This Week in Hockey East: Jan. 1, 2004

We’re Number Three!

This is the time that Hockey East folks have become accustomed to puffing out their chests, beating on them a time or two, and proclaiming that the league is the best from top to bottom. Present company included. We point to the results in the holiday tournaments and say that the WCHA is pretty close, the CCHA dreadfully top-heavy and then we try to be as inoffensive as possible while noting that the ECAC is a distant number four.

This year’s results are in, however, and about the best we can say is, “We’re number three!”

Or perhaps two-and-a-half.

We can also be thankful for Boston College. Because if not for the Eagles wins over Michigan and Michigan State in the Great Lakes Invitational, Hockey East would have posted a woeful 1-5 record against the western conferences. (For those keeping score, that would have been 1-3 against the CCHA and 0-2 against the WCHA.)

Yes, the league did finish 7-5-2 overall, but that included marks of 3-0-2 against the ECAC and 1-0 against Atlantic Hockey.

To be honest, that and $1.50 will get you a cup of coffee. No offense to ECAC and Atlantic partisans, but Hockey East teams are expected to beat up on their Eastern brethren.

(There’s a reason that, in the wake of Vermont’s application to switch leagues, one Clarkson supporter flashed a sign this weekend to Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna, “Take us, too!”)

The measuring stick for college hockey supremacy for a long time now has been Hockey East vs. the two western conferences. And vice versa.

This year Hockey East has to date came up short, at least insofar as the holiday tournaments are concerned. And it’s not as though the Hockey East heavy-hitters were sitting out the holiday tournaments. Only Boston University (5-5-4, 2-4-2 HEA) and Merrimack (5-10-3, 2-6-3 HEA) skipped tourneys.

Maine was the biggest disappointment, dropping both games against CCHA opponents in the Everblades College Classic for only its third and fourth losses of the year.

New Hampshire dropped its national championship game rematch with Minnesota, a loss that at first glance came to a team that had posted no better than a .500 record. In fairness, though, the Gophers have now won eight of their last nine and were hosting the Dodge Holiday Classic so UNH probably deserves a pass.

Which could also be said for Massachusetts’ tie with Dartmouth. The Big Green have posted several impressive performances this year. But the UMass tie with Vermont? The Catamounts had headed into the exam break without a single win all year. And only a win over Atlantic Hockey’s Connecticut prevented a coal-in-the-stockings winless Christmas. So the tie with Vermont, even with several Minutemen regulars out of the lineup, was not what the doctor ordered.

Ah, well….

It’s a ridiculously small sample size, of course. And some teams seem to come out of the holiday break better than others.

But that’s the stuff we’ve gotten used to hearing the other guys say this time of year. It has a strange ring coming out of our mouths.

All of which is a sobering heads-up to us all: even though the NCAA tournament will finish in Boston this year, there’s no guarantee of a heavily Eastern flavor.

Only Two In The NCAAs?

An even bigger indictment of the league’s play so far this year comes in the form of the PairWise Rankings which debuted this week. PWR, which encapsulates in summary form the way that the NCAA selects its tournament, shows a stunning result for Hockey East fans.

If the season ended today, only two league teams would make it.

Read that again. It isn’t a misprint. Only Boston College and Maine would receive invitations, barring some other team winning the Hockey East tournament.

No UNH. No UMass.

This writer expected that the Minutemen would have fallen either to the bubble or below it based on their recent struggles (0-2-4 in their last six). That 9-4-5 record looks good on the surface, but many of those wins have come against teams that no one would consider the “iron” of college hockey. The Minutemen will need to pick up the pace if they’re going to be in the NCAAs this year.

The real stunner, though, is UNH. Yes, PWR is notoriously volatile this time of year and gives results that border on being downright silly until further into the stretch run. But UNH at number 18?

It’s even more eye-opening to note that the Wildcats hold the exact same position in the Ratings Percentage Index. So perhaps those early-season PWR fluctuations aren’t the culprit here.

The fact is that New Hampshire is 1-3-1 in its last five games with the three losses coming to teams that are a collective 20-28-7 (St. Lawrence, Merrimack and Minnesota). If the Wildcats can’t do better than that, they don’t deserve to be in the NCAAs.

Personally, this writer is convinced it’s just a slump, a bump in the road to a possible Frozen Four berth. But time’s a wastin’ for UNH to rev it up into high gear.

As for UMass, the opinion here is that the Minutemen will be flirting with a berth all season long and how they fare on the bubble is anyone’s guess.

And if the league gets only two invitations to the national dance, I promise all my western brethren the following headline in my column: Hockey East Stinks.

