This Week in Hockey East: Nov. 3, 2005

Dave Hendrickson is taking the week off to polish up his resume in light of the sudden vacancy of the Red Sox general manager position. It takes a good week to cut and paste all those “And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…” excerpts into one semi-coherent cover letter.

Debut Reviews

The last time Boston University won a national championship, Terrier coach Jack Parker had the luxury of tucking future NHL stalwarts Chris Drury and Mike Grier on the fourth line. More recently, virtually every college hockey coach talks about relying on the juniors and seniors to step up and lead the way. However, for a variety of reasons, Hockey East coaches need their top recruits to step in and have an instant impact.

“I think we’re all recruiting for positions,” Parker said. “Sometimes you have to recruit for a third-line left wing who can bang, and sometimes you need a top-line player who can play the point on the power play. Sometimes guys get here and lose that position because they’re not quite as good as we thought they were or not quite as poised as we thought they were, and some guys take that position over when we didn’t plan on that. But for the most part it’s planned out.

“With the 18-scholarship rule, it gets tougher and tougher every year to have enough players so you can have competition at every position. To answer your question, most schools are getting their real good freshmen into key spots right away and their not-so-good freshmen are playing the fourth line and are going to be key contributors in a different way later on. State schools have the wherewithal to let [new, talented freshmen recruits] sit back and play fourth-line because the power-play guys will graduate in a few years and then they’ll get their chance. Not so true at BC or BU or most of the private schools where it’s so expensive that you don’t get too many $44,000 walk-ons.”

Boston College coach Jerry York concurred about the impact of scholarship reduction. “Now when our seniors graduate, to maintain good teams the freshmen really have to be able to step right in and play and have impacts as freshmen and show improvement over the course of their career,” York said. “I think it’s a necessity now when you’re recruiting freshmen: There’s no more redshirting them or hiding them; they’ve got to be able to play.”

For private university teams such as the Eagles, injuries could have an enormous impact on the outlook. “We all have smaller squads this year,” York said. “I’ve got three non-dressed players now for each game we play. That’s a pretty tight group.

“No question: It’s hard. We all talk to the walk-ons about coming and participating with a chance to play, but you’ve got to pay the tuition. The private schools are just becoming astronomical here.”

Even at state schools, such as the University of New Hampshire, freshmen are expected to excel in a hurry — thanks in part to the fact that players generally play a year of juniors after high school to help make the leap. “You expect skilled players to come in and help you,” UNH Coach Dick Umile said. “There’s no question in our league: They’re going out to play juniors for a year so they can come in and play the first year.”

So how are the freshmen faring after one month in Hockey East? There are many intriguing new arrivals. BU sophomore Peter MacArthur may be one of the team’s stars, but he’s quick to acknowledge that freshman Jason Lawrence already may have the most skill on the Terrier team. Lawrence is one of those players who never seems to strain: He is so smooth that he makes it look easy. Contrasting with Lawrence, winger Brandon Yip wears his effort on his sleeve but seems to do everything well. Look for more of him on the point on the BU power play.

“He’s a real smart player,” Parker said of Yip, a standout last year in the British Columbia Hockey League. “He’s got a lot of poise with the puck, and he can really shoot it a ton. When he winds up, he can really let it rip, and he’s got a great wrist shot as well. He’s going to be a great point producer on the power play for us as a point man, but he’s also going to be an asset to any line that he plays on because he’s big, he’s strong, he can skate, he can finish, and he makes big plays. I like that line tonight with Laliberte and Zancanaro [with Yip], and I’ll probably keep that together even though we get some other guys back.”

Playing the U.S. National Under-18 team in an exhibition game last weekend, Parker took the opportunity to rest some banged-up players as well as a few who underachieved in Friday’s meltdown at Mass.-Lowell. “We’ll get MacArthur back in the lineup. I’m undecided about what I’m going to do with [Bryan “Boomer”] Ewing: I may keep him at center; I may put him on the wing with MacArthur. We’ll see how that goes.”

