This Week in Hockey East: Feb. 13, 2003

The Man Who Should Be Runner-Up

One would assume that this year’s Rookie of the Year will be Maine goaltender Jimmy Howard. His .930 save percentage in league games leads all Hockey East netminders. While nonconference results don’t affect postseason league awards, the fact that his overall mark of .934 is second in the country is an attention-grabber.

That said, who is likely to finish second? Forwards traditionally have the advantage, winning the award nine of the last 10 years. Only Boston University goaltender Ricky DiPietro in 2000 interrupted that streak.

Unlike past seasons, though, when a Sean Collins, Chuck Kobasew, Darren Haydar or Brian Gionta posted point totals that just couldn’t be ignored, this year’s freshman forwards have not been factors in the scoring races. In league games, no rookie ranks in the top 17 scorers. The impressive Massachusetts trio of Chris Capraro, Stephen Werner and Matt Anderson follow soon after, but four goals in league games is not going to result in serious Rookie of the Year consideration.

Other than Howard, goaltenders Bobby Goepfert (Providence) and Gabe Winer (UMass) have made huge contributions, but Goepfert has recently been supplanted by Nolan Schaefer and Winer’s stats don’t really make it over the hurdle.

Which leaves defensemen. There are some good ones around the league, but the best, hands down, has to be Merrimack’s Bryan Schmidt. He ranks seventh in league scoring among defensemen, just two points out of third. And that’s as a member of the league’s next-to-last-ranked offensive club. With no disrespect intended toward the Merrimack forwards, there isn’t a Ben Eaves, Marty Kariya or Lanny Gare up front to make Schmidt’s assist totals grow. He’s tied for his team’s lead in goals and ranks third in the league among defensemen. He’s also an outstanding defensive player.

“We thought he was going to be a good player when he came in, but I didn’t think he was going to be as good as he is as fast as he has,” Merrimack coach Chris Serino says. “I think he’s as good a defenseman as there is in the league. He’s strong. He moves the puck well. He can be a dominant player when he’s out on the ice.

“He definitely should be on the All-Rookie team and he merits real consideration for Rookie of the Year for what he’s done for us. I can’t think of another rookie who’s done as much for his team. He plays on the power play. He kills penalties. He plays against the top lines. He definitely logs more ice time than any player on our team. He’s the complete package.”

When Merrimack recruited Schmidt out of Tri-City (USHL) last year, it expected him to make some offensive contributions. But not at the level he’s delivered.

“I’m not surprised in the fact that he ran the power play for his team in the USHL last year,” Serino says. “So we thought he could do it, but you just never know with a freshman. If somebody told me he was going to be our leading goalscorer, yeah, that would have shocked me. But if someone told me that [Ryan] Cordeiro and [Alex] Sikatchev were going to have three goals between them, that would have shocked me, too. You just don’t know.”

It didn’t take long for Schmidt to convince his coach that he’d make a major contribution this year.

“He doesn’t play like a freshman,” Serino says. “To be honest, when I knew he was something special was when we played at Michigan [in the second game of the year]. In the first shift of the game, we had some legs that were heavy with nerves. You could see it when the game started.

“All of a sudden, out of nowhere, he’s rushing the puck, he’s handling the puck. I said to myself, ‘This kid is playing like he’s been in this environment his whole life.’ I remember saying to [assistant coach] John Mclean after the period, ‘We’ve got something special in that kid. You see the way he’s handling himself out there?’ He’s just played like that the whole way through.”

The contributions even go as far as being a team leader despite being just a freshman.

“He’s really taken over a leadership role,” Serino says. “We really didn’t have that last year. He’s a natural leader. The kids look up to him. He works his [butt] off. He’s always doing something extra to get better.”

It makes you wonder if Minnesota coach Don Lucia is looking askance at his assistants, wondering how this Bloomington, Minn., native got away.

