This Week in Hockey East: Jan. 13, 2005

After Dave Hendrickson demonstrated his nose for news while becoming the first individual to fall down the steps at Agganis Arena, he is unavailable this week. Scott Weighart fills in Dave this week, while Dave tries his luck at the casting call for Fox TV reality show The Swan.

BU-BC: Two of a kind?

It’s that special time in January, when the Hockey East schedule gets heavier as the days grow longer. This week’s marquee matchup features Boston University and Boston College — fierce archrivals, yes, but also more similar to each other than any time in recent memory.

BU is first in Hockey East; BC is third but just three points behind. BC is tied for third in the PairWise Rankings; BU is fifth. BC is No. 2 in the poll; BU is No. 8. Most curiously, though, both teams feature incredibly stingy team defense and great freshmen … and not as much offensive firepower as they have had in peak years for their programs.

The Eagles are second in the nation in team defense, yielding just 1.76 goals per game. Their penalty kill ranks first, as BC has stopped opposing power plays at a remarkable rate of 89.9%. Although the Terriers have given up 2.60 goals per, that figure is deceptive due to blowouts at the hands of Michigan and Colorado College. Sophomore goalie John [nl]Curry has 1.81 goals against average, fifth in the nation — and two of the guys he trails are BC netminders Matti Kaltiainen (1.65) and Cory Schneider (1.77).

If BC enjoys a nominal edge on the defensive stat sheet, BU has a slight advantage on offense. BU is fourth in Hockey East with 3.25 goals per game, while BC is fifth with 3.06. BU has a 19.2% power-play conversion rate, while the man advantage has been an Achilles heel for the Eagles, as they are ahead of only Providence and Maine (of all league teams) with a 15.1% success rate.

Merrimack coach Chris Serino has faced both teams — unsuccessfully — this season, and agrees that the squads are comparable.

“I think they’ve gotten more similar because BU’s gotten more skilled and BC’s gotten more defensive-minded, so they’ve come together in the middle, if you know what I’m saying,” Serino said. “I think they’re both going to get their shots, and they’re both going to be stingy defensively, but I think it’s going to come down to goaltending.”

Terrier coach Jack Parker has been enjoying his team’s play of late, and goaltending has a good deal to do with that. Curry added another honor to his collection this week with the Hockey East Player of the Week Award, following great efforts against Minnesota on Monday and Northeastern on Friday.

“I think we’ve given up 10 goals in our last eight games,” Parker said. “So we’re playing pretty well defensively and getting really good goaltending. John Curry has been our biggest surprise this season, but he’s no longer a surprise. To me, it’s a surprise if the puck goes in the net. He’s really solidified himself as one of the best goalies in this league.

“So if you told me before the season that Curry was going to be the No. 1 goalie and standing everybody on their ears, and that we were going to be 9-1 [in league play], I would’ve said, ‘What are you smoking?’ But if you told me that five games into the season after watching Curry and the way we’re playing, I wouldn’t be surprised.

“I think any time you’re doing as well as we are in the league, it has a lot to do with the puck going in the net for you and gratuitous bounces could’ve lost a couple of those games too — including [the Northeastern game]. But in general, I think we’ve deserved to win our games because we’ve played hard and with a lot of tenacity.

“And we’ve played so much better defensively in our zone — even without the puck. I’ve mentioned this a lot, but our biggest problem last year was how young our defensemen were and now the best part is how solid our defensemen are. Those three freshmen are now sophomores; those two sophomores are now juniors. That’s made a huge difference in our team.”

Considering both teams, Serino admits that BU’s performance has surprised him some this season. “It does a little bit, because of the amount of young players they have, but I think their young players are performing at the level that they should and the key is that the veterans have to perform the way they’ve been performing,” Serino said. “I think the big question mark for them was goal, and Curry’s done a great job for them in goal. In this league, if you’ve got skill and great goaltending, you’re pretty good.”

Seeing Curry in several postgame press conferences at this point, what’s struck me is how he seems to revel in the hoopla surrounding big games and noisy crowds.

“He’s unbelievably poised,” Parker said. “He’s having fun. It’s not just that he’s stopping pucks; it’s how poised he is doing it, how sharp he is at his position, how relaxed he is out there. I think one of the reasons we’ve been so relaxed in front of him is that he doesn’t get anybody jumpy. No question he’s been a huge part of our run here.”

Both teams have been slowed somewhat by injuries and illnesses lately. BC’s 4-1 win on Merrimack would not raise any eyebrows due to the score, but if you read Dave Hendrickson’s recap, you know that the Eagles were missing Patrick Eaves and Stephen Gionta due to the flu bug. “When they’re healthy, up front they’re very good,” Serino said. “How well their defense and goaltending performs will determine how far they go.”

