This Week in Hockey East: Dec. 8, 2005

Vermont And The Hockey East Schedule

All but the newest Hockey East fans can recall the scheduling problems the league faced in past years with an odd number of teams. Down the stretch, one school was inevitably the odd man out, sitting out a weekend or playing at most one game at a time when the competitive drive begged for a big series.

Nonconference games were rarely a solution because there were none to be had. By that time, almost everyone nationwide had switched into exclusively intraleague action.

The addition of Vermont gave Hockey East 10 teams and the end to the odd-man-out problem. At the same time, the number of available nonconference games dropped by three for all the schools since the previous approach of playing everyone within the league three times was maintained.

For teams that had had difficulty scheduling significant nonconference opponents, this was an added bonus. They’d happily swap their three least-attractive games outside the league for three against Vermont.

For powerhouses with an abundance of options, however, it was a different story. Dropping to only seven nonconference games cut back on the opportunities to play the likes of Michigan, Cornell and Minnesota. The Beanpot schools have felt the pinch most tightly since that knocks them down to five nonconference games with a holiday tournament dropping the number down to three. Then consider that a program like Boston College traditionally plays Harvard every year and also Notre Dame on the weekend that the two schools play football and you get a picture of how little flexibility remains for some.

All of which begs the question of whether Hockey East would consider dropping the number of league games. Instead of playing each team three times, that number could drop to two, or be an unbalanced mix of two and three.

“It probably won’t happen until the league grows further,” Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna says. “The schools vote on this policy. When Vermont came in, the athletic directors voted on what schedule they wanted, and they chose the three games.

“You have to understand that in any league, the ability to get non-league games — and implied in that is getting the kind of non-league games that you want, where you want them — [varies]. There are some schools that can sculpt their non-league schedule more easily than others.

“The ideal situation, as articulated by one athletic director, was to be a 12-team league where you could for the first time play [only] home and away.”

Not that every Hockey East program would welcome the need to schedule 12 nonconference games to go with the resulting 22 league contests.

“We’re a little bit better off in the East because there’s a lot of proximity [with] Atlantic Hockey and the ECAC,” Bertagna says. “There are a lot of bus-trip travels and even midweek games.

“But 12 is a lot. And it might be easy for Schools A, B, and C to get 12 quality non-league games, but it would really tax other schools.”

Assuming that a 12-team league is the ideal, a point on which there would be some debate, Hockey East won’t be expanding for the sake of expansion now any more than it might have in past years to avoid the odd number of teams.

“Even if 12 is an attractive target number, we would never expand the league just for the sake of getting to a number,” Bertagna says. “Any schools that we added a) would have to bring something to the table and b) would have to approach us.”

Ideally, another two Vermonts would come along. That would get some attention. The Catamounts have shown that they certainly bring something to the table. And that goes beyond their number-three ranking.

“It’s such a great atmosphere up there,” Bertagna says. “They’ve really embraced coming in the league in a big way. It’s fun for me to see. It’s a hockey building. As Bob Norton said on TV the other day, ‘When you come in, it smells like a rink.’

“We have a lot of beautiful state-of-the-art buildings right now. We don’t have a lot of those old-time hockey, loud, home-ice advantage type of buildings. The ECAC probably has a few more of those than we do. So Gutterson by itself is a great addition.”

An Entirely Different Outlook

After the Thanksgiving weekend, Merrimack players and fans might have wondered what they had to be thankful for. The Warriors’ losing streak in Hockey East contests had stretched to 20 games, 15 last year and five this season. You had to go back to Dec 3, 2004 for so much as a tie in league play. It doesn’t get much more demoralizing than that.

Three games later, however, there was an entirely different outlook in North Andover. Heading into this Tuesday’s game against Massachusetts, Merrimack had defeated New Hampshire and then tied both halves of a home-and-home series with Northeastern.

From 0-for-20 to four points out of six. Like night and day.

“Everyone likes to be rewarded for hard work,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy says. “I never met anyone who doesn’t.

