This Week in Hockey East: Nov. 9, 2006

Still Undefeated

Going into last weekend, Boston College had just lost to Providence, Boston University to Massachusetts-Lowell, and New Hampshire to Massachusetts. With the Hockey East mantra of “toughest league top to bottom” being chanted in rinks throughout New England, you had to figure Maine had no chance against Merrimack.

The Black Bears, however, had other ideas. Carrying the bullseye of being the nation’s number one team, undefeated and untied at 6-0-0, they rode their special teams to a 4-1 win.

“It’s always good to get out to a good start,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead said after the Merrimack win. “We know in this league it just gets tougher and tougher as the season goes on to get points. So any time we can snag two points in our league on the road we’re very pleased.

“We know there’s a number one bullseye on our back so we’re going to have to be focused every night. It’s a great challenge for us.

“[Upsets around the league] are always good reminders for college kids to realize that, hey, it’s a fine line between winning and losing and you really need to come to play every night to be successful.”

One night later, Maine tied BU, 2-2, and headed back to Orono as one of only two undefeated teams in the country. (Cornell, at 4-0-0, is the other.)

BU coach Jack Parker paid one of the highest compliments to Michel Léveillé, Maine’s top scorer with six goals and six assists, by shadowing him.

“We decided we were going to cover Léveillé,” Parker said. “He’s the best player in the league, and when you take him out the game, things change. I haven’t covered anybody since Ben Eaves was at BC, but we just had John McCarthy cover [Léveillé] wherever he went and keep him from getting the puck.

“Without him making the plays that he can make through center ice going into the zone, that took away their first line with our fourth line, and that gave our top three lines a chance to play against their not-first line.

“So that helped tremendously, but you can do that when you’re the home team and you have last change.”

The mid-January rematch in Orono should prove interesting. Maine, of course, will have the last change in those two games and if the Black Bears stay atop the standings, that advantage will remain through the playoffs. So the shadow might prove to be a one-game phenomenon.

According to Léveillé, the closeness of this year’s team has been a key ingredient in its success. When asked at what point he realized the Black Bears had the potential for something special, the senior captain didn’t single out defeating Minnesota on the road or going to North Dakota and sweeping the Fighting Sioux. Instead, he pointed to a bonding weekend the team had a few weeks into the school year.

“I felt like this team was really close together compared to a couple of the teams we’ve had in the past,” he said. “My first two years we had two or three cliques that always hung out together and it was never really a whole team process when we went to movies or stuff.

“This year we’re a very, very close team. We want to do everything together and it shows how close of a team we are. It doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman or a senior. We’re all in the same boat and if we want to be successful we have to stay on the same page.

“All the guys like each other here and that’s what we need. You need a close team to go all the way.”

Same Old, Same Old?

As much as Maine had to feel satisfaction at defeating Merrimack, Warriors coach Mark Dennehy felt frustration at how he felt the game was taken out of his team’s hands. Following a 1-1 first period, Maine enjoyed all five of the second-period power plays awarded and would finish the 4-1 win with all of its goals on the man advantage.

A holding penalty on J.C. Robitaille midway through the second period, after there had been no call when he had apparently been held, became a key turning point. Not only did Maine break the game open on the resulting power play, but referee John Gravallese initially declined to skate to the Merrimack bench and hear Dennehy’s complaint.

Making matters worse, the box score, which Dennehy no doubt saw, incorrectly listed the power play disparity after two periods as 11-1 instead of the correct 9-3. By the game’s end, the Merrimack coach was more than ready to speak his mind.

“Some of the penalties we took were stupid,” he said. “I also [think], hey, it’s a respect factor. Bottom line. Jack Parker stands in that door when it’s open and the ref comes over and talks to him. Point blank, that’s reality.

“I’m not Jack Parker and I recognize that. It is what it is. I was at Boston College when we were number one. [But Maine] is good enough; they didn’t need any help tonight.

“You hope that the powers-that-be respect the effort [the kids] are putting out. You tell [the players], ‘Weather this storm and the ship will right [itself] and then we’ll get our opportunities.’ But against the better teams in this league, it hasn’t happened yet.

“Same old, same old.”

Off On The Right Foot

A year ago, UMass lost its first five Hockey East games, going 1-7 overall, and had to play catch-up all season long. As a result, a significant improvement on that front was a major priority this fall.

How’s 4-1-1 overall and 3-1 within Hockey East for a mission accomplished and then some?

“It helped to have some success in our first weekend against Sacred Heart and Clarkson,” UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon said. “And it was really important in our first Hockey East weekend at New Hampshire and at Maine to get something out of it and make a good account of ourselves.”

Not that Cahoon is ordering the championship banners just yet.

