Time To Make Its Move
This season has seen its ups and downs for New Hampshire. Unless they leapfrog Massachusetts this weekend, the Wildcats will finish fourth in Hockey East, only the second time in the last eight years they will have failed to finish in the top three. (In fairness, they would be on pace to do so again this season if not for UMass’ two forfeit wins over Massachusetts-Lowell.)
There haven’t been the extended winning streaks, particularly in Hockey East play, that have marked previous Wildcat editions. Only once since November have they posted back-to-back league wins.
“To put six or seven straight wins together in Hockey East is pretty darn difficult,” coach Dick Umile says. “Basically you want to be able to survive. I’ve said this all along: every weekend if you were to play one team home and away, which we do most of the time, getting a split in the weekend is a good weekend.
“Winning two is a great weekend and obviously you don’t want to get swept. But to put six games together, that’s three straight weekends of winning both games and in our league that’s a tough task.”
UNH entered last Saturday’s game with Boston College, however, in danger of falling to only a single game over .500 in Hockey East play. A main factor was the team defense. Unlike last year when the Wildcats tied for first in the league, allowing an average of only 2.29 goals per game, this year they’ve fallen to 3.14, seventh in league play, and a league-worst .794 penalty kill percentage. Dating back to the two-game set at Maine that closed out January, UNH had allowed three or more goals in every game but one.
All of which made the 3-2 win over BC on Saturday all the more significant.
“There’s no question that that was an area of concern for us,” Umile says. “We knew we weren’t doing a good job defensively.
“I don’t want to take anything away from Maine. We went up to Maine and they just out-worked us and those are the reasons the goals went in in the defensive end. They were just quicker than we were to the puck and we were just losing those battles.
“I thought we played well defensively against Lowell five-on-five, but we didn’t handle the power play very well.
“Obviously we made defense a big concern and I think this weekend was a major improvement. We kept the numbers down. The last couple of weeks we’ve done a better job defensively, but it is an area that we have not done a great job with and obviously the results are there.”
And the last line of defense is, of course, the goaltender. Mike Ayers, the 2003-03 all-everything goaltender, has seen his numbers drop from last year’s lofty heights (2.18 GAA, .926 Sv%) to those of mere mortals (in Hockey East play, 3.33, .885).
“It’s everybody; it’s not only Mike,” Umile says. “He’ll be the first to tell you he hasn’t played as well. He was invincible last year. He put up some incredible numbers and the bar was really raised last year.
“I think he’s done a good job for us and obviously we haven’t helped him out as a team defensively. Goaltending is always a result of team defense, which we’ve done a better job of this weekend. Hopefully that will continue.”
Going into the BC series last weekend, 24 of the 74 goals Ayers had surrendered have come on the penalty kill, a further indication that the defensive numbers are a team problem rather than one with a single scapegoat. On a positive note, though, the Wildcats held BC scoreless in the eight Eagle weekend power plays.
“We haven’t been very good on the penalty kill and that’s been the result of giving up second and third and backdoor shots,” Umile says. “We did better last weekend and hopefully that will improve. The most important thing is you can forget what happened early in the season if we continue to play well right now like we did this weekend. If we do that, we’ll be a difficult team to beat.”
On paper, UNH faces the perfect team to send it into the playoffs on a high note: Boston University. The same BU Terriers that Ayers has recorded four consecutive shutouts. The eighth-place, struggling Terriers.
“We’re not going into this weekend thinking we’re going to shut out Boston University,” Umile says. “Boston University has had a difficult time scoring goals, but they’ve played hard and they’ve outshot their opponents quite often. They’re a strong and aggressive team.
“We’re just going into this weekend looking to continue to play well and finish the regular season well. We still have an opportunity to maybe move up and the most important thing is to play well when the playoffs come the following week.”
With a little momentum and the kind of quality defensive play they displayed against BC last weekend, the Wildcats could be poised to enter the playoffs in their familiar position — a team no one wants to face — albeit as a lower seed than usual.
And don’t be surprised if UNH then goes on a postseason run like it has the past two years when it won ten and eight consecutive games before losing in the NCAA semifinals and finals, respectively.
“We’ll be a good team,” Umile says. “[There are] no guarantees we’re going to be playing like that, but you give yourself an opportunity to win and that’s what we want to do.”
This weekend will be Northeastern’s last chance to escape from the hole it dug for itself when it opened the season 0-9-2. Unfortunately, the Huskies don’t hold their fate in their own hands. They will take on Massachusetts in a home-and-home series while trailing Boston University by two points that act more like three since BU wins the tiebreaker in most cases. BU faces New Hampshire on Thursday and Saturday in its final two games of the regular season.
(BU and Northeastern split their head-to-head series, resulting in total wins in conference play being the next tiebreaker. BU wins that one unless Northeastern sweeps this weekend and BU ties both games. That scenario, however, would deadlock the two teams with five league wins, which would invoke the third tiebreaker — head-to-head results against the number one team, then number two, and so on. Northeastern would win this tiebreaker based on better results against Boston College.)
“We stand at the bottom looking up,” NU coach Bruce Crowder says. “We have all year, but I think there’s some light at the end of the tunnel. That’s the nice positive thing.