“The college hockey season is a season of ups and downs. We try not to get too low with the lows or too high with the highs. But it’s difficult, especially with young people.

“Our kids have done a pretty good job of just continuing to grind and continuing to do what these guys need to do. So as a coach you want them to be rewarded for that. What you’re seeing now is some of those bounces that we may have earned in early October took this long for us to get.”

In fact, if Dennehy were to get greedy, he’d be frustrated that his team lost third-period leads in both games against Northeastern and had to settle for ties. Two out of four points in a Hockey East weekend might have been manna from heaven, but one could still wonder, what if?

“When you take over a program that won one game in the league last year for an entire season, you recognize that it needs to be built from the ground up,” Dennehy says. “You’re talking about a culture change.

“I was kidding around with Bryan Schmidt after the game Saturday, asking him how many games they led going into the third last year and he said didn’t remember any. So we’re obviously not happy about losing two leads in the third period, but this team is still learning how to win. I’ve told them if you put yourself in that position enough times, good things can happen.”

Dennehy’s point about learning to win is one well taken. In the progression to becoming a champion, teams need to learn how to win, first at the most basic regular season level and then progressively on bigger and bigger stages. The three games against UNH and Northeastern were baby steps for Merrimack toward championship goals, but were big baby steps nonetheless.

“I’ve been a part of good teams and bad teams,” Dennehy says. “I can remember being a player at Boston College and there would be games when we’d be down by a goal and there wasn’t anyone in that locker room who didn’t believe that we were going to win that game. It’s hard to put a finger on it. It’s just an overall feeling, a belief system that’s built up over time.

“There are some programs in our league that have that built right into their jersey and it just gets handed down from generation to generation it seems. And then there are the rest of us who are trying to build that culture. I’ve been a part of programs at Princeton and UMass where in a small amount of time we had that feeling.

“It can come and go as well. So it’s one thing to get yourself to that point, which we’re trying to do — we’re not there yet — and then it’s another one altogether to build it up to a point where it lasts forever.”

One of the keys to Merrimack’s recent success has been the play of goaltender Jim Healey. Even before the two ties with Northeastern, Hockey East honored Healey with the Goaltender of the Month Award for his 2.25 goals against average and .935 save percentage in four November games.

“I’ve said all along that we needed to get Jimmy back to playing the way he was playing his freshman year,” Dennehy says. “He was good enough to be on the All-Rookie team his freshman year. Whatever happened last year, I’m sure he’s not the first goalie to have a sophomore slump.

“We needed to get him feeling good about himself. Part of that was just sticking his nose to the grindstone and maybe working a little bit harder than he had been comfortable [with]. He’s done that and I’m excited for him that he’s getting some reward for his hard work.

“He’s played great for us. There’s a goal here and a goal there that I’m sure he wishes he had back, but that what makes him a good player. He wants to throw the goose egg up there every night.”

One surprise, at least to outsiders, is that freshman Rob Ricci leads the team with 12 points in 14 games. Dennehy first saw Ricci last year while scouting a junior game as an assistant with UMass.

“I was there to see someone else,” Dennehy says, “but I ended up leaving the game thinking to myself, ‘Geez, that Ricci kid is pretty darn good. Merrimack has got themselves a pretty good player.’ And then, lo and behold, I got the job here. It was definitely one of my first calls to make sure that he was still with us.

“What he does is very difficult to teach by the time you get to this level. He’s a very cerebral player and he backs it up with enough skill and ability to be productive.

“The kids love him. I don’t think there are any forwards on our on the team who don’t want to play with him.

“I don’t know all the freshmen in this league, but I find it hard to believe that there are any, or too many, better than him.”

The Warriors lost to UMass on Tuesday and now have two nonconference games at Wayne State as opportunities to maintain the positive momentum heading into the exam break. Even so, Dennehy is looking at the process differently than just wins, losses and momentum.

“Championships or playoff series aren’t necessarily won in December,” he says. “You can lose them in October through December if you don’t take care of business, but we talk about just getting better everyday. If we work to get better every day, then we’ll play our best hockey when it really matters in late January, February and then when the playoffs come around.

