What A Race!
Here we are going into the final week and three teams — New Hampshire, Boston University and Maine — could still take the Hockey East regular season crown. None of their possibilities require oddities like cellar-dwellers sweeping nationally ranked opponents.
Prior to Wednesday night’s UMass-Lowell win over Northeastern, those two teams as well as Boston College had a shot at the remaining home ice berth. Lowell sewed that up with the victory on the road, but that came in both teams’ next-to-last game.
The tightly packed standings are no reflection of league mediocrity where a large number of ordinary teams have failed to distinguish themselves. In fact, one could argue the exact opposite. UNH, BU and Maine are all ranked among the top seven schools in the country; Lowell and Northeastern are also among the Top 15 with BC not far behind and rising fast.
All this promises for a compelling two weeks of Hockey East playoffs following the down-to-the-wire races this weekend. As a result, let’s look at all the teams’ chances before specific matchups cloud the issue.
New Hampshire comes in, arguably, as the favorite. In Hockey East play, the Wildcats have the best offense (4.29 goals per game), the best defense (2.19 goals against per game), the best power play (27.8 percent efficiency) and the second best penalty kill (87.0 percent). And those figures are before Tuesday night’s 6-0 shutout of UMass-Amherst.
Other than that, of course, they stink. (Ba-doom. Ladies and germs, I’ll be doing two shows a night all week. You’ve been a great audience. Tell your friends…)
Levity aside, UNH’s statistical domination goes beyond just the three gold medals and a silver noted above. The Wildcat offense is scoring more than a goal per game more than every team except Maine (3.91 gpg). The power play has run away from the rest of the league (27.8 percent vs. second-place Northeastern’s 21.2).
The only real concern, then, might be the goaltenders, both of whom have had health problems of late. However, concerns about them not being sharp seem almost silly in light of them both recording shutouts in their last start. Michael Ayers returned from wrist tendon surgery on Tuesday to throw a shutout at UMass-Amherst. Matt Carney, who has been back in action for four games now after missing a month with a concussion, shut out UMass-Lowell last Friday.
If the Wildcat goaltending holds up, then, they are the one league team without a discernable weakness. Small wonder that they are the top team in the country in the Pairwise Rankings.
Boston University is in the middle of a stretch run roll, having won nine in a row. Whether that will continue and result in a sweep of Maine this weekend, however, is an open question.
BU certainly has a championship-level team defense, ranking second to New Hampshire (2.36 gapg vs. 2.19 gapg) in that statistic. The Terriers also have clearly the league’s top penalty killers (89.2 percent).
The credit begins with a talented blue line corps that is continuing to play well in the absence of Pat Aufiero, who won’t return from his sliced foot tendon injury until the Hockey East semis. Goaltender Sean Fields has also made a huge leap forward in this his sophomore season.
“We’ve gotten a lot more confident and because of that, we’ve played with a lot more poise,” said coach Jack Parker. “We’ve become a solid forechecking team, but most importantly we’ve become a real solid team regrouping and moving the puck out of our zone and through center ice. Our defense has really matured and played with a lot more poise and I think our forwards are making some great plays through center ice.”
The big question is an offense (3.18 gpg) that has sputtered at times. In part, that’s been because of a power play that earlier in the season seemed to call for declining the penalty. However, that has come around during the recent winning streak.
“We changed the power play early in the streak and we’ve been scoring at about 30 percent since,” said Parker. “Special teams are a huge reason why we’ve been able to win those games and it will continue to be a big part of our success.”
Maine has come on strong down the stretch, posting an 8-2-2 record. The latest victim was UMass-Amherst, which fell last weekend, 7-1 and 7-0. This prompted strong words from UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon.
“It was like men playing with boys out there,” he said. “They have a lot of experience and talent…”
The Black Bears have been second only to UNH in offense all year with up-front depth to burn, but it’s been the recent team defense that is most encouraging. Despite a thin blue line, they have now tied BU for the second-best team defense (2.36 gapg) in Hockey East contests.
A lot of credit goes to goaltender Mike Morrison, who was recently named ITECH Goaltender of the Month for the third time. While doubters may wonder about his lack of playoff experience, he’s played in a lot of big games before and his numbers (1.97 GAA, .930 Sv%) speak for themselves.
