This Week in Hockey East: March 2, 2006

Who’s King Of The Hill?

It’s that time of year when ballots start circulating so here’s a look at the major awards from this writer’s point of view.

Player Of The Year

Can there be any doubt that the landslide winner of this award is Chris Collins? The senior is tied for second in the country in scoring with 51 points, the only Hockey East entry in the Top 20. (Ouch! Only one in the Top 20? But that’s fodder for another column….)

His closest pursuer within the league is teammate Brian Boyle with 40 points. And if you drop down to the players tied for 20th with 25 points, Collins has lapped the field.

He’s also tied for second nationally with 26 goals and leads the country in shorthanded tallies with six.

He’s done it all on a team that right now sits atop Hockey East.

This has got to be a landslide, if not unanimous.

Coach Of The Year

At the halfway point, this award also looked like a slam dunk. The ultimate no-brainer.

The job Tim Army had done in his first season at Providence was astounding. He had a team picked for seventh place in first. The Friars, perhaps underestimated in those preseason polls, had to be taken seriously in the Hockey East title race as well as nationally.

Only Boston College coach Jerry York seemed to be a contender. That would be in recognition of how his exceptionally young team was consistently piling up the wins despite their inexperience. That said, BC had been picked to finish first anyway so York, as has so often been his fate, wasn’t going to get much in the way of fanfare.

It was a one-horse race and Army was destined to finish first.

That runaway race, however, has become neck-and-neck as these coaching “thoroughbreds” race down the stretch. Providence has faltered a bit, although certainly not disastrously. At the same time, BC has stayed atop Hockey East.

More to the point, Boston University has been the league’s top team over the second half. BU coach Jack Parker has his Terriers right where he wants them, poised for a potential league title and well-positioned for an NCAA top seed in the regionals. Maine has also raced back from NCAA tournament oblivion to be a challenger again for titles both in Hockey East and nationally.

With all due respect to all the other coaches, however, it now looks like a two-horse race between Army and Parker. And it could come down to the final weekend. BU could take the league’s regular season championship after being picked to finish fifth. Arguably, that should give Parker the award.

On the other hand, if Providence pulls out a home ice slot while BU finishes, say, third, then Army will still have much to bolster his case.

This observer sees it as a photo finish with Parker ahead for the moment by a nose.

Rookie Of The Year

There have been plenty of rookies who’ve made big contributions to their teams, but one stands head and shoulders above the rest, both literally and figuratively: Maine’s Ben Bishop. The 6’5″ goaltender is the reigning Hockey East Defensive Player of the Month as well as Rookie of the Month and has been a bulwark in the Black Bears’ impressive stretch run.

He evokes comparisons to Garth Snow, who helped lead Maine to its first national championship in 1993. Bishop has Snow’s height, but even more importantly he has Snow’s ability to not only stop shots but act as a third defenseman with his puck-handling skills and willingness to roam far afield of his crease.

You’ll hear more in the future about Bishop in this space, but for now he gets kudos as the league’s top rookie.

Making A Charge

A month ago, they didn’t look like championship material. To be honest, the Maine Black Bears looked more like paper tigers. Since opening the season with a 7-1 October, they had posted an 8-1 record against teams significantly under .500 while going 1-7 against teams that were even or better.

A make-or-break stretch beckoned: series with New Hampshire, Vermont and Boston College. Sure, it was an opportunity to rocket up in the PairWise if Maine did well, but its recent performances against the better teams left little room for optimism.

The first weekend didn’t go well. Hosting UNH, the Black Bears had a win gift-wrapped for them on Friday when seven Wildcat forwards were suspended for violating team rules. After the predictable win, Maine squandered its golden opportunity for a sweep, losing 7-4 while being outshot, 42-29.

Same old, same old?

Then, however, Maine took three out of four points from Vermont on the road to set up a critical home series with Boston College, Hockey East’s standard-bearer for most of the season.

Having backed away from the precipice, the Black Bears then made a statement with several exclamation points, sweeping BC, 4-1 and 3-1. It was a weekend that almost certainly saved the season and primed the pump for even more.

“It was a must-win situation for us,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead says. “Fortunately, we were at home for the series and that gave us a big lift.

“Getting four points really slingshotted us back into the mix. In the national picture it got us back to ten in the PairWise and in the league it got us back into a home ice scenario although it’s certainly not over.

“So it was a big slingshot weekend for us, especially against one of our top rivals in Boston College. It was a very good confidence builder for our club to know that we can play with the best team in the league toe-to-toe.”

With last weekend’s sweep of Merrimack added, the Black Bears are now 9-1-1 in their last 11, have a shot at winning the regular season title and are tied for 10th in the PairWise.

