This Week in Hockey East: Feb. 17, 2005

Umile’s Milestone

Congratulations to New Hampshire coach Dick Umile on his 348th win, making him the all-time leader at that school. UNH’s 6-1 win over Merrimack put him past his former mentor, Charlie Holt. Umile captained the 1968-69 Wildcats which went 22-6-1 under the legendary coach’s direction.

“Its not about a record,” Umile said after the win. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have coached a lot of games here. It’s been an honor to be a part of this program. I’m just proud to be associated with Coach Holt.”

Snipers And Big D

Over the past three games the UNH Wildcats have locked their crosshairs onto the back of opposing nets, scoring a total of 20 goals on 95 shots. That shot percentage of 21 has upped their season-long number to 13.3 percent, tops in Hockey East.

Snipers indeed.

“We’ve got some skilled players and when we’ve gotten scoring opportunities or opportunities to make plays, they’ve been able to make those plays,” Umile says. “It’s crazy how sometimes the scoring is not indicative of the game…. We’ve tightened up defensively and when we’ve had some opportunities to make some plays — whether they are off mistakes or transition plays — we’ve been fortunate to score some important goals.”

Sniping abilities aside, “tightening up the defense” may ultimately be the deciding factor in how far the Wildcats go this year. The warning flags went up in early January when they blew a four-goal lead to Dartmouth and lost, 9-8. While a single game can be an aberration, the 7-0 loss to Massachusetts-Lowell two weeks later struck an ominous chord. It looked to many, this writer included, that UNH’s defense would simply not be up to snuff to go deep into the playoffs, at least not in the NCAAs.

More recent results, however, would argue that the Wildcat team defense has been buried much too soon. As pleased as Umile might be with all the recent scoring, he has to be even more delighted with the four consecutive games in which his team has given up only a single goal. If given a choice between a high-scoring offense and a stifling defense, he’d quickly choose the latter.

“There’s no question; you don’t want to get into shootouts,” Umile says. “We’ve had a couple of them this year. If you don’t play defense in college hockey, especially in Hockey East, you’re not going to be able to go anywhere. You may have some good offensive nights, but you’ll never finish at the top or compete at the level that you want to compete at unless you play defense.”

Of course, based on recent results Umile isn’t having to choose between high-scoring offense and stifling defense. He’s getting both.

“We’ve really made a commitment to defense when we don’t have the puck,” he says. “But also when we have possession of it we like the offense to generate scoring opportunities. That combination [is what we’re looking for], but hockey is very transitional as we all know so going from offense to defense [the key] is how quickly you can be committed to defense when you don’t have it.

“That’s definitely helped us the last several years. And strong defense can generate some good scoring opportunities.”

As important as the five skaters are to the team defense, the goaltender is even more critical. And the Wildcats have a suddenly very hot hand in freshman Kevin Regan, who has backstopped those last four games in which only a single goal has been allowed. This has dropped his goals-against-average to 2.13, lifted his save percentage to .934 and put his record at 11-1-0. At least for now, the rotation with Jeff Pietrasiak is no more; Regan is the man.

“[Last weekend] was the first time that we went back-to-back with Kevin,” Umile says. “He’s shared the weekends with Jeff. we’ve been confident with our goaltending. Kevin won Saturday night in the Maine series [two weekends ago] and we played him back-to-back against UMass last weekend. We just went with it. He obviously played very well the first period at UMass because they generated some scoring opportunities and he was responsible for keeping us in it until we got the opportunity to make a few plays and pull ahead.”

Umile isn’t overtly showing his hand in terms of the goaltending the rest of the season, but it isn’t hard to read between the lines when Regan has gotten four straight starts.

“You always go with the guy who’s going best for you,” Umile says. “Unless you have both who are playing well, you go with the [hot goalie] at playoff time and down the stretch. But we’re going to take it week-by-week and game-by-game and see how it goes. we have confidence in both, but Kevin right now has been on a roll.

UNH moved into first place with Wednesday night’s win over Merrimack, but leads Boston College by only a point while ceding a game in hand. The regular season title is likely to be decided in the final two weekends of the season when the Wildcats finish with marquee home-and-home series against Boston College and Boston University. That said, they can’t overlook Northeastern on Saturday.

