Going into Saturday night’s rematch with Merrimack, Boston University had been held to two or fewer goals in four of its six games. The power play had failed to score on 21 consecutive opportunities and was converting at a league worst 6.25 percent rate (2-for-32 on the season).
The Terriers had just been tied by Merrimack in a contest in which they had two wide-open opportunities all alone in front during overtime and had failed to capitalize. The postgame shot charts showed BU with attempts galore from just outside the crease. The scoreboard, however, showed only a 2-2 tie. And this was on the heels of scoring only a single goal against Maine and then being shut out by New Hampshire in the previous two games.
The Terriers had officially entered the can’t-throw-a-puck-into-the-ocean zone.
BU coach Jack Parker opened his postgame comments by saying, “I don’t like the fact that we got two goals on 40 shots. Again.”
He then added, “When you have the puck all alone twice in overtime in front of the goaltender and you walk in another time in overtime and can’t put it home and shoot it wide, you’re a little snakebitten, I’d say.”
The one thing BU partisans could hang their hats on is that the opportunities were there. Sooner or later, the Terriers had to start converting. A week earlier against UNH, they hadn’t generated the kind of chances that lend themselves to an offensive breakthrough. This, at least, was progress.
“We got a lot of shots against UNH, but not [quality] shots,” Parker said. “We weren’t at the net all night. We were at the net all night against this team. We had a lot of opportunities right at the paint. But if [we’re] not getting goals it’s hard to watch.”
Hard to watch indeed. The top returning scorers — Frantisek Skladany, Mark Mullen, Brian McConnell and Kenny Magowan — totaled only four goals and five assists in six games.
“We’re getting shots,” Parker said. “We’re getting plenty of shots. Territorial advantage is what we want.” Pointing to the shot charts, he continued, “They got two grade-A [chances] and we got 15 or 20. So the problem is we’re just not getting it by the goaltenders.
“I can’t fault our play as far as getting the puck into the zone. We’re flying on the power play, getting through center ice, we get it set up and get opportunities. We’re just not scoring goals.
“But I’m sure they will come. Guys like Skladany and McConnell are struggling, but they’re going to get goals for us. Laliberte is going to get goals for us. There’s no question in my mind.”
There might have been a little whistling past the graveyard with those comments, but Saturday night’s 6-1 win proved them prophetic — at least to a point. Helped out, that is, by the reuniting of the Magowan, Skladany, and Brad Zancanaro line for the first time since last year. That unit responded with three goals.
“Actually, I came pretty close to benching Magowan tonight,” Parker said after the win. “I was undecided; he was playing on our third line, and I thought he didn’t play that well last night. There was a question of how can I get this guy going. He’s not playing that well; he didn’t play well against UNH. I was thinking of benching him and telling him he’s not good enough.
“I chatted with him and decided I’d put him back on his old line to see if I could get him going,” Parker added. “He obviously got jacked up a little bit. I thought Skladany was flying and so was Zancanaro; he looked like a waterbug out there. So we’ll keep them together.”
Laliberte scored his second of the season, as did freshman Kenny Roche, while David VanderGulik made it three goals on the weekend for the fourth line.
Of course, one game does not a season make. And McConnell and Skladany are still not producing. But the BU offense still poses a lot of problems.
“They’re strong down low,” said Merrimack coach Chris Serino. “They’re tough to get the puck from. They’re big and they’re strong down there. The thing that makes them tough, too, is their defensemen are so active in the offense that they create a lot of mismatches down there. Guys think their forward is down low and they start covering the wrong people. [Ryan] Whitney is going to the net all the time.”
And it’s not as though the Terriers offense has to recreate the editions of the early- and mid-nineties BU powerhouses. For eight straight seasons through 1997-98, they featured at least one All-American forward. Since then, only second-team selection Carl Corazzini in 2000-01 has earned that distinction. Yet, BU has been an NCAA tournament team all but twice, riding defense, goaltending, and enough offense to be successful.
“We don’t have pure goalscorers,” Parker said. “We didn’t have one guy in the top 15 in the league scoring last year and we were runnerup in the league championship and went to the national tournament. We won 25 games with offense by committee and I do believe that we’ll have guys who will step up. We’ll have more guys differentiating themselves this year than we did last year. It just hasn’t happened yet.”
Second To None?
When Providence opened the season, all eyes were on the offense. Gone were the big guns of the past several years: Jon DiSalvatore, Peter Fregoe and Devin Rask. The assumption was that Peter Zingoni, the only returning 20-plus-point man, would be the focal point. And he’s certainly done his part, scoring seven goals along with five assists.
