The Importance Of Finishing First
It goes without saying that every team near the top of the Hockey East standings wants to finish first just for the sake of taking the regular season crown. If you’re a competitor, you naturally want to be number one. That said, this year the stakes are even higher because the playoff implications of finishing first rather than second are enormous.
Take a look at the current standings. (All teams have played 20 league games except Providence and Merrimack with 21.)
1 New Hampshire (13-4-3) 29 points
2 Boston University (13-5-2) 28
3 Maine (11-5-4) 26
4 Northeastern (10-8-2) 22
5 UMass-Lowell (9-8-3) 21
6 Providence (8-10-3) 19
7 Boston College (8-11-1) 17
8 Merrimack (5-14-2) 12
9 UMass-Amherst (3-15-2) 8
This observer would argue that six teams have an excellent chance of winning the Hockey East tournament. (More on that next week.) One of those is Boston College. Until buried under an avalanche of injuries, the Eagles were a Top 15 team themselves and, if healthy, are clearly the most dangerous team in the 6-to-9 positions in the standings.
No one feels this more acutely than BU coach Jack Parker, who right now stands to draw BC in the quarterfinals. Of course, the Terriers have an even greater motivation to avoid their archrivals.
“I’d rather play UNH or Maine or anybody than BC in the first round,” says Parker. “To wind up finishing second place in our league and get a fully healthy BC team would be [tough]. We’ve had it happen a couple times before in the past where we’ve played them in the first round of the playoffs, but that’s our big rival. To do this all year long to wind up with BC?
“But really, who do you want? Everybody says you’d like to get first, you’d like to get second, you’d like to get third. Who would you like to play, Lowell again? You want to play Northeastern again? You want to play Providence, a team that has really had our number the last couple of years?
“We want to play the Belmont Bantams. But they’re not available.”
Hockey East fans who go back a handful of years will recall that BU had an even more unfortunate draw in 1993-94. That season the Terriers finished first only to face a very strong Maine squad in the quarterfinals. The nationally-ranked Black Bears had been forced to forfeit 14 games, 12 of them league ones, because of using an ineligible player.
As a result, their 12-8-4 Hockey East record became 3-20-1 and they became the bottom seed in the then-eight team league. Although the Terriers prevailed in two games, the matchup was hardly the expected reward for winning the regular season title.
To a lesser extent, the same holds true this year with a scary BC team. Unlike 1993-94, though, the solution is to finish first.
As for teams near the bottom looking up, the quarterfinal opponent of least preference has got to be New Hampshire. While any of the top teams will be tough to upset by the bottom seed, the Wildcats pose the most insoluble matchups and boast a major home ice advantage to boot.
“I think everybody wants to avoid New Hampshire in the first round,” says interim Merrimack coach Mike Doneghey. He adds with a laugh, “Playing on Lake Winnipesaukee up there is difficult…
“But who do you want to play? BU is number six in the country and Maine is number nine.”
On Jan. 18, Merrimack entered a 10-game stretch in which all but one game were against teams that were in the Top 15 at the time. That lone exception was Northeastern, which has since entered the national rankings. Admittedly, two games were against BC, which fell out of the Top 15, but even those two contests were against a healthy Eagle lineup as opposed to the injured-riddled one which prompted the fall.
With 10 straight against the nation’s best, Merrimack’s prospects appeared grim. Losing the first six of them did nothing to change that view.
The last couple weekends, however, have seen the Warriors not only knock off a couple of the nation’s best teams, but do so in very impressive fashion. Two weeks ago, they rebounded from a 5-2 loss to Northeastern to stun Maine by the same score. Last week, BC squeaked out a win, 2-1, before Merrimack clobbered the Eagles, 5-2.
“Maybe the light has gone on,” says Doneghey. “We beat Maine pretty good. The thing about that is that the night before we played Northeastern and we played just as well, but we just gave up a couple [lousy] goals and Keni Gibson, as he’s been doing, stole [one]. He made 19 saves in the first period. We played the same way against Maine and beat them.