Not Far Behind
It should be no surprise at all if any of the three teams that are just a step behind the top trio win it. While none of them have been as consistent as the favorites, they’ve still had significant stretches during which they were as dangerous as any team in the league.
Which UMass-Lowell team will show up for the playoffs? The one that was 16-3-1 and ranked third in the country? Or the one that went 1-5-2 soon after, in part because of the absences of its three French Olympians?
“We’re focussed more on the present,” said coach Blaise MacDonald. “We’re a team of today. How are we playing today? We’re playing pretty darned good…. This is a present team; it’s not a past team.”
Goaltender Cam McCormick, who posted mind-boggling statistics for much of the season, has faltered of late and been supplanted by Jimi St. John. (More on that below.) St. John is no stranger to playoff pressure, though. He helped engineer Lowell’s upset at UNH last year that got the River Hawks to the FleetCenter once again.
The defense, which displayed an appalling propensity for key turnovers during the losing streak now seems to be back playing at a high level, based on recent wins over Merrimack and Northeastern.
“They are the spine and backbone of our team,” said MacDonald. “This is the time of the year that defense wins championships. We feed off our defense in a great way.”
The key will be the offense, which has struggled to score. But if the River Hawks can play like they did on Wednesday against Northeastern, they could make some serious noise.
Boston College cost itself a shot at an at-large NCAA berth when it lost six straight games during an injury-plagued January. The Eagles plummeted out of the Top 15 then and haven’t quite made it back, but would, of course, make the NCAAs by winning the Hockey East tournament.
Words that coach Jerry York uttered after a loss in the Beanpot opener late in that losing streak have proven prophetic.
“I told the players, I think we have a championship team in this locker room,” he said. “When we get healthy and back to a full hockey squad, these players will be a lot better because of what we’ve gone through. We’re going to be a dangerous team down the stretch.
After Ben Eaves, in particular, returned to the lineup and the Eagles took off, York commented on his playoff outlook.
“We want to get back to the national tournament and the only avenue we’re going to have is to win the [Hockey East] playoffs,” he said. “But you can’t just wait until March and say, ‘Let’s play well now.’
“There has to be a crescendo. You’ve got to build to it. This is still a pretty young hockey team that’s getting better.”
Youth is the Achilles heel of this team. It could get rattled if things go poorly in the early going.
That said, Eaves leads an offense that is better than its 3.18 goals per game. The bigger question is an inexperienced blue line.
Backing it up are goaltenders Matti Kaltiainen and Tim Kelleher, who have had some inconsistencies, but are now playing as well as they have all season.
It wouldn’t be a shock at all to see BC in the Hockey East title game, playing for not only the crown, but the chance to play in the NCAAs.
Northeastern looked to be close to the UNH-BU-Maine grouping when it went off on an 8-1-1 streak. Since then, however, the Huskies have lost four straight and five of their last six to lose the home ice advantage that had appeared to be within their grasp.
On the plus side, those losses have come against formidable opponents: BU, UNH, BC (twice) and Lowell.
When asked if he was concerned about the loss of momentum heading into the playoffs, Northeastern coach Bruce Crowder expressed annoyance with the question.
“Not really,” he said. “That’s what you guys [in the media] talk about to bring negative factors into it. We’re going ahead. We know what we have to do as a team.
“Wherever you’re at, it’s not going to be easy. This is Hockey East. It’s not like there’s a huge gap between the fourth and fifth place teams. We’ll be ready when it comes time.”
As was the case with BC, youth could be Northeastern’s downfall. Although their boatload of key freshmen have played very well, they’ll have to prove themselves anew in the playoffs.
Jim Fahey anchors a very young defense in front of emerging rookie goaltender Keni Gibson. Mike Ryan leads an underrated offense.
Despite the recent results, don’t count out the Huskies.
A Big Surprise
What to think of the enigmatic Providence Friars? Personally, it’s hard to see them winning it all. As soon as it appears that they are going to start living up to the promise that made them the preseason top pick in Hockey East, they stumble.
The temptation earlier in the season was for Professor Hendrickson to give them an F in Chemistry and consider that the sole answer. But that’s too easy. The whole does seem to be less than the sum of its parts, but if that is indeed a problem it isn’t the only one.
The defense just isn’t what it needs to be. Clearly, Jay Leach and Matt Libby were not only the glue that held the Friars together last year. They were also the core of the blueline talent. This group has been allowing way too many shots for the Friars to be a serious playoff contender.