“It’s just the first week in November,” he said. “We’re just taking it game for game. We aren’t getting too far ahead of ourselves. This is just a good start.”

A big reason for that good start is goaltender Jon Quick (1.98 GAA, .939 Sv%). Quick — and don’t you just love that last name for a goalie? — split time with Gabe Winer last year, but has been The Man as a sophomore.

“From the beginning, we knew he was athletic and capable,” Cahoon said. “He was a highly-touted recruit for a reason. He won championships at Avon Old Farms and the Los Angeles Kings thought highly enough of him to draft him in the [third] round.

“The key was him growing up a little more, getting to know himself more, [and learning] what he needed to do away from the rink to be [his best during games]. He’s made great strides there and has been solid for us, game in and game out.”

At the other end of the rink, the power play has been a significant factor so far, ranking third in the league (19.4 percent), trailing only Maine and BU.

“We have good people in that situation even though they’re not the most prolific in the league.” Cahoon said. “We have a lot of complementary parts. They stay within themselves and make good decisions. That leads to good teamwork. Our power play is really a matter of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.”

The offense hasn’t been dominated, at least not yet, by Matt Anderson, Chris Capraro, and P.J. Fenton as might have been expected. Instead, sophomore Cory Quirk leads the scoring with three goals and four assists.

“Cory Quirk is one of the most improved players in the league if you measure from the beginning of last year to now,” Cahoon said. “He’s become a very, very good player. He has a lot of really good shifts and he does a lot of things, some of them subtle, that contribute to the team’s success.”

Freshman Will Ortiz (1-4–5) has been quickest out of the rookie chute.

“He was recruited with the idea of providing an offensive dimension,” Cahoon said. “You never can be sure how much a freshman will be able to contribute, but he’s made some good plays that have led to scoring chances. That’s been good to see considering how inept we were last year at scoring.”

This weekend, the lone game comes on Friday against Northeastern.

“The big thing is staying in the present and not getting too far ahead of ourselves,” Cahoon said. “There are no sure formulas for beating Northeastern. You just have to prepare yourself as best as you can and bring your best game to the rink to give yourself the best chance of winning. Because anything less than your best in this league is likely to result in an L.”

A Crack In The Ice

Vermont got off to a roaring start at the Ice Breaker Invitational, collectively outscoring Colgate and Miami, 10-1. Following that, however, the Catamounts tied Northeastern and then suffered four consecutive losses.

What happened?

“First of all, the Ice Breaker was a special-teams event,” UVM coach Kevin Sneddon said. “Teams had only had a couple of days of practice and we clicked pretty well on special teams out there.

“We did play pretty well. I think our conditioning was superior to the other teams at that time and we were able to come away with two big wins.

“[But] we’ve had some tough games since then, some games that we did not play extremely well in: Northeastern and the Michigan Tech series. But since that time, we’ve really made some positive strides.

“When you have eight freshmen on the roster and some veteran players who haven’t played a lot in the past taking on some pretty important roles, you’re going to have a few setbacks. I’m pleased that if it’s going to happen, it’s early on.

“Since the Michigan Tech weekend, we’ve really improved every week and unfortunately it’s just been some one-goal loses and we haven’t received any reward for the improvement.”

Exhibit A for that would be Saturday’s 1-0 loss to BC despite outshooting the Eagles 30-13 over the last two periods.

“In terms of the process, it was another step forward,” Sneddon said. “The hard part is it ends up a loss. We’ve just had a hard time scoring against Cory Schneider. I think that’s his third shutout in the last two years against us.

“He certainly is a great goaltender. We threw everything but the kitchen sink at him. I felt that BC controlled the first period and we controlled the second two in terms of energy and in terms of scoring opportunities, but unfortunately [Schneider] was better than our team and we just couldn’t score.

“we certainly don’t want to make excuses, but with a younger team we knew it was going to be a process. As long as we are getting better every week, that’s what I’m concerned with.”

Additionally, Vermont is only into the infancy of its Hockey East schedule, with that containing just the loss to BC and the tie with Northeastern.

Furthermore, the defense and penalty-killing are both picking up where they left off last year, both ranking second in the league.

“The most shots we’ve allowed since the Icebreaker has been only 21 and that’s pretty good team defense there,” Sneddon said. “And, our penalty kill is doing very well and we’re getting good solid goaltending.

“[Our downfall] has been scoring. It’s going to happen. We’ve got some guys who are young playing in key roles for us now. Once those freshmen gain some confidence [we’ll be a lot better].

“Viktor Stålberg is a very, very good player for us and has generated so many scoring opportunities. It just hasn’t gone in for him. He looked pretty good [in our exhibition game] against Ottawa this weekend. He scored two very impressive goals. I’m hoping he’ll gain some confidence to carry that into league play.

