Atop The League
Many people, yours truly included, expected Maine to get off to a slow start this year. In addition to graduating stalwart defenseman Mike Lundin, the Black Bears lost six of their eight top-scoring forwards. You don’t lose that much firepower without a few resulting bumps in the road. So when Maine opened the season getting swept at Denver, few eyebrows were raised.
Since then, however, the Black Bears have swept both Mercyhurst and Northeastern as well as tying Boston College. As a result, they now sit atop Hockey East, at least in terms of percentage, with a 2-0-1 record accumulated entirely on the road.
So much for the bumps in that road.
“We’re still learning,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead cautions. “We want to be careful not to get too excited about our recent success, no different than we wanted to be careful not to push the panic button after our trip to Denver. We’ve got a lot of hockey ahead of us.
“What we’re pleased with is that our freshmen are contributing right away, which is very important for our success this year.
“We’re also pleased with some of our upperclassmen who had yet to play significant roles on the team but now are playing significant roles. Wes Clark, Chris Hahn, Vince Laise and Simon Danis-Pepin are guys that have been in the lineup for the most part, but have not been significant contributors until this point. Now they’ve elevated their game.
“We knew we had a strong senior class and we felt we had a strong freshman class coming in, but we also knew we needed some of our sophomores, juniors and some of our other seniors to elevate their game. We’re excited that we’re getting that.”
The improvement on the part of the returning players goes beyond simply getting bigger roles that they might have been ready for all along.
“There certainly is more opportunity because of the players we’ve lost over the last couple of years,” Whitehead says. “But there’s just a natural maturing process and also when guys think there’s more opportunity they’re going to work extra hard.
“We’re very proud to say we have a track record of developing players here. We’re not going to land all of the elite players that we want in the recruiting process. So we look for players that have some talent that may not have come out yet. Then we try to help them develop that.
“We understand that for our team to be successful year in and year out players need to develop. We put a lot of pressure on them to keep improving. It’s early but we’re starting to see some of that.”
A case in point is goaltender Ben Bishop, who was viewed as “a project” when he arrived in Orono but has become one of the team’s mainstays. Hockey East just named him Defensive Player of the Week. His stat line now reads an enviable 1.99 GAA and a league-best .935 save percentage.
“He’s made himself into an elite player,” Whitehead says. “He’s gotten better each year. I’m very pleased with his development.
“I’m not surprised. He works very hard off the ice. He’s a very tough kid mentally. Very focused.”
Senior defenseman Brett Tyler has also taken his game to the next level. Always gifted in the offensive end, Tyler leads the team in scoring with three goals and four assists in seven games, but just as importantly has recorded a plus-minus of plus-four.
“He’s really become a complete player from a defensive standpoint,” Whitehead says. “He’s always been an impact player from the offensive side of things and he’s always had tremendous toughness.
“Brett’s just a real hockey player. He’s a Black Bear through and through. He’ll block a shot, he’ll take a hit to make a play and then he’ll lead the rush down the ice the other way and finish it off. He’s really become an elite, complete player.”
Although Providence may be 1-5-1 with a weekend at Maine on tap, there aren’t any white flags waving at Schneider Arena. The Friars are a respectable 1-2-1 in league play and would be tied for second place if their 3-2 overtime loss to Northeastern had been flipped the other way.
“We played very well at Northeastern,” PC coach Tim Army says. “We were ahead late in the game, 2-1, but they were able to tie it on a five-minute major and then we lost in overtime. It was a really well-played game from both sides but a tough loss.”
Arguably, the key to this early juncture of the season was when the Friars rebounded from four losses and took three-of-four points from Massachusetts in a home-and-home series.
“I don’t know if it was a tide-turner,” Army says. “Every game is obviously so competitive in our league. [But] we went into the UMass weekend 0-4. We were just trying to play some good hockey against a team that’s very good. They had a great year last year and had gotten off to a very good start this year.
“It was nice to win that game on Friday night. We played very, very well. The next night, we showed good perseverance, good presence. We didn’t panic and we were able to tie the game with six seconds to go and come away from Amherst with a point. Where our record was, it was a real positive for us to get something to show for our efforts, to get some points on the board.
“Is it a trend? I don’t know, because then on Thursday we lost to BU at home. So I don’t really know.”
A surprising key contributor has been goaltender Chris Mannix, who has backstopped the last three games. Most observers had expected senior Tyler Sims to continue to get most of the time between the pipes, but some early struggles opened the door and Mannix has made the most of it.
