A Road “Favorite”
Although the matchup between the number four and five seeds is almost always a closely fought battle, this year’s three vs. six could be the most interesting one of all. That’s because one could make a pretty good case that the number six team, Massachusetts-Lowell, is actually the favorite.
Yes, the favorite, even though the River Hawks finished only a point ahead of seventh-place Merrimack, thereby saving themselves from a first-round trip to Alfond Arena.
“Essentially, we’ve already played two playoff games,” UML coach Blaise MacDonald says. “That Merrimack game [last Thursday] was like a playoff game for us. There were huge implications to that game and then we go to Providence and it’s really like another playoff game with huge implications. So that’s kind of the precursor to our playoff picture.”
In the last four weekends, Lowell has suffered a sweep at the hands of Boston College — join the club on that account — but has otherwise split with New Hampshire and Maine and then taken the three-of-four points last week from Merrimack and Providence.
“The first thing is we’re not beating ourselves,” MacDonald says. “The second thing is we’re playing pretty consistent hockey in all three zones. When we’ve had success, we’ve gotten timely saves from both goalies.”
But why the “favorite” label? Two reasons.
First, if you do away with the forfeits Lowell sustained because of using an ineligible player — an administrative foul-up involving a forward who tallied one point in nine games — and just reverted to the on-ice results, the standings would have this before-and-after look.
Before (with forfeits):
After (no forfeits):
While one might argue that the bottom three places might have played out a little differently than shown had the teams been basing decisions on the no-forfeit standings — Merrimack, for example, might have approached some games as more life-and-death — there wouldn’t seem to be any such argument for the top six teams. In fact, one could make a case for Lowell moving even higher without the forfeits because the River Hawks went a wind-out-of-their-sails 0-2-1 immediately after the announcement that they’d lost five wins, three in league play.
So point number one is that in on-ice results, Lowell was a home-ice team that would be hosting UMass instead of the buses traveling in the reverse direction.
“We’d be in fourth place hosting a home playoff series with essentially 18 freshmen and sophomores,” MacDonald says. “You want to talk about miraculous, that’s miraculous. It’s unheard of and the fact is that we as a team know we accomplished that and feel good about it and you can’t take that away.”
The second advantage Lowell has is that it is coming in on a string of high notes rather than the low ones UMass must fight through. The Minutemen are 0-6-1 in their last seven games and other than a four-game winning streak that preceded that seven-game drought had won only one other game dating back to Thanksgiving. That is, since UMass opened the season with a blazing 9-2-1 record, it has fallen to 5-11-5.
“You know, their record [in the last seven games] doesn’t really speak to the quality of their team,” MacDonald says. “Clearly they’ve played some great opponents [UNH and BC] and played very desperate opponents in BU and Northeastern. That’s why the league is awesome, because that can happen.
“With UMass, they’re just a real good team that got a taste of it last year and they know they’re 0-0, hosting their first home playoff series ever. So they’re looking ahead, not behind.”
And MacDonald doesn’t really want to hear about favorites and underdogs.
“We’re approaching it that it’s a real good matchup,” he says. “They’re an excellent team that presents plenty of challenges and we’ve really enjoyed competing against them.
“I’m not looking at it like something magical has to happen for us to win the series. But I also know that I just watched them four times [on tape] beat New Hampshire handily, 4-1.
“So I know they’re awfully good. I’m just excited to go West as opposed to North.”
It should be a hair-raising series. (A comment that will explain itself for anyone who is there for player introductions.)
If you recall, that was the year that Maine sustained 14 forfeits and, despite having an excellent team, dropped to eighth place in the then eight-team league. That year’s BU team had dominated the league, running away with a 21-3-0 record to finish 10 points ahead of second-place UMass-Lowell, only to be handed the Black Bears in the opening round. The Terriers swept the series, but the matchup certainly got some BU fans sweating.
Of course, I also thought the eighth-seeded Warriors had no chance against a juggernaut BU team in 1998, especially with a lame-duck head coach in Ron Anderson and a long losing streak.
