This Week in Hockey East: Dec. 2, 2004

Dave Hendrickson hyperextended his right wrist while eating Thanksgiving dinner, and he’s sidelined for this week’s column. His status is week-to-week. He should return for next week, and Scott Weighart once again will become a healthy scratch.

Wildcat Strikeout

“It was a rough Saturday night,” UNH coach Dick Umile said, and it wasn’t because he’d had a few too many at Libby’s. In a game that is already a strong candidate for my Best Regular-Season Games of 2004-05 (check out last year’s “Best of the Best” article if you missed it), Vermont beat New Hampshire 5-4 on two goals in the last 58 seconds.

Vermont or UNH fans with a history of heart problems must’ve been gobbling their beta blockers and vasodilators like plain and peanut M&Ms during this Thanksgiving weekend classic. UNH took the early 2-0 lead, only to have Vermont’s Torrey Mitchell tie it with a pair before the first period ended. Then Vermont took a second-period advantage, only to give up the equalizer in the second and the go-ahead goal with less than eight minutes to play in the third. The Catamounts pulled their goalie to tie it with 58 seconds left, then Mitchell completed his hat trick with all of one second left to produce pandemonium in the Gutterson Fieldhouse. Three strikes by Mitchell, and the Wildcats strike out.

“It was a good college hockey game — a great atmosphere; it always has been,” Umile said. “But right now with [Vermont] playing well on a nine-game unbeaten streak, the atmosphere was tremendous. It was Thanksgiving Weekend, but the atmosphere was great.

“We battled back in the third period and went ahead, and you’ve got to give them credit: they pulled the goalie, and we mishandled the puck. They tied it up. It was a similar situation on the last shift: They dumped it in with six seconds to go and found a way to make us give them the puck. And Torrey Mitchell was tremendous — he let one go, and it hit the upper corner with one second to go, and they won the game.”

“Obviously, we’re really disappointed. Having the opportunity to win the game up there would have been a tremendous accomplishment, and all of a sudden it’s tied up and then you lose the game. You have to let it go.”

To be fair, the schedule gods have been toying with the Wildcats lately. They caught Vermont during arguably the Cats’ hottest streak since the Martin St. Louis-Eric Perrin-Tim Thomas era, whereas Maine and Boston University were fortunate to play them early in the year before they had gelled.

Likewise, the Wildcats had just played a desperate Massachusetts-Lowell team earlier in the week: The River Hawks were winless in their first five Hockey East games and almost had to get a point against UNH (which they did).

Asked about the bad schedule luck, Umile sounded like Roseanne Rosannadanna. “There’s always something!” Umile said, recounting how every pregame speech of late feels like he’s once again talking about what a big challenge and opportunity faces his team.

Still, Umile found that he had plenty to be thankful for this Turkey Day. “I was pleased before this weekend,” he said. “Even with the loss at Vermont and the tie at Lowell, I’m not going to turn around and say I don’t like [how the season’s going].

“We’ve made some mistakes. I’m not going to blame it on inexperienced people because some of the mistakes have happened with some experienced guys on the team. But I like how we’ve been playing. We’ve got a good schedule and up until this Saturday, I would’ve said we’re in a good situation. It’s just one setback right now.

“Offensively, we’ve done enough to generate offense, and defensively we’ve been kind of up and down. We’ve been doing a pretty good job, and the last couple of games we’ve been giving more shots and scoring opportunities than we would like. We’ve got to get back to where we were a few weeks ago.”

Perhaps the best news is that many preseason questions about UNH have been answered favorably. How would this year’s edition be able to replace the likes of workhorse goaltender Michael Ayers, top scorer Steve Saviano, strong role players in captain Patrick Foley and forward Nathan Martz, and three strong senior defensemen in Tim Horst, Mick Mounsey, and Mike Lubesnick?

“Overall the team has started to mold together,” Umile said. “I like the makeup of this team, the leadership. The players are pretty skilled, and they’re starting to fill in some of the holes that we needed to have filled.

