This Week in Hockey East: Jan. 17, 2002

How ‘Bout Them Hawks?

With a weekend sweep of Boston College, which had been ranked 10th at the time, UMass-Lowell moved into sole possession of first place in Hockey East, took over the number three spot in the poll and earned the runner-up position to Denver in the PairWise Rankings.

Not too shabby!

Especially when you consider what happened in the rest of the Hockey East games. The River Hawks were the only league team to grab all the points available to them on the weekend.

It gets even better when you look at the rest of the country. Of the teams ranked in the Top 15 at the time, Denver and Lowell were the only ones to escape the weekend unscathed. Boston University and Ohio State tied unranked teams. Every other club suffered at least one loss, the vast majority coming at the hands of unranked teams. Check out the details:

No. 1 St. Cloud lost to unranked Minnesota-Duluth.
No. 3 New Hampshire lost to unranked Providence.
No. 4 Minnesota lost to unranked Wisconsin.
No. 6 Michigan State lost to unranked Western Michigan.
No. 7 Boston University tied unranked Providence.
No. 8 Michigan lost to Alaska-Fairbanks.
No. 9 Northern Michigan lost to unranked Notre Dame.
No. 10 Boston College lost twice to UMass-Lowell.
No. 11 Maine lost to and tied unranked Northeastern.
No. 12 Colorado College lost to unranked MSU-Mankato.
No. 13 Cornell lost to unranked Dartmouth.
No. 14 Ohio State tied unranked Lake Superior.
No. 15 Alaska-Fairbanks lost to Michigan.

Two things made the sweep of BC even sweeter. First, the River Hawks had entered the season with a 15-game losing streak to the Eagles hanging over their heads. That unenviable mark had spanned four years.

Even better for the Lowell program was the first Tsongas Arena sellout since the year the building opened. In fact, the building was over-capacity for the Saturday night game since 300 standing room only tickets were sold.

“Having a big crowd in the house has been a dream for this team and myself,” said coach Blaise MacDonald. “We’re a team of passion and to see that crowd and their spirit — you could almost sense the pride they had for what we were doing — it gave us a much-needed boost. And I mean a much-needed boost in the third period, especially with BC scoring the first goal.

“Quite honestly, it’s hard to put into words the feeling of looking up from the bench and seeing this beautiful arena just jam-packed and yet have two rows deep of people standing around the edges.”

The River Hawks had to deal with some adversity to secure the sweep, playing without top forwards Ed McGrane and Laurent Meunier on Friday night and Meunier on Saturday. (More on McGrane later.) They also had to overcome an ordinary-at-best performance by goaltender Cam McCormick on Saturday night in which he gave up more than two goals for the first time all season.

The senior has been so extraordinary all year that some casual observers have concluded that Lowell is a one-man team. A case in point was an email from a UNH fan last week who ripped yours truly for ranking the River Hawks ahead of New Hampshire. The fan wrote of Lowell, “If they didn’t have McCormick, they would be just another unheard-of Division I team.”

Of course, that’s nonsense. Anyone who has watched the River Hawks this year knows that McCormick has given them outstanding goaltending that has bordered on the incredible. Even so, Lowell is also a very intelligent, hard-working squad with several other terrific players and a deep cast of significant contributors.

Perhaps most importantly, it is a very strong defensive team. Care to guess who allows the fewest shots in Hockey East? The following table shows the average number of saves per game (all games included).

20.90 UMass-Lowell
22.09 Boston College
23.26 Boston University
23.81 New Hampshire
26.14 Northeastern
26.45 UMass-Amherst
26.68 Maine
30.86 Providence
32.36 Merrimack

One-man team? Gimme a break!

“Our philosophy is that we want to create our offense off our defense,” said MacDonald. “Really, it starts with a smothering defensive-zone scheme. We’ve executed that very well physically and positionally, but I also believe it’s our players’ mindsets in terms of how important defensive play is. That’s allowed us to really limit our Grade A chances against.”

Of course, having the mindset isn’t sufficient if the athlete hasn’t also prepared himself over a long period of time for the physical requirements.

“These guys have paid a dear price over their careers to get into the condition they’re in now,” said MacDonald. “When you pay that great a price, you want to put forth a great effort. Our conditioning has clearly been a driving force in our success.”

