This Week in Hockey East: Oct. 26, 2006

Number One In The Country!

Maine roared into a number one ranking this week following a road sweep of North Dakota. The wins pushed the Black Bears to a 5-0-0 record that also includes a victory at Minnesota. Arguably, it may be time to call for drug testing of any pollsters who didn’t put Maine in the top spot.

“We’re pleased with our start, but it’s just a start,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead says. “There’s a long ways to go. I’m sure there will be some ups and downs.”

Michel Léveillé has led the offense with four goals and five assists, recording a point in every game. He scored three goals with three assists in the North Dakota series. Despite all that, Whitehead first points to the difference he’s made off the ice.

“He’s been a great leader as we knew he would be,” Whitehead says. “He had experience as an assistant captain, but it is different to be captain and he’s handled it extremely well. He’s really pulled guys together and kept them focused.

“He’s also led the way on the ice. I thought he was the best player on the ice for either team during the North Dakota series. He really rose to the occasion.”

Teddy Purcell, the league’s rookie of the week, was expected to come in and make an immediate impact. He’s done all of that and more, trailing only Léveillé’s point totals with five goals and two assists. He’s scored goals in four of the five games, including all three of the tough road wins over Minnesota and North Dakota.

“Teddy’s been fabulous,” Whitehead says. “We thought he’d be the most prepared of all the freshmen to come in and help us right away and he has. He’s been able to play everything: power play, penalty kill, and the first and last minutes of the period. He has that poise and composure.

“He’s a real team guy. He’s well-respected by his teammates. He came here in great shape so he’s prepared to log a lot of ice time. We’re very pleased with his play.”

At the other end of the ice, sophomore Ben Bishop has also excelled, earning Defensive Player of the Week honors and allowing only a single goal in four of the five games. His 1.49 goals against average and .944 save percentage are strong, albeit early, indicators that he’s ready to join the pantheon of great Black Bear goalies.

“Bish has been great,” Whitehead says. “He did extremely well in a tough situation last year. we’ve been looking for him to take that next step this year and become an elite player at this level. It’s a natural step to take, but not all guys can handle it.

“But he’s been an impact player for us. He works extra hard and he has great focus.”

Maine opens its Hockey East schedule this Saturday, hosting Massachusetts.

Undefeated and Untied

Other than Maine, only one team has played at least two games and is undefeated and untied. And that team? New Hampshire.

With nothing but exhibition games under their belts, the Wildcats traveled to Colorado College to take on the 3-0-1 Tigers and emerged with 4-3 and 7-2 wins.

“It’s a great atmosphere out there and obviously coming back with two wins is a plus,” UNH coach Richard Umile says. “It’s very difficult to win two games on a weekend, I don’t care if it’s non-league on the road or at home. We’re very pleased with the overall way our team played.”

In particular, the Friday night game showed many promising signs. Despite falling behind 2-0 in the first period, the Wildcats battled back to tie the game after two. They then scored twice midway through the third and only surrendered a late extra-attacker goal for the win.

“The way we won showed the character of the team,” Umile says. “There’s good leadership and attitude. It’s a good locker room.

“The guys stayed composed and stayed with it. We got it turned around in the second period and really kind of took it away in the third. How we won the game on the road at a tough place and stayed composed was a good sign.

“And on Saturday night, we came out and played a solid game and just took it away from them.”

Goaltender Kevin Regan, a key component in UNH’s chances this year, stopped 56 of 61 shots (a .924 save percentage).

“He played solid,” Umile says. “He made key saves when he had to make the saves, especially on Friday night. He handled the puck well. Four of the five goals that they scored were power-play goals that were no fault of his. Two of those four were five-on-three and he made some nice saves before the goals, but just couldn’t cover the entire area.

“He had a solid weekend and we know he’s a solid goaltender. If he plays well, we’ll be a solid team.”

Almost everyone expects that the UNH scoring will be led by the two remaining big guns from last year, Jacob Micflikier and Brett Hemingway. At Colorado College, both finished with three assists, but the top goalscorers were Mike Radja, who centered Micflikier and Hemingway, with three goals and sophomores Trevor Smith (also with three goals) and Jerry Pollastrone (two). Expanding the scoring depth like that is yet another encouraging sign.

“[Scoring depth] was the challenge coming into the season,” Umile says. “There’s no question that Micflikier and Hemingway are going to score goals whether it’s on the power play or even strength.

