This Week in Hockey East: Dec. 5, 2002

Scott Weighart is filling in for Dave Hendrickson.

Marquee Matchup

The big matchup of the weekend features the No. 3 Maine Black Bears playing a pair in Chestnut Hill against the No. 4 Boston College Eagles.

Maine’s last weekend in Boston resulted in the Black Bears clobbering Northeastern and Boston University by a combined score of 15-5. No one expects history to repeat to that extent, but it should be a good litmus test for both teams at this early stage of the season.

Many hockey fans have been wondering how the Black Bears might contend with what is arguably the best line in college hockey: Ben Eaves, Patrick Eaves, and Tony Voce. However, the biggest news is that Maine will not, in fact, face that line at all.

“We’ve shaken up our lineup for this weekend,” BC coach Jerry York revealed. “Tony Voce is going to play with [Ryan] Shannon and David Spina. And then we’re going to have Chris Collins — the freshman who’s played very well this year — play with Ben and Patrick.”

On the heels of losing two out of three after a blistering 8-0-1 start, York figures that the move may elevate the play of the other lines.

“We’ve got a lot of good players scattered through the lineup,” York said. “Certainly we’re very proud of the accomplishments of Ben, Pat, and Tony, but we need a lot of people to step up if we’re going to compete for a championship … Maybe we’ll reshuffle our lines again, but we’re trying to get a more diversified attack. I think this will help us too.”

Even without shuffling any lines, no one had to convince Maine coach Tim Whitehead that the Boston College team has considerable talent beyond their top three forwards — even if some observers might have overlooked that fact.

“We know they’ve got a lot of depth on that team, and that’s certainly one of the concerns when you’re playing them — being able to match their talent base,” Whitehead said. “We feel we’re a pretty good team, too. But I think you’re exactly right — a lot of times people underestimate the supporting cast there, and we certainly don’t. They’ve got a lot of weapons in the arsenal.”

By the same token, York makes it clear that the two teams form a Mutual Admiration Society. “I’ve had a chance to watch Maine one night over at BU, and I was very impressed with them,” York said. “I’ve watched them on tape. They lost kind of the heart and soul of last year’s team with [Peter] Metcalf on defense and then a terrific forward in Niko [Dimitrakos]. But watching them play in person and on tape, they haven’t missed a beat here.

“The two goaltenders have stepped right in and solidified that position,” added York. “With [Mike] Morrison and [Matt] Yeats both leaving, that had to be a concern, but they’ve been very strong in goal. They attack well. They’ve filled the gaps in, and they’re playing very, very well. They’ve withstood a lot of obstacles.”

Both coaches anticipate highly competitive hockey, and they figure that the victor will be the team that is superior in hockey fundamentals. “I think it’s going to be a low-scoring game,” Whitehead said.

“I know both teams have produced offensively, but I think both teams are pretty good defensively more than anything … Special teams will be very important; whichever team outworks the other will be huge. The usual things: whichever team plays its own game better than the other should win.”

“Certainly we have to stay out of the penalty box,” said York. “They have a dynamic power-play group: Shields one-times it as well as anyone in the league; we’ve got to be concerned with that. The other point man, Nault, is equally dangerous.

“The best way of defending it is to not take any easy penalties, any unnecessary penalties, and stay as much as you can, five-on-five. They skate very well, so it’s going to be a quick, fast game, and I think we have to be prepared for that.”

So it should be an exciting weekend: just don’t expect to be able to get any last-minute tickets.

“I hear that they’re sold out for both games, so the atmosphere should be great,” Whitehead said.

Guess Who Else Is Hot?

Maine is the hottest team in Hockey East, riding a six-game winning streak and a nine-game unbeaten streak. Quick, though — can you guess which squad has won three in a row as well as six of its last seven and seven of its last nine?

UNH? Almost. The Wildcats have an identical record over the last seven or nine games, but they have only won two in a row. Northeastern has put together a three-game winning streak of its own, but that was on the heels of a three-game losing streak.

If you guessed UMass-Amherst without consulting a schedule or standings page, go the head of the class.

Just days after Dartmouth upset then-No. 1 BC last week, the Minutemen pounded the Big Green by the startling margin of 7-2. For good measure, they beat coach Don “Toot” Cahoon’s former team, Princeton, 5-3 the next day.