“He played very well at the end of last year, too,” Army says. “He managed two of the biggest games of the year for us when we beat New Hampshire and then in the final weekend beat Merrimack to put us into that eighth and final playoff spot. So he’s played some pretty good minutes for us over the course of late last season and this year.
“Our expectation was that [sophomore] Ryan Simpson would have been ready to play, but he’s battled injury and Simsie struggled a bit out of the gate. We’re more than comfortable with Chris in the net. He played extremely well the weekend we played Amherst and then played well against BU the other night. He’s made it a position to compete for.”
Junior Kyle Laughlin has emerged as the team’s scoring leader with five goals and three assists. Laughlin posted a 9-5-14 line as a freshman but tailed off last year with two goals and nine assists.
“He was a surprise as a freshman,” Army says. “We had thought that he would give us some depth up front and would be a guy that could spell guys that were hurt or could give us good minutes if we needed to change our lineup. He didn’t play that first weekend [as a freshman], but he hasn’t been out of the lineup since.
“He was our leading freshman goal-scorer. Last year, he didn’t produce the way he had as a freshman. I think he maybe put a little too much pressure on himself to increase his totals from the year before. Sometimes that can work as a detriment. You get focused on the goal rather than the process. I think it disrupted his game through the first half and he didn’t find his rhythm until the second half when he played really well but didn’t get a lot to show for it.
“He came back this year just concentrating on playing well. He’s got a good stick and a good nose around the net and it’s transpired into some goals. He’s found that rhythm where he’s just focused on doing things right, not getting ahead of himself, not focusing on what his numbers are going to be. He’s got some natural goalscoring instincts when he’s playing well and paying attention to the details. Obviously he’s had a real good start.”
His contributions also go beyond the box score.
“He’s one of our captains,” Army says. “He has the highest GPA at Providence College for the junior class student-athletes. He’s just a terrific young man.”
Another key contributor has been Matt Taormina, who appears to be expanding on last year’s odd-looking (for a defenseman, that is) scoring line of 5-2-7. Already, he’s got three goals, including a shorthander, to go with a single assist.
“He played really well over the second half last year after taking some time to get comfortable following shoulder surgery,” Army says. “He’s continued his [strong play] this year with the three goals.
“We really encourage our defense to get very involved in the play. Their activity offensively is a big staple of what we preach. He’s got good instincts for jumping into a rush and getting himself available when we have possession in the offensive zone. Those instincts reflect his aggressiveness and assertiveness. He’s found a real comfort level with that assertiveness, that offensive aggressiveness.”
Despite the challenge of going to Maine this weekend, Army considers it nothing new.
“Every game in our league is difficult,” he says. “I know it sounds like a clichÃ©, but it doesn’t matter who you’re playing or where you’re playing. It’s going to be very, very competitive.
“Obviously, Maine is a difficult place to play. They play well there, they’re well-supported and it’s not easy on the opposition.
“We just have to go and play well, play the best possible game we can play. We’ve got to do the things that we need to do within our game plan to be successful. We’ve got to pay attention to those details. We’ve got to play to our strengths and recognize what Maine’s strengths are.
“If you do that, you’ll have an opportunity to have some success. If you go in and you’re not prepared, you’re not focused, you’re inconsistent, or you’re prone to make mistakes, then it’s going to be difficult.”
Still Looking Up
Although Massachusetts-Lowell is coming off losses to Merrimack and Boston University and sits at the bottom of the Hockey East standings with just one point, coach Blaise MacDonald remains upbeat. Not that that should surprise anyone who knows the River Hawks’ dynamic leader.
“I was proud of how we battled,” he said after a 4-1 lead turned into a 7-4 loss at BU. “We have a ridiculously young team. I thought we were spurt-y in our poise. We didn’t show a lot of poise in the second period, but we did some good things.
“I was very proud of how [goaltender] Nevin Hamilton battled like hell under a lot of pressure. Ryan Blair as a freshman played really well. Maury Edwards as a freshman defenseman played really well.
“When we look at our roster we had a lot of growth moments. As a team, we struggled offensively [against Merrimack, but] all year we’ve played very well defensively. Tonight, I thought we did an excellent job offensively and really struggled in our own zone in spurts.”
Looking ahead to games this weekend against New Hampshire and UMass, MacDonald saw clear areas to focus on.
