This Week in Hockey East: Jan. 26, 2006

Dave Hendrickson is not available to write the Hockey East column this week, as he is busy starring in the forthcoming film Brokeback Columnist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Rhodes Scholars

If you’re reading this column, there’s a good chance that you’ve already read plenty this year about the Providence Friars. Or at least you’ve read about their emphasis on hanging on to the puck and having fun with a more offensive-minded game and tempo. However, you may not have heard about the change in philosophy that has given the Friars a completely different atmosphere between games this season.

After hearing some rumors that Providence coach Tim Army was running the team more the way the pros would do it — holding fewer practices and downplaying rules and regulations — I had a lengthy and fascinating conversation with the first-year Friar coach to find out the facts.

“We do try to have that little bit different feel with what we try to do,” Army said. “I’m a big believer in the overall maturity of your players as people also transfers into the overall maturity as players. I do want them to accept more responsibility as a student-athlete. That’s how we sort of created the atmosphere here.

“I’ve always been a big believer in giving a lot of responsibility into my older players, my seniors. It gives them more ownership of the team and allows us to get to know them more. I do want our kids to be active participants in the direction of our program because that gives them that much more ownership of the things that we’re doing.”

Army acknowledged that the professional-style coaching approach was no accident.

“Working for Ron Wilson in the National Hockey League for nine years, Ron always had a great feel for giving his players an opportunity to feel a part of it — more than just being players,” Army said. “And I do think that less can be more sometimes. For me it’s about our team having energy and being ready to play. If you have your energy and have your legs, I think your reactions will be a lot more quicker. You’ll think more alertly. When you have your legs, your mind thinks along with your legs: Everything is coordinated. In order to be reactive, you have to have good energy. So a lot in my own personal philosophy is making sure that guys are energized at game time.”

This equates to a typical routine of just three practices per week… and those three practices feature just one hour on the ice. That said, it’s an intense experience.

“We don’t stop: We go hard; we go fast,” Army said. “We create a lot of scenarios where they’ve got to make a lot of decisions. I want to make it like a game where we can’t slow down. It’s about being able to maintain a pace and being able to make decisions. So our practices our designed so we are becoming more natural and more comfortable with the tempo we’re playing with.”

In addition to the less-is-more approach to practice, Army treats the players like pros off the ice as well. “It’s important that they hold each other accountable,” Army said. “The coaches have to direct that, but the players also have to be in a position to implement what we’re trying to do. I want them to be able to think for themselves, trust their instincts, have fun, and push the envelope as much as they can push it. To be that kind of thinker, you’ve got to have that same maturity off the ice.

“I don’t have many rules; I don’t believe in rules. I believe in having expectations. If things aren’t moving along, then you address it immediately. A lot of rules are made to hide situations: Instead we meet a situation head on, and we move on.”

These expectations include academics and an emphasis on being highly visible student-athletes in the university community. Some players have a 3.7 GPA and others may have a 2.3. Yet the numbers aren’t as important as whether the individual is “working to their capabilities” by going to all classes, working with tutors, whatever it takes.

However, his philosophy about rules intrigued me the most.

“I don’t believe you need curfews,” Army said. “Because if you have to have curfews, then how serious is everybody about playing hockey? If you’re not taking care of yourself, then your play’s going to suffer, and you’re going to let your teammates down. And you’re going to be in the press box watching. You don’t need a rule for that: You’re going to lose your ice time and someone else is going to play.”

So far the Army plan has been so successful that last week’s split at Maine was not as satisfying as you might expect.

“I would have rather swept,” Army said. “I have great respect for every team we play. We’re in a very tough conference, and we have seven tough non-league games too. Each night’s a tough game, but we expect to win every night, wherever and whoever we play.

“We were very relaxed and played very well on Friday night; I thought we played very well on Saturday night. In the first 24 minutes, I think we were shorthanded nine times; I think they had four five-on-threes. It’s tough to overcome that, and I think our penalty killing was excellent.

“I was more disappointed with two sloppy shifts late in the second: Maine took advantage of it and made it three than four-nothing. We did lots of good things; we lost our discipline and composure at times and had a couple of shifts where we weren’t where we were supposed to be.”

Now Providence hosts New Hampshire in a game that could break the tie for second place. Providence looks like a good bet for a second-place finish at the moment, but Army is not getting ahead of himself.

“I honestly just focus on getting better every day,” Army said. “Those things will take care of themselves. I think if we continue to progress and play with the speed that we’re capable of playing with, those things will take care of themselves. Our focus is to have a good practice today and to continue to get better at the things we need to get better at.”

BU-BC, Round Three

The Providence-UNH game is an important one, but the game of the week is certainly the BU-BC game at Chestnut Hill on Friday night. There is plenty of sex appeal for this one.

