This Week in Hockey East: Oct. 16, 2003

A Hockey East Homer?

I have been called “Homer” before, namely on a softball team I used to play for.

Sadly, the nickname did not reflect my performance at the plate, but rather the one time I was allowed to pitch. I have since retired with a career earned run average of infinity. Batters accumulated a 1.000 on-base percentage against me and a slugging percentage of over 3.000. My former teammates claim their uniforms still have meatball stains.

That regrettable disclaimer aside, however, I will now contend that I am not a Hockey East homer despite what the Top 15 list in the sidebar to your right shows.

Yes, there are six teams from the league in my Top 15, including four in the top six, but a good case can be made for all of them.

Everyone had Boston College, New Hampshire and Boston University rated highly going into the season and they’ve done nothing to change that opinion. There were questions about Maine, but after convincing wins last weekend over defending national champion and top-ranked Minnesota and then Wisconsin, Maine deserves to be very close to the top.

As for Massachusetts and Providence, that’s another story. They’re in the same boat as Northern Michigan, namely with 2-0 records accumulated against low-rated opponents. A month from now it will be a surprise if any more than one of them, if that, is still in the national rankings.

But for now, they’re the teams that have gotten it done. There are no other teams with more than a single win. Ferris State, Ohio State and Michigan State have fallen out of my Top 15 because of bad losses.

So is it homerism that six Hockey East teams are in my Top 15?

Not when you realize that the league teams haven’t lost a single game to date except for the intraleague contest on Saturday between UMass and UMass-Lowell. Contrast that with the CCHA, where only Northern Michigan (with two wins over rebuilding Bowling Green) and Michigan have winning records.

Does that mean anything?

Not yet. It’s waaaaayyyy too early to start the thumping of league chests. A month from now the scene could be completely different.

But for now, seeing four Hockey East teams high in the rankings and another two sneaking in as well is very defensible.

The Biggest Surprise

Without a doubt, the stunner of last weekend was Maine’s blanking of Minnesota, 4-0. The defending national champions had far fewer offseason losses than the Black Bears, who had struggled down the stretch last year while the Gophers rolled.

While a lot of the focus on the Maine roster has been the gaping holes left behind by attrition, attention must be paid to the considerable strengths.

That starts with goaltender Jimmy Howard, whose stellar play last year gave way to struggles down the stretch that mirrored the entire team’s. If the game against Minnesota is any indication, however, those struggles are long gone and it’s back to business as one of the top netminders in the country.

“He was great,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead said after the win. “Every time he was tested he was sharp. I thought he was really focused this week in practice and it kind of culminated in this game tonight.”

Todd Jackson also was a major force, scoring two goals, one of them a shorthander, in each game. He certainly seized the opportunity for extra ice time, especially on special teams, created by the departure of the team’s top five scorers.

“Jackson just played so well,” Whitehead said. “It’s great when a senior can emerge like that. He just played with a lot of heart.”

He was named tournament MVP, which bodes very well indeed for Maine’s offensive prospects.

The Shutout King

Congratulations to New Hampshire goaltender Michael Ayers, who broke his school’s all-time shutout record with the ninth of his career in a 3-0 win over Vermont. Ayers had shared the mark with Sean Matile.

“I really didn’t think about it,” Ayers said after the game. “I just thought it was great that the team got out to an early lead. This was more of a team-based win. Their work down low enabled me to make the saves that I needed to make.”

Although Ayers is as instinctive at deflecting praise to his teammates as he is deflecting shots into the corners, his achievement is impressive. He played less than 26 minutes total as a freshman and as a sophomore didn’t record his lone shutout until late February.

Since then, though, he’s been lights out. Last year, he posted seven whitewashings, including three in a row over Boston University.

So don’t be surprised if by March he’s toppled all the Hockey East marks, which are based on regular season league games only. He already has four in that category and another four would match the career mark of Boston College’s Scott Clemmensen (1997-2001) as well as the season mark of fellow Wildcat Ty Conklin (2000-01).

Based on how Ayers has had BU’s number of late, that matchup on Nov. 7 bears watching.

The Legend Continues

Presumably, you’ve already read Scott Weighart’s excellent feature on BU’s Matt Radoslovich. If not, you should. Radoslovich is one of those rarest of collegiate hockey players, an unrecruited walk-on who is making a significant contribution.

