This Week in Hockey East: Oct. 17, 2002

Let The Chest-thumping Begin

Hockey East got off to a great start last weekend with a 7-1-2 record against nonconference opponents, outscoring the bad guys, 53-6, in the seven wins.

“Look at the top 15 in the country,” says Massachusetts-Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald. “There are five Hockey East teams and we might be 17th or 18th if you continued on in the rankings based on the points. That’s pretty darned good. Our league is going to be [so tough].

“Buckle your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. I don’t know who’s going to win it. It’s crazy. It depends on whoever can stay healthy, whoever can get on a roll and stay on it and whoever can get the right goaltending at the right time. Anything can happen.

“We could be kind of sneaky, too.”

Indeed. Perhaps the most impressive performance of the weekend was not how the acknowledged league powerhouses took care of business — mostly with a flourish — but rather how a young River Hawks squad projected for seventh place gained a split with then 10th-ranked Colorado College.

“That’s a set-up weekend,” says MacDonald. “It’s such a tough trip. The travel. The altitude. It was their homecoming. There was nothing good that could come out of that thing.

“But we kind of surprised ourselves a little bit.”

After losing the opener, 6-4, Lowell rebounded with a 4-1 win, paced by goaltender Chris Davidson’s 36 saves.

“We played a good road game the second night, just hung around there, played well without the puck and when we had our chances we buried them,” says MacDonald. “We’re pretty intelligent. Our freshmen have picked up the systems pretty well. We got better goaltending than I probably would have expected.

“And our special teams were better the second night. We changed our penalty-killing schemes. We got two power-play goals and held them [0-for-6] where they were 4-for-8 the first night.”

He then adds with a grin that can be heard over the telephone line, “So, of course, that was all coaching.”

Take Two?

Of course, one weekend does not a season make.

There will be three major nonconference matchups this week pitting powerhouses from the East against those from the West. Third-ranked New Hampshire hosts top-ranked Minnesota for a Friday-Saturday doubleheader. No. 2 in the country, Denver, visits No. 7 Boston College before moving on to Northeastern. And fifth-ranked Maine plays No. 11 Colorado College in Alaska-Anchorage’s Nye Frontier Classic.

If Hockey East again posts a record like last weekend, then league officials, coaches, players, fans and media members may be forgiven if they go from boastful to downright insufferable.

The Olympic Faceoff Rule

As most everyone knows by now, college hockey is borrowing a rule from the Olympics, giving players 15 seconds to get to the faceoff circle and then dropping the puck. Although this is a major hardship for some broadcasters who now have insufficient time to get their advertising spots in, it’s a boon for fans, who see no merits in deliberate attempts to slow down the pace of the game.

Connecticut goaltender Artie Imbriano found out, much to his chagrin, just how serious officials are about enforcing the rule. With a faceoff in the UConn defensive zone to Imbriano’s left, the netminder was left defenseless when no teammate was there to take the draw in time and the puck was dropped anyway. Northeastern’s Jason Guerriero collected the loose puck and skated untouched to the net and stuffed it home.

“I hope I can get one of those in the Hockey East finals,” said NU coach Bruce Crowder after the game. “Guerriero would like that. I think everybody in the building but Guerriero was shocked that [the linesman] dropped it without anybody being in there.”

Based on viewing just two games under the new rule, you may see some players this year skating faster to the faceoff dot than on the backcheck.

Phantom Assist Of The Year?

Perhaps I missed something on the faceoff goal just described, but I’m at a loss to understand how Mike Morris was awarded an assist on the play…

The Net Dislodged Rule

The new rule allowing a referee to award a goal despite the net being dislodged came into play at Merrimack on Saturday. Union’s third goal came a fraction of a second after MC goaltender Joe Exter knocked the net off its moorings while attempting a stacked pad save. Although many Warrior fans unaware of the rule vented their displeasure, there were no on-ice complaints since it was clearly the right call.

An Eligibility Question

When Lowell defenseman Baptiste Amar flew back from France to begin the semester, he never suspected that a potential problem awaited him. One of three UML Frenchmen to play in the Olympics last year, Amar looked forward to leading the River Hawk blueliners in his final year of eligibility.

Or so he thought.

Instead, a Hockey East coach has contended that last season, Amar’s first in collegiate hockey, was his only year of eligibility.

“He’s surprised by it,” says MacDonald. “We’re all surprised by it.”

In most cases involving European athletes such as Amar, a school will send the player’s transcript to the independent Center for Documentation, which determines what previous coursework is at a college level and is transferable and what is not. Then each school is empowered to determine his eligibility with the decision handed down by a committee chaired by the faculty representative.

When the challenge to Amar’s eligibility arose, Lowell requested a decision from the NCAA and even flew the defenseman to Colorado last weekend with the hope that one would be announced in time for the first game. When none was forthcoming, MacDonald was left with no choice but to sit Amar. If he played and was later ruled ineligible, all wins and ties with him in the lineup would be rendered forfeit losses.

Lowell is still waiting.

“There’s no news to report,” says an unusually tight-lipped MacDonald. “Anytime the NCAA is involved, there’s always concern.”