“Absolutely not,” Umile says. “That’s real important. You don’t look past anyone. You play each game to put yourself in this position. This is an important week for us to stay in the position that we’re in. We’re on the road this week so it’s a tough task before we even think about BC and BU.”

When The Going Gets Tough

While teams at the top have flourished, three clubs have been taking it on the chin of late. Merrimack’s struggles (1-18-1 in Hockey East) were documented last week and considering that the Warriors are in last place their situation is the most dire one. Runners-up in tough times, however, are Massachusetts and Providence.

For UMass, a recent win over Merrimack is the only “W” in 2005 and its last league win over a team other than the Warriors or Friars dates back to October. Last Friday’s 8-1 loss to UNH served as perhaps the lowest point in the season. Coach Don “Toot” Cahoon minced no words after the game.

“Overall, this was one of the most disgraceful performances I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “There was a lack of effort, a lack of courage, and a lack of will.

“I could have had [NHL coaching legend] Scotty Bowman drawing up plays tonight; it wouldn’t have made any difference. There was a lack of interest to get to pucks, get on people and assert themselves defensively. New Hampshire is a terrific team, and I can live with that, but I can’t live with kids who don’t want to play with pride with the UMass jersey on their back.

“Our team was an absolute disgrace to Hockey East tonight.”

Okay, Coach, what do you really think?

Although the result one night later was little different, a 6-1 loss, Cahoon feels that his team’s performance was night-and-day by comparison.

“I credit New Hampshire with all the ability that they have and they certainly have pure goalscorers and do great things to put teams away,” Cahoon says. “But I was really pleased with our effort on Saturday night and for good reason. We contained them and we did a real good job getting quality chances, [but] we struggled again finishing, putting the puck in the net, and probably didn’t get the type of goaltending that we were looking to get.

“I very rarely say that because the goalie’s job is so difficult, but Mike Waidlich was thrown into it as a replacement on Friday night and did an okay job and I needed to find out what I might expect from him. I put him in on Saturday night and he really struggled. You give a team like UNH that opportunity and we never got into the game from the halfway point on and yet we had played great up to that point.

“Obviously, we’re in a quagmire in the sense that we’ve been really inconsistent with our level of play, whatever that level is. Whether that level is good enough to beat a UNH or a BC or the [other] better teams in the league [isn’t the point], but our best level of play has not shown itself on a regular basis.

“What that best level of play should be is up to debate. What it would be if everything were in place is one thing; [what it is as we’re] trying to weather the storm that we’re in right here with the problems that we’ve had is another thing all together.

“But the expectation is that we play at our best level regularly and that’s the struggle. That’s where I am with the team, trying to get them to recognize that and hopefully address that so that we play well more often.”

Despite the 1-8-1 record since New Year’s, all is not lost for the Minutemen.

“The good news is that everyone still likes coming to the rink,” Cahoon says. “We all love the game so you’ve got to keep perspective. This isn’t the worst thing in the world.

“Is it hard to go through? Sure, it’s difficult. No one likes losing, but we’re not a team that is ready to pack it in and say, ‘Oh, we’re done and I’m not interested.’ I think I still have a very interested group of athletes to work with. So trying to get the team to keep a level of confidence and trying to keep the team moving forward is our primary responsibility.”

How to keep a team moving forward is the question. A fire-and-brimstone coach might punish his team’s losses with screaming tirades and practices of little more than suicide sprints until the players are puking their guts out. But what is constructive in the middle of a losing streak?

“The right word is constructive,” Cahoon says. “We’ve spent a lot of time focusing on attention to detail. There are breakdowns and there are usually reasons for the breakdowns so we’re trying to make sure that the kids have a complete understanding of where it is that they need to improve and where the problems [lie].

“So we’re trying to pay a lot of attention to detail and we have to continue to work with skill development. Teaching scoring is not an easy thing to do, but we can work on some things that promote that activity while keeping it fun at the same time.

“we’ve made some changes in the types of practices that we’ve been running and the time that we practice. You just try to flip it around a little bit. And then you just rely on the good character of the players in the locker room to make sure that there aren’t a lot of long faces when we come down to the rink. And there haven’t been.