Every team has its recruited walk-ons, players it has scouted and would love to have, but can’t fit into the NCAA-mandated budget of 18 scholarships. Unrecruited walk-ons are another story completely.

Radoslovich couldn’t get coaches from the newer conferences or even from some D-III schools to return his phone calls. Now he’s figuring prominently in the fortunes of a perennial powerhouse.

Go figure.

The legend continued last Saturday when he was named number one star in the Terriers’ win over Rensselaer, 5-2.

“It’s really something, isn’t it?” coach Jack Parker said after the game. “Couldn’t be more of a walk-on than Rado. He kills every penalty now and plays every shift on a regular [line] now. He’s so reliable: he can play left wing, right wing, center. He’s a very, very smart player.”

Radoslovich only became aware of the honor when asked in the post-game interview room if he thought he’d ever be named a number one star when he came to BU.

“Not at all,” he said. “And I didn’t know until you told me.”

He went on to praise his linemates, David Klema and John Laliberte, as well as defensemen Ryan Whitney and Sean Sullivan, who contributed to his goal and assist.

“That first star goes to my linemates also, and the defense,” Radoslovich said. “Everybody played a phenomenal game. Each goal that we got as a line, everybody had to chip in whether they got an assist or not. Klema’s goal, which I got the assist on, Whitney and Sullivan [contributed] great defensive play and Klema [worked] down low in our zone and chipped it to Laliberte, and then we went two-on-one. It all started with them. I have a lot of accolades for them.”

The modest junior who aspires to score “ten goals or so” added, “We’ve got a lot of guys who can score. I’m glad to contribute anything I can do.”

A Shorthanded Week

Hockey East teams benefited in a big way from shorthanded goals last weekend. In nonconference play, not a single one was scored against them while they poured in five. Todd Jackson led the way with one each game in Maine’s Maverick Stampede tournament win. Sean Collins opened New Hampshire’s scoring this season with one in the first period that proved to be the game-winner over Vermont. And BC’s Ryan Murphy and Providence’s Stephen Wood picked up shorthanded empty-netters to seal wins for their teams.

Jackson’s heroics notwithstanding, however, the biggest of them all came in Hockey East’s lone league game when James Salon and Peter Trovato collaborated with 4:10 remaining to give UMass its 3-2 win over Lowell.

“It was a perfectly executed penalty kill that we had been working on all week,” Travato said. “We jammed up the middle on their break-in and next thing you know the puck squirts to Jamie. My hat’s off to Jamie Solon for taking it wide and getting it on net. That’s basically a gimme goal. It popped right out to me and I stuck it in the net.”

Travato then added what was a top candidate for quote of the week: “Those are the types of goals that I get. I’m not going to come down and snipe one from the corner. I’m a rebound goal-getter. That’s my area right there.”

From The Mailbag

Emails from the 207 area code have filled my electronic inbox since the Black Bears’ impressive season opener. Almost universally they’ve railed about the doubts I expressed in my season preview about the team’s ability to fill holes left behind by departed big-time contributors … plus the fact that Maine’s game against Minnesota was the only loss I predicted for league teams in last week’s column… plus Maine’s ranking in my Top 15 last week was 14th, a position considered far too low.

Of course, none of these gloating diatribes arrived before the game.

The following, to which I couldn’t respond because the reply-to address didn’t work, is one example.

Dear Mr. Hendrickson,

You picked the Black Bears 14 in the nation, and yet they shut out the defending champions who are also ranked number one, in a 4-0 defeat in the season opener. The Gophers haven’t been shut out in three years. The Black Bears destroyed Wisconsin, 6-2, and look like one of the best, if not the best, team in the nation. So just one question, What’s up with your rankings?

Sincerely,
Umaine fan

In my defense, I ranked Maine 14th before the two performances this fan mentions. At that time the Black Bears were 0-0-0.

My ranking after the two wins is now second in the country.

Fair, no?

So I ask all you Maine fans, are we back to being friends again? At least, that is, until your team loses a few and I have to drop them?

Where’s the love?

All Alone In First Place

When a grinning media member last Saturday informed UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon that his team’s win over Lowell gave it undisputed first place in Hockey East, he blinked, momentarily speechless.

After a few seconds, he laughed and said, “I’m going to have a glass of wine on that one.”

