It Doesn’t Get Any Bigger
No, this is not a column about my waistline.
It’s about the titanic clashes on tap for this week. Until last Friday, all four league matchups looked to be of monumental significance. Providence’s upset of Maine removed one from the list, but upped the ante on another.
Ironically, the dropout series had appeared to have life-or-death significance. Providence vs. Merrimack was to be a battle for the final playoff berth, but was rendered meaningless when the Friars clinched that spot by splitting with the Black Bears.
With that lone exception, then, the league games are huge.
Of least importance is Boston University and Northeastern completing their Wednesday-Saturday home-and-home series. BU has clinched home ice while the Huskies can neither gain home ice nor fall any lower than sixth place. Their odds of moving into fifth also are slim.
That said, these are two Beanpot rivals and Northeastern players still have to feel the sting of disappointment from a couple Mondays ago. So for this matchup to be the weekend’s bronze medalist speaks volumes.
Besides, the game is huge for BU even though the Terriers have home ice locked up and are sitting pretty in the PairWise, tied for seventh.
There’s a lot to be gained by finishing first or second in the league. Obviously, finishing first gives the winner the regular season title. But beyond that, there’s a vast difference between finishing second and either third or fourth. That’s because of the first-round matchups in the Hockey East playoffs.
None of the following is meant to disrespect either Massachusetts or Providence, teams which have played hard in rebuilding years. And it’s not to overlook the possibility of upsets. The Friars, after all, are fresh off a big win against Maine. And in 1998, bottom-seeded Merrimack took a lame-duck coach, Ron Anderson, and a 12-game losing streak into the lion’s den of BU’s Walter Brown Arena and toppled one of the nation’s top teams, a Terrier squad that would still earn a first-round bye in the 12-team NCAA tournament.
So anything can happen.
But some opponents are tougher than others. UMass has struggled. The Minutemen have only a single win in 2005 and haven’t beaten a league foe other than Providence or Merrimack since October. Providence, has the Maine win under its belt and has a boatload of close losses to give it hope, but still went into last weekend without a league win since October.
Both of those programs should be considerably stronger next year, but the hard reality is that if you’re a home ice team, you’d much rather be facing UMass or Providence than Northeastern or whoever finishes fifth, Maine or Massachusetts-Lowell. Not that you’d get any coach to admit that and provide any bulletin board material for the Friars and Minutemen. Coaches would sooner suffer 90 percent of all tortures before getting such a truth dragged out of them.
But compare the Minutemen and Friars’ difficulties this year with Northeastern, Lowell and Maine. The Huskies have six wins and three ties in games against nationally-ranked opponents. Lowell is right there with Wisconsin and league foes BU and New Hampshire in a four-way PairWise tie for seventh place. The River Hawks have only lost twice since Thanksgiving Day and are fresh off a sweep of then-second ranked Boston College. As for Maine, the Black Bears play classic playoff hockey based on one of the top team defenses around. Do you really want your postseason hopes resting on beating Jimmy Howard?
So the issue isn’t knocking UMass or Providence, both of which are to be admired for perseverance through tough times. The issue is just how brutally tough the number five or six seed is going to be in the Hockey East quarterfinals.
Thus, the importance of finishing second instead of third or fourth.
So it really does matter, and matters a great deal, how well BU finishes these last three games of the regular season.
Onward, then, to the weekend’s silver-medal matchup: New Hampshire vs. Boston College.
The silver medal, you say? How can that be? Surely this is the gold-medal game. After all, this clash of the titans could decide the regular season title and also affects the aforementioned issue of finishing second as opposed to third or fourth. Silver medal?
Hey, it’s a tough call. If the regular season is your criterion, then BC-UNH is the gold-medal game of the weekend. Hands down. Slam dunk. An open-netter from five feet with no one in sight. After all, regular season titles are not to be trifled with.
And the spectacle of BC’s league-best defense vs. UNH’s league-best offense offers an almost endless supply of possible plot lines. On a national scale, only Michigan’s offense has been more productive than UNH’s and only Cornell’s defense has been more stingy than BC’s. What a terrific matchup.