Parker sees freshman Chris Higgins as potentially similar to another freshmen who entered the league without much fanfare and turned out to be a star. “First time I saw Higgins, I said, ‘This kid could be another Darren Haydar because he can get away from people and just find his way through people.’ He just slips through them and he’s gone. He’ll be on our top two lines the rest of the year; I guarantee you that.”

Just up Comm. Ave., Boston College coach Jerry York has the biggest freshmen class in the league — and also what many may argue is the best. “The biggest thing that we had going into this year was replacing four senior defensemen that graduated,” York said. “So that was our biggest area of concern. Right now Brett Motherwell’s been hurt the last couple of games and probably will miss [Tuesday night’s] game [versus UNH]. I talk about Brett, but Anthony Aiello stepped in over the weekend and showed a lot of poise as did Timmy Kunes and Timmy Filangieri. So I think our greatest concern is turning out to hopefully be a real solid nucleus. They’re up and down a little bit because it’s their first experience in the league playing different teams and different venues, but for four young kids I’ve been very impressed with them. That’s my observation of the freshmen class.”

If the BC freshman defensemen are the highest priority to York, the forwards have garnered more ink — particularly highly touted newcomer Brock Bradford. “He’s showed improvement to me each day,” York said. However, York is quick to point out that most forwards’ point production usually follows the course of a Kris Kolanos rather than a Ben Eaves. “Unless they’re exceptional like a [Brian] Gionta, if you get to double figures your first year in goals, you’re doing a pretty good job. We have a group of freshman forwards. Brock is certainly a key to them, but we’ve got Nathan Gerbe and Benny Ferriero. I think as this year progresses, we’re hoping to see more offensive production from all of those young forwards. But I’m more concerned with the defense because that’s the more important part of your club.”

Whatever anyone thinks of the Eagles’ chances of winning the league again this season, it seems basically undebatable that this BC team will be much better in February and March than they are in October and November. “No question,” York said. “We’re going to stay patient as a staff. We understand that our best hockey is in front of us. But we have to go through some ups and downs. To get through October 2-2-1: We’ve kept our head above water despite some difficult opponents in Michigan and Maine. So I like what I’ve seen, Scott, but on a consistent basis we’re still not there yet. It will be interesting to watch this club develop.”

Another impressive freshmen development thus far is the play of Maine goalie Ben Bishop, a six-foot seven giant with surprising quickness. However, York was quick to point out that Maine may have a better tandem than many realize. “I thought he played very well,” York said of Bishop, after watching the newcomer beat his team 2-1 last Friday. “I think what’s more impressive with Jimmy Howard gone is that you think the one chink in the armor might be goal. And then [sophomore Matt} Lundin the next night steps in and shuts out UMass. Those two players, their statistics are incredible when you look at them. They’re on their way to solving that puzzle that you have every year of ‘Who’s going to replace this guy?’ Everybody’s talking about Bishop, but the other kid’s got great numbers too.”

Maine Attractions

Speaking of Maine, how about those Black Bears? Those who expected a volatile first month for the Black Bears after goaltending star Jimmy Howard signed with the Detroit Red Wings would have to admit that program hasn’t missed a beat… or missed many chances to give a beating. Maine is 7-1 and No. 2 in the country. For the time being, goaltending has gone from the aforementioned “chink in the armor” to something as hard to get through as an armored car.

“Obviously we were wondering exactly where our goalies would be at the start of the year, but it’s been a pleasant surprise,” Black Bear coach Tim Whitehead said. “Having recruited them both, we believe in them certainly, but you never know how they’re going to adjust to the games. So we’re very pleased that they’re ahead of the curve that way.

“As a team, we as coaches knew that we had a pretty strong team. I guess I’m a little surprised that we’re 7-1 but not that surprised. We knew we’d be good, but we didn’t know how good… and we still don’t know. We’re certainly cautious about getting too excited now because it’s so early, and we’ve got a lot of hockey ahead of us. We’re trying not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but we’re off to a good start.”

