It has slipped in under the radar because of their slow start, but the Boston College Eagles have been one of the hottest teams around of late.
In their last 13 games, they’ve posted a 10-2-1 record with one loss coming to UNH in a game BC dominated in the third period and overtime. The other blemishes — the remaining loss and tie — both came in a trip to Alfond Arena, a familiar Waterloo for Hockey East teams.
What’s more, this is a very young team. Its roster is dominated by freshmen and sophomores.
“We’re just maturing as a team,” says BC coach Jerry York, whose team has risen to number 10 in the polls. “You’ve got to make mistakes and then learn from your mistakes. With our [freshmen], this is their first step up into this level of competition. Plus we have a lot of players who played last year who are almost in different roles this year.
“So I thought early we had a lot of effort and enthusiasm, but we weren’t nearly the hockey team we are now. We’ve just learned from mistakes and gotten better as the season has progressed.”
One Eagle weakness typical of young teams is an inconsistently applied killer instinct. On Monday night, they grabbed a 2-0 lead just 1:24 into the game and later in the first period bumped that advantage to 3-0. They couldn’t put UMass away, however, and eventually had to go to overtime to pull off the win.
A quick lead followed by a letdown had happened one week earlier to the Eagles in the Silverado Shootout Championship against Minnesota-Duluth.
“Out in Minnesota, the same thing happened to us,” says senior captain Jeff Giuliano. “We ended up winning, 5-1, but we got outshot, [28-6], in the second period. We’re a young team and we just want to learn from our mistakes.”
It’s a lesson that the Eagles haven’t completely mastered yet, but haven’t had to pay for either since they’ve pulled out the win each time.
“Hockey East games are never easy,” says York. “The older guys had to bring that up. … They aren’t going to be easy. Teams aren’t going to quit in our league.
“But that’s the tendency you fight. You score early and [think], ‘Hey, this is going to be point night.’ But we have too much respect for our league members to [think that].
“Then [UMass] fought back. I wasn’t surprised by it.”
A recent BC strength has been the goaltending, a concern going into the season following the graduation of ironman dufflebag Scott Clemmensen. Freshman Matti Kaltiainen stopped all but one of 51 shots against Minnesota-Duluth two weeks ago, earning league honors. Tim Kelleher has rebounded from a slow start to allow only five goals total in his last five games.
A major concern, however, is the health of Ben Eaves, who has been in and out of the lineup and reinjured himself while participating in the World Junior Championships. On a team of such youth and more limited scoring depth than has been seen in recent years on the Heights, Eaves is a go-to player that the Eagles cannot afford to be without long-term.
“We’re anxiously waiting for him to get back, but we have to make sure that this thing gets healed,” says York. “We’ve had some top specialists in Boston looking at him.
“We’d like to get Ben back; we just don’t know when. I don’t know if it’s three or four weeks or [more or less].
“If we can keep our [heads] above water until he returns, then we become a much different club. Even though we’re playing pretty well [now], he’s a [key] guy.”
Especially with Eaves out of the lineup, BC’s hot streak will be tested this weekend when it plays a home-and-home series against fifth-ranked UMass-Lowell. The River Hawks invaded Kelley Rink earlier this year and put a 7-2 hurting on the hosts.
“This is a pretty good matchup,” says York. “Lowell spanked us pretty good that first game. They’ve had a terrific year.
“Their goaltending has been exceptional right from the get-go. They’re a poised, experienced team. It seems like they’re physically strong, which comes with a bigger, more mature team.
“It’s a great credit to [coach] Blaise [MacDonald] because they lost [All-American Ron] Hainsey, but they’re legitimately one of the top two or three teams in the country.”
While the two teams make for a matchup of contrasts between BC’s youth and Lowell’s maturity, they also share some notable factors. Both struggled last weekend against teams at the bottom of the standings, the Eagles needing overtime to defeat UMass-Amherst, 4-3, while the River Hawks had to settle for a tie with Merrimack, 2-2. Additionally, they both are expected to be without a marquee forward, Eaves for BC and Laurent Meunier for Lowell.
“They have an extremely high skill level,” says UML coach Blaise MacDonald. “They have some terrific, terrific highly-skilled players, almost world-class type of players. So it’s going to be tough. Those are going to be two very challenging games for us.
“We’ve played good teams in the past, including them, and we’ve had success [but] we’re going to have to contain them offensively. We’re going to create all of our offense off of our defense in this series.
“We need to do a very good job on our transition defense, making sure we pick people up and make sure we don’t give them any three-on-twos or two-on-ones. Then in our D-zone coverage, we’re going to have to get into people early, mark our guys — find our guys and get into them — and also be very aware on the weak side for defensemen closing and creating offense on the weak side.
“It’s going to be a huge, huge series for us and create many, many opportunities to challenge ourselves.”
Worth the Wait
For three-plus years, Merrimack goaltender Jason Wolfe had seen only occasional mop-up duty as the payoff for his hard work in practices. Mop-up duty such as coming in last Saturday against UNH for the final 20 minutes of a humiliating 10-1 loss.