For the best comparison, a fan should think of being audited by the IRS. Even if you’re squeaky-clean honest, the pulse rate still quickens and the blood pressure rises. So it is for Lowell and Amar.

Even if vindicated, Amar has already lost two games and faces another two down the drain this weekend if word doesn’t come out quickly enough.

In this writer’s opinion, it’s hard to fathom why any challenge wasn’t made long before this date. Amar was in the league last year and the assumption that he had two years of eligibility was public knowledge. Why wait to bring the challenge until he’s flown over from France? Why wait until the kid has spent an offseason in preparation for one last year? Why wait until he’s closed the door to other opportunities?

People on both sides of the fence can debate eligibility questions, but the timing of this challenge seems hard to defend.

A Great Start

Admit it. You hadn’t heard of Nick Pomponio, right? To be honest, neither had I.

But Pomponio, a 5-10, 170-pound Merrimack forward, made a great first impression in his debut last Saturday against Union, scoring two goals. The 18-year-old also had a goal and an assist in a lopsided exhibition win over Queens.

“We had a guy from Toronto last week, Kevin Burkett, who coached [last year] in the league against him,” says Merrimack coach Chris Serino. “He said, ‘When you took that kid, I didn’t know why you took him. But boy, he’s a pretty good player. He’s a much better player than he was last year.’

“But I took him based on where he was going and not where he’s at. In our case, sometimes you have to take those chances. If he was that good last year, we probably wouldn’t have gotten him.”

The freshman wasn’t celebrating after the game, despite getting his first goal on the second official shift of his career and adding another one later.

“It does feel pretty good, but we didn’t win,” he said. The Warriors had to settle for a tie after a Union extra-skater goal in the final minute of regulation. “I wish we could have won. It’s a team game.”

He at least cracked a smile, though, when it was playfully noted that he is on pace for a 72-goal season.

“We’ll have to see about that,” he said.

Quip Of The Week

With Merrimack taking on sixth-ranked Michigan this weekend, Serino was asked how he would wipe out of his youngsters’ mind the difficulty of invading such a hostile territory.

“Fear,” he said.

You just knew that every writer in attendance was going to use that one.

(Serino elaborated, “Guess what? If they don’t play there, they get run right out of the building.”)

Hockey East And The MAAC

MAAC-bashers may have come out of the woodwork last weekend after Providence clobbered Iona, 11-0, and Northeastern delivered a similar fate to UConn, 10-1. “Why bother with the MAAC?” the bashers might say.

“You have to with the NCAA RPI,” says Crowder, making reference to the Ratings Percentage Index, one of the criteria used for selection to the national tournament. “You’ve got to find a way to distinguish your league versus the other leagues. If you don’t put them on the schedule, there’s no real way of doing that.

“And in all fairness, they’re a young league and you want to give them the opportunity to improve their league. That’s only going to be good for college hockey. And they’re going to get better.

“Just like us next week against Denver. They’re number one in the country so I’m going to learn a lot about my team, win or lose.”

Faked Right Out Of His…

You’ve heard of an athlete getting “faked right out of his jock,” but last Saturday’s Merrimack – Union contest took that to a new level. Suddenly an athletic cup appeared on the ice along the boards opposite from the benches.

Do we really want to know the answers to the following questions: How did it fall out? How long were the family jewels placed in jeopardy? And didn’t linesman Steve Arnold even think about using something to pick it up before grabbing it with his bare hands and bringing it to the Union bench?

No, we really don’t want the answers. There are some things humans are just not meant to know.

Liking It On This Side

Northeastern junior Brian Tudrick expressed the sentiments of every kid who has paid his dues with a redshirt year followed by some more games spent watching from the stands.

“It’s much easier on this side of the boards,” he said after scoring two goals last Friday. “Much, much easier. But it gives me motivation as well, because I know what it’s like to be [back in the stands] and I don’t want to be back there again.”

Trivia Contest

The first trivia question of the season concerns New Hampshire’s walloping of Vermont last weekend, 10-0. Over the past 10 years, the Wildcats have put the exact same hurting on two other teams. Name the teams and the season(s).

Email Dave Hendrickson with your wild guesses or actual informed answers. The winner gets to provide a one-sentence cheer in support of his or her favorite team.

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

  • It’s sad to see the Red Sox sitting at home, but at least the Yankees are, too.
  • Trade Nomar? Using the Seattle Mariners’ trades of Ken Griffey and Randy Johnson as examples of how to improve by trading your stars? Tell me, exactly how many World Series has Seattle gotten to, let alone won, using this strategy?
  • I’d welcome Mo Vaughn back in a Red Sox uniform as soon as I’d welcome Richard Nixon back as President. And, yes, that factors in that Nixon is dead.
  • I thought the European Ryder Cup team was the biggest bunch of whiners imaginable three years ago. But the thumping it put on the US team a couple weeks ago was stunning. My hat is off to the Euros.
  • Although when ‘Zinger holed out from the bunker to keep the American team in it, I wondered if perhaps a miracle was once again in the works.
  • I’m not sure who said it first, but one of the saddest truisms in sports is that Phil Mickelson is the Red Sox of golf.