It also makes you wonder if the 21-year-old will stay all four years, or even three years, since he’s an undrafted free agent. All it takes is one NHL team to make the proverbial offer he can’t refuse. (And to anyone who’d judge a kid who does so, remember one name: Willis McGahee. There are a lot of advantages to staying in college, but an injury like the one McGahee suffered is always a possibility.)

Of course, players leaving with eligibility remaining is nothing new to Serino, whose team suffered decimating losses that prompted league coaches to make the Warriors a unanimous pick to finish last.

“We’ve taken so many hits over the last three years,” Serino says. “I’d just like to keep a group of them together and see where we can go from there.

“He’s a 3.5 GPA so education is important to him. The decision he’s going to have to make is not to leave before he’s ready because he’s made a huge jump this year and I think he can make another huge jump in the next couple years.

“But when he’s ready to leave, I’ll be the first one to pat him on the back… and cry.”

DUMBEST: Your Guide to the Stretch Run

You’ve heard of the PWR (PairWise Rankings) and RPI (Ratings Percentage Index), but what about DUMBEST (Dave’s Unbelievably Moronic Barometer to Estimate Standings and Titles)?

DUMBEST may well be, ahem, the dumbest thing to ever grace this column, but don’t be too quick to judge. It’s got lots of competition.

That said, it’s a simply understood attempt to predict the stretch drive in Hockey East. (If this village idiot can understand it, then anyone can.) It just looks at winning percentages in league games and assumes that each team is likely to continue that percentage relative to its opponent. So if two teams with identical winning percentages face each other, then each would expect to come out of the game with 1 point for a tie. If a team with a winning percentage of 90 faced a team with a percentage of 10, then those numbers would point to the stronger team getting a predicted 1.8 points and the weaker one getting 0.2.

(For the math majors out there, I’m assuming that a team would get (1 + (its winning percentage – opponent’s winning percentage)) points out of each contest.)

No, I am not a geek.

Admittedly, this is way too simple to do an accurate job of prediction. It doesn’t try to assess who’s hot and who’s not, what team has injuries or who matches up well with whom. It doesn’t even look at who the home team is.

Hey, there’s a reason it’s called DUMBEST.

That said, it can give a thumbnail view of each team’s chances, focusing on the relative difficulty of its remaining opponents.

To begin with, let’s look at each team’s remaining opponents. The only nonleague game still left is Massachusetts-Connecticut so that won’t factor into DUMBEST. All two-game sets are home-and-home series with the exception of Maine’s. The usual abbreviations are used for each school to keep the listing compact.

BC: MC (2), NU (2), UNH (2)
ME: PC (2), @ UMA (2), BU (2)
UNH: NU (2), @ MC, @ UML, BC(2)
BU: UML (2), PC(2), @ME (2)
PC: @ ME(2), BU(2), UML
UMA: UConn (nc), ME(2), @ MC
MC: BC(2), UNH, @UML, @NU, UMA
NU: UNH(2), BC(2), MC, @ UML
UML: BU(2), UNH, MC, @PC, NU

Now let’s look at each team’s current position in the standings, winning percentage and the winning percentage of its remaining league opponents.

Team Pts Win% Opp%
BC 27 75 45.3
ME 27 75 48.0
UNH 25 69 44.0
BU 20 56 49.0
PC 19 50 56.8
UMA 16 38 64.0
MC 15 42 50.7
NU 9 25 58.7
UML 8 22 49.7

Finally, let’s use DUMBEST to predict the number of points that each team is probable to earn in its remaining contests, based on pure past winning percentages. Note: all teams have six games remaining except Providence (five) and UMass (three). The following shows current points, predicted points over the remaining games and the final result.

Team Pts Predict Result
BC 27 7.8 34.8
ME 27 7.6 34.6
UNH 25 7.5 32.5
BU 20 6.4 26.4
PC 19 4.7 23.7
MC 15 5.5 20.5
UMA 16 2.2 18.2
NU 9 4.0 13.0
UML 8 4.3 12.3

So DUMBEST really doesn’t indicate a lot of change from the current standings. First place and the last playoff spot are photo finishes that may end in ties.

