This Week in Hockey East: Jan. 20, 2005

Poised For The Stretch Run

Boston College garnered the most attention last week by sweeping Boston University, thereby leapfrogging the Terriers into first place.

And justifiably so. The Eagles, second only to Colorado College both in the minds of pollsters and in the PairWise, appear to be once again ready for a serious charge at a national title.

New Hampshire, on the other hand, dropped from sixth to seventh place in the poll as a result of a defensive meltdown against Dartmouth that saw leads of 7-3 and 8-5 turn into a 9-8 loss. Blowing a three-goal lead with less than 10 minutes remaining sullied what had been an impressive 7-1 record in the Wildcats’ last eight games.

“We were fortunate to score some goals quickly,” UNH coach Dick Umile says. “We had a three-goal lead twice and a four-goal lead and because of that mentality we thought [we had the game won] with a couple of the goaltenders probably not having their best nights.

“We just didn’t play defense. Dartmouth College is a very good team and they have some forwards who can really put the puck away. If you don’t play defense against them you’re going to get in trouble. Obviously, that happened.

“We lost some discipline and got a penalty with about nine minutes to go and they scored on it. They got all the momentum on their side and we couldn’t stop them. Then they got a power-play goal at the end to win it. That’s how quickly you can lose a game.”

It won’t be difficult now to get the team’s attention when Umile preaches defense first.

“Hopefully that was the lesson learned, that the minute that you don’t play defense you get in trouble,” Umile says. “It’s a 60-minute game. It’s a quick transitional game and things can happen. Hopefully they’ve learned that you have to play a 60-minute game even if you have a four-goal lead.”

Having learned a painful lesson, the Wildcats rebounded with an impressive effort against Yale, racing out to a 6-0 lead midway through the second period and maintaining the defensive intensity to the final whistle.

“We bounced back,” Umile says. “We put it behind us. The guys played a solid 60 minutes of hockey against Yale.”

The fact remains that UNH remains in excellent shape for the stretch run, the Dartmouth disappointment notwithstanding. Not only are the Wildcats a none-too-shabby 15-5-2 overall, they’re 8-1-1 in Hockey East play and haven’t lost a league game since Nov. 7. As a result, they trail BC by only two points with two games in hand. So in a sense, they’re in the Hockey East driver’s seat.

“No doubt about it,” Umile says. “we’ve put ourselves in a good position coming into the stretch run in Hockey East. If you were to look at the standings now, if we can win our games in hand we’ll be in [great shape].

“It’s an important time for us, but all we’re looking at right now is Merrimack College on Friday night.”

How far can UNH go? The Wildcats certainly can score goals in bunches. They lead Hockey East with an overall 4.09 goals per game average, far ahead of second-place Massachusetts-Lowell’s 3.48 and trailing only Michigan’s 4.38 nationally. The power play (24.4 percent) also ranks second in the country behind only Lowell’s 25.6.

Defensively, however, the numbers are not as lofty. At 2.91 goals allowed per game, UNH ranks fifth in Hockey East and its 81.6 penalty-killing percentage is sixth.

All of which puts the Wildcats where they were at the start of the season: confident that they can score goals but not sure how far the defense will carry them.

“We thought we were going to be okay offensively and be able to score some goals with the talent we had at forward and our good goalscorers,” Umile says. “If we create some offense, we’ll score some goals with Preston Callander, Sean Collins and Brett Hemingway. Those are three guys who have done very well.

“The question mark was with three defensemen graduating along with an All-American goaltender. But our goaltenders have been consistently solid and defensively guys are starting to fill some of the voids. We still have a way to go, but they’ve shored it up on defense. But the minute we don’t work hard on defense — which we found out both in the Dartmouth and Vermont games — we can get in trouble.

“But I’ve been pleased with the team, the great leadership and how the other guys have accepted their roles. We’ve got a ways to go, but it’s an exciting time. Any time we get to the stretch run in Hockey East and all the teams are battling for position, you’ve got to play your best hockey.”

In The Race For Home Ice?

If you’re a glass-half-empty Northeastern fan, then your team entered last weekend with only a single win since Thanksgiving Day. If, on the other hand, you’re a glass-half-full type, then the Huskies have three wins and a tie over nationally ranked opponents plus another victory over recently ranked Maine. They took three of four points last weekend from Providence and are now in a three-way tie for fifth place in Hockey East. They’re tied for 20th in the PairWise despite an 8-11-3 record because they’ve played a brutally tough schedule.

“For the most part, I’ve been very happy with the way that the team has played all year,” NU coach Bruce Crowder says. “We went for a stretch there where we only had two goals in three games, but the effort and how we competed was very good as far as I was concerned. As coaches we just want to keep the positive [mentality] going.

