This Week in Hockey East: Oct. 30, 2003

Red Sox Agonistes, Part I

Rumors that I almost jumped off the Tobin Bridge have been greatly exaggerated. I never had more than one leg over the railing…

How The Mighty Have Fallen… Or Almost

It was a tough week for the Hockey East elite. New Hampshire and Boston College lost to unranked teams while Maine, Boston University and Massachusetts had to survive scares of their own.

To begin with, top-ranked New Hampshire lost to Niagara. Niagara? No disrespect to the Purple Eagles, but this year’s squad is not to be confused, at least not yet, with the one that toppled the Wildcats in the 2000 NCAAs. Heck, this year’s Niagara coach can even see over the dasher.

(If you need an explanation for that joke, see “Congrats, A Thank You And An Explanation” below.)

Of course, UNH was playing shorthanded to the extreme with eight players suspended for team rules violations.

Nonetheless, UNH coach Dick Umile took nothing away from Niagara’s upset, saying, “They did a good job in pressuring us tonight. They’re a well-coached team. I give them all the credit in the world for the victory.”

Second-ranked Boston College fell to Notre Dame, 1-0, absorbing its first shutout at home since Jan. 22, 1999.

Like UNH, BC also was playing shorthanded with Ben Eaves (concussion) and Dave Spina (ankle) out of the lineup.

BC coach Jerry York similarly bypassed easy excuses after the loss. “ND did a good job defensively,” he said. “Injuries are part of [the game]. We still had enough players to generate offense, but it was a defensive game and it was hard to create offense. We limited their chances and they limited our chances.”

Maine became the third straight Hockey East team to rise to the nation’s top ranking because it dodged the same bullets that felled UNH and BC. The Black Bears entered the third period against St. Lawrence trailing by a goal and didn’t get the game-winner until freshman Keith Johnson scored with less than five minutes remaining.

By contrast, BU held a seemingly comfortable 5-1 lead halfway through its game with Providence only to see the Friars fight back and have the game-tying goal within their grasp with BU goaltender Sean Fields dead to rights. Stephen Wood’s wrist shot, however, flew over the net and the Terriers escaped with a win.

“We were hoping the game was over,” BU coach Jack Parker said. “They just kept battling. Give them a lot of credit. I thought we still played well territorially, but we didn’t play with the focus we needed to defensively … We weren’t nearly as thorough as we were through the first two periods.”

UMass also barely escaped egg on its face. The Minutemen recorded another ugly win, 2-1 over Holy Cross, thanks to a third-period goal by Chris Capraro.

“That’s a really bad performance,” UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon said. “People were trying to do [too] much, the role players, because they’re not focused on the things they need to do to contribute.”

So who among Hockey East’s leading teams takes the next pratfall and who just barely misses? We’ll see in the coming weeks.

Red Sox Agonistes, Part II

I still feel Cowboyed Down to six feet under. After game seven I felt physically ill. My hands shook. I could not believe what I had just witnessed.

A week after the fact, it still feels worse than Bill Buckner (1986), Bucky Bleeping Dent (1978), Fisk’s Homer For Naught (1975), and Hoolian Havier is a Herk (1967). In time, I’m sure that 1986 will reassert itself as the worst one of all. After all, that was just one strike away from the whole enchilada. For now, though, the physical errors of that gut-wrencher pale in comparison to this year’s synaptic shutdown.

I know this much for sure. Next time I watch the Red Sox in the playoffs, I’m going to wear a cup. I’m not getting kicked down there again without protection.

Second in the Country

As a freshman last year, UMass-Lowell forward Ben Walter didn’t score his first goal until after Christmas, finishing with a total of five.

This year, he’s already recorded eight, good for second in the country, with a nation’s-best six on the power play.

When you ask coach Blaise MacDonald the reason, his answer is unequivocal. “Coaching!”

He then adds, “Some wise coach, probably Al McGuire, said the best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores. Like any athlete, performing well is a derivative of having a high level of confidence and his level of confidence is very high because he’s prepared and he got an awful lot of experience last year.

“He’s still getting the same chances he got last year, but now the red light’s going on. It’s just a year of experience and a lot of confidence right now.”

Walter isn’t just a one-dimensional player either. His new-found scoring touch complements the otherwise well-rounded game he displayed as a freshman.

“Walter is a guy that has great hockey savvy, awareness, and a tremendous amount of passion to play the game,” MacDonald says. “He does so many subtle little things out on the ice that you can’t teach kids how to do.

“He really is [a complete player]. His game savviness has gotten better. He’s positionally in much better places this year and we’re using him on a regular shift with penalty killing and power plays.”

