This Week in Hockey East: Jan. 12, 2006

Coming Up Sixes

They’re simultaneously sixth in the country and sixth in the Hockey East standings.

Go figure.

Admittedly, the Vermont Catamounts have games in hand against every other league opponent except for Maine, but even so there’s quite the dichotomy between their 8-1 nonconference record (with two tournament wins) and their 5-4-2 mark within Hockey East.

“Over the next few weekends, ourselves and Maine will catch up [to everyone else] in terms of league games played,” UVM coach Kevin Sneddon says. “We do have a few opportunities to move up the ladder.

“But it speaks volumes for our league right now. We certainly feel that we are extremely challenged every time we put on the jerseys and go out and play. There are no easy games in this league.

“Our success in non-league play has helped give us some respect in terms of the national scene, but we have a lot of work left to do in the league. We’re certainly not satisfied with where we stand.”

That said, Sneddon doesn’t feel that his team has been Jekyll in its non-league games and Hyde within Hockey East. Not at all. The Catamounts have played pretty close to what he’s looking for out of them. They’ve already played New Hampshire three times and all but one of their league losses have been by 2-1 scores.

“We’ve really only played poorly in a couple of games,” Sneddon says. “I felt like we didn’t have our energy at BU early on [in a 4-2 loss] and they played great. I didn’t think that we played very well against UMass-Amherst prior to Thanksgiving.

“Aside from that, we’ve played some pretty good hockey. Unfortunately, we’ve just kind of fallen on the short [end] of the stick. If you look at our UNH series, there were three great games against a great opponent. One goal differentiated the two teams in those three games, but they ended up winning the series, four points to two.

“We’re playing some pretty good hockey. I think we certainly have a lot of room for improvement, which is exciting for us as a coaching staff. We’re certainly far from peaking right now. We’ve got a great group to work with and they’re eager to get better every day.

“You can’t ask for much more out of a team than what I have right now. Their work ethic is extraordinary; their coachability is fantastic. We feel very fortunate to be able to work with these guys.”

Aside from the Catamounts’ nonconference record, their 6-2-1 mark on the road befits a mentally tough team.

“It really does,” Sneddon says. “You have to find a way in the league to earn points on road trips. I think we were able to gain some confidence early on, going out to Alaska, going to Niagara and going up to Maine. Those are tough places to win hockey games and I think our guys earned a lot of confidence from those trips early. We’re hoping it carries on to the second half of the year.”

Even more significant is that the Catamounts show strength in key areas. Not only are they fourth in the league in team offense (2.95 goals per game), they’re first in team defense (1.70 goals allowed per game), first in power-play percentage (22.6), second in penalty-kill percentage (90.1), and lowest in penalty minutes (12.6).

Defense, special teams and staying out of the box is the statistical hat trick coaches dream of.

“The exciting thing for us as a staff is that we feel like we have a lot more to offer on our power play,” Sneddon says. “We feel like we can really improve there. I think our penalty kill overall has been very good, although in the league it has dipped a little bit.

“But when you have a team that’s worked as hard as we do and you have good goaltending, then team defense and penalty kill are going to be on the higher end.

“The other thing I’m very pleased with is our team discipline. We are the least penalized team in the country. I think that bodes well for the stretch run when you’re not giving teams like Boston College, Providence and UNH that many looks at your penalty kill.

“We need to maintain that. We’ve come along way there over the past couple of years. My first year, I think we were one of the most penalized teams in the country. The guys understand that we want to play aggressive, but we want to stay out of taking any undisciplined penalties.

“All those categories are very important. We want to maintain and improve upon all of them.”

On A Roll

If one were to ask what Hockey East team is 5-2-0 in its last seven league games, most observers would take a few guesses before they nailed the correct identity.

Try UMass. The Minutemen have gotten on a roll after a rough start and last weekend picked up four important points in a sweep of Merrimack.

“Unquestionably, the kids did what they needed to do and that was play fairly well both nights,” UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon says. “Our first night I thought Merrimack played extremely well other than getting off to a slow start. Quite frankly, the middle part of that game they outplayed us and outchanced us. Gabe Winer rose to the occasion and we got through it. We knew that the game was a much closer game than the score.

“The big part of the weekend for us was Saturday at Merrimack where we did in fact play pretty well. We were happy with the effort and just as happy with the execution. We hadn’t done that too often this year at all, play better on the second night of the weekend. It was a good weekend for us.”

