First Place in the Balance
With all due respect to Boston College, the Hockey East regular season crown could be decided this weekend when New Hampshire hosts Maine on Saturday and Sunday. The three powerhouses are deadlocked at 23 points atop the league, but the Black Bears hold two games in hand over BC and one over UNH. As a result, a sweep would put the nation’s number one team in an almost uncatchable position, especially since the other two contenders have only next week’s BC-Maine contest as a head-to-head opportunity.
A split would be a different story. And if UNH sweeps or gets three of the four points, then it’ll still be a horse race down the stretch.
Adding to the drama is the natural rivalry between the two neighbor states and the location of Saturday night’s contest: the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester.
“The opportunity to play in Manchester is fantastic,” says Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “It’s going to be a great event for everyone involved. It’s going to be one of those situations where it’s going to be us against the building. There were some tickets made available to Maine fans so that’s going to be great; we’re going to have our pocket of supporters.
“Those type of situations are great experiences for our players, being in that type of an environment in a great building. From all we’ve heard, it’s just a great place to play hockey. The atmosphere is going to be electric and we certainly know at the Whittemore [on Sunday] it’s going to be a great college hockey atmosphere.”
The conventional thinking is that UNH is giving up some of its home-ice advantage by shifting from the Whitt’s Olympic sheet to the Verizon’s NHL-sized surface. After all, the last time Maine won at the Whitt was Mar. 14, 1998. Other than a scoreless tie two years ago, UNH has dominated the matchup on its home ice, outscoring the Black Bears a collective 19-4 in the five wins.
Even so, Whitehead isn’t so sure.
“UNH has had a lot of success on NHL-sized [sheets] so I don’t think that will faze them at all,” says Whitehead. “They’ll have a home crowd, too.
“I was watching the BU game the other night and [BU coach] Jack Parker made a comment which I’ve seen before that UNH might be even more dangerous in a small rink than a big rink.
“The bottom line is that regardless of the surface, we’re facing a very challenging opponent. The rivalry is a natural one with the states bordering on each other and the games that have gone on in the past have added to that natural rivalry. It’s a great matchup each year.”
Mention to UNH coach Dick Umile that he’s got a big weekend coming up and he laughs and says, “You think?”
While Maine can deal with a split quite nicely, thank you very much, Umile knows that his club really needs at least three out of the four points.
“If you want to fight for the top spot, that’s what you need to do,” he says. “It isn’t the end of the world if you don’t, but obviously you’re wanting to win because of what’s at stake. It’s UNH-Maine and we’re fighting for the top spot.
“You can’t get skunked on a weekend; that really hurts you no matter what position you’re in in Hockey East. It’ll knock you out of a top spot; it’ll knock you out of a middle spot; it’ll put you at the bottom. That’s what you try not to do. For us to continue to fight for the top spot, we’d have to get at least three out of four points.
“Plus, we’re trying to win the series with them, too.”
(Maine took the lone Orono game, 2-1 in overtime.)
While Umile loves the comfortable confines of the Whittemore Center, he also recognizes that whatever UNH might lose in its home-ice advantage, it makes up in the ability to play in a great venue while exposing to the team to a wider audience within the Granite State.
“That’s the important thing,” Umile says. “We just took one of the two games over there. We’re able to get 10,000 people and that says a lot about both of the programs and the interest when we can sell it out in a couple of hours.
“There’s no question that you give up the Olympic sheet, but [other teams] like the Olympic sheet as well. The area is great offensively; it’s difficult to control teams defensively, but offensively it gives you an awful lot of room.
“We need to play in venues like the Verizon Center. When you have a venue like that in your state and you can sell it out a couple times a season, you’d be crazy not to utilize it. We need to do that [to help us] get to the FleetCenter and compete for the Hockey East championship. And if you qualify for the NCAA Regionals, you have to play in buildings like that. So since we have that in our own state it’s advantageous for us to play games like that in that building.
