This Week in Hockey East: March 10, 2005

Panic-stricken at the thought of having to predict the Hockey East quarterfinals, Dave Hendrickson is taking a one-week leave of absence to avoid doing further damage to his picks percentage.

A Word To The PairWise

Not too many columns ago, Dave Hendrickson was mulling the possibility of five Hockey East teams appearing in the NCAA tournament. Once upon a time not so very long ago, in a land not so far away, Boston College, New Hampshire, Massachusetts-Lowell, Boston University, and Maine all looked like very hopeful contenders for the Frozen Sweet 16. Suddenly, though, the hopes of a Hockey East bonanza in the NCAA tournament have disappeared faster than Dave’s pregame meal.

Sure, BC is a lock, and BU probably clinched its ticket to Worcester with a nailbiting win over UNH last Saturday. After that, all bets are off. Thirteenth in the PairWise going into the quarterinals, it seems apparent that New Hampshire must beat Northeastern at the minimum to ensure a happy dance during the selection show. With Maine tied for 14th and Lowell tied for 16th as of Thursday afternoon, there is little doubt that the loser of their Orono best-of-three will not make the cut either.

Worst-case scenario for the league: Northeastern beats UNH but doesn’t win the league tournament. The River Hawks beat the Black Bears but then lose to BU in the semifinals. If those two things happen, we might be talking about BC and BU, period.

Given the strength of the league from top to bottom, how can one explain this?

“It doesn’t make sense to me; I can’t figure it out,” River Hawk coach Blaise MacDonald said “I don’t how it works, but I was looking at Dartmouth in the PairWise before last weekend, and I saw they were pretty up there, and I said, ‘Wow, they must’ve beaten some good teams or something. Who have they beaten? They’re 18-10 and whatever.’

“They beat Cornell; that’s a good win. They beat UNH, so did we. But other than that… So I don’t how this whole thing works, but it seems a little odd to me.

“In most Hockey East years, our record of 20-10-4 and 25 points in Hockey East, you’re usually in. And we’re far from that right now. And as you mentioned, UNH and Maine are in the same boat. Obviously, the system’s flawed.”

Looking over the PWR before this weekend’s game, I shared some of MacDonald’s mystification. Dartmouth was 17th nationally in winning percentage and 19th in the Ratings Percentage Index. UNH had the eighth-best record as well as the eighth-best RPI. Lowell was 12th and 14th respectively in those areas. Yet Dartmouth was 12th in the PairWise, ahead of both teams.

I decided to put the question to some of our USCHO staffers who know more than me about these mysteries. The key turns out to be one’s record against “teams under consideration” for the tournament.

“If you want a one-paragraph answer, it’s that Dartmouth is 10-5-2 against teams under consideration, and 9-6-0 against teams with RPI below .500.,” USCHO’s women’s correspondent, David De Remer, said. “In the NCAA criteria, losing to bad teams only hurts you as much as it hurts your RPI and record vs. common opponents in comparisons, so roughly speaking you can usually make up for one bad win with one good win.”

“Since Teams Under Consideration is a selection criterion, if you have to lose a game at all, you’d much rather lose it to someone lousy than someone good,” executive editor Scott Brown said. Brown asks us to consider that Minnesota is a borderline No. 1 seed this year despite a collective record of 2-4-1 against Michigan Tech and Alaska-Anchorage, for example.

Thus, it appears that the PairWise Rankings reward those teams who have beaten really good teams. However, it doesn’t penalize teams that may be highly inconsistent: Minnesota’s wins against Denver, Wisconsin, and BU help, while the aforementioned losses don’t hurt as much. Meanwhile, UNH consistently has done well against weaker teams, but among the higher-ranked teams has just wins against Ohio State as well as one in three games apiece against BU and Lowell. Suffice to say that failing to beat BC at least once as well as losing to Dartmouth, Vermont, and Maine two of three times had a big impact. Winning one more game apiece versus, say, BC and Lowell might have kept them off the bubble.

Wildcat coach Dick Umile seems unconvinced that his team’s season will definitely end if they fail to advance.

“I’m not going to sit here today and tell you we have to do it, but there’s no question that if we were fortunate to go on that would be a good thing for the NCAA tournament,” Umile said. “If we didn’t go on, I wouldn’t say it’s definitely going to knock us out, but it definitely would hurt in that area. More importantly, our goal right now is to get to the Garden and compete for the Hockey East playoffs. Obviously, if we could do that, it would help with the NCAA tournament.”

Conversely, MacDonald acknowledges that his team is well aware of what’s at stake this weekend. I asked him if he realized that the loser of his series very likely would have their season end.