Power Play Prowess From The Point
If you look at any successful power play, you’ll see strength at the points. Sometimes that manifests itself in smooth passes that find the open man. Other times, you see a pointman who has a cannon of a shot and can score the goals himself.
Hockey East has four defensemen who all season long separated themselves from the field in scoring power-play goals: Thomas Pöck (UMass) and Brian Yandle (New Hampshire) with nine each, Stephen Wood (Providence) with six and Bryan Schmidt (Merrimack) with five. (Boston University’s Ryan Whitney scored three of his four man-advantage tallies in the last six games.)
Pöck will get his due in another piece, so let’s begin with Yandle, a sophomore who only totaled six points last year, but has blossomed into an 11-goal, 26-point scorer.
“He’s done it right from the beginning,” UNH coach Dick Umile says. “He’s been doing it on the power play and he’s been doing it five-on-five. He’s got a terrific stick. He’s got a great shot. He’s very accurate and he’s got good vision out there.
“He’s been on the unit with Justin Aikins. Aikins is a great distributor of the puck and has found Brian in spots and Brian puts it away. He’s consistently scored goals; he’s having a really good year.”
Schmidt is another sophomore defenseman, although one who made his mark earlier in the league than Yandle, earning a berth on the Hockey East All-Rookie team. After nine goals and 21 points as a freshman, he’s followed that up with another 21-pointer this year.
“I think he’s a guy you’ve really gotta watch for,” Merrimack coach Chris Serino says. “Our power play was rolling along at a really thick clip maybe a month ago. You could see teams trying to shut him down on the power play.
“He can make big plays, he can make big shots and he can make big passes. I think he’s one of the very few defensemen in the league that’s capable of taking over a game, offensively, defensively, special team-wise. I think he’s a special player.”
Which, of course, makes him the subject of special attention.
“What we try to do is put the puck in his hands,” Serino says. “Even if you’re keying on him, we think he’s good enough that he’ll pass up the shot and make the good pass.
“Obviously, if you’re keying on him and you’re taking him away, then something is open and we feel pretty confident that he’ll find the open guy. We’re still going to try to put the puck in his hands and we feel that he can make the decisions with the puck that are going to benefit our team.”
Wood is the grizzled veteran of the trio, a senior who earned second-team All-Hockey East honors with his 29 points last year. His 11-goal, 28-point stat line make him a strong candidate for those honors again this year.
“Obviously, he handles the puck well,” PC coach Paul Pooley says. “The [special] thing that he has is a patience threshold. He’ll hang onto the puck and not panic with it. A lot of guys don’t have that. The second thing he has is a good shot, either wrist shot or slap shot.
“So those are the two things we try to utilize with him. The challenge at this point is trying to get him open since everybody knows that that’s where we want to go. So the last few weeks we’ve tried to run some plays or situations and we need to keep adjusting that to try to get him open.
“Our power play this year is a lot more successful than last year percentage-wise simply because we’re distributing the puck and he’s getting it more than he did last year.”
Which brings up this writer’s personal pet peeve, fans screaming at their own team’s point men, “Shoot!” Whether the shot has been set up or not and whether a defender is likely to have the puck bounce off his pads leading to a breakaway or not, the bloodthirsty scream is, “Shoot!” That, despite the fact that the best power plays are typically patient. They’re willing to spend some time working for a quality opportunity.
“You can shoot the puck, but if nobody’s in front, why shoot?” Pooley says. “That’s where the normal fan doesn’t [understand]. He sees a guy wide open at the point, but a good player is going to see if somebody is in front of the net before he shoots it. If you just shoot with no one in front, it’s almost like giving up a turnover and throwing it down the ice.”
The Lone Geezer
It’s not as though his teammates listen to 50 Cent and Eminem while he’s grooving to Jefferson Airplane, the Platters, and — heaven help us — the Andrews Sisters.
Nonetheless, Lowell captain Jerramie Domish stood alone last Thursday for the River Hawks’ Senior Night since he’s the lone elder statesman on this youth-laden roster.
Just the one senior and four juniors. Care to think how good Lowell will be next year and the year after?