Consider the various subplots: Boston College, the newly anointed No. 1 team in the poll, has not surrendered a goal in the last three games, and they have surrendered a microscopic total of two goals over the last five games. Cory Schneider has been outstanding since returning from the World Junior Championships. The Eagles are 9-0-1 in their last ten games and have not lost since — you guessed it — BU beat them 6-2 on December 3.

That said, this is a game that means much more to BU. On a nice roll of their own following sweeps of Merrimack and Maine, the Terriers are in a three-way tie for second place with UNH and Providence — but the Wildcats and Friars have a game in hand versus the Terriers. For that matter, home ice in Hockey East is by no weans a done deal for the Terriers.

Meanwhile, BC has a chunky eight-point lead on the second-place cluster. Yes, this weekend matters … but perhaps more with an eye toward maintaining a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

“No question about it: They can’t miss being a top four team [in the league],” Terrier coach Jack Parker said. “It’s nice to win the league, but you don’t get anything for that other than that except for home ice — the same thing that the third-place team gets. We’re in a battle for home ice, and they’re not. They’re just trying to keep their position in first place. There’s a long way to go and a whole bunch of tough games to be played. More than anything else, this is just a BC-BU game as far as how important it is.”

Not surprisingly, Eagle coach Jerry York is by now means downplaying this weekend’s importance. “It’s certainly going to be a good week of preparation,” York said. “We also have Lowell on Saturday night, so it’s a big four points available for us this weekend. BU has been red hot lately, and Lowell is starting to reassert themselves too. We’ve got a mindset that we have two very difficult games this week.

“It’s still January. Like [UML coach] Blaise MacDonald was quoted a few years ago, ‘The men’s league starts in mid-January.’ I think points become harder to get and games become more playoff-intensive type games. So nothing surprises in Hockey East. Either way it’s quite a challenge and quite a road to go through to win a championship. Right now you look at the league and boy, Providence, BU, Vermont, New Hampshire…

“They’ve all got that goal of a regular-season championship. So we’re pleased where we are, but we’re certainly not going to be content at all.”

Terrier fans may swallow hard at the thought of how stingy the Eagles have been in surrendering goals of late, but Parker did not seem daunted when we spoke on Monday when I noted how defensively stingy BC has been over the last stretch.

“Yeah, but they’re not stingy defensively like BC teams used to be,” Parker said. “Defensively they’re not giving up goals, but they’re giving up shots. Merrimack got 37 shots against them. So an awful lot of their success can be pointed to their enthusiasm and their skating ability, but their biggest asset is how well Cory’s playing. He’s given them an unbelievable amount of confidence that when they make a mistake it’s not going to go in the net.

“We’re hoping to see if we can’t get some pressure on him because if you don’t get 40 shots — or at least 35 — you’re going to have a hard time beating him. He’s awful good, and even then you’ve got to get some quality ones. BC’s protected him well, but they’ve been spending some time in their zone, that’s for sure.”

Nonetheless, York is pleased with the progress of his young defensive corps. When I asked him how much of the recent defensive success streak could be attributed to team defense as opposed to the heroics of Schneider, he gave credit both ways.

“I think a pretty good combination,” York said. “Cory’s been spectacular at times during that stretch, but right from the get-go — right from Michigan at the beginning of the season — he showed that this was going to be a year where he became more of a leader and took more charge. And he had a fine freshman year when you look back at it, but he’s elevated his game.

“I think on defense we’re getting better. We’re certainly giving up more chances than we had more of our veteran leaders back there. And Cory’s come up against more of those grade-‘A’ chances this year than he did last year. I think he’s allowed our defense to grow a little. Our four freshmen and Mike Brennan, the sophomore, are all getting cleaner in their own end — much safer, they’re covering better. Certainly they’re still on the young side when you look at our league.”

Both coaches downplayed the Terriers’ decisive win, given that it was a tight game that BU broke open with four goals in the last eight minutes. “I think the puck was just jumping in the net for us that night,” Parker said. “We got just one goal against him the night before. Frankly I thought we played better in the 2-1 loss than we did in the 6-2 win as far as how soundly we played technically.”

“Everything they did was just perfect in that stretch,” York said of the decisive eight minutes of the last meeting between the teams. “They just took over the game and won it going away. So we remember that, and we’re fully aware of how good a club BU has. They started slow, but they had two seniors — [David] Van der Gulik and [Jekabs] Redlihs — out of their lineup. Now they’re back full up, and they’re going to be a better team because of those veteran four-year guys.”

Actually, the Terriers will not quite be “full up” after all this weekend. When I asked Parker whether John Laliberte (sprained knee) was — in National Football League parlance — probable, questionable, or doubtful for this weekend, he chuckled ruefully.

“He’s as close to absolutely not going to play as you’re going to get,” Parker said. “He’s out … but hopefully just for this weekend. But who knows?”

And who knows who will win this matchup of archrivals? We’ll find out soon enough.

