Red Hot When It Counts
Care to guess which Hockey East team not found in the national rankings has taken nine of its last 10 possible league points?
(Maine has also achieved the feat, but that’s hardly headline news for the fourth-ranked Black Bears.)
Several factors make the River Hawks’ 4-0-1 record in their last five Hockey East games even more surprising.
First, all five contests came against teams that were in the national rankings: a win and tie against Boston University (then No. 10), a win over New Hampshire (then No. 4, now No. 10) and a sweep last weekend over Massachusetts (No. 11 at the time). And Lowell didn’t just take two from UMass, it shut the Minutemen out for the entire weekend.
“To sweep any team in Hockey East is huge,” UML coach Blaise MacDonald says. “For us to get two shutouts against a team that’s ranked number 11 in the country is just awesome.”
Not that both games were artistic masterpieces. After shutting down UMass at home on Saturday, the River Hawks had to hang on for the 1-0 road win on Sunday, getting outshot 10-1 in the third period.
“I didn’t mind our first two periods [on Sunday],” MacDonald says. “We didn’t play great; we played kind of an ugly road game. But in the third period the [Thomas] Pöck factor and the [Marvin] Degon factor kicked in and we were kind of hanging on.
“The Hockey Gods were helping us out. There were a couple times when the puck went off our skates and into the corner, not right back to them. Or it hit the shaft of our stick and into the corner. So we got some fortunate bounces that we hadn’t seen in many, many months here.”
This writer displeased more than a few Lowell fans by picking UMass to pull off the sweep instead of the other way around. The rationale, however, seemed sound. Going into the weekend, the wheels appeared to be falling off for the River Hawk goaltending. Chris Davidson, who had been so instrumental in Lowell’s first half surge, gave up six unanswered goals in the 6-5 collapse to Niagara despite facing only 14 shots over the closing two periods. In the following game against Ferris State, he surrendered four goals on 13 shots before getting the hook less than a minute into the second period. He sat on the bench in the 5-3 win over Union.
John Yaros, the transfer who was expected to be eligible to play as soon as the second semester commenced, had missed nine weeks due to mononucleosis and was still waiting for one grade to be finalized before he could play. So it would either be third-stringer Paul Mammola, who had earned the win over Union, or a come-backing Davidson.
“Chris Davidson was coming off a series of giving up 10 goals on 23 shots, so I give him a world of credit,” MacDonald says. “Going into the weekend knowing that, I never would have predicted 3-0 and 1-0.”
While Merrimack, Boston University, Providence and Northeastern have all compiled winning nonconference records only to languish in the lower half of the standings with sub-.500 marks in the league, Lowell has played its best within Hockey East. The result is a third place showing (in terms of percentage).
“Last year we had a decent nonconference record and it didn’t do much for us,” MacDonald says. “This year we changed our focus a little bit toward conference games. I don’t know whether it’s subjectively or objectively, we just seem to have a slightly different approach for our conference games.
“I think we’re realistic in thinking and believing that for us to make the NCAA tournament, we’re going to have to do great in Hockey East, period. So if that’s the case, let’s focus on that. Whereas maybe my first year here, every single nonconference game had NCAA tournament implications to it so we really focused on that.”
The results are especially impressive considering that this is a young squad that most, this writer included, thought was a year or two away from making its impact.
“For us to have six wins and one tie in Hockey East at this point [is just remarkable],” MacDonald says. “People don’t realize that we’ve played the majority of our games with 17 to 18 freshmen and sophomores.
“And even some of the juniors who are playing don’t have a lot of experience. Chris Davidson is a junior, but he’s really a sophomore; he didn’t play as a freshman. We’re the youngest team in college hockey. It’s extraordinary.”
MacDonald is now in his third year at Lowell and the current roster consists overwhelmingly of “his” recruits. There are inevitably questions that arise when a new coach takes over. How well do the existing players fit the style the new coach wants? How well do they adapt to changing systems, practices, routines and expectations? To whatever extent these transition questions arose the past two years, they’re irrelevant now.
“It’s all the kids,” MacDonald says. “The kids are committed. They deserve all the credit. It’s like night and day around here in terms of commitment and passion for the game.
“In college hockey there are a lot of ways to win. It’s not always the most talented team. You need to find what fits in your program. We’re still in the process of getting those players here. But [assistant coaches] Kenny Rausch and Chris MacKenzie have done an outstanding job of identifying and recognizing the right types of players that we need here.”
So how far can this team go? Not only are the River Hawks in third place, they won’t be facing a Hockey East team with a winning league record until mid-February. Until then they’ll face Merrimack and Providence twice each as well as Boston University and Northeastern once. Don’t bother, however, talking to MacDonald in those terms.
“We clearly are taking the Bill Belichick approach here,” MacDonald says. “We’re just looking to have a good practice tomorrow. If we get through that, let’s see if we can have an even better one the next day. We’re so far from being able to handicap where we might be [in the upcoming weeks].
