That “Other” Dominant Team
If you hear talk in arenas about Hockey East’s dominant team, it’s undoubtedly referring to Boston College. For example, last week Massachusetts-Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald said, “I’m looking at BC and I haven’t seen a team as good as this team since the ’93 Maine team. They’re flawless. And I’m looking at tape without 22 [Ben Eaves] in there.”
The praise for the Eagles extends throughout the league. What’s not to admire in a team that has only lost once since October and that being a night that the head coach was missing due to illness?
“Boston College has deserved all of the attention that they’ve gotten,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead says. “They clearly have been the best team through this point in the season. They have a lot of weapons and certainly use them very effectively. We have a lot of respect for them. They only played us once and beat us soundly.”
That said, there’s been another dominant Hockey East team, the Maine Black Bears. All they’ve done is post a 23-6-3 record with only two losses since New Year’s.
So while BC is ranked number one in the country, Maine’s third-ranked squad is hardly chopped liver.
It’s a team that has succeeded without a single major candidate for Hockey East Player of the Year or a Hobey Baker Award finalist. Arguably, their best player is goaltender Jim Howard (1.36 GAA, .946 Sv%), who splits time with Frank Doyle, perhaps best symbolizing the team’s breadth of contributors.
“We certainly have no false belief as to where we are as a team,” Whitehead says. “We know that we’re a group that does not have any superstars. We’re a team through and through. That’s the only way that we’re going to be successful.
“It starts with our team defense. That’s been a big reason for our consistency. We’ve been really trying to focus on limiting the other team’s quality chances. That’s been a big objective of ours. For the most part, we’ve done that.
“We obviously have two outstanding goalies who are our backbone defensively. It all starts there. But as a team we’ve been playing pretty well defensively.”
Indeed, Maine ranks first in Hockey East team defense, allowing an average of only 1.62 goals against per game. BC is a close second, but no other team is below the 2.50 threshold.
All of which bodes well for the playoffs.
“We haven’t really been a run-and-gun team this year,” Whitehead says. “Hopefully, that style of play does help us down the stretch. So far, so good, but we’ve got a lot of hockey ahead of us.
“One of the things that I like about this team, though, is that these guys really understand what type of team they are and what it takes for us to be successful. That doesn’t guarantee that we’re going to win all our games, obviously, but it does mean that we’re going to be competitive in all our games, which we’ve been.
“We have a good understanding of where we’re at and how hard we have to work just to compete with anybody. Hopefully, that’s a good trait for us, particularly down the stretch.
“We certainly do not have ourselves overrated, that’s for sure.”
This weekend it’s Massachusetts’ turn for an empty slate of games, the byproduct of a nine-team league. Arguably, the break couldn’t come at a better time. In their last five games, the Minutemen have posted an 0-4-1 record after entering that stretch at 14-7-5.
(In fairness, the four games that preceded the “slump” were all wins, including ones over third-ranked Maine and No. 8 New Hampshire.)
The biggest factor in the slump has been schedule. The first of the five was an overtime loss to UNH, resulting in a split for that weekend. Then came two losses to Boston College, the fate of most BC opponents this season. Arguably, the only significant downers came in the loss and tie to Boston University, which had been struggling while falling to eighth place in Hockey East.
“We lost one of the UNH games in overtime,” UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon says, “and you’d say, ‘Geez, we played pretty well but at the end of the day we got a loss.’ We were totally outmatched in the two BC games and played poorly in one of the two BU games and then pretty well in the other, but couldn’t get the W, got the tie.
“We were a little more successful in special teams prior to that stint. We chipped in with a couple of goals, but we went a couple games without any power-play goals. We had a couple games where we had been doing a real good job of killing penalties, but we gave up four man-down goals against BU. That was uncharacteristic.”
The numbers don’t lie. In the four losses, UMass was outscored 8-0 on special teams (1-0 to UNH, 1-0 and 2-0 to BC and 4-0 to BU in the first game). The Minutemen have now fallen to sixth in Hockey East both in terms of power-play and penalty-killing percentage.
