Back In The Saddle
It wasn’t that long ago that Boston University stood at 7-6-2 with five losses in its last seven games. Maine had pummeled the Terriers, 7-3, and Cornell had given them both barrels of its shotgun, 4-1 and 5-1. Even in one of the two wins the Terriers had been badly outplayed.
Since falling to that nadir, however, the Terriers have gone on a six-game tear to vault back into the Hockey East race. Included in that stretch are wins over eighth-ranked Michigan and No. 15 Massachusetts. This past weekend, they swept Northeastern in very convincing fashion, 4-0 and 7-2.
“It was one of our better games all year,” said BU coach Jack Parker after the 4-0 win. “We played real smart. We had good footspeed; we were chasing people down on the forecheck, but we weren’t staying there. We were backing each other up and making sure we didn’t get stuck in [deep]. I don’t think they had a three-on-two or a two-on-one break all night, which is real smart defense.”
One night later, it got even better as the Terriers controlled play for virtually all 60 minutes.
“It was a dominating performance by us as far as territory and speed,” said Parker. “I was real impressed in the way that we came out to start the game and then finished it. Sometimes when you get up by a couple of goals you start hanging around, trying to pick off a pass and not playing defense first, but I thought we were pretty thorough throughout the game. It was a great effort by a lot of guys out there.
“We were better than we were last night about controlling center ice. We stopped them in center ice and we made some great passes and really looked pretty sharp going through center ice. That’s why we got so many advantages on the rush and on the forecheck because we were really blowing through center ice.”
Suddenly, the team that may have been questioning itself in early December is walking around with the strut characteristic of a top team.
“We are on a roll right now and feeling pretty good about ourselves,” said Parker. “We’ve turned a few things around. We’ve finally figured out who we are and what type of team we should be. We’re also staying out of the penalty box…. [Stupid penalties] had killed us early in the year, being very undisciplined that way.
“And everybody seems happy in their roles on the team. Guys aren’t whining about not enough ice time; guys are happy to be playing as well as they are.”
Congrats to Massachusetts
For the first time in the school’s history, UMass has broken into the national rankings. Congratulations to the coaches, team and fans of this surprising team which should make the achievement a commonplace happening in future years as all those freshmen and sophomores improve even further.
One Week Later
Last week’s column was supposed to include a major segment on Merrimack’s surprising success, culminating in a four-game winning streak and a Rensselaer/HSBC Holiday Hockey Tournament championship. Goaltender Joe Exter had just been named Hockey East KOHO Player of the Month and ITECH Goaltender of the Month with a performance so dominating that no runners-up for the netminder award were even named. For December, he allowed only three goals in four games, giving him a 0.74 GAA and a .974 save percentage.
What was even better, the team was playing so well around him that Merrimack was not just a one-man show with a goaltender pulling out wins for an inferior team. The wins were team wins, a product of great chemistry and heart on a very young team.
However, the New Year’s holiday resulted in crossed connections, so the major segment didn’t happen. It would have to wait a week.
It was a long week. New Hampshire trounced the Warriors, 8-3, outshooting them 52-20, including 19-3 and 20-7 in the first two periods. Arguably, if not for Exter the UNH tally would have reached double digits. Then came a crushing 6-5 loss to Lowell on Tuesday in which Merrimack threw away leads of 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2. The River Hawks had a lot to do with that, but it was still a disheartening way to drop two potentially huge points. In the crucial second period when Lowell rallied to tie the game, it held a huge territorial advantage and outshot Merrimack, 15-4.
“We can’t continue to get beat down low like we got beat down low,” said MC coach Chris Serino after the game. “[Against Lowell] and against UNH, our in-zone defense was horrible. If you don’t win any of the little battles, you can’t win the game. We didn’t win any of them. They beat us on the wall and they beat us down low.
“In their end I thought we did a pretty good job with the puck, but we turned it over so many times and gave them so much [in-]zone time. It was probably three-to-one. We can’t have that.
“It’s a nightmare when you’re not playing defense because you know it’s going to fall apart at any time and we didn’t play any. How many times can you let guys walk to the net down low and expect that a save will be made or the puck won’t go in? It was only a matter of time.
“When you let them have that much time in your own end and you make that many mistakes in your own end… guys getting beat one-on-one, that’s going to happen, but when the support guy’s not there, you wonder what the hell is going on down there. That’s discouraging.
