This Week in Hockey East: Dec. 15, 2005

Letters To Santa

It has happened again. Two years ago, I gained some weight and got the letters. Same thing this year.

Once again snow on the envelopes has smeared the writing and letters intended for “The Fat Guy On The North Pole” got redirected to me, “The Fat Guy On The North Shore.”

And so, in the interest of journalistic responsibility, I now share with you this year’s letters to Santa from the Hockey East coaches.

On Providence College stationery:

Santa, this is Tim Army.

I’ll make this short and sweet. You’ve already delivered, big guy. My team is tied for first place, defying the predictions of all the experts, plus a few dopes like that USCHO columnist Hendrickson.

In league games, we’re second in scoring, defense and penalty-killing. How’s that for across-the-board strength?

We’ve knocked off heavyweights like Maine and Boston University, taking three of four points from the Terriers. We’ve swept UMass and Lowell.

We’re ranked 17th in the country. Eighth place in Hockey East? I don’t think so.

So don’t make those elves work any extra overtime on my account, Santa. I’m deliriously happy as it is.

Take an extra helping of milk and cookies. And thanks.

On Boston College stationery:

Santa, this is Jerry York.

I’ve got no complaints. None at all.

We don’t have the kind of consistent firepower we’ve had in the past here, but Cory Schneider has given us great goaltending so we’re tied for first place and ranked fifth in the country anyway. It’s wins and losses that matter, not scoring titles.

The four freshman defensemen are coming along well. And so are Brock Bradford, Nathan Gerbe and Benn Ferriero up front. That’s a lot of young kids who are getting right into the mix.

So that leads to my first request, Santa. It’d be terrific to see that maturation process speed up a bit. How good will we be over the second half if that happens?

A little more scoring would be great, too. We really started to break out last weekend with 11 goals over two games. In the 10 games before that we’d only scored more than three goals once. So that was a great sign.

And we could use some help on special teams. I know you’re not going to believe this, but we’re next to last in overall power-play percentage and the same with the penalty kill. Not exactly what you expect from the Eagles or any other first-place team. We’ll need some help there if we’re going to go far this season.

But those are just suggestions, Santa. I’m not getting greedy. I’m thankful for a very good first half. I’m just giving you some ideas.

And have some of those special teams cookies.

On New Hampshire stationery:

Santa, this is Richard Umile.

I’m pretty happy so far this year. My boys are only behind Providence and BC in the standings and we’re in striking range.

I believe in these kids. We’ve got that amazing line of Daniel Winnik, Jacob Micflikier and Brett Hemingway. And scoring on the blue line with Brian Yandle and Craig Switzer. Good goaltending, too.

But there’s one thing that’s missing for us and it’s missing big time. We’re going to need it if we’re going to do anything in the postseason. So I’m not even going to ask for anything else and diminish the chances of getting this one vital thing.

Santa, we need our second and third lines to start scoring like they can. We’ve got the top three scorers in Hockey East and the top two scoring defensemen, but we’re only fifth in the league in overall offense.

And get this. We’ve been shut out in two of the last five games! How can that happen?

I’ll tell you how it can happen. We’ve gotten too top-heavy in our scoring. I don’t want to put too much pressure on the kids, but teams are going to focus a lot of energy in shutting down our top guns and if the other lines don’t start producing more, we’re going to have problems.

So a little more firepower from the other lines, if you would, Santa. That’s all I ask.

Unless, that is, you could snag us a Hockey East championship or a Frozen Four berth.

On Vermont stationery:

Santa, Kevin Sneddon here.

If anyone had asked me three months ago how I’d feel about being the top ranked team in Hockey East, third in the country with first-place votes to boot, I’d have jumped for joy.

It’s been a storybook beginning to our Hockey East experience. Opening the season with seven wins made quite the first impression on our new league brethren. Then just when we began a win-one, lose-one see-saw, we took three of four points from Maine and New Hampshire and then another two from Lowell. That pushed any doubters back into the shadows.

We’ve got the number one overall offense and power play in the league and the number two defense and penalty kill. That’s a great prescription for success.

Torrey Mitchell, Brady Leisenring and Jeff Corey have been very productive veterans up front while freshmen Dean Strong and Peter Lenes have shown they can be future stars, too. In goal, Joe Fallon has been strong again and Travis Russell gave him a big push the other weekend with 29 saves in a 2-1 win at Maine.

So it looks as though all is rosy and I’d be teetering on the edge of ingratitude if I asked for anything more. However, I do have one request.

