Dave Hendrickson is taking this week off. This is also the final Hockey East column of the season. Therefore, the transition from Hendrickson to Weighart here is analogous to Bobby Orr doing an end-to-end rush before dishing to a forward for the easy tap-in.
Hockey East Championship Weekend
This weekend’s semifinals and finals at the FleetCenter promise to be an exciting and unpredictable joyride. Each of the four teams has beaten its three potential adversaries at least once this season, so each knows that winning this particular championship is plausible for any club.
Plots and subplots abound: Massachusetts faces UNH in a rematch of a last year’s thriller. Could this matchup be any more exciting? It could. The Minutemen were a definite underdog last year and almost pulled off the upset. Now they’re back with most of their key players returning, while UNH has lost many good players in the meantime — but not Michael Ayers, looking to lead his team to an unprecedented third consecutive championship game victory.
Meanwhile, eighth-seeded Boston University just knocked off the top seed in Boston College, and now looks to beat the team that is both the No. 2 seed and No. 2 in the nation, the Maine Black Bears. Will the clock strike midnight for the Terriers, or is this a team that has found the formula at long last? In some ways, it’s a curious battle of a team that has underachieved in this year’s standings against a team that’s overachieved to some degree.
In trying to make some sense of all this, we asked Massachusetts-Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald to analyze the key factors in the two matchups for the weekend. Along with Boston College, the River Hawks were the only other Hockey East team that managed to beat all four semifinalists during the season.
Boston University versus Maine
What a weekend for Boston University against archrival Boston College. Facing the end of their season for the second weekend in a row, the Terriers came up big with a quarterfinal triumph against the Eagles.
“We played pretty well on Thursday night, and then we played horrible on Friday night, and BC played great,” BU coach Jack Parker said. “But then on Saturday night, we were a much more confident team, so that was quite a turnaround. So now we’re feeling pretty good about ourselves, but it doesn’t mean that we’re automatically going to get that out of ourselves in our next game.
“I told them that the wins against BC were pretty nice and quite a bit of redemption in our BC season. That’s always another season within our season. But that’s not redemption for a whole season, though it gives us a chance for that.” We’ve got a chance to win the Hockey East tournament and less of a chance to get into the national tournament because we’ve got to win the Hockey East tournament. In order to have a chance to the win second championship, we’ve got to win the first, and that’s a long way off.”
Still, Parker admitted that the team had showed some fortitude in the face of a season that appeared to be going down the drain pretty quickly a few short weeks ago.
“There’s no question after a couple of losses after the Beanpot, I was concerned that maybe the guys, or any team, would start thinking, ‘Maybe it’s just not our year: Now we might even come in last,'” Parker said. “I was concerned about that, but I never saw any of that in practice or in games as far as guys quitting or guys thinking ‘Why try?’. So that was good, but there still wasn’t that sense of urgency that something’s got to get done.
“We started to play pretty well — we had a little breakout scoring-wise against UMass here, beat them 6-1, tied them at their place, came back feeling pretty good about ourselves. Then we went over to Northeastern and played a real good game, only tied them 2-2. Then we came back here, and we’re completely flat. They took it to us, and I really thought that it was a pathetic end to it all. But then we had a couple of really good team meetings, and the best games of our year were our two games against UNH. We tied them and played really well, and then when the money was on the line, we won up there.”
Now their reward is to play a Maine team that comes in at a remarkable 28-7-3 record. In the three matchups between the two teams, BU played very well in two of them but ended up with a win and a loss. In the other meeting, Maine blew out BU, though it was more of a team defense problem than a goaltending issue in that case. Obviously, Parker knows that it will all start with getting a solid defensive effort this weekend — more like Sean Fields’ 1-0 shutout victory over Maine than the 8-4 mistakefest that occurred one night before that win.
“I think the keys of any tournament are whether you can generate offense off your defense — it’s always defense first in situation-and two, goaltending,” Parker said. “Obviously we feel like we have a real hot goaltender right now who’s played really well in the second half. I also believe that special teams also play a big part in these games. We’ve played well in that area, and that gives us confidence.”
Meanwhile, Maine dispatched Merrimack in two games, as the Bears were not about to endure another quarterfinal upset after last year’s loss in Orono at the hands of the Minutemen. For a team that lost its top five scorers (Martin Kariya, Lucas Lawson, Francis Nault, Robert Liscak, and Chris Heisten), their consistency this year has been absolutely astonishing. Certainly their story ranks right along with Boston College, which has an almost identical record despite having players lose nearly 50 games to injury, many simultaneously.
