This Week in Hockey East: Nov. 23, 2006

Dave Hendrickson is not available this week because he is facing off against international competitive eating champions Takero Kobayashi and Sonya Thomas (“The Black Widow”) to see who can consume the most turkey in the course of one period of hockey. Gobble, gobble, Dave!

Catamounts On The Climb

Back on November 4, Vermont had a mediocre 2-4-1 record and a five-game winless streak. The Catamounts haven’t lost or even tied since in a five-game stretch that included an exhibition game and four Hockey East contests. All of which might lead one to believe that the program has made a sudden and dramatic turnaround, but Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon indicated that the difference has been far more subtle than one might believe.

“To be honest with you, the only weekend we feel we played very poorly was against Michigan Tech here at home,” Sneddon said. “We lost a couple of one-goal games and what happened from that weekend on was a lack of confidence — a lack of scoring confidence. From there it kind of steamrolled against us, losing one-goal games. But I really felt that starting with the Dartmouth game [on October 29] we’ve played some great hockey. We haven’t always ended up on the winning side, but our game at BC I thought we played extremely well; we just couldn’t solve Cory Schneider.”

If there was a turning point, ironically it came with a very rare November exhibition game. “We moved into an exhibition game against a Canadian School, the University of Ottawa, and gained some of that scoring touch. I think that kind of gave our key scorers some confidence. From that point on, we haven’t put up huge numbers offensively but it’s given us the confidence to win the close games.”

One key in those tight games has been the incredibly stingy Catamount defense. Vermont has surrendered two goals or less in nine of 11 games played this season. They are second in the nation in team defense with a goals against average of 1.55, trailing only Notre Dame.

“It starts with the goaltender, and we certainly feel we have the best one in Hockey East in Joe Fallon,” Sneddon said. “But he’d be the first one to admit that we pay a lot of attention to our team defense overall. Our forwards are committed to blocking shots; our defensemen are very tough in front of the net. We’re not the biggest crew back there, but we’re certainly very tough. Our team defense starts with strong forecheck, and when we’re on our game our speed is a great advantage to press teams. It’s become difficult to mount an attack coming up ice, and that’s really where we limit shots.”

Tuesday’s night 3-0 whitewashing of a surprisingly strong UMass team was probably the team’s best showing so far this season. In particular, they put the stranglehold on the Minutemen in the third period, outshooting them 11-2 and giving them no chance to make it a game.

“It was our mindset. We’re still a relatively young team with nine new faces in our locker room. We lost a couple of one-goal games really because of a lack of a confidence. What we’ve talked about lately is when you’re up by a goal going into the third period, obviously you want to play smart but you don’t want to sit back. You want to continue to play our system and continue to press.

“I felt last night we played probably our best third period of the year in that we didn’t give UMass any opportunities to mount any sort of attack through the neutral zone and into our zone. I thought we did a real, real good job of that.”

In terms of new arrivals, some wondered how badly Vermont would be hurt by the medical redshirt of top recruit Chris Atkinson, who suffered a severe injury late last season and now will not play until next season. But many great contributors have emerged.

“Guys continue to surprise every day. It’s been great. My assistants did a fantastic job in the recruiting process. We missed Brayden Irwin for a while. He played in the Ice Breaker Tournament and suffered an injury in the practice, missed four or five games. Since he’s been back, he’s been a great surprise for us.

“Viktor Stålberg is the one that everybody’s noticed. He’s played on our top line, starting to produce. He’s a factor in every game because he’s one of our fastest players and at 6’2” he adds that element of size and speed and good reach for us and very good offensive instincts. Pat Cullity has been very solid on the blue line for us; he’s our only freshman defenseman but a great addition for us and rock solid.

“[Colin] Vock and [Brian] Roloff have played every game for us and our just really solid two-way players. They’ve contributed some offense, but they’ve become real surprises in terms of picking up the defensive responsibilities really quick.”

It’s still early, and this weekend’s visit from Maine will be a good litmus test for the Catamounts, but they very well could be in the mix for home ice if this keeps up — especially with Providence struggling early in the standings.

Huskies On The Cusp

Over on Huntington Avenue, the Huskies are absolutely teasing and tantalizing their fans with glimmers of potential greatness. The latest was a crowd-pleasing 3-3 tie with powerhouse Boston College, a game that the Huskies tied when Mike Morris scored with just 2.6 seconds left in regulation. It was certainly the most exciting game Cronin has coached with the Huskies, and one of the wilder games he’s ever coached.

