This Week in Hockey East: Jan. 16, 2003

Ups and Downs

If you’re the Maine Black Bears, you don’t necessarily understand. Your two losses this season were separated by almost three months. If you’re the New Hampshire Wildcats, you may not get it either. Your four losses were always followed by wins.

For everyone else, however, it’s been an up and down season replete with winning and losing streaks. Boston College opened with an 8-0-1 record and the number-one ranking; the Eagles then went 2-5-2 prior to last weekend. Providence broke out to a 7-0-0 record, but has yet to win back-to-back since, going 4-8-1 including a 1-5-1 stretch.

And it hasn’t just been quick starts followed by a cooling off. Boston University has sandwiched four- and six-game winning streaks around a 2-5-0 downer.

What’s up? No player at this level loafs out on the ice. At worst, a player might think he’s giving it his all and is at only 98 percent. So why the dramatic ups and downs?

“It’s the balance in our league,” BC coach Jerry York says, citing the one common refrain heard from all respondents. “Maine has been the one team that has been rock-steady. The other teams have something to do with that. I thought even when we weren’t getting many points that we played pretty well during that stretch.”

Ben Eaves gives the players’ perspective: “There’s such a fine line between winning and losing. When you’re on a winning streak, the bounces go in for you and you feel good about yourself. But it can easily turn around like it did for us in that little stretch. When something doesn’t go right, you can’t get frustrated or down on yourself or each other.”

“In this league, as soon as you get comfortable you lose,” says Merrimack coach Chris Serino, whose team has lost three-of-four after a four-game winning streak in December. “I think that’s what happens to teams in this league. You win four or five in a row and you think [you’ve got it made.]

“That’s what happens to teams. You win four or five in a row and you go away from the things that got you the wins. Next thing you know, you’ve got a loss.

“There are no easy nights here. The last place team is UMass-Lowell. Tell me you can take the night off and beat them. We had them 4-2 and couldn’t beat them. They’re a real good hockey team.”

Of course, there’s a considerable payoff for weathering the night-in-and-night-out wars that goes beyond strength of schedule factor in the PairWise Rankings.

“I know the other coaches say it, the ones who have been in it,” Serino says, “but they’ve said that that’s what makes [Hockey East] teams good in the NCAA tournament. The fact that every night they’re in a battle here.”

Nonetheless, one may still wonder how performances can vary so greatly. Sure, the tough competition leaves teams without a night off and minimizes the win-loss difference to a paper-thin margin. Still, how can teams and individuals be running on all cylinders one evening and then falter the next?

Ultimately, one also has to recognize that even professional athletes have their hot-and-cold moments and they don’t have to deal with the competing issues that student-athletes face.

“You have to remember that these are kids,” Massachusetts-Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald says. “They may be having problems with relationships or in the classroom. If they’re freshmen, the might still be getting adjusted to school; perhaps they’ve been playing juniors the last couple years and it’s different to be back in the classroom.”

MacDonald relates that a coach in another sport paints a line in the team’s colors across the entrance to the locker room with the letters W-I-N embedded in it. W-I-N stands for “What’s Important Now.” When a player crosses the line into the locker room, it’s time to forget about the problematic girlfriend or term paper. Conversely, when a player leaves the locker room, it’s time to attend to other priorities without letting the athletic issues spill over and affect them, too.

“One of the keys at this stage in a lot of these young men’s lives is to strike balance with their passion and what things must be done,” MacDonald says. “That balance is academically, socially and athletically. Kids that have strayed from that and focused too much on one of those three items, it puts the other two out of balance and typically their performance is going to suffer. Even if they put all their energy towards hockey, in the back of their mind they know they’re neglecting other areas. At some point, it’s going to catch up with them.”

Cardiac Kids

In past years if Massachusetts fell behind it was pretty much lights out. Certainly there were exceptions, but for the most part UMass just didn’t have the skill, particularly in terms of offensive firepower, to rebound from early setbacks.

This season, however, that has changed along with seemingly everything else for the Minutemen. Not only are they sporting a 13-8-1 record (7-6-0 in Hockey East), but they’re rallying from behind with the best of them. In their four January contests, they’ve come back from deficits each night to put themselves in a position to win.