Of late, however, it’s been the Friar second line that has been doing the heavy lifting. The trio of Torry Gajda, Chris Chaput and Jonathan Goodwin scored four goals in last Friday’s upset of New Hampshire and added another one on Saturday against Massachusetts.
“They weren’t our second line [against UNH],” PC coach Paul Pooley said. “They were playing a lot and they executed and [contributed to] two power-play goals. They’ve really stepped up since we put them together. They seem to have a little chemistry; they read off each other. They’re not our second line anymore.”
Gajda, a sophomore, now leads the team with 13 points on six goals and seven assists. He earned Hockey East Player of the Week honors for his two-goal, one-assist weekend.
“He’s always scored, but [now] he’s shooting the puck,” Pooley said. “He’s going to the net, he’s got quick hands and he’s relentless. He doesn’t always look good getting it done, but he’s getting it done.”
Although Chaput preceded Gajda to the Friars by a year, they played together for the New England Jr. Coyotes, so it’s no surprise that they’re hitting it off well together.
“Chap and I played together back in junior hockey so we know each other pretty well,” Gajda said. “John Goodwin is just a solid player. He bangs the body and the puck comes loose and he goes to the net. We find him and he finds us. We’re just jelling.”
When a questioner jokingly asked him about Goodwin being the outsider of the trio, Gajda laughed.
“I don’t know if he’s the outsider, but I tell you what, he’s becoming the insider now,” Gajda said. “He’s working real well.”
That working together hasn’t just been in putting up the points. It’s also been in the defensive zone. All three rank among PC’s top forwards in plus-minus.
“That’s been my weakness [in the past], the defensive part of the game,” he said. “So I’m just concentrating on that right now. My offensive numbers, I have that. It’s easy to play offense now that I know how to play defense.
“[As a line], we play solid defense. The numbers might say we play better offense, but the guys are covering really well on defense and we transition the puck really well. Chap just knows where the puck is going to go and Goodwin finds it or I find it. Our transition game is really solid and we run with it.”
As to whether the goalscoring will continue at its current pace, who knows?
“I hope it’s not [just] a hot streak,” Gajda said. “I had an opening this year so I came in ready to go, knowing I was going to get a shot. I’ve just run with it.”
So Much For “The Weak Link”
Since the first day of practice, the media mantra surrounding Boston College has been, “What a great lineup! But I dunno about the goaltending.”
It’s not as though anyone has considered Matti Kaltiainen a sieve. It’s just that when you’re going after a Hockey East title and then a national championship, you’re facing the goaltending elite, such as UNH’s Mike Ayers or last year’s Cornell phenom Dave LeNeveu. So if you were a BC fan and Kaltiainen was your man, you expected to be out-goaltended. Matti might be a really nice kid and a very good goaltender, but he wasn’t in anybody’s elite category.
Based on the early returns, however, Kaltiainen may be pulling a Scott Clemmensen on all of us. Clemmensen, you’ll recall, was similarly considered BC’s weak link, especially after that brutal goal as a freshman in overtime of the national championship game in 1998. He recovered from that crushing defeat to become one of the major keys to the Eagles advancing to the Frozen Four his next three years, culminating in the 2001 title.
He wasn’t flamboyant, but he was rock solid, seldom giving shooters much of the net to work with. The kid became well-nigh unbeatable after the calendar flipped to March.
Kaltiainen may be following a similar path. Since a poor game at North Dakota on Oct. 17, he has held opponents to only a single goal (plus an extra-skater tally by UNH a week ago) the past six starts. In that stretch his save percentage has been .941.
Certainly the BC defense deserves a lot of credit. After all, they’ve kept the shot totals down to exceptional levels: 18 (North Dakota), 18 (Notre Dame), 16 (UMass-Lowell), 24 (Maine), 21 (UNH) and 15 (UMass).
But if a goalie is seeing few shots and stopping over 94 percent of them, he’s going to win you a lot of games.
“If you’re going to be good, you need solid goaltending,” BC coach Jerry York said. “That was the one area that we really had to solidify for our club this year. I think Matti’s play in the NCAA tournament last year and his start here has really helped us think that we have that equation solved.”
The turning point was near the end of last year when assistant coach Jim Logue, who handles the BC goaltenders, convinced Kaltiainen to let his 6-2 frame do more of the work for him. The idea was to be less of a reflex goalie playing deep in the net, and to come further out.
“We’re trying to make him more aggressive,” York said. “He’s a big kid. The current trends are to stay deep in your net or come out. We like him at the top of the blue, out at the top of the crease.”