“People have realized that our goaltending is still solid, still consistent. Both [junior Jeff Pietrasiak and freshman Kevin Regan] have proven that they can play at this level.”

The Wildcats may have a few more unpleasant bumps in the road in weeks to come, but look for them to be back in the NCAA tournament as usual come March.

Into Thin Air

Like New Hampshire, Boston University also had a Saturday night that produced a Sunday morning hangover — and they were a couple thousand miles from the Dugout (back in my day at BU, some of us preferred the French pronunciation: the doo-ZHOH). Coming into the week 7-3 and ranked, BU played well but ran up against great goaltending against Harvard on Tuesday and lost, 2-1. Then the Terriers went out to the thin air of Denver and looked great on Friday, only to be stopped by another great goaltending performance.

On Saturday, their game against Colorado College looked like Lost In America II, an unsavory sequel to their opening weekend loss to Michigan in Dayton, Ohio. Both losses involved big two-game trips on the road, and the second game in each produced a defensive meltdown. The similarities were a disconcertingly uncanny flashback.

“It was exactly that; it was a huge step backwards,” Terrier coach Jack Parker said Monday. “I thought we played well here against Harvard — lost, didn’t put pucks in the net, but played very well. I thought we played very well against Denver in a tough situation — in the altitude against a really good team. I thought we played extremely well; we just let it slip away.

“You’re not going to win too many games when you only get one goal, and we made a bad read on a two-on-one to give them a goal, and the open net goal. It was an even match, and I thought we had a good territorial advantage. So up until that point, we lost two in a row; I’m pretty happy with how we’re playing. We’re a young team, and that’s going to happen. The puck was jumping in the net for us, and now it isn’t so we just have to keep working.

“Then we had a total breakdown on Saturday. We gave up goal after goal after goal that were just pathetic reads, pathetic lack of effort. That’s what I said to the team: ‘It was an absolute throwback to the first weekend of the year.’ We took a bunch of steps forward and were feeling pretty good about ourselves, and now we’re on a three-game losing streak and 7-6. Even 7-5 on a two-game losing streak isn’t that bad, but that performance at Colorado College was hard to swallow.”

That said, Parker doesn’t accept that this was an outcome caused by stepping Into Thin Air. “There’s no question in my mind that it was effort.”

Given the strength of the opposition’s goaltending in all three games, I wondered how Parker was feeling about his netminders. He seems to still have considerable faith in sophomore John Curry, who was a solid third on the depth chart coming into this season.

“Our goalie didn’t lose our game against Harvard, but their goalie played extremely well,” Parker said. “I thought that we didn’t get bad goaltending against Denver, and [Denver] told me that their goalie played the best he’s played all year. And the best goalie we’ve faced all year was the Colorado College goalie. He was a second-team All American, first-team WCHA two years ago, and he had mono last year. He’s a terrific goalie.

“I don’t think we had great goaltending by any stretch of the imagination, but the only game we got bad goaltending was the last game [when Stephan Siwiec played]. John [nl]Curry didn’t cost us the Harvard game, and he didn’t cost us [the Denver game]. We’d still be playing maybe if we got fabulous goaltending, and it was 1-1 still, but we only got one goal in both of those games.”

Freshman Karson Gillespie made his second appearance of the year, relieving Siwiec in the Colorado College debacle. So can Terrier fans expect the goaltender to be a beast with three heads all season?

“I don’t think so,” Parker said. “I think we’ll be able to figure it out pretty quickly because we’ve got some more games before the break. By that time we should have a pretty good feel of where we are.”

The good news and bad news for BU is that the Terriers now draw archrival Boston College on the heels of the losing streak. “In other years, they’ve always brought out the best in us,” Parker said. “We’ll be playing at home. We’ll be coming off a bad loss, so we’ll certainly be more focused. No matter what, it’s still BC-BU.”