“It goes back to how difficult Hockey East can be. Any team can get on a roll. So Michigan State [this week] is just going to be a great experience regardless of how the scoreboard reads. [Next week] Merrimack and Lowell is a huge thing; for us, it’s [a rivalry] like BU and BC.”
On The Rebound
In a week of huge wins, none was bigger than Northeastern’s over second-ranked Boston College. The Huskies had posted four straight wins, but all of them had come in nonconference games. They desperately needed points in the standings, but getting them from an Eagles squad undefeated to that point in Hockey East play seemed like a tall order.
Northeastern rose to the challenge, however, and may now see some light at the end of the tunnel that is the Hockey East cellar.
“I’ve said this from day one and I’ll say it again; I like this team,” coach Bruce Crowder said after the 3-0 win. “It’s another step tonight. We’ve got a hole [in the standings] to get ourselves out of, but it’s a start.
“This team is getting better every time out. They have a great attitude. People were throwing a lot of stuff at us a couple weeks ago, but we’ve got a happy group of boys over there right now.”
The four nonconference wins following an 0-9-2 start played a big part in the upset of BC and, perhaps, the turning around of an entire season.
“We were going in the wrong direction,” Crowder said. “To quote a guy I used to work for, [former UMass-Lowell coach] Billy Riley, ‘Any win is a good win.’
“Winning becomes contagious. That’s what we’re looking at right now. That’s five in a row and in four of the five we played pretty well for 60 minutes.”
Assistant captain Brian Tudrick added, “Looking at our record, we were 0-9-2. We were playing well, but we weren’t winning any games. The [nonconference] wins just made you feel better about everything.
“Practice is better; all week is better. People think it’s just after the game where you feel better, but it’s all week in practice after a win. It’s not just Saturday night. You feel better Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and the rest of the week. You feel more confident and you start making more plays and when you do that you get better and better.”
For The Record
In blanking BC, Northeastern goaltender Keni Gibson tied the school’s single-season and career marks for shutouts.
“It feels pretty good, but it’s really a team record when you think about it,” Gibson said after the win. “Tim Judy must have stopped as many shots as I did. And Bernie [Steve Birnstill] made the save of the night behind me tonight, [clearing a puck in the crease]. So you’ve got to give a lot of credit to those guys because without them a goalie will never get a shutout.”
Gibson got off to a slow start this year, but has become more successful as he’s made a concerted effort to cut down angles more and spend less time deep in the crease.
“I’m getting myself out of the paint, making myself a lot bigger than I am,” he said. “I’m decent width, but I’m not the tallest kid in the league and I don’t wear the biggest gear in the league either so I’ve got to get myself out with speed on those guys when they’re shooting and I’ve got to get myself back quickly in time [if they try to deke].
“When I’m playing well, I’m not in my paint. I can’t get away with that like big guys do.”
You Gotta Be Kidding Me, Part I: BU (2-5-2 HEA)
The BU Terriers have officially entered The Enigma Zone. How can this team be 2-5-2 in Hockey East play? And more frustrating to coach Jack Parker, how can it perform with such heart last weekend in Minnesota yet come up with an empty tank in a critical league contest with UMass on Wednesday?
Parker pulled no punches in talking about his team following the loss.
“I was disgusted with our play tonight in all three periods, in all phases of the game,” he said. “Forgetting the technical aspects of it like power plays and breakouts and collecting passes, dumping it in when you should and all that, we got so embarrassingly outworked and outcompeted that there’s nothing else to say.
“You can’t win hockey games when you go out there and one team is playing at a level of intensity and drive and effort, and the other team is upset that they might have to play harder than they’re playing. ‘Oh, boy, UMass is going to play that hard tonight? I don’t know if I can do that.’ So UMass got a 2-1 win, but it wasn’t a 2-1 win. It was a terrific effort by them against a team that made little, if any.
“This team has a tendency to want things to be easy. They just came off a good weekend and they were hoping that UMass isn’t as good as Minnesota. We weren’t mentally ready to play this game and UMass certainly was.
“Does it take me by surprise that a BU team would do that? Yeah. Does it take me by surprise that this specific BU team would do that? No. That’s what I’m so upset about. That this specific BU team wearing this uniform can be so casual, so inept at keeping ready and getting ready and being ready to compete.
“It was embarrassing the difference in the level of competition, the level of competitiveness. That game was not won on talent, on systems, on power plays or penalty kills. That game was won on heart and effort. They had a lot of both; we had very little of both.”
There were no easy answers when Parker was asked what could be done to fix the problem.
“It’s hard to instill a competitive spirit in an individual,” he said. “It’s hard to instill a heart in an individual… It’s almost as if we just sit and accept it. ‘This is going to be okay; something will happen good for us pretty soon.’ Instead of making it work, we hope it will work.
