This Week in Hockey East: Jan. 6, 2005

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em

In a hastily called press conference, Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna announced today that Vermont’s entry to the league has been retroactively advanced to this past Nov. 22.

“Since that date, the Catamounts have beaten Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Northeastern and Providence,” Bertagna said. “They’re killing our nonconference record. The league’s athletic directors approved this date change to remove four damaging losses so that we can continue to be the Beast of the East.

“This has the added benefit of giving us another team in the Top 15, bringing our total to five with a sixth team receiving votes. Based on the PairWise, it gives us another team with a great shot at the NCAA tournament. It’s a win-win situation for us.”

And as for the ECAC?

“Let them eat cake,” he said.

Bertagna, an acknowledged cake eating expert, was then asked if Hockey East would also be retroactively swallowing his alma mater, Harvard, since the Crimson have similarly defeated Hockey East powerhouses Boston College, Boston University and Maine.

On that point, Bertagna was, for the first time in this writer’s memory, silent.

When The Cellar Meets The Bubble

You might look at the Hockey East standings and see Massachusetts-Lowell in last place with an 0-5-2 league record and think, “They’re a young team. Probably one year away. Wait till next year.”

And you’d be wrong.

That’s because when the PairWise Rankings were announced earlier this week, the River Hawks were in a tie for 12th place nationally, officially placing them on the bubble for the NCAA tournament.

Say what?

Surely there was a mistake here. How could the last place team in Hockey East be on the bubble for the NCAAs?

No mistake. It’s legit.

Fans from other leagues may be groaning and rolling their eyes, wondering if Hockey East supporters are now going to become really insufferable about the strength of their league.

Perhaps. You never want to underestimate us.

But here are the two reasons why Lowell is ranked even ahead of Maine, currently tied for second place in the league. First, the River Hawks are a perfect 9-0-0 in nonconference play. The Hockey East standings only count league games, but the NCAA tournament selection criteria make no distinction between contests within and without a conference.

So the Hawks aren’t 0-5-2. They’re 9-5-2.

Furthermore, their league schedule has been a gauntlet of nationally ranked opponents — Boston College, Maine, Boston University (twice) and New Hampshire — elevating their strength of schedule.

The sum of it all is that Lowell doesn’t have to wait until next year. The future for the River Hawks is now.

The stunning position for them nationally, however, hasn’t caught everyone by surprise.

“It’s not a surprise in the least bit to me,” coach Blaise MacDonald says. “I’ve been around the team for all of our games and it’s one of the benefits of playing in a great league like Hockey East.

“The fact is that we’re 9-5-2. That’s a fact. That’s a decent record and we’ve beaten some good teams. So we’re 12th in the PairWise and ninth in our league. It doesn’t quite add up, but when you look deeper it makes some sense.

“In today’s college hockey, every game has significant meaning when it comes to competing for the NCAA tournament. All the teams are good from all the six leagues.

“Now we just have to take it one game at a time, compete like heck and see if we can be on the right end of it after 60 minutes. Or 65. Whatever it takes.”

The matter-of-fact MacDonald doesn’t even think the PairWise news is a morale boost to a team that might otherwise have been discouraged by its position in the standings.

“Everyone assumes that that’s the case, but it couldn’t be further from the case,” he says. “Our kids could care less about where we are today in Hockey East. They know how they’ve played. They know their potential. And they’re excited about what’s ahead of them, not what’s behind them.”

One key component to the team’s 9-5-2 record has been the goaltending of Peter Vetri, recently recognized as the league’s Rookie of the Month for December. Vetri posted a 3-0-1 record, a 1.96 GAA and a .929 save percentage.

“It’s no secret that successful teams have great goaltending,” MacDonald says. “BU has some talented freshmen, but [to understand] their turnaround you just look at one guy: John Curry. There’s no question that Merrimack has some nice wins and ties and they’ve gotten some huge performances out of their goaltenders.

“For any team, it comes down to the guy who is kicking them out. For us, it’s been a position of discovery the last few years. It’s nice to see Peter Vetri continue to grow into that position through his work ethic.”

