Ranking the Dufflebags
The truism is that no team ever goes far without strong goaltending. Not in youth hockey. Not in high school. And certainly not in Hockey East.
The parity in college hockey today has reduced the margin of error to such miniscule proportions that almost no team can survive a sieve in its own nets. As a result, let’s gauge the returning number one netminders in the league. (We’ll look at the newcomers in a future column.)
The league is coming off one of those rare years when it had no All-American, let alone one that would be returning. ECAC goaltenders Matt Underhill (Cornell) and Yan Denis (Brown) swept the awards last year, one of only four seasons in which that happened. (The others were 1989-90, 1995-96 and 1996-97.)
The reality is that none of this year’s class of returning Hockey East goaltenders is a sure thing to be up for national honors in the way that, for example, Ty Conklin was once he established himself as a sophomore.
The Head of the Class
Michael Ayers (New Hampshire) is the closest thing the league has to a mortal lock for postseason honors. He set a Hockey East record for save percentage in league games (.938) last year. After a rocky baptism in his first game, he went all the way to the Frozen Four without once giving up more than four goals, and only allowing that many on three occasions. He compiled a 14-1-1 record during that stretch.
Of course, for UNH fans of a Red-Soxian bent, the operative phrase above is, “all the way to the Frozen Four” since Ayers did surrender seven goals in a haunting loss to Maine and looked bad in the process. Between that and the credit that also must go to the Wildcat team defense for Ayers’ great numbers, the junior isn’t yet a shoo-in for honors.
Keni Gibson (Northeastern) ranks behind only Ayers based on his performances last year through early February. After overcoming early season back problems that limited him to only a single contest through the middle of November, Gibson was magical through early February, after which Northeastern coaches felt he hit the wall because of playing almost every single game.
Gibson’s lone question marks center around his less than stellar play over those last five weeks of the season.
The Middle of the Pack:
One can make a case for almost all the remaining number one goalies, one of two of which will likely separate themselves from the rest of the pack.
Nolan Schaefer (Providence) comes with the most impressive pedigree of the lot, given that he earned All-America honors two years ago as a sophomore. Last season, however, was a sub-par one with too many soft goals. Even his award-winning season had some questions attached to it.
Here’s what this observer wrote in the Providence 2001-2002 season preview before his struggles:
However, questions still linger, at least in this writer’s mind. Halfway through last season, he might have been the league MVP, but his dominating play faltered down the stretch and became rather ordinary. In his first 12 games, he allowed only 20 goals and posted a stunning .943 save percentage. In only three of those 12 games did he allow three or more goals.
Schaefer’s last 13 games offer a sharp contrast. He surrendered three or more goals all but once for a total of 43. His save percentage was only .888. While the second half schedule — most notably four games against Boston College to none in the first half — can account for some of the difference, the impression remains that Schaefer was simply not as sharp.
Those questions still remain. There’s been sustained excellence in the past. Can Schaefer do it all season long?
Sean Fields (Boston University) could also be the one to make the leap forward. He’s been solid for the Terriers since entering the league as a young freshman, but has not yet elevated his game to the next level. The physical tools appear to be there so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him earn All-Hockey East honors before his collegiate career ends.
Joe Exter (Merrimack) may have stats that fall below those of his middle-of-the-pack brethren, but the senior hasn’t had the same level of support around him. Last season, he saw at least 30 shots in all but four of the 27 full games in which he played (including nine contests with 40 or more, culminating in a 67-shot playoff OT thriller with UNH), yet he still maintained an .899 save percentage.
Matti Kaltiainen and Tim Kelleher (Boston College) split the time in the Eagle crease last year and could do so again this year unless one of the two get hot. Kaltiainen has the bigger upside of the two, considering that he’s two years younger and may be more comfortable this season having adjusted to the different language, culture and food — not to mention rink size –from his native Finland.
Kelleher had several notable performances last year, but his low moments included three games in which he surrendered seven goals. His detractors could argue that his struggles should put him below the middle of the pack. Look back, however, to his freshman year. By January, it looked as though he’d supplant Scott Clemmensen as BC’s number one goaltender. Although the exact opposite happened, Kelleher still finished with a 2.02 GAA and a save percentage of .919. The physical talent is there; this writer feels he just needs to get back to the level of confidence he exuded when he first entered the league. The question is, will he?
The Jury Is Still Out
Tim Warner (Massachusetts) is the only returning backup goaltender who has an opening to move into at least a tandem this year. In 10 games last season, however, he posted a 5.16 GAA and a save percentage of .856. Those aren’t promising numbers. Nonetheless, he was considered a talented recruit coming out of prep school and wouldn’t be the first goalie to struggle as a freshman before making his mark in the league.
