This Week in Hockey East: Nov. 4, 2004

Due to the officiating crackdown this season, Hockey East officials are penalizing Dave Hendrickson for one week due to obstruction. Apparently Dave lingered too long around the food in a Hockey East press box recently.

New Year’s Eaves

So far this season, the No. 1 spot in the USCHO poll has been surrendered almost as fast as a Kenny G Christmas CD at a Yankee Swap Holiday Party. We’ve had a different team every week in the hot seat, which appears to be equipped with an eject button. Finally, though, we have a team that has claimed this dubious distinction twice in this young season: Boston College.

After beating North Dakota last Friday, the Eagles reclaimed the top spot. With a win at Maine this weekend, they could stay there for a while. What can you say about a team that loses weapons such as Ben Eaves, Tony Voce, and J.D. Forrest and still appears to be a powerhouse? This program certainly has staying power.

One jaw-dropping statistic stands out thus far in Chestnut Hill. In just four games, Patrick Eaves has amassed three goals and eight assists — an average of 2.75 points per game, best in the nation. That pace won’t last, but it does appear to be a sign that Eaves is poised for a career year. According to BC coach Jerry York, Eaves is finally firing on all cylinders because he’s injury-free at last.

“From late last spring, we saw a big jump in his physical health,” York said. “He had been knocked around with injuries his first couple of years. But boy, he took off this spring right after our NCAA appearance. He just had a great summer back in Shattuck [in Minnesota], working out with his dad and brother. So I think physically he’s in the best shape he’s ever been in, and that’s translating to a lot of minutes and playing very, very productively.”

For those who watched the Eagles against the Sioux in person or on CSTV on Friday night, freshman Dan Bertram is also taking flight. Bertram — who will be not quite 18 years old when the New Year begins — scored two goals that night and now has four in his first four collegiate games. Along with forwards Chris Bourque and Peter MacArthur of Boston University as well as P.J. Fenton of Massachusetts, Bertram seems like a top contender for the Hockey East All-Rookie Team in the early going.

“With recruits, we’re never quite sure exactly what we have until they’re on campus, blending in with our players, and playing in some big conference games and some big games outside the conference,” York said. “I think Danny has showed that he’s ready to make a pretty good impact on the game as it is now. I had kind of thought it would be second semester before he was a real part of our offensive flow, but he’s progressed very, very quickly and fits in.

“He’s playing with two established veterans in Patrick and Ryan [Shannon] who have helped him with the process of adjusting from the junior level to Hockey East. He’s got great vision with the puck and good hockey sense.”

Another recruiting coup for the Eagles has arrived between the pipes. Cory Schneider has won his first two starts — including Friday’s 5-3 win over the Sioux. The future may be pretty close to now for Schneider. If BC has lacked anything in recent years, it would be a goalie who could steal a big game for them — though York downplays that idea.

“We don’t want to get ourselves in a situation where a goalie has to steal a game,” York said. “Hopefully you’ve got enough good players that you’re not going to have to steal games from much better opponents. But I think that Corey has showed us that he’s ready to play games. In practice and in the two games he’s played for us now, he’s exhibited a lot of good strong traits for a goaltender. So he’ll play more also.”

If the youngsters continue to develop and — especially — if Eaves can stay healthy all year, it could be difficult to ground the Eagles.

Bear Market

After outperforming expectations in the early going last year, the Maine Black Bears have seen their stock drop this year. With a 5-4 record, coach Tim Whitehead isn’t exactly ready to put the Samaritans Suicide Prevention Hotline on his speed dial, but there is some cause for concern.

“I think it’s consistency of a lot of little things that we’re working on,” Whitehead said after Sunday’s loss. “Certainly nobody’s hitting any panic buttons with a 2-1 loss at BU. We played extremely well Friday against Merrimack; we were very disciplined. But I was worried in the third period at Merrimack: a couple of penalties we shouldn’t have taken. It didn’t factor in that game, but it really burned us in this game.

“That’s what our players need to recognize: If they want to win more hockey games, their discipline has to be much better. That’s the bottom line.”

Black Bear captain John Ronan concurred. “I think it’s just a situation of being a whole new team,” Ronan said. “We’re not last year’s team. Last year was different; we had a good mix. This year we’re trying to find our own identity. We got the first win at Vermont, then we struggled at home. We’re searching for what we are as a team, and we’re getting to it now. Obviously, it’s tough to come in here and lose, but we’re finding our identity. We’ll take our lumps early but hopefully we’ll be going toward the end.