At Boston College, they overcame a 2-0 BC lead midway through the game to win late in the third period, 3-2. Providence held a 2-1 lead at a similar juncture, but UMass scored in the final minute of regulation to pull out the win. Last weekend, the Minutemen rallied from two-goal deficits against Merrimack both nights to put the game up for grabs in the third period. Although the Saturday night contest turned into a loss, UMass now has outscored its opponents 33-14 in the final frame.

Of course, glass-half-full types will focus on the comebacks while glass-half-empty types will focus their dark cloud on the team’s slow starts of late. They might even go so far as to wonder if the team has gotten a little too comfortable for its own good with its late-game heroics.

“I don’t think it’s anything going on subconsciously,” UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon says. “We’re not as thorough as we need to be and we give up goals. Maybe we’ve got a little team speed and when we get pushing and play with a little more urgency, we get on people. It seems that we have half a dozen kids who are productive, so when we play with a little more urgency and create chances, we’re scoring goals. So we need to play with a little more sense of urgency [from the beginning].”

Slow starts aside, UMass looks like a completely different team than the one that finished 8-24-2 last season with only a single win after New Year’s Day.

“Last year and the year before, we really got frustrated all the time and things got worse and worse,” junior Thomas Pock says. “This year, every time things aren’t going the way we want it, we just try to stick with what we said [we’d do] before. The third period is usually our best period.”

As a result, the losses, particularly those that happen late in the game, are tougher to take because the team’s expectations are so much higher.

“Definitely it hurts [to lose a game] way more than last year,” Pock says. “I always care about winning and losing, but toward the end last year the passion wasn’t there. You could see it in the guys’ eyes. That’s definitely changed. Last year, it might be like, ‘Oh, another one.’ There was not enough heart.

“That is something this team definitely has. It has the heart. We’re working to get better every day.”

Pock notes that there’s been an influx of talent into the program and the quick start to the season has helped fuel positive attitudes, but ultimately it’s Cahoon who has wrought the major turnaround.

“He’s the biggest reason why we’re winning,” Pock says. “He brings the right kids in and gets the team going. We’ve worked hard and he found the right system for us to play. And definitely the talent that he’s brought in has added up over the last two years and made us a better hockey team.

“Everybody on this team wants to play hockey. Everybody tries to give his best. I’m not saying that teams before didn’t, but this year we definitely have more skill, too. We still have a lot of areas to improve on, but we’re getting there.”

They certainly are. This is the quickest, most skillful UMass team since the program was resurrected in 1993. Its recent wins over BC and Providence catapulted the Minutemen to their first national ranking 10 days ago. While there’s always a danger that a team will be distracted by its own press clippings and positions in the polls, Cahoon sees no downside to date.

“I don’t think it’s so problematic now,” he says. “It’s clearly newfound territory for us, but at the same time there’s too much hockey to be played. We made that point very clear and I think the kids understood that this is a fragile ground and all it takes is a real bad weekend and you’re knocked so far out of there that you may not see it again.

“I’ll be more impressed if they put themselves in position to be considered for the national tournament or get themselves into the Hockey East championships. That’s something that you can start feeling heady about. These rankings mean virtually nothing at this point. It’s fun for the fans and fun for people around [nl]Amherst to talk about us, but other than that it isn’t worth a whole lot.”

Productive Blueliner

When Cahoon moved Pock back to defense, some might have scratched their head and wondered how well the long-time forward would fare. The old saying is that a player can always move up front (from defense to forward), but moves back just don’t work.

So much for that canard. The experiment now looks like a stroke of genius. Pock, who totaled 11 goals in his first two years as a forward, has already matched that this year, despite the move back to the blue line. This culminated in him earning Hockey East Player of the Week honors on Nov. 18 and Dec. 16 (the latter with Northeastern’s Mike Ryan) and Defensive Player of the Week on Jan. 6.

“I wasn’t planning to get a lot of points on defense,” Pock says. “When [Coach] told me to do it, I thought, ‘Yeah, we’ll give it a shot. If it helps out the team, it’s fine.’ I’d rather win on defense than play on offense and lose and play like last year.

“I like what’s happened.”

