Ups And Downs
With only one exception, every team in Hockey East has had its ups and downs. Obviously, some schools have had more peaks and fewer valleys than others, but other than New Hampshire — those Wildcats just keep rolling along — no one has been immune.
Maine is probably the most extreme example, starting out with an 8-0-1 mark only to experience a few dizzying roller-coaster drops since then, most recently its double-dip at Orono against Boston University. But positions two through 10 of the Hockey East standings all qualify.
So while the big winners last weekend were Boston University and Boston College, both of whom swept, the operative words remain: wait till next week.
Vermont’s peaks and valleys have been almost as pronounced as Maine’s. The Catamounts rebounded from an early 0-4-1 stretch to win eight straight and 10-of-11. But heading into last weekend they’d lost three in row while the Huskies were fresh off a win over Boston College and a tie with Boston University.
As a result, Vermont’s taking three-of-four road points was just what the doctor ordered.
“We went through a stretch where won 10 of 11 games and if you look at our losses, we haven’t had any against easy teams,” UVM coach Kevin Sneddon says. “[Three were against] UNH, In my mind, that’s the top team in the country. I haven’t seen Minnesota live — I’ve only seen them on video — but I really think New Hampshire is probably the best team in the country right now.
“We have nothing to be ashamed of. We weren’t pleased with our performance against New Hampshire the first night [two weeks ago], but I thought we came back the next night and played a great hockey game against them and proved that we can certainly give them a great match.
“With a young team, you’re going to have some ups and downs. What we’ve tried to do is minimize those down times and tried to get our team to respond as quickly as possible. And they always have. I’m very proud of what our team has been able to accomplish thus far.
“This past weekend was a huge test for us. After losing two to New Hampshire, we needed to regroup and go into Northeastern, a building that’s a tough place to play, and a team that [Northeastern coach] Greg Cronin has done an extraordinary job with. In my opinion, they are the most improved team in the conference this year.
“We had to fight for every inch out there and we’re certainly bruised and battered after that weekend. I’m very proud of our team for being able to come away with three out of four points.”
A surprising part of Vermont’s 12-8-2 record is its 7-3-1 road successes compared to 4-5-1 at home.
“Obviously we want to play better in front of our own crowd, but the losses at home have all been against very, very good teams,” Sneddon says. “We need to produce more in those big games when we are at home, especially in league, and take advantage of home ice.
“But on the road, we’re very pleased with our team’s preparation. Our team, a relatively young team, has done a great job of having a great road mentality. When we hit that bus in the parking lot, we’re focused on the task at hand.”
Aside from the success away from Gutterson Fieldhouse, Vermont’s defense and special teams have been critical in the Catamounts’ rise to the number 14 ranking in the USCHO.com/CSTV poll. They are once again among the nation’s stingiest teams. They’re also Hockey East’s number one team on the penalty kill and number three on the power play.
“The thing about it is that we’re not pleased with our power-play performance this past weekend,” Sneddon says. “We were nothing short of terrible on Friday night against Northeastern and a little bit better on Saturday.
“But power plays are cyclical. It’s so based on confidence. With video exchange and the way the teams are using the penalty kill now, it becomes very, very difficult to score on the power play.
“We need to produce more. We’re not a team that scores a lot five-on-five. We obviously want to improve [even strength], but we need to have our power play produce more.
“Our penalty kill has always been a strength over the past couple of years. We have a team that is willing to outwork the power play and block shots. When you get great goaltending, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a good penalty kill.
“It’s a source of pride for our team. We generate a lot of energy on our bench when we come off a good kill or we see a team member block a shot. It seems to energize our entire bench, which is a really good thing for our program.”
This weekend, two home games against Boston College loom large. The Catamounts trail the Eagles by three points, but hold a game in hand.
“This is a huge weekend,” Sneddon says. “They’re all big. We try not to over-emphasize one weekend over another. But we’ve got to do a better job of taking advantage of home ice.
“Boston College has played very, very well recently, taking the last three games in league and starting to gain some confidence down the stretch. But we feel really good about the way we played at their place earlier in the season [even though] we unfortunately lost a tough 1-0 game. We feel good about the way we played this last weekend and want to continue to build from there.
“Every game is so important in terms of those points.”
The UMass Minutemen are coming off back-to-back wins and are now tied with Maine for fifth place.
“You’re either getting better or you’re not,” coach Don “Toot” Cahoon says. “We’re trying to distinguish ourselves on that front. We’re getting better.
“Like all teams, that’s your objective. We want to play our best hockey at the end of the season, so there’s plenty to work for.”
A lot of the work will be on the little things.
“There are nuances to the game that are important to our team just as they are every other team,” Cahoon says. “We haven’t been consistent in those nuances and that’s probably caused the most problems for us. [Nuances like] bearing down on special teams and bearing down on finishing plays around the net.
“We’re really paying attention to detail and focusing on all the things that make up those situations.”
Cahoon sees improvement, albeit not across the board.
