He’s Put A Spell On ‘Em
I put a spell on you
Because you’re mine.
Can there be any doubt now that New Hampshire goaltender Mike Ayers owns Boston University?
The All-American took his mastery of the Terriers to absurd new levels when he shut them out this past weekend for the fourth straight time. The streak has included four different buildings and four different scenarios, but one common result.
The big doughnut.
It began on Jan. 25, two days after the Terriers lit him up for three third-period goals and a 5-2 win. Ayers responded with a 38-save performance at the Whittemore Center and he was on his way. Less than two months later — the Ides of March, to be precise — Ayers and BU goaltender Sean Fields both took shutouts into overtime at the FleetCenter in the Hockey East championship game, but Ayers emerged with the zero intact. Two weeks later, it was the same old story at the Worcester Centrum as Ayers’ 27 saves sent the Wildcats to the Frozen Four. And then this week, perhaps the toughest venue of them all, Walter Brown Arena.
Regular season home and away games, Hockey East playoffs and NCAA playoffs; the streak has run the gamut.
It now includes a total of 123 saves. To put that in perspective, the Terriers would have to score on the next 14 shots on Ayers to drop his post-Jan. 23 save percentage against them under .900. Fourteen shots, fourteen goals. That’s what it would take. Anyone wanna take a Vegas bazillion-to-one gamble that Ayers will let the next 14 BU shots in?
I didn’t think so.
That dominance has had BU coach Jack Parker saying everything from, “He’s a great goaltender” to “There was only one problem for us — that was Michael Ayers.”
As for Ayers, he isn’t about to provide bulletin board fodder for the next time the two teams meet, which isn’t until the final weekend of the regular season.
“I think we just play them at the right time,” he says. “I don’t know what it is, but defensively we’re playing strong defense against BU and we were fortunate to get some bounces here and there, which obviously helps.”
Bounces here and there? Four straight shutouts including 123 saves? Them’s a whole lot of bounces.
Still Ayers is able to play around with the suggestion that team Sports Psychology guru Tim Churchard could help him visualize a Terrier jersey on all future opponents.
“That’d be nice,” he says with a laugh. “We’ll have to talk to Coach Churchard this week about that.”
Fly On The Wall
Wouldn’t you like to have been a fly on the wall when Jack Parker, his assistants and players heard that Ayers, one day after shutting out the Terriers for the fourth straight game, had allowed three goals on Maine’s first four shots?
Even Strength On The PK
Going into Wednesday’s contest with UNH, Boston College’s penalty kill was not only clicking at a .949 rate, allowing only two power-play goals in 39 chances, but had also scored shorthanded three times. That is, the Eagles had scored more goals than they’d allowed while down a man or two.
Time to yell, “Even strength” when an Eagle goes into the penalty box? Well, maybe not, but you get the point.
Of course, BC has been firing both barrels of the double barrel PK shotgun — shutting down the opponent while also striking for key shorthanded goals — with aplomb the last few years.
|1999-2000||.885 (1st)||12 (1st)|
|2000-2001||.901 (1st)||12 (1st)|
|2001-2002||.824 (4th)||10 (1st)|
|2002-2003||.861 (2nd)||7 (2nd)|
This year’s success to date, however, tops all of that. Of late, the Eagle penalty kill has been especially hot, stopping 24 straight power plays prior to the UNH game.
“It’s a real credit to a bunch of our players, [especially] Ryan Murphy and Ty Hennes, our main penalty-kill guys,” says Ben Eaves. “When they’re out there it seems like they’re creating as many chances as the power-play unit. We just take our lead from them.
“[Assistant coach] Ronnie Rolston has got us pressuring the puck. We feed off each other and just get our legs moving, trying to create havoc in the zone.”
Head coach Jerry York is also quick to praise Rolston’s influence. “He puts a lot of time and effort into it. He’s always talking to his brother [Brian] about the Bruins and he keeps right on the edge of current PK situations.”