Kaltiainen added, “I cover much more net and I don’t have to react so much. I just trust my size and use it.”
The “Other” Pointman
It doesn’t take long to see that defenseman Thomas Pock is the focal point for the UMass power play. The guy didn’t score 37 points as a converted forward last year for nothing. He already has eight goals and eight assists this season to lead Minuteman scoring.
As a result, he gets a lot of attention. A case in point was Saturday’s game against Providence. The Friars made the sensible decision to make sure Pock wasn’t the guy to beat them on the power play. That paid dividends when he pulled much of the attention to the right side, only to feed Marvin Degon for a one-timer and an early lead.
“I think Tommy just read off of what he saw he saw out there,” UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon said. “Quite honestly I think he just took himself out of what we call ‘The House’ — the grade-A area — and [Providence] was just honoring him so much that they came off angle with him and that left the middle of the rink open to get it to [Degon] to tee it up.
“They did a good job of trying to neutralize Tommy tonight, but I don’t think you can fully take the game away from him because he’s so adept with the puck and he has such a feel for the game. He still manages to be a strong contributor for us.”
With the extra attention on Pock, Degon’s contributions will become all the more important. The goal against Providence was his first, but he added an assist to bring that total to seven.
“I’ve hit four posts already, so it’s a good feeling,” Degon said with a smile. “Whenever you score a big goal in a game like this, it’s always a good feeling whether it’s your first or your 100th. You just take it in stride and hope more will come.”
Two Huge Points
Some may consider ties to be like kissing your sister, but at the end of the season Merrimack may well look back on the ties with BU on Friday and BC on Tuesday as decisive. With their upcoming gauntlet of games (see “Tough Sledding” below), pulling two points out of a possible six with BU and BC was huge.
“We’ve been in every single game, but you can’t continually lose and keep your confidence level going,” Merrimack coach Chris Serino said after the Friday night tie. “No matter what kind of a team you are and how good you play, when you lose you keep finding ways to lose. That’s why it was important for us to get points tonight and not find a way to lose this game. It would have been devastating for us to lose the game. Hopefully, this is a little pick-me-up for us.”
Granted, the Tuesday night tie included being outshot by BC, 40-14, but sometimes you take your points where you can get them.
“We don’t get many points over here, so to get a point and get out of here is good for our team,” Serino said.
Over the past decade or so, the four perennial powerhouses — Boston College, New Hampshire, Maine and Boston University — have provided the other Hockey East teams with their stiffest competition. If you had a weekend series with one of those schools, you knew you were in for a battle.
Between now and January, the other five teams will be seeing not a hint of each other, but only a steady dose of the four league bellwethers.
Northeastern, Merrimack and Providence face the stiffest challenges, each with those toughest of league games extending into the middle of January. Northeastern, still looking for its first win, will face UNH and BC twice each along with a singleton at BU. Only a stunning upset (or two) will prevent the Huskies from a Jan. 15 position in the cellar, having garnered only a single league point. Providence faces a similar test: two games each against BC and UNH as well as a lone contest against Maine. Merrimack faces Maine twice followed by single games at UNH and BC.
The gauntlet is similarly testing for Lowell and UMass, but only lasts until the New Year. The River Hawks play a home-and-home against BU and travel to UNH. The Minutemen, who are bidding to join the perennial powerhouses, face Maine, BU and UNH.
All of which means that in the next month and a half we could be seeing some major separation in the standings.
Quotes of Note
(As noted last week: 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.)
Last week’s question recognized Lowell’s Ben Walter for his great start with 10 goals in his first seven games and asked who the last UML player was to achieve this feat. The answer was All-American Mike Carr. Carr went two games during the stretch without scoring a goal, but managed to total 12 goals in the first seven games of the 1981-82 season. According to UML Assistant Director of Athletic Media Relations Dan Fisher — who is as nice of a guy as he is a horrible poker player — “Carr picked up his 10th goal at 16:53 of the second period, while Walter notched his 10th at 6:16 of the second.” That, folks, is why they pay Dan the big bucks.
It’s no surprise that Scott Kaplan was the first to answer correctly since he’s a River Hawk mega-fan to rival any other. He and his wife even followed the team to Anchorage, Alaska, earlier this year for its appearance in the Nye Frontier Classic. Every team should have fans as loyal as those two. His cheer is:
“Hey BU, This Our House! Go Hawks!”
This week’s question asks in what way Maine’s schedule this season is unprecedented. The answer does not mean playing an individual team or league for the first time. It goes beyond one or two matchups. Think big picture. 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…
Thanks to Scott Weighart and Jim Connelly.