All of this is a far cry from last season, when the Minutemen struggled to score, failed to win a single game after January 26, and left Cahoon almost beside himself with frustration at their undisciplined play.

“I think we’re certainly moving in the right direction,” Cahoon said. “Discipline’s a huge factor in the success of any college hockey team, and we seem to be a little more clear on what’s acceptable-type play and what’s unacceptable, so I’m happy on that front.”

But 12 goals in two days? Eighteen goals in their last three games? This year’s recruits are showing that it’s possible to lure some scoring punch to Amherst. Freshmen Stephen Werner is leading the team with seven goals and eight assists for 15 points in 13 games, while fellow frosh Matt Anderson is tied for second with senior Tim Turner with 13 points in 13 games.

Freshman Gabe Winer has given the Minutemen good quality between the pipes, and his defense has made things easier by bringing down the totals of opposing shots this season.

It appears that the recruiting message from Cahoon and his staff is resonating with some talented players.

“Here there’s an opportunity for kids to be a pioneer: We’re not looking for historians,” Cahoon said. “We’re not looking for kids that are coming here trying to look into the legacy of the program; we’re looking for guys who want to tread on new territory, trying to create something of their own — something they can link their name to.

“When Jeff Halpern [now of the Washington Capitals] and Syl Apps chose to go to Princeton over several other schools, it was because they wanted to be a difference-maker at that institution,” Cahoon said. “They wanted to lay the groundwork for Princeton hockey to be recognized as very competitive and successful hockey, and they did just that.”

Altogether, it’s a far cry from the days when the Minutemen would face 50-plus shots in a game during their fledgling days in Division I. And with only Turner and stay-at-home defenseman Kelly Sickavish residing as the only seniors among the Minutemen, the future could be downright revolutionary.

Now the Minutemen draw a home-and-home with BU just after the Terriers took a two-game whooping at the hands of Cornell in Ithaca last weekend. Does Cahoon anticipate a BU team that’s vulnerable or one that will come out looking for blood?

“You’ve seen instances where teams respond very favorably to that type of weekend, and they come out with great enthusiasm and play with tremendous focus,” Cahoon said. “On the other hand, they could be fragile: If things don’t go their way, the bubble could burst again. So who’s to say?

“I can’t be worried too much about BU,” added Cahoon. “We have to be prepared ourselves. BU’s a great hockey program: We’re expecting that they’re going to come here and play real hard, and we’re going to have to measure up to that.”

When I told Cahoon that I looked forward to seeing him on Saturday at Walter [nl]Brown Arena, he laughed and said, “Let’s hope I’m happy to see you!”

Just one odd footnote for UMass-Amherst: As you can see in the sidebar, Minuteman forward Greg Mauldin was named Hockey East Player of the Week. However, USCHO named Werner the Offensive Player of the Week for all of Division I.

So although Mauldin pulled off a trick by scoring three goals against Dartmouth on Saturday, Werner (three goals and five assists in three games) pulled off an even tougher trick: It’s not easy to be named the top player in the country without being picked as the top gun in your conference for a week.

The Whys and Wherefores of Scheduling MAAC Teams

Although many Hockey East teams are squaring off against MAAC teams with greater regularity this season, there appear to be major differences from one program to the next. On one extreme, Maine plays four MAAC opponents this season, while BU and BC don’t play any. Everyone else plays one or two — except Lowell, which does play Niagara (where River Hawk head man Blaise MacDonald most recently coached) out of College Hockey America.

Why do Hockey East teams vary so dramatically in playing the emerging MAAC? It turns out that there are plenty of valid reasons.

“It certainly helps college hockey if the traditional four conferences are scheduling the other two,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead says. “That’s the only way those conferences are going to continue to emerge.

“Quinnipiac and Mercyhurst have been the most visible because they’ve been able to get to the NCAA tournament, but over the next few years you’re going to see other teams in that conference popping up and opening some eyes.”

There are also geographical considerations. “Sometimes for us, it’s difficult to get teams from the traditional conferences that want to come up to the Alfond to play,” Whitehead said. “So that’s another reason why we’ve turned to the MAAC for the last couple of years. But I think that’s going to continue — more and more Hockey East schools are scheduling them to a point.”

Why only “to a point”? As York indicated, some schools just don’t have many scheduling slots that are yearning to be filled.