Brian Rolston presumably has a tidbit or two about the penalty kill to share since he’s scored 24 shorthanders in his NHL career, including 14 over the last two years as a Boston Bruin.
Still, there’s only so much that Xs and Os can do without physical talent. And that’s where BC’s team speed gives an extra in-your-face, you-better-not-make-a-mistake advantage.
“We’re mobile and quick and we’re going to pressure,” York says. “We’re dangerous. We can throw Patrick and Ben [Eaves] out there and they can score goals. We’ve got six good ones.”
York also points to the improvement netminder Matti Kaltiainen has shown. “We’ve been good the last couple years, but now we’re getting better goaltending which makes us even more difficult to score power-play goals against.”
The Shorthanded King
When Maine lost 60 percent of its offense heading into this season, there were plenty of questions as to who would be able to fill the void.
One emphatic answer has been Todd Jackson, named a week ago as Hockey East’s Player of the Month. He’s scored seven goals, three of them game-winners and four on the penalty kill. As a captain, he’s also led one of the league’s most pleasant team surprises, last weekend’s difficult road trip notwithstanding.
“Every year you come back you’re going to get more responsibility,” Jackson says. “It’s happened to me through my years. This year I’m fortunate that Coach [Tim Whitehead] has given me a lot of opportunities on special teams and I’m playing with two really good guys, [Derek Damon and Greg Moore]. We’ve been clicking pretty well.”
While most observers, this writer included, expected Jackson to smoothly move into a larger role on the team and become one of the league’s top players, his prowess shorthanded has been surprising. In his first three years, he scored only once on the penalty kill, but his four in nine games leads the country.
“Teams sometimes are thinking strictly offense on the power play,” he says. “Sometimes it’s a great chance to take advantage of that. We’ve been fortunate to get some chances and I’ve been capitalizing on them.
“It’s definitely deflating for the other team because they usually have their top players out there and they’re thinking this is their chance to score. To get a goal against when you’re on the power play is tough.”
Although this past weekend’s losses on the road to BC and UNH were unpleasant bumps in the road, Jackson retains a pragmatic view.
“If you can learn something out of it and take some positives out it, then it’s not a complete disaster,” he says. “It’s a wakeup call and we realize we’re not invincible. It’s good to learn the lessons early in the season rather than in April.”
But On The Other Hand
This writer rarely takes individual players to task. They are, after all, not professionals. Many have no future in professional hockey. They’re playing for the love of the game. Maybe I also tend to sympathize because I’ve got a son who’s just starting his collegiate hockey career (at Wesleyan). I’ve also coached a fair number of athletes and found them to be, on the whole, a lot of fun to be around and basically good kids. I’m not going to go out of my way to kick a kid publicly when he’s down.
Exactly when is Maine’s Prestin Ryan going to harness his considerable talents and dispense with the goon-like behavior? That stuff may have played well in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and it will almost certainly play well in the pros after he completes this his final season as a Black Bear. But it only hurts his own team when he does it in college hockey.
Ryan did himself and the Black Bears no favors picking up a game disqualification (and a resulting automatic one-game suspension) for punching after attempting a leg check. It isn’t often that late-game fracases result in one player getting the game DQ, but not the other. In this case, however, it appeared completely justified. Ryan was, again, sadly out of control.
As a result, the Black Bears defense — not the deepest unit in college hockey to begin with — had to face UNH’s forwards shorthanded. That’s not a good combination. Troy Barnes had already suffered a concussion, so when the Wildcats had their one-on-one way with the depleted blueliners it was pretty predictable.
And in Ryan’s case, completely avoidable.
When Whitehead was asked after the BC game if he was concerned about what happened at the end, he answered somberly, “Yes, I am. I’m very concerned about how it ended.”
While he didn’t elaborate, one would assume that Whitehead expects better, much better, out of his assistant captain.
This is, after all, not some new phenomenon. Two years ago, Ryan accumulated 91 penalty minutes. Last year, he broke Maine’s record with 120 minutes. After two seasons, he was already fourth on the school’s all-time list. This year he’s been assessed 44 penalty minutes in just eight games.
