This Week In Hockey East: Dec. 26, 2002

First Semester Report Card

With the holiday tournaments about to commence, now is the perfect time to reflect back on the first three months of the season. Professor Hendrickson’s grading is based on performance in comparison to preseason expectations. Grade inflation may appear to be running rampant, but that’s only to be expected with a bright Hockey East class that has posted a 43-13-9 nonconference record (with only one team failing to be at least two games over .500) and has typically included three teams in the nation’s top six and five in the top 15.

A+ Massachusetts

Record: 10-6-0, 4-5-0 HEA
USCHO Prediction: 9th
HEA Coaches’ Prediction: 8th

The Minutemen have been hands down the star pupil of the class. This writer picked them for dead last and even commented that there would be a healthy gap between the eighth- and ninth-place teams compared to the rest of the league.

The thinking was that with only five seniors and juniors combined, UMass was at least a year and, more likely, two years away from making a big push in the standings. The program would get there sooner or later; the school and facilities offer too much to potential recruits to languish indefinitely near the bottom of the standings.

Once it got over the hump — and the question was not “if” but rather “when” — it could become a perennial Hockey East power. Not too many people, though, thought that the move would start this year.

Instead, the Minutemen stand at 10-6-0 overall and began to garner Top 15 votes after splitting with Boston University. A big part of their success has been freshman goaltender Gabe Winer (2.77 GAA, .877 Sv% ), but their offense has also been surprisingly strong of late. It has averaged 4.7 goals per game over the last six contests, five of them wins.

A+ Merrimack

Record: 5-6-3, 4-3-1 HEA
USCHO Prediction: 8th
HEA Coaches’ Prediction: 9th

The Warriors have been the other major positive surprise this year. They took five-of-six points from Providence and split with Boston University. Although their nonconference record is only 1-3-2, two of those losses came at Michigan and the other at Nebraska-Omaha, a notoriously tough barn to play in.

For a team unanimously picked by the coaches to finish in last place — with the dissent from yours truly a weak one — that’s a well-earned A+. It’s an even more extraordinary achievement in light of the number of freshmen typically in the lineup: six have played in every game while another four have played in a good number of them.

Admittedly, the offense has been sparse. In league games, the Warriors rank eighth (2.25 goals per game), but they’ve made up for that by having the fourth-best defense (2.50 goals against per game). Additionally, four of the top five scorers are freshmen and Bryan Schmidt looks like a horse on defense.

Perhaps you can just file the weak offensive statistics under the category “Just Win, Baby!” because Merrimack has become the prototypical “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” team.

The one star has been goaltender Joe Exter (2.85, .917), who has been as indispensable a player as there is in the league.

A Maine

Record: 13-1-2, 5-0-1 HEA
USCHO Prediction: 2nd
HEA Coaches’ Prediction: 4th

Forget the way the standings look. The Black Bears are currently in first place. While they may trail Boston College and New Hampshire by two points, they hold three games in hand. For all intents and purposes, that’s first place. They’re also ranked second in the country.

In short, Maine was expected to be very good, but is even better than that.

As anticipated, the Black Bears have a deep group of forwards paced by Martin Kariya’s playmaking and Colin Shields’ goalscoring. What wasn’t expected, though, was that the team defense would rank second in the country (1.56 goals against per game).

The blue line, led by Cliff Loya, has been solid and the goaltending has been often spectacular. Jimmy Howard (1.58, .942) has gotten the accolades, but Frank Doyle (1.54, .938) has impressed as well.

B+ Boston College

Record: 9-3-3, 6-2-1 HEA
USCHO Prediction: 3rd
HEA Coaches’ Prediction: 3rd

In the middle of November, the Eagles held the number one ranking by virtue of an 8-0-1 record. An “A” grade seemed imminent. In their last six games, however, they’ve gone 1-3-2 to finish the semester like a homesick freshman.

Which is not to say that it’s time for BC Superfans to line up on the Tobin bridge. Three of those six games came against Maine and New Hampshire so it’s not as if the Eagles were struggling against lightweights.

That said, BC took only one of the six available points in those games, all of which were at home. That’s not an encouraging sign. Neither is the extended absence of Patrick Eaves, who’ll be out for a while with a neck injury.

On a more positive note, the Eagles are back to leading the league in offense (4.13 goals per game) just like they so often did in their stretch of four-for-four Frozen Fours prior to last season.