“We feel that we’ve made progress with some individuals,” he says. “We have some individuals that are playing at a much higher level. We just need to coordinate all that so that the team itself is playing at a more competitive level.”
This weekend’s home-and-home with New Hampshire will certainly put that progress to a test.
“There’s no getting around it,” Cahoon says. “They’re the best team in our league. They consistently score goals. They consistently find a way to prepare themselves for each and every series they play. They have what seems to be their typical cadre of people that contribute on the offensive front. They’ve been getting real good defense, And special teams, as usual, are very good for them.”
There have been more downs than ups for Providence so far this season, but the Friars did break a seven-game losing streak on Saturday with a 3-2 overtime win over Massachusetts-Lowell. The two teams had entered the game separated in the standings by a single point, so the win became all the more crucial in the playoff race.
“We had lost seven in a row, so it’s kind of an understatement to say it was an important game to win,” PC coach Tim Army says. “Any win at that point would be very important, so it was nice to be on that side of the ledger at the end of the game.
“I thought we played well. I thought we did a lot of good things. In some ways it might have been similar to other games that we played. I thought the difference was that we were able to play with the lead for the most part and that’s certainly something that’s plagued us all year.
“I think we’ve played better hockey than our record would reflect, but playing with the lead the other night was an advantage and was a big [factor] in us finding our rhythm and was important for our mindset.”
The challenge, of course, is to keep the momentum going this week against Maine.
“We haven’t won back-to-back games this year yet, so obviously we would like to build off of Saturday’s game,” Army says. “The one way you can get a pretty good run is by clustering wins together, but the only way you can do that is by playing them one at a time and playing the best possible game that you can play.”
However, this probably isn’t the ideal time to be taking on the Black Bears. Getting swept by Boston University has certainly caught their attention and should maximize their focus. At the least that’s the conventional wisdom.
“I’m sure they’ll be ready, but they’re always ready to play,” Army says. “[Maine coach] Tim Whitehead always has his team ready. They’re very talented; they play hard. So whatever the circumstances are, they’re going to be ready to play.
“I don’t look at it one way or the other about how a team is going to react after their last results. There are times that you can catch teams at certain [vulnerable] points, but I still believe that at our level you don’t play a lot of games and generally have a week off between games.
“It’s not like the pro game where you’re playing 80 [games]. You’re playing less than half of that. So I find that at the collegiate level teams are always ready to play, because they don’t run into the travel demands and the sheer volume of games that you play at the pro level which at times can affect the energy level.
“So I’ve gotten away from analyzing what happened to a team and focus on the body of the team and the things that they’ll do that make them good and what we need to do to be ready for it.”
Paying too much attention to the opponents could also be a bad thing, considering that the Friars’ next six games come against nationally ranked opponents.
“Certainly we’re faced with a difficult schedule in front of us,” Army says. “Every night is a difficult game in Hockey East. We’ve got some very good teams to play, but I don’t think you can look at it that way. You have to look at the substance of everything.
“This week we have to look at the things Maine does well and the things that we need to be prepared for and the elements that we need to implement in order to be successful. We can only focus on Friday night’s game and after Friday night’s game then we’ll get ready to play on Saturday.
“It’s more important for us to keep refining our game and try to put some wins together. But, the only way we’re going to be able to do that is playing consistently, doing things that we need to do well, and being prepared to play whoever it happens to be or wherever we happen to be playing on a particular night.”
As for handicapping PC’s chances, one factor stands out. In games in which the Friars have scored at least three goals, they are 5-0-0. When they score two or less, they are 0-15-1. It’s a stunning result considering how offense-minded Providence was last year in Army’s inaugural campaign.
“It goes in cycles,” Army says. “I’ve compared it before to baseball. We’re like a hitter right now that may be hitting some line drives at people or getting some balls that were going through the infield caught and thrown out.
“You grip the ball a little bit more tightly at that point. You’re not as relaxed. You fall behind in the count.
“That would be very similar to our team. We haven’t been able to score consistently even though we do have some very good players on our team that are more than capable of producing the numbers that are necessary to give you a chance to win every night.
“We haven’t changed a thing from what we did a year ago for the most part. We’re still very aggressive. We try to get numbers on the rush. We try to get our defensemen involved. We put pucks to the net.
“We’ve outshot our opponent in 17 of our 21 games. In Hockey East, we’re averaging 34 shots a game and we’re only giving up 25. So that’s a good plus or minus differential.
“Our shots just haven’t found the back of the net consistently enough. But the positive is that we do have some guys who are capable and we just have to stay with it and stay focused.”
For Lowell, the peaks haven’t been plenty and the valleys difficult to get out of. The River Hawks are now 0-13-2 since defeating Merrimack on Nov. 4.
“We’ve been playing so darn well that it wouldn’t be fair to get frustrated as a coach,” UML coach Blaise MacDonald says. “The kids have been working extremely hard. They’ve outshot most of their opponents and really oftentimes outplayed the opponent. But the pucks have been going in our goal and we’ve gotten plenty of grade A opportunities that aren’t going in the net.”