“There’s major disappointment after games, major disappointment at the end of the weekend when things don’t go the way that you wanted them to, but they’re at a school that they thoroughly enjoy, I believe they’re treated very well within the framework of the hockey program and the fans and the school have been incredibly supportive. We had 6,000 people here on Saturday night so people understand that this is a process that we’ve got to get through. We’re going to work our way through it day by day.”

Of course, it’s not as though there weren’t a few potholes expected in the road this season. UMass lost a large percentage of last year’s difference-makers, most notably Thomas Pöck, Greg Mauldin and Nick Kuiper. But the in-season attrition has hurt, too, with Matt Anderson once again lost for the year. The latest in a string of injuries is goaltender Gabe Winer, whose return remains unknown.

“Everybody has injuries and I’ve said this over and over again, that you just can’t keep pointing to the injuries as being the problem, but not everyone loses their top scoring forward two years in a row for the entire season,” Cahoon says. “Then you throw Garrett Summerfield into it, who in the middle of his sophomore year was just starting to become the player we’d hoped he would be. Then you take half a dozen other guys who have missed a lot of other games, maybe four or five games apiece, and it’s just taken its toll.

“The departure of Mauldin, Pöck, [Mike] Warner and Kuiper was huge and we knew that and accepted that. In order for us to survive and maybe be right in the middle of the road and be tougher against the upper echelon teams, we were going to need all parts clicking. We weren’t going to be able to get away with it with only some of the parts contributing. We just don’t have all of that now.”

That said, some critical hockey remains to be played, if for no other reason than keeping some of the program’s momentum from last year going.

“We want to feel better about ourselves as the season progresses,” Cahoon says. “As long as there’s another game to be played, there’s a reason to get ready. So we’re working on that front. With a little more focus in a lot of areas, we’re going to make some subtle improvements. They haven’t shown up on the scoreboard yet, but they’ll show up long term.

“We’re not feeling sorry for ourselves. We’re really lucky. we come to this office and do what we love to do, the kids come to the rink and they do what they love to do. So in the whole scheme of things we’re a pretty lucky group of people. If we go about our business with that mindset, good things will end up happening.”

For Providence, the operative phrase would be, “so close, but yet so far.” The Friars don’t have a league win since October, but have been neck-and-neck with most opponents. Of their last five games, all against nationally ranked foes, only Sunday’s 2-0 loss to Lowell failed to be a one-goal game prior to pulling the goaltender.

“The biggest thing [for a coach] is to be mature about it and be honest with the players and analyze where we are and what we need to do to get better and get to where we want to be,” PC coach Paul Pooley says. “Those are the things that we talk about with our guys and go about getting better in the areas that we need to get better at. It’s as simple as that.

“So we’ve taken a more mature approach and not gone out and [punished the players in practice] because in our situation we’re close. [On Feb. 5] we could have gotten a tie or win at UMass-Lowell on the road after coming back, but we got beat in overtime. Against BU, we had a breakaway with 30 seconds to go to tie it up.

“We’re in the games; we’re close. It’s just a couple areas of our game that we need to improve upon in order for us to be at .500 instead of where we’re at. But we haven’t gotten better in those areas and that’s what we have to continue to keep working on.”

Keeping morale high when the losses pile up is never easy, but hasn’t been problematic for the Friars.

“In any part of life when you’re not successful you don’t feel very good about yourself,” Pooley says. “Then again, no one is going to feel sorry for you. But our practices have actually been very good. The last two weeks we’ve done a lot of different things, competitive things to keep guys going and getting better. So I haven’t had any problem with us competing in practice.

“I’m proud of our guys because we’ve hung in there. Even though we didn’t have a good game against Lowell [on Sunday], the positive thing is we only got beat 2-0 and that was probably the worst game we’ve had in a long time. The shots weren’t that lopsided; they had chances and we had chances. They just scored early. Getting off to a good start has been the biggest challenge for us.

“But we’re making some adjustments and I still believe in this group. We’ve got a lot of hockey left in us. We’re just going to keep working and look for that magic formula whether it’s a line combination or the power play or a different thing you can tweak in your pregame preparation that can help. That’s what we’re doing as coaches and players.”