Pondering The PairWise

Hockey East fans anticipating the usual strong showing in the initial PairWise Rankings might have needed to have someone take aware their shoelaces, belts, and sharp objects after checking out the initial rankings recently. According to USCHO bracketology sage Jayson Moy, BC would be the sole Hockey East representative in the tournament — barring an upset in the Hockey East tournament — if the teams were selected after last Tuesday’s play. I asked Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna for his interpretation of this development.

“It’s no secret that our non-league record has been flat, right around .500,” Bertagna said. “In fact I think it’s exactly .500 with a couple of leagues: I think we’re .500 or one game over with the ECAC and .500 with the WCHA, and even with some of the newer leagues we have a winning record but not as dominating a record as it has been, and some of that stuff has caught up [with us].

“I don’t know what the end run of this is going to be because it looks to me like anybody from 12 to 20 can move up or around in a lot of places, and we have quite a few times in that bloc. I also looked over the weekend at our composite schedule, and when I looked at individual schedules there really is a gap between some that have stronger schedules left and some that have weaker schedules left, so that can really have an effect on where they end up in that.

“If somebody runs the table, you can jump up on the win-loss part of it, but the strength of schedule is not going to see a dramatic shift unless a given school happened to knock a team that gets on a run, and they benefit every time that team wins a game too. But I don’t know over the years how many of those top 14 in the first PairWise have ended up in the tournament. My guess is that if you’re in the top nine or ten, you’re a lot safer than if you’re in the next bloc where it looks pretty close.”

If Hockey East fans were blindsided by this development, it’s likely because people give more credence to the national polls than they deserve. Beyond creating some interesting fodder for message-board debate, the polls are hardly scientific and ultimately meaningless.

“What gives people a startle is that they probably read too much into these weekly polls,” Bertagna said. “I’m doing one right now. I think people get so accustomed in their head that these polls that they see every week are more scientific than they really are, and I know from adding up votes week to week that some people are better pollsters than others. Some people really look at scores and taking it seriously, and others are sending in things that I wish I could challenge.”

Still, I wondered if Bertagna was surprised to see that Maine, for example, is dramatically lower in the PWR than they are in the polls. “I think they hurt themselves in Florida [over the holiday break] in two ways: First, losing to Duluth as something that has a negative impact, and then the aftermath was that they drew Northeastern on the next night instead of Cornell. So in that doubleheader they hurt themselves both nights.”

York basically concurred with Bertagna’s interpretation. “I think that’s a statistic that changes so much as we get deeper and deeper as you get into the winter,” York said. “So at first it’s kind of alarming because we’ve always had a number of teams up there. But our lack of success in non-conference [action] really hurt all of us. That will change as the year goes on, and we hope we’ll get more teams up there. It’s kind of a sobering thought when you look at it.”

Parker didn’t see the initial PairWise Rankings before I brought them to his office this week. After reviewing them, his conclusion differed: The current PairWise reflected what he believes to be flaws in this tool for selecting the tournament.

“I’ve thought all along that the way we should do is the RPI [Ratings Percentage Index] way, not the PairWise way,” Parker said. “The RPI should select the tournament unless it’s too close to call, and if it’s too close to call then you go to the minuscule things like head-to-head or how you did against common opponents. ‘Well, we were 2-1′ and against common opponents.’ How important is that versus 35 hockey games? When you add it all up with strength of schedule and the opponents’ strength of schedule and all that, the RPI is the absolute good measurement of who the better teams are.”

In particular, while Bertagna feels that bonus points give teams an incentive to schedule games they might avoid otherwise, Parker is critical of this twist.

“The bonus stuff — the ‘good wins’ — I think is absurd,” Parker said. “Example last year: We beat BC in a non-league game in the first round of the Beanpot; BC beat Harvard in the consolation game. They get bonus points for that, and we get no bonus points for beating BC in a much more important game because they’re in our league — even though it’s a non-league game. It’s absolutely absurd. For some reason they want to keep going with this idea.

“When the RPI was too close to call, it was a good idea to go with these other criteria. And then somebody at the coaches’ convention said, ‘Well, why don’t we just add them up all the time?’ So I have a record of 25-5 in a good league, you have a record of 15-12: I win the RPI. But we play once in October, and you beat me — one game as opposed to 36 — and we have the same number of points: absolutely ridiculous. The tournament should be selected on the entire season, and when you can’t call it based on the entire season, then you go to something like head-to-head or Teams Under Consideration.

“You’re giving equal balance to little snippets of the season instead of the entire season. If the RPI is under 50 points, go to the other criteria. Otherwise, go with the RPI. If you take Harvard and BU — too close to call: Let’s go to the other criteria. We tied, so let’s see what happens in the Beanpot, and let’s look at the other [PWR] criteria. They’ve bastardized the RPI and lessened the effect of 35 games. It wouldn’t be a big change, but there would be less [complaining].”

