This Week in Hockey East: March 8, 2007

Dave Hendrickson is not available to write the Hockey East column this week, as he has been very busy writing an important memo. Actually, it’s not really a memo; I guess you could say it’s just a long sentence. And come to think of it, it probably needs a verb to be a sentence.

The Lowell Lowdown

Recent reports indicating that UMass-Lowell’s membership in Hockey East is “under review” have led to many raised eyebrows, dropped jaws, and — if you read Jim Connelly’s column about it, steam emanating from the ears.

All for good reason: Any move that results in UMass-Lowell ending up anywhere else than in Hockey East would be a major step backward for the program. After speaking to River Hawk coach Blaise MacDonald, however, I feel more hopeful that the review process will lead the powers that be to a clear conclusion: UMass-Lowell hockey adds great value to the school and to the UMass system.

I found the initial report on USCHO.com somewhat confusing, as it suggested that not only was Hockey East membership in question; it also ominously noted that “perhaps the very future” of the Lowell hockey program was in question. MacDonald set the record straight on the latter.

“First of all, dropping the program is just not going to happen,” MacDonald said. “The program is absolutely going to stay Division I. You know, we have a new Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the UMass system and a new Chairman of the Athletics Committee, and they’re doing their due diligence to examine all athletic programs in the UMass system — not just Lowell hockey.

“Their M.O. is to make sure that the UMass system can brand excellence. We need to define what is branding excellence and what is Lowell hockey’s opinion of how we can brand excellence. It’s not as big a deal as it may seem — it is alarming to hear about it, but most businesses that are responsible go through a critical self-analysis, and that’s essentially what’s happening here.

MacDonald had nothing but classy things to say about the decisionmakers who are assessing the UMass athletic programs.

“I have a lot of faith in the Board of Trustees,” MacDonald said. “The people there are very intelligent businesspeople as well as academic people, so I feel that when you see the quality and value that Hockey East brings to a school like Lowell, it’s indisputable how positive that is for the City of Lowell, our alumni, for the community and obviously for our students and student-athletes.”

Another element mentioned in the initial report was the issue of finances. Citing a story in the Lowell Sun, the article referred to Lowell running at a $671,000 deficit in 2005-06 … not to mention a $1,130,343 deficit over at UMass in Amherst.

Mentioning the numbers to MacDonald, though, I told him I was hard-pressed to see how, say, moving the team into Atlantic Hockey would do anything to help the program’s financial fortunes. Trading a regular parade of top ten opponents for a schedule that includes programs like Mercyhurst — a great program but by no means a great attendance draw, and also a far longer trip from Lowell than any team in Hockey East — just makes no financial sense.

“You’re very astute,” MacDonald said, agreeing that leaving the league makes neither dollars nor sense. “Everybody wants to make sure that they’re as close to getting a dollar for a dollar as they can, but most athletic programs run at a deficit. But you want to make sure you’re getting the value for your money that you’re putting in. I don’t think it’s really an issue of finances at all.”

The issue, MacDonald believes, is much more one of “branding excellence.” So what about that for Lowell in Hockey East?

“I think if you’re a top three to six team in Hockey East, you’re going to be in the top 15 to 18 in the country. So that’s pretty much defining excellence in a lot of people’s opinion. In Hockey East for a school like Lowell, we were undefeated against Boston University this year. That’s significant. And in the last few years we’ve swept Boston College when they were ranked No. 1 in the country. We ourselves in the last five years have been ranked in the top 15 in the country for 28 weeks. That’s very important for a program like Lowell.”

More than anything, Lowell fans — and Hockey East fans in general — may just need to hang in there and be patient for a few more weeks. “We’re in a bit of a transition period at Lowell; we’re in the midst of hiring a new chancellor. Leadership is everything. We should have a new chancellor on board in the next two weeks, and I really think the new chancellor will get his arms around this. We’re down to three finalists now, and it’s my belief that this chancellor will be dynamic and probably one of the best things that’s ever happened to our hockey program.”

After talking to Blaise, I chatted with my wife about our conversation. She’s lived in Boston for over two decades, and she have had the best quote of all: “I don’t think I would know that UMass-Lowell existed if not for the hockey team.”