“Then Friday night, we lost to BC, 2-1, and if you listen to their radio guys, it was the best game [goaltender] Tim Kelleher has played in three years. Then in our building, we played really well.”
Overall now, the Warriors may be 10-19-2, but are 5-4-2 at home, where the two impressive 5-2 wins came.
“We’re pretty good in our building,” he says. “It’s small and [with] our quickness, we’re able to get into guys.”
The first weekend, the top line of Anthony Aquino, Ryan Cordeiro and Marco Rosa were the big offensive contributors. Last weekend, it was the Matt Foy, Alex Sikatchev and Nick Parillo second line that lit up the scoreboard.
“That [second line] is a pretty good line,” says Doneghey. “The weekend before against Maine, they probably had as many chances as Aquino’s line. They just couldn’t finish.
“Vice versa against BC. Aquino’s line had just as many chances, but it was Parillo and Foy’s line that was getting the points. They’re kind of having a friendly battle within themselves trying to outdo each other.”
More ice time has helped both trios.
“We’ve been doing a lot of conditioning, [so] I’ve shortened the bench a little bit,” says Doneghey. “I’ve gotten Aquino’s line out there and Foy’s line out there every third shift. I’ve been going 1-2-3-1-2-4, so I’ve been getting our skill guys and our high-end guys out there as much as we can.”
Another big difference has been the goaltending of Joe Exter. Midway through the season, he seemed to wilt under the pressure of playing every game and seeing more shots than any other league netminder.
On Jan. 8, Jason Wolfe was called on to make his first career start as a senior and give Exter a breather. Since then, he has taken the crease another five games, giving Exter an important respite.
Apparently rejuvenated, Exter has now won two of the last three games for the Warriors, allowing just two goals each night.
“Joey is playing now like what got him on the All-Rookie team last year,” says Doneghey. “He played 19 straight in the middle of the year and we were losing a lot then. The shots were lopsided.
“If you know Joey, he takes everything personal. He takes the whole burden on his shoulders whether they score on four breakaways or he gives up three bad goals. He takes everything personal as if it’s his fault.
“So we got him out of there. It was a good time to give Wolfie some games and give Joey a rest. Right now, it’s worked for us.”
It has also helped that the defense has seemingly matured.
“For the most part we’ve played four sophomores on defense,” says Doneghey. “The last 10 games of last year, they really started to come on.
“Like most [players], they went into a sophomore slump this year. There was a lot of indecision, but they’ve worked their way through it and right now all the guys seem to be on the same page, clicking together.”
Based on these recent performances, the Warriors are gelling at just the right time.
“We’re playing some pretty good hockey right now,” says Doneghey. “We’re getting some timely scoring, the lines are clicking — everybody’s clicking. There is a certain attitude developing around here. It’s taken us five months to develop it, but we’re developing it at the right time. This is the right time of the year to start getting it together….
“As the late Shawn Walsh used to say, it doesn’t matter where you are in November; it’s where you finish in February and March.”
Where the Warriors finish is almost certain to be eighth place. For them to finish any higher, they’d have to win out while BC loses out. For UMass-Amherst to catch them, the Minutemen would have to stun either Maine or UNH before also defeating Merrimack.
But there are eighth-place finishers that are cannon fodder for the playoffs and then there are eighth-place finishers that make opponents nervous.
A few weeks ago, the Warriors were looking like the former. Now, they could just be the latter.
Return Of The French Olympians
UMass-Lowell’s three Olympians all returned last weekend after the French national team failed to advance to the round of eight.
Nonetheless, Yorick Treille, Laurent Meunier and Baptiste Amar all echo a common theme of an extraordinary experience.
“The Olympics were great,” says Treille. “It was the greatest experience of my life so far. It was something unbelievable.
“It was kind of tough coming back in one way because everything went by pretty quick. It’s tough to accept that it’s over, but that’s life. You’ve just got to move on and put it behind you and just look ahead to the rest of the season.”
Amar’s comments, coming independently and in a separate room, come close to duplication.