“You’re a lot smarter than me with that stuff, but I would say that’s probably correct,” MacDonald said. “We had 20 guys make the Dean’s List. Eleven guys got a 3.5 or better. So they’re smart enough to figure that out on their own. So we know what we’re up against. We need to go up there and play as good and hard as we can play.”

Looking for an objective source on the situation, I decided to ask the one Hockey East coach who must watch all of this from the sidelines during playoff season.

“That’s the nature of our league,” Merrimack coach Chris Serino said. “Our first five teams are always really close. That’s where we’re great, but that also hurts us. You know you’re not going to get five teams in the tournament; you’re probably not going to get four teams in the tournament. So everybody being bunched together like that really hurts us.

“The good part of it is that usually when our teams do get in the tournament, they usually go farther because of the competition they face all year. A team like UNH or Maine who are on the bubble legitimately could win the whole thing if they make the tournament. That’s what makes it so interesting.”

Quarterfinal Preview: Massachusetts-Lowell at Maine

Not much separates the fifth and fourth seeds in the league, so let’s start by looking at this matchup. After a stone-cold start in the league, the River Hawks became the torrid team that no one wanted to play … but then they cooled off, going a middling 5-4-2 down the stretch. Making matters worse, two of those four losses came just two weekends ago in Orono, when the Black Bears beat them 2-0 and 5-3.

“What happened to us is what happens to virtually every team that goes to Maine,” MacDonald said. “It’s very hard to have success up there — whether I was at BU and winning national championships, you were lucky to go up there and win one. You rarely ever won two. It’s just the nature of the environment there. But now it’s a little different tenor, being the playoffs. We just need to try to play hard and survive.”

Making matters tougher, MacDonald believes that home ice looms larger than ever this season in Hockey East. “This year if you got home ice, it was a huge year to get it,” MacDonald said. “This year teams are playing really well at home, and it’s so close, being at home can put you over the top. We’re all pretty good, so having the home ice is a big variable. You’re in your own locker room; you have all of your teaching tools at your disposal, comfort, routine — that makes a big difference this time of year.”

“We’re focused on the need to play harder and be a tougher team to play. We have a tremendous amount of respect for Maine and their atmosphere: We need to feed off of it.”

Not if Maine coach Tim Whitehead can help it. Told what MacDonald said about home ice being especially critical this season, Whitehead quipped, “I don’t know. I mean, I hope so.”

Whitehead admits that sweeping Lowell a few weeks ago creates a different kind of challenge this weekend.

“It’s always tough to beat a real good team five times in one season, so we’re certainly not blind to that fact,” Whitehead said. “That’s going to be very challenging for us. But on the flip side, we have beaten them, so that’s giving us confidence too. This is a new season in the playoffs; you have to wipe the slate clean. Really the only advantage we have going into this is that we’re at home. But I think both teams are coming in pretty even. I think they’re going to be great hockey games: We had a very clean, hard-hitting series last time, and I think it will be real exciting.”

The Maine coach doesn’t see too many Achilles heels to exploit when considering the River Hawks.

“They’re a very good team in a lot of areas,” Whitehead said. “Their goaltending’s very strong; their power play is exceptional. They’re very stingy on defense, and they work very hard. So they really don’t have any glaring weaknesses, and they have a lot of strengths. They stick to their systems. It’s going to be a challenging weekend, but on the flip side, if we beat Lowell and advance, we’ve done something.”

Serino offered his thoughts on this intriguing matchup — some of his thoughts echoing those of MacDonald.

“That’s going to be another great series, and I think it’s going to come down to goaltending,” Serino said. “You’ve got Jimmy Howard, one of the best in the country up in Maine, and Peter Vetri, who’s playing really good at this time. We played up in Maine last year, and it’s a tough place to play and a tough place to win — especially if you have to win two out of three up there. I believe UMass did it a couple of years ago, so it’s possible. But if you’ve got a rookie against Howard, I think I’ve got to go with Howard.

“I think the challenge for Maine in a home series up there is they know the NCAA bid’s on the line; the pressure’s all on them. Their fans expect them to win. So if Lowell has anything going for them, it’s that Maine has all the pressure on them.”

Whitehead shrugs off that notion. “That’s fine,” Whitehead said. “Our own expectations are higher than anybody’s. Both teams obviously want to win and want to get to the national tournament, and you’ve got to beat some good teams to get there, so if it’s a ‘win or you’re out’ format, that’s fine. We’ve been in that situation before. It would be nice to have a cushion to fall back on, but neither team has it, and that’s just the way it is.”

