The Juggernaut Rolls On
At the beginning of the season, Boston College appeared to be head and shoulders above the rest of the Hockey East crowd. The Eagles were a unanimous pick to finish first in the coaches’ poll and any pundit who predicted differently would have immediately drawn suspicions of not having done his homework.
Well, it’s now mid-January and BC has done nothing to change any of those expectations. This past weekend, the Eagles completed the season’s sweep of archrival Boston University despite having Ben Eaves and David Spina out of the lineup for the Friday contest and then losing Patrick Eaves early in the Saturday rematch.
That result prompted a subdued BU coach Jack Parker to say, “Maybe if BC loses four or five more people, we can beat them.”
BC then traveled to Providence for a Tuesday night game minus yet another top player, defenseman J.D. Forrest. Once again, the Eagles emerged with a win, giving them a 14-1-2 record since October.
It’s a testament to a team with such overpowering talent that it can emerge with gritty wins even after its talent superiority has been decimated.
“We talked to our team about how we were coming off two emotion wins over our archrival, both captains were out, and this was a real test for our team to get geared up because it was certainly made for a letdown,” coach Jerry York says. “Our guys responded very well and played very competitively against Providence.
“We’re having people step up and take guys’ spots. There isn’t a lot of, ‘Geez, he’s hurt. What can we do now?’ It’s a good workmanlike attitude that we have. When we get back to 100 percent, our team will be a lot better because other players have had to step up into [bigger] roles.”
Goaltender Matti Kaltiainen has been on the top of his game of late, prompting Forrest to say, “Matti was incredible [against BU]. We know he’s going to be there when we need him, and [on Saturday] he was. [On Friday] he was. If it wasn’t for him, it’s a little different story this weekend. He’s been focused; you can tell in practice. He’s been a factor for us, big time.”
Sometimes teams with overwhelming talent can become a bit full of themselves and look to win the “pretty” way or the “easy” way. Not so with the Eagles, as exemplified by Patrick Eaves’ blocking of a slapshot while killing a penalty.
“What sums up the game to me is what the chaplain told me,” York said after the game. “When Patrick was leaving the ice — he got hit in the chest area here, and it was a pretty good gash there — he said, ‘Father, that to me was better than any hat trick I could have scored to go down and block a shot like that.’ That’s kind of the grit that we displayed during the course of the winter but especially this weekend. That’s part of becoming a great team, doing all the small things.”
Finesse, speed, goaltending or good old-fashioned grit. Take your pick. Such is the well-rounded approach of champions. As such, this group is reminiscent of the Brian Gionta-led teams that appeared in four consecutive Frozen Fours and won the 2001 national championship.
“We’re very similar, I think, especially now that Matti Kaltiainen has stepped up his game,” York says. “We’ve become very solid in goal. Defensively, we’re playing with a lot of passion, a lot of determination. Offensively, we’re creative and we’re quick.
“I think this squad is very similar to that group we had that went to four [consecutive] Frozen Fours. It’s just an extension of last year’s team where we got to the Final Eight and gained a lot of experience. We’re mostly all veterans from last year’s group, which I thought was very, very good at the end of the year.”
This week BC faces Northeastern, the lone team to sully the Eagles’ otherwise undefeated post-October record. Considering that York was ill for that contest, the head coach might be forgiven for teasing his assistants that BC is 17-2-3 under him and 0-1-0 under them, but York spares any “They’re a bunch of stiffs!” playful banter.
All business (and still a bit under the weather), he says, “Northeastern played very well and that’s got our attention. They’ve been playing as good as I’ve seen them over the last month. They’re a tough team to play at home.”
If you’re looking at tough teams to play, however, that list starts with Boston College.
An Overlooked Star
Name the player just one point behind Hockey East leaders Thomas Pöck (UMass), Justin Aikins (UNH) and Steve Saviano (UNH) in scoring. No, it’s not Ben Eaves. Not Tony Voce. Not Sean Collins.
Try Massachusetts-Lowell sophomore Elias Godoy, whose 13 goals and 15 assists for 28 points leaves him trailing only Minnesota’s Thomas Vanek, a high first-round NHL draft pick, among the nation’s sophomores.
“Godoy is one of those talented, go-to sort of players,” coach Blaise MacDonald says. “He’s a guy that is going to convert on most of his opportunities. There are some players that get a lot of chances, but they don’t convert. He’s a guy with [a high] yield on his opportunities, but he’s also the type of player who distributes the puck well and he gets to a spot where he can get the puck back. He’s is the type of player who plays with everything in front of him.