And considering that the Friars have ties in all three games against second-ranked Boston College, it isn’t “wait till next year” time.

“No question,” Pooley says. “Obviously from a mental perspective you need to keep the guys fresh because they’re fighting themselves a little bit. It’s just from their nature because they’re competitive athletes.

“But we have a lot to play for. We’re excited about this weekend against Maine. We’re doing a lot of good things, but we’re not doing enough good things. We’re not giving ourselves a chance to get that spark.

“But we’re still there. These guys are still in tune.”

Crimson Linguistics

I promised several emailers that this column would provide further discussion of the grammar rules that led to my Beanpot feature A Suggestion For The Crimson not to mention an explanation for why I opted for such an oddball piece instead of something more conventional.

Unfortunately, deadline pressures have won out and you’ll have to wait until next week.

Yeah, I know, the suspense is absolutely killing you.

So You Wanna Get Recruited?

I get a fair amount of email asking me about getting recruited, perhaps because I often mention my son Ryan playing for Wesleyan. Your best bet is to see our Recruiting FAQ, but two years ago I put together some personal observations that I believe warrant repeating along with one recent addition.

• Be the best student you can be. Not only will you be much better off in the long run, but it’ll widen your options. Keep in mind that except for a very select few, the payoff for your six ayem practices is not going to be a career in the NHL. It may not result in a Division I offer. But it may be a difference-maker if you’re applying to some of the exceptional Division III schools that reject upwards of 80 percent of their applicants.

• Stay out of trouble. When I hear of talented kids who I’ve coached in their younger years and who were being recruited only to get kicked out of school as seniors, I just shake my head. Don’t waste your talent.

• Never stop working on your skills. Shoot pucks on end. If your Mom and Dad will let you, dribble a golf ball inside the house. You can never be too skilled.

• In your off-ice workouts — you do work out, don’t you? — remember that your legs are your foundation. Focusing on your upper body will make you look great on the beach; focusing on your lower body (with the requisite upper body work) will make you look great on the ice.

• Be a team player both on the ice and off. Make yourself the kind of teammate and person that your coach will want to talk to college coaches about and say, “You want this kid.” If you’re a troublemaker or a selfish player, don’t blame your high school coach for being unwilling to put his reputation on the line for you. That’s your fault, not his.

• Don’t take any games off. Come to play every night. This should be automatic anyway, but I watched one prominent coach shake his head in disbelief at the lazy play of a kid he’d come to watch, saying, “That was a waste.” The coach, however, did make note of two other kids who caught his eye and they soon received recruiting letters from his school. You never know who is watching. But, hey, if you need to remind yourself of that to get yourself to work hard, you’re probably wasting your time.

• If you’re not at one of the Division I powerhouse prep schools like Cushing or St. Sebastian’s that get constant exposure, then be sure to give coaches a chance to see you in as many ways as possible. Play in the Hockey Night in Boston tournament.

• Play midget hockey at the highest level possible before the high school season. My son played for the Central Mass Outlaws in the Massachusetts Select League and got a lot of interest from coaches who might have otherwise missed him.

• Be nice to your Mom and Dad. It won’t make you a better hockey player, but it’ll make you a better person. Besides, you didn’t drive yourself to those six ayem practices when you were a Mite.

Wesleyan’s Big Comeback

The Wesleyan Cardinals found themselves down, 5-2, in the third period against Williams, but showed great heart roaring back to tie the game led by Will Bennett’s two goals. In overtime they then had to dig deep to kill off a five-on-three penalty and emerge with the point. It was a gritty road performance with many heroes. Every last player could feel proud of his effort in this comeback.

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question was a humdinger of sadistic proportions from Scott (“de Sade”) Weighart. Scott came up with anagrams of the names of various former Hockey East players — one for each team. All played at some point in the last 15 years. Your challenge was to see if you could rearrange each set of words into the name of a former Hockey East player.