“It was a great time, maybe the best time in my life so far,” he says. “It was a great experience. Great events like the opening ceremony and stepping on the ice for the first time. Those are moments that you can’t forget. It was really awesome.”
The common theme continues with Meunier.
“It was awesome,” he says. “It was the best. Everything is made for the athletes. The [Olympic] village is great. You get concerts every night. The food is great. All the athletes are pretty open.
“You can talk with everybody because we were all athletes. Nobody is there as a fan, so it’s just between [athletes]. That’s pretty great. We saw a lot of players. It was a great moment.
“The opening ceremonies — it was amazing how big it was. The Americans did a great job with it.”
The French team opened with promise, tying Group B favorite Switzerland.
“We knew we were able to do something against Switzerland,” says Amar, “because each time we play against them, they struggle a little bit. They hate us and we hate them so it’s a special game between us. So we knew we’d be able to do something good.
“We were kind of disappointed because even if they played better than us, we had the lead with five minutes left to go in the game, but they tied. So we were disappointed because we would have liked to have started with a win.”
A 3-1 loss to Belarus, however, sealed France’s fate. Belarus would advance to the round of eight, where it would ultimately stun the world and reach the semifinals. France would be left to play one last meaningless contest plus a placement game.
Meanwhile, the Olympians kept track of the River Hawks’ struggles in their absence.
“We could email and we watched USCHO.com all the time,” says Meunier. “We followed the team. After every game we talked with a guy by MSN Messenger and stuff like that. We tried to keep in touch with them and support them.”
The three Olympians then pulled out all the stops to return to the River Hawks as quickly as possible. Meunier, who was the freshest of the three because of missing several games with a shoulder injury prior to leaving for Salt Lake City, dressed for Friday night’s game against BU despite getting to Walter Brown Arena direct from the airport little more than an hour before the game.
“[Our last Olympic game started] 11 o’clock Eastern time,” says Meunier. “It was a long time because we had to wait for Yorick because he had to go for an anti-doping test.
“We had to bring back all the bags to another ice rink and all the time you have to go through the security [checks]. You lost about half an hour every time. We had to come back to the village.
“The [arena] where we played in Provo was an hour away from the village and half an hour away to the other ice rink. So we came back around three in the morning, Mountain time.
“We said good-bye to everyone because we were leaving. We probably were going to bed at 4:30 and we woke up at six to take the flight at 10 because we were an hour away. We took the flight at 10 and got to Boston at 4:30. I just arrived to the ice rink at 5:40, just an hour and 20 minutes before the game we were playing. That was pretty tough.”
Meunier logged much less time than usual, playing on the fourth line, while UML coach Blaise MacDonald held Treille and Amar out entirely. The exhausted trio all played the following night, making seven games in eight nights for Meunier.
“I just wanted to help the team,” he says. “I just played the fourth line that first game, so I didn’t get that much ice time, but I just did my best and tried to help the team.
“But I was pretty far away from my best. Even [on Saturday], I was very tired. I play all the time [on the French team]: power play and [penalty-killing] so that’s a full game.”
The French trio didn’t just sacrifice sleep in rushing back to help the River Hawks last weekend. They also missed the tail end of the Olympic experience that their French teammates enjoyed.
“Yeah, we didn’t see any of the other competition like downhill [skiing] or bobsled or other stuff,” says Meunier. “That was pretty disappointing, but we wanted to be with the team. We’re part of the team and we [hadn’t] been there. We missed them, too.
“It’s okay. Life is like that. I don’t complain about that. That was great to spend one week at the village and then come back to reality.”
Rose Between Two Thorns
UNH sophomore Steve Saviano has shown great versatility of late moving between linemates at both ends of the stylistic spectrum. When David Busch went down to injury, Saviano skated on one wing alongside Darren Haydar and fellow Reading High School Rocket Sean Collins. The combination worked so well that he remained with the top line after Busch returned.
After Haydar suffered an ankle injury, however, Busch moved back between his old linemates so that the Hobey hopeful could move to wing.