Let’s hope that all of this will be equally obvious to the UMass decisionmakers when the ice chips settle.

Easy Pickins?

If you were to believe Dave Hendrickson last week — and who does? — you would believe that picking winners in the Hockey East quarterfinals is the easiest picks week of the whole season.

I beg to differ. Hell, last week Dave faced the underwhelming challenge of picking the Providence/Merrimack two-game series. Let’s see: Providence wins, and the Friars are in the playoffs, and Merrimack has won three games all season. Hmmm … Who to pick? Hopefully Dave didn’t have to spend too much on his spiritual advisor to figure out who to go with in that one.

In contrast, what do I have to contemplate this weekend? Consider that Providence and Vermont beat UNH and BU, respectively, in the last games between those quarterfinal opponents — both less than two weeks ago. Then we have Maine — No. 12 in the PairWise Rankings — visiting UMass, tied for 13th in the PWR. Maybe Northeastern beating BC looks impossible? Well, that series was 1-1-1 this year.

Sure, the home teams will be favored in each case … but I will be more surprised if we have no road team advancing to the Garden than if we have one or two move on.

Octo-pucky

… And then there were eight. Now let’s turn our attention to handicapping each quarterfinal series. With the River Hawks out of the mix — and with Lowell in the news this week — I decided to enlist MacDonald’s help in handicapping the four series. I ran that question by him as to whether the biggest upset would be a lack of upsets this weekend.

“For me, Scott, it’s hard to say that they’re upsets,” MacDonald said. “I don’t think there’s a huge difference between one and eight. There’s a lot of talent there. The only difference I see is that Northeastern is a little less tested than everybody else. They rely on a lot of freshmen; their coaching staff has done a great job this season with them.

“Northeastern relies a lot on special teams; their penalty killing is fantastic. That can frustrate a team, and they can build momentum off of that. That series just has the biggest question mark for me because I don’t know how Northeastern will react in that element.”

I mentioned how Northeastern played amazingly well early on in its last really big game — the Beanpot semifinal against BU — but then how it played as the game wore on raised some question about how well the Huskies could handle that type of situation at this point.

“I would define the situation as being John Curry,” MacDonald said. “He kept BU feeling like ‘Hey, we’re playing fine,’ when really it was John Curry playing fine. When you have a goaltender playing that well, you can explore your potential. You’re unfazed by breakdowns and giving up great scoring opportunities, whereas if you’re not sure about your goaltending, there’s a lot of uncertainty that creeps in.”

With that in mind, let’s see how much uncertainty crept in as Blaise and I attempted to handicap the matchups.

No. 8 Providence at No. 1 New Hampshire

Providence record in last ten games: 4-4-2
Providence record on the road this season: 3-11-2
Providence power-play percentage: 9.9%
Providence opponents’ power-play percentage: 13.7%
New Hampshire record in last ten games: 4-5-1
New Hampshire record at home this season: 10-5-1
New Hampshire power-play percentage: 20.2%
New Hampshire opponents’ power-play percentage: 14.4%
Season Series: UNH 2-1-0 (home team won all three games)

Perhaps the most striking stat above is the two teams’ performance over the last ten games. There’s not a big difference in how the two teams have fared in the won-loss column of late, though UNH admittedly had a tough schedule down the stretch. Still, Providence could be a dangerous opponent here, as the Friars underachieved much of the year but seem to have all cylinders firing now.

“That matchup is very intriguing because Providence seems to be playing their best hockey right now, and they have the talent, they have the ability, to beat anybody,” MacDonald said. “But they’ve struggled maybe scoring goals at key times, maybe giving up one or two soft goals at the wrong time. But from the top to bottom, Providence is a very talented team. And UNH probably stumbled a little lately, but I think maybe they got it out of their system, and it’s enabled them to refocus on what they need to do to play well.

“In this series, goaltending is No. 1. Second is talent: Who’s healthy? Who’s available? I think both of those teams are pretty good in that regard. I just think for Providence to have success they need to play with the lead, and UNH has the ability of playing at home. There can be significant momentum swings because of their crowd. I think it’s going to be a three-game series; I think UNH is going to take that one but it’s going to be a hard-fought series.”