“Our goal is to play better each game than we played the last time out. If we do that on enough days, good things will happen.”

Youth And Success

The word on Boston College this year was that there would be plenty of early growing pains. The Eagles would be integrating four freshman defensemen — Brett Motherwell, Tim Filangieri, Anthony Aiello and Tim Kunes — into the lineup while lacking the offensive firepower of past years to cover up that inexperience.

Instead, Boston College (7-4-1, 6-2-1 HEA) is faring quite nicely, positioned in second place in the Hockey East standings based on winning percentage. While the scoring has been limited as expected — the Eagles are seventh in Hockey East with 2.44 goals per league game — the puck has stayed out of the BC nets. The Eagles have allowed 2.00 goals per league game, tied for second best.

“Cory Schneider’s play in goal has really bought us time to mature the four freshman defenseman,” BC coach Jerry York says. “That’s the one area that we knew going into the season was going to be a little bit of a struggle, getting them adjusted to the pace and demands of Hockey East. We thought that our defense was probably going to give up a lot of goals.

“But Cory has been just spectacular. There have been some breakdowns and the puck hasn’t gone in the net, so it’s given us the confidence to keep going and to get better and better. It’s kind of like, ‘Cory, hold on while we break in all these young guys.’

“As the year goes on, we’re going to hopefully take some of the [burden] away from Cory and spread the defensive [load] with our defenseman breaking the puck out of the zone and defending well in front of him.”

The three seniors, defenseman Peter Harrold and forwards Chris Collins and Stephen Gionta have also been instrumental in bringing along the otherwise youth-oriented squad. (Gionta, out with a high ankle sprain, hopes to return after the holidays.)

“Peter has really been a rock on defense, playing 28 to 30 minutes a game for us,” York says. “Prior to Stephen getting hurt, even though his numbers aren’t real good, he was a pretty good force for us. And Chris Collins has been scoring goals like he never has here at BC.”

Highly-regarded freshman forward Brock Bradford has begun to take off, going 4-3–7 in the last eight games after being blanked in his first four collegiate contests.

“He’s improving week by week,” York says. “I like the skill level he brings. He’s playing the point on the power play. He’s improving in his play without the puck, which is a big for Brock because he doesn’t have the puck now as much as he had it last year.”

All of which points to a team building to an even better second half of the season.

“We thought the first semester here was going to be our most difficult,” York says. “We’ve played the New Hampshires, the BUs, the Maines, Vermonts and Michigan. We’ve had a pretty good schedule and we’re pleased with the results.

“Now we’re focused on the two leagues games left with UMass before we break for exams. With their wins over Colorado College and at Vermont and against BU, they got our attention pretty good.”

No Jumping Off Bridges

Until last weekend, New Hampshire fans of the Nervous Nellie variety might have begun peering over the edges of bridges they were prepared to jump off. A five-game win streak begun in early November had been followed by three games in which the Wildcats managed only a single point. Making matters worse, those three contests involved the three teams at the bottom of Hockey East with a collective 5-17-6 league record.

The loss to Massachusetts-Lowell came immediately after a win over the River Hawks, resulting in a home-and-home split, so more angst arose from the 3-3 tie at home with Northeastern followed by a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Merrimack.

“That’s what’s going on in college hockey,” UNH coach Richard Umile says. “We’ve been saying it for the last several years. There’s great parity in college hockey, especially in our league, from top to bottom.

“[Merrimack coach] Mark [Dennehy] has got his team playing a system that they all understand and they’re doing it well. And he’s got good goaltending. It wasn’t a fluke when they beat us. We might have had a lot of shots, but they took away the scoring area and they didn’t give many odd-man rushes. They played us smart and beat us, 1-0.

“I think everybody is going to have a difficult time with Northeastern. Those games are up for grabs.

“Those are two good teams. They’re well-coached, they’re playing hard and they’re enthusiastic. It’s what’s going on in college hockey right now.”

