This Week in Hockey East: Oct. 9, 2003

Early Observations

The universe makes sense.

Hockey East is undefeated in interconference play. Boston College is undefeated. And Tony Voce in on pace to score 108 regular-season goals.

Of course, there’s that niggling problem of sample size. Namely, one. BC’s win over Vermont was the only non-exhibition game played last weekend so perhaps we all need to take a grain of salt while extrapolating from the trends to date.

Hockey East probably isn’t going to finish undefeated in conference play and neither are the Eagles likely to match Cornell’s long-standing mark of a perfect season. And even though Voce lines up alongside the most gifted playmaker in the country (Ben Eaves), Voce just might fall short of the 100-goal barrier.

It’s only been one game.

But, hey, it was a pretty good start.

Exhibitions: To Have or Have Not; To Win or To Lose

When images flashed onto the TV screen early this week of cars being over turned in Amherst, one Hockey East wag deadpanned, “I guess they’re upset about the loss to St. X’s.”

Of course, the indefensible behavior had nothing to do with UMass’ surprising loss to St. Francis Xavier, 7-2. There were other, more widely-viewed, sporting events last weekend.

But it does raise the issue of exhibition games, which typically fall into the no-win category with most fans. Exhibitions are like empty-net goals from 10 feet out. You’re no sniper if you score, but get the goat horns out if you miss.

So why bother?

“The value of your exhibition games change from year to year based on the makeup of your team,” UMass-Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald says. “The more mature and older your team is, the less value there is to an exhibition game and the more prepared you are to play a nonconference game right off the bat. The younger a team is, there’s a greater value.”

It’s no eye-opener, then, that Boston College skipped the usual one-game tune-up. With a juggernaut loaded with returning veterans, coach Jerry York could afford to send his Eagles right into the fray.

“That made it easier, no question,” York says.

Nonetheless, the primary factor was mere scheduling. “We have a home-and-home series with Vermont and this particular weekend was their homecoming weekend at UVM. Without football, [hockey] is kind of the focal point and really important for them.

“No one had an advantage. I think they’d started practicing one day earlier than we did. I felt good about it. Five days of practice is not very much, but it just fit better in the schedule and it was important for Vermont.

“I’d do it again. It was a good test for us.”

At first glance Maine would appear to be following BC’s lead, opening the season this weekend against Minnesota in the Maverick Stampede without use of an exhibition game. Appearances, however, are deceiving in this case. The Black Bears aren’t skipping the NCAA’s one-game allotment. They’re merely holding it, like an ace up the sleeve, until their Black Bear Hockey Classic next weekend.

That two-day, four-team tournament has been an early-season fixture at Alfond Arena and Maine gets the most bang for its buck by having one of its two games be against a Canadian team or, as is the case this year, the U.S. Under-18 team. The program can have the best of all possible worlds by hosting a full weekend tournament while using only one official game from the NCAA regular season limit of 34. And it doesn’t hurt recruiting from the national team to show off Alfond in such a setting.

As a result, Northeastern is the only team other than BC to bypass exhibition games entirely. It was an approach the Huskies took last year with mixed results. Playing the same homecoming game against Vermont, they had to rally to pull out a 3-3 tie after falling behind, 3-0, against a team coming off a disastrous 3-26-2 season.

“We just jumped right into the frying pan,” NU coach Bruce Crowder says. “I didn’t really think we gave ourselves enough of a chance to jell and work on things. All of a sudden you get beat by Vermont –”

Crowder then stops and corrects himself, noting that it was a tie. He doesn’t say it, but the slip points out how much the game felt like a loss. Having got off on the wrong foot, the Huskies then went 0-4-1 in their next five games against the traditional four conferences and 1-7-1 in the next nine.

Looking for a different approach, Crowder decided to skip not only an early nonconference contest like the one against Vermont, but also an exhibition game. No games at all. Just practices.

“I just wanted to see what it was like, taking a good solid nine to 10 days of practice before you play your first game,” he says. “Kind of like the way it used to be.”

Of the teams that did play exhibitions last weekend, only UMass lost. There were plenty of reasons to discount the defeat, namely that coach Don “Toot” Cahoon sat some of his top players, including Greg Mauldin and Thomas Pock, and that the Minutemen had lost last year to the same X-Men only to jump out to a 13-7-1 record and the program’s first national ranking.

Still, a 7-2 loss while getting outshot 32-19? Yikes.

“We were soundly beat,” Cahoon says. “When I put the team on the ice, I had hoped that they would compete and play well enough to succeed. As a coach, you always would like to win. But clearly by making some decisions before the game to either play or not play certain people, that [impacted the result].

“For example, I needed to see a Dominic Torretti, who transferred here from Providence and went through a total knee reconstruction in the interim. I needed to see him play more than I needed to see Nick Kuiper because I know a lot more about Nick Kuiper than I know about Dominic Torretti. I hadn’t seen him in these situations. Obviously if the ultimate decision was that we needed to win this game, you’d go with the people that you know the most about.

“So I wasn’t distraught that we got beat. In fact, the loss itself in that context was not really important. However, when I get back to how we performed, I was really disappointed. Really disappointed. Because even though we might have not had some of the most productive people that play for us in the lineup, we had a lot of people that get ice time and were trying to vie for more ice time — power-play time and that sort of thing — and we didn’t perform very well at all.”