“Our upperclassmen have really stepped up,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. “First of all Todd Jackson, Colin Shields, Prestin Ryan, and in the last several games Cameron Lyall. We’ve been really pleased with our consistency. We lost a lot of players, but it’s really been the seniors more than the freshmen who have stepped up.”
One key has been the stellar play of goaltending tandem Jim Howard and Frank Doyle. However, neither has one minute of experience playing in the FleetCenter. Could that be a flag?
“Certainly Jimmy Howard and Frank Doyle have both played in big games before, so that’s not really a concern,” Whitehead said.
Nonetheless, Maine will not be looking beyond BU. The last time a No. 8 seed advanced, it was Merrimack bettering BU in 1998. But no one really believed that the Warriors could win the title that year, and BC beat them decisively in the semi-final. Don’t look for a lopsided result in this one.
“We have a lot of respect for BU,” Whitehead said. “They’ve got great goaltending, talented defenseman, and some dangerous forwards. They’re going to be really high [after upsetting BC].”
BU-Maine Analysis by Blaise MacDonald
“On paper, Maine’s the better team obviously, sporting two spectacular goaltenders. I think the keys for BU would be killing off their power plays, seeing as Maine scored a number of shorthanded goals against them earlier in the year. I think goaltending: Sean Fields will be very important. Also look for BU to deliver a lot of shots on net and crash the net. For Maine to be successful, watch Prestin Ryan — he’s the key man for them. He needs to stay out of the box, and all the offense is going to run through him.
“How will Maine’s goaltenders react to playing in the FleetCenter? I really think when you have goaltending like they have, there’s a sense of calmness and confidence. You could be playing on Mars, and it doesn’t matter.”
Massachusetts versus New Hampshire
After getting off to a hot start early in the season, UMass struggled to find consistent success in the homestretch.
“We struggled for a couple of weekends after the New Hampshire series,” Minuteman coach Don “Toot” Cahoon said. “We certainly struggled against Boston College, but a lot of teams have. The next weekend against BU we had won bad night, then one pretty good night where we came out of it with a tie. Then we had a weekend off, which didn’t play in our favor, and then we had one bad game against Northeastern at Northeastern.
“Then we played extremely well against Northeastern at home and lost 3-2 — playing extremely well but making major blunders. We felt pretty good coming off that game: Our execution was back, and our competitive edge was back. You alluded to the fact that we gave up a lot of shots in that first night [of the quarterfinal series] against Lowell, but they weren’t a lot of high-quality shots, and Timmy Warner was certainly up to the task; he played extremely well, and we capitalized on the opportunities they had. Then we played excellently the next night.”
Along with BU’s upset of BC, the other amazing story of the quarterfinals absolutely was Tim Warner. Amazingly, the junior netminder came into the Hockey East playoffs having played just 68 minutes and 13 seconds all season without a single start. He gets tabbed to replace Gabe Winer after Winer stopped just 12 of 15 shots against Northeastern. In response, Warner comes up with 39 saves on 42 shots and follows it up by stopping 22 of 23 in the series-winner. Wow.
“Preparedness is the issue there,” Cahoon said. “Tim is mature enough to take his role as the backup goaltender very seriously, and he conditioned himself and stayed in the mainstream with the team, came to practice every day and put his best foot forward.
“When you’re called on, you want to respond, and he handled it beautifully and did a great job. We haven’t declared who’s going to be playing this week, but Timmy’s a strong candidate and certainly deserving of the opportunity. We’re going to reserve the right to name the goalie, and he and Gabe are going into the week as they do every other week waiting to get the news from the coaches later in the week.”
Cahoon is not lulled by the fact that this year’s semi-final rematch does not include the likes of Wildcat standouts Lanny Gare, Colin Hemingway, Jim Abbott, Garrett Stafford, and Josh Prudden — all lost to graduation.
“Clearly they have lost some terrific players, but they still have some great players remaining: You’ve got Collins, Saviano, Aikins, Callander, and Ayers and a host of other players who are very creditable, so we’re going to need to play our best hockey,” Cahoon said. “We’ve been kind of an anomaly statistically throughout the year, and we just need to bring our best play this weekend if we’re going to be competitive.
“From our perspective, we want to be careful not to look too far into the tournament, just take care of the first piece, which is obviously the game against New Hampshire. They’re a tournament-tested program; I don’t think that there’s a team in the country that’s been in more big games over the last few years, so we’re going to have to be prepared and play extremely well in order to succeed on Friday night.”