Despite the struggles, MacDonald still sees promise.
“Our defense is stronger than it’s ever been,” he says. “Our goaltenders are all brand new. Vinnie Monaco is the only one back from last year and he had just one game.
“It’s not like we’re feeling sorry for ourselves. We know we’re having a hard time scoring, but if one goes in our net then you start pressing.
“The analogy that I make is it’s like playing golf where you’re hitting the ball great and all of a sudden you’ve got 215 yards into the green and you sting a four iron and it just hits the apron and rolls into a sand trap. Then you hit it out to five feet and miss the putt.
“That’s how we’ve been playing. We haven’t been able to put it in the hole.
“We played Denver in the championship game of their tournament and we outshot them 37-23. We were playing good hockey. But we lost 2-1 with a lot of good chances.”
Jason Tejchma leads the team with nine goals and 16 points. Fellow senior Jeremy Hall has totaled 11 points on five goals and six assists.
“We certainly were looking to those two to score goals,” MacDonald says. “Jason has nine and he only had 10 last year, but for this team and the chances he’s gotten nine isn’t enough.
“Jeremy Hall is playing his heart out, but he only has five goals. That’s way off his expectations.”
Unfortunately for the River Hawks, the injury bug has hit with goaltender Carter Hutton and defensemen Barry Goers and Cleve Kinley sidelined as crucial games loom in the race for playoff berths.
Whitehead and Hansen
Fans typically love it when their coach goes toe-to-toe verbally with an official, and most in the media aren’t immune to such guilty charms either. League offices, however, are never happy with these confrontations, such as the one which escalated on Saturday between Maine coach Tim Whitehead and referee Scott Hansen after the Black Bears’ loss to BU.
“I was there to try and help him get his head through the door,” Whitehead told the Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram. “I was just trying to be helpful.”
This writer might have found the line hilarious, but the Hockey East office predictably did not. Earlier this week, the investigation was still under way.
“When you’re not there, you’ve got to go by the observations of other people,” Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna said. “Often in these situations, it’s difficult to get an observation put forth by someone who doesn’t have a vested interest.”
On Wednesday, the league announced that Whitehead had apologized to the referees.
“We expect our head coaches, like our athletes and officials, to show restraint in the middle of the heat of battle,” Bertagna said. “Tim has always conducted himself appropriately. I am pleased he has acknowledged this uncharacteristic lapse in judgment in this one incident.”
Wesleyan’s Extended Weekend
Friday and Saturday nights were ones of frustration as the Cardinals lost to New England College, 4-3, and then tied St. Anselm, 1-1. A couple key mistakes proved costly. With points at a premium in the tightly-matched NESCAC race, getting one of four fell far short of expectations.
All of which made Tuesday night’s hair-raising overtime win over travel partner Trinity all the sweeter. Twice in the third period, Trinity took the lead only to have the Cardinals answer in less than a minute.
Then in the final minute of overtime, Will Bennett capitalized on a turnover and scored his second sniper goal of the night. It was a gargantuan goal for a gargantuan win.
Don’t look now, but Wesleyan is now tied with Middlebury for third place.
Yup, if the season ended today the Cardinals would have home ice for the playoffs.
I’m telling you, I really like this team.
Last week’s trivia question honored BU coach Jack Parker and his 750th career win by asking for the date and opponent of the following Parker wins: his first, 500th, 600th and 700th. The correct answer was:
First win: December 27, 1973, BU 3 Dartmouth 1.
500th win: November 21, 1995, BU 7 Cornell 1.
600th win: November 27,1999, BU 5 Colorado College 1.
700th win: December 3, 2004, BU 3 Boston College 2.
The first to answer correctly was J.P. Joubert, who includes in his cheer the school he went to, the school he roots for, and his cousin’s school. (Surely you remember Jacques Joubert.)
“WOW! LAKE SUPERIOR, NOTRE DAME AND B.U. ALL IN THE TOP 20 AT THE SAME TIME, PLEASE ALERT THE MEDIA!!!!!!!!”
This week’s question honors the boys from Wesleyan and their huge overtime win over Trinity. E-mail my trivia account with the date, score, and opponent of Wesleyan’s last win in OT.
And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…
• So much for the vineyards in Southern California. The sour grapes from that region are of the vintage “Wait Till Next Year.”
• There should have been a Missing Persons APB put out in San Diego for Shawne Merriman.
• If the ‘Roids man is going to do a self-congratulatory dance after every sack, he’s fair game for being mocked after his team gets upset. If you’re gonna dish it out, be prepared to take it.
• Looking forward, I don’t believe that suddenly Indianapolis’ defense has become impregnable while its offense has become mediocre. Both teams are going to move the ball and find the end zone. And it’s anything but the slam dunk for New England that local pundits would have you believe.
Thanks to Scott Weighart and also to my wife Brenda.