Fortunately, UMass has a nonconference game against UConn before Saturday’s league opener against UMass-Lowell. Lowell, by contrast, defeated the X-Men last Saturday in its only tune-up.

“Lowell is going to use their game with Xavier as their sole source of preparation,” Cahoon says. “I might not have made the decisions I made on Friday night to put that type of roster on the ice if I didn’t have the [UConn] game this Thursday night to look at some other people.

“You take it as the schedule plays out. It’s just a coach’s decision and I don’t know if I’ve got a complete handle on it by any means.”

Even the Hockey East teams that won have to take the victory with a grain of salt.

“You’re never quite sure,” York says. “The Canadian schools, sometimes they’re very good and sometimes they’re not. It’s hard to [gauge].”

MacDonald adds, “The exhibitions never quite mirror what you’re going to see when the real games show up because the Canadians play a much different style and it’s more slowed down. Last year we beat Concordia, 7-2. Just pounded them. It gave us a false sense of moxie. This year we played St. X and it was a much different feeling in the locker room after the game. It was a much greater feeling of accomplishment because they were a better team.”

And of course, there’s always the worry that a meaningless game will come back to haunt you because of a key injury.

“Who do you play in the games?” MacDonald Says. “Do you play all the new guys and rest your veterans? They need to get some playing time to get their rhythm, too.

“But you look at what happens in the NFL. These [Canadian] guys are older, physical and wear half shields. All I can think about is, ‘I hope nobody’s walking down to see [trainer] Artie Poitras after the game.'”

Rivalry Weekend

UMass is wasting no time this season getting right into its traditional rivalry games. On Thursday, the Minutemen host UConn, its natural rival from other sports. Then on Saturday they take on the River Hawks in the first of three sister-school contests that will decide possession of the Alumni Cup.

“If anything, it’s hopefully going to get us game-ready,” Cahoon says. “One of my concerns, and I’m sure it’s one of most coaches at this point in the season, is a concern about your players being game-ready and the mentality associated with that. That’s a preparation in itself.

“I’m fearful, based on what I’ve seen up until now, that we might not be as game-ready as we need to be. This will help us move in that direction for sure.”

Trivia Contest

With a grand total of one real game under the Hockey East belts, we’ll wait a week or two before the trivia contest gets going.

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

It’s wall-to-wall Red Sox, baby.

  • Adrian Brown as a pinch-hitter in Game One? Adrian Brown? Oy!
  • I was fortunate enough to attend Game Three against Oakland (thanks to my brother Paul) and my hat is off to whoever was handling the music. The theme of not giving up and maintaining confidence held throughout with musical styles ranging from the Monkees (“Daydream Believer”) to Eminem (“Lose Yourself”). And after Trot’s home run in the 11th, the traditional “Dirty Water” was followed by Three Dog Night’s “Joy To The World.” You had to love it.
  • At about the time I began bemoaning Manny Ramirez’s .084 batting average and David Ortiz’s .000 number, I saw that Miguel Tejada was a hair worse than Manny and Eric Chavez was matching Ortiz stride for lumbering stride in the oh-fer department. Who would have predicted that?
  • Or that Boston’s two regulars who had no chance of breaking the 20 home run barrier — Johnny Damon and Todd Walker — were the two who hit home runs in Game Four.
  • It was pretty surreal to see all the gaffes Oakland made in Game Three. Four errors and two major baserunning blunders. Has a team ever tried harder to give a key game away? It was almost, well, RedSoxian.
  • If Todd Walker isn’t in the lineup every game the rest of the way, Grady Little should be fired. Or at the very least roasted over the coals. Walker has been the hottest Sox hitter the last month or so. Seeing Damian Jackson’s name for Game Three just made me groan.
  • And taking Walker out in the sixth inning for a defensive replacement? The sixth inning? He’s not Jose Offerman awful and neither is Jackson the second coming of Robbie Alomar in his prime. I don’t care if the score is 4-1 and Pedro is pitching. Taking out your hottest hitter that early makes no sense.
  • How about we let John Kerry resign as senator so he can run for president and by proclamation anoint Derek Lowe as his successor?
  • Unless, of course, he blows it against the Yankees.
  • I’ve decided that I need not get a physical this year. If my heart could survive Game Five’s ninth inning, it can survive anything.
  • I left a friend’s house in a residential area of Waltham right after Game Five and I swear that I could hear in the far, far distance the roar of fans and honking of horns. I can’t imagine the geography of that noise, but it sure is a testament to our addiction to this team. The Oakland fans, as a general whole, don’t deserve their team. This Sox team, though, is a group that our passion is worthy of.
  • I’ll predict that Scott Sauerbeck makes a surprisingly major contribution against the Bronx Bums. Knock on wood, of course.
  • The big losers on Sunday weren’t the Oakland A’s or the Tennessee Titans. And certainly not Boston sports fans, not even ones without two TVs, who could delight in two spectacular wins. No, the big losers were the advertisers. Did Boston sports fans see a single one of the TV ads? With two momentous games going on simultaneously, the instant an ad began it was time to switch stations. Not even the Coors Light commercials could keep this viewer away from the remote.
  • Kudos to the city of Boston for arresting those who flipped over cars following the huge Red Sox win on Monday night. Those aren’t sports fans; those are hoodlums masquerading as sports fans. But I do draw the line, however, at the arrest of the twins who climbed onto a billboard and bared their breasts. Arrested? In The World According to Dave, the twins would have been granted complimentary season tickets.