Like Whitehead in Maine, New Hampshire coach Dick Umile has looked for players to step up to replace a good senior class. In so doing, they have fared well but occasionally have struggled, especially in terms of firepower of late. But don’t expect the two-time defending champs to make it easy for UMass to get to their first-ever Hockey East championship game.
“It’s playoff hockey,” Umile said. “We’re playing well as of late defensively. We’ve been up and down defensively, but we’re playing well down the stretch. We’re going to need to do that especially against UMass and if we go forward.”
Umile knows that the Minutemen are a serious threat this time around. “They’ve obviously got a lot of great players back, and Donnie’s done a terrific job with the program out there. Hopefully it proves to be another great college hockey game, and I think it will be that. We’re looking forward to it; we’re 1-1-1 this season, and something’s got to be decided, and for sure it’s got to be decided Friday night. We’ll play into somebody breaks this.”
Umile sees no simple formula in stopping the Minutemen. “Thomas Pöck is one of the top defenseman in the league,” Umile said. “They’re a team that’s very well-coached, and they have a little of everything: They have speed; they have size, and the ability with special teams. They can do a lot, especially with Pöck out there. They’re a transition team, so if you make mistakes and turn the puck over in the neutral zone, they come right back at you. We’re very aware of that; we found that out in the regular season. It should be a good matchup, and we’re looking forward to the opportunity.”
Massachusetts-UNH Analysis by Blaise MacDonald
“The key for UMass is their playmakers. Their big-time players need to play in the prime time, and if they do that, they’ll be awfully difficult to beat. They need to really limit the transitional opportunities that UNH presents to most teams, and that can be done by just taking care of the puck better.
“Players to watch for UMass: 71, Thomas Pöck, 25, Degon, and 37 Kuiper, and up front you’d go 14 Mauldin and 19 Werner — those two guys in particular.
“[Last year’s experience in the semifinal] will bode well for them. UMass belongs there this year. Maybe last year it was a magical year. But it’s clear to me that they belong there in the FleetCenter.
“Their top players played very well against us. It was an inspirational story having Tim Warner come off the bench. That gave the team a lot of confidence and energy.
“The keys for UNH are their defense: They’ve got to play tough down low in one-on-one battles. They’ve got to defend the net and do a good job of defensive spacing on rushes. Offensively, they’re such a good transition team, they’ll create a great scoring opportunity, but I think their key will be getting second and third opportunities from that first chance.
“This is the big stage for our conference. No team goes into this weekend thinking about next weekend. They’re thinking this Friday — no further.”
Terrier forward Kenny Magowan has had one rollercoaster ride of a season. In the early going for BU, the senior power forward was the one player who dramatically exceeded expectations during the first half. Coming into this season with just 22 goals in three campaigns, Magowan had seven goals before the end of November, leading the team by a wide margin.
In the coldest January in Boston in recent memory, Magowan started heating up again with a goal and four assists in four games. Then he injured a medial collateral ligament against Maine (Aha! Another subplot!) and missed almost a month including the Beanpot. He came back, played in four games — then reinjured the knee against Northeastern. As he went off the ice, he fired his helmet down in the walkway, knowing it was likely that his collegiate career was over.
“It was obviously frustrating,” recalled Magowan, a New Jersey Devils draft pick and the Terriers’ one true power forward. “I did rehab for five weeks — kind of monotonous, every day doing the same thing, seeing the guys skate out there and not being able to be with them. Then the excitement coming back — I didn’t really get to do what I wanted to do. Only four games and then that weekend against Northeastern, it was another awkward play. At the moment, I thought that was it. The doc said another four to six weeks, and four weeks was Regionals. The way we had been playing that weekend and the way our season had been going all year, I thought we were on the outside looking in, for sure.
“I just aggravated [my MCL]. It wasn’t the same thing. I went home on crutches, but the next day I didn’t need them. But it was real sore, but I was two weeks ahead of where I was [after the first injury].”
Still, Magowan was reduced to watching in street clothes as his teammates fought for their lives in Durham and Chestnut Hill.
“Now I know what it feels like to be a parent or a coach or someone involved with a team,” Magowan said of his days as interested spectator. “It’s amazingly nerve-wracking: Every play you’re just hanging on, seeing what’s going on, what develops. When you’re out there, you’re just playing; your mind’s not really on the whole game. It was great knowing that if we won, I could play again because my knee was feeling really good. At the same time in the back of my mind I knew my college career could be over. I’m just grateful to be part of the team again this year.”