Pock is as quick to pass credit to his teammates as he is to hit them with an outlet pass.

“The biggest reason for [my scoring] is that the team is playing so well,” he says. “The forwards are working really well in the corners and in front of the net and it gives me the chance to sneak in.”

Cahoon describes what he saw in the Austrian that prompted the position change.

“He’s an instant breakout,” Cahoon says. “He loves to have the puck on his stick. For the most part, he makes real good decisions with the puck coming out of the zone. That’s been a big help to us because we’ve been struggling getting bogged down in our own end. Most teams struggle with that a little bit. Putting the puck on his stick and giving him decisions to make and open people [to find] is a pretty natural thing for him to handle.

“[As for] the defensive side of it, he was a center and like most teams we play three men down low, man-to-man coverage, so he wasn’t so bad on the defensive coverage part of it. Where he had to learn from scratch were playing situations, reading numbers and being able to play with a partner in tandem. Those types of things he had to learn. The idea was that we just needed help back there coming out of the zone.”

Cahoon likes what he’s seen, but is still looking to fine-tune Pock’s recent play.

“When he focuses on just breaking the puck out, he’s a lot more effective offensively than when he tries to slow it down and be too deliberate,” Cahoon says. “[On Saturday] we saw him maybe be more deliberate than he normally is. We need to get him back on track.”

Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad

When Providence fans looked at their schedules at the beginning of the season and saw the first two weeks in January, they probably winced. Three of the Friars’ games came against perennial powerhouses Maine, BU and UNH. That gauntlet looked even more intimidating when PC finished the first semester on a 1-5-1 slide.

As it’s turned out, though, the Friars lost to UMass in the “easy” game sandwiched in the middle of the three — at least it looked easy in the preseason — but won two out of the three “tough” contests, losing only to UNH.

They opened the sequence by emerging from a 29-day layoff to give Maine only its second loss of the season.

“We were fired up to play,” PC coach Paul Pooley says. “The practice the week before was huge because we did a lot of teaching. We spent an hour on the defensive zone, an hour on forecheck, an hour on PK. I think we were really prepared for that game. Our kids worked hard and were rewarded with a victory.”

A week later, they ended BU’s six-game winning streak with a two-goal third period comeback and an opportunistic overtime goal. Despite the losses to UMass and UNH, Pooley sees his squad heading in the right direction.

“We’re getting better as a hockey team,” he says. “We’re still not as consistent as we need to be. But I see us playing with a lot more energy and playing better defensively in our defensive zone five-on-five. I see us doing better things offensively with the puck down low, kind of redefining ourselves as a hockey club.

“We’ve done a lot of good things in the four games. Even though we lost twice, we’ve had two good wins. Even though BU outshot us by quite a bit, it was kind of like ‘on the road, bend but don’t break’ and our kids responded in the third with a tremendous effort and pulled the game out. That’s what we’re looking for.”

While Providence remains tied for sixth place in Hockey East, its statistics befit those of a team destined for a move upwards. The Friars rank fourth or fifth in team offense, team defense, power-play percentage, penalty-kill percentage and penalty minutes.

“Some nights we’re good on the power play and sometimes we’re not,” Pooley says. “The good offsets the bad. From a consistency standpoint, we have to be better night in and night out. But in terms of straight categories, our penalty minutes are down, but we took a couple extra ones against UNH and it hurt us.

“We have to play more disciplined. UNH is more talented than we are. You go down the roster and they have more guys who can score, more snipe.

“We need to be a better team. That’s what we have to be. We’re not going to out-talent UNH or BC or BU or Maine or, who knows, [this week’s opponent] St. Cloud. We have to function under our team concept. That’s how we’re going to win games.”

It also doesn’t hurt to have freshman goaltender Bobby Goepfert back from the World Junior Championships where he excelled. While senior Nolan Schaefer (3.38 GAA, .895 Sv%) played well in Goepfert’s absence, there’s no getting over the rookie’s stats: a 1.85 GAA and .940 Sv%.

“Bobby has really been that strong for us,” Pooley says. “Nolan played a great game against Maine and a great game against BU and was rewarded with victories. We wanted to put him back in there on Saturday [against UNH].”