McCormick has also been incredible, no doubt. Not until after this weekend did his goals against average begin with a digit other than zero. Even after allowing four goals on Saturday, his GAA stands at 1.10 and his save percentage at .952. Both numbers are still the best in the country. His record is 11-1-1.

But Lowell is anything but a one-man team, as evidenced by the 8-4 win at the Tsongas.

“It’s good to see that our team doesn’t fall apart when he lets in a couple goals,” said MacDonald. “I think he’d want a couple of goals back that got by him, but it’s another experience where our team just said, ‘Yeah, we’ve just got to get more than the other team.’

“Cam will be the first one to tell you that if you win 15-14, that’s okay.”

MacDonald is making sure that his team doesn’t get full of itself. There were more mistakes against BC than he knows his team can get away with over the long haul. The River Hawks may be 12-1-1 in their last 14, but a team can quickly cross the razor-thin line between winning and losing by making one key extra mistake at the wrong time. As a result, the first-place milestone and the season’s sweep of BC did not result in an ebullient Lowell locker room on Saturday night.

“The problem is that sometimes Old Coach MacDonald doesn’t let them get excited,” he said. “The way I looked at it is, we got through it. But there were a lot of coaching moments [arising from breakdowns]. We have to get better as a team and the team knows that.

“If the [NCAA Tournament] Selection Show was tomorrow, we’d be really excited. But we have a lot of hay to put in the barn yet.”

And some of that hay harvesting is going to come with a depleted roster. Meunier is not expected to play this weekend, after which he and his fellow members of the French National Team, Yorick Treille and Baptiste Amar, will leave for the Olympics. They could miss as many as 10 games depending on how well the French team plays. Not to mention the usual war of attrition that teams must cope with at this time of year which could become critical after this weekend.

“We’re not looking at yesterday or tomorrow,” said MacDonald. “We’re only focussed on the precious present.”

Do What You Love

Ed McGrane, UMass-Lowell’s top forward, received the sad news last week that his grandmother, Cathy McGrane, 72, had died as a result of pneumonia. The junior flew back home on Thursday night to Hamilton, Ontario, to be with his family.

“It was pretty tough,” he said. “I said my blessings and stuff. I know that she’s with me. I was fortunate enough to have her for 23 years; it was good to have her.”

McGrane was then faced with the decision of whether to remain with his family or return to Lowell for the Saturday game against BC.

“I had told him to take a week if he needed it,” said MacDonald.

The choice wasn’t easy.

“I sat down with my parents and we talked about it,” said McGrane. “I was finding it rough. I was really finding it tough, but I knew my Nana; she was a hard woman. She had a lot of love, but she wouldn’t have wanted me to sit around and sulk about it.

“So my parents just said, ‘You know what? Do what you love and she’ll be with you.’ And that’s what I did.

“I’m dedicating the rest of the year to her. I’m going to play for her. It just gives me that extra boost, that extra motivation to play and work my hardest for her because I know that she’d want that.”

McGrane got up at three in the morning to catch a flight back to Boston that arrived at 7:50. As it turned out, he scored two of the first three Lowell goals, playing like one of the league’s top forwards as is his wont.

Although any player tries to keep his focus solely on the task at hand, McGrane couldn’t help reflecting on his circumstances.

“You try not to, but it’s tough,” he said. “It [was] for me. I mean, it kind of hit me a bit. But I know she’s watching.

“It actually felt good. It wasn’t a sad moment. It was actually a good feeling for me. It felt really good to see [us] put forth a good effort like that.

“The team was all behind me. They were great. They sent flowers and were real supportive.”

His fellow River Hawks had also supported him in another way by defeating BC on the road Friday night in his absence.

“I went on the Internet [to USCHO] and saw that they won,” he said. “It was definitely a great boost. It made me feel real good. Going to BC, it’s tough to beat them there any night. [The guys] just worked hard. Simple hockey, that’s what we’ve been taught all year.”

Of course, for anyone who has watched McGrane this season, his performance following his return was no surprise despite the difficult personal circumstances. While other players around the league may be flashier and capture more headlines, McGrane is one of the league’s true unheralded, quiet stars.

“I kind of like that,” he said. “I like just doing my job. I like to put forth an effort and if people notice me, then they notice me. If they don’t, they don’t. That’s good.