“I called it an exciting and slippery game,” Cronin said. “Obviously I’ve been involved with Stanley Cup playoff games and national championship games and World Junior Gold Medal games that were exciting, but nothing had that weird feel to it. There were so many penalties. How many times do you see a three-on-three? There was a three-on-three, four-on-fours, five-on-threes, four-on-threes…

“From a coaching perspective, we went down a couple of D so we only had four D on the bench for a period of time. We lost [Steve] Birnstill early in the game. I guess exciting is too broad of a term. It was a wacky game, you know? I think there were number of chances for both sides that really amped up the energy in the building. It was just a fun game, a great college hockey game. And then when we score a goal with three seconds to go to tie it, that adds a little more excitement to it, that’s for sure.”

The injury to Birnstill was the one dark note on an otherwise amazing night to be in Matthews Arena. “He’s got a shoulder injury. He’ll be out for a while, I know that. I don’t know how long.”

While Northeastern’s 2-7-2 record may be uncomfortably reminiscent of last year’s woeful record, anyone who has seen the Huskies knows that this year’s model will do some serious damage, eventually.

“Forget about last year, Scott,” Cronin said. “That was a terrible year, and the personnel changeover has been dramatic. There’s at least ten new guys in the lineup, including Morris [who missed all of last year due to injuries suffered in a car accident] and including [goalie Brad] Thiessen. So you’ve got a significant changeover in personnel, our first year of recruiting. You’ve got [Chad] Costello, [David] Stratham, and Thiessen are kind of the core of that new class, and that’s followed up by [Kyle] Kraemer and [Randy] Guzior and [Chris] Donovan and [Jim] Driscoll.

“There’s a nice balance with the recruiting. You’ve got seven freshmen and then with the addition of Morris, you’ve got four seniors in the lineup: Birnstill, Morris, [Ray] Ortiz, and [Bryan] Esner. Clearly Ortiz is playing really well as well.”

So looking at the recent spate of overtime ties and losses, could it be that Northeastern is already close to the tipping point?

“To answer your question, clearly we’re right on the cusp. This has been an interesting year for me. Last year was hopefully a once-in-a-career year for me when you have that much pain, that much of a challenge trying to squeeze out wins. This years we’ve got some players that clearly make a difference for this team. Then there’s that hurdle for this team in this rebuilding process, and that’s to win these close games.

“You just pointed out that we’ve just had two overtime games, and the UMass game went down to the wire, and then the UNH game — UNH won 3-1, but I look at that as a game that could’ve gone either way despite the score. And I clearly think the game at UNH could’ve gone either way. It was 3-3 game at one point, and they had some wacky goals in the second period off a shin pad and some sticks.

“We just need to get a little bit of a break. We haven’t had a lot of puck luck this year. Even the Michigan game that we lost in overtime, that deflected in off the net. The BU game early in the year had a wild finish to the game. We haven’t had a lot of puck luck.

“In an 80-game schedule in the NHL, that stuff always seems to even out. You go through streaks where you’re like ‘Holy Smokes! We just outplayed a team badly and lost 3-1 or 4-2.’ It’s a matter of just having that bad luck but also having the hard work and execution to be on the good side of that luck. And a lot of it’s just bad luck. That goal that Providence scored to win the game in overtime? That kid shot the puck from the boards and it went off Morris’s shin pad, skipped over Russo’s stick, and the Cavanagh kid knocked it in out of the air. That’s not going to happen one out of 100 times.”

So perhaps NU has suffered more than their share of bad breaks, and the tying goal is the sign of better fortunes to come. “Hopefully with the BC game we get lucky when the puck squirts out and onto Morris’s stick, so we get a little luck there. So maybe that’s the sign that things are going to change for us. Anybody who watches us now enjoys watching us play. We’ve got enough talent that we can be a fun team to watch.”

However, it won’t be enough to wait for a bigger share of the lucky breaks. The big albatross for Northeastern has been consistency thus far. “We’ve got to play 60 minutes. You watch our team, and if we only had to play two periods of hockey we’d be the number one team in college hockey because we’ve dominated teams for periods, and then we take three, four, five minutes off.

