “Playing tonight was even better, obviously at a better level. It made it a lot easier than if it were two guys that I’d never played with before.”

The Train Keeps A Rollin’

UMass-Lowell’s Cam McCormick has gone from outstanding to out-of-this-world. He has won all six starts with a save percentage of .983 and a goals against average of 0.35!

No, those are not typos.

Had he not been pulled prior to the third period of a 4-0 shellacking of Army — the final shots were 55-7 — McCormick would have recorded five shutouts in the six games.

“Goalies are the defining position,” says UML coach Blaise MacDonald. “He’s played with an incredible amount of focus, and with that comes confidence and with that comes performance. And it perpetuates and you can see it in how he’s playing.”

His latest shutout came in a midweek 3-0 win at Union.

“Union had four or five great chances and he was the difference,” says MacDonald. “It’s not so much the saves, it’s how he makes them. He just looks poised, calm and really on top of it.”

Ripping the Refs

Last Saturday afternoon, Cornell coach Mike Schafer didn’t pull any punches about assistant referee Tom Quinn’s penalty call with 1:11 left in regulation that led to BU scoring the game-winner on the resulting power play.

“[It] killed us,” said Schafer. “There’s a neutral official from the WCHA who waves it off, and the Hockey East linesman calls it a penalty. So, is it a penalty? I don’t know, but the head official’s looking right at it and the Hockey East linesman’s looking right across at it, and he ends up calling it from standing directly in front of their bench.

“It’s a pretty frustrating call for a linesman to make with a minute and ten seconds to go in the hockey game.”

Those are some pretty harsh words, so for starters let’s examine under what circumstances an assistant referee is allowed to make calls.

“He’s supposed to call anything that in his opinion the head referee does not see,” says Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna, who also serves as the chairman of the NCAA Rules Committee and Executive Director of the American Hockey Coaches Association. “The one area where there are restrictions are that he’s not supposed to overrule an official. In other words, if he sees something and at the same time can look to see where the ref is and in his opinion the ref saw the same thing, but chose not to call it, then he’s not supposed to basically overrule the ref. In this situation, [referee] Mike Schmitt did not see it.”

So what exactly did happen?

“I met with the official after the game, so I’ve got a pretty good handle on what happened,” says Bertagna. “He saw the Cornell player hit the BU player. A clean hit. The guy kind of went half over the boards, kind of on his midsection, and was hanging over. [The Cornell player] gave him another shove, which was fine. That happens. But then at that point, the guy picked him up almost as a wrestler’s move, put his hand under his crotch and lifted him and threw him over the boards.

“At that point, [Tom Quinn] really had no choice. It was one of those damned if you do, damned if you don’t situations. If he doesn’t call that — which is a penalty, it could be interference, or as he called it, unsportsmanlike conduct — and Cornell scores, then BU has been deprived of a player who has basically been thrown over the boards. Then you’ve got a gripe from one team. And if he does call it, then …”

But didn’t Schafer state that the head referee was looking right at the play?

“First of all, anything a coach says within the closing minutes of a game, you have to understand that there is a lot of emotion involved,” says Bertagna. “In my experience, the coach is in the worst position to see things clearly, both physically from where they are on the bench and everything that’s happening, and emotionally.

“But I was with all the officials after the game and Mike Schmitt did not see the play. He may have seen part of the play, but he did not see the guy get lifted and thrown over. So Tom Quinn was clearly in line in making that call. In fact, if he doesn’t make the call, he’s at fault.”

All of which leads to the issue of coaches ripping officials in postgame comments. How do the leagues keep that in check and why?

“If we get something brought to our attention — and it has happened actually in both leagues that I’ve worked in — [upon] the first offense we would either call the coach and/or write him up and copy his athletic director,” says Bertagna. “That’s because not only is it league policy, but also most of these coaches voluntarily sign a code of conduct that the American Hockey Coaches Association puts out.

“Pretty much every coaches’ association in all the sports have a code of conduct and it’s very specific that you do not criticize officials. Not only is it a respect issue, but the officials do not as a general rule have the opportunity, or take any opportunity, to voice their opinion. By design, they like to be invisible and get out of the building as quickly as they can.

“So it’s kind of a one-way street where the coach has all these opportunities to address things [and the officials do not.] What we also find is that a lot of times, the coaches are wrong. They think they saw something and then they look at the video the next day and realize they got it wrong.

“At that point, there’s no retraction. I’ve had many cases where [it’s said], ‘He’s out of position! He blew the call! Geez, they’ve got to bring their ‘A’ game to rink just like the players!’ Then you look at the tape and it’s like, ‘Oh, nevermind!’ like Emily Litella of Saturday Night Live.

“But at that time, you don’t see a quote in the paper, ‘Oh, by the way, those outrageous things I said two nights ago, I was wrong.’ The fans read the paper the next day and they’re rooting for that same team so they buy into [their team being wronged] and it just makes the referee’s job that much harder the next time they see the guy.”

