Down in the valley, the valley so low…
This week’s featured teams have recently hit the skids after enjoying exceptionally hot stretches, collectively going winless in their last 10 games after a stretch of 22 contests with only a single loss.
That’s not to kick teams when they’re down. Longtime readers know that this column tilts in the other direction. It’s more fun to read about, and write about, teams on the upswing.
That said, it’s interesting to examine three teams who are feeling at least a bit of the winter chill.
The Minutemen entered Thanksgiving week riding high at 6-1-1, but then lost back-to-back games against Vermont and Union. They then headed to Agganis Arena, a venue where many a two-game losing streak has become the negative hat trick. Instead, UMass emerged with an important tie, giving coach Don “Toot” Cahoon his first coaching point in the building.
“In this business when you lose, you’re devastated; when you win, you’re relieved,” Cahoon said after the game. “That’s the difference. You’re not in ecstasy when you win games; you’re just relieved. So I suppose that getting a point here is a positive. I don’t know if it’s total relief, but it’s a positive.”
UMass has caught the attention of many an observer with its 6-3-2 (4-2-1 in Hockey East) start. Despite the recent 0-2-1 dip, they’re ranked 19th nationally, and have taken a big first step toward finishing in the upper half of the league.
“We’ve made some improvements, no question, but it’s so early in the season and there’s so many games still to be played,” Cahoon said. “We’ll see how attrition affects us and see how our abilities sustain at a pretty good level of play over the course of the season. We need to be sharp defensively; we need to sustain the good goaltending, and we need to keep our special teams in order for us to be able to stay in the mix.”
The most visible reason behind the team’s success has been goaltender Jon Quick (2.01 GAA, .935 Sv%). In 10 games, he’s allowed more than two goals only twice. Clearly, he’s made the jump from splitting time as a freshman with since-graduated Gabe Winer to being the UMass stopper.
“He’s a year older and a year wiser,” Cahoon said. “I think a lot of that is attributable to [goaltending coach] Jim Stewart. He’s had a lot of good goalies over the years. He had Darren Puppa on that national championship RPI team, and he did a great job at Holy Cross before he came over to my program.
“So [Quick] is getting sound advice, and he’s a very athletic kid. As long as he just keeps it in the present and deals with it on a day-to-day basis, the sky’s the limit.”
A good mix of freshmen and sophomores have contributed along with the expect stalwarts among the upperclassmen.
“I think our younger guys have melded with the rest of the team pretty well,” Cahoon said. “[Will] Ortiz has made some nice contributions. The two freshman defensemen, [Justin] Braun and [Martin] Nolet, have fit in seamlessly, and I think that has all played a part in improving our program.”
Nonetheless, Cahoon considers another ingredient as being the most important in the team’s success to date.
“I think the biggest factor is simply leadership,” he said. “Goaltending, obviously, is really critical, and Jon has given us great goaltending. But I think the leadership of the older kids in the program has been exceptional, and everyone’s bought in to making a commitment to being as good as we can be.”
Heading into the second week of November, the River Hawks sported a 3-0-2 streak that included taking three of four points from Boston University. Since then, however, Lowell has lost four straight, albeit with three of the four coming against number two and three ranked New Hampshire and Maine.
“We’re playing 11 freshmen and four sophomores, so it’s like the box of chocolates,” Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald says. “We’re finding some good chocolates and some bad ones.
“We outshot UNH, 59-41, in our two games. That’s pretty good. They outscored us, 9-2. That’s not good. Providence had been outshooting opponents [by a good amount], but we outshot them, too.
“But we’re making some bad decisions and every time we do it’s in our net.”
Goaltending is a concern. Freshman Carter Hutton (2.88 GAA, .890 Sv%) took over the number one spot and in the four games he played during Lowell’s 3-0-2 stretch he allowed a total of only four goals. Since then, however, he’s allowed four goals in each of his last three appearances and gotten the hook in the last two.
“He’s like our team,” MacDonald says. “He’s made some great saves, but there are others he’d like to have back. Over the long haul, I’m sure his work ethic and hockey knowledge will give him the ability to improve greatly.
“Nevin Hamilton may become really good, too. Same thing with Vinnie Monaco. So the opportunity is there.”
As expected, seniors Jason Tejchma and Jeremy Hall have led the offense, followed by a bevy of freshmen and sophomores.
“Tejchma and Hall are our go-to guys up front,” MacDonald says. “The rest are young, but they’ve played well, very well. I like our work ethic.”