In a society dominated by instant gratification, Wolfe showed the patience of the Biblical Job and was finally rewarded with a start on Tuesday night. Rewarded might have been considered a curious choice of words for many, since the Warriors didn’t seem likely to put up much of a fight against the fifth-ranked River Hawks after their team defense had been turned into mincemeat by UNH.
“Why not?” asked Merrimack interim head coach Mike Doneghey after the game. “What did we have to lose? We played the number four team and we lost, 10-1, with our starting goalie and him — they both played. What did we have to lose?
“You’ve got to reward guys who work hard. Every day at practice, he’s out early on the ice with me and Joey [Exter]. He works hard and warranted a start.”
What did they have to lose? As it turned out, nothing. While giving a senior goaltender his first career start doesn’t rank high on the list of conventional solutions for rebounding from a brutal game, Wolfe’s inaugural performance proved to be an eye-opener.
Facing not only Lowell, but also Cam McCormick — its goaltender who has statistically been head and shoulders above every other netminder in the country — Wolfe and the Warriors battled their highly-regarded counterparts to a 2-2 tie.
“It was just a real good feeling for me,” said Wolfe. “I waited a long time to actually get a chance to show my stuff. We’ve had a lot of great goalies here and I never had the chance to start a game so it feels good to finally get a chance to get in there and help the team.
“They played a great game in front of me. I give a lot of credit to them.”
Although no one likes riding the pine, Wolfe had maintained a positive work ethic while watching first Cris Classen and Tom Welby ahead of him on the depth chart and then more recently Joe Exter.
“It was actually harder for me my freshman year, I think, than anything,” he said. “I think it’s hard for a lot of young players when they come in here because everyone who plays in this league [was] a star wherever they came from.
“So you come in and you want to take on the world when you don’t necessarily get that chance right away. That was hard for me then.
“After a while, I realized what role I was in. I just tried to make the best of it and play as well as I could to show them that I could compete at this level and contribute.”
Although it wouldn’t be a shock to see Wolfe back in the nets for the back end of Merrimack’s home-and-home series with UMass-Amherst this weekend, Doneghey had made it clear Exter would get the start on Friday.
“That’s fine with me,” said Wolfe. “[Coach] makes all the decisions. When I’m put in that situation, I just try to make the best of it.
“Joey, in my mind, is still our number one goalie. He has been the whole year and will probably continue to be. I actually expected that no matter how well or poorly I played.”
The Agony Of Defeat
UMass-Amherst has certainly had to swallow some tough pills lately. Although the Minutemen have won some recent nonconference games, they’ve lost their last seven to league foes, all of which are teams in the Top 15.
Two agonizing losses in the stretch stand out. The final game before the holiday break came at BU where UMass took the game into overtime and even saw Greg Mauldin’s shot carom off the crossbar before going down to defeat.
Coach Don “Toot” Cahoon was asked if his players were beginning to wonder just what they had to do to win. Cahoon minced no words with his response.
“If I understood what was going through the minds of my players, I’d be an absolute genius,” he said. “I’m trying to have some effect on what’s going through their minds.
“To varying degrees, I might be successful; I don’t know. That remains to be seen. But I’m going out of my friggin’ mind right now.”
It didn’t get any easier to take on Monday night when UMass fell to BC, also in overtime. The Minutemen fell behind in the first period, 3-0, rallied to send the game into overtime, only to lose in the extra session.
Cahoon had to call his timeout just 1:24 into the game to calm freshman goaltender Tim Warner’s nerves after he’d allowed two quick goals.
“I told him,” said Cahoon, “by the time he gets back into that faceoff circle — halfway back to the net — he’s got to forget about everything that has happened up to this point in time and just play from here on in and not get caught up with what has happened. Because if he started to panic over that, the floodgates would have opened.
“I thought, quite frankly, that aside from those first couple shots, he played quite well afterwards. He made some great saves when we still weren’t playing well and gave us enough of a chance so that Timmy [Turner, who scored two goals,] and the rest of the gang could get back into it again and get enough chances to give ourselves a shot at it.”
Nonetheless, the performance out of the starting blocks resulted in a lost opportunity.
“You can’t play the way we played in the first period and expect that you have much of a chance to win a game against a team of that caliber,” said Cahoon. “But despite our inabilities in the first period, we managed to dig a little deeper and play a lot harder and get ourselves back into the game. I commend the kids for that.
“We unfortunately haven’t found a way to finish things off. Tonight, it would have been a good feeling to walk out of there with just a point knowing the way we started off. It would have been a step in the right direction.
“No moral victory. We have to move on. They kids know how I feel about this. All I want them to do is compete every minute they’re on the ice. They only have so many opportunities to do that.”
All that said, Cahoon is doing anything but attack his players.
“I can’t question our guys’ desire to play,” he said. “They come to practice every day and pretty much give us what we ask them to give us. And they come to games and give us what they can a large majority of the time.
“But what happens, I think, is against some of the top teams we sit around worrying about what’s going to happen and what the outcome is going to be. I refer to it as Fear of Failure and I think that’s a big waste of time.