Last weekend, however, those faint-hearted fans received ample reason to step back from the bridge’s edge. UNH took three of four possible points on the road from nationally ranked Vermont and St. Lawrence.

“It was huge for us,” Umile says. “Vermont is a good team. They’ve got speed. They’ve got skill. They’ve got it all. We played very, very well and pulled out a big point. St. Lawrence is a real good team, too.

“Both games were up for grabs and coming out of there with three out of four points was a good weekend for us.”

It isn’t hard to see why New Hampshire is neck-and-neck with Providence and Vermont as the top-scoring teams in league games, with the Wildcats’ 3.09 goals per game just a shade behind Vermont’s 3.11 and PC’s 3.10. UNH junior forwards Daniel Winnik, Jacob Micflikier and Brett Hemingway are the top three scorers in Hockey East. When the league announced its Player of the Month, Winnik took the top honors and the only runners-up were Micflikier and Hemingway.

The three comprise the most feared line in the league. Last weekend they combined for five goals and 10 assists.

“They’ve obviously been very important to our team’s success,” Umile says. “They’re very good hockey players, they work hard, they play off of each other very well, they have great chemistry and they’re unselfish with each other. No one cares who scores.

“They’ve been important for us, whether it’s with power-play goals or five-on-five. They play against the other team’s best lines.”

The firepower doesn’t stop there. The number four scorer in Hockey East is UNH defenseman Brian Yandle and among blueliners sophomore Craig Switzer is second only to Yandle.

“Switzer does a lot,” Umile says. “He runs one of our power plays. He’s a quarterback out there; he really moves the puck extremely well.

“He and Brian are very good back there. Brian Yandle probably had his best weekend [at Vermont and St. Lawrence]. The goal that he scored against Vermont to tie it up was an unbelievable shot.

“Yandle is our senior and then we have some young kids back there, but they’ve been doing a good job for us.”

Between the pipes, Jeff Pietrasiak (2.48 GAA, .923 Sv%) has a 6-1-1 record compared to Kevin Regan (2.71, .913) and his surprising 2-4-2 mark. Considering the rest of the stats, however, that won-loss disparity could be a fluke.

“We’ve gone with both,” Umile says. “We may change the rotation around from weekend to weekend, but they both play one night a weekend and they’ve both done a good job for us.

“Goaltending hasn’t been an issue. It’s been pretty consistent, pretty good for both players.”

Which is not to say that there isn’t room for improvement as the season progresses. Most notably, the scoring up front has been uncharacteristically top-heavy. To be maximally effective, the Wildcats will need the second and third lines to be as productive as originally expected.

“Hopefully the younger kids will get more comfortable and start scoring and take a little bit of the heat off the Winnik, Hemingway and Micflikier line,” Umile says. “No question, we’re going to need to get scoring from our other lines.

“But we like the combinations that we have. The more that they play and the more comfortable they get with the system and with the speed of college hockey, the more they’ll start doing more as far as scoring goals.”

Go Cardinals!

Newcomers to this column should be aware that I occasionally talk about Wesleyan in this segment even though the Cardinals play in the NESCAC (Division III), not Hockey East. That’s because my son Ryan and nephew Kevin play for the team. If only Hockey East interests you, feel free to skip ahead to the next section. And a wet raspberry to you.

Three weeks ago, before the first Wesleyan game, I wrote, “It won’t take much for the Cardinals to be a big surprise in the NESCAC.”

Two weeks ago, they upset fourth-ranked Trinity, 6-3.

Wesleyan may only be 2-4, but this is a team that bears watching. There have been two agonizing what-if overtime losses. The Cardinals have only been outplayed once, last Friday against Babson. Not much would have had to change for them to be 4-2-0 or even 4-1-1 right now.

Special teams have been a major strength. Wesleyan has the eighth-best D-III power play in the country (27.0 percent) and the 19th best penalty kill (85.3 percent). That gives the Cardinals the 13th-best combined special teams rating. The fact that the 12 teams ahead of them have a cumulative 70-26-3 record should give some indication of how impressive this area has been.