One other factor MacDonald didn’t mention here is special teams. The Friars have a rather woeful 9.9% power-play percentage, and they also lead the league with 10 shorthanded goals allowed. In fact, their scoring edge has been a mere 16-10 with the man advantage. So a good deal could hinge on what happens when Providence goes up a man. They have the talent to improve dramatically on their power-play success, but surrendering a shorthanded goal on the road in the playoffs could be crushing. Watch that carefully.

No. 7 Northeastern at No. 2 Boston College

Northeastern record in last ten games: 4-5-1
Northeastern record on the road this season: 4-9-3
Northeastern power-play percentage: 11.3%
Northeastern opponents’ power-play percentage: 11.6%
Boston College record in last ten games: 8-2-0
Boston College record at home this season: 11-4-0
Boston College power-play percentage: 16.9%
Boston College opponents’ power-play percentage: 12.7%
Season Series: Tied, 1-1-0 (BC won their only home game)

You could argue that Northeastern had a little bad luck in drawing BC as the seventh seed. I’d sure rather play No. 1 UNH right now, given that BC has not lost since the Beanpot final and is now on a six-game winning streak, including sweeps of Maine and UNH. Meanhwile, NU beat BU the last time out and has had over a week off to get ready for this weekend.

“First thing I look at again is goaltending,” MacDonald said. “The freshman [Brad Thiessen] has played very well; I think he’s going to be a big-time goalie in our league. But now it’s his first time in the Hockey East playoffs. How is he going to respond? It’s a question mark. The health of Northeastern: They’ve been banged up lately with [Mike] Morris and [Chad] Costello, even [Jimmy] Russo in the last month. How healthy are they? They’re very talented, and they’re almost playing with the track’s money because they’ve had a successful year.

“And now they can go in against a familiar opponent and just be fast and loose, so that plays to their advantage. But BC is probably one of the hottest teams in the country. I think BC’s forwards need to win this series for them. [Brian] Boyle has to be the prime-time player that he is, and [Nathan] Gerbe and [Brock] Bradford and the rest of the guys are going to step up. Is Cory Schneider the goalie he was last year? They need him to be that type of goalie to get the series done. I think BC can win this series in two, but it’s going to be two tough games.”

I do think Northeastern should be loose for this weekend. Perhaps the Huskies put a little pressure on themselves by going into the Beanpot with a bit of a swagger. The worst they can do is go in and get swept, which a lot of people expect. So why not go after the Eagles as hard as they can and see what happens?

No one thought that No. 8 BU could beat the top seed Eagles a few years ago, and we know what happened there. I wouldn’t bet the mortgage on the Huskies, but don’t be shocked if the Huskies make it tougher on BC than some might expect.

No. 6 Vermont at No. 3 Boston University

Vermont record in last ten games: 3-6-1
Vermont record on the road this season: 8-6-3
Vermont power-play percentage: 17.6%
Vermont opponents’ power-play percentage: 10.3%
BU record in last ten games: 5-2-3
BU record at home this season: 7-4-5
BU power-play percentage: 14.5%
BU opponents’ power-play percentage: 13.4%
Season Series: Vermont 2-1 (Vermont won at home and split at BU)

Not too often you have this kind of stat: Vermont’s record is better on the road (8-6-3) than it is at home (8-8-2). The same is true for BU. The Terriers are 9-2-4 on the road but just 7-4-5 at home. Hmm … I wonder if the higher seed should be allowed to request a series on the road?

Another note of interest is that BU did have an eight-game unbeaten streak until Vermont beat them at home less than two weeks ago. The funk carried over to the regular-season finale, as BU lost to Northeastern. So the Terriers are looking vulnerable … but so are the Catamounts. After playing what coach Kevin Sneddon thought was their best game of the year in a 3-1 loss at BU, the Catamounts won the next night. And then they faltered at home against Lowell, coming away with one point against a weaker opponent. Even one more point would have given them the No. 5 seed.

Hard to say how this one will go. My main advice would be to bet the “under” if an over/under goal total is offered to you. BU leads the league with a 1.82 goals against average, while Vermont is a close second with a 1.97 GAA. The two teams rank second and third nationally in that category, in fact, trailing only Notre Dame (1.75). Conversely, BU averages just 2.62 goals per game — fifth in the league — while Vermont has a paltry 2.28.