That flu bug apparently made its way down Comm. Ave. by Friday night, sabotaging BU freshman Peter MacArthur. Just to show the degree to which these teams have been two of a kind this year, Brian “Boomer” Ewing also got the flu on Saturday, meaning that BU also lacked its top scorer and another strong one.

A split might be the best bet here, but the pressure is on BC in terms of competing for the top spot. A BC sweep would give them a slim one-point advantage on the Terriers, while a BU sweep would give the Terriers a seven-point edge on the Eagles. That would require several weeks to make up, at best.

Can BU win another regular-season archrival classic, as they did in a compelling victory over BC in December? Still out with an MCL sprain, Chris Bourque won’t be back, so it won’t be any easier. But it should be a blast… and also a better indication of what the Agganis Arena atmosphere will really be like.

Mass. Department of Corrections

It hasn’t been the easiest of years for UMass. The team’s leading scorer, Matt Anderson, broke his ankle in December and should end up missing eight weeks. Forward Garrett Summerfield’s late Christmas present was a broken jaw, suffered on December 29 against Princeton. Then — last Friday night at UMass-Lowell — the Minutemen experienced their most bizarre twist of misfortune this year.

Going into the game, UMass had not won a true road game all year. Yes, the Minutemen managed to win the third-place game out in Anchorage in the season-opening Nye Frontier Classic, but it wasn’t exactly a home game for their opponent, Canisius.

So the Minutemen take on the torrid River Hawks, and all is going well late in the second period. After trailing 1-0, goals by Stephen Werner (five goals and four assists in his last three games) and Marvin Degon (three goals and an assist in that same three-game span) give the Minutemen a 2-1 lead with less than four minutes remaining in period two.

All of which sets the stage for the strange-but-true moment of the Hockey East season thus far. Lowell gets a four-on-three power play, and a faceoff results in the Minuteman zone. Both teams change personnel on the ice. The UMass players are the first to skate out. The centerman looks over his shoulder; no River Hawks in sight. The UMass defensemen stand at ease; the centerman skates over for a few words, presumably about coverage.

Four River Hawks take the ice. With neither team ready for the draw, the linesman inexplicably drops the puck anyway. Already skating toward the puck, Jason Tejchma races for the dot while linemate Brad King heads for the net. Pass. One-timer. Goal. Uncontested. Not disallowed.

Deflated, UMass gives up another goal 17 seconds later. A complete turnaround: 3-2 Lowell. The teams trade goals in the third, and the final score is 4-3 River Hawks.

“I was real pleased with my team’s effort on Friday night,” Minuteman Coach Don “Toot” Cahoon said. “We deserved better, but we can’t be too concerned about things we have no control of. We have to just play better in the future.”

The blown call was especially unfortunate, given that the team had mustered a little momentum in recent games.

“It could’ve given us a situation where we continued to play well post-Christmas, and we obviously would be on a little bit of a roll, .500 in the league, one over overall, in the hunt in every regard,” Cahoon said. “I’ve just told the team that we’ve got to go out and have fun and continue to compete.”

Cahoon regretted the fact that he didn’t give his team a chance to regain their composure after the shocking goal was scored. “That’s my fault for not calling a timeout,” Cahoon said. “I should’ve called a timeout.” As for the absurd play itself, Cahoon chose his words carefully, saying simply “It’s just unfortunate that the play had to occur.”

Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna candidly commented on the play but couldn’t explain why it happened. “I can’t tell you why because there’s no explanation,” Bertagna said. “It shouldn’t have happened, clearly.

“In this case, it was clear from talking to our supervisor of officials on the telephone after the game that a mistake was made. Sometimes they’re more gray than this. A couple of different things converged as I saw it. No. 1, there was a protocol established two years ago to speed up faceoffs. Part of the process was mechanical recommendations to the officials.”

Bertagna looked at the tape and drew some clear conclusions.

“On the tape, you can see the referee point to the dot; you can hear the assistant referee blow the whistle, and you can count five seconds before the puck drops,” Bertagna said. “Now that’s only part of the story, obviously. You never want to create a situation where you’re basically handing a goal to a team.

“If you want to be hardcore, you can say, ‘Hey, they heard the whistle; it’s too bad.’ But there are other parts of faceoff procedure beyond that new protocol that speed things up: Certain things like you have to have your sticks down; only the two guys that are taking the draw can be in the circle. As of this year — or maybe it was last year — they specifically added the rule that all players must be stationary.