It also would be a heck of a way for Parker to pick up his 700th win as a coach.

Eagles Aren’t Turkeys

Compared to UNH and BU, Boston College had a Thanksgiving Weekend in which they apparently were happy to be home for the holidays. There had been some grumblings from the Eagle faithful previously: with a listless loss to Harvard sandwiched between ties to Providence and Massachusetts, it seemed like BC was finally confronting the loss of offensive firepower to graduation.

Playing at Matthews Arena on Saturday, the Eagles responded with what coach Jerry York termed “the best 60-minute hockey we played all year.” BC put in a good effort across the board, getting strong goaltending from freshman Cory Schneider when the game was close, plus exactly one goal from each of the four lines.

“We’re talking about generating more speed with the offense,” York said after the win. “It’s easy to talk about; it’s hard to do: move pucks quicker, skate quicker with the puck possession. It’s not very heavy that puck, but it slows teams down a lot.”

The Eagle power play has bogged down this season. Of the nine teams in Hockey East, BC currently ranks eighth in power-play goals and power-play scoring percentage. Although they were skunked on three opportunities on Saturday night, there were definite signs of improvement.

“I thought the PP was really good early,” York said. “We’ve changed our alignments and put different people on them. It’s the same as our five-on-five offense. We weren’t generating a lot of five-on-five chances early, and the power play’s the same.”

One difference over the last few games has been the lines, as York has attempted to spread around the offensive production a little. Earlier in the season, the formidable first line featured Patrick Eaves, Ryan Shannon, and Dan Bertram. Here’s what the lines looked like on Saturday, shown as LW-C-RW:

Chris Collins – Ryan Shannon – David Spina
Patrick Eaves – Stephen Gionta – Dan Bertram
Joe Rooney – Matt Greene – Ryan Murphy
Ned Havern – Brian Boyle – Taylor Leahy

“This is the best game we’ve played, but we’re certainly not where we’ve envisioned ourselves getting, so we’re in a process of looking at different line combinations,” York said. “I thought Greene’s line today with Murphy and Rooney was very, very good, very solid.”

David Spina scored on Saturday and was happy to be reunited with his old linemates. “We’ve jobbed the lines up, tried different combinations. I’m back playing with guys that I’ve been playing with the last couple of years. I think that’s what we had to do — we’ve got the chemistry back in the lineup, and it’s showing.”

“It’s tremendous — those guys only make a player better,” Stephen Gionta said of his new linemates. “Patrick Eaves is arguably the best player in college hockey, and Danny Bertram is a rising star. Those guys are terrific to play with.”

“We’re coming along,” Gionta added. “We had a three-game span where we didn’t get any wins, but we’ve got our confidence back. Hopefully we can keep it going.”

It may seem a little silly that people were asking “what’s wrong’s with BC?” after they merely slipped from No. 1 to No. 4 in the national poll recently. Spina doesn’t mind the high bar for the program.

“We like having a target on our back,” Spina said. “Some teams look down on it — like people are chasing you all the time — and that’s the way we want it. We want to wear that with pride, being that high in the rankings and taking it that we’ve been knocked off the throne and we need to get back.”

In addition to the usual verve of the BU-BC rivalry, Friday night’s game gives the two programs an opportunity to compare two of the best freshman classes in the nation, along with Minnesota and North Dakota.

“We’ve got great freshmen,” Spina said. “We’d like to say we have the best in the nation, and I’m sure [BU would] like to say they have the best in the nation, so it will be a battle to see which team is the better team when it comes down to Friday. We’re just going to try to have a good week of practice and then come with guns blazing.”

Half-Full Or Half-Empty Huskies

Northeastern’s loss to BC left the team either half-full or half-empty this Thanksgiving, with .500 records in the league and overall. After the loss, Husky coach Bruce Crowder spoke enviously of the Eagles’ ability to attract talent.