P.S. On Exhibition Games

As an addendum to last week’s column on exhibition games, it’s worth noting that the landscape changes a bit next year when the universal starting date kicks in. No team will be able to start practices until Oct. 2 no matter how much time it takes off during other stretches.

Until then, each school has simply needed to meet the NCAA mandates for length of schedule during the season. So if, for example, a team took a longer break during Christmas, it could start practices earlier and, as a result, have an advantage in some of the early nonconference games and tournaments that open the season. Next year, that potential disparity won’t be possible.

On A Personal Note

It’s been great to see Vermont goaltender Travis Russell playing so well in losing efforts to Boston College and New Hampshire.

His coach, Kevin Sneddon, said after the UNH contest, “A positive out of this [game] that we’re focusing on now, which was a question mark coming into the season, was the play of Travis.”

Russell played a few summer all-star tournaments with the 1984-birthdate New England Generals, a team I helped coach. He was a great kid from a fine family and he sure could stop the puck.

Sometimes, though, he played for a rival team from his native Vermont and despite the fact that he was probably the best goalie those Generals teams ever had, I still prefer to think of him in his white Vermont jersey with matching white pads, blocker, glove and mask.

You see, of the many hockey photographs that line my office, he plays a major role in the best of them. Sadly for him, it shows him down in a butterfly with the clearly visible puck roofed over him into the top of the net.

The scorer? Number seven for the New England Generals, otherwise known as my son Ryan.

It’s a great photograph, believe me. Hey, stop by the office and check it out some day.

Quote of the Week

A high school player of some renown has been attracting the attention of a couple Ivy League schools. The key to getting him through admissions, the Ivy recruiters told him, would be to get his combined verbal and math SAT scores up to 1200.

Later, the young man told his friends, “First, I think I need to break 1000.”

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

  • Can we please lobby to get Jerry Remy on national postseason broadcasts? Most Sox fans have known they have something special with the Remdawg, but this postseason has underlined that with some utterly rancid work by network “talent.” Make that alleged talent. Thom Brennaman’s (or maybe it was Steve Lyons’) long-winded diatribe about Manny Ramirez’s home in Game Five against Oakland was bad enough. (Have they watched even a single home run that Barry Bonds has hit over the last half dozen years?) But Tim McCarver’s windbag rant after Pedro ole-ed Don Zimmah was the most hysterical, ridiculous commentary I can recall. Who charged whom? What else was Pedro supposed to do?
  • Topping McCarver for stupidity, though, was New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said that Pedro should be arrested. Hey, Bloomberg, here are three words for you: You’re No Giuliani.
  • That said, Pedro did start all the problems and in the biggest game of the season to that point didn’t get it done. Pitch inside, sure, but don’t go headhunting.
  • The subpar performance in Game Three, however, will be completely forgotten with a lights-out win in Game Seven.
  • If the Yankees lose, Roger Clemens final game will be a head-to-head loss against Pedro. Sounds good to me.
  • I was teaching during Game Six and ran out to check the score on the car radio during break. The Sox were leading, 7-6, in the eighth inning. When I returned, a student who appears to thoroughly know the subject asked what I’d be discussing for the next half hour. I told him and he headed off to listen to the end of the game. He came back all smiles with news of the win. I categorically deny any allegations that he was awarded extra credit.
  • A friend on the college hockey trails who happens to be a Yankees fan — I swear it, I didn’t know about his dark secret until it was too late to rescind the friendship — commented that he liked last week’s column except having to read about the Red Sox. Well, as they say in the business, tough noogies. And so I close with:
  • Go Sox. Down with the Empire. Go Sox. Down with the Empire. Go Sox. Down with the Empire. Go Sox. Down with the Empire. Go Sox. Down with the Empire. Go Sox. Down with the Empire. Go Sox. Down with the Empire. Go Sox. Down with the Empire. Go Sox. Down with the Empire. Go Sox. Down with the Empire. Go Sox. Down with the Empire. Go Sox. Down with the Empire. Go Sox. Down with the Empire. Go Sox. Down with the Empire. Go Sox. Down with the Empire. Go Sox. Down with the Empire. Go Sox. Down with the Empire. Go Sox. Down with the Empire. Go Sox. Down with the Empire. Go Sox. Down with the Empire. Go Sox. Down with the Empire. Go Sox. Down with the Empire.
  • Hey, it’s a matter of good versus evil.

    Thanks to Scott Weighart, Brian Brashaw and Jim Lothrop for their contributions.

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