“We’re not good enough right now to take three or four minutes off. Maine, BC, UNH, even BU may be able to play a few bad minutes of hockey and they’ve got enough structure and maturity that they’re not going to get scored on. We’re still young on and we’re still growing, so when we take time off it translates into a goal against us. And when you’re losing by a goal in a game, that’s the difference.”

Terriers Waiting To Feast

As the season approached Thanksgiving, Boston University’s goal scorers experienced more of a famine than a feast when it comes to lighting lamps. As a result, it is undeniable that goaltender John Curry has been the team’s Most Valuable Player to date by an incredibly wide margin.

“We could be in dire straits without John Curry,” BU coach Jack Parker said after his goalie led the Terriers to a 1-0 win over Providence last Friday night. “We’ve played hard in some games and didn’t score like we did tonight, and he won it for us. We’ve played not so well in some other games and came back late like we did against Northeastern, and he played very well in that game.

“We gave Maine a two-nothing lead and then shut them down as we worked our way back in that game. So I don’t think there’s any question that we’re not really happy with our season thus far because of our lack of scoring and the fact that we’re one game over .500. But without John Curry I think we’d be dismal right now. Because when you work hard like tonight and don’t get a W or don’t get a tie, it can get very, very frustrating.”

Before the season began, Parker spoke about giving highly touted freshman goalie Brett Bennett some work between the pipes. Junior Karson Gillespie also has been waiting for another shot to shine. Gillespie played great for a few games in the first half of last year but didn’t get many chances subsequently. Earlier on, I thought that the Yale game this Saturday might represent a good chance to give someone else a try. But between BU’s struggle to score, Curry’s stellar play, and Yale’s eyebrow-raising 6-1-1 start, the BU staff may be reluctant to turn over the netminding reins anytime soon.

“I just talked to my goaltender coach about that,” Parker said on Tuesday night. “We’re not sure. We don’t know who will play if we don’t play Curry, you know. But Curry looks like he’s playing pretty well to me,” Parker added, sarcastically understating the case. “Somebody might shoot me if I take him out unless he breaks a leg.”

Curry notwithstanding, Parker still seemed pretty frustrated with his team’s effort in the win against Providence. He responded by making Kenny Roche a healthy scratch for Tuesday’s game against Harvard, although Roche was tied for the team lead in points. BU fans have to hope that Roche will respond as well as he did in similar circumstances in November 2005, when he went on a tear after Parker sat him out for one game.

“It’s based on how he’s been playing but it’s the exact same rationale as last year,” Parker said after his team beat Harvard 2-1. “He’ll be back in the lineup next game, and I’m sure he’s got the message. If I had more bodies, I could’ve benched a few more guys. He wasn’t the only guy [who deserved to be scratched]. This was a low-scoring, one goal win for us tonight. Against Providence it was a low-scoring, one-goal win. And it was like night and day as far as effort was concerned. So foot speed and willingness to use that is really important to us, and we did that tonight and we didn’t against Providence. I think it will help [Roche] and help everybody else to see that this is the way we’ve got to play.”

With Roche out of the lineup, Jason Lawrence was moved up to the first line and had great synergy with fellow sophomore Chris Higgins — so much so that those two should stay together for the time being along with erstwhile defenseman Matt Gilroy on the right wing. “I think we’ll leave that line just the way it is,” Parker said after the Harvard game. “Roche will probably go back with [Peter] MacArthur and [Bryan] Ewing, though I think [Ryan] Weston played great.”

It also remains to be seen whether the versatile Gilroy will stay at forward indefinitely. Not too long ago it appeared that he might go back to defense when Brandon Yip eventually recovers from a badly separated shoulder, but that appears to be in question now. “Right now we’d be hard-pressed to decide what to do with him. When Yip comes back, we’ll be better off up front, but our defense is playing pretty well. He may be going back and forth. But Yip’s a long way from coming back, anyway.”

The effort Tuesday was much better for the Terriers, but there still wasn’t an abundance of scoring opportunities with the exception of that first line. It will be interesting to see if the second line of Roche, MacArthur, and Ewing will fare better over the next few games in particular, though it also would be great to see some increased production across the board.

Army’s Army

It was one step forward, one step back for Providence over the last week or so. With a serendipitous bounce in overtime, they pulled off a win at home against Northeastern but suffered a power outage at BU, losing 1-0. The Friars played poorly in the first period but dramatically improved in shot attempts over the final 40 minutes, but it didn’t make a dent on the scoreboard or the won-loss column. The Friars are now a disappointing 3-8-1 and just 2-5-1 in Hockey East, but the main theme for coach Tim Army after that loss was to stay the course.

