This Week in Hockey East: Nov. 18, 2004

Quite A Start

Ladies and Gentlemen, I introduce to you the first place Northeastern Huskies.

After upsetting nationally ranked Maine, 4-2, on Friday night, they traveled to Providence where they made it a perfect start in Hockey East with a 3-1 win. Quite a few teams have more points, but the Huskies’ 2-0-0 league record puts them in first if you organize the standings based on winning percentage.

It’s a far cry from last year when they didn’t win their first game until December, by which time they were 0-7-1 in Hockey East play. This start all but buried them in terms of the playoffs until they recovered in Bela Lugosi-like fashion to make a ferocious late season rush that would have succeeded had not Boston University defeated New Hampshire in overtime in the final regular season game.

Northeastern is now 4-0-1 in its last five games and can boast wins over second-ranked Michigan, Colgate (7-3-0) and 12th-ranked Maine along with a tie against ninth-ranked North Dakota. As a result, the Huskies are now getting significant attention on the national stage, with the second-most points in the “others receiving votes” category in this week’s poll. Although statistically inaccurate, this may have fans on Huntington Avenue touting their boys as ranked 17th in the country.

So what does coach Bruce Crowder think of his upstart Huskies now that they have at least partial claim to the top position in the Hockey East standings?

“Well, we’ve got a long way to go,” he says. “Obviously, it’s a nice start for us after what we went through last year, but at the same time it’s just two games and it’s going to get harder and tougher as we go.

“We’ve got to continue to work with this team. We got four points [this past weekend], but I’m not sure that we were the better team over the course of six periods of time.”

The stage was set for the wins over Maine and Providence with seven nonleague games that left Northeastern as the last team to begin Hockey East play. The Huskies stunned the nation with a 4-2 win over Michigan in the Lefty McFadden Invitational to open the season, but doubters began to assign that to “fluke” status after subsequent losses to Miami, Denver and Rensselaer.

Arguably, the turning point came on Oct. 23, when the Huskies toppled then-undefeated Colgate on the road with a rousing win with four seconds remaining in overtime.

“Everybody in college hockey knows that’s a tough place to play,” Crowder says. “For us to win it in overtime with 4 seconds to go was just a huge momentum swing. [It could have] been a tie game because we had a bunch of people hit the post and crash the net and it didn’t dislodge. I said that to [Colgate coach Don Vaughan], ‘Boy, you really made sure that was anchored down!’

“For us, it was a good opportunity to go on the road and win a game like that. Then to come back and compete like we did against North Dakota was good. We hadn’t played as well against RPI and Denver, but it’s early in the season and obviously what we’ve done the last couple of weekends has been good.”

One might make a pretty good case that Northeastern benefited from getting seven nonleague games under its belt before taking on its Hockey East foes, but Crowder dismisses that theory.

“Games are games,” he says. “The thing that helped us was the caliber of play that we were playing. Our league is so tight you have to come to play every night. We got a little bit of a lesson that way with some of the teams that we played.

“[It wasn’t by design.] That was just the way the schedule unfolded. I’m not smart enough to figure that out. For us, we wanted to get the best competition that we could.

“We were going to have an older team. I don’t know if the start that we’ve had in the first nine games would be very smart if we were a young team. But I knew that we were going to be a little bit older and we’ve been through the wars, last year at least, with having a lot of adversity. I just thought that we were mature enough to handle whatever we were going to get coming out of those first seven nonleague games.”

Last year’s late season run may not have paid off in a playoff berth, but appears to have paid significant long-term dividends for this year’s club.

“Our players fought through things last year that other teams never go through,” Crowder says. “It really showed me the character of the kids that I have. It would have been so easy to fold up the tent last year after the first month of the season. But they stuck with it.

“I got a good job out of my assistants last year trying to keep everything together to the point where we’re in the playoffs if my alma mater ties the game or outright wins it. It didn’t happen, but I think everything is a learning process and we learned from it.”

What hasn’t been a surprise is who’s been leading the Husky charge. Jason Guerriero (5-7–12) and Mike Morris (5-8–13) have keyed the offense while Keni Gibson (2.70 GAA, .909 Sv%) has been a force between the pipes.

“The biggest thing that any coach needs in this league is for your lead players and the kids that you expect to do things to come in and do it,” Crowder says. “Right now, we’re getting great play from Keni Gibson, Guerriero and Morris. Those are three guys that probably didn’t have the start they wanted to a year ago and they’ve been a lot more focused and a lot more ready to play.”

Of course, momentum lasts only as long as your last game and Northeastern faces another challenge this weekend in a home-and-home series with sixth-ranked New Hampshire.

“Obviously, we’re going to have to play well,” Crowder says. “They’re a very good hockey team and they’re very well coached. The question that they have is their goaltending. If we can get to them and bring a lot of things to the net and make it a little tough on people, it’s going to be to our advantage.