Goaltender Nolan Schaefer has also let in soft goals at critical junctures. On multiple occasions, the words outside the PC locker room have been, “That goal was a killer. We had to get the air pump on the bench after that.”
Schaefer has gone on to make some big saves, but sometimes with a fragile team it’s tough to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. The returning All-American will have to live up to that reputation and the team defense will have to dramatically cut down on the shots if Providence is to have any serious postseason chance.
Do You Believe In Miracles?
Merrimack could conceivably pull an upset in the quarterfinals if it avoids a matchup with UNH. A Hockey East title, however, would evoke comparisons to the 1980 USA Olympic team.
Don’t tell that to interim coach Mike Doneghey, however.
“I don’t think there are any upsets in this league,” he said recently. “The team that was picked to win it [Providence] is in sixth. The defending national champion [Boston College] is in seventh.”
(BC has since moved up to sixth.)
Doneghey has a point, especially when considering how well the Warriors played in recent wins over Maine and Boston College, two teams no one dismisses come playoff time.
Goaltender Joe Exter seems to have risen to the occasion and the Anthony Aquino, Marco Rosa and Ryan Cordeiro line should be a force. The question will be the other forwards and a young defense that has had its ups and downs.
Over And Out
UMass-Amherst was eliminated from playoff consideration on Tuesday when the Minutemen lost to UNH, 6-0. Combined with two previous losses at Maine, UMass was outscored by the two league titans by a collective score of 20-1 in three games.
“It was like men playing with boys out there,” said coach Don “Toot” Cahoon after one of the losses at Alfond Arena. “They have a lot of experience and talent and we lack that combination….
“We were thoroughly beaten on the scoreboard. There’s a difference in our teams, for sure. It wasn’t a result of our guys not coming to play; we competed from the drop of the puck right through to the end. But we made some critical mistakes and didn’t sustain offense.”
Regardless of how the Minutemen play in their season finale on Sunday against Merrimack, it’s wait-till-next-year time.
Don’t count on UMass staying in the cellar perennially, however. The key will be how Cahoon’s recruiting and development of the many freshmen continues.
If two teams finish with the same number of points in the standings, the following tiebreakers will be used, in this order, to determine seeding:
1. Head-to-head results between the tied teams.
2. Number of wins in conference play.
3. Best record against the first-place team(s), then the second-place team(s), then the third-place team(s) and so on.
4. Coin flip.
If more than two teams finish in a tie, the same criteria will be applied to reduce the number of teams tied. Then the process will commence again.
Relevant head-to-head results:
All One Team
When push comes to shove, we’re all really just one big team. The latest example of this will come on Saturday night when the Friends of UNH Hockey will donate a portion of the 50/50 raffle to the Chris Serino Fight for Cancer Fund.
This is a classy move by a classy organization.
Get Well, Coach!
Kieron P. Faherty wrote a recent USCHO Letter to the Editor regarding this column’s focus on UMass-Lowell’s three Olympians. Replies to such letters are invariably short, but readers of this column will acknowledge that brevity is not one of my strong suits. As a result, here is Kieron’s letter and my detailed (aka verbose) response.
In Dave Hendrickson’s February 21st column, he expounded at length on the Olympic experience of the Lowell Trio. But what about other Hockey East players in the tourney, and in particular Tomas Pock of UMass Amherst and Austria? Even CNBC (Cable for heavens’ sakes!) explained not only that he played at UMass Amherst but also how he wound up as a Minuteman. Also, how about a mention for Mattias Trattnig (formerly of Maine and also of Austria) or even the BU or BC big names in the tourney?
The fact that Hockey East had so many players and former players in the Olympic tourney speaks volumes about the quality of players the league is continuing to attract. Perhaps all that River Hawk involvement has clouded his judgement? I expected far better from a normally excellent HE column.
Of course, I agree with Kieron’s “normally excellent HE column” assessment.
As for any favoritism, here is my explanation.
Thanks for the kind words about the column in general. Let me address your concerns about this specific issue.
The fact that I’ve emphasized UMass-Lowell’s three Olympians as opposed to all others has nothing to do with any favoritism.
To begin with, I’ve rarely, if ever, covered the exploits of former Hockey East players after they’ve turned pro. My focus, as well as almost all of USCHO with few exceptions, is on current collegians. As a result, there were really only four relevant Olympians: UMass-Amherst’s Thomas Pock and Lowell’s Yorick Treille, Laurent Meunier and Baptiste Amar.
