This Week in Hockey East: Feb. 2, 2006

Volatility To The Nth Degree

A week ago, Hockey East would have placed only a single team, Boston College, in the NCAA tournament. For comparison’s sake, the ECACHL was enjoying a prospective four berths.

However, one weekend’s worth of action changed all that. In a perfect display of how volatile the rankings are at this point in the season, Boston University and Providence vaulted themselves past two ECACHL teams and into the tournament.

The Terriers are the biggest story. Heading into the holidays, they had played inconsistent hockey, see-sawing from good to bad and unable to put any kind of a run together. Now, however, they boast a seven-game win streak, including two over Maine and last weekend’s victories at Boston College and against Massachusetts. As a result, they’ve gone from the outside looking in to a projected number-two seed at Worcester.

Providence, Hockey East’s season-long feel-good story, used its one game on the weekend, a win over New Hampshire, to leapfrog others into a three seed.

All of which points out that the Terriers and Friars, not to mention the Eagles, can’t count their NCAA chickens before they’re hatched. The PairWise elevator can zoom up in exhilarating fashion, but it can also plummet with sickening suddenness.

And as for New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont — those league teams closest to the bubble, but still in danger of being left out — it’s high time for an elevator ride up the PairWise before it’s too late.

The Calm Before The Storm

Northeastern and Harvard fans don’t want to hear this, but the Beanpot opening round this Monday looks very much like a warm-up for the main attraction. At 1-18-5, the Huskies are gigantic underdogs to BC in the early game.

And although Harvard has already toppled the Eagles this season and its 11-8-2 record is nothing to sneeze at, BU is simply playing too well right now to be anything but a considerable favorite in the late game.

“There’s a little bit of a swagger when you start to win games,” UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon said after his team lost to BU. “It’s a healthy swagger, not arrogant, but you can tell they’re feeling good about themselves, and they believe in themselves.”

Not to mention that the Beanpot has threatened to become the BU Invitational over the past dozen years or so. (Note to Terrier fans: yes, the Beanpot has been your domain for further back than that, but it was when you won eight titles in nine years from 1995 through 2003 that things became, as they say, sick.)

No offense is intended to Northeastern and Harvard, but the Beanpot War this year looks almost certain to be between BU and BC on the 13th, not this upcoming Monday. It’s up to the Huskies and Crimson to prove those sentiments wrong.

Keeping The Faith

When the losing streak reached 10 games and the last win dated back to November, it would have been easy to throw in the towel. Especially since the Merrimack Warriors had seen this movie before. That flick, rated R for very mature audiences only, had included the depths of a 20-game losing streak within league play, a mark that didn’t end until the aforementioned Nov. 29 win over UNH.

“I give up,” would have been one possible comment. And even worse: “Here we go again.”

And yet the Warriors — facing not only their losing streak and position in the Hockey East cellar, but also a daunting trip to Vermont for two games — kept the faith, played excellent hockey and came away with two points on the weekend that could have resulted in even more. Merrimack toppled the nationally-ranked Catamounts in their own barn on Friday, 4-2, and then fought tooth-and-nail more than three minutes into overtime in the Saturday rematch before having to settle for a split.

“You know, it’s funny, we’ve played so hard for the majority of the year, but it hasn’t really [paid off],” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy says.

Explaining how everyone has stayed positive, he continues, “It’s come from the kids; they’ve been excited to play.

“But when you’re playing hard and you’re not getting the type of results, everyone [still] looks at wins and loses. You beat UNH early in the year and you think now you’ve worked hard and there’s the reward and then you go a ton of games without getting that type of reward.

“What you lose sight of is the fact that you played BC 1-1 with under [seven] minutes left to go in the game at BC. You played BU on December 30 and it’s 2-1 and you’re up with 10 minutes left in the game. Those are games that could have very easily gone either way. It didn’t go our way for a number of reasons, part of it our own doing. But we’ve put together some good efforts.

“But it’s human nature when you’re not getting the type of results for the effort to ease off a little bit. At BU the week before last we were off and didn’t play hard and didn’t play intelligently. We had to do some soul-searching.”

Out of the soul-searching came the big win at Vermont and reason for optimism down the stretch.

“I have no qualms that this team will make the playoffs,” Dennehy says. “When we play hard, we’ve shown already that we can go toe-to-toe with anyone in this league. We may not have gotten the results we’d like, but we can go toe-to-toe and walk out with our heads held high.

“These kids are resilient as heck; they’re amazing. They come to the rink everyday with a smile on their face, excited to take on another day, even when it’s hard for us.

“We had a good week of practice and we went up there and did on Friday night what we’ve done the majority of the time this year. We played hard. We put ourselves in a position to win. The only difference was, we finished it off.