“There aren’t enough people in that room right now that are willing to lay it on the line, whether it be to their teammates in the dressing room [or on the bench or on the ice]. That was a shameful display in my mind.”
Despite some tough losses earlier in the season, this one went down in Parker’s mind as the low point of the season.
“This was a huge game, so, yeah, I’d say it was,” he said. “After coming off a pretty good weekend, to take a huge step back like we did tonight was [awful].
“We haven’t played too many games where we didn’t compete too hard. In the first semester I thought we had a lot of guys competing hard. We just didn’t have everybody on the same page sometimes and we were snakebitten.
“We weren’t snakebit tonight. The first two periods we had three grade A opportunities. You have to want to get to the grade A areas. If you don’t want to, you don’t. And we didn’t want to get there tonight.”
Which is appalling given BU’s position in the standings. 2-5-2. How can a team come out flat for such a critical game?
“There was no sense of urgency tonight,” Parker said. “I don’t know whether there will be a sense of urgency tomorrow, but [there should have been tonight]. We talked about how important this game was.
“There should have been a sense of urgency in the standings. There should have been a sense of urgency how important it is for our psyche to get a W after playing two ties, to get a W and continue to play well like we did this past weekend. There was no sense of urgency tonight.”
You Gotta Be Kidding Me, Part II: UNH, 22nd In The PairWise
New Hampshire fans might think it’s bad enough that the Wildcats have fallen to 10th in the USCHO poll, but the reality is considerably worse. In the PairWise Rankings, which summarize how the NCAA picks teams for its tournament, UNH is 22nd following a disappointing 3-2 loss to Yale last weekend.
The Wildcats are now 1-4-1 in their last six games. Last week’s column bemoaned that the three losses to date in that stretch were to teams that were a collective 20-28-7 (St. Lawrence, Merrimack and Minnesota). Adding Yale to the list makes the tough times even more surprising considering that the 6-10 Bulldogs had gone 0-5 in previous games outside of the ECAC.
“Teams that have had losing records or teams that have had winning records, it really doesn’t make a difference,” coach Dick Umile says. “You have to play every weekend. Some of the teams we lost to are beating other teams, too.
“We’ve got to worry about ourselves and we’re struggling scoring right now. Early on, we won some games because of power plays, but right now we’re not scoring whether on the power play [or even strength].
“We’re missing our scoring opportunities and there’s a very small margin of error in the games that we’re playing. When you don’t [capitalize on your chances], you find yourself on the losing end and that’s what’s happening to us right now.”
There have also been some games in which the Wildcats have been more than snakebit; they’ve been outplayed. Most notably, Minnesota outshot them by a wide margin (48-29), while UMass (33-25) and St. Lawrence (38-28) did so by more moderate amounts.
“We definitely have done that, too,” Umile says. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you that it’s just that the puck isn’t going in for us. As of late that’s happened to us, but in some of the games that we lost, we got outplayed. That’s the bottom line.
“Right now, we’re a team that has been very inconsistent and we’ve done a little bit of everything.”
Quite sensibly, Umile isn’t ready to panic yet about the PairWise Rankings. It is, after all, early January, a point in the season where all such measures are extremely volatile. A five- or six-game winning streak will cure all ills.
“Honestly, the ratings will all be played out when it’s all said and done,” he says. “It can change pretty quickly. If you look at the schedule and who you play and their winning percentages, we can come back if we win hockey games so we’re not going to worry about that yet.
“We’re just worried about playing well. We’re not going to worry about the PairWise.”
Back On Track?
UMass appeared to be in danger of making it a “You Gotta Be Kidding Me” hat trick, joining BU and UNH in their tough times. The Minutemen went into Wednesday night’s game without a win since Thanksgiving, having just been swept on the weekend by Lowell. Sure, there were four sister-kissing ties in that stretch, but 0-4-4 is not the stuff of national rankings.
Which is not to say there weren’t reasons. Stephen Werner had missed the past four games competing with Team USA in the World Junior Championships. So had Chris Capraro, in limbo with an undisclosed absence from the team. And Greg Mauldin had been sidelined in the first game against Lowell with a concussion. Since those three were the sole UMass forwards with double-digit points, it was no surprise that the offense had suffered.
Even so, the early-season promise was fading and the Minutemen really needed a W. And they did just that, earning their first win ever at Walter Brown Arena, 2-1.
“I’m really delighted for our guys; it came at a really good time for our program, given our struggles that we’ve been in,” coach Don “Toot” Cahoon said after the game. “I didn’t know what to expect coming in here, coming off of a couple of tough losses to Lowell. Obviously, we went all weekend without scoring a goal, so we knew that if there was going to be any chance here, it was going to be in a low-scoring game. We had to keep defense as a top priority.