The reason why the three River Hawks were emphasized over Pock is simply that their loss had an incomparably bigger impact. Look at the numbers. Three players all on one team versus one. Two of the top three returning scorers from last season who had totaled 58 points plus the top recruit versus a 12-point scorer. Treille, Meunier and Amar would have missed eight games each if not for their one-hour-of-sleep flight back compared to four games for Pock. Therefore, a total of 20 player-games missed versus four.
Before the River Hawks lost their Olympians, their record stood at 16-5-1 and they were a weekend removed from being the number three ranked team in the nation. Without them, Lowell was 1-3-2 or 1-5-2 if you also include the weekend that they rushed back for, but were running on fumes. Of course, the Minutemen would have liked to have Pock, but his absence did not have the significant impact of Lowell’s Olympians.
Finally, the story of the River Hawks flying back on one hour of sleep and getting to the rink little more than an hour before game time had a drama that was missing since Pock would have been rushing back only for a UMass exhibition game that weekend.
The decision was entirely based on impact, not bias.
The Front Of The Jersey
Coaches often talk about the need to play for the name on the front of the jersey instead of the one on the back. This year, three goaltenders have done exactly that, sacrificing team shutout records by giving way late in a game to a teammate who needs the work.
The latest example came last weekend when interim Maine coach Tim Whitehead pulled Mike Morrison for Matt Yeats with a 4-0 lead, despite Morrison being one shutout away from tying Alfie Michaud’s career mark of six.
“Hockey is a team sport,” said Whitehead. “Mike would be the first to congratulate Matt on a good job in there. Matt has been playing well and we need to get him time. We need to get them both going for the stretch run.”
A similar case occurred during the holiday tournaments when UMass-Amherst senior goaltender Mike Johnson was replaced by freshman Tim Warner just 8:01 short of setting a school shutout mark. The Minutemen were comfortably ahead of Niagara and coach Don “Toot” Cahoon felt Warner needed the work.
“To be honest with you,” said Cahoon, “I would certainly take that as a secondary consideration, and Mike knows he’s going to get the lion’s share of ice. [But] it’s important that I give a good young goalie an opportunity to play some minutes. There was no intent there.”
Unfortunately for Johnson, he hasn’t been able to add a shutout since then and now has only one game left to do it.
A third netminder, UMass-Lowell’s Cam McCormick, has set team records for shutouts in a season (six) and a career (eight). However, he would have added another one to those totals had he not been pulled for Jimi St. John against Army earlier this year after seeing only four shots through two periods.
While the payoff for Morrison and Johnson’s sacrifices have yet to be seen, the River Hawks are now benefiting from McCormick’s lost shutout. St. John had a little less rust on him when McCormick began to falter recently after an unbelievable first half. St. John has won Lowell’s last two games, posting a shutout over Merrimack and allowing only one goal against Northeastern.
Tag Team Goalies, Part II
Some teams have ridden just one goalie for the most part this year. Some have used a tandem. This column recently wrote about UNH’s tag team approach of late, necessitated by injuries.
UMass-Lowell has now joined in on the tag team approach with Jimi St. John supplanting Cam McCormick, who had been discussed as a potential Hobey Baker candidate prior to a recent slump. St. John has allowed a total of just one goal in Lowell’s last two games, both wins.
“I had my time at the beginning of the year,” said St. John, “then Cam stepped up and he went on, but then went into a little slump there or whatever. Now it’s my turn again. Hopefully, I can keep going with it now.”
The approach seems to be working.
“It’s like when you’ve got to bring [Drew] Bledsoe in to beat Pittsburgh, you bring him in,” said coach Blaise MacDonald. “Jimi’s been able to provide that for us.
“But in athletics, you get what you deserve. If you come and work hard and work smart every single day, when your time comes, you’re ready. He’s a good example of people who make their own breaks. When they get the opportunities, they make the most of it. He’s certainly done that.”
His recent success has been all the more rewarding for St. John because of the perseverance he had to display.
“It feels great after sitting a month and then playing a game or two and then sitting another month,” he said. “It just feels great. I had a lot of time to work on things. It feels really good to come back and get these big wins at a special time for this team.”
With the playoffs on the immediate horizon, he provides Lowell with a playoff-tested veteran who had considerable success last year.