“I’ve just got to worry about myself and how I play. It’s good to have your name talked about here and there, but it just comes down to you doing it for yourself. That’s the main thing. That’s the thing you’ve got to look at.”

Three Out Of Four Ain’t Bad: Intro

Although no team matched Lowell’s 4-for-4 weekend, three teams earned three out of four possible points. Ironically, all three are in the bottom half of the standings, making the points like manna from Heaven.

Providence tied BU and then defeated UNH. Northeastern hosted Maine for two games, the first being an overtime win and the second a tie. And Merrimack went 3-for-4 the hard way in a home-and-home series with UMass-Amherst, winning on the road.

For reasons both common and different, last weekend’s performances could prove vital to all three teams.

Three Out Of Four Ain’t Bad: Providence

Providence certainly had a disappointing first half of the season, so taking three points from Top 15 teams like BU and UNH could be the shot in the arm that the Friars need for a successful stretch run.

“We started games pretty quickly,” said coach Paul Pooley. “We got up 2-0 on both teams. It gives you a little more room for error. You know that those teams are going to make a charge, but we started quick, which was big for us because we haven’t been doing that.”

Could the quick starts have been the confidence boost that a struggling team needs, especially one projected to finish first that has stumbled out of the gate?

“I don’t know if we self-evaluate ourselves before we hit the ice, but every team sorts out its own personality [in terms of] who gets the guys going,” said Pooley. “Last year, obviously we had a couple guys [Matt Libby and Jay Leach] who got the guys going. This year, it’s a different group of leadership and people. It’s taken us a little time to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get going.’

“We’ve made some changes in their pre-game routine and they’ve made some changes. The importance of starting quickly has really hit home and we’ve tried to do that the last few games. We’ve really worked on that.”

The Friars now face three nonconference teams — Connecticut, No. 2 St. Cloud and Brown — before returning to league play. Unfortunately, those looming Hockey East games are a gauntlet of the league iron. Of those final 11 games, nine are against Top 15 teams, beginning with Boston College. As a result, the need to keep the momentum going in nonconference games is clear.

“Right now, every game is important for us,” said Pooley. “We want to get better as a hockey club. We want to continue to execute what we’re trying to do. Whether it’s UConn or St. Cloud or BC, we need to play well because we really don’t have any room for error anymore. We’ve got to be ready to play. We’ve got to get better and fine-tune the things we’re trying to do here.

“Obviously we want to make a stretch run here and be the best we can be as a team. Wherever that puts us, we’ll have to find out.”

Pooley cites four keys to the remainder of the season: goaltending, team defense, specialty teams and faceoffs.

“When we’re playing well, we’re winning faceoffs,” he said. “Those [four keys] are things we’ve tried to emphasize with our club with specialty teams and team defense probably being the most important.”

Three Out Of Four Ain’t Bad: Northeastern

Northeastern faced a make-or-break six games to open the second-half league schedule: two-game sets with BU, Maine and UMass-Lowell. Four games into the six, the Huskies have done anything but break, splitting their home-and-home series with the Terriers before taking three points from the visiting Black Bears.

“I think we’ve been making small little jumps all along as the season’s gone on,” said coach Bruce Crowder. “One of the things we’ve mentioned all year long is that we needed to get better play out of our goaltending position and right now Keni Gibson has been giving that to us over the last few games.

“As any team knows, you get a guy who’s making some saves for you and everybody feels a little better, a little stronger, a little bit cockier and maybe takes some chances that maybe they wouldn’t [otherwise] when they know they have a kid back there who can bail them out. Right now we’re playing it that way.

“We’re keeping it simple. We’re not getting the offense that maybe we’re hoping for, but we definitely have been getting some chances over the last few games. That’s been encouraging.”

Gibson (7-3-1, 1.89 GAA, .931 Sv%) has been even better than advertised now that he’s over a back problem that sidelined him early in the season. Recruited from the Ottawa Jr. Senators with some of the top statistics in all of Canadian junior hockey, he was seen as someone who could possibly take over the number one role, but freshmen goaltenders come with no guarantees.

“I don’t think you ever expect [what Gibson has done so quickly],” said Crowder. “It’s not like you’re going to rubberstamp it with kids coming in. Even the best blue-chip kids that all the big-name schools are after for some reason never really have the freshman years that you thought they were going to have. So you don’t know.

