This Week in Hockey East: Nov. 16, 2006

The Sky Isn’t Falling

Based on some reactions to Boston College’s 6-3 start, you’d think the Eagles are on the brink of disaster. While it’s true that there have been some surprising losses, most notably the lopsided scores in Notre Dame’s 7-1 win and Harvard’s 4-0 shutout, there isn’t a team in college hockey that hasn’t taken it on the chin at least once.

“It’s the state of college hockey,” BC coach Jerry York says. “It’s a roller coaster ride for all. Just when Maine seemed to be escaping the roller coaster, they lost 8-2 to New Hampshire. Just when Minnesota seemed to be escaping it, they tied twice with St. Cloud. College hockey is in a state of flux.

“We’re in that mix [of the best teams], but we’ve been up and down. Some nights we’ve played really well. Other times we haven’t. We’re still looking for consistency.”

Although the Eagles have been outshot more than is customary for a top team — on average they allow more than 29 shots per game — York isn’t obsessed with that number. He’s seen that movie before, in particular, last year’s squad that still advanced to the national championship game.

“Last year we were consistently outshot throughout the season,” he says. “We had the four freshmen defensemen, so we expected that. They’re six months older now, but that hasn’t made us a lot older. We’re still not a veteran team on the blue line.

“We still have four sophomore defensemen and one freshmen plus [junior] Mike Brennan, who has been our glue guy on defense. So we’re still young back there and [our high shots against] won’t be corrected overnight.

“Usually the best defenses have lots of juniors and seniors. They have that experience and poise. We’re getting there.”

The youth and relative inexperience isn’t just on the blue line. It extends to the entire roster.

“Last year, we were the youngest team in the country,” York says. “Now, we’re assumed to be a veteran team. But I saw the listings the other day and it showed that this year the youngest team is Michigan and we’re only a month behind them. And Joe Pearce is our oldest player and Adam Reasoner is one of the oldest, and they’re our backup goaltenders.

“It’s a process. We weren’t world-beaters last year. We got hot at the right time.

“Now we need people to step up. We never thought it would be easy.”

On special teams, the penalty kill has been very strong, killing 90.2 of the shorthanded situations, a figure that trails only Vermont’s 91.7. The power play, however, has plenty of room for improvement, converting only 13.6 percent of its chances.

“It’s been a concern the last couple years,” York says. “Last year’s power play was the [second] lowest in the league. We’re clearly better this year than last, but the sample size is still small.

“I like what I’m watching. I see a significant improvement in both the breakout and the in-zone play. I think we’ll be much better as the season goes along. We’re spending lots of time on it.”

The next five games should provide a pretty accurate measuring stick of where the Eagles stand. Four of the five will be against other members of the Top 10: Maine, New Hampshire, and a home-and-home series with Boston university along with a singleton at Northeastern.

“We’ll be tested each and every night,” York says. “We’d love to be 9-0, but 6-3 is keeping us alive in the pursuit of an excellent season. It’s not like we’re 3-6.

“But this will be a good stretch of challenges and games within the league. It’s great to play Notre Dame, Bowling Green, Wisconsin, and Harvard, but the meat of the schedule is in the league. We’re looking forward to it.”

Wildcats On A Roll

New Hampshire had a two-game dip at the end of October, but after last weekend all that is forgotten. The Wildcats hosted BU on Friday night and would have emerged with a win if not for a borderline penalty that resulted in the Terriers escaping with a point. After traveling to Orono, however, UNH left no doubt with an 8-2 domination of the previously undefeated Black Bears.

“We had a good weekend beginning with BU,” UNH coach Richard Umile says. “We were just disappointed that we didn’t finish the game at the end when we had a chance to win it.

“But we carried over our good play up at Orono. Any time that you go up there and come out with a W and overall you play well [you have to be pleased]. The second period was a tough period for us with penalties, but we were opportunistic and played well the majority of the game.”

The Wildcats offense is taking no prisoners, averaging 4.62 goals per game when only one other league team tops 2.78. (That other team is Maine at 4.10.) The top two lines — Mike Radja with Jacob Micflikier and Brett Hemingway as well as Trevor Smith with Matt Fornataro and Jerry Pollastrone — are powder kegs ready to go off on any and every shift.

“We were comfortable with our lines at the beginning of the season and we’ve really had these lines for awhile,” Umile says. “Our top two lines, the scoring lines if you will, have nice chemistry there. Radja has fit in very well with Hemingway and Micflikier and he had a great weekend. And there’s no question that the young line of Pollastrone, Fornataro and Smith move the puck well offensively.

“But more importantly, as a team we’re playing much better defensively and that’s the reason we had success this weekend. When teams like Maine and BU are in the offensive zone you really have to work hard to contain them and tight-gap them. We’re doing a better job at that and that’s paying dividends.”

Not that there will be any resting on last weekend’s laurels when UNH plays a home-and-home series with Massachusetts-Lowell.