This is his final season of eligibility. Perhaps the light will never go on and he’ll continue to pile up the penalties, and suspensions as well, all the while leaving the Black Bears without their most talented defenseman.
But here’s hoping the light does go on and Ryan sticks to making use of the talents that many a kid can only dream about.
Quote Of The Week, Take I
Ayers on teammate Steve Saviano’s “sick” game-winner against Maine:
“It’s almost like he has fun toying with the defensemen. It’s weird. He gets into a corner and starts stopping-and-starting and it’s very difficult for a big defenseman to keep up with him.”
Quote Of The Week, Take II
After completing a four-point weekend with a win over Maine after shutting out Boston University, UNH coach Dick Umile was asked about Wednesday night’s game against Boston College.
“I’m not even going to think about it until after Sunday,” he said. “I’m going to have my pasta tomorrow and then I’ll worry about it. But we know who we’re playing.”
Quote Of The Week, Take III
Maine coach Tim Whitehead, after losing, 4-1, to Boston College:
“All their players outplayed ours. They outworked us in every category. We bit ourselves in the butt tonight.”
Several weeks ago, I received an email with the subject “East Coast Bias.” It arrived after the Red Sox’ agonizing seventh-game loss to the Yankees and began with the words, “First of all, nice game by the Sox last night.”
In any case, he then went on to write:
Secondly, I think your ranking of the Gophers at number nine is a little suspicious. Why do you always rank Eastern teams higher? Is it because you don’t see many CCHA or WCHA games? The WCHA is by far the best conference in the country. I am a huge Gopher fan. I hate them all, but I at least admit that most WCHA teams are far and away better than Hockey East teams, plus Cornell and Harvard. The Gophers were a little sluggish last weekend, but they were at the start of the last two seasons also. I think you’ll be seeing a three-peat before teams like the previously mentioned Cornell, Harvard, [UNH], or even BC or BU.
Stick to the Beanpot.
WCHA! WCHA! WCHA! WCHA!
I’m not about to address every fringe lunatic email I receive, but since the vast majority of the ones that I get concern rankings or weekly picks, let’s look at this and be done with it.
First, can we agree that a team’s ranking should be based on performance and strength of schedule once the season is well underway? And in the early going when limited results and circular inconsistencies make it all a muddle, then expectations of how strong a team is get factored in as well, but to a lesser extent than performance and strength of schedule?
Take Minnesota, for example.
Please, take them.
(Gopher fans, that was just a back-at-you cheap joke intended for the emailer who rubbed the Yankees in my face. I love all the rest of you. Believe me. Would I lie to you?)
What I mean is that a week ago Minnesota was 2-4-0 and yet was still ranked 11th in the country. I’m sorry, but no matter how tough the schedule, I can’t see any justification for a team with that record in the national standings. Their performance just doesn’t justify it. The Gophers were there based on reputation alone and I don’t buy that kind of vote.
Hey, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Gophers get back into the rankings in future months when they deserve it, but I was relieved this week to see that the voters who thought that a 2-4 team could be nationally ranked decided that even a defending national champion that should be pretty good, but is instead 2-6-0, isn’t national caliber. At least not yet.
The same thing goes for the UNH fans who couldn’t understand why I dropped the Wildcats all the way to fifth a week ago. Yeah, there was that niggling loss to Niagara, they asked, but fifth?
Of course! To that point, New Hampshire hadn’t beaten anyone particularly strong and had a bad loss. There were teams whose performance was better.
Admittedly, there are points where circular comparisons can make evaluating performance difficult. For example, how good is Minnesota-Duluth? The Bulldogs are only 4-4-2, but had claimed a sweep at Minnesota to their credit along with a tie against Boston College. Now that Minnesota is 2-6, however, how much is that sweep worth?
Or how about BU? The Terriers are only 2-2-1, but the two losses were against Maine (on the road) and UNH, two known powerhouses so far. Strength of schedule.