“Well, it’s interesting because we just played Vermont, and I follow BU very closely,” said MacDonald, former associate head coach of the Terriers. “Once again, I start with the goaltending. Joe Fallon struggled, I thought; he was fighting the puck against us on Friday, and he didn’t play Saturday. Then you have John Curry. Is he healthy? Is he ready? He played a lot of minutes this year in a lot of games. He’s a Hobey Baker candidate, for sure. Where’s he at? You start with the goaltending, and I can give Curry the edge for sure if everything’s even.

“Vermont’s excited to go on the road. They played pretty well at BU recently, so that’s an advantage to Vermont, really. And I think the other thing is that Vermont plays such a great defensive style that scoring the first goal and playing with the lead is vitally important for BU if they’re going to have success. I think BU needs their prime-time players, their leaders — Sean Sullivan and Kenny Roche — to step up, and I’m sure they will, but Vermont has great balance up front.

“They have a speed/skill line, their first line. The second line is big and strong and a real grinding type of line, and their third and fourth lines provide a lot of energy. So being able to play through Vermont’s grinding style is going to be critical for BU in playing for the lead. But I think BU can win this in three games.”

What does MacDonald make of BU’s relative lack of success on home ice? I mentioned how coach Jack Parker complained repeatedly earlier this year about BU wanting things to be easy and wondered if playing at home could make the team fall into that mindset.

“Having been around the BU program myself for a long time, you fight that a little bit. When you have a lot of talent, you think, ‘Well, somebody else is going to get it done and get us going here.’ Really, the kind of guy that they’ve leaned on so much is John Curry, and they almost take it for granted that he’s going to be there and stop everything. I think it’s easy for an opponent to come in to Agganis Arena and be jacked up to play there.”

Seemingly much of this series will come down to Joe Fallon. If he plays as he did on Friday and gives up a soft goal or two, this could be an easy BU sweep. If he plays to his capability, it could be a Vermont sweep. But don’t expect the goal judges to suffer from repetitive-stress syndrome.

No. 5 Maine at No. 4 Massachusetts

Maine record in last ten games: 5-5-0
Maine record on the road this season: 8-7-1
Maine power-play percentage: 25.2%
Maine opponents’ power-play percentage: 15.1%
Massachusetts record in last ten games: 6-3-1
Massachusetts record at home this season: 12-3-3
Massachusetts power-play percentage: 16.7%
Massachusetts opponents’ power-play percentage: 15.1%
Season Series: UMass 2-1 (Home team won all three games)

You’ve got to feel for Maine this weekend. After going on its longest league road trip last weekend — and getting swept to boot — it now has to drive back down to Amherst for at least two more games against a Minuteman squad that has emerged as one of the top home-ice teams in the nation. Even worse, there is no indication that the Black Bears’ top goalie, Ben Bishop, will play this weekend, as he has been recovering from a groin pull. So it will be an uphill battle for Maine.

But don’t count the Black Bears out. With an eye-popping 25% success rate on the power play — best in the nation — they remain a dangerous opponent. Given that the Black Bears are now just 12th in the PWR, Maine and its fans should assume that they need to get to the Garden at least to feel comfortable about a berth in the national tournament.

Don’t expect seniors Michel Léveillé and Josh Soares to allow their careers to end with a whimper. On the other hand, UMass is also facing the end of its season if it doesn’t advance to the semifinals. The Minutemen’s seniors won’t want that to happen; nor will a crowd of 6,000-plus at the Mullins Center.

“Let’s start at goaltending again,” MacDonald said. “Jon Quick seems to be playing fantastic. In the key game on Saturday night, Maine was outshooting UMass 29 to 11, but it was a 2-2 game [through two periods in a game that UMass ultimately won 5-3]. So they’re getting great goaltending, and I believe [Maine freshman goaltender Dave] Wilson is going to play again this weekend for Maine, and this is uncharted territory for him. How’s he going to respond?

“If UMass can get the puck down low and attack Maine’s defense, it’s an advantage for UMass. I think Chris Capraro and Matt Anderson — two senior forwards who are very talented — are going to be keys to that. I think obviously special teams will probably play a very key role. It’s on an Olympic sheet; it’s a bigger ice surface. UMass has played very well at home this year. As a matter of fact, the River Hawks gave them their first loss at home, a 2-1 victory. [Home ice is] a real bonus for UMass, and they’re feeling real confident. UMass can sweep this one in the first two games.”