“It’s just a matter of finding the back of the net. Everything else in our game is very solid. We really feel like we’re poised to break out of that scoring drought and start producing more.”

A Big 5-10

BU freshman Luke Popko (5-10, 200 pounds) may become another fan favorite at Agganis Arena.

“He’s pretty valuable to us in a lot of ways,” Parker said. “I really think he’s our next Brad Zancanaro. The crowd’s going to love him. John Hynes, the head of the Under-18 team out at Ann Arbor, was asked last year if had to pick one player to start a team [and he said] he’d pick Popko because he just does everything right. He’ll get some goals for us, but he’s so thorough.”

If nothing else, Popko could be vying for a slot during Open Mike nights. Describing his screen on Maine goaltender Ben Bishop, who happens to be six feet, seven inches tall, Popko said:

“I was actually lifting my arms up to kind of get in his eyes because I’m not that tall.”

Revving Up The Cardinals

Readers of this column for the past three years may have wondered when the Wesleyan Cardinals talk was going to start. Well, Sunday’s exhibition game against the University of Rhode Island, the defending ACHA Division I national champions, made any consideration of delaying one more week impossible. Not only did the Cardinals defeat the Rams, who already had an 11-1-0 record under their belts, but a kid named Ryan Hendrickson (a.k.a. The Best Son In The Universe) opened the scoring in the first period.

Wesleyan’s first official game is still another eight days away, so I’ll hold most of my words until next week. But here’s my prediction: playoff home ice and then…

Trivia Contest

Wow! The first trivia question turned out to be an even tougher question than Scott imagined…. So tough in fact, that even he couldn’t answer it. Of course, Scott is probably the kind of guy who hides his valuables in such an ingenious place that no one ever finds them, including him. To be able to write great trivia questions requires the abilities of a true idiot savant… give or take the “savant” part.

In any event, here was the question in question:

“Over the history of men’s hockey in Hockey East, name the player whose brother played D-I hockey the farthest away from him in terms of driving distance between the two schools. The brothers needed to play at those two schools during at least ONE of the same seasons. Go to Mapquest if you want to check driving distance between campuses and note the approximate mileage.

“One not very useful example: Last year the parents of Brad and Tony Zancanaro only had to drive approximately 55 miles to see their sons play home games at their respective schools, BU and Providence. So whose parents would have had the roughest road trip from one weekend to the next in the history of Hockey East?”

This one challenged our readers more than anticipated. The first people to respond guessed the Hopson brothers. They would have trumped ALL other answers in terms of distance… but they didn’t play at the two different schools (Maine and Alaska-Anchorage) the same season.

Scott’s “right” answer was actually Cory Rask and Devin Rask of Alaska-Fairbanks and Providence College… and even when Scott received the winning answer, he held out hope that his brother pair would win out in terms of distance. Wrong again. Patrick Cavanaugh wrote in to note that Matt Fornataro (UNH) played his home games about 4,544 miles (77 hours and 23 minutes on Mapquest) away from where brother Nathan simultaneously played his home games at Alaska-Fairbanks. This distance trumped the Rask brothers by all of 66 miles or 58 minutes of driving time!

So maybe we should take a page out of NPR’s Car Talk brothers and rename the Trivia Question “Stump The Chump” in Scott’s honor.

Patrick’s cheer is:

“TBA”

It’s interesting to note that Scott picked a trivia question involving Devin Rask, the new assistant coach at Wesleyan, when everyone knows that it’s yours truly who considers Wesleyan to be the hub of the hockey universe.

In any case, this week’s question tries to be more manageable. It congratulates UMass on its impressive start and asks what was the first time that the Minutemen opened a season with a 3-1-0 record in Hockey East play. And since goaltender Jon Quick has been such a pivotal contributor, name the number one goaltender on that other club. Email my trivia account with the season and goaltender. 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.

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 “SUGGESTION” in the subject line.

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

• After Sunday night’s game, it’s hard to envision any team stopping the Indianapolis offense. They’re every bit as much a juggernaut offensively as the ’86 Bears were defensively. At the same time, however, it’s also hard to envision a team with that run defense winning the Super Bowl.

• The Red Sox have their work cut out for them. They don’t have a lot of flexibility, and adding talent through free agency looks like a minefield. The law of supply and demand will make this the offseason to beat all offseasons in terms of overpriced mediocrity, especially with pitchers. There are going to be a whole lot of teams that pay Matt Clement dollars for what turns out to be Matt Clement performance.

• If you didn’t vote, you don’t get to whine.


Thanks to Scott Weighart and also to my wife Brenda.

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