One of the keys was that a power play which had previously struggled came alive with three tallies each night. Defenseman Marvin Degon led the charge with four of the six, earning himself Hockey East Player of the Week honors.

“It’s been an area of concern for two years,” Cahoon says. “Our power play has been somewhat anemic. We’ve got a lot of kids in the program that have worked really hard at trying to make it better.

“[This weekend] we got pucks to the net. That’s something we’ve struggled with since [Thomas] Pöck and [Greg] Mauldin [left]. They could really deliver the puck to the net and Marvin Degon has learned to do just that.”

As for the 5-2 mark in recent league games, that mark becomes even more impressive when you realize it’s a 5-0 mark except for games against league-leader Boston College.

“We’re like a lot of other teams,” Cahoon says. “We’re not mature enough yet to be an upper-echelon team, but when we play our best hockey we’re in most every game with BC being the exception.

“It’s incumbent upon us just to play our best hockey and if we play our best hockey I like our chances. I’m sure Blaise [MacDonald at Massachusetts-Lowell, UMass’s next opponent] feels the same way. If the teams executes and competes as a team, they can play with anybody. That’s the beauty of our league.”

That said, the tide can turn quickly. The margin for error is so small that a 5-2 record can turn quickly into ashes.

“There’s very, very little room for error,” Cahoon says. “The margin is very small. If our power play becomes anemic, then our goal production is affected in [a big] way.

“Generally speaking, there aren’t a lot of five-on-five goals every night because the coaching, team defense and conditioning of these kids is such that there’s just not great opportunities. And then the goaltending is so good.

“So special teams become a real factor. If you become really porous on the defensive side or anemic on the offensive side, you take yourself right out of a game.”

Despair Or A Mad Dash?

By now, Massachusetts-Lowell coaches, players and fans are long past the preseason predictions of a third-place finish. That’s not even in the rear-view mirror.

The only looking backward is to a year ago when the River Hawks found themselves in a similar plight and came on strong in the second semester. The 2004-05 edition lost its first five league games and held an 0-5-2 Hockey East mark heading into the new year. Those River Hawks promptly ran off a 10-2-1 stretch in league games to make a major run at playoff home ice.

This season, Lowell emerged from the break with a 3-7-0 record in Hockey East games. A run similar to last year’s would put the Hawks in good playoff position.

A good start to the second half, however, hasn’t happened. After splitting games in the Dodge Holiday Classic, the River Hawks lost twice at Maine and now face a pivotal stretch of five games against: Massachusetts (twice), Northeastern (twice) and Providence. Of those, only Providence isn’t among the general group of teams Lowell is jockeying with for playoff position.

Unfortunately for the River Hawks, the injuries have been mounting. Andrew Martin could be lost for the season after playing in only nine games. Other standbys, Matt Collar and Elias Godoy, have been recently knocked out of the lineup.

“We’re certainly struggling,” UML coach Blaise MacDonald says. “We as coaches are going to continue to try to find ways to create a level of confidence, certainty and progress.

“We don’t like using it as an excuse, but we’re just very banged up. Playing without Martin, Godoy and Collar puts us very thin.

“We have not been able to critically define games and that’s really been our biggest problem. We’ve played well enough, but at key times when we need to score to give us a two-goal lead or a three-goal lead, we miss a lot of quality opportunities.”

From the outside, however, it would appear that team defense, not scoring, is the biggest problem. The River Hawks rank last in the league in team defense and by a pretty good margin. They are allowing 4.05 goals per game while the only others which exceed an average of 2.74 are Merrimack (3.53) and Northeastern (3.72). They also are allowing the most shots in the league, 682 overall or an average of 36 per game.

According to MacDonald, that’s a problem, but not the whole story.

“A pitcher who gets run support plays well, with bravado,” he says. “We haven’t given ourselves run support at key times.

“You can definitely look at the amount of shots that we’ve given up. You can look at our goals against average. The team defense is not remotely where it should be.

“Part of that is we’re taking penalties this year that we haven’t in the past. So our shots against go up and our goals against go up.

“I go back and forth, ‘Is it our offense or is it our defense?’ Going into the season we knew we had a slim margin of error defensively in terms of how we had to play. We just haven’t had guys play up to that level.”

Goaltender Peter Vetri, who has played all but two periods of the season, has seen his statistics plummet from last year’s excellent marks (2.52 GAA, .912 Sv%) to this year’s less than stellar numbers (3.88, .892). However, it isn’t that the reigning Hockey East Rookie of the Year is having a sophomore slump.

