River Hawks On a Roll
In last week’s column, yours truly commented about the UMass-Lowell and Boston University series by saying, “BU is a lot better than its 3-2-2 record and Lowell isn’t as good as its 4-4-2.”
Would you believe… a typo? I meant it the other way around?
No, I didn’t think so.
“Isn’t as good as its 4-4-2.”
At the time, that seemed accurate. The River Hawks’ four wins had come against Niagara (6-5-0), Northeastern (0-8-2) and Bentley (1-9-2) and one of the ties had been with Canisius (1-7-5). Not exactly the iron of college hockey.
In short, Lowell looked pretty close to what was expected of it in the preseason, namely an extremely young team that was a year or maybe two away from making a mark in Hockey East. Chris Davidson had been a major surprise in goal and Ben Walter was scoring goals like there was no tomorrow, but this would still be a team that would finish somewhere in the sixth-to-eighth place region in the standings. And it would be a big longshot in a weekend series against BU followed by a Tuesday evening clash at New Hampshire.
(By comparison, BU’s two losses to that point had been at Maine and to UNH so there was every reason to believe that the Terriers would once again be one of the nation’s better teams. More on that next week…)
When asked what his hopes had been going into that three-game gauntlet, UML coach Blaise MacDonald says, “To survive.”
Which is more than just another of the quipster’s best lines.
“Honestly, I think fear is a great motivator,” he says. “If you have the proper approach when you play great teams, it’s going to make you better. You may not come out with the win, but if you can take something from that experience it will make you better if you have the right attitude. We have a great group of young men that have that type of an attitude.
“I was just hoping for their spirit and confidence not to be shattered and then we’d take some good experiences out of it.”
Instead of their spirit and confidence getting shattered, MacDonald may now need to deal with a team turned egomaniacal after taking a stunning five of six points. The River Hawks marched into Walter Brown Arena and defeated BU, 3-1, tied the Terriers 3-3 in the back end of the home-and-home series and then stunned fourth-ranked UNH, 5-4, at the Whittemore Center.
“They say any time you get points in Hockey East it’s a good thing, but being able to get them against such good teams [makes it really special],” MacDonald says. “Three of our last five Hockey East games have been against teams in the top five of the country. All of our last five league games have been against top 10 teams.
“And only one of them has been at home; four have been on the road. That’s a great accomplishment for a team with the makeup [of youth] we have. It gives us a level of accomplishment and a sense of confidence.”
You don’t take five-of-six points like Lowell did without a total team effort, but the obvious individual heroes begin with Davidson stopping 56 BU shots to earn the Hockey East Defensive Player of the Week Award and then adding another 16 against UNH. And Elias Godoy will similarly be a strong contender for next week’s league honors after his hat trick and assist downed the Wildcats.
“You have to start with your goaltender,” MacDonald says. “He’s given us a level of calmness in all of our games. With that, you can build out. I think our special teams are much improved and in particular our penalty killing. That was a key to a lot of our victories. [Assistant coaches] Kenny Rausch, Bob Ware and Chris MacKenzie have done a great job with the special teams.
“Then when you look at individuals, guys like Andrew Martin, Elias Godoy and Ben Walter have been catalysts on the offensive end. And Matt Collar has been a Rock of Gibraltar on defense. That core of players has really been a key to our success.”
With a 6-4-2 record and some impressive feathers in the River Hawk caps, it’s only natural to wonder if the bar of expectations has been raised. How good can this young team be?
“I know this is coach-talk, but we’re still taking it one day at a time here,” MacDonald says. “For most of these Hockey East games that we’ve played, we’ve dressed 17 freshmen and sophomores. So we can’t afford to handicap even how we’re going to get out of bed tomorrow. That approach is giving us a chance at success.
“Our quote for practice today is, ‘If what you did yesterday looks big to you, you haven’t done anything today.’ That’s an appropriate quote to use for today’s practice, but it’s really an appropriate quote for our team. Coming into the season I was [thinking], ‘Okay in the second semester we’ll have [goaltender transfer] John Yaros, who will be eligible and our team will be more mature so that will help. But I never imagined that we would have already achieved our win total from last year.”
UMass Is For Real
Going into last weekend, Massachusetts had played only one nationally ranked opponent, Boston College, and had lost that one, 4-1. So questions remained as to just how good the Minutemen were. A record of 8-2-0 was impressive, but just how impressive?
The first significant step had been to win their season’s series with Providence, a team that has been in and out of the rankings.
“Everybody looks at the big four as being Maine, New Hampshire, BU and BC,” coach Don “Toot” Cahoon said after taking two-of-three from the Friars. “Then there are five very respectable programs and to begin to challenge the big four you have to get to the top of those five. So it’s nice to know that this series is out of the way and if we see Providence again we know it will be for something even more significant.”
Last weekend was the next step to take as UMass hosted Maine. A loss might well mean that the Minutemen were the class of the “Other Five,” but at this point were still “Not Ready For Prime Time Players.”