“You go on the fact that [Gibson] did this well and he did that well and he’s a great kid in the locker room and has a great work ethic. Put all that together and figure that if you give him a chance, maybe he can do it for you. That’s where Keni fit in.

“We didn’t recruit him with the idea, ‘Hey, Keni, you’re our number one guy.’ We recruited him with the idea that we needed better play out of goaltending position. At times, [Jason] Braun has given it to us. At times, [Mike] Gilhooly has given it to us. But we really haven’t had the consistency that we felt we needed to compete in this league.

“If you look around the league, the teams that are doing well are getting good goaltending and the goalie becomes a difference-maker.”

Defenseman Jim Fahey has led the scoring and the top line remains Mike Ryan, Willie Levesque and freshman Jason Guerriero, but the other lines have made increasing contributions. Second-liners Eric Ortlip and Chris Lynch had big games against Maine on Friday night, and the third line of Brian Tudrick, Leon Hayward and Trevor Reschny figured in both of the Husky goals one night later.

“We’ve been able to have a little more balance,” said Crowder. “That was nice to see that we’re spreading it around. We’re not getting as much as we hope to compete in this league, but [we] have guys coming in and contributing and our special teams have been decent all year long. When you can do that, it puts you in a pretty good position to win some hockey games.”

Actually, the special teams have been more than decent. In Hockey East games, the Huskies have now risen to second in the league in power-play percentage (21.1 percent) and are tops on the penalty kill (88.0 percent).

Interestingly enough, the power-play seems a bit schizophrenic. There will be stretches where the Huskies struggle to get the puck in the offensive zone and much of the advantage appears frittered away. Once they get to set up, however, they can be deadly. Seven other Hockey East coaches would love to be converting at a 21.1 rate.

And the special teams combination is a one-two punch that turns a lot of close losses into points.

“Anytime you look at penalty killing, it’s going to correlate pretty well with how your goaltender is going,” said Crowder.

“On the other side, the power play is a matter of putting the right guys in to make the right plays. We’ve got a lot of confidence on the power play right now. They’re moving it around pretty well right now and getting plenty of opportunities. We’re making the most of our chances. You need that.”

The Huskies conclude their six-game gauntlet with a home-and-home series against second-ranked UMass-Lowell this weekend.

Three Out Of Four Ain’t Bad: Merrimack

With nine of Merrimack’s next 10 games coming against Hockey East teams ranked in the Top 15, a strong weekend against UMass-Amherst was mandatory. Taking three points gained some separation with the Minutemen and continued the momentum begun last Tuesday with a 2-2 tie with Lowell.

“It’s obviously better than the 10-1 loss we had in New Hampshire,” deadpanned interim coach Mike Doneghey.

In a curious way, the humiliation inflicted by UNH two weeks ago may have been the best possible thing for the Warriors.

“That game may turn out to be a turning point in our season,” he said. “We had two options. We had to regroup and play Lowell, which at that time was the number five team in the country, or things could have gone south and we could have packed it in for the rest of the year.

“The guys really came together in that Sunday and Monday before the Lowell game. They know that you’ve got to get points every weekend. Our goal in those four games between the New Hampshire game and [the three against] the two UMasses was to get four points and we did it.

“It doesn’t matter if there was a 10-1 loss in there or not. We went 1-1-2. The kids are coming together strong.”

At Amherst, goaltender Jason Wolfe reprised his strong performance against Lowell to gain the win and earn Hockey East Defensive Player of the Week honors. His sudden success could have a positive effect on top duffel bag Joe Exter, either pushing him to better performances or making it so that the responsibility doesn’t weigh so heavily on his shoulders.

“Joey can relax a little bit and know that if he does get tired or mentally worn down, there is a guy behind him,” said Doneghey. “Wolfie has worked hard. He deserved to be in there.”

Of course, the recent momentum could prove short-lived if the Warriors look at nine of the next 10 games coming against Top 15 teams and roll over and die like they did against UNH.

“[It’s] not only against ranked teams, but the other one is against Northeastern, which obviously is middle of the pack right now,” said Doneghey. “But you’ve got to try to get points every weekend.

“It doesn’t matter who you play; you’ve just got to try to get points whether you’re playing the 11th team in the country or the 25th team in the country. You’ve got to show up every night. One mistake can get you a couple points.”