All of which seemed inconceivable a month ago.

“It’s just focus and intensity,” senior forward Michel Léveillé says. “We were also in the time of the season where we were kind of desperate. We needed the wins.

“[Now] we’re playing with confidence, just doing all the little things and we’re working hard. We want to make sure we keep home ice advantage and we’re always looking at the [NCAA] tournament, too. You want to try and get an at-large bid.”

In seven of their games in the 9-1-1 stretch they’ve allowed only a single goal. At the same time, they’ve been scoring three or four goals almost every night. It’s a pretty obvious recipe for success.

“Our team defense has definitely tightened up a lot,” Léveillé says. “Bishop has been playing great for us [in goal] and Matty [Lundin], when he’s in there, has done a great job, too. We’re just making sure we’re taking care of our end of the ice.

“We know we can put the puck in the net. We have the offense this year and we’re showing that. As long as we take care of our end, we know we can get the job done at the other end of the ice.”

Riding The Roller Coaster

It wasn’t that long ago that the Boston College Eagles would have been the lone Hockey East representative to the national tournament. They were running away from the field in the league standings and looked like a number-one seed in an NCAA regional.

Unfortunately, that was then and this is now. Losing potential tiebreakers to both Boston University and Maine, the Eagles could see the regular season title slip through their fingers. And they’re now on the NCAA bubble.

“We’ve certainly been on a roller coaster ride here in the last month or so of our season,” BC coach Jerry York says. “But if someone had asked me back in late August after Patrick Eaves signed, ‘Would you take a two-point lead with the last week of the season remaining to play for the championship?’ we would have taken it for sure.

“We feel pretty good about where we are and now we have a chance to win Hockey East for the fourth straight time. We have a Wildcat team that is playing its best hockey of the year in front of us, but we’re in a good position and we have a great attitude with a lot of good kids.”

In late January it didn’t look as though there would be the drama that now surrounds the upcoming weekend. BC had only four losses on the season with only two of those coming in league play. Now, however, the Eagles have lost four of their last five and are 4-6 in their last 10.

“I think the credit goes to Hockey East,” York says. “The league isn’t having what some people think is a banner year outside of our conference, but you have to take that with a little bit of salt. We’re playing 30 fewer games [because of Vermont’s entry in the league] so the sample is a smaller sample. Hockey East is down because of our non-conference record, but if we had 30 more games to play it might be a lot different.

“I think our league is very strong this year. If anyone thinks you’re going to run through the league and not be unscathed by it, [that’s not realistic].

“It’s just part of being in a tough conference. We’re not as consistent as we were earlier in the season, but that’s because the other teams are playing very well.

“Earlier in the season, we were winning games, but we were allowing a lot of shots on goal, which is not a good sign. But we had terrific goaltending and opportunistic scoring. We were [winning] 3-2, 2-1. It was a fine edge there.

“So it wasn’t that we were dominating the league and then all of a sudden we stopped. We were dominating as far as the won-loss record, but if you look closely at the games [they were close].”

And as has been noted often, this is a very young team that perhaps has been saddled with unfair expectations.

“It reminds me a little bit of after our NCAA championship in 2001 when we lost the eight seniors and three undergrads left to turn professional,” York says. “This is pretty similar. But that year we went 18-18. Now, we have a very similar situation [but we still] have a chance to win a championship. We just have to take advantage of it.”

And while the Hockey East title remains in the forefront, BC’s position on the NCAA bubble isn’t far behind.

“We’re playing for not only a Hockey East championship, but a berth into the NCAA tournament,” York says. “Both are obtainable, but both certainly aren’t guaranteed at all.”

And with games against New Hampshire at home on Thursday and on the road on Saturday, it’ll be tough sledding.

York says, “We’re moving the playoffs up a little bit here.”

Bouncing Back And Jubilation

It’s been oft-written this year, including by yours truly, how Massachusetts-Lowell was picked in the coaches’ preseason poll to finish in a tie for third place. What got lost in the shuffle, however, was that the poll in question was taken after Boston College lost Patrick Eaves and Maine lost Jimmy Howard, but before the departures of Ben Walter and Jon Yaros at Massachusetts-Lowell. Walter’s loss, in particular, was a haymaker.

So as the regular season nears completion, it’s only right to note that the River Hawks’ label of “picked for third, but in seventh or eighth” hasn’t been fair since they wouldn’t have been picked for third without Walter. Fifth, maybe. Third, no.

As a result, this hasn’t been quite as dismal of a season as might have first appeared. And Saturday night’s win over Boston College might be a better representation of what Lowell can do in the playoffs than a superficial look at the record or Thursday night’s 6-0 loss.