“We’re going to have to focus on discipline. We can’t go out there and take a whole bunch of penalties and hope to win — especially on the road against a team like that. So we’re going to have to take a look in the mirror, and guys who are taking penalties are going to have to stop — plain and simple.”

One very positive indicator for Maine is the recent play of goaltending standout Jimmy Howard. “I was really impressed with Jimmy; he’s come a long way,” Whitehead said. “He had mono in the summer and sprained his ankle. When you have mono, it’s tough to get back into shape because if you train too hard you’re susceptible to getting sick again. So we’ve tried to be as careful as we can. He’s getting better every weekend.”

With Howard’s play on the rise and Michel Léveillé due back from a separated shoulder within a couple of weeks, look for Maine to be more bullish on this season soon.

Parity Theory

Northeastern knocked off top-ranked Michigan in the season-opening Ice Breaker, then lost three in a row to Miami, Denver, and Rensselaer before handing Colgate its first loss of the year after a 4-0 start and then managing a hard-fought tie against North Dakota last weekend. Husky coach Bruce Crowder would have none of the contention of a letdown against “lesser” opponents.

“I wouldn’t call anybody a lesser opponent in college hockey,” Crowder said. “It just shows with the games that we’ve had, and Vermont [taking three of four points on the road at Minnesota-Duluth] this weekend. There’s no such thing as a lesser opponent.”

Crowder sees a parity in college hockey that is unmatched in any other collegiate sport. “One thing is great in college hockey — you’re going to have upsets from top to bottom. Look at us in Hockey East last year for goodness sakes, only five points separated us from fifth place.”

The National Hockey League and its players may bicker indefinitely about a salary cap, but Crowder sees one that’s already in place in D-I hockey.

“Eighteen scholarships is our salary cap in the NCAA,” Crowder said. “It’s helped. In days gone by, there were situations where guys were on golf scholarships or baseball scholarships who were really hockey players, and the NCAA came in about ten or 12 years ago and was able to cut that out. The biggest difference now that affects schools is the privates and the publics, because there’s a big differential — a state school can get more bang for their buck out of their 18 scholarships because of the cost of going to school.”

Despite a few ups and downs this season, Northeastern could be a good candidate to break out — if it can improve penalty killing.

“I’m happy that the kids who need to be playing well are playing well, which wasn’t happening at the beginning of last year,” Crowder said. “When you look at [Jason] Guerriero and Mikey Morris and Keni Gibson, those are the guys who we’re counting on to bring us success. Guys like [Brian] Swiniarski and [Bryan] Esner are starting to step it up, and our senior defensemen have really played well for us.

“What I haven’t liked is our penalty killing. We’re still not finding ways to keep pucks out of the net, and that’s something we’re going to continue to work on. One thing I think, it’s been more mental breakdowns, not staying within a system.”

So far the Huskies have surrendered a whopping 13 goals on 42 power plays — a .310 rate which is quite unacceptable. If they could create a little more parity between themselves and opponents with the man advantage, they should escape from the cellar rather handily.

Favorable Ref-erendum

Over the years, Boston University coach Jack Parker could not be characterized as someone who “agrees to disagree” with college hockey officials. So far this season, however, he’s gone out of his way to consistently praise how the referees have enforced the crackdown on obstruction.

“I thought the referees did a real good job,” Parker said after Sunday’s win against Maine. “They called everything that was supposed to be called, but they didn’t make a mess of it either. They called interference; they called backchecking interference. There was nobody holding people down low.

“I don’t know if you noticed that, but in years past we’ve played Maine and there was clutching and grabbing and holding all along the wall, and we didn’t see any of that tonight because nobody can do that anymore. That’s why one team got 35 shots, and the other team got 24. You’re going to see more offense.”

Combined penalties for both teams in the Terriers’ games have steadily decreased over the last three weekends: 29, 26, and then 15. Those 15 penalties included quite a few that would have been called last year or in any other year: spearing, slashing, hitting from behind, too many men, and so forth. Only two obstruction penalties were called … and not because the refs got sick of calling them, either.

“In general, there was good hitting,” Parker said. “People are hitting with their legs instead of their sticks; people are backchecking with their legs instead of their sticks. People are getting free out of the corners now because they’re not being held. I think all that is to the good. And it wasn’t a mess penalty-wise, was it? That’s going down drastically. They’re starting to realize what they can and can’t do.”

Crowder also relishes the rule enforcement, acknowledging that it could help smaller, skilled players such as Husky centerman Guerriero. “I think so, as long as he keeps his feet moving, that’s the key,” Crowder said. “If he keeps his feet moving, he puts pressure on people. It’s going to be good for him in a lot of ways if they continue to call it, and I hope they do.