I’m hesitant to single out individuals and thereby create any chemistry problems, but it’s a no-brainer to mention freshman defenseman Dallas Bossort, who has six goals and four assists in 10 games. He’s a monster on the power play and even strength. If he doesn’t eventually earn significant honors, it’ll be time for drug-testing in the NESCAC office.

Bossort, fellow defenseman Brenton Stafford and Will Bennett have been the big guns on the power play. My son Ryan has been a key contributor on the penalty kill.

Freshman goaltender Mike Palladino, thrown into the fire when the top netminder suffered a serious groin pull 10 minutes into the season, has played very well.

And since I didn’t stop with Dallas and kept throwing names out there, how about Mike Dorsey’s huge goals and the blue line play of Ed Klein and Scott Burns? Not to mention that there are several time bombs on offense just waiting to explode.

There, I’ve done it. I tried to avoid individual mentions, but couldn’t help myself. Now I’ve tossed eight names out there. Hey, go to the Wesleyan stat page, run down the list of names and know that they’ve all contributed.

This year’s team is much deeper than last year’s, especially on defense. That depth will be challenged with the injuries mounting, but I’m predicting two wins this weekend to head into exams on a high note.

Go Cardinals!

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question was a rather sadistic one, and readers seemed to love it. Scott entitled this one “The Equipment Manager’s Nightmare,” asking for a full lineup of players — one goalie, three forwards, and two defensemen — who have the longest last names in the history of Hockey East MEN’S hockey, the names that were the hardest to fit on the back of a uniform. The winner would be the one who came up with the most combined letters in the last names of those six players.

Quite a few readers attempted this one. Several came up with lineups that led to a total of 73 letters, but the first to do so was Christopher George. Here’s his lineup:

F — Eric Weichselbaumer, Merrimack F — Jason Bloomingburg, Providence F — Matt Dzieduszycki, New Hampshire D — Mark Brownschidle, Boston University D — Phil Von Stefenelli, Boston University G — Jeff Pietrasiak, New Hampshire

Chris’s cheer is:


That said, there also were some interesting entries. Chris Sayles wins a get-a-life honorable mention for matching the 73 letters and also adding the following: “I managed to find 1 name with 14 letters, 1 with 13 letters, 8 with 12 letters, 25 with 11 letters, and 56 with 10 letters.” To that, all I can say is that if Chris has any children, perhaps it’s time that they are placed in a more nurturing environment.

In the same masochistic spirit, Jonathan Fox gleefully offered a full roster and then some:

THE STARTING SIX Forward — Eric Weischelbaumer — Merrimack College (14 letters) Forward — Blake Bellefeuille — Boston College (12) Forward — Brian Bellefeuille — Maine (12) Defense — Phil VonStefenelli — Boston University (13) Defense — Mark Brownschidle — Boston University (12) Goaltender — Joe Christopher — Merrimack College (11)

THE BENCH Forwards Jim O’Shaughnessy (12) — Northeastern Jason Bloomingburg (12) — Providence Tuomo Jaaskelainen (12) — Maine Matt Dzieduszycki (12) UNH Mike Prendergast (11) — BU Matt Radoslovich (11) — BU David VanDerGulik (11) — BU Joe Mastronardi (11) — Northeastern Gord Cruickshank (11) — Providence Jon DiSalvatore (11) — Providence Chad Quenneville (11) — Providence

Defense Brad Nizwantowski (12) UMass-Amherst Pat Schafhauser (11) — BC Paul Saundercook (11) — Providence Peter Taglianetti (11) — Providence

Goaltenders Scott Clemmensen (10) — Boston College Matti Kaltiainen (10) — Boston College Adam Geragosian (10) — Northeastern Marc Robitaille (10) — Northeastern Jeff Pietrasiak (10) — UNH

Everett Logan really thought this one through, pointing out that we can’t just look at LETTERS, we have to consider CHARACTERS: spaces, apostrophes and the like. This would make Phil Von Steffenelli an even better option along with David Van Der Gulik. Likewise, BU fanatic Sean Pickett noted that the Terriers had both Scott and Steve Shaunessy in the lineup: They probably SHOULD have had full names in a truly nightmarish scenario, but instead, Sean recalls, Scott was just “SHAUNESSY” while Steve was “S.SHAUNESSY.”