B+ New Hampshire

Record: 10-3-2, 6-2-1 HEA
USCHO Prediction: 1st
HEA Coaches’ Prediction: 2nd

Entering the season, this writer considered UNH the number one team in the country. Until a surprising loss to St. Lawrence in early December, that evaluation appeared reasonably close. The Wildcats had only two losses, one in overtime at Maine and the other against BU in a game in which they outshot the Terriers, 44-25. The loss to the 4-11-2 Saints, however, might have gotten half-empty UNH fans worried even though their team dominated the shots, 50-19. Losing one such game at home to a good team might be a fluke, but dropping another to a struggling opponent is reason to reach for the antacid tablets.

A chief culprit has been the power play, which at 18.8 percent looks acceptable. Unfortunately, only three of the Wildcats’ 12 man-advantage goals have come against league opponents, leaving them last in Hockey East with an 8.1 percent conversion rate. Furthermore, half of the dozen overall power-play goals came in the season’s first two games. Since then, the power play has been uncharacteristically weak, especially considering the talent up front.

That should change in the second semester, though. UNH’s quarterback at the point, Garrett Stafford, becomes eligible again after sitting out the first half. Considering how much he means to the blue line, the Wildcats appear to be in very good shape for the second-half run.

B- Providence

Record: 9-6-1, 3-5-1 HEA
USCHO Prediction: 5th
HEA Coaches’ Prediction: 5th

When the season opened, the Friars lurked on the fringe, just outside of the predicted Big Four (UNH, Maine, BC and BU). When they got off to an unprecedented 7-0 start, it looked like they might join the perennial favorites on the national stage. That portion of their schedule was, however, rather soft and since that point Providence has recorded only a 2-6-1 mark. Making matters worse, five of the seven league games in that stretch came against teams the Friars were predicted to finish ahead of. Of their 12 games against the four perennial powerhouses, 10 remain.

The mega-line of Jon DiSalvatore, Peter Fregoe and Devin Rask may be dominating the Hockey East scoring race, but in league games the Friars rank dead last in team offense (2.22 goals per game). How can that be?

On the plus side, freshman goaltender Bobby Goepfert (1.85 GAA, .940 Sv%) has played great and will push incumbent Nolan Schaefer (3.34, .892) in the second half.

C+ Boston University

Record: 9-6-2, 5-4-0 HEA
USCHO Prediction: 4th
HEA Coaches’ Prediction: 1st

This writer commented at the start of the season that BU’s predicted first-place finish seemed inexplicable. This observation prompted some virulent emails from Commonwealth Avenue, but asked questions that have yet to be answered. Where was the scoring going to come from? Could Sean Fields join the elite of Hockey East goaltenders?

The answers? No Terrier has more than six goals and overall the team ranks seventh in the league in scoring (3.24 goals per game). Fields has dominated some games, most notably a win at UNH, but his 2.84 GAA and .899 save percentage aren’t the stuff of an all-star.

The penalty kill has been a significant problem: 75.7 percent overall (8th in Hockey East) and a dead last 78.2 percent in league games. Exacerbating this weakness has been the Terriers’ propensity for getting in the box, a league high 19.53 penalty minutes per game overall (22.89 in Hockey East contests). Brian McConnell, to name a leading offender, already has 50 penalty minutes including 20 minors. Players like Freddy Meyer and McConnell need to lead the Terriers in something other than penalty minutes.

C+ Northeastern

Record: 6-8-2, 1-6-1 HEA
USCHO Prediction: 6th
HEA Coaches’ Prediction: 6th

It took the Huskies seven games against teams from the traditional conferences before they picked up their first win. Since then, they’ve performed admirably in nonconference contests, but continued to take their lumps against Hockey East foes. Their 1-6-1 league record could easily become 1-10-1 since January opens with a home-and-home series with BU followed by a trip to Orono for two against the Black Bears.

In overall statistics, Northeastern has been uncomfortably consistent: eighth in team offense (2.94 goals per game), eighth in team defense (3.19 goals against per game), eighth on the power play (13.2 percent) and fifth on the penalty kill (80.3 percent).

Of these, defense is the biggest concern. In league games, their 4.25 goals against average is almost three-quarters of a goal per game behind seventh-ranked BU. The goaltenders have a collective 90 percent save percentage, a reasonable figure, but the Jimmy Fahey void on the blue line has yet to be filled. The young group of defensemen needs to progress further to avoid a lost year on Huntington Avenue.

C+ Massachusetts-Lowell

Record: 6-8-0, 0-7-0 HEA
USCHO Prediction: 7th
HEA Coaches’ Prediction: 7th

The River Hawks lost a boatload of talent from last year’s team that almost made the NCAA tournament, but still returned many significant players, led by Ed McGrane. Once again, McGrane has been one of the top players in the league, but the win-loss results have bordered on the schizophrenic: a 6-1-0 nonconference record and an 0-7-0 mark within Hockey East.