“We’ll know about 9:30 Thursday night what we have to do. If we get a little help from the Wildcats, all of a sudden that opens the door and hopefully we’re ready to knock on that door and bust through it.”
This column has noted the point before, but it is a testament to the team’s resiliency that it has put itself back within striking distance of a playoff spot. The best example of that came last weekend when the Huskies took three of four points from the same BU team they’ll try to leapfrog this weekend. They at least gave themselves a shot.
“These guys have been fantastic,” Crowder says. “There’s no doubt [we wouldn’t have hung in there] if I didn’t have the character of the kids we have here, particularly our senior class.
“The job [captains] Trevor Reschny, Brian Tudrick and Eric Ortlip have done has been fantastic. Even though two of the guys haven’t produced like they’ve wanted to offensively, they’ve been major factors with this turnaround.
“A lot of people were throwing us under the bus and a lot of other kids might have tanked the season and said, ‘This sucks!’ But they didn’t. There was even the character [on display] a couple of weekends ago at UNH when we gave up five goals on 10 shots and even then there wasn’t any quitting.”
Tudrick personifies the team’s character and resiliency. Unable to break into the lineup for a single game as a freshman, he redshirted and then dressed for 12 contests in 2000-01 without scoring a point. His breakthrough didn’t come until his third year on campus, his sophomore season from an eligibility perspective, when he totaled 12 points. That determination resulted in him wearing the assistant captain letter this year.
“It’s a huge turnaround,” Tudrick says. “You just have to believe in yourself and what you’re doing. If you work hard and keep your head down and keep going, you’ll be all set.”
It’s an approach his coach admires.
“Those are the great stories,” Crowder says. “Especially at a [private] school like us, he came in here when he could have walked on at a state school and saved himself a lot of money.”
Crowder had a conversation with Mike Tudrick, Brian’s father, after the freshman season, saying, “I don’t know if Brian is going to play here and I know it’s costing you a lot of money. If he’s here to go to school then that’s fine, that’s good. But if you think that he’s going to play, I can’t guarantee that right now.”
Brian’s parents found a way to make the tuition payments while their son proved his worth on the ice surface.
“Obviously, he’s on scholarship money now,” Crowder says. “You need those kids and they’re few and far between. Five years ago he made a decision to come to Northeastern, hoping he’d get a chance to play. [Last weekend], he scored a big goal for us against BU. You can’t say enough about him.”
Going For Sixth
A week ago, they’d taken five of their last six points and were shooting for fifth place, a mark they had achieved only once (1996-97) in their 15 years in Hockey East. That goal won’t happen now for the Merrimack Warriors after a loss and a tie with Providence last weekend. Nonetheless, there’s still much to applaud in Merrimack’s season and play of late.
“Obviously, we would have liked to get fifth place, but that didn’t work out,” coach Chris Serino says. “I still think that if we continue to get better — as I think we are — that we can cause a little bit of trouble in the playoffs. I like the way we’re playing right now.”
There’s still plenty to play for in the Warriors’ regular-season finale at Lowell.
“We want to try to get that sixth spot,” Serino says. Mindful of the playoff matchup for the team that falls to seventh, he adds, “I don’t want to go Maine either. This is a big game for us.”
The Trick-Or-Treat Terriers
Just when they needed the points the most, BU’s Trick-Or-Treat Terriers took only one of four points from Northeastern, letting the opportunity to clinch a playoff berth slip through their fingers. Since the Beanpot opener, they are now 1-5-2 with perhaps the most damaging loss coming at home last Saturday.
“[We played] horribly,” coach Jack Parker said after the game. “We didn’t cover anybody. We didn’t compete. We got beat to every loose puck…. They played like they were disinterested tonight. Absolutely disinterested. A pathetic display by the Boston University team, a terrific display by Northeastern.”
Last week’s question asked what Hockey East school other than Boston College currently had the longest streak of consecutive wins? There was a hint: you’ll be surprised at the answer.
As the hint indicated, this was a trick question. The Hockey East school is Vermont. (The Catamounts won’t begin playing in Hockey East until the year after next, but they are a member.) First to guess the sneaky answer was Ankur Patel, whose cheer is:
Ticket to the Whittemore Center – $15 Ticket to the Fleet Center – $20 Ticket to the Worcester Centrum – $25 Ticket to Walter Brown Arena – $18 254 minutes and 24 seconds of shutout hockey – Priceless
That one goes in the All-Time Cheer Hall of Fame!
Tyler Durden uncovered an additional correct answer: the Providence women’s hockey team held an eight-game winning streak at the time of the question. Since my niece Cherie will be playing for those same Friars next year, I’d be loathe not to give credit for this answer as well so Tyler’s cheer is:
“USE YOUR MAGIC, DAVE!!! PICK BC TO SWEEP!!! GOOOOO MAINE!!!”
This week’s question notes that, as Ankur expressed in such witty fashion, UNH goaltender Mike Ayers has shut out Boston University a remarkable four straight times. Name the other two Hockey East schools that Ayers has posted consecutive shutouts over. One of those two streaks is current, the other is not.
Email my trivia account with the two schools and the dates of the shutouts. 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…
Mark down the date. This week I have nothing more to say.
Thanks to Scott Weighart for his assistance.