We may be 11-3-1, good for the number three ranking, but we’re only in fourth place in Hockey East. Yes, you read that right. Third in the country, but fourth in the league. We’ve shown we can beat the best of them, but so far our lesser moments have tended to be in league games.

So if there are going to be those stretches where sometimes we get the bounces and sometimes we don’t, could we get the bounces in league games and not get them outside of Hockey East? Don’t get me wrong. We want to win all our games. But we’d especially like to move up in the standings.

But listen, Santa, that’s just a minor request. If you’re tapped out, then I know we’re owed nothing. I’m very happy.

And if we’re ranked third in the country at the end of the postseason — ahem, not to shamelessly drop hints or anything — I could certainly get used to that.

On Maine stationery:

Hey, Santa, Tim Whitehead here.

Earlier in the season, I was thinking I wouldn’t need much of anything from you. We got off to an 8-1 start that included seven straight wins. But my list has been growing of late.

We’re only 3-4 since that start with the wins coming against teams with a combined record of 8-27-5. And we’re 2-4 within the league in that stretch. So the recent news hasn’t been very good.

You might be confused by our stats. We’re third in the league in team offense, second in power-play percentage and first in both team defense and penalty-kill percentage. We have excellent scoring distribution with eight guys in double-digit points. Ben Bishop, our goalie with the worst stats, has a 2.17 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage. Our other guy, Matt Lundin, has astounding numbers: 0.96 and .957.

So how are we only 5-4-0 in the league?

Perhaps the trip to Florida for our holiday tournament will get us back on track. If it could do for us what the Icebreaker did to start the season — namely, kick off a seven-game winning streak — then that would be just what the doctor ordered. If you could arrange that, I’d be one happy camper.

On Boston University stationery:

Santa, this is Jack Parker.

To be honest, I’m not really sure what to ask for. We’re so middle-of-the-pack in everything. Team-wise, there are no glaring weaknesses, but no unbelievable strengths. In league games, we’re sixth both in team offense and defense while we’re fifth both in power-play percentage and penalty kill.

In the same vein, we have yet to finish a weekend more than a game above or below .500.

Is “good but not great” going to be our unintended motto? Frankly, Santa, I’m not happy with mediocrity. That isn’t BU hockey.

Maybe what I really want is more guys like our number two goalie, Karson Gillespie. Goaltending hasn’t been our problem. John Curry has played well. But Gillespie is forcing me to play him more. He’s been in two games and had a 31-shot shutout in one and stopped 40 of 41 shots in the other.

How about I have more guys like that who force me to play them ahead of other good players? A couple of those would make for a very nice Christmas.

On Massachusetts stationery:

Hey, Santa, this is Toot Cahoon.

It’s been a roller-coaster season so far for us at UMass. We lost six straight at one point, including a painful one to Holy Cross, no disrespect intended to the Crusaders. On Nov. 12, we were 1-7-0 and had the doughnut in Hockey East games.

Then, bam! We won three out of four, including consecutives ones over BU, Vermont and Colorado College. All nationally ranked teams! We were playing pretty good defense, scoring often enough and were getting some terrific goaltending, especially from the freshman Jon Quick.

So it was looking pretty positive for us and that USCHO dope Hendrickson even called us giant-killers.

So what happened? BC blew our doors off in a sweep. Don’t get me wrong. The Eagles have swept a lot of teams in the past and they’re going to keep doing it in the future. But losing 7-0 just when you feel you’ve got some momentum?

I’ve got my list here and I hope you’ll deliver on at least some of the items.

More than anything else, we need more offense. In league games we’re averaging only 1.60 goals per game. That isn’t going to get it done.

Same thing with our power play. It’s only converting at a 6.1 percent rate in Hockey East games. I’d just as soon you didn’t let anyone know about this, but during our 49 power plays we’ve only scored three times but have allowed five shorthanded goals. To actually be in the minus category when you’re up at least one man….

Our penalty-killing is also the worst in Hockey East. We’re stopping only 77.1 percent of opposing power plays.

So Santa, there are a lot of gifts you can bring us, but the top three would be, in prioritized order: first, a productive power play; second, more overall scoring; and third, better penalty-killing.

On Massachusetts-Lowell stationery:

Hey, Santa, this is Blaise MacDonald.

I’ll keep this brief. You probably get plenty of letters that go on and on and on and on. Some people never shut up. Well, I’m going to make my request short and sweet.

Number one. More Jekyll, less Hyde.

It’s a question for me which Lowell team is going to show up. You know that 9-2 loss to Maine? Just about as bad as it can get, right?