“I’m going to look at the body of the game; I’m not going to look at the outcome,” Army said. “If I coached that way, then I might as well not coach; I might as well watch the games. You look at the body of the game, and we came in here and played a good game against them in their building. We outshot them; we had seven penalty kills. They had two full three-on-fives [without a goal].

“We’ve been averaging 37 shots a game on goal, and we’ve only given up 30 shots once — that was to Vermont. We’re averaging 37 shots a game and only giving up about 26. So there are good things to our game; we’re just not scoring right now. And that’s going to swing our way. So what are we doing [about it]? We’re certainly not discouraging them. We’re encouraging them to stay with it, and sooner or later things will bounce our way. There’s no question about it.”

With the exception of two games with UMass-Lowell, Providence’s next seven league games are all against Maine, BU, BC, and UNH… and those are followed by a two-game road trip to Vermont. So regardless of how the Friars play, they will need to start recording some league points to have any chance of approaching home ice when the season finishes.

Trivia Contest

Last week Dave asked what two former prep school teammates faced each other for the first time in the Nov. 10 New Hampshire – Boston University game. He thought there was only a single correct answer, but it turned out there were three. Kind of like when he expects to have gained a pound and then steps on the scale… and breaks it.

His expected answer was Dan Rossman and Chris Higgins, who played at Pingree when Dave’s son Ryan was a senior. First with that correct answer was Glenn Martin, whose cheer is:

“Go Cats, Beat Maine, again and again and again…..”

However, Dan Rossman also played at Cushing Academy with Bryan “Boomer” Ewing, so Doris Fine earned the opportunity to have a cheer. However, we didn’t hear back from her, so we will have a brief moment of silence to mourn the missing cheer…

Thank you.

Dave overlooked Brian McGuirk and Kevin Kapstad, who were teammates at The Governor’s Academy (then known as Governor Dummer), because Kapstad is a sophomore. However, the Nov. 10 game was Kapstad’s first against BU and McGuirk. As a result, last week’s winner, Ronald Daugherty, goes back-to-back and cheers:


Dave also had a senior moment in congratulating Ronald Daugherty last week while failing to give the correct answer. The correct answer last week was that UMass first opened a season 3-1 in Hockey East in 1995-96 when Brian Regan was the number one goalie.

Will Dave have another senior moment? And he can he best prepare himself for the subsequent flood of embarrassment? The answer in both cases is “Depends.”

Now that we’ve cleared up that train wreck, here’s this week’s question. Loyal readers of this column may recall that last year I posed a puzzler called The Equipment Manager’s Nightmare. Readers had to come up with a full starting lineup featuring the longest last names in Hockey East history.

So now I offer you The Equipment Manager’s Dream! Give me a full starting lineup — one goalie, two defenseman, and three forwards — who have the SHORTEST last names in Hockey East history.

Here are a few guidelines:

— You can only use each last name once. So if there were four guys named Nye or Ott who once played in Hockey, you could use ONE of each for your starting lineup. Even if there are last name’s with different pronunciations but the same spelling (hint, hint), you can only use that same spelling once.

— Each player had to play for a Hockey East team when that program actually was in Hockey East. So Vermont players from before last season don’t count, for example.

— Without consulting or any other source, I came up with a six-person lineup that came to a total of 19 letters. So you’ll have to do AT LEAST that well to win.

E-mail me with your answer. The winner will be notified by Monday night; 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 e-mail 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…

• Life is good in the Weighart household these days. We bought a seven-foot long air hockey game for the basement, and now we have fanatical games of air hockey going on almost every day and for several hours each Saturday and Sunday. My son Timmy, 7, is pretty obsessed and eternally grateful for the new game. All of which makes me wonder if Hockey East might consider an octagonal puck to add unpredictability of bounces and more offense to the game. You should see how that sucker speeds up off the boards.

• Also on the family front, I asked my wife and kids a question that proved to be about as challenging as asking a convict whether they prefer death by firing squad or hanging. The question: “If BC was playing the Yankees in a game of any sort, who would you root for?” They are all diehard BU and Red Sox fans, so this was a brutally difficult query to ponder. All three of them pondered THAT one for over a solid minute before ultimately concluding that was at least one instance where they could say “Let’s Go Eagles!”