It seems as if the powers that be in college hockey believe that by complicating the formula, they’re improving it. But as opposed to baseball — where numbers such as on-base percentage and slugging percentage offer a much richer picture of success in comparison to batting average — the hockey formula creates comparisons that aren’t as meaningful as season-long wins and losses in the context of strength of schedule.

Hence we end up with odd results right now, such as Providence being ranked 11th in the RPI but just 18th in the PWR.

“That’s absurd,” Parker said. “Is there anyone who doesn’t think they shouldn’t be higher than Harvard or BU? How can Providence be below us in the PairWise when they’ve get a better RPI, and they’ve beaten us twice?

“I don’t usually look at this till a lot later in the season, but it shows us how we’re missing the boat here. They’re trying to say that they’re taking more into consideration, but you’re lessening consideration of the entire season.”

Relax, Higgins Has The Puck

After Terrier freshman Chris Higgins scored a career-high three points against Merrimack Saturday — including an unbelievably poised and patient goal — Parker raved about his young centerman.

“I’ve seen him play since he was a sophomore in high school, and I thought he was a terrific offensive player,” Parker said after the game. “I was worried about his size and whether or not he’d just get a little touch and be down on his bum. I knew he saw the ice very well and had great hands. The thing that really amazes me is how good he is defensively, how solid he is in his own end. Since the first game of the year, I’ve said to myself probably a hundred times, ‘When the puck gets on his stick, I can relax.’

“He never turns it over; he makes the right play every time — doesn’t matter if he’s in front of his own goal or at center ice. Since he’s become a center, he’s been even more effective that way.”

Led by Higgins and Brandon Yip, the Terrier freshmen have been scoring in bunches lately, boding well for the program’s future.

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question asked which Hockey East school most recently celebrated the 1000th win in the program’s history and when did that happen? The answer was New Hampshire; the Wildcats achieved the milestone in a 4-1 victory over Yale on Jan. 11.

The first to respond correctly was Ryan Lambert, a back-to-back winner. His cheer is:

“Let’s go Hawks! Continue the unbeaten streak! Clinch the Alumni Cup, and beat BC!”

This week’s question is inspired by the massive but excellent book the I finally finished reading this week, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Reading this made me wonder about the following: How many different U.S. presidents have the same last name as current or former players in Hockey East?

Note that this question is not as sadistic as it may appear: I’m not asking you to name ALL players who have had the same names as U.S. presidents. For example, if there are five HE players with the last name of ‘Bush,'” you need only supply me with TWO names to go with the two presidents with that name.

A few other guidelines: 1. Please submit the full name and team of each player; 2. I will consider only men’s Hockey East players whose teams were actually in Hockey East during all or part of the time that they played (not Vermont before this year or BU when it was still in the ECAC, for example; 3. Just for fun, tell me how many you were able to come up with WITHOUT consulting a list of presidents OR any hockey rosters whatsoever. I was able to come up with six presidents whose names coincided with six different Hockey East players without looking at any lists of names for either presidents or hockey players. I’m sure that there will be more than six, but that’s the best I could do without resorting to any websites or printed matter.

Because this might be another tedious trivia contest to judge, we will spare Dave from this burden. E-mail me with your answer. The winner will be notified by Monday afternoon; if you haven’t heard by then you can figure that someone else topped you.

Submit suggested trivia questions to Dave’s trivia e-mail account and if your question is used, you’ll get a cheer as long as you were first to submit it. Please include “SUGGESTION” in the subject line.

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

It’s fascinating to see how newcomers to college hockey react to the game. Years ago I took my friend Susan to the Hockey East semifinals — her first college hockey games. I was concerned that she might be put off by all the hitting and tough stuff. Between periods, I asked her what she thought.

“Well, I was seeing guys knocking other guys over, tripping them, knocking them into the bench, and so forth,” she began, worrying me a bit. “And I found myself saying, ‘That was a good move!'” How refreshing!

My son, Timmy, who is six, already shows the makings of a passionate college hockey fan. We could be watching any game on TV of teams that are basically random to him — Providence versus Maine, for example — and he arbitrarily will decide which team he wants to win. That seems sensible enough. Yet after this arbitrary selection, he seems to be very emotionally invested — nearly in tears if “his” team of the moment starts losing.

I can already imagine him in facepaint years from now. Have you ever seen the Seinfeld episode in which Elaine is dating a New Jersey Devils fan who paints his face before each game? The best moment of the show is when the guy walks in front of a car in a crosswalk, nearly getting hit. He pounds on the window, shouting, “We’re the Devils! You can’t beat us!” Inside the car is a Latin American priest, who is clearly alarmed. “Es el diablo!” he says, voice quaking.

Yeah, I could imagine Timmy doing something like that ten or 15 years from now.