“We’re limited a little bit by the number of games we play,” York said. “We’ve got ten games outside our conference, and with two Beanpot [games] and with two Christmas tournament [games], we’ve actually only got six games that we can schedule.

“Historically, we play some of the WCHA teams and some of the ECAC teams,” added York. “Boy, it’s awfully hard to play a MAAC school or a College Hockey America school when there’s a limited number of games and there’s great rivalries like Dartmouth or Yale or Vermont from the ECAC.”

Then York remembered a couple of other nonconference foes that the Eagles like to play every year. “We always play Harvard and Notre Dame,” he said, laughing. “We’ve only got four! I don’t see us changing in the near future, there’s just so many teams that we have a background with.”

I wondered if the PairWise Rankings factored into these scheduling decisions, but both coaches pointed out that schedules are made years in advance. It’s highly speculative to try to project which teams might emerge two or three years down the road. In fact, as Whitehead pointed, the late Shawn Walsh actually scheduled the vast majority of this year’s Black Bear games.

“Each year when Shawn scheduled these games … it’s hard to predict who’s going to be there in two years, you know?” Whitehead said. “I added a couple of games last year to the schedule — sometimes you guess right, and sometimes you don’t.

“We’ve added Harvard in Portland, and we feel that’s going to be a great game. It’s tough to predict; we’ve got to wait and see. But the overriding factor is Division 1 hockey is going to be stronger in the long run if those two conferences continue to emerge.”

York is sympathetic to that sentiment. He just doesn’t feel that he’s in a position to disrupt current rivalries anytime soon. “We’d like to do it, but in deference to the longstanding relationships we’ve had with those other schools, it’s just going to be hard for us,” York said.

“We like to play those teams out west like North Dakota and Wisconsin because I think that prepares you for the end of the season. Right around is Brown, Dartmouth, Harvard, Yale… I think for the next three or four seasons we’re locked in.”

Like Whitehead, though, York is skeptical about being able to schedule effectively with the PairWise in mind: “I’m not quite sure how that’s all going to come out,” York said. “It really hasn’t been a factor because these other factors are more pressing for us. [But] I would like to play them.”

Curiously, Cahoon espouses the arguments of both coaches: He wants to play true rivals in nonconference play, but the most natural one for the Minutemen happens to be a MAAC team: UConn.

“That game will stay in effect for years to come,” Cahoon said. “I think people in this area and in Connecticut look forward to UMass and Connecticut playing tiddlywinks against each other, so the hockey game has always been attractive.”

Hockey East and the World Juniors

In case you didn’t notice, the World Junior Championship team was named this week. The WCHA led the way with seven players named to the team, while Hockey East had the second-most with six. BC forwards Patrick Eaves and Ryan Shannon were tabbed, while Maine also had two players selected: goalie Jim Howard and forward Greg Moore.

The other half of the goaltending tandem for the US team also is culled from Hockey East, as Providence netminder Bob Goepfert will share the duties with Howard. BU’s defenseman Ryan Whitney rounds off the Hockey East selections.

With three more players coming from the CCHA, one coming from the ECAC, and yet another — Ryan Suter — coming from the US National Team but committing to Wisconsin for next year, the WJC team has a distinctly collegiate flavor this time around. Only four players on the roster are currently playing in the Canadian juniors.

This year’s tournament runs from December 26 till January 5 in Nova Scotia. Depending on how well the USA does, the relatively short travel time may make it easier for players to return in time for games during the first weekend of January.

However, they would much prefer to miss the games if it’s because they’re playing for a gold medal — probably a tough feat to pull off this year when Canada will have a good team and great crowds for the games.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see Maine face Cornell in Florida for the Everblades College Classic without Howard and Moore.

Trivia Contest

No one managed to come up with the answer for last week’s attempt to prove that hockey literature is not an oxymoron. I asked readers to come up with the author and title associated with four excerpts from a tale of a hockey team on the outskirts of Houston. Here are those excerpts one more time:

The games were sometimes violent, and always fast. We could never get the hang of the rules, and for us the best part was before the game, when the players crawled around on their knees with their marking crayons, laboring to draw the colorful, crooked lines, already suited up, and wearing the pads that would protect them.

They skated with their bellies in, those nights, bumped into their opponents without apologies and knocked them to the ice (or were knocked to the ice themselves), and charged around the ice with short savage chopping steps of their skate blades, as if trying in their anger to mince or hash the rink into a slush. Some of them would breathe through gritted teeth and shout, making low animal sounds.