“The other thing is UNH has got it going and has probably got the best home crowd advantage in the East anywhere. That’s going to be a nice thing for us to go in [on Friday] and see how we handle it because we really haven’t been in an environment like that yet this year.”

So Far So Good

After opening the season by hosting the Ice Breaker Tournament, New Hampshire headed West for games against Michigan and Michigan State. The Wildcats returned with only one point to show for it and, more ominously, had surrendered 98 shots in the two games.

Ninety-eight shots?

Yup. And that was on the heels of allowing 38 to St. Lawrence in the game that preceded the trip. And it wasn’t as if the two schools from Michigan had piled up those shot totals on power plays since UNH totaled only 14 penalties on the trip.

The UNH coaching staff had entered the season with one of its biggest challenges in a long time. For years the Wildcats have been synonymous with defensive excellence. Prior to last season, they had led Hockey East in goals against average for three years running, had been either first or second for seven straight years, and had at least been in the top three for all but one of the last 12 years.

Talk about consistent excellence in the defensive end.

Last year, however, the team mysteriously plummeted to eighth in the league. The mystery was that the seniors in that group included three of the top five defensemen and reigning All-American goaltender Mike Ayers.

How could that team have finished eighth in team defense? This writer still shakes his head over that one.

All of which led to this season with only two of the core defensemen returning and goaltending being an unknown quantity as well.

Arguably, there were more questions surrounding the UNH team defense than in over a decade.

And 98 shots in two early games wasn’t providing much in the way of attractive answers.

Were the defensive wheels about to fall off? Would Sean Collins and company just have to outgun the opposition each night?

Not so fast. Since the trip West, UNH has won four out of five. More to the point, the Wildcats held every opponent to 27 or fewer shots until Merrimack got off 31 on Tuesday night. Even more impressively, in the last two games Providence could muster only three shots in the third period while Merrimack generated only four.

“That’s three games in a row that we’ve done a good job with the shots,” Umile said after the 3-2 win over the Friars. “We’ve really worked on it and the guys have responded. [Providence] had three shots in the third period. I’ll take that any day.

“We’re shutting the shots down defensively and we’re still generating offense so I’m pleased with the way the guys are playing now.”

Of course, many teams struggled with defense early in the season in the wake of the strict enforcement of rules against interference. But UNH’s recent improvement has amounted to more than just adjusting to the referees.

“The penalty situations have come down to normal,” Umile said. “Guys have figured it out that you can’t use the stick, you can’t hold and the penalties are down.

“But there’s no question that because there’s no holding and interfering with the stick, getting to the net is easier. So add a few of those [easier-to-the-net] shots.

“There’s no question we’re playing better defense. We didn’t play good defense the beginning of the season. We’ve made a few changes [and] we’re playing a lot better.”

Junior defenseman Brian Yandle added, “We’ve been doing a lot in practice, a lot of work in our neutral zone, on forechecks and that type of stuff. It’s been causing the other teams to either have to dump the puck or they turn it over so it’s really been a help.

“[We’ve worked on] a lot of three-on-three play down low where we’re really getting into guys and not letting them get shots on the net. It seems to be working well so far.

“It’s a long season and there’s definitely a long way to go, but so far so good. But there’s always room for improvement as Coach would say. But I think we’re doing all right.”

What’s Up With Maine?

Down by a goal to Massachusetts-Lowell on four occasions, Maine avoided what would have been a fourth loss in five games as well as a sub-.500 record by rallying for a 5-4 win.

The good news for Black Bear fans, of course, was that their boys won. The bad news was that a club that was expected to be one of the sure things in the league has been anything but. A 7-6 record may be just fine for some programs, but not for the one in Orono. Prior to squeaking out the win over Lowell, Maine had dropped a 4-2 decision at Northeastern.

“Every game is big for us; every game is precious,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead said after the win over Lowell. “We’ve talked about that as a team. That’s one of the things we need to get back to: really enjoying every minute of ice time that we get. I thought we had a really good attitude tonight and were really playing hard and seizing every moment.”

Derek Damon (9-7–16), the teams leading scorer who contributed two goals in the win, added, “We were struggling, especially after the loss [to Northeastern]. We needed to come out and really send a message that this team is for real and is going to do some damage this year.

“We need to get back to the basics and working hard. We didn’t do that the first 25 minutes [against Northeastern]. I was just happy to be part of this team tonight.”

The one projected sure thing about the Black Bears was the goaltending. This weekend, however, Jimmy Howard got the hook against Northeastern; his replacement, Matt Lundin, would start against Lowell and then himself get the hook.

Howard, of course, is the reigning All-American who slashed the record book to bits last year with a 1.19 goals against average and a .956 save percentage. This writer all but anointed him the preseason Hockey East Player of the Year. His numbers this season, a 2.42 GAA and a .908 save percentage, won’t have anyone calling him a sieve but are painfully ordinary compared last year’s.

Lundin, a freshman, has the enviable stats of 1.82 and .938 even after the brief and unsuccessful start against Lowell.