In other words, there’s nothing profound here. Hey, at least the name of the thing is apt.

Perhaps, you say, I should have just calculated the opponents’ winning percentage for each team and left it at that? I can’t say that I’d disagree.

Tough Times at UMass

It wasn’t that long ago that things were looking mighty fine out at Amherst. The Minutemen were enjoying their first placement in the national rankings, a stunning achievement for a team with only five juniors and seniors combined.

That was then; this is now.

UMass has now lost five in a row and eight of its last nine. Attrition has been the biggest problem. Senior defenseman Kelly Sickavish suffered a concussion on Dec. 7 and hasn’t returned to the lineup since. According to sources, he is not expected to return this year because of post-concussion syndrome. Additionally, goaltender Gabe Winer was felled by the flu, as were a few other team members, and missed key games.

“Gabe got wiped out [by the flu] for a couple of weeks, but that created an opportunity for other people,” UMass coach Don Cahoon says. “We couldn’t have expected that an 18-year-old goaltender right out of GDA [Governor Dummer Academy] was going to go the distance for us regardless of whether he got the flu or not. So that by itself wasn’t the reason we fell into a little bit of a demise.

“Probably the most significant factor has been Kelly Sickavish, our co-captain defenseman. We’re young back on defense. It’s a position that we need to shore up. Then you take a guy who’s been playing for three years that is 6-3, 215, and although he’s not an all-star caliber player, he’s a very solid force within our lineup. You take his 30 minutes out of the lineup and it really has an ongoing effect. That’s the single biggest problem that we’ve had.

“The other factor is that we’re a really young team. A lot of our production has come from really young players. Hockey East is a great league and we’ve leveled off to some degree. I was fearful of that and I’m not really taken aback by it as much as I’m disappointed because it would have been great to sustain that success.

“But it’s been a combination of things: you have Winer out for a stretch of time where that position now isn’t being filled by the best goalie in the corps; then you have a defensive group that has stretched itself as it is to perform fairly well and has a major cog in its alignment taken out; and then you’re depending so much on so many young players and you’re going to level off from time to time. I think that’s caught up with us.”

Which is not to say that the wheels have fallen off for the Minutemen. They’ve continued to play solid hockey for the most part.

“In this stretch of poor outcomes, we’ve had a great overtime loss to UNH, we’ve had the televised game at NU where I thought we played very, very well, but we ran into Gilhooly when he took a run for NU for a couple weeks and he made 37 saves,” Cahoon says. “We played a pretty good game against UNH in our building and lost, 4-3.

“Outside of the game against BC where we were a no-show, the kids have competed. We played very well at Merrimack; we beat Merrimack one night here and didn’t play as well as we did the night we went there and lost 4-3 on a night that Exter stood on his head and made 38 saves.

“So it hasn’t been all doom and gloom. Do we need to change the bottom line? Absolutely. But we’re a work in progress and I’ve got the good fortune of having the large majority of these kids back for the next few years. Hopefully, we can build off of that. Our effort here is just trying to make some games before the season is over so that we have one more positive note to build off.

“We are what we are. We’re a creditable team. We’re much improved, but there’s still ample room for improvement.”

The dearth of upperclassmen has been a factor.

“You even look at Providence’s situation between Schaefer standing on his ear the way he has of late to win games,” Cahoon says. “They’ve gotten production from the key upperclassmen: Devin Rask, Peter Fregoe and Jon DiSalvatore. They’ve done what they were billed to do and that’s lead the team. That’s been a difference-maker for them down the stretch. Timmy Turner has done a great job for us, but he’s the only senior in our lineup and the only one with any substantial scoring production in his past.”

Despite the losses of late, Cahoon still likes the team’s attitude. No one is ready to jump off a bridge or beg for the season to end.