The Juggernauts had a player we all called Larry Loop. He wasn’t their captain or anything — they were a band, not a team — and Larry Loop was large and chesty, and he raced down the ice in those crunching little high-knee steps whether they were playing against ax murderers or a seminarian’s school…. He was big, and the oldest man on the ice, grey-headed, tufts of it sticking out from behind his savage, painted goalie’s mask — though he was not a goalie — and more often than not when he bumped into people, they went over.

When he scored, he went wild. He would throw his stick down onto the ice and race off in the opposite direction, in that funny little stamping run, and throw his masked face back, up at the low ceiling, and beat on his chest with his heavy gloved hands, and shout, “I am in LOVE! I am in LOVE!”

It was funny, and it was frightening, too, to Kirby and me, like a visit to New York City for the first time, and we liked to believe that all the wildness and uncertainty and even danger in the world was contained there on that tiny skating rink, set so far out in the prairie, in the spring, heavy overhead blowers spinning, inside, to prevent the ice from melting.

The story in question is “Juggernaut” by Rick Bass, a contemporary short story and non-fiction writer whose work has appeared numerous times in the Best American Short Stories series published each year by Houghton-Mifflin. “Juggernaut” is from a short-story collection called The Watch, but hockey fans also might enjoy his non-fiction works about winters in the tiny northwestern town of Yaak.

This week’s trivia question is a multiple-part challenge, all revolving around Hockey East goaltending.

1. What do former president John F. Kennedy and former Minuteman goalie Brian Regan have in common? HINT: A current player on one of the MAAC teams located in Connecticut shares the same thing in common.

2. Name SEVEN former Hockey East goaltenders who have played in the NHL at some time over the last three seasons.

3. Describe one situation in which a Hockey East team suited up a goalie from its school’s intramural team, specifying why it was necessary to do so.

That should keep you busy! If no one can get all three, the winner will be the one who gets the most right. E-mail Scott Weighart with your replies. If you haven’t heard the answer by Tuesday, you didn’t win.

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

  • My favorite CD of the year would have to be Bring It Back by McAlmont & Butler. I’ll resist the urge to compose another haiku here. David McAlmont is a black soul singer in the tradition of Smokey Robinson, while Bernard Butler backs him up with guitar grooves and occasionally grungy alternative-guitar licks. For me, it’s 21st century Motown. Unfortunately, it’s not coming to a record store near many of you anytime soon-except as an expensive British import. However, I noticed, that CDNow had the CD at about $11 if you’re interested.
  • The Invisible Band by Travis features many songs that are simultaneously simple yet subtle, easy to listen to but with words that offer a lot to think about. Heavy on acoustic guitars and tuneful melodies.
  • For those of you who are parents of young kids, I highly recommend NO! by They Might Be Giants. As one reviewer noted, this is theoretically a children’s album, but mainly it was a good excuse for They Might Be Giants to be even wackier than usual. With songs like “I Am Not Your Broom,” “Where Do They Make Balloons?” and “Fibber Island,” this one is fun for the grownups and the kids — though be forewarned that some of the songs are so catchy that you may lie awake at night, staring at the ceiling, unable to get a tune out of your head.
  • If you would like to listen my alternative rock radio show, the directions for hearing it over the Internet are in the sidebar above.

    On this week’s show, I will try to overcome the notion that the harmonica is a highly uncool instrument that has no place in alternative rock. Every track will feature harmonica, including Everything But The Girl, The Smiths, Electronic, and Frazier Chorus to name a few. For all of you Maine fans, I’ll be debuting a song by Sunshine Black — an unsigned band out of Portland with an incredibly wild dance song with very cool samples and an amazing harmonica sound. Tune in!

  • It’s been fun filling in for Dave Hendrickson for a few weeks, but USCHO.com GM Jayson Moy is ready to reactivate Dave from the 15-Day Disabled List. Dave has neither confirmed nor denied rumors that he strained his writing arm getting in shape for Thanksgiving.

    To make room on the USCHO roster, I will be demoted to our Triple-A affiliate in Pawtucket, unless I get dealt to ESPN.com for a columnist to be named later. It’s been fun to fill in for Dave, and it reminds me that we should all appreciate the effort he puts in week-in, week-out to give you another reason to Thank God It’s Friday.

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