“We put Radja in between those two and that’s going to be a real good line. Radja’s goals were some great passing by Micflikier and Hemingway so as a line they played well.

“Smith is going to be as good a goalscorer as we’ve had. He along with Pollastrone and [Matt] Fornataro is a line that is back from last year and they played very well over the weekend. We knew that they would have to score along with Micflikier, Radja and Hemingway [for our offense to be effective]. If they do that, we’ll get the balanced scoring that we need.”

New Hampshire begins its Hockey East schedule on Thursday, hosting Massachusetts, and then welcomes Yale on Saturday for another nonconference game.

On The Road Again

Massachusetts-Lowell has four out of its opening five road games under its belt and although a 1-2-1 record isn’t going ignite any title talk for the rebuilding River Hawks, there are signs for cautious optimism. Two weeks ago there was a tie and a loss at Minnesota-Duluth, but even better was the close-but-no-cigar loss to Northern Michigan, 2-1, followed by a 7-4 win over Niagara. Those two contests came in the Mutual of Omaha Stampede at Omaha, Nebraska. Northern Michigan went on to defeat the tournament hosts, Nebraska-Omaha, 5-2.

“We were gone essentially eight days out of 14, so that takes a toll on you,” UML coach Blaise MacDonald says. “It can toughen us up a little bit.

“I was very pleased with how we played against Northern, who is a well-regarded team in the CCHA. We got off to a 1-0 lead, had a couple of terrific chances, but instead they scored a goal with two minutes left in the first and it was a 1-1 ballgame. We played excellent the next forty minutes. We only relinquished seven shots, but they beat us, 2-1.

“[Against Niagara] we really established our level of play [in the second period] and pretty much took the game over. Niagara has beaten Holy Cross and St. Lawrence so [our win means something.]”

To no one’s surprise, Jason Tejchma has led the goalscoring with three and an assist. Much is expected of him this season.

“He had an awesome weekend at Duluth,” MacDonald says. “He just imposed his will on everybody. Two short-handed goals. He played great.

“This weekend, he had a couple real quality chances and [the goalie] was just equal to the task. But he and Jeremy Hall show that great level of patience and poise. Tejchma, in particular, has really worked hard and increased the velocity and release of his shot, which I know will pay huge dividends.”

The defense struggled last year, but there are many new faces. Blue line leader Cleve Kinley, sidelined by injury for the Niagara game, will be a game-time decision this weekend.

“We’re a totally different team on defense now,” MacDonald says. “We played four freshman defensemen each night and we transitioned the puck well. We’re making a lot of real good decisions down low. We’re much more mobile and everything seems to be flowing very well from the defense. I’ve been pleased with how all of our defensemen played.”

The number one question mark of goaltending has, of course, incomplete results. Freshman Carter Hutton (3.95 GAA, .878 Sv%) played the first three games. Vinny Monaco, the lone returnee from last season, was between the pipes against Niagara.

“The goaltending has been solid,” MacDonald says. “We’ve only played four games so we still need a little bigger sample size, but one thing I absolutely know is that our team plays very hard and wants to play hard in front of their goaltenders. That will go a long way.

“Arguably, our goalies are the hardest working guys on our team.”

Providence Style Tweaks?

Providence lost twice last weekend, giving the Friars three straight losses and back-to-back Saturday 6-1 defeats.

“I’m not happy,” PC coach Tim Army said after the game. “That’s three out of four [losses] and we’ve taken two on the chin pretty good. We’ve got to get better.

“I don’t necessarily know what the answer is. Obviously, if I did it would be a little easier. But we’ll find our way through it.”

In particular, under Army the Friars have become known for being aggressive with their defense. There may be some tweaks to the system in the offing.

“We’re going to have to make some adjustments to solidify things,” Army said. “We’re trying to be wide open, to be aggressive offensively. However, four of our six defensemen are freshmen and sophomores and we get a little bit loose at times and we’re getting exposed a little bit. We may have to find a way to tighten that up. We probably have to give our defense [more] support when we don’t have the puck, when we’re pursuing.”

Not that the problems begin and end with the blueliners.

“Our power play has to be better,” he said. “We’ll work hard at that.

“Some of our older guys need to play better. They are supposed to come in ready and give the younger guys a chance to get their feet under them.