But On The Other Hand…

On Dec. 18, the story broke that Vermont had applied for membership in Hockey East. At the time, the Catamounts’ record was 0-11-2. Since, then they’ve gone 2-0-1.

Coincidence? I think not.

Let the very muted chest-thumping begin…

Misery Loves Company

It probably doesn’t take the sting away, but at least UMass-Lowell fans can take some solace in knowing that their team’s collapse against Niagara on Dec. 14 has now been topped. Midway through that game the River Hawks held a seemingly insurmountable 5-0 lead only to lose 6-5. Over the last 40 minutes they allowed only 14 shots, but six made it onto the scoreboard.

That brutal loss, however, was topped by Denver’s on Dec. 20 when the Pioneers blew a 7-1 second-period lead to Minnesota State. The extra stunner is that MSU’s goaltender of record was its third-stringer, Chris Clark, who took over after the top two dufflebags surrendered the seven goals and got the hook.

The key in this game proved to be a game misconduct and major penalty for checking from behind assessed to Denver. MSU scored three times on the resulting power play and it was the proverbial “whole new game.”

Not that it makes River Hawk fans any happier about the loss to Niagara.

Generalissimo Francisco Franco Is Still Dead

I don’t usually read the message boards, but someone pointed out a couple weeks ago that I was the subject of the thread “Northeastern not even MENTIONED in Hendrickson’s HE preview.”

Well, just to be clear, I try to write about topics that Hockey East readers in general will think are interesting, amusing or informative. But it just isn’t possible to have anything of substance about all nine teams. I make a serious effort to make sure no team gets either overemphasized or ignored for long. You can check out the columns_log.txt file on my PC if you don’t believe me.

In terms of Northeastern several weeks back, there just wasn’t anything new to add to what I’d written the previous week in my “Keeping The Faith” segment on the Huskies.

And rather than mimic the old Saturday Night Live routine “Generalissimo Francisco Franco Is Still Dead” with something akin to “Northeastern Still Can’t score” I instead waited for something new to develop.

And to be honest, I prefer to write about, and read about, positive things rather than wallow in the negative. So if I have a choice between kicking a team when it’s down and waiting for some positive development, I’ll wait for the positive. There are times when the negatives can’t be ignored and a kick must be delivered, but if there’s a choice I prefer to be an anti-Dan Shaughnessy.

That’s why there would have been a segment above on Northeastern’s recent successes if not for its tournament not finishing until Monday and holiday schedules making it impossible to do more than play telephone tag with Bruce Crowder. There’ll be something next week. Count on it.

Dumbest Play of the Year

Hey, we all understand that some hockey players aren’t exactly rocket scientists or neurosurgeons. Some of them are brainiacs, but its okay if they’re not as long as they do reasonably well in the classroom and are at least marginally smart on the ice.

Then again, there are the occasional plays that leave you scratching your head and saying, “What the heck was he thinking?”

Other than dumb penalties, for which there are always too many nominations, the obvious choice for Dumbest Play of the Year goes to the Merrimack player (who will mercifully remain anonymous) who could have cost his team the game back on Nov. 14. The Warriors and Boston University had gone into overtime and with the clock ticking down the neuron-challenged player let the puck fly from his defensive zone’s left faceoff circle. The shot, inevitably wide of net, produced an icing call and gave BU one more chance with 1.7 seconds left.

Sure, the kid was presumably trying to score. But what are the odds that you’re going to beat a Division I goaltender from 180 feet? And by comparison, what are the odds that after such a moronic play, your opponent can score on the faceoff, having pulled its goalie with 1.7 seconds. Such a mistake is forgivable in Mites, but not in a collegiate player. In poker, this would be playing seven-deuce offsuited against pocket aces.

The Terriers couldn’t win the faceoff cleanly, but after the game Merrimack coach Chris Serino shook his head at the blunder. “Oh! He tested my patience with that one,” Serino said. “With nobody on him! If [BU] wins the draw, they’re going to get a shot.”

EastCoastBias Responds

On Nov. 13, I included an email from a WCHA fan who I nicknamed “EastCoastBias” after the subject of his message. In the segment, called “Ratings Rants,” I defending my rankings and why I thought at the time that Hockey East again looked to be top-to-bottom the strongest in the country.

I used facts — the same facts that now argue that the league is not on top and which prompted me to say so earlier in this column — to back up my point.

Mr. EastCoastBias responded, but I was never able to wedge his rebuttal — and my rebuttal to his rebuttal — into a column. What with coaches tougher to track down this time of year, however, what better time to tie up that loose end?