The sophomore sniper says, “It’s great to be off to such a good start. It was what I was hoping for coming into this season. Last year, I didn’t get off to a great start offensively, and I think that hurt my confidence. My teammates are playing really well, and I’m pretty much feeding off of them, and hopefully I’ll continue to perform.”

Red Sox Agonistes, Part III

I don’t want to hear about next year. These opportunities are far too precious to be squandered. The fact is that the core of this team is going to be almost impossible to keep together. This was the year.

The Boston Herald‘s Kevin Mannix had it right when he wrote, “If the Red Sox had the kind of strategic and emotional direction from their coaches that the Patriots have received from theirs, nobody would be talking about 1918 or the Marlins today.”

Giving Them Their Due

In this year’s Season Preview, I picked Lowell and Merrimack to finish eighth and ninth because of glaring question marks in goal. Discussion of both teams began with the phrase, “Goaltending, goaltending, goaltending.” No other teams in the league had less reason for optimism that their dufflebags could get the job done.

Well, the season is young but it’s already time to give credit where credit is due. Merrimack’s Casey Guenther and Lowell’s Chris Davidson have done an excellent job, stopping the preponderance of pucks sent their way.

Other than mop-up duty, Guenther had managed only three games in two years with one of those coming as an emergency replacement the night after Joe Exter’s near-tragic injury. Usually if a goaltender can’t assert himself for at least a little more action than that over two seasons, he’s just not up to snuff.

So when coach Chris Serino said in the preseason, “We think Casey is going to be very good, one of the better goaltenders in the league,” it sounded a lot like whistling past the graveyard. That is, no coach can come out and say, “My guy can’t even stop a beach ball. He stinks. I don’t know how we’re going to cover up for his weaknesses.” If a coach says his goalie is a stiff, it’ll likely become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So this writer viewed Serino’s comments as attempts to prop up a major weakness, not unlike the dead guy in Weekend At Bernie’s.

So much for that assessment.

Guenther earned last week’s Hockey East Player of the Week Award after holding Northeastern to two goals and shutting out Providence. He now holds a 2-2-1 record with a 2.17 GAA and a .921 save percentage.

“We know he’s a good goaltender,” Serino says. “His first year he had some growing pains to go through. It was a year when we went through a lot of stuff [with my illness]. Last year, Joe was just playing so well. Joe never had a slump where I could say, ‘Casey, go play.’ But when I did play him, he played well.

“Obviously experience is huge, but we felt Casey was going to be very good. I told him, ‘You’ve already proven it to us. We know. Prove it to everyone else now.’ He’s done that.”

Lowell’s goaltending situation appeared even more dire. The River Hawks suffered last year with the league’s worst goaltending, a dubious distinction it would have ‘won’ in a landslide. Then the returning number one guy, Dominic Smart, who had at least finished well, left the team in August for personal reasons. Transfer John Yaros, who had impressed in practices, would not be eligible until after the holidays.

That left Chris Davidson, who played poorly last season (3.86 GAA, .848 Sv%), and Paul Mammola, who had been fourth on the depth chart before Smart’s departure.

To be blunt, this had disaster written all over it. A much younger team than last year’s edition would presumably expose Davidson’s weaknesses even more.

Wrong again.

Davidson has looked like a new man (2.14 GAA, .909 Sv%).

“We’ve played five games and he’s played three great games, one clunker and one decent game,” MacDonald says. “I think the two goals against Canisius were bad goals, [although it] could have been a tough game to play. He didn’t see a lot of shots.

“But the night before against Niagara, if he’s not in the nets we’re out of the game after 20 minutes. The same thing against Anchorage. He was borderline spectacular all game. And he played great against Miami.

“So he’s really, really brought his game to a whole different level. What we’re looking for is a level of consistency from everyone, whether it’s a goalie, forward or defenseman and be able to maintain that level of play on a consistent basis. He’s done that so far.”

Red Sox Agonistes, Part IV

There’s no Curse of the Bambino. Babe Ruth is merely a fat guy who Grady Little would have pinchrun for with two outs in the eighth inning…. or substituted Damien Jackson for in the sixth inning as a defensive replacement…. or relegated to the bench if Derek Lowe were pitching.

A New First-Place Team

The big winner last weekend had to be Merrimack, which took three of four league points with a 4-2 win over Northeastern and then played to a scoreless tie with Providence.

“Anytime you play in Hockey East, no matter who you’re playing, if you take three out of four points it’s been a success,” Serino says. “If you took three out of every four points every week, you’d be at the top of the league.

“So we feel like we got off on the right foot, especially since we were on the road for one game. We’re pleased, but we can improve on our play.”