Maine is 6-3-2 through the last 11 games — just one game better than Lowell over that stretch. This series may well come down to a one-game difference as well.

Quarterfinal Preview: Northeastern at New Hampshire

The matchup of No. 6 seed Northeastern and No. 3 seed New Hampshire has perhaps even more intrigue for those pondering an upset special. On the one hand, UNH swept the Huskies this year, winning by scores of 4-3, 7-4, and 5-2. However, two of the three games are ancient history now, given that they were played before Thanksgiving. NU has gone 6-3-2 down the stretch. Meanwhile, the Wildcats had a five-game winning streak before stumbling against BC and BU the last two weekends, going 0-2-2 in those games, costing them a regular-season championship. More surprisingly, the two losses came at home, and the team has not scored the first goal in any of those games. It’s a mystery to Umile.

“I’ll tell you what: If you could tell me, it would be good,” Umile said of his team’s woes at home and in playing from behind all too frequently. “Obviously, we’re disappointed. We lost two games at the Whitt on Saturday nights. If we’d have won one of them, we’d be the regular-season champions. Falling behind against Boston College and Boston University is not the way you want to go, nor is it the way you want to go against anybody. If we do it again this week, we’ll be in trouble as well. We started out both games very well, but they got some bounces and made some plays. We’ve got to tighten up and make more of the opportunities that we get early.”

Umile is not lulled by his team’s success against Northeastern thus far this season. “Maybe we’ve had the ability to score some more goals, but the games were a lot closer than the scores might have indicated,” Umile said. “We jumped out early on them the last time we played. But you can put all those games behind you at this point; Bruce has got his team playing well. They’re fighting to get to the FleetCenter — that’s a difficult task in Hockey East — so you can forget the games early on, and our most recent one was a lot closer than it appeared to be. Keni Gibson is a great player — Guerriero, obviously — they’ve got a talented team, and it’s going to be a battle.

“They move the puck as well as anybody on the power play. Keni Gibson’s had a great season; he’s one of the top goaltenders in our league. I think Bruce [Crowder] has got his team playing hard; they play with great energy. There’s no question that Guerriero is their leader, and having Morris back healthy — he’s got one of the best shots. They’re a very good transition team; they’re quick, and they’re solid from the net out. It’s going to be a great series.”

Serino also referred to the Holy Husky Trinity of Guerriero, Gibson, and Morris. “I would think that Northeastern and UNH is going to be a great series,” Serino said. “They always play tough games. I think Northeastern has two of the best players in the country in Morris and Guerriero, and Gibson is playing with more confidence than any goalie in Hockey East. The other side of that is you’ve got UNH who, in three games I think scored four, four, and seven [against Northeastern]. They can put the puck in the net, so that’s going to be a real interesting series to watch. I think you’ve got the best-scoring team in Hockey East, and you’ve got one of the hottest goalies in Hockey East. Something’s got to give.”

Quarterfinal Preview: Providence at Boston University

In most leagues, when you talk about the second-lowest seed playing the second-highest seed, an upset seems about as probable as hailstones the size of hockey pucks. But there’s been lots of improbable and extreme weather in Boston this season, so don’t rule anything out.

A few weekends ago, getting the No. 1 or No. 2 seemed to be critical. With Lowell and Northeastern either winning or giving teams a very difficult time, many fans of the top four hoped and prayed that they would draw Providence or UMass. BU fans may end up regretting what they wished for in this case. After a brutal 3-15-4 stretch in which they only managed to beat Holy Cross, Bowling Green, and Connecticut, the Friars finally hit their stride in the waning days of the season. They finished with a 4-1-0 run that included eyebrow-raising victories over Maine and Lowell.

One key has been freshman goaltender Tyler Sims. After taking a back seat to senior David Cacciola while the upperclassmen put together some stupendous efforts against BC, Sims has been the go-to guy during this nominal hot streak. Sims made 40 saves in a 3-2 win against Maine, a game in which the Friars were outshot 42-22. After getting pulled the next night against Maine, Sims was given another chance in the season finale on the road against Lowell. He stopped 31 of 33 shots, and the Friars pulled out a 3-2 OT win when James Pemberton scored.

Clearly, it’s going to take similar top efforts to beat BU, as well as some more opportunistic offense. The Friars have scored exactly two goals in all three games versus their perennial quarterfinal foes this season.

Meanwhile, BU saw a 7-0-1 stretch end two weeks ago, when Northeastern nabbed three of four points against them. After this bout of streakus interruptus, the Terriers ended the season on a high note, playing great at home but coughing up a point to UNH and then managing to win a game behind some strong goaltending and good luck up in Durham.

