This Week in Hockey East: Jan. 27, 2005

Black Bears Back On The Prowl

When 2004 ended, the Maine Black Bears were reeling with an 0-2-1 record in their last three games and 1-2-3 in their last six.

So far, however, 2005 has been much better to them. After an exhibition win over the US Under-18 team and a nonconference win over Quinnipiac, Maine took three of four points from both UMass on the road and then Boston University at home. The Black Bears are back in the national rankings and in striking range in the PairWise at 17th.

“We’re pleased,” coach Tim Whitehead says. “We’re making progress in a lot of areas. The special teams most importantly has improved. We’ve improved at the netfront, protecting our goalie a little better and generating more second and third shots for scoring chances.”

The penalty kill, which had been strong all year before faltering as 2004 ended, has rebounded to being a team strength. Over the last two weekends, UMass and BU scored only twice on a total of 21 man advantages.

The power play, however, has been the most obvious night-and-day improvement since New Year’s. At the end of 2004, it had converted at a league-worst 13.7 percent rate, prompting Whitehead to say, “We’re not very good on the power play.”

In the last two weekends, however, the Black Bear man advantage has gone 2-for-5 and 2-for-7 against UMass and then keyed the win over BU with a 3-for-7 performance.

“That’s been big,” Whitehead says. “You can’t win without a solid power play. It doesn’t have to be the best one in the country, but you do need production out of it. So we’re real pleased with that.

“It started with the US National Team — Quinnipiac weekend, which is not as stiff competition but we still did get some results. Then the big challenge was to do it on the road at UMass and then at home against BU. We’ve been able to chip away [with the man advantage] the last three weekends.”

Greg Moore has been one key component in that newfound success. After finishing the calendar year with eight straight games without a point, he’s recorded six points in the five games since including goals in the last four games. Three of them came on the rejuvenated power play.

“He’s playing to his strengths now,” Whitehead says. “He’s a power forward and he’s getting pucks to the net and driving to the net for opportunities. He’s playing a very honest game now and he’s getting results.”

Keith Johnson, a new piece to the man advantage puzzle after going the first nine games of the season without recording a point, has scored three goals in the last three games including two while a man up in the 4-2 win over BU.

“He’s one of the guys that we added on the power play at UMass,” Whitehead says. “He didn’t get a power-play goal there, but he scored five-on-five and then he got two power-play goals against BU.

“He does a nice job of winning loose pucks and getting the puck into the zone with his speed. Now he’s putting pucks into the net, too, so we’re real pleased with his improvement.”

Freshman defenseman Bret Tyler, last week’s Rookie of the Week, has added offense from the blue line, emerging in the last three games. In the 5-2 win at UMass, he scored twice, once on the man advantage. Then in the win over BU, he assisted on two power-play goals.

“That’s an area where we really needed to improve,” Whitehead says. “We weren’t generating enough scoring chances from the point either five-on-five or on the power play. Brett has done that consistently [of late].

“He had an opportunity to play the second night at UMass and he took advantage of it and then played well again this weekend. So that’s three games in a row where he’s generated some scoring chances so we’re real pleased with that.”

Putting it all together, it looks like Maine is poised for a strong stretch run.

“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs this season, which as coaches we expected a bit,” Whitehead says. “I’m not sure the players did, but now I think they understand why we were inconsistent early in the year.

“That’s still going to be a challenge for us. We’re still going to have to be very focused to win hockey games from here on in.

“But I do think that our focus has improved and our execution of the game plan has improved so if we can continue to do that I think that good things will happen for us.”

They Just Keep On Rolling

Hockey East may have higher ranked teams than Massachusetts-Lowell, but none is hotter. The River Hawks haven’t lost since Thanksgiving Day. They are now 10-0-2 in that span.

So when Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald sat down for Turkey Day dinner, what did the former Carol Burnett feed her hubby?

“She fed me a dose of narrow focus,” MacDonald says. “One day at a time.”

That tunnel vision served the team well when it fell to last place with an 0-5 league record and is serving it well now through an unbeaten stretch that could have it feeling rather full of itself.

“It doesn’t feel that way for our team,” MacDonald says. “We don’t look back and we don’t look too far ahead. There are clearly enough teaching moments in every game that we’ve had and really throughout the course of each practice. So we know there’s a lot of room for improvement.

“That being said, we weren’t hung up with being 0-5 in Hockey East or winning our last five in Hockey East.”

So where a fan would now be looking at the seven-point gap between Lowell and a home ice playoff berth and thinking about the two games it holds in hand, MacDonald is looking ahead only to the next practice or, at most, the next game.

