This Week in Hockey East: March 1, 2007

One More Time For Number Seven

I can’t believe it’s over.

Last Saturday, my son Ryan played his final game for the Wesleyan Cardinals. It’s been a long, wonderful journey since that first time I laced up his skates and led him onto the ice where I wrapped my arms around him to hold him up and to keep him from falling.

It’s been one heckuva ride.

Whether you check out “Hendu’s Story: From Dream To Reality” or not, be assured of this: if you’ve enjoyed my columns even a little since USCHO’s inception, some of the credit goes to Ryan. His love of hockey fed my own flame and kept it burning bright, even on nights when the writing went into the wee hours.

And so, as I give one final salute to my own number seven, be sure to salute the seniors on your favorite team as they leave the ice for the last time. If they’re anything like Ryan, they’ve invested much of their lives in this wonderful game and poured their hearts into performing as best they could. If they’re fortunate, you will applaud them as heartily as I did for the great kid they call Hendu.

Three For One

Other than finishing first to capture the regular season title, the differences among the top positions in the standings can often be minimal. Unless one playoff matchup is more favorable than another, second place may only be marginally better than finishing fourth.

The difference between fourth and fifth, however, is gargantuan for the obvious reason of playoff home ice. And this year it’s being contested as never before. Three teams, separated by only a single point, are vying for fourth place.

Making it even better is that Maine and Massachusetts, who are tied with 29 points, barely ahead of Vermont with 28, face off against each other on Friday and Saturday.

UMass holds one significant advantage since both games will be played at the Mullins Center where the Minutemen are 10-3-3 this year.

Maine, on the other hand, holds the advantage of winning the tiebreaker since the Black Bears defeated UMass back on Oct. 28, 4-1. So if the two teams split, Maine takes playoff home ice.

Unless, of course, Vermont leapfrogs both teams by sweeping Massachusetts-Lowell at home.

And what if the Catamounts take three of four points while the other two split? The Black Bears would win out in that case since they would have taken two of three games with both UMass and UVM. So Vermont must sweep and hope for a split between the other two contenders.

All of which will result in considerable interest within the Mullins Center and Gutterson Fieldhouse as to what is happening in the other building.

You could even see that most delightful of possibilities, a team pulling its goaltender in the final minute of overtime because a tie does it no good.

Peaking At The Right Time

After being one of the most maddeningly inconsistent teams all season long, Boston College appears to have hit its stride at just the right time. The Eagles have now won six of their last seven with back-to-back sweeps of Maine and Lowell the last two weekends. Even their lone loss almost belongs in the plus column since their play against Boston University in the Beanpot championship game was strong enough to win almost any game.

“We feel really good about the state of our team right now,” BC coach Jerry York says. “Not just the wins, which of course is our objective, but we’re playing a lot better in different areas, especially on our special teams. Our power play is generating some goals; our PK is defending very well.

“We showed flashes of this during the year, but we were also up and down way too much with our execution and our effort. Now everything that we look for down the stretch is starting to come. The key thing is to keep this going as we try to secure the highest spot that we can in the playoff seeds.”

It’s a stark contrast to last season when BC stayed atop Hockey East for most of the year until stumbling in the final weeks. The Eagles righted the ship, advancing to the national championship game, but it’s a lot easier to be riding the momentum, rather than fighting it, come playoff time.

“Each year is so different,” York says. “You never quite know what to expect. It appears to be the polar opposite of what happened last year.”

Boston College is getting contributions both from its stars and its role players. Brian Boyle, for one, has recorded at least two points in seven of the last nine games.

“We’re getting big-time play out of Brian Boyle and Cory Schneider,” York says. “Those two of our leaders have really stepped to the forefront, kind of spearheaded our improved play.

“We’ve also had trouble all year trying to get a third and fourth line that was stable and competitive and gave us plenty of quality minutes. It appears now that Greenie [Matt Greene] between [Pat] Gannon and [Matt] Price and [Ben] Smith between [Andrew] Orpik and [Matt] Lombardi really give us more depth too. That’s been a key factor for us.”