I asked about how challenging it would be for Maine coach Tim Whitehead to get his team to believe that they can go on the same road trip two weekends ago and get a different result. Isn’t that a significant mental challenge?

“It is, but it’s new. Everybody’s at 0-0 now, and you can play that up as a coach. ‘Hey, everything’s in the rearview mirror; everyone is 0-0.’ But there is some confidence that plays in there, and the travel … Maine and Vermont have a bit of a grind this time of year. It takes its toll more mentally than physically — checking into the hotels, and here we are on the road again, laying around the hotel all day. So I think that’s a huge advantage to UMass.”

With UMass playing a big playoff series at home, it should be an exciting time to be in Amherst.

The Envelope Please

Now that the regular season is behind us, we can take a look back at how Dave and I did in predicting the order of finish. I honestly haven’t checked that out since October, but my hunch is that I took a few too many chances in my predictions and will pay for it now.

Here’s what we predicted:

DAVE

BC, BU, UNH, Maine, Vermont, Providence, UMass, Mass.-Lowell, Merrimack

SCOTT

BC, BU, Providence, Maine, UNH, Vermont, Northeastern, Mass.-Lowell, UMass, Merrimack

For good measure, here’s what the coaches predicted:

BU, BC, Maine, UNH, Vermont, Providence, UMass, Mass.-Lowell, Merrimack

This doesn’t look good for me, but let’s quantify it. We’ll count how many places off each of us was with each pick. So since we all picked Merrimack tenth and the Warriors finished tenth, that counts as a zero … and the lowest total wins.

DAVE has a total of 11 points, meaning that he missed the exact standings by a total of 11 positions. Despite being the only one to peg Vermont and NU at sixth and seventh, I ended up with a disappointing total of 16. The coaches ended up at 14.

Clearly my risky pick of Providence went bust, while Dave picking UNH to finish third was the closest to getting that one right. UMass getting home ice surprised all of us — especially me, as I had this relatively young team finishing out of the playoffs altogether.

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question asked who is the most recent Hockey East player to have been a captain for three consecutive seasons? Pat Foley (New Hampshire) and Jaime Sifers (Vermont) were popular responses, but the correct answer was Matt Anderson (Massachusetts). Anderson has been captain the last two years and was an assistant captain the year before that.

First to answer correctly was Kurt Zwald. His cheer is:

“You cannot stop Nate Gerbe … you can only hope to contain him. Let’s go Eagles!”

This week’s question is one last sadistic challenge for you all. As a dubious bonus, it’s also an egotistical one. As you’re in the home stretch of a season’s worth of columns by Dave and I, I challenge you to come up the highest-scoring “Dave” (or David) and the highest-scoring “Scott” in Hockey East history.

Note that you can only count seasons in which the player played for a team that was in Hockey East at the time. So Vermont players from before last season don’t count, for example. Likewise, if a player played one or more years before the league existed, you can count him … but you can’t count his totals for any year that he did not play in Hockey East!

After giving it some thought — but without consulting any source — I was able to come up with a Dave and a Scott who scored a total of 302 points while skating for their teams as Hockey East players. It’s possible that you can top that total, but if you don’t have at least 302 points, there is a better option out there.

E-mail Scott 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.

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

Over the course of the season, I have gleefully invented all kinds of reasons why Dave is not doing the column when I am covering for him.

I have claimed that he has been in professional eating contests, endorsing adult undergarments, and so forth. Poignantly, though, I recently reflected on all the ways in which I’ve bashed him. I think of all the concerns that I unnecessarily have raised about Dave — in fact, one journalist actually believed that Dave really did undergo stomach-stapling surgery and was worried about the outcome.

And how did Dave really feel, deep down, about all of these slanderous slights? Is it possible that he could be smiling on the outside but crying on the inside? Has he been squirting liquid Prozac down his throat with a turkey baster?

Yes, I reflected, I wish I could turn back the clock …

… and do it all over again.

Thanks — really — to Dave Hendrickson.

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