Last year, they were picked to finish first in Hockey East — a fact they no doubt are very, very sick of hearing about — but started poorly and finished even worse. The Providence Friars lost their first four games to teams from the traditional four conferences and ended the season without a win after Feb. 2.
It’ll be months before they get a chance to rectify the latter of those ills, but the former has been taken care of quite nicely, thank you. Providence now stands at 5-0-0 and will be a heavy favorite to make that 7-0-0 by weekend’s end.
While three of the five wins have come against teams (MSU-Mankato and Iona) that are collectively 0-7-2, the other two were over Union (2-1-2) and, most impressively, Massachusetts-Lowell (3-3-0, but with four of its games against nationally ranked teams).
“The goaltending has been good,” says coach Paul Pooley. “I think our work ethic has been very good. And we’ve had balance up until the other night when Peter [Fregoe’s] line obviously had a big hand in that victory [over Lowell]. We’ve had four lines going and we’ve had contributions from a lot of different people.”
The big line of Fregoe (8-7–15), Jon DiSalvatore (5-10–15) and Devin Rask (2-6–8) has been one of the most dangerous ones in the league, as expected. Fregoe and DiSalvatore are tied for second in the country in scoring. The trio accounted for five of the six goals in the 6-5 overtime win over Lowell.
However, in just the five games Peter Zingoni has added six goals, Chris Chaput has five assists and both Cody Loughlean and Torry Gajda have buried some important tallies as well.
As a whole, the Friars are averaging 6.40 goals per game, tops in Hockey East.
“We’ve had a lot of energy from different guys,” says Pooley. “Obviously, Johnny and Peter and Devin have done what they’ve needed to do and everyone else has added to the mix.”
The goaltending by Nolan Schaefer (2.61 GAA, .925 Sv%) and freshman Bobby Goepfert (1.50 GAA, .945 Sv%) has helped place the Friars third in league defensive statistics (2.20 goals against per game). While freshmen goaltenders usually aren’t expected to excel right out of the gate, Goepfert’s success comes as no surprise to Pooley, considering the netminder’s success last year in the USHL where he was named league Player of the Year.
“He’s played a lot of hockey the last couple years and seen a lot of shots,” says Pooley. “He’s an individual who feels very comfortable in the net no matter whether he’s getting 15 shots or 40 shots. He plays at a high level and as more than a freshman. I kind of anticipated this.”
Pooley isn’t looking ahead to next weekend, when a potential sweep of Northeastern would make PC 9-0, or the Tuesday after that when his squad faces its first nationally ranked opponent, Boston College. When asked what key point in the season might indicate how high his team can climb, he answers without hesitation.
“Friday night at UMass,” he says. “It’s our first road game. We’re not looking at the last five games; we’re worrying about Friday.
“We need to be better. We’ve indicated to the guys about four areas that we need to work on to get better. We’re working on our D-zone coverage, faceoffs, specialty teams and our forecheck. Those are the areas we need to continually improve on.”
An Ethical Dilemma
When Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves faced Boston College last weekend and only had to deal with one of this two sons, he averted a no-win ethical question. Patrick Eaves not only played, but scored two goals, including a goalscorer’s special, one that would have warmed the cockles of Dad’s heart had it not been a shot to his team’s solar plexus. Ben Eaves, however, was sidelined with a rib injury.
Had Ben Eaves tried to play through the pain, however, the following ethical dilemma would have presented itself to the elder Eaves. Assuming that he knew about the injury, would he tell his team to be particularly physical with his own son?
A rabid Badger fan might question his all-out commitment to winning if Eaves chose to protect his son’s health at his team’s expense. Alternatively, many would label him a heartless you-know-what if he told his players to target Ben and make sure they hit him hard at every opportunity. (One can imagine Mrs. Eaves telling the coach, “You can just sleep on the couch, Mr. Winning Isn’t The Big Thing, It’s The Only Thing. And you can stay there until my boy is back in the lineup…”)
Mike Eaves gave reporters the old razzle dazzle, avoiding that hot potato as smoothly as his sons elude defenders.
“I never tell my players to hurt someone,” he said. “I don’t believe in that. But I do tell them to play hard.”
When informed that he had danced around the question, Eaves grinned and said, “I know.”
