This Week in Hockey East: Feb. 22, 2007

In Praise Of Elimination

Getting knocked out of the playoffs is tough on the players and coaches involved, but it says here that allowing only eight of the 10 Hockey East teams into the playoffs is a good thing. It may be inconsistent with other leagues, but the current philosophy is the right one. If you’re not one of the top eight teams, you simply don’t deserve to move on.

Two coaches, one whose team has already been eliminated and another whose team is in danger of falling to the same fate, weigh in on the topic.

Providence coach Tim Army, his Friars suddenly on the bubble, sees both sides of the argument.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I’m mixed on it. I like the fact that you have to earn your way into the playoffs. I think that’s a good thing, that you have to compete for a spot and make the playoffs and earn a position. It’s a good character thing for your team.

“On the other hand, you can look at it the other way and some of these teams [in other leagues] have exciting conference tournaments and everyone is involved. The depth of our league is so strong that anyone is capable of beating anybody on any given night. That goes for all ten teams. Everybody is very, very dangerous.”

Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy, however, makes the biggest point in favor of just eight teams despite the Warriors’ recent elimination.

“It would be easy for me say that everybody should make the playoffs,” he says. “But I like the fact that only eight teams get in and there are battles for home ice. It makes the regular season important. There’s an intensity level in the games [this time of year] that you probably wouldn’t see if everyone made the playoffs.”

From this vantage point, that says it all.

Wildcats On The Brink

The New Hampshire Wildcats may have picked up only one of four possible points against Boston University, but they still can clinch the regular season title with a sweep this weekend.

Although a bad second period doomed them at home last Friday night, UNH coach Dick Umile was more than happy with how his squad rebounded one night later at Agganis Arena even though it had to settle for a 3-3 tie after leading 3-0. In his mind, there’s no need to “get back on track.”

“It was disappointing that we didn’t win the game,” Umile says. “We had a 3-0 lead and obviously [BU] found a way to battle back. Pucks bounced the way they bounced.

“But I liked the way we played against a very, very good team especially down there [in BU’s building]. If we continue to play like that down the stretch, we’ll be a tough out. If we played like that every night, I’d be real happy.

“I’d like to stay on that track, the way we played on Saturday night.”

Although goaltender Kevin Regan has received considerable recognition for his play, and deservedly so, the blueliners in front of him have been a big part of that success. Senior Chris Murray, juniors Brad Flaishans and Craig Switzer, and sophomores Jamie Fritsch, Kevin Kapstad and Joe Charlebois have been an impressive unit. They’ve also had the good fortune of being together for every game this year but one.

“I don’t think they get the credit that they deserve,” Umile says. “They do a lot of things well. They move the puck extremely well offensively. They play very well in front of Kevin. I think Kevin would tell you that part of his success has been the defensemen in front of him.

“This is as good a defensive group as I’ve had since I’ve been at UNH.”

Up front, Mike Radja has rejoined linemates Jacob Micflikier and Brett Hemingway after missing all of January with a knee injury.

“He’s been playing great for us,” Umile says. “It was too bad he got hurt because he was playing as good as anybody in our league prior to his injury.

“He’s a real good centerman. He can skate, he can play-make, and he obviously can score goals. This [past] weekend was the first weekend that the entire line was healthy [since Radja got hurt]. We’re going to need that coming down the stretch as we head into the playoffs and with everybody playing well right now.”

The points of emphasis will be familiar ones as the Wildcats complete the stretch run into the playoffs.

“Team defense is important, always,” Umile says. “It’s a transitional game. We’re going to have to do that against Providence this weekend.

“You’ve got to have transitional defense. We’re doing okay if we can generate 46 shots at BU. That’s how we’ve got to play, especially when you’re going up against the goaltenders that we have in the league.

“[We want] to get those shots as well as cut down on the grade A scoring opportunities that you give. So that transitional defense is going to be real important in this league.”

On Another Brink?

While UNH is on the brink of the regular season title, Providence is on a much less pleasant brink. With Massachusetts-Lowell making a furious charge for a playoff berth, the Friars could be on the brink of falling out of eighth place with a home-and-home this weekend against UNH.

“I’m not into handicapping, but we certainly need to play good hockey,” Army says. “We’re competing for the last playoff spot so there’s a lot at stake and we’re playing one of the best teams in the country. We certainly need to play as well as we can possibly play.”

The Friars certainly showed great resolve last Saturday against Northeastern, battling back from a 3-0 deficit with a 22-2 shot domination in the third period to salvage a critical point in the standings.