Wrong. That wasn’t even our worst performance.

But eight days after that fiasco, we’re beating UNH, 6-3.

Go figure.

So it’d be great if the good River Hawks showed up on a consistent basis and the bad River Hawks stayed in their schizoid shell. That would be A-Number-One under the Lowell Christmas tree in my opinion.

Better team defense would be much appreciated, too. We’re last in the league, allowing four goals a game. That’s an awful number.

We need to be scoring more, too. Let me ask you a question, Santa. What is our record in games when we score at least three goals.

Don’t cheat, big guy, or it’s coal in your stocking.

Here’s the answer. We’re 5-1-0 in games where we scored at least three goals; 0-9-0 otherwise. So it isn’t just those lousy defensive numbers.

Our special teams haven’t been very good either, so we could use a boost there, too.

How’s that for asking for everything? I’d like consistency, defense, offense and special teams. Hey, it’s not like I’m asking for world peace or a cure for the heartbreak of psoriasis.

Whaddya say, big guy?

On Northeastern stationery:

Santa, this is Greg Cronin.

I heard that my predecessor, Bruce Crowder, got a little cranky with you two years ago. The Huskies were having a tough time and he was pretty frustrated. I believe the direct quote was:

I don’t believe in you anymore, you miserable old buzzard. And if you are for real, you should cut back on the pizza and the doughnuts. You ever hear of the Atkins diet? You might want to try it before your butt gets stuck in a chimney.

I must admit that I’m tempted to snarl just as much as Bruce did. Being 1-9-4 going into Christmas isn’t exactly the start I was hoping for when I took this job. It might have been nice if you’d sent an early gift my way in the form of a couple extra wins.

And having my one superstar, Mike Morris, out for every single game, not to mention a solid kid like Ray Ortiz, hasn’t exactly helped matters. We weren’t blessed with a lot of depth to begin with.

But you know, it hasn’t been all negatives. Aside from the win over UMass, we’ve tied BC and UNH and there are a lot of programs that would like to be able to say that. And we’ve had some tight losses to other strong teams, so we’re not as far away as our record might indicate.

So send a helping of patience to the fans who can make Matthews Arena really rock. In time, I think we can really build something here. It’s a much more attractive destination than it was 10 years ago.

In fact, if you’ve got any elves with some grit and feistiness on your North Pole A team, let me know and I’ll bring them in for a visit. I’ll bet they’ll like it here.

In the meantime, please send more great goaltending from Adam Geragosian and a quicker development pace for all the freshmen.

On Merrimack stationery:

Santa, this is Mark Dennehy.

Thank goodness I didn’t have to ask you for our first Hockey East win. Enduring 20 straight losses in league games had to be tough on the kids. I had enough trouble putting up with the five that were on my watch.

So if the win over New Hampshire was mistakenly delivered a month or so early, I appreciate it. It was a weight off all our shoulders.

In fact, we followed that with two ties with Northeastern, so that was quite the transition for us. It was a great five-day stretch.

The thing of it is, those four points kind of got our hopes up. Yeah, we try not to get too high with the highs or too low with the lows, but it was frustrating to lose that momentum going into the holidays with a loss to UMass and then getting swept at Wayne State.

So more than anything, it would be great if you could give us some of that momentum back. That positive energy that makes it even more fun to come to the rink every day.

I suppose that’s a sneaky way of just asking for more wins, since you can’t get momentum very easily without the Ws. Sneaky or not, we could really use that.

And some goalscoring, too. In league games, we’re last in offense, averaging only 1.33 goals per game. Other than UMass, everyone else is scoring at least one goal more each night out there. Our power play isn’t half bad; it’s really five-on-five where we’re struggling and could use a little help.

So if you didn’t already use up your Merrimack budget with that win over UNH — and I don’t think so, because that really wasn’t a gift; we earned it — then momentum and offense would be at the top of our list here.

Have some cookies and milk and, oh yes, a few blue-chip recruits would be nice, too.

Giving Them Their Due

Two weeks ago, this column (written by Scott Weighart) might have given the impression that coaches are frequently bashing officials.

Not so.

Witness these words from the Boston College – Boston University weekend series.

“I think Timmy Benedetto probably did the best refereeing job that I’ve seen this year from my vantage point,” BC coach Jerry York said.

This praise came not as a result of an officiating question; it was initiated by York.

When asked, BU coach Jack Parker seconded the opinion.

“Yeah, I thought it was a really well-officiated game,” he said. “BU-BC is a really emotional game. Sometimes the ref gets involved too much right off the bat.