Still a Wild Card
One of the wild cards coming into the season remains exactly that. Maine, which in the preseason was pegged for fourth place in Hockey East but which has also ranged anywhere from fifth to tenth in the USCHO.com poll, now stands at 3-1-1.
While the statistics this early in the season must be taken with many grains of salt, the Black Bears’ offense and defense rankings are about the opposite of expectations. Their offense, 4.00 goals per game, puts them squarely in the middle of Hockey East at fifth place while their defense, 2.00 goals allowed per game, is tied for first with New Hampshire.
Maine’s goaltending had been expected to be the major question mark since there was no collegiate experience at all. Frank Doyle, a sophomore, had practiced with the team last year, but had played no games because of Mike Morrison and Matt Yeats’ presence. Jimmy Howard was a highly regarded recruit out of the U.S. National Team, but still would just be an 18-year old freshman. The defense also had holes to fill following key departures.
As a result, a statistic of allowing only two goals per game is encouraging no matter how few games it’s based on. Howard’s numbers (1.42 GAA, .934 Sv%) are the better of the two, but Doyle’s (2.88 GAA, .891) aren’t exactly chopped liver either.
“It’s a little early to say, but we are pleased with how our defense and goalies are progressing,” says coach Tim Whitehead. “We’re trying to do our best to limit the quality scoring chances for the opponent. So far, we’ve been reasonably successful with that. We just have to keep working week-to-week.
“We can expect some highs and lows there; we’re just trying to be as consistent as we can. We’re pleased, though.”
The offense, though ranked in the middle of the pack, has scored at least four goals in all but one game, a blanking delivered by Colorado College, the one nationally ranked team the Black Bears have faced. Predictably, Colin Shields leads the goalscoring, including four already on the power play, and Martin Kariya leads the playmaking. As much as there are no surprises there, there’s also the expected depth up front with six other forwards already notching their first goals.
“We’re getting contributions from a lot of different people,” says Whitehead. “That’s going to be the best way for us to be successful, but we feel that we have a pretty balanced attack. The offense is good, [but] we’ve really been focussing on our team defense.”
Northeastern and Wisconsin combined for one of the most exaggerated role reversals in recent memory. On Friday night, Northeastern battled tooth and nail with top-ranked New Hampshire and emerged with a well-deserved 2-2 tie. Meanwhile, Wisconsin faced Boston College and found itself down, 4-0, before the game was eight minutes old. While the final score read, 4-2, the Badgers were never in it and it remained a 4-1 contest until the closing minutes.
One night later, however, with the Huskies hosting Wisconsin, the tables were turned. This time, the Badgers led, 4-0, before the game was 16 minutes old. Having been shut out on the power play by BC, they went 3-for-3 against Northeastern.
For the second straight night, but in differing ways, the PA system could have been playing “Turn out the lights, the party’s over,” by the second period.
“We didn’t come out and play,” said NU coach Bruce Crowder. “Part of that was us and part of it was Wisconsin. They lost [the night before]. They were a little hungrier. We were feeling pretty good about ourselves. Everybody was patting us on the back about what happened [against UNH]. I think a lot of guys figured we’d just have to throw our skates on and we’d be talking about happy things after the game.
“You’ve got to come to play every night in college hockey because [if you don’t] you’re going to get spanked and we definitely got spanked tonight.”
Last week’s question recognized Providence’s 11-0 whitewashing of Iona and asked what year the Friars last matched that score and who was the opponent. The answer was Maine on Feb. 6, 1982. We had a very quick winner, but unfortunately that person never submitted a cheer. As a result, the runner-up, Todd Cioffi — who had won the previous week — offers the following substitute cheer :
“Ancient proverb: May your favorite team do as well as Dave Hendrickson’s picks for the first two weeks.”
Check’s in the mail, Todd.
This week’s question revolves around Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves coaching against BC, a team on which his sons, Ben and Patrick, play. Name the one other (to my knowledge) D-I coach who similarly faced a team on which his son played.
Email Dave Hendrickson’s trivia account with your responses. The winner will be notified by Monday; if you haven’t heard by then you either had the wrong answer or someone else beat you to it.
Calling All Illiterates…
Hey, I’m a writer so I naturally love books. As a result, in this brief section I’ll include a notable passage or two from a favorite book and I’ll recognize the first reader who correctly determines its origin.
This week’s two passages should make the answer an easy one:
“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are.”
“Have you ever heard of a plan when so many things could go wrong?”
Email Dave Hendrickson with the name of the novel and the author. The winner gets recognized and can mention the title of a favorite book of his or her own. The true reward, though, was in the reading to begin with.