“They select players,” Crowder said. “There’s no secret there. They get the best of the bunch. They go in and say, ‘We’ll take you and you there.’ They might have a little trouble with some teams out west, but for the most part in New England, that’s one of the things: there’s teams that recruit and teams that select the best kids. They’re very fortunate that they get to select, and they just have to hope that the kids they’re selecting turn out to be good kids.

“It’s very easy in the recruiting process when you go out and watch a lot of people, you know who the good kids are. That’s easy. What we’ve got to do is find kids who are maybe a notch below who can elevate themselves to that level.”

Recruiting or selecting aside, the Huskies have found themselves way ahead of where they were last season, yet still a ways from where they want to or need to be, as demonstrated by the schooling BC gave them in front of the Doghouse on Saturday night.

“I think BC’s probably the best team we’ve played this year,” Crowder said “We’ve got to continue to do the little things. We’re a team that really needs to have 18 cylinders going. In the first period tonight, we were a little in awe, watching them skate around.”

“Obviously being at .500 is not where we want to be, but we have to be a little bit realistic about where we’re coming from and where we want to go and the competition we played the first 13 games of the season. Guys have showed us that if we come to play, we can play with anybody. What was discouraging to us as a staff was really just what we did in the first period: we didn’t come to play. That’s something that we just can’t have happen.”

Bumps in the Rhode

After getting off to a 3-1 start this season, Providence has hit a bump, going just 2-6-1 since that promising beginning. Playing downtown at home in the Dunkin’ Donuts Coffee Pot last weekend, the Friars got by Holy Cross but lost the championship to Merrimack despite outshooting the Warriors 38-16. Things just haven’t been going the Friars’ way thus far.

“There’s no question that inconsistency has hurt us at times, the way we’re playing,” coach Paul Pooley said. “Guys are searching a little bit in terms of who’s going to step up on the hockey team. That’s where we’re at now — we need to continue to get better and look to ourselves to be an improved hockey club each and every day we get on the ice.”

Sunday’s loss characterized the Friars’ problems on specialty teams this season.

“Sixteen shots,” Pooley said. “Three [goals] were on the power play, a couple were on rushes and rebounds. We had opportunities to score, and we didn’t… The specialty team battle is something that’s hurt us all year for the most part. They had three power-play goals, and we had one — there’s a big difference there. Merrimack was very opportunistic last night, and we couldn’t take advantage of our chances.”

Pooley acknowledged that the power play can be a bit of a vicious circle: The more you struggle, the more teams will challenge you on the PK.

“Puck movement is one of the things that we’ve got to keep working on because people are pressuring,” Pooley said. “Especially when you’re not doing well [on the power play], people are going to pressure you more. So we have to take advantage of their pressure by moving the puck a little quicker and then getting point shots a little more. Most [power-play] goals are scored off shots from the point. We’ve got to be able to get the puck through quicker and then get some traffic in front of the goaltender.”

Although Pooley has been delighted with freshman Jon Rheault’s four goals and three assists in his first 13 games, he’s looking for more players to contribute on a game-in, game-out basis.

“Jon’s been working hard, there’s no question,” Pooley said. “Tony Zancanaro has been consistent for us from day one, and we’re just looking for other guys to be a little bit consistent. That’s been the biggest challenge — just consistency of players day in and day out.”

Last season may be an indicator for what’s to come this time around. The Friars started off 4-0, then went 4-8-6 before rebounding to go on a 6-1 stretch starting in late January.

“The biggest thing is we’ve got to continue to get better,” Pooley said. “Any time you play a Hockey East team, it’s going to be a challenge. We’ve got to get better with our specialty teams, our transition defense, and then getting pucks to the net. We get a lot of shots, but then we’ve got to make sure we’re trying to get to rebounds and capitalize going to the goal, because that’s how we’re going to be effective.

“We’ll be better — there’s no question. We’ve got a good group of guys. The biggest challenge is that we just strive each day to get better on the ice.”