“I think it’s going to help us too as an overall team: We were the least-penalized team in Hockey East last year. I wouldn’t say we’re a clutching and grabbing type of team.”

The adjustment is far from universal. Friday’s Maine-Merrimack game featured 23 penalties, including five obstruction calls. Still, one can hope that college hockey will soon consistently showcase games that feature far less clutching and grabbing than a typical Backstreet Boys concert.

Class Act

As USCHO’s Jim Connelly reported last weekend in this article, Jerry York recorded his 700th college hockey win against North Dakota. I received a very eloquent e-mail from BC fan Bob Coughlan, who was touched by the postgame spectacle.

“As a 27-year BC Season ticket holder, just a note of recognition to the North Dakota hockey program for their show of exceptional sportsmanship last Friday night.

“Despite a tough loss to Boston College, 5-3, where they fought back from an early deficit with a great 3rd period, the team showed what college hockey is all about.

“Obviously exhausted and disappointed after their tenacious comeback, they went through the usual post-game team handshakes at center ice. While this was going on, the announcement that Coach Jerry York had just won his 700th game was being made, and Coach York was being interviewed by CSTV.

“To my astonishment (but given it was college hockey and a fine UND program), the Fighting Sioux did not skate off to their locker room. Rather, they skated as a team to the BC bench, waited for Coach York to finish his interview, and then lined up to individually skate by and shake the coach’s hand to congratulate him on his achievement. What a moment for the Fighting Sioux team, and college hockey in general. This is what the college game is all about.

“Sure, the BC team also stayed at center ice and after North Dakota completed their congratulations, they gave Coach York their respect with a long “stick-tapping” salute of recognition of their own. But to see the visiting team show their respect as they did moistened the eyes of this college hockey fan, and earned the North Dakota kids a measure of respect as well.

“Who needs pro hockey when you have this!”

Well said, Bob. York appreciated it too. “I was impressed by it,” York said of the Sioux players’ tribute. “I was certainly honored. We’ve had a great rivalry, North Dakota and BC, the last few years. A lot of respect goes both ways for the programs. You don’t really see that. You see home players wait, but that’s kind of neat. When I next see [Sioux coach] Dave Hakstol again, I’ll make sure I make a note of it.”

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question was a sequel from the one to open the season. It noted that a Hockey East player would be facing an opponent on the weekend with the exact same name — first and last, with the same spelling — but a different position.

The expected answer was Andrew Martin, Lowell forward and Rensselaer goalie. James M. Acheson provided this question, but we haven’t heard back from him regarding a cheer, so we’ll simply have a moment of silence.

First to answer with a cheer was Scott Kaplan:

“Ben Walter For Hobey!!”

As it turns out, there was another correct answer — Matt Greene, BC forward and North Dakota defenseman. First to get that one was Jay Deschenes.

“Let the curse of A-Fraud begin!”

This week’s question is: In an exhibition game this season, one Hockey East team played an opponent with a very curious lineup, numerically. This opponent had a trio of players who wore the same number. Name the three players, and identify the uniform number that they wore.

One thing that makes this even tougher: Even if you had a program for the game, it wouldn’t help. The program omitted the name and number for one of the three in question! It also showed a different trio that shared a different number … but one of those players didn’t end up playing.

E-mail Dave Hendrickson’s trivia account with your 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.

And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…

• If you enjoyed some of the metaphors in this week’s column, I have to give credit to the book I just finished reading, Best American Sports Writing 2002, with Rick Reilly serving as guest editor. I read this series regularly, and the 2002 edition has to be the most consistently great so far. There is a wide range of stories, many of which are incredibly moving and well-written.

That said, Reilly’s introduction is worth the price of admission alone. Among his advice for aspiring sportswriters, Reilly urges them to “get ’em in the tent.” In other words, write a lead sentence that will make it impossible to stop reading. He cites the lead from a story about ultra-marathoners entitled “It’s Gonna Suck To Be You:” “The first time he tried it, the vomiting started after sixty-seven miles, and it didn’t stop until six hours later.”

Yet the pinnacle of the anthology is “Higher Education,” Gary Smith’s inspirational and moving account of an African-American basketball coach accomplishing miracles in Amish and Mennonite country. If you like great sportswriting or know someone who does, read this book!

• In a class that I teach, there’s a very vocal, passionate Yankee fan. In class today, I handed him an envelope containing a condolences card, wishing him that his happy memories of bygone days will help see him through this difficult time of loss.

• If the Red Sox can win the World Series, I see no reason why Northeastern can’t win a Beanpot.