As a result, Saviano (5-7, 165) went from a line of like-minded roadrunners to centering UNH’s two talented lumberjacks: Ed Caron (6-3, 220) and Patrick Foley (6-1, 210). That trio might be termed the Rose Between Two Thorns Line, where “thorns” is no pejorative but rather a power forward badge of honor.
“Playing with Sean and Darren, I just stayed back and let them do their thing,” says Saviano. “I just tried to fill in the holes and do pretty much whatever they wanted me to do.
“Playing with Eddie and Foley, I’m a little more free playing center so I’m more all over the ice so I get to create a little more.
“I’m still playing with two great players. Now that I’m playing center, I’m worrying a lot more about defense. That’s really the goal of our third line.
“Team defense for our third line is the most important thing. That’s what we’re focussing on. I’m just playing defense and hopefully the offense will come.”
UNH coach Dick Umile is pleased with Saviano’s development following a freshman season in which he scored only two points in 16 games.
“Most freshmen have ups and downs and I think [for Steve] it was confidence handling the puck,” says Umile. “That’s the biggest thing that he does now. He has total confidence and feels comfortable out there.
“Freshmen typically come in and are worried about making a mistake and they don’t handle the puck as well. But once they get comfortable, [they get more productive] and obviously he’s very comfortable now.
“That line with Darren, Collins and him put up some big numbers and he was an important part of that.”
Not The Way To Go Into The Off Week
UMass-Amherst had last weekend off except for an exhibition game against the U.S. National Development Team, but the Minutemen no doubt wished they were back in action. They were certainly left with a bad taste in their mouths after blowing a 3-0 third period lead to UMass-Lowell and being fortunate to escape with a tie.
Not only was a valuable point lost, but the River Hawks dominated them to a distressing degree. It was about as bad a way to head into an off week as possible.
“We played very well in the first period and did exactly what we hoped to do,” said UMass-Amherst coach Don “Toot” Cahoon after the game. “We executed fairly well in all three zones and got the lead, as we need to do given our inability to score in bunches.
“We fell about as flat as you could fall and caved into a lot of pressure and a real good effort by Lowell. But we had several opportunities to make plays and couldn’t make plays.
“Physical conditioning and mental conditioning go together and we lacked both. Mental toughness is a derivative of good physical conditioning and we lacked both. It was a putrid display of hockey for the last two periods.”
Quote Of Note
UMass-Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald after the aforementioned game against UMass-Amherst:
“Whose idea was it to create a 60-minute hockey game? I want to lobby for a 40-minute game.”
When word started circulating after the first round of the Beanpot that BU Sports Information Director Ed Carpenter was headed for the Olympics, I had my doubts.
Ed Carpenter, miss a Beanpot championship game?
It was unthinkable, even with the lure of Salt Lake.
Ed, after all, would consider the Olympics enticing to the max, but still lower on the pecking order than the Beanpot.
The denouement made sense in the end, however. The Terrier loyalist stayed through to another BU Beanpot title and then flew out to Salt Lake City early the next day, bleary-eyed but with a smile on his face.
Last week’s question noted that in the history of the Beanpot, only one penalty shot has been taken that has not been successful. Who took the shot and, for a tiebreaker, what year was it?
The answer, ironically, is Wayne Turner in 1979. One year later, Turner would score the most famous goal in Beanpot history to give Northeastern its first title.
Loyal reader Gary Fay proudly notes that he was the player to take down Turner and that current BU assistant coach Brian Durocher was the goalie.
Mike Chevrette was the first to answer correctly. His cheer is:
“Let’s go Huskies! Home ice and the Fleet are within our grasp!”
This week’s question notes that Northeastern freshman goaltender Keni Gibson has set multiple school records or unique achievements. What are they? Email Dave Hendrickson with your answers.
And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…
Even more outrageous, however, if that can even be conceived, were the actions of New Bedford Superior Court Judge Ernest Murphy, who not only gave probation to the monster who admittedly twice raped a 14-year-old, but Murphy also said that the terrified girl should “get over it.”
Probation? Get over it? Your Dishonor, you are a piece of genetic garbage!
Thanks to Jim Lothrop and Ed Seero for their assistance.