Whitehead agreed with York’s assertion about Lundin being a bit overlooked to date. In three starts, the sophomore has given up all of one goal. On top of two shutouts, Lundin has a microscopic 0.33 goals against average to go with a .985 save percentage. Although those numbers won’t last, they’ve certainly raised a few eyebrows.

“Lundin has certainly proven that he can go toe to toe with Ben Bishop,” Whitehead said. “He’s on a tear right now! We’re very pleased: He had a great game against UMass. [The goalies are] really competing hard against each other but in a healthy way, and that’s exactly what you want. They’re a little ahead of where we thought they’d be now, but because they’re both ’86 birthdays and don’t have a lot of college experience, we’ve got to be cautious. We’re going to have some ups and downs.”

As for the skaters, I wondered if Whitehead had seen some veterans elevate their game or if other newcomers have made their mark. “Some of both,” Whitehead said. “Matt Duffy’s had a real strong impact as a freshman. He’s a defenseman from the EJHL. Of the veterans, I think Travis Wight’s made the biggest jump from last year. He played a lot his freshman year but then was in and out of the lineup his sophomore and junior year, and he’s just really emerged this year as a great defensive defenseman for us. He’s given us a big lift. He blocks a lot of shots, and he can join the rush. He’s emerged for us, and we really needed him. That’s been a big plus.

“And we’ve got a great captain, Greg Moore. He’s been great leader for us and led by example. When your captain is out there blocking shots and scoring goals and doing it all… He just works tirelessly. That’s a big reason why our team works so hard — because our captain works so hard. So we’re very excited about our senior leadership this year.”

Still, Whitehead isn’t about to make any hotel reservations for Milwaukee just yet. “It’s a process,” he said. “That’s part of the fun: to see how good we can be. Last year we were a good team, not a great team; the year before we were a great team. You never know. I think this year it’s yet to be determined. It’s not just the goaltending; it’s the leadership. Can our seniors keep the team heading in the right direction? We’ve had good special teams; that will be important. Can we stay healthy? Those are some of the factors. It’s too early to say, but things are pointing in the right direction.”

Net Increase

Chatting with Jack Parker after Saturday’s exhibition game, I asked about the challenge of potentially facing Bishop on Friday night. Although Parker was quick to note that he hadn’t seen Bishop play, the question reminded him of his great new cause. After rummaging around his desk, he produced an old Sports Illustrated photo of legendary goaltender Jacques Plante. In the picture, Plante is crouching, maskless, as he looks up ice to follow the action. However, what’s immediately striking about the photograph is how much wide-open net is visible to Plante’s left, right… and even above his head!

“Here’s my reason for wanting a bigger goal,” Parker said. “I want to make it the way it used to be. I want the players on the teams to have a chance to see the net. Now that’s Jacques Plante, one of the all-time great goalies. There’s a six-hole there: You could shoot it over his head. But what’s happened is you can legislate the size of the equipment but you can’t legislate the size of the goalie. [Plante] played a different way than these guys play today. The problem is no team and no position in any sport has made the jump technically that goaltenders have in the last ten years.

“There may be developments such as the split-fingered fastball, but point guards and quarterbacks never figured out something better to do what their positions. Nobody has made a change in sport [comparable to the way that hockey goalies have mastered the position]. If you don’t have a goalie with a .920 save percentage, your team sucks. Used to be a race to five or four in this league — now it’s a race to two. So it’s a matter of saying ‘You want to see more goals? Let’s let somebody see something when they’re shooting at it.’ You can’t see anything. It’s amazing.

So what would this mean in practical terms if Parker were to be granted his wish? “Make the net bigger. Start with a foot and a half higher maybe and half a foot wider. “When journeyman hockey players like Don Marcotte for the Bruins could every once in a while come down the wing and take a slapshot and have it go in the net. Bobby Hull couldn’t come down the wing and take a slapshot and have it go on the net on either one of these guys tonight. It’s just the way they play.