As for who’ll get the nod in and out of the nets, that will come down to performance.

“It’s all about the wins,” Pooley says. “Whoever you have to have on the ice to win, that’s what’s important. It isn’t just talent; sometimes chemistry is even more important. You find that winning chemistry and people just get confidence and feed off it. That’s what we’re looking for down the stretch here.”

So Close, But Yet So Far

A week ago, Merrimack played three games in five days and trailed for a grand total of seven minutes and 21 seconds. Unfortunately for them, the Warriors came away with only two of the six points up for grabs after losing two-goal leads in all three contests. (In the Tuesday game against Massachusetts-Lowell, the Warriors never trailed until Elias Godoy scored the game-winner with 5:47 remaining. On Friday, Greg Mauldin repeated the dagger to the heart with 1:34 left. One night later, Merrimack again blew a two-goal lead, but this time pulled out a win on a Tony Johnson goal.)

Had the team held onto the leads or gotten the opportunistic third-period winner each time, the Warriors would now be sitting just two points out of first place instead of tied for sixth. Which is why Serino’s frustration rang out loud and clear even after the Saturday night win.

“We just go away from everything we’re doing,” he said. “It’s amazing…. [We] let things get away from us… Maybe because we’ve lost a couple in a row, we’re playing not to lose the game instead of to win the game. Hopefully, this will get us back to where we were [when we won four in a row in December].”

That said, the win was about as pivotal as one game could possibly be, coming on the heels of three losses.

“It was huge,” Serino said. “You’re looking at Maine coming in for two [this week] and then we follow that with BU. So it was an absolute huge weekend for us.

“I guess the disappointing part is that I’m happy we won the game, but you look at what if? and we had two games that we had the lead by a couple goals [one of them in the third period]. You give us those and we’re back in the hunt again. If we’d lost another one tonight, trying to regroup would have been tough.

“[We’re] fighting to get into the middle of the pack, maybe an outside shot at home ice. You just never know. That’s why this week was what if?. This whole league is what ifs?.”

Murderer’s Row

Hockey East teams can point to the conference’s top-to-bottom strength and justifiably talk about how tough their opponents are game in and game out. But there isn’t a school in the country that can match St. Cloud State’s strength of schedule to date. Not even close.

(St. Cloud hosts Providence for two games this weekend.)

Of the Huskies’ 20 games, 12 have been against teams in the top 11 of the country. They’ve faced No. 3 North Dakota four times and No.7 Denver another four. They’ve faced No. 6 Minnesota and No. 11 Ferris State twice each. In all those games, St. Cloud is 5-5-2. (By contrast, Maine, BC and UNH have faced eight, eight and seven Top 15 teams, respectively.)

Six of the Huskies’ other eight games have come against opponents with winning records: four against MSU-Mankato (9-7-6) and two against Minnesota-Duluth (9-7-4). Only their two games against Rensselaer (8-12-2) came against a foe with a losing record.

So when you see St. Cloud in the national rankings despite being only a game over .500, that’s why.

Quip of the Week

After one writer kiddingly noted that Patrick Eaves was still wearing a “sympathy” neck brace, another asked brother Ben, “Does it work for him with the chicks?”

Ben Eaves grinned and said, “He’s trying any angle he can get right now.”

Quotes of Note

  • Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald after his team’s 6-3 loss at Boston College: “This is the worst game we’ve played all year by a long shot…. Our best players, the guys that we count on, played pathetic. … The good news is that there are guys on this team who have played a lot of great games for UMass-Lowell in their careers that absolutely can’t play any worse.”
  • UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon on the effect his team’s success is having on recruiting: “There are a couple of kids who are calling us back who had been going in another direction. Now they’re maybe trying to reintroduce themselves to us. But I think that’s true of all programs. They love you when you win big, but you’re a bum in two weeks if you go on a slide.”

    Brain Cramp

    Last week this column noted that Boston College would be getting Ryan Shannon back from injury after having missed three games. Shannon’s absence, of course, was due to the World Junior Championship, not injury.

    I’m on the list for a brain transplant, but there aren’t enough donors. If you’re interested in donating yours, please let me know. Unless, that is, you’re a message board regular.