“So even if I wanted to cut the officials wide latitude and say, ‘Well, they blew the whistle and counted to five and dropped the puck,’ — A, you really want to try to avoid any way you can within the rules a situation of handing someone a breakaway and a goal. And the officials were given that opportunity by the fact that the Lowell players were still moving. So the linesman had an initial excuse if he needed one to not drop the puck.”

The situation put the commissioner in the uncomfortable position of being unable to back up his officials, in this rare case.

“Normally, Scott, my personal and professional position is that the officials have a tough job,” Bertagna said. “If you look in the archives, you’re not going to find too many situations where I’ve acknowledged a mistake. Because I think in the spectrum of things, they have a tough job, and even if I know somebody’s made an error, I don’t see a purpose in hanging them out to dry that way.

“But this case was, I believe, so serious a misuse of judgment — and in fairness to UMass, who was victimized by it — I have to acknowledge that a mistake was made. In this case, you had both the common-sense expectation that you’re not going to hand somebody such an opportunity and the visible violation that the offensive team was moving; they were not set. So I have to break my own policy and acknowledge that a mistake was made.”

Maine Event For Minutemen

Hosting Maine for a pair this weekend will provide the Minutemen with a challenge as well as an opportunity. The fourth-place Black Bears have a four-point lead — and a game in hand — on UMass. Anything less than a split will result in a serious deficit, while getting at least three points will make it interesting.

“I don’t put my pressure on my team that way,” Cahoon said, as to whether this weekend was already falling into the “must-win” category. “Every time we go out we need to compete and play hard. But there’s no point — whether it’s a Hockey East semifinal or Hockey East championship game — of saying ‘You have to win this game.’

“[That said,] it’s pretty clear we need some success. We need to compete and win some games — close games — we need the thoroughness that goes into that to beat good teams in our league. It’s going to be challenging for sure — especially with Anderson and Summerfield out for extended periods of time.”

Thus far this season, the Minutemen have a 10-11-1 record. Generally, they have beaten the teams they are supposed to be beat while struggling against the stronger teams — though they do have an OT win against Lowell and a hard-fought tie against BC. To make inroads on home ice, UMass might need at least six points in this tough five-game stretch.

Can that happen? With Anderson still out for several more weeks with a broken ankle, much falls on the shoulders of Werner, Fenton, and Degon, though a timely contribution from freshman Matt Burto has raised hopes. After just one goal in his first 14 collegiate games, Burto has lit the lamp four times in the last six.

“We thought when we recruited him he could be a good offensive player, and he’s starting to develop that way,” said Cahoon.

Defenseman Michael Kostka and forward Peter Trovato also have shown signs of offensive life in the last few contests. The Minutemen will need to have a few other guys step up if they’re going to rise well above the .500 mark.

“Every game out I challenge these kids,” Cahoon said of this weekend’s games against Maine. “In order for us to succeed, we’re going to have to be thorough, play with speed, and execute on special teams. Maine is always a great opponent because they are thorough, and they do pay attention to detail, and obviously if we’re going to have any success in this league, we’re going to have to have a certain amount of success on a regular basis. From that standpoint, it’s very important.”

“In the end, the teams that are winning the most games down the stretch are the ones who are playing the most disciplined and the ones who are getting the best goaltending,” Cahoon said. “With our guys, we think they’re going to work on their discipline, and we’ve always liked our goaltending, so hopefully that bodes well for the stretch.”

Can any other Hockey East team break up that first division? It won’t be easy. Northeastern has a comparatively easier stretch, playing Providence for a pair this weekend before a road game at BC and a home game against Merrimack. Winning three of those four games would be essential if the Huskies are to climb significantly in the standings.

Given the schedules and the teams at hand, Lowell might be the best bet to climb to fifth and even challenge for fourth. The River Hawks still haven’t played any of their three games apiece against Providence or Merrimack, and they are capable of winning forthcoming games against UNH, BU, BC, and Maine.

Of course, with the spate of close finishes recently in Hockey East–only one of six games last weekend was decided by a margin of more than two goals–I wouldn’t recommend betting your mortgage on any league game.

At The Bottom, Looking Up

It’s been a trying season in Hockey East for the Merrimack Warriors, currently last in league play with a 1-10-1 record. They are three points behind Massachusetts-Lowell and Providence, but the River Hawks have a whopping three games in hand and don’t figure to be checking the rearview mirror too often as they climb the standings and, more importantly, the PairWise Rankings. The Warriors hold an impressive 7-4-1 record in non-conference action but have to start making progress not to be the only team voted off the island when it’s time for the Hockey East quarterfinals.