Of course, the River Hawks are going to have to make a move within Hockey East in the second half to either stay on the bubble or move inside it. On paper, they stand a great chance to begin that move in the next few games. The mantra of “all games are tough” applies, but after the gauntlet of powerhouse league opponents in the first half, their next four games are: UMass at home, Northeastern at home and a home-and-home series with Merrimack. Those teams are a collective seven games under .500, a far cry from what Lowell faced in the first half.

Which is all water off a duck’s back to MacDonald.

“That would be the armchair analysis from the outside,” he says. “But we know how difficult it is to get one point in this league, whether it’s Merrimack or Boston College. The nice thing about the games we’ve got coming up are that the next three of them are at home. That’s the only positive. The opponents are going to be just as tough as anybody in our conference.

“The thing that we’re focusing more on is that we haven’t been able to establish a rhythm of Hockey East games yet in the first half because we’ve played the fewest amount [of anyone in the league]. It’s not like we’ve had back-to-back-to-back weekends of Hockey East games, which I think is critical. It establishes the environment you want to get comfortable in and maybe get excited about.

“Now — boom! — we get into a real good stretch of all Hockey East games, which will give us an opportunity to explore every dimension.”

PS: And In The Classroom, Too

With this writer’s conversation with MacDonald all but complete, he interjects, “Here’s the real good news. This is what it’s all about. We had 20 kids on our team — maybe more because we’re waiting on some Incompletes — who got a 3.0 [GPA] or better. By a long shot this is the best this program has ever done academically.”

Kudos to the entire River Hawk program for that achievement.

Only Treading Water

With only a tie and a loss in the recently completed Florida College Classic, Maine now stands at a mere 10-8-3. If the season were to end today, there’d be no NCAA tournament bid.

Read that last sentence again.

Then recall that Maine has been in the national championship game two of the last three years. You’d also have to go back to 1998 for the last time the Black Bears failed to earn an NCAA berth.

As people far cooler than this writer would say, what up with that?

Unfortunately, the outlook before the Florida tourney wasn’t any brighter. The Black Bears are now only 1-2-3 in their last six games.

“As far as doing something special this year, we’ve got to wait and see,” coach Tim Whitehead says. “I’m still confident that we have that potential. Much like last year, though, there’s a very slim margin for error for us if we’re going to do something special.

“Last year is a good indication that it is possible, but we’ve dug ourselves a bit of a hole here and we’ve got to get moving.”

One obvious area for improvement is the goaltending. Not that the Black Bear nets have been Sieve City, but Jimmy Howard has followed up last year’s All-World performance of a 1.15 GAA and a .953 save percentage in league games — both records — with overall numbers of just 2.27 and .906. From All-World to merely All-Orono.

Not that there haven’t been reasons. Mononucleosis felled Howard in the summer, which affected his training. He subsequently had to battle additional nagging injuries.

As a result, he’s been decidedly un-Howard-like.

For Maine to make a run this season, Howard’s health has to “let Jimmy be Jimmy.”

The last two games offer conflicting hopes. Howard stopped 24 of 25 shots in the 1-1 tie with St. Cloud, clearly reason for optimism. The next game, however, was a 4-3 loss to Cornell in which he surrendered four goals on 20 shots. While it’s true that three of the tallies came on power plays, Howard still was up to those challenges last year.

“That wasn’t classic Jimmy Howard,” Whitehead says. “Is he at his very best yet? I don’t think so. But he’s getting there.

“He’s got a clean bill of health now and I think you’ll see him have a real good second half. I know he’s making progress.

“He’s training very hard now that he’s been given the clean bill of health. Originally with the mono in the summer he was told that he couldn’t train real hard because they didn’t want him getting sick again. Which did happen a couple times. But now he can do whatever training he wants to do, so that’s really helping him.”

While Howard has been merely average, the Maine power play has been considerably less than that. With a 13.7 conversion percentage, it ranks last in Hockey East.

“Those statistics are legitimate,” Whitehead says. “We’re not very good on the power play. But we’re working on that as much as we can . We’re trying different combinations, different personnel. We’re going to keep working at it.

“It doesn’t mean we can’t win games. We won games last year with a very average power play. But the thing we did last year was we got that one goal a game, which you need from your power play just to be consistent. Last year, it wasn’t an outstanding power play, but it was solid.