“Providence is a pretty good team,” Serino said. “I think it all depends — again, I bring it all down to goaltending. PC has got to play fabulous in the net for them to win. BU, I don’t think, is a prolific scoring team. They play hard; they play well, but if you can stay around in the game with them until the last period, anything can happen. And I think those games will stay close.”

BU probably will need three, maybe four, goals in each game to beat Providence. With the top line of Brad Zancanaro, David Van der Gulik, and John Laliberte playing well — not to mention using up the better part of the alphabet on the back of their jerseys — along with Peter MacArthur showing signs of catching fire again, it will be a significant but not impossible challenge for the Friars.

Quarterfinal Preview: Massachusetts at Boston College

Unfortunately for the Minutemen, don’t expect Boston College to take this series lightly. Memories of last season’s quarterfinal loss to No. 8 seed BU are probably all the motivation this talented team will need to be as thorough as they need to be against the Don “Toot” Cahoon’s Minutemen.

“I think it’s going to help,” Serino said of last year’s upset loss. “Obviously they’re going to say ‘We weren’t in the FleetCenter last year; we want to get back there this year, and we’re not going to let things get in the way.’ I’m sure that that’s the approach that Jerry’s going to take with them. They were upset last year. They know. They’ve had a couple of runaway games with UMass, but they know that the playoffs are different.”

Finishing with a moderately hopeful 3-5-0 record after struggling through injuries and a one-month stretch from January through early February that resulted in an 0-6-1 record in that interval, UMass looks to be the biggest longshot in the quarterfinals. Is it inconceivable that they pull off a Goliath-sized upset?

“I don’t know,” Serino said. “Let me put it to you this way: BC can play poorly and win that series; UMass has to play great to win that series. But ‘Toot’ usually gets them ready for the playoffs. Even last year, I think that they went into the playoffs and they had lost eight or nine games in a row or at least had a lousy record in their last 15, and they came into the playoffs and played great. He does a great job of getting them ready for the playoffs. There are insurmountable odds that he’s working against, though: It’s a lot different going into playoffs and knowing that you don’t have to play great to win.”

No Place Like Home?

One fun question that I asked a handful of Hockey East coaches: Obviously, all four home-ice teams would be considered favorites in their series this weekend. However, would it be more surprising if all four did advance to the semifinals … or would it be a greater surprise if at least one of the four did not make it to the Your-Name-Here-Center?

“That’s a good question,” Whitehead said. “Every year’s a little different. You can round up the usual suspects at the FleetCenter, but there’s always a couple teams in there that were not the home seed. That’s one of the strengths of our league. So yes, I would be surprised if all the top seeds advanced. I think our league’s just way too competitive. Of course, it can happen.”

“The only thing you’ve got going in Hockey East [in terms of having any advantage] is home ice, but I don’t think that makes you a favorite,” Umile said. “You just look at the standings and look at what’s gone on this league: It’s a two out of three series, and whoever’s playing well in this tournament obviously will have the opportunity to move on, but the matchups are so even it’s incredible.”

“I think there’s a good possibility of an upset in a series,” Serino said. “I agree that home ice is very important in the series, but I also think that there’s a number of good goaltenders in this series. That’s going to be an important factor because in a short series, if one of those guys gets real hot it could create trouble for the other teams. If you’re looking at the four underdogs, I think who potentially could steal a game is Keni Gibson at Northeastern.”

Eagles Are Aces

Congratulations to BC on eking out the regular-season Hockey East championship. One month ago, I analyzed the schedule and figured the realistic best-case scenario had BC, BU, and UNH each pulling out 36 points maximum. That was close: BC won it with 35 and would have been the top seed even with 34 points, which is where BU and UNH ended up.

The Eagles should be commended for bouncing back for a gritty effort against Maine after the debacle of a sweep against Lowell. My guess is that only a very improbable quarterfinal loss to UMass can keep them from being a No. 1 seed, although it’s conceivable that a semifinal loss to the likes of Providence, Northeastern, or possibly even Lowell could jeopardize it as well.

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question reprised the scoreless tie theme from the previous week and asked when was the last time that two Hockey East teams played to a scoreless tie, but neither goaltender received the game’s number-one star? Dave gave a hint that he was in a cranky mood at the time, but it resulted in what he considered an artistic success.

The answer was that Merrimack defenseman Eric Pedersen was the number-one star in the Warriors’ scoreless duel with Providence on October 25, 2003. The goaltenders were Casey Guenther and David Cacciola, who were awarded the other two stars.