“I think we need to get some players back, first of all,” Serino said, when asked for an update from the War(rior) Room. “We’ve been rattled been injuries — some of the guys who are in the lineup haven’t played for a month. So I’m looking at us stabilizing with a week of practice. Some of our guys who are banged up need some time to heal. Injuries have just killed us. Hopefully we’ll be ready to go this weekend.

“We’re hoping to get Jordan Black and Steve Crusco and Jordan Fox back at full speed. Crusco and Black played one of the games last week but probably shouldn’t have. We lost Nick Pomponio to a broken ankle, so they were kind of had to be pressed back into service. They really needed another week to get better.”

Merrimack followers are already mulling whether their team will have the same fate as Northeastern last season.

“Someone said that to me the other day: ‘Who’s going to be battling for eighth or ninth?'” Serino acknowledged. “I think we don’t know yet. All games for us are in Hockey East from here on in, so we’ve got to come up and win some games. I think it’s the same way for everybody else: Every weekend you’ve got to come away with some points. You can’t have a weekend like we did with BC and come out with no points.”

Despite the gloomy forecast, there have been silver linings for Serino.

“I think the play of Black,” Serino said. “Obviously I’m very pleased with [Bryan] Schmidt and [Jeff] Caron — the way they’ve been playing defense. Guys like Jordan Black and Mike Alexiou who have scored what we thought that they might be able to score goal-wise. I think Alexiou has around 10 goals and Black has eight or nine, so those are positive things for us.”

Still, one has to wonder what Merrimack has done to incur the wrath of the scheduling gods this season. With the exception of playing BC when they were down several players, the Warriors have had a knack for catching league adversaries at their hottest this year.

“If you want to know the team that’s playing the best, just look at the schedule to find out when we’re playing them,” Serino said. “Because I don’t know of anybody we’ve played who wasn’t playing their best. When we were down at Providence for their tournament, and they had just won four or five wins in a row. Maine was on a little streak when they played us. It just seems like everybody gets their players back and are ready to go when they play us.”

Even the rash of injuries came at an inopportune time. In most cases, teams are better off having guys get hurt during the first half because of the relative paucity of games. The opposite has been true for Merrimack.

“We’re one of the few teams in the country who’ve played two games almost every weekend,” Serino said. “We’ve got a stretch coming up where I think there are three or four weekends where we only play one game a weekend. The bottom line is we’ve got to get healthy and win some games. And I think we’re on our way to that.”

More Memories of Walter Brown Arena

After writing a feature story with various reminiscences of Walter Brown Arena, I was pleased to get some nice e-mails from long-lost Terrier fans who came out of the woodwork.

One of the best was from New York City lawyer Larry Grubman, who, in fact, would be the answer to a trivia question that’s too difficult for us to ever ask. Larry was the only Walter Brown Arena PA announcer to introduce all three coaches who coached in the arena: Jack Kelley; Leon Abbott; and Jack Parker. His career makes it difficult for him to keep up with today’s Terriers to his satisfaction, but he had some nice kernels of nostalgia to offer. His memories were especially interesting, as they reflected knowledge of an era of BU hockey mostly unknown to me.

“Besides my memories of trying to work with the horrible sound system at WBA in those days (and there were nights when I thought I might’ve been better off with a megaphone), I’ll remember watching Mike Eruzione and Rick Meagher play as freshmen at WBA in 1973-74. In those days, I could sense that they were going to be winners, but I never knew how much success they’d enjoy after their Terrier careers were over.

“I’ll remember Ric Jordan telling me that he wanted to be introduced as ‘Ric Jordan, Number 7 in your program, Number One in Your Hearts.’ And I’ll remember his defense partner, Bob Brown, smiling and shaking his head when he heard Ric’s request.

“I’ll remember looking at the faces of the BU players while Jack Parker was screaming at ECAC referee Giles Threadgold after the ref had missed several calls one night. That’s when I first saw the respect that the players apparently have had for Jack over the years. I’ll remember the night when Jack Kelley’s former assistant coach, Bob Crocker, returned to WBA as head coach of the University of Pennsylvania team that beat the Terriers. I’ll remember the confidence and toughness that goalie Ed Walsh showed before he led the Terriers onto the ice in the 1973-74 season. I’ll remember how much faster the game seemed to be played while watching from ice level.