“Some teams are going to outmuscle us. We’re pretty young back [on defense]. But the fact of the matter is that on offense you have to support the puck and on defense you have to support the puck. We’re going to have to work on supporting the puck better defensively. We just didn’t do it.
“[Our defensemen were] playing defense with their sticks instead of their feet. Guys were lunging and swinging at people. You play defense with your feet. We’ve got good enough skaters back there that they should be able to do that.”
Assistant captain Marco Rosa shared his coach’s frustration.
“We’re [ticked] off,” he said following the loss to Lowell. “When we get up three goals like that and just let down — even the third period when we were still in it, 5-5 — it comes down to grit and heart and we just didn’t have it. There’s no excuse for that when we’re getting outworked in the corner and stuff like that. We just can’t have that, especially in the third period when we need these points for the playoffs. Getting outworked like that is inexcusable. Right now, we’re just beside ourselves. All of us. We’re just going to have to regroup and learn from this and do something with it against Amherst [on Friday].
“We’re not going to put up five goals a game. We pride ourselves on our defense. When you get up goals like that, you should be doing your best to protect the lead. We just didn’t. We just didn’t use our head. We didn’t have any grit or any heart out there in the third period and that’s when we needed it the most.”
“Maybe for a team like UNH or BC, they’re used to that, getting four goals and keep pouring it on. But we’re a team that gets one or two goals and then protects that lead and tries to play off it. The games against Northeastern, where we won, 1-0, and Providence, 2-1, we sat on that lead for two periods and played unbelievable defense.
“We got away from what won four games in a row for us and that’s playing defense. When you’re a team like us, you’re not going to win by putting up six goals. We don’t have the skill that UNH and BC has. We’re a team that has a lot of heart and that’s what we want to play with.”
The problems that manifested themselves against UNH and Lowell weren’t new. They’d been there to some degree even during the winning streak.
“I’ve seen them before,” said Serino. “A week before the Northeastern game, I said, ‘If we continue to play defense the way we’re playing defense, we’re not going to win. As soon as you get guys who can really finish, they’re going to beat you.’
“UNH did it to us. That game was 8-3, but it could have been 12. Lowell did it to us, [too]. Point blank shots. People in front of [Exter]. It’s been coming.
“You can tell them and work on it and work on it, but when they’re winning they think, ‘Yeah!’ and it goes in one ear and out the other. Hopefully, it’ll stay inside this time.
“When you win, you think you can do more that you can do. We won because we kept the game simple. Now we’re trying to do a little more than we can do so we turn it over too much.
“We’ve got to get back to being simple because that’s what we are. Good, bad or indifferent, that’s what we are.”
Off the Schneid
Massachusetts-Lowell finally got its first Hockey East win, rallying from a brutal defensive start to defeat Serino’s Warriors, 6-5. For some coaches, a win in such an unevenly played game wouldn’t be considered as pleasing as a more solid 2-1 or 3-2 victory. Not so for UML coach Blaise MacDonald, however, even though he conceded that the contest “was not exactly a van Gogh.”
“I want us to be involved in this type of game because it’s an opportunity for us to scratch and claw,” he said. “It’s a real event that took place that we can feel good about as opposed to visualize, ‘Well, it only this had happened.’
“Well, it did happen. We won. We overcame some tough times over the course of the game. It wasn’t a pretty third period, but you know what? We hung in there and got it done. So I want to be involved in a game like that. I really think it’s going to be a builder for us.
“I still believe with all my heart that if we get on a good roll we can keep her going. Solid goaltending is the key. Solid team defense is a key. Those are areas that we’re going to get better at.
“I’ve never questioned the heart of this team or the commitment or work ethic. It’s just been difficult for us to get a win in Hockey East. We’ve been using the analogy of a pump with the team. When you’ve got a well in your backyard and you’re priming the pump and you keep pumping and pumping and pumping and you’re never really sure of how high the water is so you have to keep on pumping and stick with it. If you stop pumping, you’re going to lose the water. But if you keep pumping, sooner or later, it’s going to start flowing.
“You need to have faith that it’s a good well and good water. We’ve got a good team and good individual players. Hopefully, we’ll be able to keep this flowing this weekend.”
The River Hawks certainly convinced Serino.