“This is the time of the year that we need guys to step up,” he said. “Drawing on that experience from last year, there’s nothing that can get as big as going to the FleetCenter.
“Playing three playoff games at the Whitt last year, that was against one of the best goalies in the country — [Ty Conklin] — at that time. This is drawing back on memories and coming back and hopefully doing it again this year.”
Quotes Of The Week
A prominent Hockey East defenseman to a linesman: “If you got your fat [butt] off the boards, I could clear the puck.”
BC coach Jerry York on Ben Eaves: “There are only a few like him in the country.”
UMass-Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald on Mark Concannon scoring twice in Wednesday’s pivotal win over Northeastern after scoring only three all season: “To use a golf term, he’s been three-putting a lot. He hasn’t been able to find the back of the net…. [The two-goal night] was well-earned.”
Lowell’s Yorick Treille on how far France is from an appearance in the Olympic gold medal game: “Probably 3012.”
Upon Further Review
Several weeks back, one player got a bit carried away describing his team’s togetherness. (The following quotes are paraphrased.)
“We have the best chemistry I’ve ever seen on a team,” he said. “You never see a guy alone. We walk around together. We eat together. We sleep together.”
Ummmm…. sleep together?
“Well, I mean, a lot of us are roommates,” he said. “You know, I just meant…. Actually, let me rephrase that….”
Where was the extra two-minute penalty for instigating back when I was growing up and one of my three brothers was always causing trouble? I, of course, was an angel….
New Point of Emphasis
If this writer were made Dictator of the Universe, a new rules point of emphasis would be made to combat the frequent knocking of a net off its moorings. If you’ve seen even a single game, you’ve seen that as soon as an offensive opportunity beckons, either the goaltender knocks the net ajar or a defenseman suddenly looks like a beginner on double-runners, windmilling his arms as he plows into the cage to create a stoppage.
Yet I can’t recall the last time I saw a delay of game penalty assessed for even the most blatantly deliberate of such measures.
My solution? If the two-minute penalty isn’t going to be called, let’s electrify the post with a moderately high voltage to provide some disincentive for this abuse.
A more constructive solution is expected to be examined by the NCAA Rules Committee. It will be looking at a proposal to allow goals even after the net has been knocked off its moorings.
Two thumbs up for that.
First off, some old business from last week’s column. It said that loyal reader Gary Fay proudly confessed to being the player to take down Wayne Turner resulting in the unsuccessful penalty shot in question and that current BU assistant coach Brian Durocher was the goalie.
One eagle-eyed reader who chose to stay anonymous, however, pointed out that since the penalty shot in question was in 1979 and Fay graduated in 1977 and Durocher in 1978, those two “facts” were impossible.
I wrote Fay, asking if perhaps he’d hauled down so many guys in his time that he’d gotten a guilty conscience that had him pleading guilty even when innocent. Instead, the explanation is that Fay was remembering a takedown of BC’s Richie Smith in ’75 that resulted in a successful penalty shot.
As for last week’s question, it asked what school records or unique achievements Northeastern freshman goaltender Keni Gibson had set this year. There are a couple marks that Gibson is on pace to set, namely save percentage (.908 compared to Marc Robitaille’s .904 in 1997-98) and goals against average (2.59 compared to Mike Gilhooly’s 3.14 two years ago). However, those aren’t records yet. By season’s end, those old marks could still be intact if Gibson falters.
The two confirmed unique achievements are the most wins for a rookie goaltender, 14, surpassing Bruce Racine’s 11 in 1985-86, and recording the school’s first ever shutout of Boston University in 175 games dating back to 1930.
(Mike Salvo also offers up Gibson making the most consecutive starts by a freshman, but that category isn’t listed in the Northeastern record book. NU Hockey Sports Information Director Ben Miller assumes that Gibson now holds the mark, but there isn’t a definitive answer.)
First to respond with the two known records was Todd Cioffi, whose cheer is:
“Go BU, a bye’s in our sights…. Go UML! Beat PC! Go NU! Beat the ‘Mack! Let’s send BC to the Alfond!”
This week’s question asks which team entered the postseason with the longest losing streak, but still advanced to the Hockey East semifinals? Give the team, the year and the losing streak. Email me with as many of the answers as you can muster.
Thanks to John Gould, Jeff Mannix, Sean Caruthers and Jayson Moy.