“We came back the next night and did the same thing with the exception of the overtime. To be down two goals at Vermont against a top ten team in the country and to tie it going into the third period says a lot about the young men in our locker room. As long as they’re working as hard as they can work and as long as they’re working to be the best they can be, then there is not much else you can ask.”

For Dennehy, winning may be the ultimate yardstick, but the way you become a winning team is to focus more on how the team plays.

“[Miami Dolphins coach] Nick Saban got a lot of grief early in the year when he talked about process over results in the NFL. I’m sure he rethought his words after being quoted as saying winning doesn’t matter because obviously at the end of the day that’s the balance sheet.

“But when you’re trying to change the culture and trying to rebuild the program or even when you’ve got it cooking, it’s about the process. If you concentrate too much on winning or you go into a weekend thinking you need points, you really lose sight of what it takes to accomplish what you hope to accomplish.

“We focus on process all the time. It’s about putting your best foot forward. It’s about creating a style of hockey and then committing to it and playing as hard as you can within that culture. The guys have done a great job of doing it.”

Part of that is not to become obsessed with the schedule. In Merrimack’s case, the remaining games include two each against nationally ranked UNH, Maine and Providence with the only others being a singleton against Northeastern this weekend and two against Massachusetts-Lowell.

“I remember when I was first at UMass with [coach Don] Toot [Cahoon] and him saying that if he had to gobble up the whole schedule or if he looked at how many games against top 10 teams that we had, then he just wouldn’t sleep at night. That’s the price you pay for being in Hockey East.”

On an individual note, Dennehy has been able to integrate freshman goaltender Patrick Watson into the rotation with results that bode well for the future: a 2.91 GAA and a .908 save percentage and recognition on Monday as Hockey East Rookie of the Week.

“Goaltending has been a shining star for most of the season,” Dennehy says. “Part of that is depth. I knew a little bit about Pat coming in and the more I find out about him the more I like him. He works hard in practice.

“I think the best goalie situation exists where there’s competition. So I’ve been looking for that. It’s not something you can create. It’s got to happen itself, and of late Patrick’s done a good job of helping me create that culture.

“It’s not like a quarterback position where a quarterback controversy is a bad thing. When Shawn Walsh had [Garth] Snow and [Mike] Dunham, I don’t think there were too many coaches who wouldn’t have traded for that tandem.

“It’s really healthy if it can develop and it’s started to develop over the past couple of weeks here. It makes our goaltending situation which I perceive to be pretty strong even stronger.”

Make Or Break, Part One

Buried deeper in the PairWise than most of their fans anticipated, the Maine Black Bears took care of business last weekend with a road sweep of Northeastern. Even though the Huskies have only a single win all year, they’ve played a lot of teams tough and, more importantly, Maine needs the points in the Hockey East standings and the Ws for NCAA tournament consideration.

“It was definitely a crucial weekend for us,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead says. “They all are now. We missed a couple opportunities earlier in the year to get a point or two here or there. Now we’ve got to be squeaky clean down the stretch.”

For a team that came out of the chute like gangbusters, posting an 8-1 record as of early November, it’s been surprising to see the Black Bears in the “need to be squeaky clean” category.

The results, however, haven’t been ambiguous. Since their 7-1 October, Maine has posted an 8-1 record against teams significantly under .500 while losing every contest but one to teams above even. That’s a 1-7 record against average or better than average teams. And the one win came as part of a home split with Providence.

Clearly, that’s why Maine is in trouble in the race for playoff home ice and in even more trouble in the NCAA picture.

Not only are these not your grandfather’s Black Bears, they’re not October’s Black Bears either.

“Obviously you’re not going to win as many against the top teams as you are against the others,” Whitehead says. “At the same time, we have the challenge to get back to where we were at the start of the year when we [were doing well against the stronger teams.] We’ll have the opportunity to do that this weekend against New Hampshire.”

As if the ultra-strong start and the soft middle doesn’t sufficiently qualify Maine for enigma status, its place in the league statistics makes an even stronger case. Maine ranks second in overall team offense and defense as well as being first in power-play and penalty-kill percentage. Yet Maine needs to be “squeaky clean?”

An enigma indeed.

“We’ve had a couple frustrating losses,” Whitehead says. “We had 2-1 losses to Vermont and BU at home even though we played very well in both games. But that’s the way the game is. Lots of times you play well and don’t get the results. Hopefully, we’ll be on the other side of a couple of those one-goal games.

“Our special teams and offense have made a big step up from last year while our defense hasn’t been as strong, but that was to be expected.”

All of which has placed Maine in a make-or-break stretch over the next few weeks against UNH, Vermont and BC. If the Black Bears are going to make a move, it’s got to begin now.