“You can have a great weekend and, if you don’t pay attention, you can have a miserable one very quickly, ” Umile says. “Especially in our league. That’s proven every year and there’s no question that it has been this year.

“Northeastern is as good a team as we’ve played and they haven’t won yet in the league. That’s how good they are. So you have to pay attention.

“[Lowell coach] Blaise [MacDonald] has a young team, but he’s got them playing unbelievable right now. So we’re going to have our hands full again this weekend.

“It’s game by game. It’s a marathon from start to finish. You have to play every weekend.”

A Rocky Start

When Providence coach Tim Army was asked on Monday where he thought his team stood, he didn’t hesitate.

“Two-seven-and-one,” he said a day before a much-needed overtime win over Northeastern pushed the Friars to 3-7-1. “It’s not where we’d want to be, that’s for sure. It’s a disappointing start, obviously, but we’re making some progress.

“We’re not getting that bounce at the right moment and it’s kind of going against us. You work for those and you earn those, but I think we’ve done some good things. If we just stay with it, eventually we’ll get that big goal at that critical point in the game. The pendulum will swing back your way if you stay with it. That’s what we’re trying to focus on right now.”

In particular, Army is happy with his team’s improved defensive play.

“We’re giving up fewer quality scoring chances,” Army said. “We were really plagued in three of the first four games where we gave up some real good opportunities. We had some dangerous breakdowns which really put our goalies in a difficult situation. Since we’ve tweaked some things a little bit we’ve been much better at limiting those kind of opportunities, and really, for the most part, have limited the shots against us.”

Although the grade A chances were allowed all too often in the first couple weekends, goaltender Tyler Sims still has yet to hit his stride. The junior posted save percentages of .914 and .916 his first two years, but has fallen to .882 so far this season. Freshman Ryan Simpson (1-3-0, 3.90 GAA, .836 Sv%) has just been getting his feet wet.

“Our goaltending can be better, there’s no question about that,” Army said. “You look at save percentages and you can see where our goaltending can be better, particularly with the number of shots that we’re giving up as a rule.

“Sometimes, it just takes a little while to find your game. I thought [Sims] played very well when he went in for Ryan Simpson the other night. It was the best I’ve really seen him play this year.”

The biggest surprise, however, is that the up-tempo Friars rank as the league’s second-worst offensive team, averaging only 2.36 goals per game.

“It’s pretty black and white,” Army said. “We’re getting opportunities and we’re not capitalizing on them. I guess it would be like a hitter in baseball. When you’re struggling, you maybe grip the bat a little bit tighter and you’re just not loose at the plate.

“We might be very similar [to that]. We’re getting chances, but we’re forcing, we’re pressing, we’re not as relaxed when those opportunities come. It steamrolls on you and you lose that poise in those situations.

“Obviously, some of our key guys don’t have the numbers that we would expect. At some point in time they’re going to find their range and loosen up a little bit.”

Wesleyan About To Get Started

The Wesleyan Cardinals open their season on Friday against Amherst and I’m convinced they can post their best record in a very long time. The Cardinals have playoff home ice contender written all over them as long as…

… as long as they believe in themselves. Winning teams have that mindset in the third period of close games that they expect to win. Programs looking to move to the next level need to develop that attitude. I see the Cardinals making that move.

Here’s why they should believe in themselves:

They did a lot of things well last year. They were the number two team in the NESCAC in team defense and were the league’s top penalty-killers. Last year, Williams, Bowdoin, and Colby finished second through fifth behind Middlebury. Wesleyan’s results in those three games? A 2-1 loss, a 1-1 tie, and a 1-0 loss, respectively. The Cardinals were awfully close; their 4-1-1 closing finish was no mirage. Even a modest improvement on their 1-6 record in one-goal games would have made a huge difference.

They graduated only a single senior who dressed and have added what looks like another strong recruiting class. With the added maturity of another year’s experience, I believe the Cardinals could make a big move in the NESCAC.

Go Cards!

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question congratulated UMass on its impressive start and asked what was the first time that the Minutemen opened a season with a 3-1-0 record in Hockey East play, and who was the number one goaltender?

Quite a few readers sent the last time UMass had opened in such fashion, but the question had asked for the first. Unfortunately, “the last shall be first” doesn’t cut it here. To those who might claim that wading through my swill is the cause of their lost reading skills, I will plead guilty.

Ronald Daugherty was the first to answer correctly. His cheer is:

“GO MAINE! No. 1 Now and No. 1 Later (End Of Season!!!!) GO BLUE!!!!”

This week’s question is a lot tougher. It asks which two former prep school teammates faced each other for the first time in Friday’s New Hampshire-Boston University game? Email my trivia account with the two players and the prep school. 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.

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

The clock is ticking and my editor is waiting, so I’ll just say that the dollar figure was astounding, but I love the Red Sox’ move. Youth and potential excellence over mediocre retreads any day.

And how sweet is it that New York teams got outbid! Yeah!

Thanks to my wife Brenda for her patience and assistance.


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