    60-Minute Men

    The BC Eagles could be excused if they argued for adoption of the NHL’s overtime rules, namely that both teams get a point regardless of the outcome. In 60-minute games, they’ve posted a 12-2 record, but when overtime is involved BC is 0-3-3.

    Since both regulation losses have been by just one goal, it’s small wonder that the Eagles have the best goal differential in Hockey East league games and one of the best overall.

    Please Leave

    Sick of shoveling two inches of snow every morning? Want to know why it’s been like the @#%! North Pole around here lately?

    It’s Lowell Assistant Director of Athletic Media Relations Dan Fischer’s fault. He confessed at last Friday’s game at Boston College that he’d unwittingly brought the freezing weather and white stuff with him from Clarkson.

    “Snow and the cold. Thanks to yours truly,” he said.

    Dan, you’re a nice guy and do great work, but please… take a hike.

    Trivia Contest

    Last column’s trivia question asked 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. The answer was UMass with its maximum of 34 shots. First to respond correctly was Ankur Patel, whose three wins now put him one away from being inducted into the Trivia Hall of Fame and therefore ineligible for the rest of this season. Ankur makes it four straight weeks of UNH cheers:

    “Go Cats.”

    This week’s question asks why BU’s 7-2 win on Jan. 5 over Northeastern was a “primo” game. There are two reasons, one very easy and one difficult. Email my trivia account with the reasons. 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 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.

    It comes from the Stephen King novella “Low Men in Yellow Coats,” the opener to the book Hearts in Atlantis, a collection of five splendidly interconnected stories. The movie, which used the book’s title, is based solely on this one novella. Its supernatural angle is not one of King’s most compelling, but its characters are. If I could just develop a character as perfectly realized as Bobby Garfield….

    The first to identify the sentence above was Brian Langan. He recommends Siddhartha by Herman Hesse.

    This week’s passage opens a terrific thriller written in the seventies:

    Every time he drove through Yorkville, Rosenbaum got angry, just on general principles. The East 86th Street area was the last holdout of the krauts in Manhattan, and the sooner they got the beer halls replaced by new apartment buildings, the better off he’d be. Not that he’d suffered personally during the wall — his entire family had been in America since the twenties — but just driving along streets peopled with Teutonic mentalities was enough to set anyone’s teeth on edge.

    Especially Rosenbaum’s.

    Everything set his teeth on edge. If an injustice ever dared to creep into his vicinity, he grabbed it and squeezed it with all the bile left in his seventy-eight-year-old body. The Giants moving to Jersey set his teeth on edge; … ; the Kennedys set his teeth on edge, the commies, dirty movies, dirty magazines, the spiraling price of pastrami — you name it, Rosenbaum started gnashing.

    This September day, he was particularly choleric. …

    Email me with the author and title to 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.

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

  • Plenty of others have already said this, but the Boston sports scene lost a legend when Will McDonough passed away last week. He could be a crusty SOB and was no prose stylist, but his column was mandatory reading. In fact, it was invariably the first thing you’d read on a Saturday or Sunday morning.
  • One reader who interned with the Globe wrote to praise McDonough’s kindness and assistance to writers on the way up. Such stories are far from the exception.
  • That said, his final column and appearances on talk shows gave plenty of fodder for his critics. Gerry Callahan had the best retort to McDonough’s criticism of Larry Lucchino’s “Evil Empire” comment because it would make George Steinbrenner mad. Callahan wrote: “Someone should remind Larry that John Harrington was always respectful and submissive in the company of Mr. Steinbrenner. And in return, George was kind enough to let the Red Sox finish second almost every year.”
  • McDonough’s pooh-poohing of the Red Sox’ new emphasis on on-base percentage also flies in the face of what Oakland and the Yankees have been so successful with. Be patient; work the count; walks matter. That’s been the recipe the Yankees have used to get Pedro to 100 pitches by the seventh inning and has been Oakland’s exact blueprint. Heck, Peter Gammons has quoted Bobby Bonds as saying, “Everything works off on-base percentage — slugging, everything.”
  • But like him or not, disagree with him or not, McDonough always brought his A game. He will be missed. Man, will he be missed.