“We need our forwards to generate more offense,” he said. “We scored two goals by a defenseman [Edwards] again. We have to have some of our key offensive players produce more offensively.
“But I liked how we battled; I like the spirit of our team. When you look at our roster, I thought we showed a tremendous amount of poise for a young team. So we need to have a really rotten taste in our mouth after this game and do things to not have this feeling again.”
Quote Of Note
Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald after losing to BU, 7-4:
“If I was to create a model for how I’d like my team to be, BU would be that team more than any team in Hockey East.”
BU goaltender Brett Bennett on what went through his head when he was summoned to replace starter Karson Gillespie:
“The first thing I thought was, ‘Whereâ€™s my helmet?’ I put it on the end of the bench, and the next thing I know itâ€™s gone.”
Last week Scott decided to strike a blow for the latter part of the alphabet. His trivia question was as follows: “I am asking our loyal readers to give me a starting lineup — goalie, two defensemen, and three forwards — that would represent the players at those positions who are closest to the end of the alphabet in the history of Hockey East men’s hockey.
“A few rules:
• You can only use a given last name once. If there were three former Hockey East players named, say, Zzywcyzk, you can only use one of them.
• The player needed to play for a Hockey East team when it actually was in Hockey East. So guys who played for that 1976-77 BU team — Dave Silk, for example — would not qualify.
• In terms of position eligibility for forwards and d-men — as well as for scouring the archives if so inclined — I would recommend that we defer to that most remarkable database, www.hockeydb.com.”
This question proved to be quite popular with readers, as there were several correct answers and a few inspired guesses. Joe Ngo even offered a Hockey East women’s team:
F – Kaitlin Zeek
F – Jessica Zerafa
F – Rush Zimmerman
D – Hannah Westbrook
D – Amber Yung
G – Brittany Wilson
And Andrew Young couldn’t resist providing a full roster on top of the correct answer:
Scott Young BU 1985-87
Brandon Yip BU 2005-present
Matt Wright BU 1993-97
Paul Worthington UML 2006-present
Reese Wisnowski UVM 2004-08
Daniel Winnik UNH 2003-06
Chris Winnes UNH 1987-91
Jeremy Wilson BC 1999-00, MC 2003-05
Geoff Wilkinson NU 1995-98
Tom Zabkowicz UM 2003-05
Phil Youngclaus UVM 2002-06
Brian Yandle UNH 2002-06
Andy Wozniewski UML 1999-2000
John Yaros UML 2003-05
Jason Wolfe MC 1998-2002
Sadly, though, Kurt Zwald did not respond quickly enough to give us poetic justice with a late-alphabet winner. Such is the price of living in Hawaii, with a time zone difference that doesn’t lend itself to expedient trivia responses.
Instead, this week’s honors go to perennial HE trivia champ, J.P. Joubert, who took special glee in noting that there were two players in his answer from J.P.’s native Indiana. Here is his entry:
Goalie: Matthew Yeats 1999-2002 (MAINE)
Defense: Scott Zygulski 1989-93 (BC) from South Bend, Indiana!!!!!!!!
Defense: Paul Zinchenko 1994-97 (MAINE) another Indiana boy, this one from Ft. Wayne!!!!!
Forward: J.R. Zavisza 1999-2002 (UMASS-AMHERST)
Forward: Ryan Zoller 1998-2001 (NORTHEASTERN)
Forward: Peter Zingoni 2000-04 (PC)
His cheer is GO MERRIMACK!!!!!! A BELATED BIRTHDAY PRESENT FROM YOU TO ME, WOULD BE A NICE WIN OVER BC!
Since last week’s question was such a challenge, this week’s question concerns the brainiac side of our sport. Part 1: Name the two student-athletes on last year’s Hockey East All-Academic Team who recorded perfect 4.0 grade point averages. Part 2: Name all the members of the All-Academic Team who were also either first or second-team All-Hockey East selections. E-mail me with your answer. 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…
Winning the World Series in 2004 was nothing like this year. In 2004, we got the monkey off our backs. This year, we became the 500-pound gorilla. Prepare for the door to get mashed down a few more times.
And, of course, there’s an extra dollop of glee since A-Rod has opted out, Andy Pettitte has declined his option, and all we need for a Screw-The-Yankees hat trick is for Jorge Posada to sign with the Mets. Go Omar!
Thanks to Scott Weighart and my wife Brenda.