“That team is going to win a lot of games if it gets just a little goaltending,” he said. “Offensively, they’re as good as any team we’ve played at keeping the puck in the zone and putting pressure on you.”
Eaves … Dropping
When it was announced that Ben Eaves would join his brother Patrick on the sidelines for three-to-four weeks due to a severe groin injury, Boston College fans saw the month of January, not to mention potentially the Beanpot, flash before their eyes. Ben Eaves is a truly special player — one of the best in the country — when he’s in the lineup, but he missed 15 games last year with rib problems and had already missed three games early this season.
The latest word, however, is that his condition has dramatically improved and he could potentially play this weekend. That would be terrific news for the reeling Eagles, who have posted a 1-4-2 record since late November. (Exactly what was in their Thanksgiving Day turkey?)
Patrick Eaves, who suffered a fractured neck on Dec. 7 against Maine, will get his brace off at the beginning of February and will be evaluated at that time. His return remains anyone’s guess.
On a more positive note, Ryan Shannon, who trails only Ben Eaves in BC scoring, will definitely return this weekend after being sidelined since Dec. 11.
So Much For The Box Score … And The Penalty Shot
BU freshman Brad Zancanaro may not have shown up in the box score in Saturday night’s win, but he impressed more than a few people with his strong play. Most importantly, one of those people was his coach.
Said Parker, “I went in and asked Zank, ‘How many goals did you get tonight?’ and he said, ‘None.’ I said, ‘You were absolutely terrific. We do not measure on the scoresheet. We measure on how hard you played and you played absolutely great!'”
The following night, Parker showed once again that statistics aren’t everything while also displaying consummate sportsmanship. Zancanaro was hauled down on a breakaway, giving BU the option of a penalty shot or simply going on a power play. As part of the play, however, a fracas broke out in which NU goaltender Keni Gibson was thrown out of the game. With the Terriers already holding a safe 6-2 lead, Parker opted not to force substitute goaltender Tim Heneroty to face a penalty shot for his first action.
“Zank may not be too happy about me taking the penalty shot away from him, but I didn’t think it would be right to put [Heneroty] in that position,” said Parker.
On The Downhill Slide?
This writer hates to kick a team when it’s down, but it’s hard to be optimistic about Northeastern’s chances at this point. The Huskies were a first-period no-show in their own barn against cross-town rival BU last Saturday. At least some improved play in the latter two periods gave NU coach Bruce Crowder something to hang his hat on.
“We didn’t play worth a darn in the first period,” he said after the 4-0 loss. “We only had five shots. If it wasn’t for Keni Gibson it could have been four or five to zip. We didn’t deserve anything in the first period. [But] I thought we got stronger as the game got along.”
One night later, however, there was no such solace. At Walter Brown Arena, the Terriers turned Northeastern every which way but loose, territorially dominating to the tune of a 42-15 shot advantage.
“We got beat by a better team tonight,” said Crowder. “You obviously don’t want to go through six periods of hockey and only score two goals and give up what we did. We’re into the second half of the season and we haven’t improved ourselves a lot, but on the other hand we’re young. We had 13 freshmen and sophomores in the lineup tonight. That inexperience shows up when the going gets tough.
“We have to get better, but the biggest thing is that I’m happy with our players. We have to play better, but I’m very positive with our kids and we’re going to get better in February than we are right now. We have to have some patience.”
Some Husky fans may have trouble on that front. On the weekend, both Merrimack and Lowell played more freshmen than Northeastern did. While it’s true that both of those teams have significantly more than NU’s two seniors to provide leadership and maturity — a key factor, without a doubt — UMass’ makeup is quite similar to the Huskies’ and the Minutemen have been the surprise of the league.
To have two no-show first periods against a top rival and the second game a complete butt-whupping bodes poorly for the rest of the season. Perhaps BU has become so dominating that last weekend can be dismissed as simply a mismatch against a great team. If so, the two weekends which follow this one will be the crucial test as the Huskies play home-and-home series against Lowell and UMass.
On the other hand, Northeastern may simply be in trouble. It has lost six straight league games to fall to 1-8-1 in Hockey East and its team defense is struggling mightily.
With Lowell lurking just a point behind in the standings with a game in hand and the Huskies heading to Orono for two games that appear as evenly matched as Christians vs. Lions at the Roman Coliseum, the Hockey East cellar seems only a matter of time.