“Ninety percent of it is technique, but it’s a little more difficult for smaller guys to use the same technique. If you take away the four [hole], when you’re bigger you take away the top of the net too. The NHL is getting more offense right now, but it’s mostly because they’re calling so many penalties. They’re still getting a lot of shots; they’re just not going in. The way Kenny Dryden and Grant Fuhr played to the way these guys are playing today: It’s just night and day.”

I ran Parker’s idea by York and Umile, but they weren’t sold on the idea. “I think we’re going to follow as the NHL has followed,” Umile said — a point with which Parker agreed. “They’re finding more holes in the goalies [in the NHL this year thus far]. Maybe the reason that these goals are being scored in NHL hockey is not only are they taking the red line out — there’s more offense and they’re calling more penalties — but the equipment has definitely been a factor in that. I wouldn’t be in favor of enlarging the goal. The equipment is the first step. I’m not one to be changing; I guess I’m a traditionalist. I’ll stick with the goal the way it is. The NHL did something with the equipment, and maybe we’ll follow that, and maybe that will help.”

“It’s interesting to look at,” York acknowledged. “I’m open to a lot of different looks as to how we would shape hockey, but I think the goaltenders are certainly much better athletes and have studied the position with the angles and the paddle down. It’s just more readily available to these young goaltenders growing up. But I think we’ve just got to respond, and the offense has to learn ways to get better as offensive players as the goalies get better.

“I’d rather keep the net where it is. We’re trying to address [low-scoring games] with interference, and I think that’s going much better. It’s much more wide open, and it will be interesting to look at the number of goals after another year of the rule enforcement.”

“Hats off to the defense: Let’s catch up offense.”

Two Is A Magic Number

I wrote most of this column on my laptop while watching Tuesday’s BC-UNH Manchester matchup on CSTV. As I began this section, the two teams — which went into the game with identical 2-2-1 records — were tied 2-2 with 2:22 left in period two. By the end of the game — a somewhat surprising 3-2 win for the Eagles — it was clear that there’s not much separating these two teams. However, when I spoke to both coaches on Monday, their appraisals of their teams differed despite some similarities in performance: right down to the USCHO poll, in which BC ranked No. 11 while Maine ranked No. 12 this week.

“We understand that our best hockey is in front of us,” York said. “But we have to go through some ups and downs. “To get through October 2-2-1: We’ve kept our head above water despite some difficult opponents in Michigan and Maine. So I like what I’ve seen, Scott, but on a consistent basis we’re still not there yet. It will be interesting to watch this club develop.”

Meanwhile, Umile appeared to expect a bit more early on given that his team didn’t lose as much talent as BC did in the offseason. “We’re not pleased with where we’re at, but I’m not overly disappointed with how we played against North Dakota,” Umile said. “We didn’t put the puck in the net, played some pretty good hockey, but didn’t finish it. We had a good road win against UMass — who played well against us, better than they did last year. So to go up there and win was big for us. But it’s still early in the season, and we’ve got a big game with BC and with Northeastern who’s doing well. We’re .500, and we’re getting better, so we’ll be okay.

“I think we’re probably giving up too many scoring opportunities, and we need to finish our scoring opportunities. We’re generating shots now. We’ll get to a comfort level where guys will relax and not be as tight on the stick. Some of the new faces will just relax and let it happen.”

National League Prospects

Some Hockey East fans enjoyed a sneak preview of next year’s newcomers when the U.S. National Under-18 team visited BU and Northeastern last weekend. The youngsters impressed everyone, coming within two minutes of upsetting the Terriers before surrendering a late goal to tie it in regulation before losing in overtime. The U.S. defense proved to be even more stingy on Sunday, battling Northeastern to a 1-1 draw.

Not everyone on the team has committed just yet, but Hockey East fans can look forward to seeing U.S. team members Brian Strait and Greg Squires to be wearing the home colors in Agganis Arena next year, while Chris Atkinson — a first-line right wing for the Under-18 team — will be a welcome addition at Vermont next fall. “Brian Strait is our team captain; he’s a great two-way player and exceptional leader,” U.S. coach and Terrier alum John Hynes said. “He’s a very strong, smart player.