In terms of the postseason, however, the goal-medal series is Lowell at Maine. For the River Hawks, it’s the opportunity to do what was unthinkable back before Thanksgiving when they were 0-5-1 in Hockey East play. Namely, vault into a home ice berth. Since this matchup is likely to be reprised in the quarterfinals, the difference between a series at Alfond Arena and at the Tsongas Arena is immense.
For Maine, the series could be life-and-death. The Black Bears, who had been walking the playoff tightrope for a while, suffered a crippling and potentially fatal blow last Friday when they lost to Providence. They’ve now fallen to 18th in the PairWise and face a daunting challenge if they are to qualify for an at-large berth in the NCAAs.
Here are the nuts and bolts of it, as detailed by Jayson Moy in his USCHO.com/CSTV “Tuesday at the Rink” chat. As our “Bracketology” expert, he was asked how many points Maine would have to take in its final series with Lowell and BC to secure an NCAA bid.
Maine has to take 8 points to have a chance at an at-large without winning the HE tournament. If you look at the PWR wins column, Maine has to increase its PWR win total by at least 4-5 wins. That means passing some teams and changing around the comparisons. In this case, Maine can take Michigan State, NMU, Colgate, Ohio State and Wisconsin if it sweeps 4 games.
Maine will improve its RPI by beating UML and BC, plus pick up four wins over TUC’s. That would be enough to take over Michigan State and NMU. So there’s two wins. That would also overtake Colgate, and a combination of RPI and TUC wins would have them overtake Ohio State and Wisconsin. If Maine falters in these four games, they have to go to Boston and win the HE Championship to make it in.
Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place. Maine’s NCAA hopes rest on either taking eight-of-eight points from Lowell and BC or winning the Hockey East tournament.
Brilliance and Mediocrity: The Black Bears On The Brink
Maine is 6-2-3 since Jan. 1, which by itself would be no reason for panic, but combined with a lukewarm first half now has the team dangling on the precipice.
“We’ll know a lot more after this weekend and even more after the following one,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead says. “These two weekends will be the real test for us. Yes, we’ve played well if you look at the whole second half of the season, but we haven’t played well enough to get ourselves into the tournament yet.
“So this is an opportunity for us to climb up in the PairWise and to climb up in the league. We dug ourselves a hole in the fall and in order to get out of that hole we have to be squeaky clean and we were not that last weekend.
“We missed an opportunity the first night to get two more points. We missed it. We played very well Saturday night, but it’s going to take more of a consistent effort than that to get ourselves back in the NCAA mix.”
Even the home ice berth, once thought almost impregnable, is now in jeopardy with Lowell trailing by only three points and having two “easier on paper” games following this weekend, namely Merrimack and Providence.
“To secure home ice this weekend we would need to take three out of four points from one of the top teams in the country so it’s going to be a challenge for us,” Whitehead says. “Clearly that’s one objective for us and then the second challenge for us is to get ourselves into the NCAA tournament.
“Certainly with the competition in our league you don’t want to rely on your tournament play to make the NCAAs with it single elimination [after the quarterfinals]. We saw how difficult that was for UMass last year.”
The 2003-2004 Minutemen finished third in the regular season and in the league playoffs advanced to the championship game. Needing to win it to earn an NCAA berth, they lost in triple overtime, the longest game in Hockey East history and fourth-longest in NCAA history. Since the Black Bears were the victors in that marathon performance, the close-but-yet-so-far factor strikes home for this Maine squad and coaching staff.
“UMass had a tremendous season, but it was cut short by one goal,” Whitehead says. “That’s how fine a line it is. You need to take care of business throughout the year if you want to insure a place in the tournament. We have a last chance corral here this weekend and next to see if we can qualify for the NCAA tournament [at large] and if not we’ll have to rely on our Hockey East conference tournament.