“Besides, we’ll still have our traditional White-Out Game on Sunday at the Whittemore Center.”
A Key Factor?
Maine and UNH are pretty well deadlocked in the key defensive statistics. The Black Bears lead the league, allowing only 1.92 goals per game, but the Wildcats aren’t far behind at 2.08. The penalty kills are indistinguishable, 85.8 percent to 85.7 percent.
Offensively, though, Maine holds the edge. To begin with, the Black Bears have scored eight shorthanded goals to UNH’s two. Additionally, the overall team offense holds a half-goal-a-game advantage, 4.15 to 3.68. The biggest discrepancy, though, is on the power play, where Maine’s 24.0 percent leads the league while UNH ranks fourth at 18.7 percent. Of even greater concern for Wildcat fans, though, is that when considering only Hockey East contests their boys fall to last in the league (15.6 percent).
Those numbers have improved for UNH, however, since the midseason return of Garrett Stafford, who was academically ineligible during the first semester. While the power play has been up and down since he came back to quarterback it, the overall numbers have gone from 17.6 percent without Stafford to 21.2 in the eight games with him. Granted, all seven goals came in three of the eight games, but it’s still a step forward from the team’s previous struggles.
“Our power play hasn’t been great, but it’s been better since he came back, obviously,” Umile says. “He’s just getting back into it defensively, but he definitely brings a lot of experience. He gets the puck out of the zone, he can make plays with the puck and he can take it end-to-end.”
The Best Goaltender?
In just his first four months in Hockey East, Maine goaltender Jim Howard has established himself as perhaps not only the best in the league, but also the country. His .947 save percentage leads the nation while his 1.52 goals against average trails only Cornell’s Dave LeNeveu. The freshman has yet to allow more than three goals in a game.
Many around the league, such as Massachusetts-Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald, have become believers fast. Last Friday, the River Hawks outshot Maine, 36-19, but could only put two past Howard.
“I watched Garth Snow and Mike Dunham and all the good goalies they’ve had at Maine, but if this kid is not the best, he’s in the same caliber with Snow and Dunham,” MacDonald says. “He’s so poised and everything comes really easy to him. He has a nice balance of competitiveness and focussing well.
“I don’t see a negative in the kid. This kid is going to be in the National Hockey League for 15 to 20 years if he continues the way he’s going. He’s immense.”
One thing that’s immediately striking is how well Howard fills the net. There just doesn’t seem to be much for a shooter to aim at. The lineups list him as 5-11, but he sure plays larger than that.
“I think we’ve got to measure him again,” Whitehead says with a laugh. “He looks taller than that.
“Maybe his posture is bad. That’s what it is. He’s 6-1 with poor posture. But you can’t fit that on the [lineup] sheet so they just put 5-11.”
Getting serious, Whitehead adds, “He’s just a great competitor. He really does play large. He finds a way to keep his upper body erect even when he does go down. So sometimes rebounds will come up and you’ll see them hit him in the shoulder.
“He’s very aware of what’s happening in front of him. He knows exactly where everybody is and their stick and just covers the net tremendously in those scrambles.
“He’s just very composed and always knows where the puck is. That’s a huge strength for a goalie. A lot of times, you’ll see guys who have trouble finding it. He just seems to have a great awareness of where the thing is. As a result, he’s able to make the kind of saves that you see on the highlight films.”
MacDonald elaborates on Howard’s hockey sense. “He understands the position well. He understands schemes, where the backchecking pressure is, is the shooter coming down a right shot or a left shot? He reads the play early and well. He’s very efficient in his movement. He’s square to the puck all the time.
“Your goaltenders need to be your smartest hockey guys. They need to know what forecheck you have. They need to know which center is out against the opposing center and what type of faceoff plays they run. A lot of times goalies get in there and just think their job is to stop the puck. The job is not to stop the puck; the job is to keep the puck out of the net. To keep it out of the net, you’ve got to be able to set it up for the defenseman, set picks, read forechecks and all those other things. That keeps it out of the net. Stopping the puck is one component.”