At The Other End Of The Spectrum
One of Lowell’s top contributors on the blueline has been 19-year-old freshman Cleve Kinley, who last weekend factored in yet another big goal that helped the River Hawks defeat Providence, 4-3. It’s not a new story, just one that isn’t well-known.
“Cleve Kinley is an unbelievable defenseman for us who goes unnoticed by most,” MacDonald says. “He plays close to 30 minutes a game and he’s been our top defenseman this year [since] we lost Matt Collar for a month. The kid has to be one of the best, if not the best, freshman defenseman in the league.
“He takes what the game gives him. He doesn’t force it too much on the offensive side, but when he gets an opportunity he knows what to do. He makes a lot of plays.
“He’s most valuable, I think, in traffic, in chaos, in his own defensive zone. He not only comes up with loose pucks, but he makes a play. He’s very poised.”
Well Shiver Me Timbers
My colleague Lynn Burke forwarded the following nugget from a New York Times story about high school athletic programs in Alaska.
In ice hockey, many of the teams play in outdoor rinks. Keeping good ice is not a problem, but getting the whole schedule played sometimes is, because Alaska has a rule that no outdoor game can start if it is colder than minus-15 degrees.
“We’re not crazy about that rule,” said Tim Delaney, athletic director at Kenai Central High, 100 miles down the Cook Inlet from Anchorage.
“Minus 15 isn’t really that cold. Shoot, we practice in it all the time.”
One Final Note About Wesleyan
Congratulations to the three award-winners from this year’s Wesleyan Cardinals. Coach Chris Potter earned the NESCAC Coach of the Year Award after leading the team to its best finish in 15 years. Will Bennett was named NESCAC Rookie of the Year; his 15 goals led the team and ranked fifth in the league. And goaltender Jim Panczykowski took home second-team All-NESCAC honors after posting a 2.93 GAA and a .919 save percentage. His 733 saves, an average of 33 per game, trailed only two other netminders in all of Division III.
First off, no I didn’t know that “Tyler Durden,” one of two winners last week, was a fictitious name based on a character in the movie “Fight Club.” I haven’t seen the film — my viewing schedule is pretty erratic, especially during the hockey season — and this is one I missed. Yes, I know, I need to get out more often…
In any case, last week’s question noted that UNH goaltender Mike Ayers had shut out Boston University a remarkable four straight times and asked you to name the other two Hockey East schools that Ayers had posted consecutive shutouts over. One of those two streaks was current, the other was not. The answers were UMass (not current: Feb. 26 and Nov. 24, 2002) and — back-to-back weeks for tricks — Vermont (current: Oct 12, 2002 and Oct. 11, 2003).
First to answer was three-time winner Ankur Patel, who has chosen to go the visual route with his cheer. Mindful of the UNH-Providence series this weekend, Ankur shows us a ticket stub with the Friars minus their A game.
With a shift to playoff previews after next week’s final column, that wraps up this season’s trivia contests. Thanks to all for participating, whether as readers, losing contestants or winners.
And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…
• Last week’s column had only the following note in this segment: “Mark down the date. This week I have nothing more to say.” Strangely enough, my lack of words prompted more of a response than my words usually do. (Folks, that’s not a good sign for a writer.) My favorite monosyllabic friend wrote, “Wow.” But what I want to know is, who is the anonymous reader who replied, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
• Congratulations to my niece Cherie and the Brooks Girls hockey team for winning the New England Division II championship. Cherie scored all three goals in the semifinal overtime win over Gunnery and then was on the ice for all three Brooks goals in the title game, won 3-2 in dramatic fashion with the game-tying and winning goals coming in the final five minutes. Cherie was named MVP of the tournament. MVP! MVP! MVP!
• Congratulations also to my nephew Kevin for winning the Brooks Boys hockey team “Hard Hat” Award. Given after each game to the player who “gave it their all and really worked hard for the team — that could be scoring, goaltending, saying something to get the team going in the locker room, etc.,” Kevin took the season-long version, a well-deserved honor as anyone who has watched him can attest. Way to go, Kev!
• This is my final column of the year, folks. Scott Weighart will be filling in for me next week. Thanks for reading and stick around for the NCAA playoff previews.