“We’ve stayed with it all year long,” Army says. “We don’t have the wins that we would have anticipated way back in October and we’ve been through some difficult times, [but] I don’t think our record is reflective of the way that we’ve played.

“We’ve played much better hockey than our record. We just haven’t been able to take advantage of situations and produce more wins.

“I think our kids have persevered well throughout the year. Their attitude has been terrific. They continue to work hard.”

That said, Army knows the Friars have their work cut out for them this weekend.

“What has impressed me about New Hampshire is their transition game,” he says. “They move the puck so quickly, especially at their rink. They utilize the dimensions of the rink so well. They get the puck from their defense to their forwards very, very quickly.

“They don’t need a lot of opportunities to capitalize. They’ve got a high skill level. They’re very deep and dangerous. If you let down and give them a break — give them a two-on-one [or] a three-on-two — they’re going to make something happen with it.”

Angling For Home Ice, Part I

Vermont held onto fourth place last weekend, albeit by just a single point over Maine and Massachusetts.

Things didn’t look so promising, however, Saturday night partway into the second period. UMass had scored in the closing minutes the night before to extend the Catamount losing streak to four games.

The Minutemen then continued their strong play, got the best of it in the opening period and seemed poised to deliver the coup de grace when Vermont was assessed a five-minute major and then another minor penalty for a five-on-three. The Catamounts’ hopes of holding onto playoff home ice seemed to be fading fast.

Instead, UVM killed all five minutes, including the five-on-three, and scored soon after to ignite a pivotal 3-0 victory.

“It was a gut check win,” UVM coach Kevin Sneddon says. “We went into the weekend fragile. That would probably be the best word for our confidence level. We felt we had played well at Maine [the weekend before], especially the second night, but hadn’t come away with any points.

“Especially on offense, our confidence level was fragile. We had to calm the guys down and make sure they stayed within their roles.

“[But] we kept playing to win. We didn’t sit back and hang on for dear life. It was a confidence boost for us.”

The Catamounts now have their destiny in their own hands, but still face tough sledding to secure a home ice berth with Boston University on tap this weekend and red-hot Massachusetts-Lowell to close out the regular season.

On a positive note, goaltender Joe Fallon returned to form this past weekend.

The offense also totaled five goals. For a team like UNH, that would be a slump. But for the defense-minded Catamounts, it was practically an offensive explosion after either being shut out or held to a single goal in five of the previous six games. (Except for a loss back in October, Vermont is undefeated when scoring at least three goals in a game.)

Sneddon intends to stay decidedly low key.

“From this point forward, it’s one game at a time,” he says. “The players have enough pressure on them right now. As a staff, we’re trying to get them to play with passion and energy and confidence without putting any [extra pressure on them].”

Angling For Home Ice, Part II

Although UMass had to be looking for more after pulling out a win at Vermont on Friday night, a split left the Minutemen still within striking distance of fourth place and home ice.

“We’re a pretty feisty outfit,” UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon says. “We strapped it on and went into their building and played as hard and as disciplined as we needed to to make sure that we didn’t get shipwrecked.

“We would have liked to take more points out of there, but it’s certainly not a disaster when you go up there and get a split. We’re still in a fight for home ice. We didn’t take a knockout punch.”

Goaltender Jon Quick (2.31 GAA, .923 Sv%) continues to be a difference-maker. Cahoon dismisses any concerns that Quick’s heavy workload — he’s recorded all but two of the 30 decisions this year — will cause any problem in the upcoming weekends and through the playoffs.

“There are other guys doing the same thing,” Cahoon says. “[BC’s Cory] Schneider has played more overall minutes.

“Jon is a strong, athletic kid. There’s not a lot of travel in this league. So playing 30-something games is something a 20-year-old who is athletic and mentally strong can handle.”

Senior Chris Capraro continues to lead UMass in scoring. After problems early in his career, he’s finishing on a high note.

“He’s grown up as much as any kid I’ve had in this program,” Cahoon says. “His play on the ice speaks for itself. He’s so unselfish.

“He’s worked with the younger kids and given them some direction, explained how things didn’t go well for him in the early going. He’s a real important player to our program and he’s a real important personality.”

River Hawks On A Roll

Guess what team is undefeated in February?

Yup, those same Massachusetts-Lowell River Hawks who seemed destined for ninth or tenth place and a playoff shutout. They’ve caught Providence for an eighth-place tie, but still have the tougher of the two schedules. A split this weekend with Boston College would be huge.

“It’s a very difficult matchup for us on paper,” UML coach Blaise MacDonald says. “We need to
manage the game at a very high level. Puck security needs to be extremely high.