“On the positive side, these two weekends are great opportunities for our guys to prove that we can do something special and that this is not a forgotten year. If we are fortunate to steal points from Lowell and Boston College then we can compete with anybody if we’ve done that.
“So that’s the key thing, proving to ourselves and to others that we can play with the top teams in the country this year, night in and night out. It’s going to be very challenging, but that’s what we need to do to take the next step.
“We have to play with the same urgency we played with on Saturday night, the same execution and the same tenacity that we played with on Saturday night. That’s what we have to bring to the table this Friday and Saturday and then the following Friday and Saturday.”
Ignoring next week’s series against Boston College for the moment, the matchup with Lowell is one of both similarities and contrasts.
“You never know until you play the games what’s going to be the difference, but if you’re looking simply on statistics you might say that special teams will be key,” Whitehead says. “You have your top power play in the league going against the top penalty kill. You’ve got a very explosive offensive team in Lowell and you have a pretty stingy defense in both teams.
“We’ve had our moments offensively, but we haven’t been as consistent as Lowell and that’s made the difference for them in the PairWise. They’ve more consistently been able to get that extra goal a game that we have not been able to get as often as we got last year.
“I think there are going to be very close games, most likely one-goal games coming down to the wire. Those are the type of games that present a great challenge for us.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to show what we have. we’ve shown signs of brilliance, but we’ve also shown signs of mediocrity this season. This is an opportunity to show that we can still do something special this year.”
On To The Next Challenge
Just when you think you couldn’t be any more impressed by Lowell, the River Hawks do it to you again. Having heaped praise on the River Hawks in several recent columns, this writer returns to the same task following their sweep, 3-1 and 4-1, of Boston College.
“You look at teams to prepare for and BC presents so many problems,” UML coach Blaise MacDonald says. “But the fact is that our players played great, we got good goaltending, we had puck luck and we caught BC at the right time. You need things to go your way to beat that team twice.”
As for basking in the glow of the two wins on Saturday night, MacDonald lingered only briefly in the Lowell coaches’ room before heading home to watch the UNH-Maine game on CSTV.
“[The sweep of BC] is way in the rear view mirror,” he says. “You can enjoy that for about 180 seconds and then you look forward to a trip to Orono. It’s fleeting.”
On that trip to Orono, Lowell will be hoping that its offense will be the difference-maker it has been for most of the year. With 3.57 goals per game, the River Hawks are second only to New Hampshire in Hockey East and have its top power play, 24.1 percent. All of which has caught some people by surprise, but not MacDonald.
“I knew we had a lot of talent offensively and guys that could produce, but the goaltending in this league is so darned good you’re just never sure,” he says. “I think our offensive capabilities have been amplified by our goaltending. Guys can make the extra play with confidence.”
The top scorers are obvious from the stat sheet: Ben Walter (25-9–34), Elias Godoy (10-24–34), Andrew Martin (11-20–31), Danny O’Brien (10-15–25), defenseman Cleve Kinley (6-19–25) and Jason Tejchma (9-13–22).
What may have flown beneath the radar has been the production of Jeremy Hall, a transfer from Niagara who became eligible only in the second semester. Hall (4-6–10) has impressed in his 14 games as a River Hawk.
“Tejchma and Jeremy Hall are just playing unbelievable together,” MacDonald says. “Having Jeremy Hall come into the lineup has made a major difference for us. Losing Brad King [for the season] really hurt us, but Jeremy has been able to pick up some of that slack.
“I feel bad for Brad King because he was having a career year, was a power-play guy, a leadership guy, physical and a good puck possession guy. That’s a big loss. Somebody else just has to step up.”
While the offensive statistics have been gaudy, the team defense has been there as well. Holding BC to only a single goal in back-to-back games is the latest evidence.
“We’ve made a major commitment to team defense and a major commitment to doing what it takes [to improve],” MacDonald says. “I know our defense works as hard or harder than anybody at constant development.
“And it all comes back to the goalie. Their chest is a little bigger because they’re not worrying about making a mistake. There’s somebody there who will bail them out.”