So perhaps this is the ideal moment for a break. With only two more regular season contests remaining, it’s time to charge up the batteries, mend the bumps and bruises and work on the special teams.
Perfect timing, right?
“We’ll never know for sure until it plays itself out,” Cahoon says. “What you worry about is that competitiveness is an interesting thing. You can really lose that edge that you need to be able to compete at the highest level.
“Along with trying to get [the guys] some rest and push away a little bit so they can relax, at the same time we don’t want to lose that edge to compete. We’re really tweaking practices and doing a lot of different things in practice to mix it up, all keeping in mind that we need to maintain that edge.
“We’ll take the weekend off. We think it’ll work out fine. But next Friday night when we go to Matthews Arena, obviously we’ve got to have a mindset that will allow us to compete at that level because [Northeastern] will be playing for their lives, to be in the playoffs.
“That’s the beauty of our league. Every night out is such a grind. That’s why you can’t get too consumed by any one game and you can’t look too far ahead. In the end, you’ll tally it up and that will tell the story.
“You’ll go through your peaks and valleys. [The last five games] were a tough stretch for us, but hopefully a stretch that will better prepare us for the tough games ahead.”
Providence finds itself in an odd position in the standings. The Friars stand little chance of closing the gap with New Hampshire for playoff home ice. At the same time, holding onto fifth place doesn’t carry a significant playoff advantage. That is, with UMass currently holding down third place and UNH fourth, there’s no clear advantage in finishing fifth or sixth.
Lacking in motivation from the standings, the Friar goal is to play not only for pride but also to be peaking as the team nears the playoffs.
“That’s the key,” coach Paul Pooley says. “Every time you play, it’s just about playing your best game. You’re trying, obviously, to win the game, number one, but number two, play the game as much as possible at the highest level possible.
“Last year, I think we peaked early; I don’t think we’ve peaked yet this year. That’s exciting for me.”
Snubbing The Newbies?
Two weeks ago, my College Hockey America colleague (and friend) Mike Volonnino wrote of Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore’s objection to the label of “moral victory” for his team’s 2-1 loss to Minnesota.
“I’m tired of answering questions about calling it a victory to even belong on the same ice as them,” Serratore said. “I think that perception only exists in the media.”
For starters, let’s assume that any coach worth a bucket of warm spit isn’t going to be satisfied with “moral victories,” especially when his team comes very close to a big upset.
However, Volonnino went on to write, “It should have been expected all along that his Beavers would skate stride-for-stride with the Golden Gophers as well as almost any team in the nation. For their success, the Beavers have demanded that USCHO’s pollsters offer at least some recognition.”
As someone who has rarely included Atlantic Hockey or CHA teams in my Top 15, I must beg to differ. Bemidji may be 13-2-1 within the CHA, but in nonconference play it’s 3-9-2. The same holds true for Niagara, which stands with Bemidji as the cream of the CHA crop. The Purple Eagles are 13-3-0 in conference, but 5-8-3 outside it.
The same holds true for Holy Cross, the clear leader in the Atlantic Hockey Conference. The Crusaders are 16-2-2 inside the league, but only 2-5-1 outside it.
This isn’t like Niagara in 1999-2000, which not only dominated the CHA with a 15-0-2 league record, but also finished 13-8-2 outside of the conference. Now that was a team that demanded placement in the national rankings. This year, however, there are no members of the two newest conferences with winning records against the Big Four.
As a result, this writer considers it ludicrous to consider teams like Bemidji, Niagara or Holy Cross among the top 15 in collegiate hockey. Yes, the new conferences are great for the sport. Yes, they’re making strides forward every year. But with the sole exception of Niagara in 1999-2000 and Mercyhurst at a few early-season junctures, there has been no reason, other than charity, to give a Top 15 vote to a member of the two new conferences. It’ll come, as it did for that great Purple Eagle squad, but not right now.