Getting back forward Colin MacDonald — who scored five goals in five games before injuring his knee — in a few weeks may help galvanize a better run of production.

“We’ve always had good second halves, and I’m looking forward to these last three games before break and then getting into the Dartmouth tournament from there.”

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question noted that one Division I coach outside of Hockey East is the brother of a former Hockey East player who went on to play professionally … but not in hockey! Readers had to name the coach and player.

Several people got the answer: Harvard coach Ted Donato is the brother of former Boston University defenseman Dan Donato, who played third base for the Evil Empire — oops, I mean the Yankee — farm system before converting to catcher in the Devil Rays’ system. He reached AA but no higher.

First of many to answer correctly was John Devine. His cheer is:

“Go BU! The Eagles will be able to celebrate a 700th victory twice this year.

For those of you pondering final exams this year, I have a three-part trivia question for you this year. Feel free to use your blue book to write essay answers if you like, though ultimately you’ll have to e-mail them in to us. Okay, here goes:

1. You all know that Hall of Fame defenseman Ray Bourque regularly watches son Chris play for BU this season. However, in past years, I’ve had the opportunity to chat with another NHL Hall of Fame defenseman watching his nephew play at Walter Brown Arena. Who is the Hall of Famer? Also name his nephew and the Hockey East team for which he played.

2. What former Hockey East goalie played in a handful of games for his team in his freshman year, then returned to juniors for a season before coming back to the same team. He had four wins that year, including a road win against a Hockey East foe that ended with him “almost in tears” because he was thrilled with the victory after a win that was a “long time coming” as well as an unusual path. He went on to play quite well in his senior season the following year, splitting time with a promising freshman. Who is the goalie?

3. Okay, now it’s the really tough one. On Monday, I interviewed Jack Parker, asking him questions for a future USCHO Magazine cover story on hockey superstitions. Among other things, he told me that if a reporter asks to interview him sitting in the seats of any hockey arena, he’ll always look for a certain row (by letter) and a certain seat (by number). Name the row and seat number.

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…

• It’s always a pleasure filling in for Dave Hendrickson, the hardest-working sportswriter I know. Filling in for Dave is kind of like being the spot starter who pops in when Curt Schilling’s ankle has not yet been sutured together. Writing these columns once in a while is kind of comparable to running a mile as opposed to someone else running a marathon. It’s challenging to run a mile and do it well, but it’s a completely different story to try to string together, say, five or ten or 20 of them in a row. So I hope you appreciate how hard Dave works to make your Friday morning a little more enjoyable throughout the hockey season.

• Among other duties, I have been the author of USCHO’s Question of the Week for the last few years. I’m particularly intrigued to note that the current QOTW has to be the all-time most competitive one. There’s a five-way battle for first on this question, and I don’t think that’s ever happened. Okay, okay, I guess this is probably only interesting to the person who writes it, but it’s surprisingly hard to write a question for which all responses are about equally likely.

• Just finished reading The Company: A Novel of the CIA by Robert Littell. At 894 pages — large ones at that — this may be daunting for those of you who prefer to use books as coasters. However, the book is as immensely readable as it is immense — it personalizes many of the CIA’s endeavors, ranging from Berlin to Hungary and Cuba and Afghanistan and the late Soviet [nl]Union. Highly recommended. If you’d like an electronic copy of my semi-annual newsletter on books, The Pick of the Literate, just e-mail me and request it. That’s assuming you want to read another 3,000 words from me after getting through this column.

• Another hobby of mine is alternative radio. If you go to, you can listen to my show, Alter-Nation. The current theme is “Thanksgiving Feast.” All the songs are about food and drink: “Banana Chips” by Shonen Knife, “Eat To The Beat” by Blondie, “Vegetables” by The Beach Boys, and so forth. It’s a feast for the ears, but soon it will be time to change the theme to “Alternative Christmas.” Where else can you hear such classics as the Cocteau Twins turning “Frosty the Snowman” into an artsy alternative rock track?