“I think Tim Benedetto is a great referee. I think he’s a real great guy, too. Nothing bothers him. He definitely doesn’t let his emotions get involved, and if you do get on him one game, he doesn’t remember anything. He’s a friend afterward. Not just to me. I think every coach in the league thinks that he’s a hell of a guy.

“And I don’t mean [to be] disparaging anybody else that way, but everybody wants him to do well because everybody likes him so much. And most of the time he does well. Maybe he’s not perfect — sometimes you can get on a streak where you’re calling too much, and they don’t like what you’re calling.

“But in general I think he’s one of the best referees in the league because of his demeanor. Everybody’s rooting for him a lot.”

It Ain’t Just “Change ‘Em Up!”

For those in the stands who think they could do just about as well as the guy actually behind the bench, here’s some evidence to the contrary.

Following one of the BU-BC games, Parker was asked why his team went with shorter shifts than usual.

“It’s a strategy to keep us getting after them on our forecheck,” Parker said. “We were playing what we call a read-and-react aggressive forecheck, and we played that a little more than we usually do.

“When you play that aggressively, you have to change up quicker so you don’t get caught out there late. It’s hard to be aggressive, especially with the defensemen. They’ve got to crash a little more than usual.

“We played that probably 65 percent of the game tonight; that’s unusual for us to play that aggressive. We were getting some opportunities out of it and sometimes the best defense is a good offense. We got the puck in their zone more often.

“[We usually play] that particular forecheck about 25 percent [of a typical game]. We have two or three other ones. We played that one more than we’ve ever played it because we can’t use a couple of other ones against BC. It’s not a good matchup when we try to play our triple-I, which is an extremely aggressive forecheck.”

Got that? Test next week. Fifty percent of your grade.

Quote Of Note

One of my favorite quotes over the last few weeks came from Jerry York after the weekend series with BU. He said, “If you were one of the 14,000 people watching these games, if you weren’t a college hockey fan you became one.”

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question involved the upcoming World Junior Championships and noted that in 2003-04 Team USA won its first gold medal. The challenge was to name all the Team USA players from that year to present who have been selected multiple times and also have played in Hockey East.

This was not that difficult of a question, yet there was not a single person who hazarded even a single guess. Given the volume of responses to other questions — including those put forward by Scott “de Sade” Weighart — this was a stunning result.

All that was required was a trip into the USCHO archives, a click at the top of the page on “News” and then “News Archives.” Scrolling down to December, the month when the team rosters are announced, would have made the World Junior articles quite easy to come by. Perhaps that’s an indication that we at USCHO need to do more to promote the archives.

That said, the answers were BC’s Cory Schneider and BU’s Chris Bourque, selections to last year’s team and this year’s, as well as Maine’s Greg Moore and Jimmy Howard, members of the gold medal team and the preceding year’s.

Since no one got the right answer, I’ll make the following cheer:

“Go Wesleyan! Make the second half one to remember! You’ve got it in you!”

With the upcoming holiday break in columns, we’ll hold off on a new trivia question and resume the head-scratchers in the next year.

E-mail my trivia account with suggested trivia questions. 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…

• Theo Epstein as Director of Baseball Operations sounds like a fantastic gift under the tree for all Red Sox fans. Let’s hope we get it. As I wrote about a month ago, “We Want Theo! We Want Theo! We Want Theo!”

• Oh yes, Manny for Tejada. Please. Pretty please.

• Are the Patriots actually coming back from the dead? Or does Buffalo just stink to high heaven?

• I can’t keep up with the NHL this time of year so I can’t even pretend to be an informed voice. But from a distance that Joe Thornton trade appears to be just awful. Maybe not pennies on the dollar, but not much more than a few nickels.

• It was a pretty weird moment when I realized that my iPod has as much capacity as the hard drive on my PC. And a bajillion times more free space.

• I can’t believe it’s Dec. 15 and I haven’t yet watched Scrooged. If I haven’t made time by Christmas Eve, will someone please shoot me?

• My favorite line out of the new live Aerosmith album, Rock This Joint, comes when Steven Tyler asks the crowd, “So do you like the old [stuff] or the new [stuff]” and the answer predictably comes back in unison, “The old [stuff]!” Yes, indeed. I wish I could age as well as albums like Toys In The Attic.

• With the holiday and exam break upon us, this column takes a two-week hiatus before returning on Jan. 5. So thanks for reading and Happy Holidays to all of you.

Thanks to Scott Weighart.