In that 1-1 tie, UMass again displayed the team defense that has been such a critical part of its success. So far, the Minutemen rank third in Hockey East, allowing just 2.25 goals per game. And at least in recent critical games, they’ve shown particular defensive strength in the third period, holding both Providence and Maine to just six shots in the third period (and none in overtime to the Black Bears). Having watched the PC game live, the six shots were actually an inaccurate measure of UMass’ defensive prowess. There really were no quality opportunities allowed.
Combined with the progress of goaltender Gabe Winer, who held off Maine early, UMass looks like the real deal.
As defensemen Thomas Pock noted after the PC win, “If we shut them out and give them as few shots as possible, we [know] that Gabe [is] going to be there for the rest of them.”
An Impressive Freshman Class
UNH’s freshman class had itself quite a weekend in its home-and-home series with Northeastern. The rookies scored all three goals in a 3-2 win at Matthews Arena and then added another three back home at the Whittemore Center one night later in a 5-2 win. Daniel Winnik and Brett Hemingway scored in both games while Jacob Micflikier and Dan Travis tallied on the road and at home, respectively. Hemingway added a third goal on Tuesday against Lowell.
All this for a program which such depth that historically it’s been very difficult for freshmen to get much playing time. Yet collectively this freshman class already has scored 15 times, led by Micflikier’s eight.
“They’re talented kids and I think the [assistant] coaches did a great job [recruiting them],” coach Dick Umile says. “People will see what they’re capable of doing. We could be a pretty good team by the end of the season with them coming along.
“They do good things. They have good vision out there. They handle the puck well and shoot the puck. We’re really happy with our younger players and we’ve been using a lot of them.”
Winnik adds, “We seem to be producing a lot. Flick [Micflikier], of course, is producing more than others. He’s having a great season so far. It was just a matter of time before the rest of us started chiming in on the goals.”
Keeping The Faith
Northeastern may be 0-8-2, but you wouldn’t know it from the comments of NU coach Bruce Crowder.
“As strange as it sounds, we’re a good hockey team,” he says. “It’s not showing up in the wins column, but I like this team. I like their youth. I like their skating ability. We just have to score more goals and keep getting the goaltending that we’ve gotten over the last two or three games from Keni [Gibson].”
Despite the mounting losses, he sees a continued positive attitude among the Huskies.
“They’ve been great,” he says. “They’ve been fantastic. The work ethic has been good. Right now, they’re obviously down and disappointed, but their work ethic — the off-ice [commitment] and all that stuff — has been fantastic. We have to continue as coaches to find ways to put more offense up.”
Umile agrees with Crowder’s assessment.
“They’re a good team,” Umile said on Saturday after his team defeated the Huskies. “I feel for Bruce. His team is well-coached, they work hard and they’re going to win some hockey games. I hope they win lots of games after tonight. And they will.”
Could Hockey East be any better placed in the current poll? Three of the four top teams are from the league and four of the top seven!
(“The Top 15 As I See It” returns next week. It’s a long, boring story. Yes, even longer and more boring than my usual stories.)
A few readers wondered what hallucinogens I’d been ingesting when I picked St. Cloud a week ago as my number one team. Did I really think the Huskies were the strongest team in the country? Of course, virtually every sarcastic remark was made after their double dip to Rensselaer. (Trashtalking Rule Number One: if you think I’ve dissed your team or propped up its rival, you have to state your case before the games. Having 20-20 hindsight and a buck-fifty gets you a cup of coffee. No more.)
The truth is that I had my doubts about St. Cloud. But my top 15 isn’t based on which teams I expect to play for a national championship this year. Otherwise, I’d just put Boston College first followed by North Dakota and New Hampshire and be done with it. Instead, I contend that rankings should be based on performance and St. Cloud and Colorado College were the only non-Ivies with only a single loss. St. Cloud’s schedule had been soft until the previous weekend, but the Huskies won me over with a split at North Dakota. That legitimized their 8-1-1 record.
And if you’re wondering why I had dropped North Dakota down to third despite the split, it’s because it was then mid-November and the Sioux had yet to hop on a bus or plane for even a single road trip. Yes, nine games into the season and every last one had been in the comfy confines of The Ralph. So there had to be some discounting of their 7-2-0 record.
Now that St. Cloud has taken the pratfall, however, their performance warrants much less lofty treatment.
Brown goaltender Yann Danis has a 0.82 GAA and a .971 save percentage. .971!
Division III independent Castleton State must not only try to be competitive in this its inaugural season, but plays 13 of its 19 games on the road.
Wesleyan goaltender Jim Panczykowski leads D-III goaltenders with a .966 save percentage. (Hey, you had to know you were going to get some good Cardinals talk with my son on the team…)
Quotes Of Note
Well Wishes And Congrats
Congratulations to Blaise MacDonald and his wife Carol on the birth of their daughter, Carly Christine.