Here was the list of anagrams with associated teams:

TRY MORE ARENAS (Boston College)
HEED KERRY, FOLKS (Boston University)
NOSY HERNIA (UMass-Lowell)
ORBITAL MIRACLE (Northeastern)
FINE SPANIARD? NO! (Providence)

Here are the correct answers:

MARTY REASONER (Boston College)
DEREK HERLOFSKY (Boston University)
RON HAINSEY (UMass-Lowell)
MARC ROBITAILLE (Northeastern)

First to answer correctly was Todd Cioffi. He claimed that “a nine-part question deserves a nine-team cheer” so with an eye toward both Hockey East and the PairWise his cheer is:

“Go BU!… GO UML and PC and NU!… Go NMU! (drop Tech from TUC)… Go Harvard against Dartmouth! (next week)… and, er, Get the other guy, WMU/BGSU! (hoping both drop from TUC soon)… and um, Go anyone that’s playing anyone in our way!”

Miss anyone, Todd?

This week’s question asks What do Clark Gable, Raymond Burr and the Maine Stein Song have in common? 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…

• Is there a bigger fool in the universe than Freddie Mitchell? After he trashes the New England Patriots secondary prior to the Super Bowl and then comes through with a big one catch, he tells’s Peter King that, “the Patriots are not that good…. A good team crushes that Patriot team.”

• Freddie The Fool, here are the facts: three championships in four years, unprecedented in the salary cap era; back-to-back 17-2 title-winning seasons; an unprecedented 34-3 record in their last 37 games; and prior to an uncharacteristically sloppy Super Bowl, a dismantling of one of the great offenses of all time, holding it to just three points, and a domination on the road of a Pittsburgh team that boasted the number one ranked defense, 41-27.

• Oh, and one more thing, Freddie The Fool, if you really think Tom Brady is comparable to Ben Roethlisberger, then to say you’re dumber than rocks would be insulting slabs of granite everywhere.

• Of course, Freddie also throws his own quarterback under the bus, saying, “Dry-heaving is pretty normal for Donovan. He’s pretty much done it all four years I’ve been with him.” If I were an Eagles fan, the possibility that McGagg reacts that way to key situations is a very ominous piece of news.

• Of course, Freddie The Fool has competition. Lawyer Milloy’s complaints that the Patriots try to pay less than top dollar for their players misses the point entirely. With a hard salary cap, if you pay players 90 percent of their market value then you can accumulate 111 percent of the expected amount of talent. But if you pay players 110 percent of their market value then you can only accumulate 91 percent of the expected amount of talent. Which approach is better? Well, duh! The Patriots always spend what they can under the cap, even shifting something like three million dollars last year in an accounting move to give more cap relief in the future. That money could have easily been taken in extra profit, but that isn’t how the team operates. They spend what they can as wisely as they can so that they can compete year after year. Lawyer, do the math. And hope you’re happy in Buffalo.

• To my mind it’s better to lose both Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennell than to lose Scott Pioli. Here’s hoping the Pats sign their player personnel guru to a long-term extension that relieves concerns about whether his lack of total control could lead to his departure.

• Having said that about Weis and Crennell, they are enormous losses. Having the right guys to move up the coaching ladder into coordinator roles is Belichick’s latest challenge. Which is why I thought retaining Eric Mangini as the defensive coordinator was huge. It’ll be tough enough to replace Weiss and Crennell, but if a number of the top lieutenants also left, then the coaching team could have fallen apart. It’s one thing to see how well young coaches fare in climbing the ladder to the next level, but it’s another thing entirely to have to replace most of your coaching infrastructure.

• Three Super Bowls in four years. And to think it wasn’t that long ago that the Patriots were a laughingstock of a franchise. If you had a choice back then of wearing a jacket with either their logo or the Red Sox, the Celtics or the Bruins, then the choice was easy. For the fair-weather fan, the Pats were fourth on the Cool-o-meter scale. My, how times have changed.

• Boston can revel in being The City of Champions. Loyal reader Scott Kaplan pointed out when I last used that phrase that Brockton had claimed that title years ago based on being the birthplace of Rocky Marciano and “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler. Well, I have a soft place in my heart for that city since it was also the birthplace of another person I consider a great champion, namely my father. So I’ll tip my hat to Brockton while repeating that as of this moment Boston is very much The City of Champions.

• How sweet it is!

Thanks to Jim Lothrop.