“We need to score some timely goals and we need some timely saves. In our three losses, we haven’t gotten a big stop with the score 0-0.”

At least none of the first four games came within Hockey East. PC’s league schedule begins this weekend against Merrimack and Lowell, followed by Boston College on Tuesday.

“We got off to a good start in Hockey East [last year] and we’ll be looking to do that on Friday night,” Army said. “But I don’t want to sell nonconference games short. They’re very, very important. I would have expected that we’d be better than 1-3 at this point. But it’s still early.”

Not The Same Northeastern

The Northeastern Huskies may have lost to Boston University, 4-3, to drop them to 0-2-1 within the league, but this is a team vastly improved over last year’s edition. Their record may not show it for a while, despite a 5-0 blanking of Union on Saturday, but that’s because their first three games were on the road against league teams in the Top 10 and they now head to Michigan for two followed by a home-and-home with New Hampshire the following weekend.

“They’re a team to be reckoned with,” BU coach Jack Parker said after his Terriers squeaked out a come-from-behind win in the final minute.

There’s not a snowball’s chance that the Huskies will again be 3-24-7. Coach Greg Cronin has brought in some impressive freshmen who will pose problems for opponents.

“My goal was to try to generate some identity as a group early in the year and as we did that try to chip away at the point total [in the standings],” Cronin said after the BU loss. “Obviously, the games against BC, Vermont, and BU have significant meaning because they affect our standings at the end of the year. But it’s over. You’ve got to move on and build off the positives.

“Clearly, we’re back. We’ve got a heckuva team. There were [13] freshmen or sophomores in the lineup led by our goaltender [Brad Thiessen]. There are a lot of things to build off for us. Obviously, it’s a lot easier to build off if you win the game, but we’ve got an exciting group of players and it’s going to be a fun year to coach.

“We’ve got a nice mix of seniors who are determined to have success this year. And our younger guys are talented. The kid [Kyle] Kraemer is around the puck a lot; he’s got a lot of puck luck. [Joe] Vitale, who is a sophomore now, is emerging as a more complete player.

“The good thing about our group is that I think we’re going to get better and better as the year goes along.”

Boston College and A Stunner

Easily the most shocking result of the season was BC’s 7-1 loss to Notre Dame.

“They flat-out beat us, in every facet of the game,” BC coach Jerry York said after the loss. “Special teams, faceoffs, individual play with the puck, transition game, you name it.

“It’s something that stings, and we’ve got to address the things that embarrassed us in front of our fans. It shows that it’s not going to be easy for us. The wake-up call was delivered and we received it loud and clear. We know that we need to do lots of work to improve.”

One night later, the Eagles came back to defeat Bowling Green in a game that was as different as the proverbial night and day.

“The first 10 minutes really established how we were going to play throughout the game,” York said. “We were getting to pucks, finishing checks, getting second chances at the net. We played with real vigor and resolve.”

Was the Notre Dame upset just a blip in the signal or cause for greater concern? How the Eagles play at Wisconsin this weekend will be a better indicator than Saturday’s home win.

“One of the things about getting a win is how you feel,” York said after topping Bowling Green. “You play with more confidence. Your practice is easier. It was important to us as we head out west to go out there on a positive note.”

Quote Of Note

BU coach Jack Parker on his team’s slow starts in the season’s first two games:

“Maybe we were reading our press clippings and thinking we were pretty good and we needed to make some pretty plays and doodle around. Nobody can do that anymore against anybody in Division I. You’ve got to come ready to play, ready to beat people to pucks.”

Shifting to a football analogy, Parker said, “You’ve got to come ready to block and tackle. We don’t want to block and tackle. We want to make thirty-yard passes and flea-flicker plays instead of playing solid hockey.”

Trivia Contest

Since Scott Weighart will be writing the column next week — please, stop the applause! — and he’s become renown for his killer trivia questions, we’ll start the contest next week with one of his mindbenders.

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

Scott’s latest book is one that those of you looking to enter the workforce soon (or those who have just recently started your career) would be foolish to ignore. Based on his experience working with co-op students, Exceeding Expectations: Success Stories for Young Professionals, is an easy read loaded with interesting examples and useful information. Just flipping through the book, I found myself drawn into page after page.

Click “here” for all the details.

In my next column, I’ll go back to saying nasty things about him.

Thanks to Lee Urton. Thanks also to my wife Brenda for her assistance.