Best wishes to BU athletic trainer Larry Venis, who is still recovering from the scary results of being hit with a puck in the Terriers’ game at Merrimack two weeks ago. LINK: http://www.uscho.com/news/2003/11/21_007344.php
And our thoughts are all with Colorado College assistant coach Norm Bazin, whose severe injuries in a car accident while on a recruiting trip have left him (as of this writing) in critical condition in the intensive care ward of a Washington hospital. Bazin played for Lowell from 1990-94 and I always loved the way the Tully Forum announcer pronounced his last name to rhyme with paisan. So here’s a wish for Bazin and his family: Hey, paisan, get safely out of that intensive care unit and be able to enjoy the birth of your first child in February.
Press Box Nonsense
At the UNH-Maine game a few weeks back, the Whittemore Center public address announcer informed the crowd in the second period that if the Wildcats scored again there would be a small fries from McDonald’s for everyone in the arena.
Press box wags being what they are, the silly speculation began.
One small fries for the entire crowd? How small would you have to slice each fry to split it evenly? Would there be a miracle of Biblical proportions? Would all our columns next week be titled, “The Feeding of the 6,501?”
When UNH did score, the PA announcer informed the fans to bring their tickets to the designated golden arches. To which the press box skinflints replied, “You have to have a ticket?”
Okay, maybe you had to be there.
I did err last week when I wrote that Lowell Assistant Director of Athletic Media Relations Dan Fisher is as nice of a guy as he is a horrible poker player. In truth, neither Ghandi, Mother Theresa nor Florence Nightingale was that nice.
Before getting to this week’s business, here’s a note on Scott Kaplan’s cheer of “Hey BU, This Our House! Go Hawks!” If it looked like it was missing a word, you were right. “This Our House” should seemingly be “This Is Our House.” In fact, my ever diligent editor corrected the “mistake” which then had to be reintroduced into the column because it had been intentional.
You see, a while back a Lowell fan had prepared a sign for a BU series on which he’d intended to write “This Is Our House.” Somehow, however, he left out the word “is”. (My guess is that there was too much Jack Daniel’s in the marinade for the tailgating steak tips. In the words of Homer Simpson, “Mmm, good.”) Undeterred, the fan flashed the sign “This Our House” much to the merriment of all. Scott paid tribute to that piece of Lowell-BU heritage.
Last week’s question asked in what way Maine’s schedule this season is unprecedented. As a hint I added that the answer went beyond playing an individual team or league for the first time.
The answer is that the Black Bears’ first eight Hockey East games are against eight different opponents. In every other year, the league schedule has included at least one two-game series before Maine had faced the entire Hockey East lineup (for obvious geographic reasons). First to answer was Greg Leclair, whose cheer is:
“Fill the steins to dear old Maine!”
This week’s question pays tribute to Norm Bazin, hoping that his emergence from his hospital bed will match his senior year emergence at Lowell. The question is how many goals did Bazin score in his freshman, sophomore and junior years combined and how did that compare to his senior year performance? Email my trivia account with your answers. 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…
I’d been like a little kid waiting for Christmas. On the day itself, I couldn’t think straight. I was totally useless at work. Even more so, that is, than usual.
I was a basket case. My son, Ryan, was going to play his first college hockey game.
When my wife and I walked up to the ticket window, the guy looked at us rather strangely. Did we know the game wouldn’t start for another hour and a half? Yes, we knew. We needed warmups to begin and the sooner the better. For days, the first words out of our mouths each morning would be, “T-minus five days and counting….” and then “T-minus four days and counting…” and then “T-minus three days and counting….” ”
As luck would have it, Wesleyan was playing at Salem State so even though it was a road game, it was right in our back yard. By the time the game started, the collection of his 50 or so fans included: aunts, uncles, cousins, a grandmother, his girlfriend and her friends, his high school team (Pingree), his high school coach, Buddy Taft, and various other high school officials and parents of high school friends.
When he stepped onto the ice for his first shift, it was a very emotional moment. Ryan had been one of those kids who couldn’t get enough of the sport, grabbing almost every possible power-skating opportunity and other such things to make himself better. There would be the occasional parent who would look at his Metro Hockey League road games to Springfield — a two-plus hour ride — and wonder, “You think he’s going to be in the NHL?”
No, he wasn’t going to play in the NHL. But that love for the game and that work ethic helped him get into one of the elite schools in the country, one of the “Little Ivies.” And it had him on one of the top three lines and the penalty-killing unit on a team with seven senior forwards.
So this was a fulfillment of a dream. And when your kid’s dreams come true, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Wesleyan actually had Salem State — a “team receiving votes” in the D-III poll — on the run, leading them 2-1 in the third period before the Vikings came back to win it. But the Cardinals rebounded with 3-0 wins on Saturday over Southern Maine and on Monday over Nichols to get the season started on a positive note. And Ryan got his first point with a nice pass to the low slot which Pat Butsch converted.
So this proud father is sitting back on this holiday with so very much to be thankful for.