The big question mark heading into the season was goaltending following the graduation of Cam McCormick and Jimi St. John, and today it remains exactly that. Not long ago, the overall team save percentage had dipped to 84.2 percent; it only recently rebounded to 85.5. Making matters worse — much, much worse — is that number in league games: a staggering 80.7 percent. No team is going to succeed with goaltending like that.

This writer hesitates to scapegoat any player at this level — professionals are a different story — but the facts are that Lowell has yet to be outshot in a single Hockey East game yet has lost all of them. Unless there’s an improvement between the pipes, it’s going to be a very long season at the Tsongas.

A Big Thanks

Hats off to Scott Weighart, who filled in for me during the two weeks prior to the holiday break. He’s always done exceptional work ever since joining USCHO and continued that streak in my absence. For those who were hoping that I’d never return… sorry about that. You’re still stuck with me.

Trivia Contest

Last column’s trivia question, courtesy of Scott Weighart, was a multiple-part challenge, all revolving around Hockey East goaltending.

Part I: 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.

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

Part III: 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.

Here are the answers:

Part I: Both JFK and Brian Regan attended Canterbury School in New Milford, CT. So did Jack Deveney of Fairfield, which is what Scott referred to in the hint.

Part II: It looks like there were actually 10 former Hockey East goaltenders who played in the NHL in the last three seasons. Maine had three (Garth Snow, Mike Dunham, Alfie Michaud). Lowell had two (Dwayne Roloson, Scott Fankhouser). BU had two (Rick DiPietro, Michel Larocque). Providence, UNH and BC all had one apiece (Chris Terreri, Ty Conklin, Scott Clemmensen).

Part III: There were numerous possibilities for this, not all of which Scott could readily confirm, but they all made sense in terms of very good reasons for suiting up an intramural goalie:

Case 1: BC coach Jerry York suspended a good portion of the team for a game against Providence because the players in question attended an off-limits bar called Mary Ann’s.

Case 2. Injuries to UNH’s Mike Ayers and Matt Carney made the Wildcats tap an intramural goalie, Dan Carney.

Case 3. When BU had only two goalies a few years ago, coach Jack Parker had to suit up a third goalie. .

Case 4: Lowell suited up an intramural goalie last season for a weekend series with Maine given that St. John was out with an elbow injury and McCormick was playing hurt.

Case 5: One reader claimed that UNH suited up an intramural goalie when third-stringer Mike Filardo played in the Deaf Olympics.

Whew! The exam covering all these answers will count for half of your grade and will be held on New Year’s Day. Hangovers will not be sufficient reason for granting a makeup.

The reader who did the best job on all three parts was Ankur Patel, whose cheer is:

“Go UNH. Have a great second half!”

This week’s question asks what Hockey East’s collective record was last year in the Christmas and New Year’s tournaments? Also, which league teams won the tourneys. Email my trivia account with your answers.

Calling All Illiterates

Let’s resume the test of your literary skills by seeing who can identify the following passage which set the standard in the sixties for how to open a popular novel.

We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.

Email me with the author and title. (Hint: the book is one in a series of roughly 20 novels involving the same hero.)

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

Only a fool brings up politics or religion at holiday time, so here I go.

  • Glaciers move faster than the Catholic church did in replacing Cardinal Law. A person very close to me commented, “Thank God my grandparents weren’t alive to see this. It would have broken their hearts.” If you ask me, indictments should come next. How exactly did Law look at himself in the mirror every morning?
  • Is there a bigger moron in Washington than Trent Lott? The Republicans would have had a serious death wish if they’d let him stay in power. The incredible thing is that someone didn’t just slip something into his eggnog. He’d said the same dumb things before, but been too inconsequential then for anyone to notice.
  • I’d read Thomas L. Friedman’s shopping lists. Friedman, a New York Times columnist, is brilliant, as witnessed by his two Pulitzer Prizes: one for From Beirut to Jerusalem and the other for his recently released collection about the post-9/11 world: Longitudes and Attitudes.
  • That said, the Timesdecision to kill columns that disagreed with its policy on the Masters (it supports the National Organization of Women’s protests) goes against everything that columns should be about: expression of ideas. When a newspaper decrees that all expressed opinions must remain in lockstep with an official policy, it demeans itself and makes any trumpeting it might do about a free press ring hypocritical.
  • Hypocrite of the Year Award, however, goes not to the Times, but rather to Bryant Gumbel, who sucked up to National Council of Women’s Organizations President Martha Burk during an interview about the Masters controversy and came across as oh-so-sympathetic. Gumbel neglected to tell viewers that he himself is a member of a club which does not allow female members.
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