The reason why Dave was in a cranky mood, other than the fact that he had a pulse, was that this was shortly after the infamous Game 7 between the Red Sox and the Yankees when Grady You-Know-Who didn’t remove Pedro and the dreams of Sox fans burned to ashes only to be reborn like the mythical Phoenix a year later.

The artistic success was in Dave’s column that followed. He says, “That is one of the columns that I’m most proud of. I alternated between Hockey East content and items about that bitter playoff loss in a way that, I believe, captured the region’s all-encompassing angst in a very creative and successful way. Perhaps no one agrees with me, but from an artistic point of view I loved that column.”

Onward, then, from Dave’s delusions of grandeur.

Before proceeding to the trivia question winner, it must be noted that there’s actually some controversy as to who was the correct number-one star in this game. The box score on the Hockey East website now shows Pedersen as the number-three star. However, according to Dave, who was at the game, this was not the way it was announced after the final buzzer. He even mentioned the number-one star oddity in the aforementioned column in a segment titled “A New First-Place Team,” quoting Merrimack coach Chris Serino on the unique twist.

Of course, Dave’s memory has been failing him for some time now. Ask him how old he is and watch him do the subtraction in his head. He can’t remember. (That’s not a joke, even though it’s funny. He really does this.) So you might think that he’s just a feeble-minded old goof who got it wrong and Serino gave him an appropriate quote to avoid embarrassing him.

Writer Kevin Conway, however, is most definitely not those things. He noted the same oddity in his game recap.

As a result, the answer stands and the winner is Todd Cioffi. As a four-time champ, Todd joins Scott Kaplan in the Trivia Hall of Fame. His cheer is:

“Congrats BU! Even though you didn’t get 3/4 *both* of the last two weekends like I asked — and I tried to lead by example — it was still more fun to be shooting for 1st going into the playoffs than trying to hold onto 8th. Dayton seems like a long time ago. On to the playoffs! Go Terriers!”

This week’s question is my Hockey East Trivia Final Exam. Yes, I threatened that last month would be my last trivia question of the year, but Dave had a senior moment when babbling about this week’s column being the last of the year — we have one more week to go.

Thus, I will reprise the anagrams theme that I tried out last month, with an added twist.

Using software readily available on various websites, I have come up with ANAGRAMS of various CURRENT Hockey East players–one for each team, in fact. Your challenge is to see if you can rearrange each set of words into the name of a former Hockey East player. HOWEVER, this time I’m not giving you the team names.

For example, if I were to give you this one:


You then would rearrange those 13 letters to get:

JOHN LALIBERTE (Boston University)

Get it? Here they come! All players named played in all or most of their team’s games, though they may not be stars. Obviously, disregard any punctuation marks that I’ve inserted in the anagrams. Lastly, I have used the names for which players were best known as opposed to their given names. Thus, I would use, say, “Chris Bourque” instead of “Christopher Bourque” in generating the anagrams.

The nine anagrams:


Email 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.

If no one gets all nine, we’ll award a cheer to whoever gets the most of them right in the fastest amount of time.

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

It has been very interesting and amusing to find that my recent feature on The Best Regular-Season Games of 2004-05 has resulted in the most e-mail responses I’ve ever received for an USCHO article … especially given that I had consecutive e-mails that raved positively and then negatively about my inclusion of the very same game!

The responses have been rather hysterical at times, in both senses of the word. One reader said that I must be from Alaska, given that Alaska teams were named four times while Denver and Colorado College — the best two teams in the country — were ignored. Hey, it was an article on the best games, not the best teams!

It’s really interesting how one person’s great game is another person’s dud. Sometimes this is a purely partisan view — surely many UNH fans did not enjoy seeing their team blow a 7-3 lead against Dartmouth, however exciting it may have been to the average observer, let alone to the fanatical Big Green fan.

This happens while covering games as well. I have covered several games that the media complained about as total duds, only to have both coaches rave about what a great, well-played game it was.

I would agree that my biases do show through when you read the article. I see most of BU’s games and thus am confident about those games, whereas it’s hard to judge many games based on a box score or recap, which inevitably is colored by that writer’s own biases. It’s also obvious that I like underdog wins: It’s not so exciting to me to see the No. 1 team in the nation win games unless they have plenty of lead changes or other interesting plot twists … but it’s often inspiring to see an unranked team knock off a top team. That happened many times this year.

In any event, I’ll brace myself for a similar mixture of overjoyed fan mail and bitter gripe mail when I write the “Best High-Stakes Games of 2004-05” a month from now.