“I thought our guys did a pretty good job of gaining pretty good defensive posture both off the forecheck early in the game and later off a pretty good center-ice trap. [BU] scared us a little at the end, but we had a little resolve and a little puck luck for a change.”
Now, the Minutemen can count on their depleted roster returning to normalcy. Werner got back from the World Juniors for the BU game and contributed two assists. Mauldin is expected back, if not by this weekend’s exhibition at Trois-Rivieres, then by the following week’s league games against Maine. And there were even hints that Capraro would rejoin the team soon.
All good signs. But none as good as being back in the win column again.
Off The Schneid
Maine forward Michel Léveillé finally got rid of his goose egg in the goals column, but not until he’d posted a team-leading 16 assists. (That mark trails only BC’s Ben Eaves in Hockey East.)
“He reminds me a bit of Marty Kariya in that he’s got a great shot, but he’s very unselfish and thinks pass first,” coach Tim Whitehead said prior to the Tuesday night goal. “We’re trying to impress on him that he needs to use his shot more because he really does have an excellent shot, both his quick release and he can get his head up [and see the openings].
“He scores some great goals in practice. So he’s aware of the fact that it will help the team if he shoots more. Much like Marty, he thinks pass first so you have to coax him into shooting more. When he does, much like Marty, he can put it in the net.
“He’s obviously impacted us right away in his first season as a setup man. He’s actually real good defensively, too, and on faceoffs, which is unusual for a first-year guy. I think you’ll see his goal totals increase each year here at Maine because he has that potential.”
The recent news that Joe Exter signed a contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins has to be one of the best feel-good stories in a long time. His tenacity and work ethic in getting back to this point after being told he’d never play hockey again will almost certainly serve him well both in professional hockey and in the years that follow that career.
Kudos and good luck to this class act.
Congratulations to coaching legend Len Ceglarski (BC, Clarkson), who will have his jersey retired prior to the BC-BU game on Friday, Jan. 16. Ceglarski retired in 1992 with 674 wins, a figure that places him fifth among all-time coaches.
Quotes Of Note
Needle Of Note
As Northeastern assistant captain Brian Tudrick walked past a group of reporters who were interviewing Keni Gibson, the goaltender adjusted his comments to jab his teammate.
“Great warmups by Brian Tudrick, who actually hit the net in warmups tonight,” Gibson said with a grin. “It was kind of nice.”
The Dog House Roars
In recent years, Northeastern’s student section — the Dog House — has given an earful to many a rival, especially goaltenders at that end of Matthews Arena. Last Saturday, its vocal members found a new target.
With one minute left in the dramatic upset of second-ranked Boston College, I was typing away on my laptop, working on the game recap. I was stunned at the result and never would have predicted a Huskies win in this matchup.
Perhaps mindful of this, the members of the Dog House began to chant.
“Daaa-aaave. Daaa-aaave. Dave Hendrickson, you suck!”
It only registered subconsciously at first, but by the time the chant got to my last name all of my pea-sized brain was on red alert. I looked up, game recap forgotten, blinking with that deer-in-the-headlights look.
They continued the chant and I broke into near-pee-your-pants laughter. I waved and we all had a good laugh over it.
I doubt I’ll ever hear a chant that I personally find more hilarious.
So Dog House, I salute you.
And how ’bout them Huskies?
Last week’s contest asked what Hockey East coach is married to a woman whose maiden name is the same as a TV legend? The answer was Lowell’s Blaise MacDonald, whose wife is Carol (Burnett) MacDonald.
The first to answer correctly was back-to-back winner Scott Kaplan, whose cheer is:
“Let’s go Lowell! 2004 Alumni Cup champions!”
Scott notes that he won’t be a three-peat winner since he’s driving to Michigan to take in the River Hawks’ series with Michigan State. Ya gotta love it.
There is, however, a second winner. Unbeknownst to me, Carol (Burnett) MacDonald’s mother’s maiden name is Barbara Walters. How’s that for coincidences? Amazingly enough, Matt and Erin O’Brien knew this obscure nugget, so they get a cheer, too.
“Go ULowell, we look forward to seeing you in the FleetCenter!
(Aside: if the Burnetts and Walters are anything like their famous counterparts, can even the never-lost-for-words Blaise MacDonald get a word in edgewise when he’s at the in-laws?)
This week’s question asks what Hockey East team — either before or after the formation of the league — once opened the year with 12 wins only to collapse with a 1-13 record the rest of the way, including 11 losses to close out the season? As difficult as last week’s question was, this one should be every bit as easy. Email my trivia account with the team and season. 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…
Jay Woodmansee, I’ll remember your smile. I’ll remember your devotion to your family. I’ll remember your miracle three-wood shot from the fairway to 10 feet to beat me with a birdie on the 18th at Myrtle Beach.
Life isn’t always fair and your death is a brutal reminder. Jay, you will be missed.