Howard credits a goalie school he attended as a youngster and the U.S. National Development Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as the biggest keys to his success.
“When I was younger, my father drove me up to Ottawa during the week,” Howard says. “This guy Barry Madigan worked a lot on me with just staying put, letting the shooter make the first move and me reacting. Last year with Darren Madley at the U.S. [Development] program, we worked on that and tightened some loose screws up.
“That year really helped me because I faced St. Cloud State when they were the number one team in the nation. I played at Cornell, where there are crazy fans. I also played against [Massachusetts] last year. So it really helped with the transition this year, getting a couple college games under my belt last year.”
As for how he fills the net so well, he just says, “All I do is try to do is get on my net and just stay square to the shooter. That’s all I want to do. If I stay square to the shooter and hold my ground, then he’s going to put it into my chest or into my pads where I want him to put it.”
And as for being 5-11?
“That’s wrong,” he says with a laugh. “I think I’m six foot.”
Congrats To Another Great Goalie
When Mike Ayers blanked BU last weekend, 3-0, it was the sixth shutout of his career and fifth this season. In doing so, he set a new UNH record for shutouts in a season, breaking the mark held by All-American Ty Conklin in 2000-2001. The milestone didn’t come easily. Ayers stopped 37 shots, including 19 in a pivotal first period. BU outshot the Wildcats, 19-4, but came away empty-handed.
“He’s legit,” Umile said after the big win. “He’s consistently good. That’s what you want in a goaltender in this league. I’m pleased. Ayers kept us in the game in the first period. They were all over us.”
Not Just Too Much Testosterone
When fans see a bad penalty taken by their team, they often groan and shake their heads. How stupid can the player be? The retaliation took away a pending power play. Or perhaps a cheap slash put the bad guys on the man advantage.
Exhibits A, B and C so far this year have been Boston University. The Terriers regrettably lead Hockey East in penalty minutes to the point where they’ll lap the field if they get any worse. While the other eight league teams range from 10.16 to 14.52 penalty minutes per game, BU comes in at 20.54 overall and an even worse 22.88 in Hockey East contests.
“The only thing that I’ve been disappointed with my team this year has been our inability to stay out of the penalty box,” Parker says. “We lead Hockey East in penalties by a mile. This is not because the referees are picking on us. It’s not because of anything except undisciplined play many, many times during the course of a game.
“It has cost us a number of games. It has lost us some games for us and cost us the chance to win other games. If we can straight that out and continue to play as hard as we can, I think we’re going to have a great stretch run.”
The 3-0 loss to UNH last Saturday left Parker particularly frustrated.
“That game was a pathetic example of what happens with an undisciplined hockey team,” he said after the game. “Nothing much was going right for UNH, then we get involved with absolutely ridiculous penalties.
“It’s difficult to watch how stupid we are. It’s difficult to watch how undisciplined we are.”
So why is it so difficult for some players to get their act together and stay out of the box? The key lies in the ongoing need to play with an edge. It’s no secret that BU has fewer pure finesse types than, say Maine, BC and UNH. The Terriers have to outgrind such teams to be successful. If they tone it down too much, they’ll be ineffective.
While finding the right balance is critical, it isn’t necessarily easy.
“I obviously can tell you that first-hand with all the stupid penalties I’ve taken,” John Sabo says with a grin that seems equal parts sheepish and rueful. Sabo entered this season with 229 career penalty minutes, including 89 as a freshman and 82 last year. He’s been the least of Parker’s problems, though. Through 26 games he leads BU with nine goals while accumulating only 20 penalty minutes, tied for 10th on the team. As one who definitely plays with an edge, Sabo offers a model for his teammates in how to tone it down just the right amount.
“I can tell you it’s really hard,” he says. “I always want to be out there being one of the most intense guys on the ice and play with that edge. But when you play with that edge, you sometimes take it over. There’s a fine line between being really intense and being stupid.