Greg LeClair pointed out that D-III would have helped him out as well, having seen Bowdoin goalie George Papachristopolous. Wow, 17 letters–as far as we can tell, there are MANY Hockey East goalies with ten letters but none with more than that. For that matter, hey, maybe Ryan Hendrickson (11 letters) would make a D-III team!

This week’s question involves the upcoming World Junior Championships. In 2003-04, Team USA won its first gold medal. Name all the Team USA players from that year to present who have been selected multiple times and also have played in Hockey East. E-mail 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.

You can also submit suggested trivia questions to the same email address and if your question is used, you’ll get a cheer as long as you were first to submit it. Please include something like “SUGGESTION” in the subject line.

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

I love to read — what writer doesn’t? — but I can’t enjoy a short story or novel (not to mention some types of nonfiction) to its fullest if music or the television is going. I grew up studying and reading in silence and suspect that my brain, what little of it remains, gets easily sideswiped when it hears the human voice.

It doesn’t matter if I don’t like the song or the TV show. The distraction can be a musical style that I consider fingernails on a chalkboard. Or it can be the Home Shopping Network or, almost as bad, the Lifetime channel, that bastion of writing so putrid it makes me feel like a Pulitzer-winner. (I swear the wife clicks to that channel when I’m on the computer just to torture me.)

It doesn’t matter whether the voices attract or repel. Either way, they distract me and my attempt to read is ruined. The story’s mood and flow gets broken and the result is about as satisfying as, well, the Home Shopping Network or the Lifetime channel.

This has provided yet another obstacle — lack of time being the biggest one — to my getting to the fitness center. That’s a place where the TV or stereo is always blaring, but also a place where I desperately need to be exercising regularly if I’m not going to end up six feet under in the not-so-distant future. It’s a three-minute walk from my cubicle, but one which I’ve taken only rarely in the past couple months.

So I suggested to the fitness center director a “quiet hour” during off-peak stretches, a well-publicized time when it would be forbidden to turn on the TV or stereo. There would just be silence, blissful silence. And those like me could fall head over heels into our books. The attraction of reading something undisturbed would be an extra motivation to overcome that no-time-to-exercise-today syndrome.

The request didn’t get a flat-out refusal, but it wasn’t granted either. The “we’ll consider it” response may have been genuine or may have been a euphemism for “over my dead body.” I suspect the former, but wouldn’t be stunned at the latter.

None of which matters now. I’ve solved the problem.

While pedaling away on the stationary bike today at lunchtime, I read a wonderful Neil Gaiman horror short story called “The Wedding Present.” The workout before that, I reread Harlan Ellison’s masterpiece, “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs.” And before that it was part of the new Elmore Leonard novel The Hot Kid.

I am like a pig in you-know-what.

Here’s my solution. I put earplugs in, and then don my newly-purchased, noise-canceling headphones (from Philips for 70 bucks or so). Then I plug the headphones into my iPod, on which I’ve recorded, among other things, an hour-long CD of ocean waves pounding into a beach. I then let the ocean waves, which don’t distract me at all, drown out the last remaining decibel of TV drivel or music.

(An aside: I find it amusing that on my iPod the artist is listed as “The Pacific Ocean” and, even better, the description is “Lame New Age track.” I suspect the person of delightful wit who described it thusly was eventually fired for the transgression, but, if I’m any judge of character, felt it worth the punishment.)

Finding the time to exercise will always be a problem during the hockey season. But equipped with this new motivation, I now have a fighting chance.

I can’t wait for my next workout.

A huge thank-you to Scott Weighart.