“Jimmy was not 100 percent and it was kind of wishful thinking to go with him [against Northeastern],” Whitehead explained. “Matty was just fabulous when Jimmy came out last night so we tried to ride some of that momentum. But he just didn’t seem on right from the beginning. Usually you can tell when your goalie is in synch or not in synch. I just didn’t think he was in synch.”

Going into the season, anything Lundin contributed would have been considered gravy, but Howard’s injury-related struggles have moved the freshman into the spotlight more quickly than expected.

“[Jimmy’s struggles] are not a news flash,” Whitehead said. “He had mono in the summer and then he turned his ankle and sprained his knee. He’s had a tough four or five months here. That’s why it’s been nice to see Matty Lundin [play so well].

“Tonight is the first time he hasn’t played great. He’s been able to give Jimmy some breathing room, but he just wasn’t sharp enough tonight.

“It will be a while for Jimmy. He just needs to get healthy and get back in shape.

“It was a good effort by him to gut that one out. I’m just proud of how he’s battling right now. He’s such a competitor that he doesn’t want to come out of the net.”

Howard’s health isn’t the only factor. The Black Bears have to get back to playing the suffocating defense that put them into the national championship game last year. Allowing four goals in each of last weekend’s games isn’t up to snuff.

“That’s too many goals for us to give up,” Whitehead said. “We pride ourselves on being a strong defensive team. Obviously, to give up four goals in back-to-back games is not a good sign.

“The key for us right now is to protect our net and give our goalies a chance to succeed like we did last year.”

He Knew The Right Answer

It’s always neat to see a freshman at a postgame press conference after he’s scored his first collegiate goal. On Tuesday, there was an extra reason to smile as Hooksett, N.H., native Brian Pouliot talked about his first as a UNH Wildcat.

“I don’t think the goalie quite saw it and I didn’t really see much of it either while I got knocked down,” he said. “But I got up and it was in. It was a big goal and a weight off my shoulders.”

Your ever so humble columnist then asked, “And when you were nine or ten years old, who taught you to shoot like that?”

Without missing a beat, Pouliot grinned and said, “Mr. Hendrickson.”

That, my friends, is one very smart kid.

A Couple Quick Hits

• I would have sworn that the public address announcer at the recent UNH — Boston University game announced referee Conrad Hache as “Conrad Hashish.” Perhaps it was entirely a figment of my overactive imagination. Then again, could it have been an editorial comment?

• It would seem that the BU band has adopted the Red Sox. They’ve added “Dirty Water” to their repertoire and it’s been met with enthusiastic response by the Terrier fans.

Go Cardinals!

No, I haven’t fallen into an alternate universe where the Red Sox haven’t yet won the World Series and I’m attempting a reverse whammy on the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Cardinals of which I speak are the Wesleyan Cardinals who open their season on Friday against Salem State. (Division III teams have a shorter season, especially those in the NESCAC conference.)

For those who don’t recall, my son Ryan was a freshman on the team last season and I gave frequent updates en route to the school’s best results in 15 years.

The yearly columns had ended, however, when goaltender Jim Panczykowski was honored with the Joe Concannon Memorial Award, given annually to the best American-born Division II-III player in New England. Hats off to “Panzie” who was a very deserving winner and a class act.

This year’s Cardinals, led by coach Chris Potter, will face many challenges as they must replace the 12 graduated seniors. Among the freshmen vying to fill those holes is my nephew Kevin Hendrickson.

So it promises to be a very interesting season. Stay tuned.

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question asked you to make a connection (admittedly a loose one) between Vanna White and a recent opponent of Hockey East teams. The obscure answer was North Dakota’s Travis Zajac. (Vanna turns the letters on Wheel of Fortune, hosted by Pat Sajak. Sajak… Zajak… Get it? Hey, I told you it was a loose connection.)

The only person to answer correctly was Todd Cioffi. In a sense, Todd was already owed a cheer since he posted on the message board the answer to the “trio of number 11s” question before it was even asked two weeks ago. The post in question about BU’s Alumni Game began with Todd’s perfect opening line:

Final: Good Guys 9, Good Guys 5.

Maybe Todd should be writing this column…. In any case, his cheer is:

“Our last sweep before this one was Lowell, let’s do it again! (It’s been a year and a half, we’re due…) Go BU!”

Since last week’s question was so obscure, we’ll make this one an easy one. Name all the Hockey East goalies (freshmen or otherwise) who got their first career win this year.
E-mail my trivia account with the name of the goalie AND the opponent. 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…

• A package arrived just yesterday from my brother Ray. Inside was a Titleist Pro V-1 golf ball with the inscription “Boston Red Sox 2004 World Series Champions.” Do you think that put a big smile on my face?

• I recently sent an email to all the students in a class that I teach. One of them, however, never got the message. Turns out, my email was assumed to be spam and was redirected to his “Bulk” folder. Now isn’t that a nagging reminder for me to get to the fitness a little more than annually? I mean, I know I’ve gained a few pounds, but… “Bulk”?