Arguably, though, the strongest impression has been made by the four freshmen on the blue line: Jeremy Dehner, Nick Schaus, Barry Goers and Steve Capraro. All but Capraro have played every game.
“Lots of nights we’re playing more freshman defensemen than our opponents are playing freshmen, period,” MacDonald says. “We’re playing four freshman defensemen and they’ve changed the entire dimension of our team with their ability to move the puck, skate, transition, and with their poise. They’ve made the biggest change.”
With the youth of this team, the swings from 3-0-2 to 0-4-0 may continue, but MacDonald really likes the promise he sees.
“I’ve worked with young teams before, but this is the most excited I’ve ever been about the future of a hockey team,” he says. “That’s not to discount the present. But the core group we have here is so good. With some experience, they are going to be very, very good.”
The granddaddy of all the hot-to-cold swings, however, goes to the Maine Black Bears. After opening the season with an 8-0-1 rush, vaulting them to the number one spot in the polls, they’ve dropped three straight. Perhaps of greater concern is how they’ve lost the three.
First, New Hampshire trounced them, 8-2, in their own barn.
“I think this speaks for itself,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead said after the loss. “Eight goals at the Alfond, that’s pretty darn good. They just really kicked our butts in every category.”
Then came a third-period collapse against Boston College that ended Maine’s 115-game home undefeated streak when leading after two periods. The Eagles rallied from a 3-1 deficit with 15 minutes remaining to win in overtime.
“There were some breakdowns defensively,” said goaltender Ben Bishop. “Maine in the past has always been a defensive-minded team and when you get away from that in the third period with a two-goal lead it’s unacceptable. That should never happen. We just have to look in the mirrors and figure out what we’re doing wrong.”
The third straight loss, 3-2 at Vermont, prompted Whitehead to look more at the positives.
“We played a little more consistently than we did the past two games,” he said after the game. “We played better as a team defensively, which was our big objective tonight. So we made some progress there.
“Unfortunately, it’s a little clouded by the end result. On the positive side we did make some progress, which is what we have to do. We have to keep building to get back to where we were at the start of the year.”
The Black Bears now stand at 8-3-1 overall, but only 3-3-1 within Hockey East. The former mark is fine and is why pollsters still have them ranked third in the country. The latter mark, however, leaves them with only seven points while New Hampshire threatens to break away from the pack with 17. Even with Maine’s three games in hand, the gap is imposing.
Helping the cause, however, at least on paper, is the schedule. Between now and the beginning of February, the Black Bears play 10 league games with only two of them against a team above .500. (Those two are at home against Boston University.) Failing to take advantage of these two months would be an ominous sign.
Maine fans who think the glass is half empty might fret that their team is duplicating last year’s midseason when the Black Bears followed up a great start with a stretch that put them in peril of not even making the NCAA tournament. Glass-full fans will counter, however, that Maine rebounded with a strong finish that didn’t end until it lost to Wisconsin in the Frozen Four.
The opening weekend for the Cardinals was admittedly a disappointment, losing 5-4 to Amherst when a third-period, five-minute major resulted in two Lord Jeffs goals. The following night, the major penalties went the other way, but a 3-2 lead disappeared with a minute left on an extra-skater Hamilton goal. It was a tie that felt like a loss.
Last weekend’s tournament, however, provided an early highlight to the season. Although Amherst would prevail in the Ben McCabe tournament’s title game, the Cardinals rallied in the opener from a 4-1 third-period deficit to defeat Trinity, 5-4, in the exact kind of game that inspires confidence and builds the ability to win close games.
All four lines contributed to the comeback. My son Ryan got it started with a great setup to Kevin Armstrong, a guy who really knows how to bury the puck. Then David Layne combined with Will Bennett and Jeff Beck to make it a one-goal game. J.J. Evans tied it at 11:00. In less than three minutes an apparent loss had become Wesleyan’s game to win. Chris Graceffa made his first career goal a huge one with the game-winner at 15:46.
This weekend will be big with games that count in the standings against Babson and UMass-Boston. Go Cardinals!
Last week Scott posed a trivia challenge called The Equipment Manager’s Dream! Readers were asked to give a full starting lineup — one goalie, two defensemen, and three forwards — who have the SHORTEST last names in Hockey East history.
Here were a few guidelines:
— You could only use each last name once. So if there were four guys named Nye or Ott who once played in Hockey East, you could use ONE of each for your starting lineup. Even if there are last names 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 www.hockeydb.com or any other source, Scott 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.