Serino has been fighting the perception among many that last year Merrimack was a one-man team led by goaltender Joe Exter, whose departure would have left the Warriors without a prayer this year.

“Everybody [views] us as though our whole ballgame was based on Joe,” Serino says. “I think we’re much better defensively than people give us credit for. I think our defensemen are really good.

“I think in [Eric] Pedersen, [Tony] Johnson, [Rob] LaLonde and [Bryan] Schmidt we’ve got four elite defensemen there. I feel very good about our defense. The emergence of Jeff Caron and Mike Sullivan — they logged significantly more ice time against Northeastern and Providence than they had in the previous games — has allowed those [four] guys to get a little more rest and therefore they’ve played better.

“That’s a part of our team that’s really been overlooked. Johnson and Pedersen have been starters for four years. Schmidt just had a great freshman year. And so did LaLonde, but I think Schmidt kind of [overshadowed] him. They’re big, they’re mobile and they can all handle the puck.”

Underlining Serino’s point is the fact that the number one star of the scoreless tie was neither Guenther nor Providence goaltender David Cacciola. It was Pedersen.

“He played outstanding,” Serino says. “He played shorthanded, on the power play, played a regular shift and was immense on defense. The factor of the matter was that Casey played well, but he didn’t have to play outstanding for the shutout. He didn’t stand on his ear for the shutout.”

Red Sox Agonistes, Part V

Four chances to pull Pedro. Four! Exactly what was required — other than the complete blowing of a three-run lead and a trip to the World Series, of course — to let Grady know that the Yankees were hammering the out-of-gas Pedro?

Did Don Zimmer need to hit a home run? George Steinbrenner? George Costanza?

Four chances!

Argghhh! Time to gargle with Drano….

Your Mother-in-law, Your Sports Car And A Cliff

You know the old joke about mixed feelings.

Well, it applies in great measure to Providence, which stands at 4-1-1 and a national ranking (15th), but holds only a single point in league play after a 6-4 loss to BU and a scoreless tie with Merrimack. Arguably, once BC and Maine commence their Hockey East schedules the Friars will find themselves leapfrogged into an early seventh place.

“That’s why our league is so good,” coach Paul Pooley says. “The first four games we played decent, but we weren’t as challenged as we were on Friday night against BU or [Saturday against] Merrimack. So it’s a learning process for our team. We’ve had a couple injuries that haven’t helped us with our depth, but I’m excited.

“We’ve got a long way to go as a hockey club; we’re not anywhere where we need to be, but we’re doing some positive things and we’re showing a lot of heart and character.”

One positive has been the play of forward Chase Watson who had earned back-to-back Hockey East Rookie of the Week honors prior to opening league play last weekend.

“Somebody has to [make an immediate impact],” Pooley says. “We’re playing five freshman forwards so somebody has to play in certain [key] spots. He’s played with a couple of guys — Torry Gajda and John Goodwin — who’ve really complemented what he’s done.

“But I think the freshmen got a dose of Hockey East this past weekend and what it’s all about. That’s why they’ll continue to get better because they’re getting challenged every time they’re on the ice no matter who they’re playing against.”

The Friar goaltending also included a surprise last weekend. Bobby Goepfert had played every game, earning the Hockey East Defensive Player of the Week Award two weeks ago, but he faltered on Friday night against BU. David Cacciola played well in relief and then again the next night in the scoreless tie with Merrimack. As a result, Cacciola took the league’s Defensive Player of the Week Award giving Providence an unusual back-to-back honor.

“Bobby played the first four games because he played very well, but struggled a little bit on Friday night against BU and David went in and played well,” Pooley says. “A thing about sports is when you get your opportunity what you do with it and David made the most of it.

“So that’s a big positive from a coach’s perspective and it’s a motivator for the two goalies. David had a couple good games and that was the best thing that could happen for us. Now he’s got to keep making the most of his opportunities to stay in competition for playing. That’s true for everybody. It’s a positive and a motivator for David and gives him a lot of confidence and that’s good for our hockey club.”

Red Sox Agonistes, Part VI

The Red Sox absolutely did the right thing in not bringing Grady Little back and not just because of his outrageous, crushing blunder in The-Latest-Game-To-Rip-Our-Hearts-Out. Yeah, he was great in the clubhouse, but he’s not a good Xs-and-Os manager.

But he pounded the nails in his own coffin with his interview in the Boston Globe, saying, “Just add one more ghost to the list if I’m not there, because there are ghosts. That’s certainly evident when you’re a player in that uniform.”

There are ghosts?