“This year, we just have not consistently generated the chances at the netfront that we’d like to do. we really have to work at getting shots to the net. We have to work at our forwards getting to the netfront for second and third shots. We have to work on one-timing the puck and hitting the net with those one-timers. We’re trying to develop some of that skill that will help us be productive on the power play.”

If the power play picks it up a notch, then it’ll be a major boost to an offense ranked fourth in Hockey East (3.14 goals per game).

“The positive for us is that early in the year we weren’t generating a lot of chances, but about halfway through the fall we went on a little run there where we were really generating a lot of them,” Whitehead says. “It didn’t necessarily always end up in the other team’s net, but the key thing is that even against Harvard where we lost and against Cornell, we did generate a good number of chances.

“That’s a first step in improving our offense, generating chances. Now we have to work on finishing. But the good news is that we are generating more offense so we have taken a step forward in that area.”

What has taken a step backward is the penalty killing. The Maine shorthanded units are still posting good numbers, 85.8 percent, good for third in the league, but the recent results have been poor.

“Our penalty kill was a big strength last year and it was a strength [this year] until the last three games,” Whitehead says. “It was really a big part of our success. But in the Harvard game we gave up three power-play goals. We gave up only one goal to St. Cloud, but it was a power-play goal. And then we gave up three against Cornell; they were three-for-four.

“So these last three games have really been an indication that our penalty kill needs a lot of work.

“So special teams is a key thing right now for us. If we can move in the right direction on our power play and penalty kill then we can do some damage down the stretch.”

Maine remains a favorite until proven otherwise, but the clock is ticking…

Brothers In Arms

When Justin Greene strode to the front of the post-game press conference following Boston College’s 4-1 win over Merrimack, BC coach Jerry York smiled and said to him, “I bet you never thought you’d be at this table.”

Greene, a sophomore, hadn’t dressed for a single game until that night, but the countless practices and off-ice sessions had finally paid off.

“I think he’s probably surprised he’s playing,” York said. “I think it was a real long shot when he came to BC. He knew that it was going to be very difficult for him to get playing time.

“[But] we had some injuries and the flu bug that put him in the lineup, so I think he’s ecstatic. He played well. He did a nice job.”

Greene was all smiles. He’d found out that morning that he would dress for the game and he not only was able to play in front of his parents — “they wouldn’t have missed it for the world” — but also play alongside his brother Matt, a mainstay in the BC lineup as a freshman.

“I’ve been practicing for a year and a half and it was great to get the opportunity,” Greene said. “We had a couple of good players down and I was able to get the opportunity to step in.

“It was just nice to be able to play with Matty again. I played with him at BC High for three years. To be able to play on the same line with him was awesome.”

Forget the fact that Greene was a defenseman playing out of position on the wing.

“I practiced up there a couple times this year and a couple times last year,” he said. “I haven’t really played there since Pee Wees, but it was nice to play a different position again.”

To which York’s eyebrows went up in surprise. “Pee Wees?” he said, smiling.

You couldn’t tell from the results. Playing in his first collegiate game, the sophomore assisted on the Mike Brennan’s game-winning goal.

“That was awesome,” Greene said. “Mikey Brennan just shot the puck and it went in. It was nice to get the point and I didn’t really have to do much, just make the pass to him. He did all the work.”

Which was an extra payoff for the year and a half of waiting. One sharp-eyed member of the media noticed that Justin’s jersey was a bit darker than his teammates’, presumably because it hadn’t been washed as often. But the practice jerseys would have been a different story. He’d had to work as hard as those who dressed for every game, not knowing if there’d ever be a reward for that effort.

“It’s been tough, practicing day in and day out,” he said. “But it’s great being around the team and traveling. You get all the perks that everyone else gets. You can’t ask to be at a better place than Boston College. You can be at worse places than being in my situation.

“I stayed pretty upbeat [waiting for my chance]. Coming in, [the coaches] were up front with me that I probably wasn’t going to play very much so I knew that coming in. You have to get your mind set for that, but you’ve got to be ready all the time to step in, and tonight I was able to do that.”

It’ll be a nice postscript to the story if that perseverance is paid off with another opportunity. But if not, Justin Greene will be able to say that he made the most of his chance.

He’ll even be able to lord his one point per game average over his brother Matt. One can even imagine him telling his grandkids someday that if he’d dressed for as many games as Rob Scuderi (tops at BC with 169 in his career) that he’d have been on a pace to match Ben Eaves’ 169 points.