Here was Scott’s 19-letter lineup:
Goalie Bob Bell, Providence
Defense Robert Ek, Maine
Defense Tom Poti, BU
Forward Travis Roy, BU
Forward Carter Lee, Northeastern
Forward Brandon Yip, BU
This trivia contest yielded quite a few responses from readers. Several came up with an acceptable answer consisting of just 17 letters, but the fastest to do so was Scott Donnelly. Here was his lineup:
G – Mike Cox, Merrimack
D – Jon Awe, Northeastern
D – Robert Ek, Maine
F – Brandon Yip, BU
F – Travis Roy, BU
F – Jon Coe, Providence
Scott was kicking himself about Awe, but not Cox, who played about three games for Merrimack in the early 1990s. The only other three-letter goalie option was submitted by a few readers: Ray Roy, a Black Bear goalie who played in Hockey East’s first season among others. Reader Dave Wollstadt would’ve been in good shape if Scott required to have at least two names that rhyme: He submitted Dylan Cox (Providence) and Andrew Fox (Merrimack). Hmmm… I can only imagine that Weighart is sadistic enough to ask readers to submit a whole lineup of rhyming last names! Just you wait… Other good names that various people submitted: Kyle Kuk (Vermont); Jon Coe (Providence); Jeff Daw (UMass.-Lowell); Peter Hay (UMass.-Lowell); Jean-Yves Roy (Maine) and Matthew Foy (Merrimack). Too bad that Kevin Du plays for Harvard in the ECACHL.
Scott Donnelly’s cheer is:
“ENLIST IN TIM’S ARMY NOW!! LET’S GO FRIARS”
Now that we’ve cleared up that train wreck, here’s this week’s question — another one from the Marquis de Scott. Who were the two TALLEST teammates in Hockey East history? Check out www.hockeydb.com to confirm your answer. Scott knows of two former Hockey East teammates who together were 13 feet, one inch — so you’ll have to at least match that number to get this one right!
E-mail Scott’s trivia account (not Dave’s) with the right answer.
And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…
• The drumstick. Always, the drumstick.
• “Joy To The World” is the only song by Mariah Carey that’s on my iPod, but her rendition blows away any other Christmas song. Maybe it’s all the black gospel I listened to while growing up — can I hear an amen for Andrae Crouch? — but I’ll listen to Mariah’s “Joy” in March, July, and September. In fact, it’s number three right now on my Top 25 Most Played List and the holiday listening season hasn’t even started.
• If you’re concerned about J.D. Drew’s ability to handle the Boston limelight, that’s a legitimate question. But I turn off the radio when people paid to be experts say that Drew is merely an extra 20 points of on-base percentage over Trot Nixon. Drew is an extra 100 points in slugging percentage and has played in at least 145 games two of the last three years. Trot, on the other hand, has played in 48, 124, and 114 games, respectively, while looking like a guy whose body has broken down on him. Not to mention that in the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings he becomes a nonfactor if the other team wants to use a lefty specialist. I applaud Trot’s dirtdog mentality, but anyone who contends that Drew would be only a modest upgrade is either being disingenuous or flat out foolish.
• And if you’re still using RBIs as a measuring stick, where have you been the last 20 years? RBIs depends too much on the players in front of you to be a meaningful measure of anything. If Drew comes to Boston and plays anything close to 145 games, he’ll slaughter his previous RBI totals.
• I couldn’t believe I actually heard Kathryn Tappen on NESN refer to the death of Bob Schembechler. Bob Schembechler? Please tell me that it was just a case of fumblemouth and not yet another pretty face with no substance (a plague amongst the telegenic of both sexes). I instantly thought of the William Hurt character in Broadcast News. Far better, in my opinion, to correct the verbal misstep than to ignore it and leave fans thinking you don’t know it’s Bo.
• I was feeling really, really good about the Patriots’ defensive front seven, but Seau’s injury sure leaves a big hole.
• That said, if Thanksgiving Day football taught me anything, it’s that I’m not only very thankful to be a New England Patriots fan, but I’m incredibly blessed to owe no allegiance to the Detroit Lions.
Thanks to Scott Weighart. The plethora of Tuesday games surrounding Thanksgiving Day made it particularly difficult to connect with coaches, so his collecting of Don Cahoon quotes specifically for this column was especially helpful. Thanks also to Matthew Conyers and Tyler Birnbaum for their contributions.