No, there are no ghosts. There can be some bad breaks, great pressure, some failures to deliver in the clutch, and mind-boggling blunders (from Galehouse to Grady).

Grady’s contention that there are ghosts (and obviously he doesn’t mean literally) that have done in the Red Sox makes him absolutely unqualified to lead this team.

Ghosts didn’t do them in this year or in 1946. Stupidity did.

An Early Pivotal Weekend

Obviously, the season is just getting started, but two teams are facing off this weekend with the opportunity to get a significant leg up on the competition or, alternatively, fall in an early hole.

Northeastern and Lowell are the two Hockey East teams to have played league games and not yet record a point. They both have only a single loss in conference play, but getting swept this weekend would leave them clawing to get back into the mix.

“It reminds me a lot of last year when we played UMass-Amherst early on and we let both of those games slip away,” says Blaise MacDonald. “It was really a defining time for UMass’s program and season and it really set us back. This weekend has all the same flavors.”

Lowell at least can point to a nonconference win and a feel-good 14-11 goal differential. Northeastern, on the other hand, has lost three straight after opening with a 3-3 tie with Colgate. The Huskies did travel to Denver for two tough games there, but can’t be pleased with getting outscored 15-7 in the three losses.

“The biggest thing is that we probably haven’t got the play in the goalie position that we were looking for,” coach Bruce Crowder says. “When you look at our save percentage both guys are in the low 80s. [Keni Gibson (0-2-1, 3.93 GAA, .836 Sv%) and Tim Heneroty (0-1-1, 6.00 GAA, .838 Sv%)]. You’re not going to be successful with that. Somebody in that position has to step up and be a difference-maker.

“Offensively, we’ve been a little snakebit early here. But hey, we’re four games into the season and there’s a lot of hockey to be played.

“We’re a team that’s relatively young at the same time, too. We’ve got three 18-year-old freshman defensemen. We’re playing a lot of freshmen and it takes a little time for those guys to get their feet planted and feel a little more comfortable in what they’re doing. The coaching staff is being as positive as we can be making sure that it’s going to help us in the long run.”

As a result, Crowder isn’t looking at this weekend as an early make-or-break series.

“Anytime you get Hockey East games they become pretty important whether it’s the first two games of the season or the last,” he says. “For us, we’re just trying to get better every game we go out there. Obviously, we haven’t shown up in the win column yet so that’s one of the things we need to get done and at the same time I’d like to see us improve a lot of areas of our game.”

Red Sox Agonistes, Part VII

Can we agree that Florida Marlins fans — which number well into the tens of thousands — are among the least deserving groups to win two World Series in less than a decade?

By contrast, I offer one anecdote and one fact.

Anecdote: A friend of mine who considers all sports “a waste of cycles” (geekspeak for a waste of time) had a conversation with her young daughter in which the little tyke convinced her mother that it was indeed important to “reverse the curse.” And at least until the little one’s bedtime, they watched the game together.

Factoid: At 11 p.m. in the Boston television market, game seven of the Red Sox – Yankees series saw 79 percent of all televisions that were on were tuned to Red Sox-Yankees. Seventy-nine percent!

Congrats, A Thank You And An Explanation

In reverse order…

If you didn’t get the joke about the current Niagara coach being able to see over the dasher, the previous Purple Eagles coach was the vertically challenged UMass-Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald.


Thanks to Scott Weighart for filling in so well last week. I’m considering it a stab in my back, however, that he turned in his column two days before the deadline. Now that is an ugly precedent.

Finally, congratulations to Lowell’s Chris Fontas for scoring his first goal last week. I was one of Chris’s youth hockey coaches for four or five years and it’s great to see his success. Remember this: if Chris makes a great move, I taught him that one; if he makes a mistake, though, it’s the fault of his father, who ranks ninth on UNH career scoring lists with 174 points.

Red Sox Agonistes, Part VIII

The Boston Globe‘s legendary columnist Bob Ryan had the best opening line to sum up Redsoxian agony.

The reward for all that fidelity will surely come in another life. There is no indication it will ever materialize in this one.

And he had the second best closing lines in response to New York Yankees manager Joe Torre saying, “I think the Boston fans should be proud of their ball club. They were the toughest team we’ve faced in my eight years here.”

Ryan wrote:

The Red Sox always lose in great games. The 1975 World Series was an epic. The Bucky Dent Game was an epic. The 1986 World Series was a keeper. That’s the point. The Red Sox always play in these things, but they never wind up pouring the champagne.

Seriously. Would it spoil some vast eternal plan if the Red Sox could win one?