“We thought we had played 45 minutes of pretty good hockey on Thursday,” UML coach Blaise MacDonald says. “At one point in the third period we had outshot BC, 23-22. But we were down, 4-0.

“It was another opportunity to bounce back. And we did. Guys stepped up and played well.”

Perhaps none more than freshman goaltender Vinnie Monaco, getting his first collegiate start and making the most of it. Monaco stopped 36-of-39 shots and earned Hockey East Rookie of the Week honors for his efforts.

Many observers, this one included, probably had Monaco typecast as a career backup since he hadn’t gotten a start until this late in the season.

“I’m guessing that Jack Parker and his staff thought that John Curry would be a backup,” MacDonald says. “Things change.

“He’s worked hard. He wanted that opportunity and he made the most of it.”

And when a kid has an experience like that, it’s special for the coach, too.

“Wins and losses come and go,” MacDonald says, “but a moment of jubilation that you see in a player’s eyes after a performance like that is lasting.”

They’ve Still Got Fight

No this isn’t a regurgitation of the Friday night tussle between Merrimack and Maine that resulted in game disqualifications. It’s recognition of how Merrimack has continued to battle hard even after being mathematically eliminated from the playoff race.

However, Warriors coach Mark Dennehy isn’t surprised that his team still “comes to play.”

“The key is the word play,” he says. “How many of us wouldn’t trade places with them? And be 18 to 24 again? That’s what it comes down to.

“These kids have dreamed about this opportunity for their whole lives. It goes by pretty quickly and you’d better take hold.

“To their credit they’ve battled hard.”

The Thinnest Of Margins

Two weeks ago, Massachusetts came within 12 seconds of sweeping its series with Vermont. However, an extra-attacker goal by Peter Lenes at 19:48 of the finale got the Catamounts into overtime where another Lenes goal gave them a weekend split and allowed them to salvage at least two points out of the season’s series.

Another statistic, however, illuminates even more. UMass was outshot significantly in each game of the series (30-11, 20-14, and 32-15) for an average of 27-13 and yet came within a whisker of a three-game sweep.

If Vermont were a team beset with goaltending woes, those numbers might be worth only a shrug. However, the opposite holds true. Vermont goalie Joe Fallon and his backup Travis Russell have excelled, combining to give the Catamounts the league’s best defensive numbers.

As a result, the near-sweep just shows how the margin between winning and losing is so fine these days. You can be outshot by a wide margin in game after game and yet still be positioned to win. And you can be tantalizingly close to a dominating sweep only to see that slip through your fingers.

End Of The Line For Wesleyan

The Cardinals were taking on the defending national champs and number-two ranked team in the country. And Middlebury hasn’t been Division III’s playoff monster for years now by accident.

Even so, Wesleyan outplayed Middlebury for the first period of the NESCAC quarterfinals last Saturday. The shots showed a modest 5-4 advantage, but the quality opportunities were firmly in the Cardinals’ favor. Yeah, there was a Middlebury deflection goal on the power play to give the Panthers a 1-0 lead, but if you were a Wesleyan fan you’d take another 40 minutes of what you saw in the first period and be delighted to take your chances.

Unfortunately, things fell apart in the second. If taken the right way, it was a learning experience, a building block for what should be a very good team next year.

If there’s another recruiting class comparable to the last three, Wesleyan is going to be a force next year. Not a “spoiler” force, but a force. I’m talking playoff home ice. I’m talking a trip to the playoff semifinals at least. I’m talking about possibly getting recognition in the national rankings.

Call me crazy. You won’t be the first. But take this team and add another recruiting class plus a healthy dose of confidence and the result could be scary.

Tune in next column for some final thoughts on the Wesleyan season.

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question asked when the last time one Hockey East team held a nationally-ranked league opponent to only a single third-period shot to complete a shutout? Apparently this was just too tough of a question because no one got it.

The correct answer was UMass accomplishing the feat against Maine on Jan. 17, 2004, en route to a 1-0 win.

Since no one answered correctly, I’ll give the cheer:

“Hey, Cardinals, Saturday was a stepping stone to great things next year. Work out hard in the offseason and your efforts will pay off!”

This week’s question looks for a humorously ironic or inappropriate song to be played as a hockey team steps onto the ice. What’s an example of “humorously ironic or inappropriate?” Making a Valentine’s Day CD that includes Warren Zevon’s “Send Lawyers, Guns and Money.” Give me the college hockey equivalent.

Email my trivia account no later than Monday at 9 p.m. with the artist and song titles that you think will best tickle my funny bone. The subjectively chosen winner will be notified by Tuesday.

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

So much to gab about and so little time.

The nonsense usually reserved for this space will just have to wait.