“It’s just really so collective,” MacDonald says. “Friday night is a good example. Up in Maine, we had eight or nine forwards who just had incredibly bad nights. They were trying and they had prepared; they just had a bad night. It’s not like you can change them all.

“We’ve had a lot of collective struggles. A lot of our key guys — never because of their effort or intentions — have just struggled.”

Which, of course, begs the question. Can the River Hawks still put together a second-half run to salvage what has been a disappointing season?

“We have a historical perspective in that we did get on a pretty good roll last year,” MacDonald says. “You can break our first half of the season down into the first seven games, which were just incredibly bad, and our next seven, which were good. We didn’t get the wins, but we played so much better. So that’s progress.

“We’re trying to point out the positives. I think we have fully dedicated, good kids who I love and feel privileged to coach everyday.

“But the mind can be tricky. If we could get on a roll, we’d stay on it. That’s really the defining moment of an older team. The highs can be very high and the lows can be very low.”

Which might be the opposite of what you’d expect, namely that a younger team would be more subject to the extreme highs and lows. MacDonald disagrees.

“The levels of despair, anxiety, maturity and wisdom [are greater] when you’re older,” he says. “when you’re young, you’re dumb enough so you can change with the wind. But when you’ve been through it for four years, you think, ‘I just have ‘X’ amount of days in my college career and this is the last time I’m going to play Maine.’ The level of despair [is heightened].”

Of Steaks And Frustration

When your team is 1-13-4, it might be tough to find a silver lining in the cloud. For the Northeastern Huskies, it might be even tougher considering that they followed their lone win back on Nov. 11 with an 0-7-3 record including losses in the last five games.

But things aren’t as bleak as the record might indicate. Almost all of the 10 games since the win have been close. Witness:

• A 2-1 overtime loss to Providence.

• A 5-3 loss at Boston College that was tied, 3-3, with four minutes left.

• A tie at New Hampshire.

• Two ties in a home-and-home with Merrimack.

• A bad loss at Maine and bad start against Cornell.

• A one-goal loss (plus an open-netter) to Maine in which the Huskies led 2-1 after two periods.

• A 4-3 loss at BC.

• A 4-0 loss to BU.

In other words, almost every game has been up for grabs.

“We’re so close,” NU coach Greg Cronin says. “It’s like having a piece of steak and having it an inch from your mouth and you go to bite it, but every time you can’t get your teeth on it. It’s really frustrating.

“We’ve just got to find a way to manufacture that win because when you’re not winning the food tastes bad, the weather stinks and the ice is choppy.

“I lost 10 games in a row down in Bridgeport (in the AHL) one year and the year before that I went 24 games without a loss. So I’ve seen this before from both sides. But never have I seen it where we’ve been so close for so may games.

“We need some lightening rods in the locker room that are going to conduct some energy and generate some believability in the locker room. Because what happens when you lose these games and they’re all close games is you get an erosion of your believability. That’s the psychological part of this that is incredibly difficult.

“The good side of it is that if you can string some good games together and get some wins, it’s an empowering experience because then you know you’ve been through Hell and you can climb out of it. That’s what we’ve got to do.

“We’ve got to find a way to manufacture some wins, some ugly wins. We’ve actually manufactured some ugly losses by taking some really foolish penalties. I thought [our last game] against BU was the first game all year that we actually played a good game in terms of our not taking penalties.”

On the injury front, Mike Morris won’t be coming back this year and Yale Lewis, who didn’t play his first game until Nov. 11, is sidelined again. One the positive side, however, Ray Ortiz is back after having missed the entire first semester.

“Ortiz’s presence is good because it gives you a little bit more strength down the middle of the ice,” Cronin says. “If you’re good down the middle, you have a chance to win. That’s where you generate all your rhythm in the game.”

The Huskies are a very young team. The question will be whether there can be sufficient improvement and how fast.

“We’re playing nine or 10 freshmen every night,” Cronin says. “I was Director of Development for five years in the National Hockey League and watched guys get better and one of the frustrating things for me is you want them to get better faster.

“You need to have three or four great players on the ice to win anyways in college hockey. The young kids that might have a little bit of a fragile mentality, they get better quicker because they’re able to identify with what those great players are doing every day in practice. The problem is when you don’t have five or six players that are real reliable, like Mike Morris-type of players.