So here’s the core of his retort:

It seems you measure success by wins and losses vs. major conference opponents. That’s cool, but I usually measure success by NCAA titles. The WCHA has three of the last four, and it would be four of four if BC hadn’t brought in the soldiers from Canada that all bolted as soon as they barely escaped another Sioux comeback. Michigan has nine, North Dakota has seven, Wisconsin, Denver, and who else?….OH YEAH — MINNESOTA all have five. Any other Eastern Teams in there?

In fairness, the only editing I performed was to bring a few words in line with AP style. I even left in the gratuitous cheap shot at Boston College.

Which I’ll address first.

When Boston College won the national championship in 2001, it had all of three Canadians on its roster. The North Dakota team that the Eagles defeated had seven.

Apparently in the math that EastCoastBias believes in, three in the East is greater than seven in the West.

Not that we should give a rat’s tuchis about where a player comes from. Enough already from Minnesota fans about the geography of players. Your game-winner two years ago came from a North Dakotan and last year from… an Austrian. Eeew, gross!

Who cares? But if you do care, seven is a bigger number than three.

Onward to the main point.

Is top-to-bottom strength best measured by wins and losses between conferences or NCAA titles? The answer seems self-evident to me. The NCAA title goes, of course, to the best team. Even if it was an underdog going into the tournament, it became the best team by winning it. But that hardly elevates the entire conference to “best” status.

If Cornell had prevailed last year, would anyone seriously have considered the ECAC to be the best conference? If Niagara had continued its Cinderella run in 2000, would that have made the CHA the best?

Sometimes the best team can come from an otherwise weak, or at least top-heavy, league.

That’s the logic part of my rebuttal. Onward to the numbers…

Nobody questions that the West was the stronger region by a good margin in the years leading into the late sixties. (Which is when many of the gaudy totals Mr. EastCoastBias recounts were accumulated.) That’s hardly relevant to the question of which region is stronger now. And to use numbers accumulated before Hockey East even existed is utterly absurd.

Even if you use this flawed measure — which makes no sense, but I’m doing for the sake of argument — the last eleven titles have broken this way: WCHA (four), Hockey East (four) and the CCHA (three).

Now if you want to talk about the extra-skater goal Minnesota got in 2002 and the officiating in overtime that hosed Maine’s chances, then we can really start arguing.

Trivia Contest

Last week’s contest asked which Hockey East team won a game earlier this year with all three tallies coming from players getting their first goal of the season. The latest this feat was achieved was in UMass’ Nov. 15 win over Providence in which Marvin Degon, James Solon and John Toffey all scored.

The first to answer correctly was Scott Kaplan, whose cheer is:

“Let’s Go Lowell! Bring the Alumni Cup back where it belongs!”

This week’s question asks what Hockey East coach is married to a woman whose maiden name is the same as a TV legend? Email my trivia account with the coach and the TV legend. 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…

  • Does the almost unanimous anointing of the Patriots as the team to beat make anyone else nervous? Yeah, I love the way they’re playing and that they’ll be at home, but the looming opponents are anything but chopped liver.
  • Whatever vitamins Willie McGinest has been taking of late, I want some. I had thought he was stick-a-fork-in-him done.
  • Not to be dogmatic or anything, but if you don’t love Teddy Bruschi you’re simply an idiot. There is no gray area here.
  • Is it me or has the Boston baseball media — an otherwise overwhelmingly terrific group — been almost deliberate in twisting Bill James’ views on relievers? If I hear “closer by committee” — invariably with the word “ill-fated” preceding it — one more time I think I’ll scream. James has never advocated such a thing. He has written about a “relief ace” and the need to use him in, for example, tied seventh and eighth inning games at the expense of ninth inning appearances with a three-run lead. That makes perfect sense to me. Why keep an Eric Gagne in reserve for an easy ninth-inning save — like so many of Ugueth Urbina’s were with the Red Sox — when the game is often going to be decided before that? I’m convinced that 50 years from now the current cookie-cutter mentality to closers will be viewed as utterly Neanderthal.
  • Which is why a more flexible closer like Keith Foulke should make a bigger contribution than his more robotically utilized peers.
  • Yes, I actually heard the following conversation on a Sunday a few weeks back.

    “We got him!”

    “Yeah, Saddam. I heard.”

    “No, Keith Foulke.”

  • I still can’t believe we came so close to A-Rod and Magglio Ordonez for Nomar and The Meathead. I’ll live, but’s baseball page will never again get so many refreshes from my PC. And I won’t believe the deal is Generalissimo Francisco Franco dead until Nomar signs an extension or it’s spring training.
  • I hope you all had a terrific holiday season and have a great New Year.

    Thanks to Jim Connelly and Glen Traquair.