Shields the Super Sniper

Maine’s Colin Shields has proven to be more than worth the wait. After sitting out last year because of eligibility problems, he’s come out of the gate like gangbusters, scoring 18 goals along with nine assists for 27 points.

Those totals leave him tied for sixth in Hockey East overall scoring, and in striking range of the top spot in the nation’s goalscoring race.

“I’m a little bit surprised, but I’ve worked pretty hard, especially last year [while I was] not playing,” he said. “[I’ve] come in as a first year player, but I’m 21 years old so I’m not a true freshman. I thought I was pretty ready to get going at the start of the year, but I was little surprised to get off to such a good start.”

Skating alongside Martin Kariya and Mike Schutte certainly hasn’t hurt.

“Marty is a great playmaker and makes a lot of good passes,” said Shields. “Mike is a big guy and works pretty good down low, but he’s also got good hands in front of the net and makes good plays with the puck.”

His success this year is the payoff for a “lost” year last season, when he suddenly found out that he would not be eligible.

“It was the toughest year of hockey I’ve ever had in my life,” he said. “I had to sit down and look at all the options I had. It turned out that the best option for me was to stay at Maine, of course, and be a part of this program.”

International hockey, which had helped him gain attention in the World Juniors, once again became a welcome venue when he played in the World Championships in April.

“Playing there was very important,” he said. “That gave me a big confidence boost coming into this season and playing against older guys in a tournament of that stature.

“It gave me a little bit of a gauge to see where I was at and see about all the things I’d worked on over the course of the year while I sat out. It prepared me for this year.”

Quick Notes

BC’s Ben Eaves will be sidelined for four-to-six weeks with his rib injury. “I keep saying four weeks because that’s what I’m hoping for,” said coach Jerry York, who can hardly afford to see his top offensive weapon sidelined for that long.

BU’s Ryan Whitney has been ranked as the nation’s top collegian in the Central Scouting Bureau’s list. Whitney ranks fourth overall.

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question asked which Hockey East school gained notoriety involving the polls recently and why. The following hint was given: think beyond men’s hockey.

The answer was Boston College, which simultaneously had its hockey, football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball teams nationally ranked.

The first to answer correctly was Bob Hatcher, whose cheer is:

“Let’s go Eagles! Soar over the Terriers this weekend and make it a season sweep!”

Special credit is also due to Keith Tode, who claimed that George W. Bush’s ceremony at UNH qualified. Get it? A political “pol” as opposed to a “poll.” Yeah, it went over my head the first time, too.

This week’s question asks which Hockey East player earlier this year scored goals on his team’s first shot on net in back-to-back games? Email Dave Hendrickson with your carefully researched answer.

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

It certainly seems that 95 percent of the quality movies are released this time of the year — as opposed to the summertime when it seems that your brain is expected to be in hibernation — so here are a couple nutshell reviews from your humble typist.

  • A Beautiful Mind ****: Outstanding! If you only see one film, make this the one.
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone ****: A perfect piece of fantasy that I wouldn’t have changed a bit. I had never gotten around to reading the books, but after the movie I promptly ordered and listened to the audiobook. Every writer should have movies made so faithfully of her work.
  • Vanilla Sky ***1/2: A very different movie that has you often wondering what the heck is going on, but ultimately proves very satisfying. Written and directed by Cameron Crowe, who last year was robbed by the Oscar nitwits who failed to select Almost Famous as one of the year’s best.
  • Lord of the Rings ***: As a Tolkien fan for a couple decades, I liked this a lot but still felt that something was missing a bit, though I’m not quite sure what. Perhaps that can just be laid at the feet of an almost one-hour delay due to a fire alarm in the middle of the movie. Either that or the moronic teenager behind me who talked during about three hours of the 3:08 film despite repeated polite requests to stop. Such evil creatures belong in Mordor.
  • Kate and Leopold ***: An enjoyable time-travel tale.
  • The Royal Tenenbaums *: Exceptional acting by Gene Hackman — a comment which borders on the redundant — but this occasionally funny movie is loaded with so many ludicrously unbelievable characters that it comes off as a caricature of a movie instead of a watchable one. For what I believe is the first time in my life, I actually fell asleep in the theatre … at least until my snoring prompted an elbow in the ribs.