“When you have so many freshmen and then you have injuries to your better players, there’s not that substance on the ice that creates the genuine feedback that they get watching the practice. There’s no better way to learn than to watch somebody do something [in a game] and then go back on the ice or watch them do it in practice and say, ‘Oh, that’s how he’s doing it.’ We just don’t have that.

“The lightning rod in the locker room has to be the lightning rod in practice, too. [Freshmen] Jacques Perreault or Andrew Linard or [Rob] Rassey or [Matti] Uusivirta can grab onto that guy and say, ‘This is a guy that can me make me a better player.’

“In pro hockey, you have 15 guys who are great players. So when you have these young kids come up, they see that. They can see a guy like Mike Peca block a shot and kill a penalty the right way. They can watch Jason Blake cycle and cut back and say, ‘Oh, that’s how you do it.’ When you get that result, it’s contagious.

“We’re on the flip side of that; we’re not getting the result. We’re getting the play, but the result is not there. So the contagiousness never gets any traction.

“We’ve been so close, but we didn’t get to bite the steak. So instead of saying, ‘We’re going to get the next one,’ we’re saying, ‘When are we going to get the next one?’

“You become victims. Then you become further victimized. At Merrimack, we scored three goals that were disallowed. We should have won the game 6-3 or 5-3, [but had to settle for a tie]. Then they say, ‘Oh, Geez, now the crucifix got heavier.’ I told them after the BC game, ‘Let go of the crucifix. Let’s just move on here and try to impose our identity in the game instead of waiting for the event to happen. You’re never going to win if you’re playing the apprehensive, tentative way.'”

Maine Stats

Since October, Maine has a 7-5 record. All five losses have come to teams that are two games under .500 or better; all seven wins have come from teams with worse marks than that. (For the record, the collective opponents’ records in the seven wins is 14-49-9, but in the losses is 52-37-13.)

If you’re a Maine glass-half-full fan, that’s taking care of business. Is you’re a glass-half-empty type, it’s cause for concern.

This week’s series at BU should be interesting …

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question was another sadistic one courtesy of “Marquis de” Scott Weighart and our readers seemed to love it. Scott entitled this one “Autolink Madness,” asking for as many Hockey East players as possible — past, present, and even future (players who have committed to Hockey East programs) — whose names would generate autolinks to D-I, D-II, or D-III hockey programs because their first or last name contained the name of a varsity hockey program.

As best as Scott and the respondents to this question could collectively determine, it turns out that there are 18 players who would generate links if their name was the first time that word appeared in an USCHO article. The first 16 were as follows:

Tim Army, PC
Allister Brown, UNH
Craig Brown, UML
Doug Brown, BC
Eric Brown, UML
Greg Brown, BC
Jamie Brown, MC
Matt Brown, NU
Scott Brown, UNH
Colby Cohen, BU (committed – entering 2007)
John Curry, BC
Mike Hamilton, UMO
Jason Lawrence, BU
Yale Lewis, NU
Denver Moorehead, UNH
Shane Skidmore, UNH

However, we have to give extra credit to the winner, Everett Logan, who also added that there were three other players who might generate the autolink because part of their last name contains a varsity hockey program:

Mark Brownschidle, BU
Gary Williamson, PC
Jimi St. John, UML

Scott tried these out in an USCHO article and found that Brownschidle and Williamson did generate autolinks when they were the first mention of Brown or Williams in an article. Also, Jimi St. John did not produce a link to St. John’s … but still, this was an impressive job by Everett. He came up with everyone except Jason Lawrence, oddly enough — including Denver Moorehead, who played all of two games for UNH, and Jamie Brown who played one game for Merrimack!

“Marquis de” Scott claims that he didn’t mean for the question to be so sadistic, but if you believe that one, we’ve got a bridge to sell you.

In any event, Everett certainly deserves this cheer (along with our wishes that he get out more often):

“I will stick with my boys in Green and Gold and give a ‘Go, Cats, Go!!!’ for UVM.”

This week’s question asks about a Hockey East goaltender who is a rookie in the NHL this year, won his first four decisions, and while a collegian backstopped his team in the NCAA semifinals, but did not play in the championship game. E-mail 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.

As always, 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 …

So many topics to yammer on about, so little time.

Sadly, I must ask you to wait until next week to hear my petty observations on irrelevant topics. You’ll live.

Until then, Go Pats!

Thank you to Scott Weighart.