“The first time I start thinking like a fan, I’m in big trouble,” he says. “Unlike fans, players and coaches live this daily. Fans see a very small portion on the weekends so they have no idea [of what it all involves].”

Lowell’s latest success was an impressive 6-1 win at Massachusetts. Often the idea on the road is to weather the early first-period storm that the home team throws at you and then counterpunch from there. In this case, however, the River Hawks roared out to a 3-0 first period lead on the coattails of a 20-4 shot domination.

“That was our best period of the year by a long shot,” MacDonald says. “We just caught UMass at the right time of the year for us and the wrong time for them. We had a lot of things going on that were really positive.”

A major positive has been the production of Ben Walter, who now leads the country in goalscoring with 22. His hat trick against UMass earned him Hockey East Player of the Week honors.

“When [assistant coach] Kenny Rausch recruited him,” MacDonald recalls, “it was like: talented player, good stick skills, probably an 8-10 goal guy with a lot of assists, maybe 35 helpers.

“But like any good athlete when your confidence is high, everything slows down and everything just works better. The 22 goals is 100 percent credit to Ben Walter’s work ethic and passion for the game.”

Last week, defenseman Kim Brandvold took the league’s Defensive Player of the Week Award after recording three assists in a 5-2 win over Merrimack.

“Whether Kim is in the lineup or out of the lineup on any given night, he is a tremendous contributor to our team’s success,” MacDonald says. “He has a very powerful work ethic; he’s incredibly committed to the team and each player. He’ll do anything it takes to make a contribution.

“It just so happens that at a key time in the Merrimack game he contributed a little bit offensively. His offensive moments are usually in key moments against big teams that really change the complexion of a game.”

MacDonald’s comment about Brandvold’s positive impact even when he’s out of the lineup is an important point. With most players, the coaching concern at such moments is that they might poison their teammates’ attitudes.

“That’s the key,” MacDonald says. “You talk to any coach in this league and that’s the tough part of the job, telling guys that they’re not in the lineup and telling them why. They need to be mature enough to handle those things.

“[I say to them], ‘It’s either going to make you bitter or make you better.’ Kim’s been in and out of the lineup a lot in his career, but he understands it and it makes him better.”

Goaltender Peter Vetri, honored as the league’s Rookie of the Month in December, has kept the momentum going, allowing only five goals in his last five games to bring his GAA down to 2.04 and raise his save percentage to .921.

“He’s been playing very well,” MacDonald says. “UMass was a tough game where he wasn’t getting a lot of shots. We were up 1-0 and carrying play and he gets two unbelievable grade As thrown at him and he makes the saves routinely.

“It’s not always how many, but when. His focus — much like our team where he never looks behind him or too far ahead of him — makes it so he’s able to stay in the here and now.”

The weekend promises the biggest test for the River Hawks since they opened the season with a gauntlet of nationally ranked league opponents. Lowell faces No. 6 New Hampshire in a home-and-home series.

“UNH is a team that has just been on a great run now for a number of years,” MacDonald says. “We respect them a lot and we like playing them.

“In a lot of ways, we try to look at what they do well and try to emulate that ourselves. It’s a team that we’ve gotten very familiar with since we played them in the playoffs in [2001 and 2003].

“It’s going to be an awesome weekend of hockey for both teams. What happens on Saturday night at 9:30, I have no idea, but it’s going to make us better and I’m sure it’s going to make UNH better.”

Not That Everyone In Lowell Is Having Fun

While the River Hawks may be on a roll, their Hockey Sports Information Director, Shannon Dove, has been taking it on the chin. In fact, that may be an understatement.

The Curse of Shannon began a week ago last Monday. Here’s how it went.

She’s accompanying the women’s basketball team to Pace University in Pleasantville, N.Y., for a 5:30 game to be followed by the men at 7:30. Everything is fine until they near Hartford when the I-84 traffic comes to a standstill.

An 18-wheeler has rolled over, leaving the women’s bus sitting at a rest stop for three hours and turning the trip into a seven-hour ordeal. The men’s bus — sans Shannon — somehow avoids the accident and so the men play at 7. The women take the court at 9 and arrive back on campus at 3:15 the next morning.

Shannon vows never to ride a bus again.

The next night, she accompanies the hockey team to Brown. On the ride home, the bus suffers a flat tire. Fortunately, there isn’t a huge delay, but after the return trip is made at 45 miles per hour she again swears never to set foot on a bus.

On Saturday, she rides with the hockey team to Amherst, a ride that is turned into an eternity due to the slick conditions on Route 2. Prior to faceoff, she again attests never to board another coach line, believing she is cursed.