“This past weekend we were able to pick up nine goals in two games. That’s what we have to do, find ways to manufacture goals and create a little bit of distance [with our opponents].

“But I think we’re playing well. Keni [Gibson] is giving us some good goaltending. [Offensive leaders] Jason Guerriero and Mike Morris didn’t even get a point on Saturday, but the rest of the guys picked up the slack and scored six goals. That was extremely encouraging.”

One of those picking up the slack was Carter Lee, who scored two goals. Lee is part of a freshman class that has been allowed to develop slowly on a veteran team.

“We haven’t had to rush those guys in,” Crowder says. “They’re just starting to come into their own right now and playing better, understanding the system. We got a great game out of Carter Lee on Saturday night. He scored two goals, which was nice, but he also competed and played hard.

“That’s what we’re looking for from the freshman class. They’re starting to bear that out and realize what it takes to play in this league.”

Northeastern still ranks last in Hockey East in penalty killing at 79.5 percent, but the recent results show ongoing progress. The Huskies have allowed only one power-play goal in the last three games and over the last 11 have recorded an 88.37 kill rate.

“It’s an area that we were very, very bad at the beginning of the year,” Crowder says. “So bad that that’s why some of the percentages are still where they’re at. It’s definitely an area where we’d like to see those numbers be better, but for us we’re just going to continue to work on it.

“And sometimes it’s just a matter of lady luck; it’s not like it was diagrammed like a football play. Sometimes strange things happen.”

The Huskies are now six points out of fourth place and the final home ice playoff berth. It’s a gap they’d like to close, but aren’t focusing on right now as a specific goal.

“We’re just going game to game,” Crowder says. “If we handle things like that we’re a lot better off. There’s just too much hockey to be played between now and the season being over.

“But we’re very capable of finding ourselves in the hunt for home ice. That’s one of those things that’s just going to happen if we continue to play well every time we strap them on.

“I’m encouraged. The attitude has been good. We had a little bit of adversity and we got through it and we just have to keep going in the right direction.

“I looked at the [Ratings Percentage Index] and last week we had the third toughest schedule in the country and this week we’re the fourth toughest. we haven’t shied away from anybody. We’ve played a very aggressive schedule and I think that’s going to help us down the stretch here in late January and February.”

Struggling In Eighth

Times are tough right now for Providence. The Friars have won only three games since the end of October and, to make matters worse, all of those have been outside of Hockey East. Their record now stands at 6-13-3 with a 2-9-3 league mark. They remain four points ahead of last-place Merrimack, but they’re also three points behind the fifth-place troika of Massachusetts-Lowell, Northeastern and Massachusetts while at the same time giving games in hand of three, two and one, respectively.

Last weekend’s home-and-home series with Northeastern provided an opportunity to make a move in the standings, but a 3-3 tie at Schneider Arena was followed by a 6-0 loss on the road. In some ways, the weekend was the season in a microcosm since the Friars are 6-2-1 when scoring at least three goals, but 0-11-2 otherwise.

“We’re struggling,” PC coach Paul Pooley says. “On Saturday, we didn’t get good goaltending, but for the most part this season we’ve been fine in the nets.

“We just haven’t been scoring. We’re playing with teams territorially. We only allowed 19 shots at home against New Hampshire. But we’re not putting the puck in the net.”

According to Pooley, the solution isn’t going to come from just one individual.

“We’re not going to have anyone who gets 50 points,” he says. “We just have to get a little more out of everyone and collectively get the offense we need that way. It’s not going to be one or two stars. We need everyone.”

The offense is ranked last in Hockey East (2.36 goals per game) and isn’t being helped by a similarly ineffective power play (14.3 percent).

“Last year we had one of the best power plays in the country, but we’re having our problems this year,” Pooley says. “We’re trying some things and we’re just going to have to keep working at it.”

Of course, confidence can be a major factor in any team’s success. When the goals aren’t going in, the stick gets gripped just a little tighter and the openings look just a little smaller. The key is to avoid a snowballing effect during tough times.

“We can’t let the losses affect us,” Pooley says. “We’ve just got to work harder and believe in ourselves.”

There’ll be no opportunity to make a move in the standings this weekend, but the Mayor’s Cup matchup with Brown on Saturday followed by a Tuesday clash with Connecticut still provide a chance to get back on track.

“[Brown] is always a big game for us,” Pooley says. “It’s a natural rivalry. It’s our only game this weekend — the Tuesday game isn’t even on our minds — so we can focus on that matchup.”