“We’re not unhappy with ourselves,” Cahoon says. “We don’t like the bottom line, but we come to practice every day and there’s good enthusiasm; there’s a real good rapport amongst the team. I don’t think there’s any ‘let’s pack it in, I wish it were over’ [talk]. We’ve been through a couple of seasons where honestly I felt that at the end of the season the guys would just as soon have it be over, but I don’t think that this year that’s the case at all. And I don’t expect that these kids will ever experience that.

“We’re working hard. We’re trying to be diligent, working on the details of the game and try to execute a little bit more succinctly and do the little things that good teams do. We look at the Maines of the world and the BCs of the world, the New Hampshires and BUs of the world and we try to assess why they are successful and what their makeup is and what makes them tick. They all have different components and we’re trying to search and find which components we can add to our arsenal and try to go from there.”

All of which leads to this weekend when the Minutemen take on UConn, perhaps the best opponent for them to face given their recent travails on the scoreboard.

“I don’t think any program in Hockey East would expect not to do well against a MAAC conference team,” Cahoon says. “That’s no disrespect to the MAAC conference. You’re talking about [Hockey East’s] tradition and level of play.

“However, there’s a natural rivalry here. On this campus, Connecticut is Connecticut. We’re probably the only sport that doesn’t have this huge rivalry built up. We’re trying to create it. As they grow and we grow, maybe it will turn into more of something. But on the UMass campus, the Connecticut game is the Connecticut game so our guys can’t afford to look by it.”

The Flying Friars

Since opening the season with an unprecedented 7-0 record, Providence has been the ultimate see-saw team, failing to record back-to-back wins until this past weekend. Now, however, the Friars appear to be on a roll. They’ve won three straight, most notably a 5-2 win over UNH. With four of their five remaining contests against nationally ranked teams, including two this weekend at their own house of horrors, Alfond Arena, the hot streak couldn’t come at a better time.

“We’re not looking to impress anybody,” PC coach Paul Pooley says. “We’re just looking for the W. We’re trapping right now and we’ll be trapping the rest of the year. We just need to execute better than the next team. We like what we’re doing.”

So what happened after that hot start?

“It was too easy early on,” Pooley says. “We were 7-0, we were scoring a lot of goals and guys had a lot of points. We were down, 2-0, and the next thing we knew we were winning, 5-2. We were winning 8-1. It was almost too easy for us.

“One of the things is that the goalies’ save percentage that we played against was 84 percent; the next nine games it was 94 percent. Whether we were making them look good or not attacking the net, we weren’t playing with the same energy because we got defensive and conservative because we weren’t scoring goals. We’ve got to go out there and play with reckless abandon. We didn’t do that much in those nine games and when we did, we won.

“The biggest thing is we have to have the right mentality. After the early start, we got away from what we wanted to do and probably lost the identity that we had. The most powerful thing that these guys have come to grips with is who we are and how we need to play and how we need to be successful.

“We’re not here to impress anybody. We’re here to work hard, keep the game simple and wait for our opportunities, play the best defensive hockey that we can and be a counterattack team. When we do it, we’re pretty good. When we don’t do it and get away from our game, we get beat. There’s really no secret.”

Defenseman Stephen Wood had a big weekend, scoring two goals against Lowell and another against UNH.

“Stephen is playing better because he’s focusing on his defensive game and he’s staying out of the penalty box,” Pooley says. “I told him that the biggest thing was for him to focus on playing defense one-on-one and the opportunities will be there for him because he can always handle the puck and shoot it. That’s what he’s done.”

Schaefer, who had briefly lost his starting job to freshman Bobby Goepfert, is now playing like he was as a sophomore, a season in which he earned All-America honors.

“Nolan is always solid for us, especially now that he has some competition from Bobby,” Wood says. “Those two just feed off each other, it seems. They have a good thing going right now. Nolan always stands on his head for us. Sometimes he’ll win games for us and sometimes we’ll put a game away for him [like against Lowell].”