Because of the blizzard, hotel rooms have been arranged in advance so after the 6-1 win and a subsequent full night’s sleep, Shannon and the team departs Sunday morning. She arrives on campus to find her driver’s side window smashed in and the interior covered in glass and fresh snowfall.

“I don’t understand,” she says. “If they took the time to look inside the car, they’d have seen that there was nothing worth taking. I don’t even have a CD player. And the radio is factory made.”

The thief thought otherwise, pocketing the loose change and a 59-cent pair of gloves.

Shannon vows yet again never to set foot on a bus.

Superstitious River Hawk fans, however, may have a different idea. Convinced that their team’s success and the Curse of Shannon are somehow intertwined, they’ll be hoping that her calamities are just a start, to be continued through the playoffs.

Some Wesleyan Talk

Congratulations to the Wesleyan Cardinals for their 4-3 win over St. Michael’s on Friday. With such games against the ECAC East counting in the NESCAC standings because of the two conferences’ interlocking schedule, the victory provided an important two points in the playoff race.

The banged up Cardinals had to wince, however, when they saw that Tufts goaltender James Kalec stopped 60 of 61 shots to steal a win from Colby, thereby putting the Jumbos ahead of “the good guys” in the playoff race.

Parity within the NESCAC is at what must be an all-time high. Five schools in the 10-team conference are tied for first place with 16 points with another two programs just two points behind. Two points separates first and seventh place!

Friday begins a tough stretch of three road games in five days against Bowdoin, Colby and Trinity. All three opponents are tied for first place and have a collective overall record of 32-7-3. That said, the Cardinals have beaten Babson (10-4-2) and gave St. Anselm (12-3-1) a run for its money, too, so anything can happen.

Oh, I almost forgot (wink, wink). My son Ryan got the game-winner over St. Michael’s and can be seen, at least until the next update, on the Wesleyan site.

Congrats to all the boys on a big win last weekend and good luck to them in the upcoming games.

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question related to Wesleyan playing in the Cardinal Classic tournament at Plattsburgh, New York, over the holidays and asked what was the Hockey East connection to the very first Cardinal Classic held in 1982?

Some educated guesses shouldn’t have been too difficult since Merrimack and Massachusetts-Lowell were prominent Division-II teams of that era who have since moved up to D-I. In fact, both played in that inaugural Cardinal Classic and both defeated Plattsburgh with Lowell, then known as the Chiefs, winning the tournament.

Once again Scott Kaplan was the first to get the answer correctly. For the second straight year he is now enshrined in the Trivia Hall of Fame, thereby allowing mere mortals a chance to win every now and then.

(For the record, Wesleyan assistant coach Jim Langlois got half of the question correct, but Scott got both parts and in a more timely fashion. It would have been nice to get a Wesleyan cheer in, but Scott won fair and square. Hey, Lango, a little quicker on the trigger next time, please!)

Scott’s final cheer for this season — unless there’s a week that no one else responds — is:

“Ben Walter for Hobey!!!!”

This week’s question goes off topic and celebrates the New England Patriots’ return to the Super Bowl. This joyous event has to make Captain Miserable sick to his stomach. Captain Miserable, more frequently known as Boston Globe writer Ron Borges, has lectured Pats coach Bill Belichick on numerous occasions about how to run the team.

So the trivia question asks which former Patriot Borges likened Richard Seymour to when Belichick and Scott Pioli drafted the All-Pro defensive lineman? Email my trivia account with your wild and educated guesses alike. 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…

I’d like to recommend a columnist to you who I only recently began reading. Pete McEntegart, whose “The 10 Spot” column appears on, is one of the funniest writers out there.

Here’s one example.

The NFL has agreed to allow Fox to air the Super Bowl live rather than with a five- or 10-second delay. In the end, the concern over airing something obscene was outweighed by the fear that Patriots coach Bill Belichick would use the extra time to make ingenious adjustments.

That one slayed me. Or how about:

As a result of the Patriots’ victory over the Steelers in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, Heinz will send 1,200 bottles of ketchup to Gillette employees in Boston as part of a wager between the teams’ stadium naming-rights partners. Even so, some despondent Steelers fans are hoping Gillette will still come through with the razor blades.

And finally:

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady revealed in this week’s SI that he was laid up with a flu-related fever of 103 degrees the night before leading New England to victory in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game. Always a master of preparation, Peyton Manning has begun hoarding vials of flu virus for next year’s playoffs.

Get the picture? McEntegart’s “The 10 Spot” is not to be missed.