“And I’ll never forget what I believe was the first Banner Night at WBA. The winning banner was a white sheet with a crude picture of a large sheep in the middle. Above the picture was ‘Q.: What do you call a female sheep living in a large Asian desert?’ Below the picture was: ‘A.: Gobi Ewe!’ It was my entry; and I won two tickets to a Bruins game. In those days, tickets for Bruins games at the Garden were almost impossible to get.”

Thanks for the memories, Larry.

One Big Fish Left To Catch

BC has already had a banner year when it comes to recruiting, as Canadian-born star forward Brock Bradford will be coming to the Heights next season. Meanwhile, Phil Kessel — a standout for the star-crossed USA team at the recent World Junior Championships — came to Agganis Arena for an exhibition game against BU on Saturday night.

Kessel currently centers a line that includes Terrier recruit Jason Lawrence on the right wing, and he also was Chris Bourque’s linemate at the WJC, so BU fans in attendance couldn’t be blamed for hoping that Kessel might opt to be reunited with the pair in scarlet and white next season.

“He was my roommate out there,” the 17 year-old Kessel said of Bourque. “He’s a great kid; I had a lot of fun with him. It’s too bad he got hurt in the tournament; he’s a great player and could have helped us. He has great hands and moves the puck good. He had a great goal in the first game against Russia.”

So far the speculation has been that Kessel will choose to play for his hometown Wisconsin Badgers — he went on his one official visit to Wisconsin earlier this year — in Madison next season, or possibly attend Minnesota. “We play Minnesota, so I think I’m going to stay and take a visit there,” Kessel said. “I’ll decide after that — end of February. I really haven’t had time to take many visits this year.”

Is there any chance he could become a Terrier? According to NCAA rules, Jack Parker can’t comment on recruits. However, Kessel himself was able to comment.

“Yeah, it is a possibility,” Kessel said of playing for the Terriers. “It’s a great building, one of the best in college hockey. It’s a great program, one of the best programs in the country — great talent, great coaches.”

If Kessel does come, it may be enough to make Mike Eruzione quote Al Michaels and say, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question asked what of significance was unique about BU’s game at Northeastern on Friday? The answer was that in visiting Matthews Arena, the Terriers will have played consecutively in all three of their home arenas: Boston Arena (now Matthews), Walter Brown Arena and Harry Agganis Arena.

Peter Biscardi sent an email to Dave Hendrickson noting this fact before the question was even posted so he gets to make the following cheer:

“The BU Ogre yells ‘Give me a T, Give me an E, Give me a R, Give me an R, Give me an I, Give me an E, Give me a R, Give me a S… Terriers ! Terriers !’ Go BU”

The more conventional winner of the contest was Mark Steffey. His cheer is:

“GO BU, sweep Newton College this weekend!”

The first part of this week’s question should be challenging — my wife is a fan but read it and thought it was “pretty oblique.” The question relates to the city where I was born. A former Hockey East standout now plays professionally in this city, where the relatively new franchise has a somewhat dubious nickname, inspired by the profession of the team’s owner. Name the city, the nickname, and the former Hockey East player.

Part two of this week’s question concerns goaltenders. Name a former Hockey East goaltender whose father was a former NHL goaltender. The father was a backup goalie for several years in the NHL, while the son was his college team’s No. 1 for two seasons.

One slight hint: I think we’ve had enough BU-related trivia for a while, so you can rule out any BU players when trying to answer this two-part question.

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…

The Boston Globe is running a “Be Dave Barry For A Day Competition,” so I dutifully sent in a 700-word humor column reflecting on advertising. Here are the first three paragraphs: You can make up your mind whether I have any chance:

“I live about 200 feet from Boston, home of the Big Dig, which has apparently turned out to be the most monumental example of a water pipe in world history. Reflecting on this great achievement, a customer actually can go in to most supermarkets here and buy a quart of an ice cream flavor called Big Dig for about $3.99.

“Clearly, the manufacturer has overlooked an excellent opportunity to display integrity through truth in advertising — while still reaping an enormous profit. In order to capture what the full Big Dig experience has been like for the Taxachusetts Masspayer, I propose that they market the product as follows: When you put the ice cream quart in your cart, it appears to cost $3.99. However, when you ring it up, you would get charged $26.99 — almost seven times the original estimate.

“Then, when you get it home, it’s not ready to eat as quickly as anticipated. When it’s finally ‘done,’ you find out that the carton has massive leaks in several places, and ice cream flows around your kitchen like a grade 4 rapids.”

I also go on to mention that there is a commercial for a drug that apparently helps men throw footballs through inner tubes hanging from tree limbs. Wow — they have drugs for just about every purpose these days!