“No question, it’s make-or-break time for a lot of teams right now,” Whitehead says. “We have the opportunity to move up the ladder.”

To make the most of that opportunity, Whitehead feels the team needs to just play its best hockey and ignore the PairWise.

“It’s human nature to look at those things, but the most important thing to do right now is to focus on the task at hand,” he says. “There are some things that are out of our hands with the PairWise rankings and how other teams do. We can only affect how we play and let the PairWise take care of itself.”

Make Or Break, Part Two

Like Maine, New Hampshire has had its ups and downs this season. A month ago, the Wildcats took three out of four points from Vermont and followed that up with nonconference wins over Yale and Dartmouth. However, after a split with UMass, UNH lost its only game last weekend to Providence.

“It was a great crowd down in Providence,” UNH coach Richard Umile says. “Congratulations to them. They’ve done a terrific job, not only with how the team is playing, but the crowd and how it was a great atmosphere. It’s good for Hockey East.

“Obviously we’re really disappointed with the way we played in the third period. The game was on the line after two periods. We went out there the third and they just outplayed us and beat us. That was disappointing in the way we responded.

“So I’m not too pleased with our team right now. You have to play 60 minutes in Hockey East. If you don’t, you’re not going to be very successful. We need to find a way to do a better job of getting ourselves ready for 60 minutes.”

Earlier in the season, the Big Three of Daniel Winnik, Jacob Micflikier and Brett Hemingway were carrying the load up front and the problem was that the second and third lines weren’t shouldering their share of the scoring load. According to Umile, that situation has reversed itself. The trio only has four goals to show for the last seven games.

“The interesting thing is that the other lines have been helping us out,” he says. “It’s the top line that hasn’t been playing well right now. Obviously they played well in the first half [of the season], but I think they have not played as well as I think they’re capable of playing. They need to get back to playing that way and the younger guys and other lines need to continue to chip in like I think they’ve been doing.

“We’re just very inconsistent at this point. It’s hard to put a run together in this league because of the competition. Look at what Merrimack did last weekend going up to Vermont. Providence beat us flat-out in head-to-head competition. So it’s difficult. But we’ve got to take care of business here.”

(Late update: Making matters considerably worse in the short term, seven players have been suspended for the Friday game at Maine for violating team rules: Winnik, Hemingway, Josh Ciocco, Mike Radja, Trevor Smith, Jerry Pollastrone and Gregg Collins. That eliminates six of the top eight scoring forwards from the lineup.)

At the same time that the offense has had its peaks and valleys, the defense has fallen recently to sixth in the league, allowing an overall 2.58 goals against per game. Historically, the Wildcats have posted better defensive numbers.

“I think we can obviously do a better job there,” Umile says. “The amount of scoring opportunities and grade As that we give up were pretty good up until maybe a game or two ago. They might have even been as good, if not better, than last season.

“I think defensively we’re doing okay. But offensively we don’t have the same threat that we had last season, so we need to tighten up defensively, especially if you look at our schedule and who we’ll be playing down the stretch.”

Indeed. UNH finishes with series against Maine, Merrimack, BU, Providence and BC. And if you point out that they’re all nationally ranked except for Merrimack, Umile jumps right in.

“We lost to Merrimack the first game, so I’m not too excited about playing them,” he says. “We better be ready to play them, too.”

All of which adds up to a make-or-break stretch for a group that right now finds itself outside of the NCAA tournament picture. With most of its upcoming games counting heavily in the PairWise because of the strength of those teams, this is UNH’s opportunity to make a move.

“No question,” Umile says. “We have to focus on ourselves. Those teams are good; they play well all the time. We just need to pay attention to ourselves and give ourselves an opportunity to win.

“You won’t win if you don’t pay attention to detail and play 60 minutes. We haven’t been doing that, so obviously that’s what we have to focus on.”

And considering that the Wildcats’ fate is now in their own hands, they just need to get it done on the ice and forget about things like the PairWise.

“Absolutely,” Umile says. “It will all take care of itself. Right now what we’re doing is competing for the top bracket and trying to get home ice in Hockey East. That’s all we’re focusing on.”

Out Of The Rankings, But In For The Playoffs

The plight of UMass is much like that of its sister school, Massachusetts-Lowell. They’re both sandwiched between the six nationally-ranked teams above them and the two teams below them, Northeastern and Merrimack, that are likely to miss the playoffs.

The Minutemen are a longshot for playoff home ice and will have to win the Hockey East tournament to make the NCAAs. At 9-15-0, they’re not garnering any attention in the polls.