Trivia Contest

Last week’s contest asked three questions:

1. Which former Hockey East player turned baseball player reached Double-A in the minors, partly due to switching from infield to catcher?

2. What former Hockey East player scored an impressive 106 goals in three ECHL seasons after concluding his collegiate career?

3. Now the really tough one: What former Hockey East player once inspired his coach to say, “It wouldn’t surprise me if he was named Prime Minister someday”? He was named Hockey East’s top scholar-athlete twice in a row. As a senior, he only scored three goals all season … but two were game-winners.

The answers are:

1. Dan Donato, BU. Donato played third base in the Yankees’ system but switched to catcher in the D-Rays system and got as high as AA.

2. Cal Ingraham, Maine. The former Maine captain scored 106 goals in 209 games with the Tallahassee Tiger Sharks in the ECHL from ’95-’96 through ’97-’98. He actually went on to have three consecutive 50-goal seasons with the Idaho Steelheads of the WCHL.

3. Sean MacDonald, Northeastern. MacDonald won tons of honors here academically, leading Crowder to make this statement about him.

First to answer numbers two and three correctly was Lalit Joshi, whose cheer is:

“Thank you Josh Beckett!!! Let’s go Huskies!”

First to get question number one and the writer of one of the more impressive letters in memory is Alexandra Fitzpatrick. Check out her research:

The real answer to a trivia question is do I have way too much time on my hands???? The answer is an absolute, without question, and unapologetic… YES!

1) Off the top of my head I can only think of one guy who played pro baseball and hockey. None other than Danny Donato – BU

2) Well sit back and enjoy this one because for the life of me I couldn’t find the magic 106 goals in three season but I did find the following…there may just be a future trivia question in here somewhere.

– I really thought I had it with John Campbell of UMass-Lowell. But playing for 3 different teams in the 2002-2003 season he snuck an extra nine goals in when he suited up for the Cincy Cyclones and ended up with a total of 115 over 3 ECHL seasons. Huh, the nerve!

– Jon Pratt, BU, had 106 in two seasons with 57 for the Rivermen in 96-97 and 49 in 97-98. But then he went on to net 35 more for a grand total of 141 in four seasons.

– John Joyce of BC fame also had 106 in 2 seasons with the Birmingham Bulls. 50 in 94-95 and then 56 in 95-96. But alas, those were the end of his days in the ECHL.

– UNH’s Eric Royal followed the trend and found 106 points in 2 seasons for Wheeling. In 95-96 he had 14 for the Wheeling Thunderbirds. In 96-97 the name change to the Wheeling Nailers brought him luck as he accumulated 92 points that season for a total of 106. Then he scored 51 more with the Pee-Dee Pride for a grand total of 157 points in 3 ECHL seasons. Again, these guys are obviously purposely ruining my chances on this trivia question!

– Finally, hailing out of Providence College, there is Troy Lake. It took him 4 seasons to amass one shy of the magic 106 number. He had 105. 92 in three seasons with Roanoke Express and then 13 in his final season with Richmond Renegades.

Other findings of note re: ECHL…

– Cal Ingraham of Maine scored 256 points in 3 seasons.

– Glen Steward of UNH fame had 170 points in 2 seasons including 92 in one season.

– J.F. Aube scored a whopping 417 points in 6 seasons.

Makes you wonder what happened to these guys and why they never stepped it up to the next levels.

And finally, not that it has anything to do with anything, but…

– Eric Peterson from Northeastern scored an incredible 141 points in one season over in Holland. 40 games, 64 goals, 77 assists. Wow.

3) Steve Thornton – BU – I know this is not what you were going for because he scored well over 3 goals his senior year but I’d put money on the fact I heard Coach Parker say something like that about Stevie.

Alexandra not only gets a cheer, but also immediate induction into the Get-A-Life Hall of Fame. (And yes, in these parts that comment is uttered with great admiration.) Her cheer is short and sweet:

“Go BU!”

This week’s question observes that Providence has earned back-to-back Defensive Player of the Week honors, but with two different goaltenders. Email my trivia account with the most recent previous two goaltenders from the same team to achieve this distinction and indicate the dates. 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.

Red Sox Agonistes, Epilogue and Epitaph

The best closing line of them all, the one that describes the agony in exquisite perfection, comes from Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci.

Years and decades from now, in the dead of a cold New England winter, one Boston fan will look up from his chowder and, apropos of nothing, shake his head and say quietly, “I can’t believe Grady left Pedro in.” And all the other members of Red Sox nation present will immediately know exactly what is being said and they will bow their heads in silence, as if mourning the loss of a loved one.

Thanks to Travis Barrett, Vince McConeghy and Craig Roberts.