The Inbox And The River Hawks

Two interesting email messages arrived this week asking about the Massachusetts-Lowell River Hawks. The first came from Bill Barnett, who wrote:

Who votes on the rankings? UMass-Lowell is 15th. Why? Based upon their record to date and the power rankings, they should be 10th or 11th.

An alternate point of view came from Matt Willials, who wrote:

Could you help me understand why Lowell is in the Pairwise rankings? I know they are 9-0 out of conference, but they haven’t played a nonconference foe from the WCHA or CCHA. When I look at their schedule, I see one “quality” point, a tie against UNH. I thought the computer/pairwise system was supposed to account for this sort of thing.

The River Hawks are admittedly a conundrum. Are they rated too highly by the PairWise or not highly enough by the pollsters? Or too highly or not highly enough by both?

First, let’s look at Matt’s comment that “they are 9-0 out of conference, but…”

That’s a little bit like saying, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how’d you like the play?” (Or alternatively, “Other than the New England Patriots, Peyton Manning, what did you think of your season?” Or, “Other than the series with the Red Sox, Georgie Porgie, how were the playoffs?”)

You can’t just dismiss a 9-0 nonconference record. (Actually, with Tuesday’s tie with Brown now on the books, it’s 9-0-1.) Those games make up almost half of Lowell’s results to date. The fact is that the Hawks are 13-5-3 with a 4-5-2 record in Hockey East and 9-0-1 outside it. The PairWise and the pollsters are looking at a 13-5-3 team, as they should, and not a 4-5-2 one.

As for having only one “quality” point, don’t forget Lowell’s 3-2 win over Colgate, currently ranked eighth in the country with a 17-5-0 record. The Raiders are atop the ECAC, ahead of Vermont, Cornell and Harvard.

And if you haven’t noticed, the ECAC is a lot tougher relative to Hockey East this year than in past seasons. Vermont and Harvard can count wins between them over the top four teams in “our” league this year: BC, BU, UNH and Maine.

So Lowell has more than just one “quality” point.

It breaks down like this. The River Hawks’ 13 wins have come against all teams with losing records except Colgate, St. Lawrence (12-9-1) and Dartmouth (8-7-2). But Colgate is highly ranked and Dartmouth had the second highest total in the poll’s “also receiving votes” category.

The five losses have come against second-ranked BC, two against 11th-ranked BU, one to Maine (tops in “also receiving votes” and formerly a Top 15 team) and Massachusetts.

The three ties have been with seventh-ranked UNH, Brown (8-6-3) and Northeastern.

So to answer Matt, the River Hawks’ ability to take care of business so consistently against teams with losing records is worth something. There’s also some limited success against the iron.

And to answer Bill, the limited success against the iron does have some pollsters reasonably taking a “show me” stance.

How good are the River Hawks?

Right now it’s hard to say. We really need some more games to know for sure. But as the stretch drive continues, the polls and the Pairwise will likely converge as Lowell’s true strength becomes clarified.

Quotes Of Note

• BU coach Jack Parker after the Terriers lost to BC, 2-0: “I thought that 21 people played great tonight: 20 people on the BC team and my goaltender.”

• Parker on how the team will fare against Maine: “They should worry about Monday’s practice, not Maine.”

• BC coach Jerry York on Ryan Shannon: “I think the guy next to me [Shannon] is about as good a player as we’ve had at BC. This is my 11th year and we’ve had a ton of All-Americans and really high-end players. And this guy matches up with any of them. He’s been the real heart and soul of our club and to watch him play — his skill and his skating — is really something.”

• York on the cluster of teams atop Hockey East: “The biggest thing is to be a player in that field. We’re becoming a lot like college basketball: your season’s judged on how deep you go into the NCAAs. But to get there the seeds are so important. As long as you’re in the top three in the league, you’re in pretty good stead for the national tournament, so I like to stay in that [group]. If we get hot in the end and win the championship, that would be terrific, but we want to stay in the mix here.”

• Massachusetts coach Don Cahoon on the six penalties his team took in the latter half of a 5-2 loss to Maine: “We have a penalty problem, and it takes away from our game. We didn’t have the same energy as last night. We were trying to find our way with a band-aid unit out there. We survived being down 2-0, and we got reenergized, but we were snakebitten by a problem we’ve had for some time. [Sean Regan’s double-minor penalty] was possibly a major reason that cost us the game. I was pretty disappointed with that sequence of plays, especially because it happened at a crucial part of the game.”

• Merrimack coach Chris Serino after a loss to Lowell: “We are desperate in every game. We are 1-11-1 in Hockey East and you can say that we played with a better effort, but we didn’t play smart. Sometimes you just have to go out and win. You are what you are.”

• Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald on the Warriors: “They are tough, gritty and play great at home. When have you ever seen Merrimack not play hard?”

• Crowder on freshman Carter Lee, who had been benched since Nov. 23, scoring his first two collegiate goals: “He’s a young man that we’re really trying to get to work harder. He’s got an NHL shot, there’s no doubt about it. We talked to him a couple weeks ago and asked him what the best thing about his game was, and he said it was his shot. I said, ‘Yeah, but there’s no designated shooters in hockey, so you gotta go get it and you gotta battle and compete.’ I think those are the things that, when you’re not playing, fills your gut and starts to simmer. He made the most of the opportunity. He can shoot the puck. Our goalies aren’t too excited about him coming down and shooting in practice, but there’s a lot more to this game than shooting and I think he’s starting to figure that out.”

• Umile after the 9-8 loss to Dartmouth: “Defensively, it’s as bad as I’ve ever seen. It’s a real disappointment to our program…. If it’s a pattern, we won’t be around for very long, I’ll tell you that.”

Trivia Contest

Last week, Scott Weighart asked a question, the first part of which was related to the city where he was born. (And to think that some of you think that I’m self-absorbed. Can we all agree now that my megalomania pales in comparison to his?) In any case, while no plaques or statues commemorate Scott’s birthplace, 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. You were asked to name the city, the nickname, and the former Hockey East player.

The city is Danbury, Connecticut. The team is the Trashers, thus named because the owner is renowned for owning Automated Waste Disposal. The former Hockey East player in question is Blake Bellefeuille of Boston College.

In part two of the question, readers were asked to 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.

The player was Mike Veisor of Northeastern. (Or as he was dubbed by Husky radio broadcaster Bill Doherty, Mike “Bud” Veisor.)

The first person to get both parts of the question was Matt Fitzpatrick. Last week’s cheer was from a BU partisan who made reference to “Newton College” so Matt retorts:

“Hey, BU, who’s your daddy? Newton College, that’s who! Mat-ti! Mat-ti! Mat-ti! …. Go Eagles!!!”

This week’s question relates to my favorite college hockey team, the Wesleyan Cardinals. Over the holidays they played in the Cardinal Classic tournament, hosted by “the other Cardinals” from Plattsburgh, New York. The Plattsburgh version is a perennial D-III powerhouse while the Wesleyan version is hoping to get there, preferably in two years when my son Ryan will be a senior.

The question is what is the Hockey East connection to the very first Cardinal Classic held in 1982? Email my trivia account with your answer. The winner will be notified by Tuesday; if you haven’t heard by then you either had the wrong answer or someone else beat you to it.

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

If the New England Patriots don’t make the Super Bowl, New York Jets kicker Doug Brien and head coach Herm Edwards could be the two biggest reasons why. Brien, of course, missed two field goals late in the game against Pittsburgh, the latter of which would have sent the Jets into Foxboro this Sunday.

Edwards, however, deserves just as much blame because he chose to play timidly and leave it all up to his kicker instead of continuing to drive for a higher percentage field goal attempt. Edwards played not to lose. And lost.

And is there anyone who hasn’t chanted “J-E-T-S! Jets! Jets! Jets!” who seriously thinks that Edwards’ team would have had more than a snowball’s chance in Bermuda had they taken on the Pats in Foxboro?

As such, the Jets become the football equivalent of last season’s Minnesota Twins. A team you half hoped would knock off a tough opponent only to fail in head-shaking fashion.

The other half of you, of course, relishes the challenge of taking on the toughest possible rival. Then if you win, it’ll be all the sweeter.

Sorry Jets fans, but beating your boys in Foxboro this week would have been like taking candy from babies. Beating Pittsburgh at Heinz Field, however, is a man-sized challenge.

I keep telling myself that Richard Seymour has to be in the lineup and in typical playing form. I keep telling myself that he’s as indispensable to beating the Steelers’ running attack as Ty Law was to beating Indianapolis.

And then I repeat that Seymour is as indispensable to beating the Steelers’ running attack as Ty Law was to beating Indianapolis.

And I feel better.

Tom Brady said a week ago that if you think you’re the best team, you don’t count on the weather to beat your opponent. You take care of business yourself.

So while I’d be a lot more confident if Brien and Edwards had put the Steelers down for the count when they had them on the ropes, I look forward to the Pats taking care of business themselves.

Go Pats! Three For Four!

(My apologies for any inaccuracies in the quotes by PC coach Paul Pooley. An equipment malfunction rendered the tape of my interview unusable and so his quotes are approximate and from memory instead of precisely transcribed from tape.)

Thanks to Scott Weighart, Jack Weiland, Andrew Merritt, Steve Algeri and Greg Fennell.