Addressing the future, Volonnino wrote, “How soon before the cream of the CHA is praised for its success by the college hockey world? It is only a matter of time before one of the conference’s teams receives another NCAA at-large bid, in addition to the autobid.”
I suppose that depends on what “only a matter of time” means, but it certainly doesn’t appear imminent. Using KRACH, the best measure of strength in this writer’s opinion, only Niagara and Bemidji among the newbies crack the Top 40, at 31st and 34th, respectively. The same holds true, more or less, for the Ratings Percentage Index with the exception of Holy Cross moving up to 26th, one spot higher than Niagara. And in the PairWise Rankings, Niagara and Holy Cross stand at numbers 25 and 27, respectively. All of which would argue for an at-large berth a pretty long distance into the future.
In MikeV’s defense, he noted that his column was “written in the fog of an immense cold” so we’ll consider his comments a byproduct of either overoptimism or overmedication.
Optimism for the new conferences is great. They’re a major positive for the sport.
But the reality is that at-large berths are far from imminent and pollsters who continue to omit the new conferences are not being unfair, they’re being accurate.
Hobey Baker Special
New Hampshire Public Television has announced the March 17 premiere of “Golden – The Hobey Baker Story.” This documentary on college hockey’s earliest legend airs at 7:30 p.m..
“Hobey was an athlete who believed that sport should be played hand-in-hand with skill and integrity,” says producer Paul Lally, who spent six months researching Baker’s life and times. “His standard of achievement, both on and off the ice, was exceptional and rare. Hobey was sought after by professional hockey clubs, yet he chose to play for the sheer enjoyment of the sport.
“Here’s a man who was so impressive a person and athlete that, each year in his honor, America’s top collegiate hockey player receives the Hobey Baker Memorial Award. Hobey’s life is a fascinating story not just for sports fans but for everyone.”
The documentary recounts the story of Baker’s life, told with film clips, photographs, and interviews with Hobey’s nephew, distinguished sports figures, and historians. On-camera interviews include college hockey and Olympic legend Bill Cleary, WWI aviation expert and author Charles Woolley, and UNH professor and sports historian Stephen Hardy. They all describe Hobey Baker as an all-American hero who met a tragic and untimely death.
The fact that Linda Howe is Senior Producer of “Golden” heightens this writer’s expectations considering her work on UNH broadcasts on NHPTV as well as her work with the Friends of UNH Hockey. Those credentials bode well for a top-notch production.
Hockey East And 20 Special People
As part of its 20th anniversary celebration, Hockey East is honoring 20 “Special Friends” who have consistently worked with little recognition to support the league and its member programs over the past 20 seasons. The selections represent two individuals affiliated with each of the nine member programs (as nominated by the respective head coaches) and two affiliated directly with the league office. They are:
Tim Churchard – Volunteer assistant coach and one-time UNH hockey player is now the team’s sports psychologist.
Bill Cotter – Northeastern University trustee was a player/manager in the early 1970’s and still keeps hockey on the university’s agenda.
Norinne “Nonni” Daly – President of the UMaine “M” Club was Assistant Commissioner for Hockey East from 1991 to 1994.
Anthony Dello Russo – Board member of BC’s Pike’s Peak Club has been unofficial team statistician for 45 years.
Elliot Driben – BU’s most familiar face has been an actively involved program benefactor for 35 years.
Bob Gamache – Associate Dean of Marine Sciences and Technology at UMass Lowell is the official scorer for the River Hawks.
Jeanne Goss – Veteran is now in her 11th season as Administrative Assistant with the UMaine hockey program.
Richard Halgin – Professor of Psychology at UMass assists the team in the area of sports psychology.
Steve Hardy – Professor of Kinesiology is the faculty representative for UNH hockey.
Mike Kidonian – Official timekeeper at Schneider Arena for many years frequently travels to support the Friars on the road.