Gibson, who has played in all but two games, could be on the bench for the opener at Maine. He incurred a well-deserved five-minute major for slashing near the end of Sunday’s game and with only 3:44 remaining headed for the locker room.
A displeased Crowder said, “This is college hockey. You play hard between the whistles, not after them.” When asked to verify that Gibson had not been assessed a game disqualification, which would have brought with it an automatic one-game suspension, Crowder answered that his goaltender had not, but “he may have a DQ [from me].”
Hey, it’s been an up-and-down season for many teams so far this year and perhaps the Huskies will rebound. Fans on Huntington Avenue have to hope that last weekend was not the best their team has to offer.
From The Doghouse To The Front Of The Net
After a slow start, BU’s Kenny Magowan has caught fire lately with seven points in his last five games. When asked what the difference has been, Parker was almost painfully blunt.
“We benched him,” he said. “The final convincer is always ice time. If we don’t think you’re playing well [and you respond], ‘Well, I don’t agree with you,’ then [we say], ‘Okay, you’re not playing tonight,’ and all of us sudden they play a little harder. That’s always the [solution].
“There’s no sense in yelling at guys anymore. You just have to tell them, ‘Our rule of thumb is real simple. Those who play well will be rewarded with further play.’ It works pretty well. You want to stay in the lineup? Play hard and play well.”
Magowan got the message.
“Since I sat out those four games, I’ve been trying to make a point of setting up in front,” he said. “I’m not a 50-goal scorer. I realize what I can do and what I can’t do.”
Quotes of Note
Last column’s trivia question asked what Hockey East team other than Boston College currently has three players on its roster with family connections to BC. The answer was UNH. Michael Hutchins’ older brother Tony played from 1996-2000; Mark Kolanos’ older brother Krys (1999-2001) scored the Eagles’ “Now we can die in peace” goal before turning pro; and Brian Yandle’s father Bud was a letterwinner in 1973-74.
The quickest on the draw to answer was David Stockdale, better known to message board fans as Bow2DaCowz. He makes it three straight weeks for UNH cheers:
“Go Cats, beat…everyone; 1/15/03: Unleash the monkey!”
This week’s question asks which Hockey East team has the lowest maximum number of shots allowed in a game this season. In other words, determine the highest number of shots allowed in a game for the nine schools and then see what team has the lowest number. Email my trivia account with the team and number of shots allowed. The winner will be notified by Tuesday; if you haven’t heard by then you either had the wrong answer or someone else beat you to it.
Calling All Illiterates
Last week’s passage was from an award-winning science fiction novel that opens as follows:
“I’ve watched through his eyes. I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.”
“That’s what you said about the brother.”
“The brother tested out impossible. For other reasons. Nothing to do with his ability.”
“Same with the sister. And there are doubts about him. He’s too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else’s will.”
“Not if the other person is his enemy.”
“So what do we do? Surround him with enemies all the time?”
“If we have to.”
“I thought you said that you liked this kid.”
“If the buggers get him, they’ll make me look like his favorite uncle.”
“All right. We’re saving the world, after all. Take him.”
The passage comes from Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, a wonderful book that many readers commented was their “favorite book of all time.” Even if you rarely read science fiction, this is a book you should give an hour to and if you’re not hooked by then, I’ll be surprised. Ender’s Game and its equally impressive sequel, Speaker for the Dead, won unprecedented back-to-back Hugo and Nebula Best Novel Awards in 1986 and 1987. Although each book stands on its own, there are four books in the series and another three related novels. Check ’em out.
One word of warning, though. In some of the newer editions, there is an introduction. Don’t read it until you finish the book since it includes some give-aways. (Yours truly refuses to read even blurbs on back covers. Why let some marketing person rob you of the discoveries as the writer intended it?)
Justin Spencer was the first of a torrent of respondents to answer correctly. He recommends Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey.
A week ago, Mike Cullen was the quickest to answer, but was unable to send me his favorite in time for the column because of the holidays. He recommends Hockey Goaltending by Brian Daccord.
This week’s passage is one of those sentences that I’d kill to have written:
It was the kiss by which all the others of his life would be judged and found wanting.
Email me with the author and title of the short story — not the book or movie, but the short story — and get your opportunity to state your own favorite next week. The winner will be notified by Tuesday; if you haven’t heard by then you either had the wrong answer or someone else beat you to it.