Which is not to say that they haven’t been a dangerous opponent this year. Witness UMass’ win at UNH two weeks ago, not to mention earlier upsets of BU, Vermont and Colorado College.

“We’ve been a team that’s battled pretty hard all year,” Cahoon says. “We are what we are. I can’t say that our record should be better than it is, but we play better than a team that has the record ours has. That’s how I feel.

“We’ve just got to find ways to score more goals so we can win a few more games.”

Which begs the question, has UMass simply been outskilled by the perennial powerhouses?

“The other teams certainly finish more,” Cahoon says. “[But] it’s pretty clear that when we execute [on the] power play and get power-play production, we’re a tough team to beat.

“We just haven’t been able to generate power-play production consistently. We were anemic early in the year and now the power play moves the puck pretty well. We’ve had some pretty good power-play games in the last month, but when the [production] is there we succeed. When we don’t get anything out of it, we have a hard time winning.”

On an individual note, Gabe Winer broke the school record on Friday for games played by a goaltender with 109 and then bumped that number to 110 the following night.

“There’s not a lot of college goaltenders that get an opportunity to play that many games over four years,” Cahoon says. “He’s been very solid, won a lot of big games.

“He’s gone into opponents’ rinks and won. He’s won playoff games. So it doesn’t surprise me. He’s done really well.

“He has a good disposition and he’s on top of his game right now. He gives us a chance to win every night.”

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question was another bit of madness devised by (Marquis de) Scott in what can only be characterized as a random act of cruelty. To celebrate the fact that he managed to read the 750-page Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin — moving his lips over every paragraph no doubt and getting a wicked blister on his index finger — Scott asked, How many different U.S. presidents have the same last name as current or former players in Hockey East? Entrants were not allowed to use the same hockey player’s name twice for the various presidents with the same last name. Scott also challenged readers to see if they could name more than he could without consulting any list of presidents or players — that total was six.

Everett Logan was the first to come up with a total of 13 U.S. presidents whose names coincided with Hockey East players. Here is his list, which Scott has reordered to make the presidents chronological due to his obsessive-compulsive disorder (one of his least annoying behaviors):

John Adams – John Adams, BC
John Quincy Adams – Joe Adams, BC
Andrew Jackson – Todd Jackson, Maine
John Tyler – Bret Tyler, Maine
Zachary Taylor – Greg Taylor, BC
Franklin Pierce – Billy Pierce, BU
Andrew Johnson – Erik Johnson, UNH
Ulysses S. Grant – Robbie Grant, Northeastern
Rutherford Hayes – Adam Hayes UNH
Woodrow Wilson – Jeremy Wilson BC/Merrimack
John Kennedy – Bryan Kennedy, Massachusetts
Lyndon Johnson – Gregg Johnson BU
Jimmy Carter – Greg Carter, Massachusetts-Lowell

Everett’s cheer is:

“The last time I won, UVM had come off a bad weekend and turned around to sweep the next one. Let’s hope the pattern continues: GO…CATS…GO!!!”

However, no reader managed to match Scott’s total of six presidents without consulting any sources. His six were John Adams, Todd Jackson, Bret Tyler, Greg Taylor, Gregg Johnson, and Keith Johnson. If knowing the presidents and college hockey were a marketable skill, Scott actually might be a hot commodity on the job market.

Scott’s cheer is:

“Let’s go Dave! Write a story that tops the legendary effort known as ‘A Tale Of Two Hat Tricks!!'”

(Unless you’re terminally curious and need an explanation, just move on to the next paragraph. For those with nothing better to do, here’s the deal: Under deadline pressure some of my Beanpot “game-day features” are less than stellar. I’ve whined so often about my unhappiness with “A Tale of Two Hat Tricks” that it has taken on a stature of mythically atrocious proportions among staffers. Most likely, the piece was merely mediocre, but that hasn’t stopped the Marquis from using my own column as a forum to torment me. Onward…)

This week’s question pertains to the Beanpot. As almost everyone knows, BU coach Jack Parker owns the best winning percentage of all coaches with at least two tournament appearances. Name the two who most closely trail Parker. 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.

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…

One day you’re talking with someone about power plays and penalty kills. Then seemingly overnight you’re making plans to attend his memorial service. You just shake your head at the sadness of it.

Bill Bennett, father of Will (a teammate of my son’s), died recently of a heart attack. He was always an easy guy to talk to. He and his wife Connie were gracious enough to host a team dinner last year. His death is a shock to us all.

If you knew Bill, donations in lieu of flowers may be made in his name to the Bennett Family Book Fund at Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, NH 03833.

He will be missed.

Thank you to Scott Weighart for his contributions. Thanks also to alert reader Jack Murray for catching an error in the name of Chris Collins’ father two weeks ago.