Justin Greene and Ben Eaves.

Pretty good company.

Here’s To Bernie

On Saturday, Dec. 11, longtime Boston University radio announcer Bernie Corbett missed the Terriers’ contest against Rensselaer in order to attend the Heisman dinner. This ended his streak of calling BU hockey games at roughly 685, dating back to March 1987 when the Terriers played U.S. International University in San Diego. He had missed a period here or there getting back from Harvard football clashes, but hadn’t missed calling an entire hockey game since the San Diego trip.

When Doug Brown, his replacement at the BU – Rensselaer tilt, recorded a pre-game show with Jack Parker, the coach turned to Brown and, taking aim at Bernie, remarked, “Well, at least somebody cares about our games.”

In A More Respectful Mood…

Perhaps some readers were put off by my comic flippancy with the league coaches in the Hockey East Courtroom segments in the preceding two columns. In the interest of balance, therefore, here’s a look back at two respectful tributes to Jerry York and Jack Parker, both of whom recently celebrated their 700th victories.

These are features on those coaches after they passed the 600-win milestone. I believe the stories hold up well to this day. “Part one” and “part two” of “The Grandmaster” appeared in February, 2000, covering Parker’s career. York’s turn came in November of that year in “Reflecting On A Milestone.”

Into The Agganis Record Books

Forget about Brad Zancanaro scoring the first goal at the Harry Agganis Arena. Or John Curry recording the first win. Yours truly can top that. Put me into the Agganis record books for the first swan dive.

Here’s what happened. After the game, the media were walking down the steps while fans were still coming up. (You know, that deadline thing.) A reporter behind me tripped and, to right himself, pushed me from behind. One moment I was walking down the steps thinking of how I would word the lead to my recap; the next moment I was sent flying forward in a swan dive into a seat in a lower row.

Fortunately, I was able to break the fall with my nose.

To be serious for just a nanosecond or two, it could have been a nasty injury, easily a broken collarbone or worse. So I’m fortunate to only have a minor scar on my nose, an ugly football-sized bruise on my upper arm and some neck stiffness, all of which will go away.

Credit for that, I guess, goes either to my chiseled physique or my prodigious schnoz.

So have no fear. Once the nose heals, the pretty face of Hollywood Hendrickson will return.

My fragile ego, however, may be fractured beyond repair. When my good buddy Scott Weighart was asked in the media room before the game if I’d arrived yet, he looked at the buffet and answered, “I don’t think so. There’s still food left.”

I tell you, based on the number of friends that it appears I have, when I croak they’ll be able to hold my wake in a closet.

Trivia Contest

Last column’s trivia contest segment was brain cramp central. Under deadline pressures, I made not just one, but two, gaffes.

If I only had a brain…

To begin with, I listed the previous week’s question and the winner only to omit the answer. Some of you readers have the audacity to actually expect answers to the questions! It’s really shameful the excessive expectations that I face. Clearly, I’m buckling under the pressure….

That blunder was rectified by editorial insertion after the fact. The other error involved asking a question that, in part, had no correct answer. Picky, picky!

The question was a two-parter, one supposedly easy and the other rather difficult. It honored Jerry York and Jack Parker as a result of their crossing the 700-win threshold. Part one asked which NHL Hall of Famer was York’s first major recruit as a head coach. Part two involved Parker’s first win as a head coach, which came in a tournament at Rensselaer, and asked what was unique about BU’s final game in that tourney?

The supposedly easy answer to the York part of the question was Dave Taylor, who after scoring 108 points as a senior at Clarkson went on to the NHL where he would total 1069 points in 17 years, 35th among all-time scorers and sixth among right wings.

At the time that I interviewed Taylor several years ago for my article on York, the LA Kings general manager hadn’t yet been inducted into the Hall of Fame, but that seemed to be all but a fait accompli. It was just a matter of time. Somewhere in my addled brain, I thought the induction had occurred since that interview and under deadline pressure didn’t get to double-check my pathetic memory.

Longtime Clarkson fan Joe LaCour alerted me to this error. For that he gets the following two-part cheer:

“Princeton is Orange, Yale is Blue. This is the weekend for Tech to sweep two!”