“That’s what I’m trying to get across to these guys. Once they put that aside [against BC] and just went out and played as hard as they could play, they found that they could get themselves back into the game.”
Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if UMass got a propitious bounce here or there. A case in point came in overtime against BC when a nice setup to Tim Turner, who had already scored twice, fizzled out because the puck was on edge. Just 30 seconds later, BC got the game-winner.
“We can’t get a lucky break,” said Cahoon. “You feel like you’re snakebitten, but you have to play through that stuff. We’ve got a ways to go before we overcome it.
“We will. We’ll get to that point.”
Pando On The Prowl
When Mike Pandolfo scored twice on Friday night to lead the Terriers to a 3-2 win over Northeastern, it marked the 11th game of 17 in which he’d scored. The senior captain is running away with the Terrier goalscoring lead with 14.
“He’s having a ball playing with the two freshmen [Brian McConnell and Justin Maiser],” said BU coach Jack Parker. “They’re really moving the puck and playing well. The puck is just going in the net for him. It’s not like he’s going rink-length and undressing people. He’s getting opportunities and he can really shoot a puck.
“The thing that I’ve [noticed] this year about him is that he’s gotten much faster. His speed over the last two years has increased so much that now it’s opened up the rest of his game.
“He’s a hard guy to handle because he’s so big and he can chase people down. He can get to pucks and he can beat people out wide. [Strength and Conditioning Coach] Mike Boyle has done a fabulous job making him faster.
“It’s really paid off for him. His game has really blossomed that way.”
A Loss, But No Panic
After Friday night’s loss to Boston University, Northeastern coach Bruce Crowder was asked about the tough defeat given how desperate his team was for a win. Disagreeing with the word “desperate,” he remained optimistic.
“Obviously you want the win,” he said, “but if the guys can give me what they gave me in this game over the next 17 games, I’m going to be pretty happy and we’re going to make some noise. The effort was there and the kids played well.”
That optimism proved well-founded when the Huskies ventured into Walter Brown Arena two days later and came away with a 3-0 win.
From The Agony To The (Sort Of) Ecstasy
Merrimack’s defensive performance in its 10-1 blowout loss to UNH was about as bad as it can get, which makes the Warriors’ rebound performance to tie UMass-Lowell, 2-2, three days later all the more remarkable.
“We had a little bit of a wounded dog we were facing tonight,” said UML coach Blaise MacDonald after the game. “We want and expect their best and I think we got that. Kudos to Merrimack and their coaching staff. I think they did a great job of creating a bounce-back atmosphere to get their team back on track.”
The psychology of dealing with a devastating loss comes in two main forms: tell the team to forget about it or come close to rubbing its nose in it to make sure it never happens again. For the Warriors, the latter solution worked.
“We talked about it quite frequently,” said interim head coach Mike Doneghey. “On the bus ride home, Sunday morning, Monday morning, Monday afternoon [and] today.
“Guys came out with a little fire in their belly. They were a little embarrassed about what happened on Saturday night and wanted to show the league and the country that that’s not what our program is all about.”
Quotes of Note
UMass-Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald on his team’s 2-2 tie with Merrimack: “I liked our will. I liked our energy level. I liked our effort. I just didn’t like our execution. Why was that? I don’t know. We weren’t nervous. We weren’t jumpy. Perhaps it was just one of those games.”
Merrimack goaltender Jason Wolfe on Lowell netminder Cam McCormick’s mind-blowing statistics this year: “I have a lot of respect for him. I can’t even imagine that kind of success. I’ve never even heard about somebody having a 0.62 goals against average.”
Not Good News …
Merrimack may be the most camera-shy team in Hockey East. In the Warriors’ two TV games, they have been outscored, 14-1. Those two losses — 4-0 to BU and 10-1 to UNH — account for almost two-thirds of their negative goal differential in league games.
When UMass-Amherst faced off against St. Cloud, it had scored 41 goals on the season. St. Cloud had scored 43 power-play goals.
Last week’s question took one last stab at linguistics, asking for a translation of the cheer offered by Jussi Jalkanen (Samuli’s father):
“Hakkaa päälle Suomen poika, ettei Ruotsi meitä voita!”
There were more than a few tongue-in-cheek responses beginning with Greg Williams’guess of “Haydar wins the Hobey, UNH wins National Championship!” Ah, not exactly …
Lynne Litton teased that the phrase translated to: “We’ve had enough linguistic trivia questions, don’t you think?” and grew nostalgic for a return to “regular questions that I can’t answer!”
The actual translation is, roughly, “Finland hits hard and Sweden falls …” I should point out that yours truly is half-Swedish — the Hendriksons came over around 1890 — so I’ll dust myself off after that clean hip check from Jussi and remember his number for payback sometime.
First to successfully translate the phrase was Christopher Mailloux, whose cheer is:
“BU Hockey … Keeping the US Olympic Team stocked with talent for over 65 years and counting.”
This week’s question concerns a Hockey East school that gained notoriety a few days ago involving the polls. (Hint: think beyond men’s hockey.) Email Dave Hendrickson with the school and what was so unique about its teams in the polls.
Thanks to Scott Weighart.