“He’s dangerous every time he’s on the ice; he has that sixth sense where he can find people. He just keeps getting better and better. Whoever we put on his line, that line is continually one of our top lines, and I think Elias makes that happen.”
Of late, those linemates are Brad King and Marc Pandolfo. That group will need to maintain or even increase its scoring pace while the River Hawks’ other top gun, Ben Walter, recovers from a knee injury that will sideline him for three-to-five weeks. (Note: contrary to earlier reports, the injury did not occur in the postgame celebration after Walter assisted on Danny O’Brien’s overtime game-winner. A hit, a clean one, on the play resulted in the injury.)
Although Godoy’s line may receive extra attention in Walter’s absence and the power play will no doubt be affected, MacDonald is confident Godoy is up to the challenge despite his youth.
“Elias Godoy is a veteran on our team [even though] he’s only a sophomore,” MacDonald says. “All of our go-to guys, and a majority of our team for the most part, are freshmen and sophomores. A guy like Godoy has played in a lot of games, and put up a lot of numbers for us.”
Worth The Wait
It took a little longer than expected, but Lowell goaltender John Yaros is making an impact for the River Hawks. A transfer from Army, Yaros would have become eligible for the post-Christmas tournaments if not for missing nine weeks in the fall semester due to mononucleosis. A delay in one of his grades combined with the physical toll taken by that ailment postponed his first start until the Jan. 10 game at Michigan State. Following that win, however, he started again on Friday night against Merrimack and “stole” one for the River Hawks, stopping 41 shots in a contest in which his team was outshot, 44-28.
“It’s probably the first time that a goalie has won us a game since Cam McCormick beat UNH 1-0,” MacDonald says. “He flat out won the game for us at Merrimack.
“Chris Davidson has had periods where he absolutely kept us in the game and then we came on and played well. At Northeastern on Halloween night, if it wasn’t for Chris Davidson we’re out of the ballgame. He’s done that three or four times this year. But for 60 minutes, Yaros won that game at Merrimack.”
Which is not to say that Yaros (2.29 GAA, .920 Sv%) will be a fixture in the Lowell nets from this point on.
“Back-to-back games are going to be the key for him,” MacDonald says. “I was a little concerned with him playing on Saturday after playing a great game on Friday just because of his health and conditioning.
“But I still don’t know. Davidson looks really sharp in practice. It’s a day-by-day thing. there’s no way I would say that John Yaros is the number one guy. Davidson went through some tough times, but he’s looked really, really sharp lately.”
A Big Win
Northeastern’s two ties last weekend with Providence weren’t good news for the other teams in the lower half of the standings. The Huskies are still in the cellar, but they’re in striking range of an exit. Presumably one of the following pretty good teams will be the odd man out in the postseason: Northeastern, Boston University, Providence or Merrimack. (The other five league teams all are over .500 in Hockey East games and have distanced themselves from the other four in total points.)
Perhaps the most vulnerable to a Husky charge is Merrimack since Northeastern holds three games in hand over the Warriors, more than the two over Providence and none with BU. With only four points to make up, an eventual leapfrogging is possible.
As a result, this Saturday’s game between the two is a huge one, but so was the series Merrimack played last week with Lowell. The Warriors looked like anything but a cellar-dweller, gaining a split while deserving even more.
“I thought we played well the whole weekend,” coach Chris Serino says. “We might have played better Friday night [in a 4-3 overtime loss] than we did Saturday [in a 3-0 win]. I was very, very disappointed in Friday night’s loss because I thought we had complete control of the game.
“To give it away late like that was absurd. The fact that we bounced back in their building [was a positive]. I liked that we continued to play the way we did on Friday and hopefully we’ll carry it into this week.”
Good First Impressions
Merrimack goaltender Jim Healey may have earned Hockey East Rookie of the Week honors for his shutout last Saturday of Lowell, but that wasn’t the first blanking of the freshman’s career. In fact, Healey has posted a zero in three of his last four appearances, a 36-minute relief stint against Maine on Dec. 5 and then a full-game shutout of Princeton on Jan 3 prior to last weekend’s feat.
For a kid who didn’t see any action through October, it’s been a strong acclimation to Division I hockey. His statistics are now an admirable 2.34 GAA and a .907 Sv%.
“I think he’s a pretty good goaltender,” Serino says. “We have a lot of confidence in him, as we do in Casey [Guenther]. Both of them have played pretty well for us and over the last 10-12 games we’ve rotated them a bit. They seem to be doing well in that role, but that’s not to say we won’t stick with one or the other.