“You need to do things that allow yourself to be in the game down the stretch: stay away from offensive zone penalties, turnovers at the blueline, diagonal passes through the middle of the rink and all that sort of stuff.

“But we’ve played and competed against teams just as good, if not better, than BC and have done very well.”

As far as MacDonald is concerned, the difference between winning four straight and going without a win from Nov. 4 to Feb. 3 is obvious. Freshman goaltender Nevin Hamilton has turned that position from one of inconsistency and weakness to strength. He has earned league honors while compiling a 1.87 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage.

“Now that we have a lot of confidence in our goaltender, everything has changed,” MacDonald says. “It’s not an accident that we’re undefeated in February. Our goaltender is playing great.

“we’ve essentially played [recently] the same as we have all year, but now we’re not giving up those soft goals. Clearly if Nevin continues to play the way he has been, we should be fine.”

Merrimack And The Future

The season will end for the Merrimack Warriors next weekend, but coach Mark Dennehy can at least point to eight freshmen who have played virtually every game and another two who have seen some action, a harbinger of better things to come.

“The [first] goal for our recruiting class was that we needed to get faster,” Dennehy says. “We needed to skate at the pace of Hockey East, which is obviously one of the elite leagues in Division I college hockey. That needed to be addressed.

“Beyond that, we needed a solid core of players. We needed a lot of them and at the time we didn’t have a lot of scholarship money. At the time [we finished recruiting them], I was very happy with our freshman class, all 10 guys.

“Some of them have hit the ground [running] faster than others, but all of them will be able to contribute at this level.”

At the head of the pack are Pat Kimball and J.C. Robitaille, who lead all Warriors in points, albeit with modest totals of 10 and nine, respectively, along with Matt Jones, who shares the goalscoring lead (four) with Kimball.

“J.C. and Matt Jones and Pat Kimball haven’t had the benefit of playing with some of the better players in the league,” Dennehy says. “It’s been left to themselves. [Maine Rookie of the Year candidate] Teddy Purcell, for as good a player as he is, has been able to play with Michel Léveillé and Josh Soares. For [our freshmen], they’ve had to do it together.”

Hockey East Fashion Statements

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Dick Umile has to be feeling pretty good these days. BU coach Jack Parker donned a black turtleneck under his jacket, a fashion that Umile had all but copyrighted over the past few years.

“He’s wearing my turtlenecks now,” Umile says. “Now Blaise [MacDonald] wants to wear them.

“Maybe the league should buy them [for everyone].”

A Unique Editorial Statement

This goalie certainly found a different way of commenting on the officials.

Full moon? Half moon? Inquiring minds want to know.

Wesleyan – The Second Season

The last couple weekends have been tough for the Wesleyan Cardinals, but they still finished the regular season with an important tie over 11th-ranked Castleton. The all-important point gave Wesleyan its first ever NESCAC home ice berth.

Now, of course, it’s time to make a stand in the playoffs. How far can this team go?

I’m a believer.

Tune in next week.

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question was a particularly sadistic one, as Scott’s reprised his “Double-Trouble Anagrams” theme from last season.

He produced five anagrams — derived from Hockey East rosters — that were created from the letters of the names of two current Hockey East teammates. Here are the anagrams along with the expected player pairs:

Pat Kimball, Brock Wilson (Merrimack)

Matt Gilroy, Kevin Schaeffer (Boston University)

Kory Falite, Todd Fletcher (UMass.-Lowell)

Patrick Cullity, Peter Lenes (Vermont)

Nick Mazzolini, Bryan Horan (Providence)

However, Scott once again showed why he was a magna cum nothing graduate of the I Are A Writer School of Journalism. He included one too many “trips” in the first variant of number four.

Fortunately, that didn’t deter Matt Fitzpatrick from assuming that Scott had blundered once again — geez, I wonder why Matt jumped to that conclusion? — and being first to answer correctly. Matt’s cheer is:

“Eagles on the Warpath! Ooh, Ah.”

This week’s question asks when was the last time that two defensemen on the same team got hat tricks in the same game. Email my trivia account with the names of the players and the date of the game. 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. Either that or I’m in deadline trouble again, so keep hitting refresh on your email program …

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

In case you didn’t know, this is Happy Engineers Week. Not that it matters much to me. I’m waiting to celebrate Miserable Engineers Week.

Technical difficulties foiled some of this week’s recordings. My apologies for any small inaccuracies.

Thanks to Scott Weighart and my wife Brenda.


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