“Greg Squires is really electrifying. He’s a small guy, about five-six, but he’s almost like Brian Gionta with his speed and exceptional quickness. He’s got some offensive talent.

“Chris Atkinson is a small guy with great speed, very competitive. He’s got good hands, good vision. I think all three of those guys will be able to step into the league next year, and I’m sure you’ll hear from them on the offensive side.”

For Strait, joining the Terriers will be the culmination of a long-term dream. “Being from the Boston area, I always wanted to go here,” Strait said. “I used to go to BU games when I was little. It’s been kind of a dream for me to even think about putting on that sweater and going there.”

“I looked at UNH, but I came to BU and Coach Parker took me around the city,” Squires said. “It’s a great city with a great atmosphere, and he showed me the rink. There’s a lot of good things about BU, and my parents agreed. I decided to commit early; it just felt like the right decision.”

Terrier Boomer Ewing basically ran over his future teammates with the welcome wagon.

“He tried to kill me,” Strait said, referring to a jarring hit from the BU forward in Saturday’s game.

“He did kill me,” Squires said, rubbing his shoulder.

As a bonus for BU fans, the Terriers also nabbed Under-18 goaltender Brett Bennett, who didn’t play last weekend due to a shoulder injury that has sidelined him for a few weeks. “I think we have the two best goalies in the country for their age group,” Strait said. “They’re both excellent.”

“[Bennett’s] also a great kid, really outgoing, and he gets it going in the locker room,” Squires added.

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question was a slam dunk, asking for the goaltender who entered the previous weekend and another who exited that weekend with two shutouts. The two netminders either played for or against a Hockey East team. North Dakota’s Jordan Parise had gone two-for-two in shutouts prior to facing New Hampshire. Tyler Sims blanked Massachusetts-Lowell on back-to-back nights.

The first to answer correctly was Chris Sayles. I did a double-take when I noticed how ridiculously early his response was: He e-mailed me on Thursday night at 6:56 p.m… Before Dave’s column even had a link on the USCHO home page! I smelled a rat, immediately suspecting that Dave Hendrickson was fixing the outcome in return for some sort of unspeakable personal favors. I interrogated Chris accordingly, and this was his alibi: “I had just bookmarked the preview page and went there so I had no idea it wasn’t even on the main page yet. Guess I just got lucky.” Even more suspiciously, Chris writes from a UNH e-mail address but offers a Maine cheer:

“Let’s Go Maine! Make it a 4th straight sweep against Merrimack and BU!!”

Stay tuned as I continue my investigation of this incident: It could be similar to the game show scandal in the 1950s.

This week’s question is substantially more difficult. Sure, Dave said we would make them harder as the year went on… so I figure why not up the ante right now! I am after a little alliteration. Earlier in the column, I referred to Terrier recruit Brett Bennett. Your challenge for this week: For as many letters of the alphabet as possible, try to come up with one current or former Hockey East player who has the same first and last initial.

For example, if you were thinking of NHL players, here would be some options:

Arron Asham, Brad Boyes, Chris Chelios, Dave Dryden, and so on right up through Zarley Zalapski.

One other note: I wouldn’t bother entering unless you can come up with names for at least six letters of the alphabet. Off the top of my head, I can think of names for six letters without even trying.

Given that this one will be labor-intensive to judge, e-mail me 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. I will pass along the winner and the right answer to Dave for next week’s column. This time, the FASTEST answer won’t necessarily be the best! Ha! That’s one way to thwart Chris Sayles and his sneaky bookmark!

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

My son’s athletic exploits are not quite as impressive as those of Dave’s son, but they are perhaps more amusing. Timmy is in kindergarten and playing on a soccer team for the first time. Playing goalie for the first time, I watched an opposing player go in on a breakaway for the first scoring opportunity against him. Was Timmy nervous? Not exactly: He was standing in the net, looking over his shoulder at the sky while the shot went just wide of the net. I trotted over immediately to talk to him. “Hey, buddy,” I said. “When you’re playing goalie, you’ve really got to watch the game.” “I know, Dad,” he said. “But there was this airplane…”