Magowan shrugs off his success when healthy this season.
“It was just luck I guess, being in the right place at the right time,” Magowan said. “It’s just one of those things: For three years, you don’t score many goals, and all of a sudden I had six or seven this season, which was nice… Guys are starting to score a lot now, so it’s nice to see.”
For Terrier fans, it will be nice to see him back on the ice again. In fact, it looks probable that BU will have all players available to them this Friday.
Looking Ahead To The NCAAs
After the ice chips settle this weekend, 16 teams will look ahead to the NCAA tournament. BU and Massachusetts both know that they basically must win the league championship to get an autobid. In a conference call Monday, NCAA representatives emphasized that the two UMass losses to Mass.-Lowell — counted as forfeit wins for the Minutemen in the Hockey East standings, due to an ineligible player for the River Hawks — will still count as losses as far as the NCAA tournament is concerned. Cahoon is philosophical about this income.
“Given the fact that they decided to use the two forfeited wins as originally lost games — and I certainly understood that, I don’t have much of a feeling either way — it’s pretty clear that we have to win out to get in,” Cahoon said. “Am I disappointed by that? I don’t know that I am. Clearly we had opportunities throughout the year to win two or three more games that we either tied or let slip through, and that turns out to be our Achilles heel. So let’s just go into the tournament with the idea that we want to win it to begin with, and that would be a perfectly good way to get into the NCAA tournament.”
Fans who were annoyed by seeing BU play UNH in a second-round game last year — one week after they met in the Hockey East championship game — may very well find themselves equally irritated this time around. The committee would not rule out the possibility of, say, BC or Maine playing UNH in a second-round game.
“It’s possible,” said Ron Grahame, the chair of Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Committee. “I’m not going to try to speculate on where anybody’s going to be without knowing the final 16 teams and what we’re looking at — we’ll plug it in from there. But there’s a lot of good teams, there’s a lot of conferences that are represented. We’ll have a challenge, especially when you’ve got teams who have played each other all year long and it looks like they would be best [at the same site]. But when you’ve got five teams that are best at one site, they obviously can’t all be there. The hockey community has got to rely on us to make the best decision for the bracket.”
Last year, Terrier coach Jack Parker expressed his displeasure with his team facing familiar foes in Harvard and UNH and still believes that mixing up East and West more thoroughly throughout the tournament is best for college hockey. But Tim Whitehead expressed a little sympathy for the committee.
“You can’t control everything — conference matchups, teams playing in their own regions,” Whitehead said. “It’s a tough call; the committee’s got a tough job to do. We need to fill some seats in Albany. We’ve got four sites, and we have to make sure it works. We had a tough draw last year [getting sent to play Michigan in their own building], but we didn’t play well down the stretch, so I didn’t feel I could make any complaint.”
To be fair, this year’s field may cause more headaches than usual, as five WCHA teams appear to be locks, while Colorado College and Alaska-Anchorage are still in contention as well. Still, it would be nice to see the NCAA do whatever they can to make the national tournament as national as possible.
Do we really need to see UNH play Maine for a fourth or fifth time? Shouldn’t the WCHA have the opportunity to prove that it’s definitively the best conference this season by putting its top four teams in different brackets? The Anaheim championship was great because it gave Hockey East a chance to get three teams in the Frozen Four — while also giving non-conference opponents the chance to knock them all out.
Another concern: Although Cornell coach Mike Schafer raised a ruckus last year when Cornell was No. 1 seed but drew No. 14 seed Minnesota State-Mankato instead of a far easier opponent in Wayne State or Mercyhurst, the committee seemed unconcerned about this sort of injustice. This could mean that Maine or Boston College might be a No. 2 seed overall but fail to reap the benefit by playing the MAAC champion or Niagara, the CHA champion.
“We’ll do our best as to where the teams are and where they fall in the final 16,” Grahame said. “It’s not a mandate; it’s not an absolute that one will play 16. There are too many variables to make it work that way with conference matchups and that sort of thing. Cornell was not happy last year because of who they had to play, but it still was a team that was in the bottom four of that overall mix. It just worked out that way. We will look at it; we looked at it last year, and it just worked out that way in terms of what was best for the bracket.”
We’ll see what happens. You can check it out on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. EST on ESPN2.