Does Schafer receive a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card because he’s an ECAC coach ripping a Hockey East official? That is, does Schafer get treated differently than a Hockey East coach making the same comments?

“I talk to [ECAC Commissioner] Steve Hagwell,” says Bertagna. “Steve and I are very close. If anything happened either way — if it was our coach in one of their games or one of their coaches in one of our games — the two of us communicate on a regular basis and we both have the same authority with supplemental discipline to do what we’re supposed to do.

“I have no doubts that Steve and I are pretty much on the same wavelength on some of these issues, so [the ECAC] would take action if they thought it was appropriate.”

Talk About A Breakout Weekend!

Merrimack’s Alex Sikatchev posted five goals and two assists on the weekend, almost tripling his previous point total. The Russian Rocket moved onto a line with Anthony Aquino and Nick Parillo four games ago, but took two of them before he exploded.

“We knew it was just a matter of time before it came out,” says interim head coach Mike Doneghey. “We see it every day in practice. It was just a matter of time before it came out. He was shooting the puck, he was playing hard, he was doing everything he did in practice in the game.”

No Terry Glenn, Here

Parillo will be sidelined as a result of a bad skate gash to his knee. The tough senior suffered the cut that went all the way to the bone just two minutes into the third period, but played the rest of the game. He required 20 stitches.

“He played the rest of the third period and didn’t even know,” says Doneghey. “He took his equipment off and said, ‘Now I know why my leg was stinging.'”

Playing through now it is out of the question.

“It’s right on his knee so every time he bends it, it’s going to reopen,” says Doneghey. “So he’s got to rest it. He can’t skate for 10 days and then he’ll go from there. Unfortunately, in those 10 days we’ve got three [league] games.”

Congrats, Part I

Congratulations to UML coach Blaise MacDonald for winning his 100th game at Union on Wednesday.

“The wins, they’re just because you coach for awhile,” he said afterward. “I could tell you my best wins and stuff like that, but your best wins are defined by the looks on your team’s face. The emotion in the locker room, the fulfillment. The players win the games, the coaches don’t. That’s a special thing that you just can’t really describe. Good players make good coaches.”

Congrats, Part II

Congratulations are also due to Bertagna, whose contract was extended for an additional two seasons. The agreement, which extends through the 2003-2004 season, makes him the longest serving commissioner in the history of the conference.

Well deserved!

Skate With The Warriors

This Sunday, Dec. 2, is Merrimack’s annual “Skate with the Warriors” at the Volpe Center from 1:00-2:30 p.m. Players will be in uniform and all are welcome to attend and skate alongside them. Admission is free but each person attending is asked to bring a toy to donate to “Toys for Tots.” Santa is even scheduled to make a special appearance.

(Rumors that yours truly was recommended as a suitably rotund St. Nick are patently false.)

A Classy Coach

Denver coach George Gwozdecky earned high marks after some chippy play marred the last few minutes of his team’s loss to New Hampshire. In particular, Greg Keith earned an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for deliberately firing a puck at the UNH bench.

“I wasn’t real proud of what happened over the last two minutes of the game,” said Gwozdecky. “We just had a little meeting with our young men to make them understand what is expected of them as far as respecting your opponent whether you win or lose. I will tell you that we’re a program that relies on and believes in playing with class, playing with dignity, playing with honor and playing hard. Unfortunately, that last little incident is not what is expected of our team.”

Kudos to Gwozdecky.

Honey, Where Are The Keys?

The Pruddens, Peter and Deb, had an interesting weekend with one of them locking the keys in the car on the first night of the UNH tournament. Their son, Josh, however, scored a big goal both evenings, in front of visiting family members from Russia, no less.

We’ll see how much Peter and Deb love their son this week. If they’re at all superstitious, look for Peter in the parking lot, trying to break into the car again.

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question made reference to Providence’s Jon DiSalvatore and his Texas hat trick (four goals in a game). It asked: who was the last Hockey East player to also score at least four goals in one game? Give both his name and the date of the game.

The answer was BC’s Brian Gionta, who scored five goals in the first period against Maine on Jan. 27. The first to answer correctly was Allan Belanger, whose cheer is:

“Go Hawks! McGrane for Hobey!”

This week’s question asks what Hockey East line that played together earlier this year was named after a wolf-like animal. Explain why and give the names of the players. Mail your responses to Dave Hendrickson.

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

  • Here’s an idea for Terry Glenn so he can make back his signing bonus. Similar to the idea of a dunk-tank at a fair, New England Patriots fans would pay a fee of a couple hundred dollars each to slap the loser upside the head. My guess is the line for that privilege would extend all the way to Bangor.
  • I can’t believe that I was so busy that I not only missed the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, I didn’t even know about it. So who out there was pathetic enough to tape it? And can you make a copy?
  • Raise your hand if a couple Sundays ago, you watched the Britney Spears concert on HBO with the sound turned down so you could listen to the Patriots game on the radio.

    Thanks to Scott Weighart and Jayson Moy.