“As of late, I’ve been able to be calmed down and relaxed and just play my game and not worry about taking penalties. I don’t want to hurt the team. But I still want to play with that edge. It just takes a lot of focus. You have to focus on winning the game because obviously that’s what you want.”
Last week, my CCHA colleague, Paula C. Weston, took Lowell Sun writer Chaz Scoggins to task for saying, “Hockey East can lay claim to being the best college hockey conference, top to bottom…” She also noted that the league’s official website similarly claims that it is “consistently labeled the strongest conference from top to bottom.”
It says here that those claims are correct in recent years and especially true this year. Let’s ignore polls since those are opinions, not facts. Let’s look at the numbers. Also, let’s ignore ancient history. Only a moron would fail to acknowledge that the West dominated in the early decades of the NCAA tournament. Recent history, though, is another story.
First off, is Hockey East the best at the top?
Over the last 10 years, the league has placed 11 teams in the NCAA championship game. Only in 1996 did the title tilt not include a Hockey East representative; in 1995 and 1999 it was an all-Hockey-East finale. In the 10 years, the league has come away with four national championships.
By comparison, the WCHA has placed five teams in the title game with three of them winning. The CCHA has been shut out since 1998, but over the 10 years placed four teams and won three times.
So by virtue of a slight lead in championships and a decisive lead in representation in the title game, one can justly claim that Hockey East has been the strongest at the top over the past 10 years.
What about the latter half of the “top-to-bottom” claim?
As BU coach Jack Parker has been wont to say, “It’s not the teams at the top that make our league so great. It’s the teams at the bottom and how strong they are.”
There are no freebies at the bottom of the Hockey East standings, unlike, say, Alaska-Anchorage and Lake Superior State in the WCHA and CCHA, respectively. The former won its season-opener against Alaska-Fairbanks and hasn’t won a single game since. The latter has only a single win all season other than contests against MAAC teams.
Contrast that with Northeastern and Massachusetts-Lowell, the two teams clearly at the bottom of Hockey East. The Huskies have six wins against teams from the established four conferences and an overall 5-2-1 nonconference record. The River Hawks have eight wins against teams from the traditional conferences — including one at No. 3 Colorado College — and a 7-2-1 nonconference record.
Let’s look at the PairWise Rankings. Every single Hockey East school is a Team Under Consideration (by virtue of having a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of .500 or over). Three CCHA teams and another three from the WCHA fail to qualify while eight from the ECAC fall short. No MAAC or CHA teams meet the criteria. So while Hockey East has 100 percent representation, the CCHA falls to 75 percent, the WCHA to 70 percent and the ECAC to 25 percent.
That sure sounds like convincing evidence that the bottom is stronger in Hockey East, too.
What about the Ratings Percentage Index? Based on the numbers as of Monday, Jan. 27, the leagues have the following positions:
Hockey East: 1, 6, 8, 9, 17, 18, 19, 22, 29. The average: 14.3.
WCHA: 3, 4, 5, 7, 12, 14, 28, 31, 34, 47. The average: 18.5.
CCHA: 10, 11, 13, 15, 20, 23, 24, 26, 27, 35, 37, 43. The average: 23.7.
ECAC: 2, 16, 21, 25, 30, 33, 39, 41, 45, 46, 48, 50. The average: 33.
If that isn’t enough, how about KRACH, which a math whiz once convinced me was the best method of all (not that I can remember a single detail)?
Hockey East: 2, 5, 6, 9, 15, 16, 18, 24, 29. The average: 13.8.
WCHA: 1, 3, 7, 8, 12, 14, 26, 30, 33, 42. The average: 17.6.
CCHA: 10, 11, 13, 19, 20, 21, 23, 27, 28, 32, 36, 46. The average: 23.8.
ECAC: 4, 17, 22, 25, 31, 34, 35, 37, 39, 41, 44, 47. The average: 31.3.