“He’s done a nice job every game we’ve put him into. We started him off in some backup roles. He performed pretty well playing a period or two here and there. Since we’ve started him in games, he’s done a very good job.”
Which is not to say that he came flying out of the chute in the earliest days of the season.
“He was a freshman and I think he struggled a bit,” Serino says. “He was a little bit nervous. Once he settled down in practice and started to do the things we saw when we were recruiting him then we felt a little more comfortable.
“Obviously, you’re not going to put a kid into a game until you feel comfortable with him. Once we started to feel comfortable with him in practice, his confidence level seemed to go up. Then it was a no-brainer. Let’s get him in a game to see what he can do there. As of late, he’s been playing very well.”
And it certainly can’t hurt to get a confidence booster in the form of the league honors.
“Goalies get down on themselves even more than anyone else,” Serino says. “But he’s at a pretty good point now where he’s pretty confident and obviously we’re pretty confident in him.”
Quote Of Note
Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald on his team’s splitting a weekend series with Merrimack despite getting outplayed:
“I thought Merrimack played great. We were ready to play. We certainly respected Merrimack. But [the loss on Saturday] was one of those games that was just a clunker. You have ’em. Maybe the weekend was a clunker, but we found a way to win on Friday and that’s a credit to the players.”
Expounding on getting shut out on Saturday because of the River Hawk defense’s problems on the breakout:
“Mario Lemieux couldn’t create offense from that.”
Last week’s contest asked when was the last time that a Hockey East team recorded Texas hat tricks on back-to-back weekends. (A Texas hat trick requires four or more goals.) The answer was New Hampshire’s Steve Saviano against Canisius (Oct. 24, 2003) and Jacob Micflikier over Union (Oct. 31).
The first to answer correctly was Scott Kaplan, who goes into this year’s Trivia Hall of Fame with his four wins. He’ll be ineligible in future weeks unless no one else answers the question. Congratulations to Scott, who has been unfailingly correct and very fast on the trigger. His cheer is:
“Let’s go Hawks, bring down the Bears!”
This week’s question asks what unprecedented feat took place for Providence earlier this season. It had never happened in the 52 previous seasons of Friar hockey. Email my trivia account with the answer. 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.
Everything below this has nothing to do with Hockey East. Consider yourself warned.
Some More Wesleyan Talk
After a disappointing mid-week loss to Trinity, Wesleyan bounced back with another terrific three-point weekend. The Cardinals defeated St. Anselm’s (11-3-0), 3-1, and then tied 10th-ranked New England College (11-2-2) in a scoreless duel.
Goaltender Jim Panczykowski was immense on the weekend, stopping a combined 83 of 84 shots. His 49-save shutout against New England College was a masterpiece. NEC features not only former UNH recruit Travis Banga, but five players from Sweden and another from Finland. Suffice it to say, it is an excellent team. Wesleyan had some glittering counterattacking chances that forced some highlight reel saves by Michael Shimek, who would go on to earn ECAC East Goaltender of the Week honors, but Panczykowski was without question the story.
In fact, I was initially going to inquire about drug testing at the NESCAC offices after the goaltender was not named NESCAC Player of the Week, which would have made him a back-to-back winner. The Tuesday night 6-2 loss to Trinity, however, was also factored into the award, so the NESCAC powers that be can be excused for the omission even though Panczykowski was simply left out to dry in that particular loss.
Casey Benny and Will Bennett deserve mention for their goalscoring prowess and big-time kudos are due the special teams. Over the last four games, which includes two nationally ranked opponents and a collective 37-16-4 record, the penalty killers have allowed only a single goal in 21 chances. That group includes forwards Steve Bogosian, Ryan Hendrickson, Al Shaine, Chris Gateman and John DelGiudice along with defensemen David Taylor, Mike Lang, Mike Barbera and Craig Badger. And, of course, Panczykowski. With the power play clicking at 21 percent in those same games, special teams has been a big factor in the Cardinals’ success.
Wesleyan is now tied with Middlebury for second in the NESCAC in terms of points and is third in winning percentage. Considering that you have to go back to the 1999-2000 season for the last time the Cardinals did not finish either last or next-to-last in the conference, they’ve had a spectacular season to date.
Of course, there’s not much a of a gap between third and eighth in the NESCAC this year and top-ranked Norwich is on tap this weekend so there can be no resting on laurels, but it’s been a great ride to date.
And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…
Thanks to Scott Weighart.