Or how about St. Cloud? The Huskies are 7-0-1, but other than the two wins last weekend over Duluth all the others have been at home against Wisconsin, Michigan Tech and Princeton. If you don’t think that schedule has so far been weak, then I’ll challenge you to spell “cupcake” and I’ll even spot you the vowels.
So there’s no perfect formula this early in the season. But it is always performance and strength of schedule in the fore.
Anyway, back to Mr. East Coast Bias. (He declined to be named after the Gophers’ losses.) He went on to claim that I “always rank Eastern teams higher.”
Let’s look at the top 10 teams since after 10 it can become progressively more difficult to come up with attractive choices. At the time the letter was written, I had four Hockey East teams in my top 10, five from the WCHA and one from the CCHA. That split has been pretty typical in my choices all season long.
Can EastCoastBias add?
And how about “The WCHA is by far the best conference in the country.”
Based on what, EastCoastBias’s objective analysis?
Last January, I compared the facts in the “Top-to-Bottom?” segment of a column. The numbers indicated that Hockey East was the strongest conference top-to-bottom, followed by the WCHA, the CCHA and ECAC (in that order).
And what happened in the NCAA tournament? Other than Minnesota, all the other WCHA teams lost to the first opponent from an established conference they faced.
Was Minnesota a terrific team that deserved to win the national championship last year? Definitely. They proved it. That’s a terrific program that deserves all the credit it got last year.
And there are plenty other terrific teams in that league.
But was the WCHA the top conference? Nope. Strictly runners-up. The numbers showed it last January and the NCAA tournament results backed that up.
You wanna make claims? Make them on objective facts, not wishful thinking.
And skip the intentional rudeness if you don’t want to be taken to task. I respond politely to reasonable emails — although I admit to being woefully behind — but I’m losing my stomach for tolerating abuse.
Old business: the date of when Maine’s Jimmy Howard and Frank Doyle earned back-to-back Defensive Player of the Week honors was Dec. 9-16, 2002. Ankur Patel included that information in his winning response, but I inadvertently left it out of last week’s solution.
Also, if you’re dying to win this trivia contest, here’s a hint. Go to the Hockey East page and look for this column there. It’ll show up earlier on that page than on the front page because of the way the columns are edited. Don’t give your competition a head start.
Alternatively, bookmark this page and then hit refresh a bajillion times until it shows up on Thursday night. That’ll also make my editors think I’m wildly popular with all those bogus requests for the page. Hey, I’m not proud.
Onward to last week’s question. It noted that Maine was off to an unprecedented 7-0 start and asked what Black Bear team began the season with the school’s longest undefeated stretch, when was it broken and by whom?
I’m not sure who enjoyed this question more, Maine fans or those from BU. The answer was the 1992-93 season when Maine started out with a 30-0-2 record. Their first and only loss of the season was 7-6 in overtime to Boston University on Feb. 19. The 1992-93 Black Bears, of course, went on to finish 42-1-2 and win the school’s first ever national championship. (A 3-3 tie with Providence in the second game is why this year’s 7-0 start was unprecedented.)
Chris Sayles got it first and his cheer is:
“When You Say Maine Black Bears, You’ve Said It All!!!”
This week’s question is quite a bit tougher. It recognizes Lowell’s Ben Walter for his great start with 10 goals in his first seven games and asks who the last UML player was to achieve this feat. Email my trivia account with your informed answers or wild guesses. 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…
If Doug can do it, so can I! Yeah!
I can stay up until four in the morning playing poker with my buddies. I can resume all those sports that I’d been sidelined from because of knee, back and neck problems. When my wife gives me a kiss, it won’t be out of mere decades-long devotion or, even worse, sympathy. It’ll be because I’m a HUNK again!
If Doug can do it, so can I! Yeah!
Can I hear yeah? Yeah!
Young again! Yeah!
A HUNK again! Yeah!
On the other hand, all this emotion has left me a little drained. Would you mind if I take a little nap before I meet you for a killer game of shuffleboard?
Thanks to Scott Weighart and Jim Lothrop.