If all the above doesn’t make the case for top-to-bottom strength, I don’t know what does.
(Whoever is snoring in the back seat, knock it off!)
The Teams Under Consideration Criteria
Another USCHO colleague, MAAC correspondent Jim Connelly, wrote several weeks ago about the difficulty MAAC teams will have to qualify for at-large NCAA berths because of the amending of the criteria to be a Team Under Consideration. In past years, a .500 or better record was sufficient. Starting this season, though, an RPI of .500 or higher is required.
Under the previous process, MAAC (and CHA) schools had a better chance of winning the “Record against teams under consideration” comparisons with those from the traditional conferences. That’s because they could include more games from their own conference in that category. (As it’s turned out, more extensive interleague play has rendered all but Quinnipiac, Mercyhurst and Alabama-Huntsville with sub-.500 records, so the need for the change has been obscured.)
This prompted Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold to observe that the new criteria essentially eliminates any real chance of an at-large bid.
“Our league has improved each of the five years, and I don’t think we’ve hit a plateau yet,” said Pecknold. “But with the scholarship limitations (MAAC schools are limited to 11 scholarships instead of the NCAA limit of 18) it holds us back from taking a step forward. And I don’t think with the scholarship limitation that we can compete for an at-large bid year in and year out.”
Which is exactly why this writer feels the change in criteria was appropriate. If new conferences want to limit their commitment to scholarships and all the other factors needed to compete with the big boys, that’s fine. For many schools, that’s the only way they can get to Division I. A move into, say, Hockey East is out of the question, but joining a new conference works.
That said, MAAC and CHA fans shouldn’t expect anything more than the conference’s one automatic bid until their leagues are on par with the four traditional ones. (Not that Pecknold was arguing for that.) The criteria for determining at-large berths should always be focused on trying to get the best teams into the tournament regardless of where they come from.
Which isn’t to say that I wasn’t in the media room two years ago rooting for Mercyhurst to pull off its upset of Michigan that fell just a tiny bit short.
Last column’s trivia question asked a two-parter: what Hockey East team failed to outshoot a single opponent until last weekend? Also, what Hockey East team had not been outshot by another league team until two weeks ago?
The answers were Merrimack and Lowell. Ironically, the first time the Warriors outshot an opponent — 36-27, against Maine on Jan. 18 — they lost, 2-1. The River Hawks maintained their shot superiority through last weekend’s series with the Black Bears; the lone exception came on Jan. 11 against Boston College.
The first to answer was Matt Jacques, whose cheer breaks a five-week UNH stranglehold:
“Go BC! Beat UMass and then get our Beanpot back!”
This week’s question goes back to the note in the Jan. 6 column about Jack Parker turning down a penalty shot and asks in what year did the NCAA Rules Committee give coaches that option? Email my trivia account with your educated, or totally wild, guess (one per customer). 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:
Your first wife married you for better or for worse. Your second wife, particularly if you were sixty and she was a twenty-eight-year-old number like Serena — why kid yourself? — she married you for better.
That comes from Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full. Wolfe is an incomparable talent whether he’s writing fictional novels like this one and The Bonfire of the Vanities or a “nonfiction novel” like The Right Stuff.
First to identify A Man in Full was Paul Gentile, who recommends John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.
This week’s opening passage substitutes a character’s initials for his name to make the identification a little less trivial:
A.B. sat in New York Criminal Court Number 2 and waited for justice; vengeance on the men who had so cruelly hurt his daughter, who had tried to dishonor her.
The judge, a formidably heavy-featured man, rolled up the sleeves of his black robe as if to physically chastise the two young men standing before the bench. His face was cold with majestic contempt. But there was something false in all this that A.B. sensed but did not yet understand.
“You acted like the worst kind of degenerates,” the judge said harshly. Yes, yes, thought A.B. Animals. Animals. The two young men, glossy hair crew cut, scrubbed clean-cut faces composed into humble contrition, bowed their heads in submission.
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.