Pooley has also split up the Rask, Fregoe and DiSalvatore line. Fregoe and Rask have been paired with a rotating right winger while DiSalvatore has joined Doug Wright and Peter Zingoni to give PC two very dangerous trios.

“They needed a break, number one,” Pooley says in explanation. “It made us a better team, number two. And I think it made them work harder, number three.”

Will that translate to wins in Orono this weekend? Stay tuned.

Quote of Note

UML coach Blaise MacDonald could not have been much more unhappy with his team following Friday’s listless loss to Providence.

“It’s almost like we have some guys — enough key guys — who are petrified to put it on the line when they have to,” he said. “Every game for us right now is a playoff game and maybe some guys can’t handle the pressure.

“It looked to me like guys were timid and afraid to compete. Meanwhile, our themes were fearlessness and relentlessness.”

Trivia Contest

Last week’s trivia question was a two-parter: what Hockey East team boasts a defenseman who is tied for the team lead in goals scored? Also what other league team had that same distinction until the weekend of Jan. 24?

Jason Morgan became a back-to-back winner by being quickest to identify Merrimack’s Bryan Schmidt as the first answer and UMass’ Thomas Pock as the second. He maintains the recent dominance of UNH cheers with:

“Go Cats, beat NU!”

This week’s question asks you to name the top two scoring lines in the history of Hockey East. This will be based on point totals alone (not points per game) and includes only those from games that counted in league standings. (So points achieved in contests against the WCHA during the era of the interlocking schedule do count, but otherwise nonconference games do not.)

Email my trivia account with the players on the two lines and how many league points each player totaled. In case no one gets the full answer, feel free to simply submit the names. 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, for the first time, a poem:

Wind rocks the car.
We sit parked by the river,
silence between our teeth.
Birds scatter across islands
of broken ice. Another time
I’d have said: “Canada geese,”
knowing you love them.
A year, ten years from now
I’ll remember this —
this sitting like drugged birds
in a glass case —
not why, only that we
were here like this together.

Only Ankur Patel was able to identify this as “Like This Together” by Adrienne Rich. Hats off to Ankur, who recommends Drive, They Said, a compilation of poetry that perhaps even Joe Sixpack can enjoy. It’s edited by Kurt Brown and concerns Americans and their cars .

This week’s challenge returns to novels, in this case one by a writer far more famous for another classic.

In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid. Each of these five people is afraid of four people (excluding overlaps) for a total of twenty, and each of these twenty people is afraid of six people, making a total of one hundred and twenty people who are feared by at least one person. Each of these one hundred and twenty people is afraid of the other one hundred and nineteen, and all of these one hundred and forty-five people are afraid of the twelve men at the top who helped found and build the company and now own and direct it.

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…

  • The best line I heard in response to last week’s column was: “Dave, what’s happened to you? Criticizing female skin in music? And for crying out loud, poetry? Are you trying to show us your feminine side?”
  • Which reminds me, why do I keep getting junk email messages that tell me I can increase my breast size? Sadly, these boobies need no augmentation.
  • I am constitutionally unable to root for any New York Yankees player. However, hearing that Derek Jeter fired back at George Steinbrenner warms the cockles of my heart. Way to go, Derek.
  • Of course, Nomar is still better.
  • Just the thought of spring training does take a little bitterness out of the cold, doesn’t it?
  • Put me down as a big fan of the no-closer approach the Red Sox are taking. I love the idea of using your best guy in a tied seventh inning instead of saving him for so many empty ninth-inning saves. The only question is whether the Sox relievers will cooperate. Somewhere in the back of their heads may be the convenient excuse that they don’t know their roles. Let’s hope they don’t take that easy way out.
  • Here’s my Valentine’s Day thought for all of you. Being in love is the greatest feeling; being out of love is the worst. May you all enjoy the former and may it last for a lifetime.

    Thanks to Jim Lothrop for his contributions.