By taking at least a point against New Hampshire this weekend, Boston College can finish second. (The Eagles win the tiebreak with BU based on winning two of the three league games.) That would insure a quarterfinal matchup with seventh-seeded Northeastern instead of whatever team in the Maine-UMass-Vermont cluster falls to sixth. Not that Northeastern will be any pushover since the Huskies split the season 1-1-1 with BC.

“This is what all coaches point toward when we talk in September and October,” York says. “You get to the bigger stage, the more important games. We’re all going into early March with some terrific matchups.”

Not Going Quietly

UNH indirectly dealt Lowell a playoff broadside last weekend when the Wildcats lost to Providence, 7-1. Since PC wins the tiebreaker, the River Hawks now need three more points on the weekend than the Friars, who are playing a home-and-home series with last-place Merrimack.

Based on Lowell’s refusal to roll over earlier — going into last weekend without a defeat in February — this team isn’t about to quit now.

“Whether it’s the last weekend and you’re fighting to get into the playoffs or it’s any weekend in December or January, it’s always tough,” UML coach Blaise MacDonald says. “There’s always something at stake. It might be building confidence and staying on a roll in midseason or it might be for us playing a great opponent on the road with a young team.

“There are a lot of benefits for us to take out of this upcoming weekend. We can’t control what Providence or Merrimack does, but there are a lot of benefits we can get out of this weekend for sure.”

Most of those benefits tie into Lowell’s youth. The River Hawks, loaded with freshmen, would love to go into the offseason with their younger players finishing strong even if a playoff berth isn’t in the offing.

“Without question, we’ve never been more excited about the future of this program, given the young talent that we have in all areas,” MacDonald says. “[That includes] up front, especially on defense and we think our goaltending is going to get better and better. The reality is that if we have to look to see the silver lining, that’s a pretty darn good one to look for.

“Probably seven out of our 10 power-play guys all year were freshmen. Against BC on Saturday night, our freshmen were out in all the key spots and performing well in front of 6300 people. So they’ve had tremendous experience in all areas this year. That will help us in the future.

“But we want to send our seniors out with a real successful weekend.”

That senior class is led by Jason Tejchma, Jeremy Hall, Cleve Kinley, J.R. Bria and Todd Fletcher, all of whom saw plenty of good times to go with this year’s struggles.

“Their contributions need to be measured over their careers,” MacDonald says. “They’ve had some great experiences, some enormous wins and have been nationally ranked as high as ninth in the country during their time here. So there are a lot of positives.

“The unfortunate situation is that the program that we inherited had a real imbalance of classes so it benefited [these seniors] when they were young because they played a lot. But when you turn the pages, they’re captains of a very young ship and that can be difficult.”

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question asked when was the last time that two defensemen on the same team got hat tricks in the same game. The correct answer was Kevin Schaeffer and Ryan Whitney of BU on Nov. 30, 2003 in a 7-2 win over Yale.

The first to answer correctly was “Tom from Boston.” His cheer is:

“Here’s to you Tom Morrow… let’s get goal number three for a career hat trick in the tournament.”

This week’s question asks who is the last Hockey East player to have been a captain for three consecutive seasons. Email my trivia account with the name of the player and the seasons. 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…

I’m gonna pull a Scott Weighart here.

No, I’m not going to lose all my hair. No, I’m not going to skewer a nice guy named Dave Hendrickson.

What I’m going to do is bypass the opportunity to babble about everything from Britney to the Red Sox and instead turn this column in early.

This is the kind of thing Weighart does. The jerk will turn his columns in days ahead of time, making my scrambles at deadline time appear all the more egregious.

Me? I’m like that great scene in Broadcast News where Holly Hunter is saying with machine gun rapidity, “Bobby, Bobby, Bobby, Bobby,” because the nightly news is about to go to black … but she makes it with about a second to spare.

For once, I’m just going to shut up.

It’s going to shock the living daylights out of my editor. I can only imagine the look on his face when he gets this. The poor guy won’t know what hit him.

Thanks to my wife Brenda.