Don Lampron – Director of Athletic Facilities at UMass Lowell has been a fan and friend of Lowell hockey since the mid-1970’s.
Mike Logan – Regular emcee at Friars hockey banquets also coordinates internet broadcasts for most Friar contests.
Mike Merchant – Former Minuteman player (’77) is President of The Pond Club at UMass.
Steve Nazro – Director of Events at the FleetCenter has been a spectacular host for 16 of the first 20 Hockey East tournaments.
Tom Peters – Associate Athletic Director at Boston College has specific duties that include overseeing men’s and women’s hockey.
Jim Prior – The voice of Walter Brown Arena (and many other rinks) is also Hockey East’s coordinator of minor officials.
John Savastano – Technical specialist involved with Merrimack since the 1970’s coordinates arena music and game videotape.
Rick Savastano – Brother of above, full-time lawyer has long been the clock operator and PA Announcer at Merrimack’s Lawler Arena.
Dave Twombly – President of the Friends of Northeastern Hockey has been active with that group since graduating in 1984.
Brian “Sasquatch” Zive – 1994 BU grad has bared his soul (among other things) for Terrier hockey ever since.
Congratulations to the 20 “Special Friends” on this honor.
My apologies to Lowell Hockey Sports Information Director Dan Fisher, whom I lampooned last week with the words, “when it comes to poker, ‘Fish’ is an idiot savant still searching for his savant.” Sorry, Fish. Next time that I tease you I’ll use words you understand.
Last week’s question came from Kevin Yetman (aka nanookfan) and was based on facts as they stood on Feb. 13 and did not include exhibitions or the forfeiting of games by Lowell. It asked what three Division I teams, one in Hockey East, had not won without scoring first and what one D-I school had not lost when it did score first?
Here were the facts as of Feb. 13: The teams which had not won without scoring the first goal were Merrimack (0-14-3), Canisius (0-7-5) and Michigan (0-5-1). Since then, both Canisius and Michigan have gotten off that particular schneid, the former with a win over Sacred Heart last Saturday and the latter two weekends ago over Miami. UMass (13-0-3) was the only team still undefeated after scoring first, but has since seen that mark broken by both Boston College (Feb. 13) and Boston University (Feb. 14).
Not a single person got any of the answers correct. (That is, unless the deluge of virus emails that flooded my trivia account resulted in bounced messages. If so, my apologies.)
Since Kevin’s question apparently stumped the field, here’s a repeat of his cheer from last week:
“Let’s go Merrimack! I hope to see you at the FleetCenter this year!”
And I’ll grant myself the following cheer:
“Way to go Wesleyan! Congratulations on a great season! Good luck to all the seniors!”
This week’s question asks what Hockey East school other than Boston College currently has the longest streak of consecutive wins? Hint: you’ll be surprised at the answer. Email my trivia account with your perceptive reply. 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.
Do You Believe In Miracles? The Sequel
Okay, so it doesn’t quite rank with Team USA defeating the Russians in 1980. But last Friday night I saw one of the most gritty, determined efforts in a long time. With 11 of Wesleyan’s best players in street clothes, the Cardinals sucked it up big time to defeat Connecticut College, 5-3.
Wesleyan could dress only two defensemen and eight forwards who had seen more than a single game this season, but prevailed in spite of all odds. The list of heroes would go on and on since every player contributed. In a season filled with many highlights, this had to be one of the most satisfying wins of all.
On a personal note, I’d like to thank all the seniors who welcomed my son Ryan to the team and treated him so well from the first day to the last. My hat is off to you all: Steve Bogosian, Alex Shaine, Grant Savage, Brian Maynes, Casey Benny, Dave Hogan, David Taylor, Rob Weller, Mike Lang, Craig Badger, Blake Williams and Jim Panczykowski.
And kudos to head coach Chris Potter for a remarkable job in his first year along with long-time assistant Jim Langlois.
And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…
Thanks to Brian Foley, who noted an error in last week’s column, allowing me to fix it before too many people saw the blunder.