Freshman goalie Peter Vetri was again honored by Hockey East, but this time is sharing the distinction with junior netminder John Yaros, whose injury opened the door for Vetri to emerge ahead of schedule. Yaros’s win at BC was just his third game of the season, while Vetri has shouldered the load, backstopping 22 games.
Just how good has Vetri been compared to his counterparts throughout the league?
“One of the things that has been a strength of our team has been that we don’t look around,” MacDonald says. “we look at each other and try to compete better for each other. Vetri is the same way as Ben Walter and Elias Godoy and all our guys.
“So all I know is that there’s one guy in a league all by himself and that’s Jimmy Howard. After that, they’re all really good and Vetri is right there and now Johnny Yaros is starting to get into that mix.”
It’s been said before, but bears repeating. For Lowell, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
“That’s exactly what it is,” MacDonald says. “Our guys understand that. Our ‘go-to’ guys, our best players, buy into that more than anybody, which is critical. The players are committed, they show up every day and compete and they get better. The players hold themselves accountable. That’s where the credit lies.”
All season long, MacDonald has been steadfast in ignoring the big picture of the standings or the PairWise rankings. Whether the team was 0-5-1 in Hockey East play late in November or suddenly in line for an NCAA tournament berth, the mantra has been “let’s just look ahead to the next practice and what can we do to get better there?” Now, with the regular season finish line in sight, is the possibility of home ice — once a laughable thought, but now in reach — a goal worthy of discussion or must the focus remain fixed on a target no more distant than Friday night?
“It’s more like, omigosh, when are we going to be able to exhale?” MacDonald says. “I look at Maine and they’re so good and when you do get chances, you have to beat their goalie. They are playing at a high level.
“The way that we’re looking at it is that after this weekend no matter what happens we’re going to be a better team, win, lose or draw. It’s going to prepare us [for challenges ahead.] We’re pumped up that we’re not playing Putterham, we’re playing The Country Club.”
(Translation of that great line for non-golfers: The Country Club is where the Ryder Cup and other of golf’s greatest events have been played. Putterham, also located in Brookline, Massachusetts, is where hackers play their 100 or so shots and say they broke 90.)
If things break the right way, how far nationally can the River Hawks, veterans of The Country Club, go?
“I look at the national picture this year and I think it’s a pretty open field,” MacDonald says. “It wouldn’t surprise me to see a couple of teams out of our league come out of the mix and compete for a national championship. Who they are, I don’t know.
“There’s a lot of hockey left. But I think we’re all prepared to compete at a high level nationally by playing each other.”
Next week, I promise.
Last week’s question asked what Clark Gable, Raymond Burr and the Maine Stein Song have in common? The answer is that they were all featured in the 1950 movie “Key to the City.” Because the lead female character was from Maine, many variants of the Stein Song appeared in this movie, from the obvious original down to a reworked background theme.
This question was furnished by longtime Black Bear fan Dave Reusch, who earned the following cheer:
“Get Well Tedy, Go Sox, Go Black Bears, Go Bananas!!!”
The only reader to track down the answer was Todd Cioffi, a back-to-back winner. His cheer is:
“Go BU! We don’t ask much… three points this week and three the next and let the chips fall.”
This week’s question refers back to the scoreless tie earlier this season between Lowell and Brown. For Brown, it was only the second such double-goose-egg in the program’s history. Email my trivia account with the date and opponent of the other instance. 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…
There are only about a bajillion topics I’d like to rant and rave about, but with the deadline gun pointed between my eyeballs, I’ll just offer the most heartfelt “get well” to Tedy Bruschi.
The guy is in so many ways the embodiment of the New England Patriots. His play wrestling away the ball for an interception in the playoff game against Indianapolis symbolized everything about him.
Let’s hope that next Super Bowl we again see images of him playing on the field with his kids, backpedaling away from his little ones, before donning the pads.
And if he can never again suit up, let’s just hope that away from the game Tedy can be Tedy.