“Go Walpole Stars!”

(Joe’s son plays goal for the Stars.)

The answer to the Parker part of the question is that the tournament was a round robin and BU lost the final game after defeating Dartmouth and Ohio State in the first two contests. As a result, that was Parker’s first loss. There was, however, an interesting twist.

“Before we get to the third game — because it was a round-robin tournament — the other two teams couldn’t catch us, so we had won the championship before the game started,” Parker recalled on the night of his 700th. “So we played the final game against RPI at RPI, and we lose 7-2. And at the end of the game they come out and give us the winning trophy. The fans couldn’t figure it out.”

There was no doubt about the contest winner despite the Dave Taylor gaffe; it was Chris Sayles. His cheer is:

“Let’s Go Maine!! Turn it around with a strong second half of the season!!”

There’s actually a third cheer this week, however. Rick Sacks furnished not only the upcoming question of the week, but also the note you read above on Bernie Corbett. As a result, I’ve granted him not only a cheer, but a little more latitude than usual to take a tiny shot at an opponent. There was too much wit in it to turn him down, not to mention that the rhyming provides a nice symmetry to Joe LaCour’s.

“Ewing, MacArthur, Curry and Bourque — Huskies Are Done; Stick ‘Em With A Fork — GO BU!”

This week’s question asks what of significance is unique about BU’s game at Northeastern on Friday? With Scott Weighart filling in for me next week, E-mail him 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…

As a chess enthusiast, I once reached the level just below Candidate Master. In poker, I now enjoy some of the same strategic and tactical challenges that chess offered without the memorization demands.

As a result, one of the columnists I most admired was Andrew N.S. Glazer. He wrote about poker until his untimely death this past summer and was by consensus considered to be the best in the field.

Although I don’t pretend to be as good at what I do as Glazer was at what he did, I identified with him in many ways. We were roughly the same age, forty-something. We wrote columns considered to be exceptionally long compared to the norm. We wrote in such a way as to put our personality (or in my case, the lack thereof) into our work. And we both tried to incorporate humor into our writing.

A hilarious example of his comic gifts came in his response to one newsgroup poster’s rant. The poster, a professional poker player who felt that he’d been critiqued (though not by name) in a Glazer article in Card Player Magazine, wrote a long invective which I’ve edited down to the following:

listen up glazer i just read ur article in cardplayer, and this little thing u wrote i can’t help but think it was about me… ur nothing but a (bleep) no talent wannabe poker player who should stick to writing and not playing. how r u doin on the dating seen u ugly (bleep)…. u know and i know that u can’t play for (bleep) with the real “big boys” so just stick to sitting near the final table taking note u no talent piece of (bleep)…. i know u aint got the guts to come and set the record str8. just like u aint got the guts to go up to a girl u ugly (bleep)…. but till then u aint nothing but a no talent piece of (bleep) wannabe cardplayer who can’t get a girl if he paid her

Glazer’s retort?

Oh yeah? I bet I COULD get a girl if I paid her.

If you don’t think that’s a brilliant wit, I would contend that you don’t have a pulse.

I also admired Glazer’s integrity. In his younger years as an attorney, he had gained notoriety with an innovative defense for a drug dealer that proved successful. When he was then flooded with offers to defend others of that ilk, he decided that such was not the mark he wanted to leave on this world and quit his lucrative law practice. As a poker writer he followed that ethical mindset, frequently walking away from large sums of money that would have created conflicts of interest.

This summer, I was eagerly reading his latest weekly column only to reach the end of it and see an editorially attached postscript that Glazer had died suddenly and this would be his final missive. The tributes to him soon followed. Although I’d never met the man, I took his death hard because I not only identified with him, but I also felt that just from reading his words I knew him.

And so as the year 2005 opens, I leave you with Glazer’s words that opened 2004. He had just won two significant tournaments, so one would have expected him to have goals about winning more and bigger events. Instead, his ambitions were ones that we all can apply, in one way or another, to our own lives.

As for me, greatness is a goal, but I’d rather achieve it first as a human being, a friend, a writer, a teacher, a speaker, and/or an analyst. If I can get there in any of those categories, I’ll consider 2004 a great year, and as for the poker playing part of it, my plan is to just continue improving, and let the cards fall where they may.