This Week in Hockey East: Nov. 22, 2007

Dave Hendrickson is not available to write the Hockey East column this week. For most of us, Thanksgiving is a nice day to be spent enjoying a big meal with family. For Dave, Thanksgiving is a two-week event in which he consumes meals each day that are as big as a family.

Puppy Uppers

Don’t look now, but the Huntington Avenue Hounds are the current proud possessors of first place in the wild and wacky early stages of the Hockey East race. Yes, UNH fans, I know that the Wildcats have a couple of games in hand in comparison to Northeastern. And absolutely, Maine fans, I am aware that there is all of six points (!) separating first and last. But Northeastern is currently on a five-game unbeaten streak, including two wins at the Whittemore Center, which has not been kind to the Huskies over the years. In fact, the Huskies were 0-16-3 in their previous 19 games against UNH before winning this last pair. For good measure, Northeastern fought off Lowell then next night and landed as No. 20 in the poll this week.

“Our success was really driven by our goaltending and our special teams last weekend,” NU coach Greg Cronin said. “UNH was very dominating at times in the first half of that game, and I thought our goaltending and penalty killing — particularly on the three versus five situations — did especially well to keep them off the board because if they had scored on those five-on-threes it would have been a different game. So I have to come most of my credit to those guys.”

That set the stage for Saturday’s 2-1 nailbiter against the River Hawks back at Matthews Arena on Saturday night. “Lowell was a close, tight-checking game, and I thought the first couple periods we played pretty well but didn’t have a lot of goals to reflect that,” Cronin said. “And I thought Lowell did a terrific job of coming hard at the end, and we were able to stave them off. I have to give credit to [goaltender] Brad Thiessen for that.”

All of that said, Cronin was hardly giddy in his assessment of his team’s recent good fortunes. “I’ve said all along that I don’t know how good we are,” he told me. “I don’t know because this is all being generated by a lot of young players. We only have one senior, and we’ve got to be able to manage that momentum because it’s a precious thing to have. Clearly the undercurrent of momentum is confidence, and I think we have confidence, which is an important piece of turning a program around and being successful. So we’re cautiously optimistic and we’re humble: We know where we’ve come from. As long as we stay humble, we’ll continue to chip away at this little streak we’re on.”

Cronin is totally indifferent to any polls. “I don’t even really talk about it. It’s out of our control. The only thing within our control is what we do on Friday night against BC. We try and stick with a game plan that reflects managing the controllable issues that are ahead of us: special teams, playing good defense, and trying to maximize our personnel. Even when I was at Maine, I never got into polls. It doesn’t mean anything to me. What matters is what happens in March when you’re competing for positioning. To me [the polls are] a superficial pat on the back.”

Regardless, Cronin certainly has plenty of players who deserve a pat on the back for the team’s strong run through November. One of the most promising developments has been the play of the defensemen despite the fact that three rookies are garnering substantial ice time. “Drew Muench, No. 21, is a hell of a player,” Cronin said. “He can skate himself out of trouble; he’s got terrific poise. He’s a legitimate hockey player. Everybody’s looking at [Tyler] McNeely and [Wade] MacLeod and recently [Steve] Silva got a couple of goals, but to me the guy who’s had the most impact on this team as a freshman has been Drew Muench. He quarterbacks the power-play unit; he’s on the first pairing with [Louis] Liotti. He’s a terrific hockey player.

“And then Dan Nycholat — an 18 year-old kid so he might be the youngest player in the league playing — he’s been in and out of the lineup but he’s very poised. He’s a strong kid, a big body. Nycholat is a kid from Alberta who’s an ’89 birthday; his brother [Lawrence] plays for the Ottawa Senators organization.

“And then [Mike] Hewkin, the former roller hockey player. He got an opportunity to play at UNH, and absence creates an opportunity. He got a chance, and he ran with it, did very well with it. He’s been one of those guys who’s on the power play, and he moves the puck really well. Those three guys are all good puck movers, and I think it’s created some rhythm with our team. You think about it: Half of our defenseman have turned over, and we’ve got some depth. Jacques Perreault and Andy Linard are good defensemen, and they played a ton of games the last few years, and they’re not playing. They’ll work their way back into the lineup eventually, but we just have a totally different group back there.”

“I think we’re a team,” Cronin said, summarizing where things stand on the eve of Thanksgiving. “We have a nice team dynamic, but like I said it’s early. I don’t really care about all this [talk of polls and streaks and history against opponents], Scott. These stats get thrown out at me, and I have no idea… I don’t pay any attention to that stuff, and I’ve never really coached that way. I guess it’s just part of the mentality of pro hockey: It’s so many games, that you can’t be getting caught up in the BS — just keeping chipping away with every game, and that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re winning close games; it’s not like we’re blowing people out. So that keeps you humble.”

Northeastern may have a few helpings of humble pie coming their way, and Friday’s game against a BC team that really could use a win should be a challenge. The Huskies may yet have some ups and downs, but it’s hard to argue with the general direction.

A Very Merry Merrimack

Back when I interviewed Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy for the USCHO Hockey East Season Preview, I was privately skeptical about Dennehy’s unabashedly optimistic prognosis for his team. On the heels of an eyebrow-raising Warrior sweep over Maine last weekend — not to mention a 6-4-1 record at the time of our conversation — I admitted as much when I interviewed him earlier this week, but, to his credit, he didn’t rub it in.

“Well, I had the advantage of knowing how important it was to get Rob Ricci back [following a year of being academically ineligible] and also knowing that all we really needed was a little goal scoring,” Dennehy said. “Defensively, last year we were doing everything we needed to do to stay in games. And I’m also a firm believer in the fact that hard work at some point will be rewarded. So maybe some of the bounces that we didn’t get last year we’re getting now.”

One striking aspect of the Black Bear sweep was the fact that both games were highly competitive. I told Dennehy that if you were to tell me that Merrimack was about to sweep Maine, it would be the result of a Warrior goalie standing on his head two nights in a row to get wins despite Merrimack being outshot by a 2-1 margin. But that was not the case. From the boxscores, it appeared that this Merrimack team is really able to go toe-to-toe with a highly respected program like Maine.

“We are,” agreed Dennehy. “They were very similar games [last weekend], and either team could’ve won them. It was 1-1 going into both third periods, so it’s not like we came out like gangbusters and ran them out of our rink either. Obviously the game broke a little bit differently for us on Friday night when we got some goals, but Saturday we actually played better — but so did they. It was a really good game, and both teams had their opportunities. So on that front we were definitely happy. We felt like we deserved the points we got, that’s for sure.”

So just how contagious is winning for a program attempting to ascend, as Merrimack is? “Well, it’s the chicken or the egg,” Dennehy told me. “In order to have success going into third periods, it’s nice to have success to draw upon. And a lot of these more established programs have it built into the jersey. So the BCs, the BUs, the Maines, and UNHs of the world have been winning so long that it gets handed down with the sweater. Here, these kids are learning on the job. But at the end of the day, it’s the team that plays the best on any given night that can have success in this league. We’ve prided ourselves on being a league from top to bottom that can compete with anybody in the country, and I think this year there’s the most evidence of that.”

As you might imagine, there have been several pleasant surprises that have led to Merrimack’s turnaround thus far. “You don’t always pick up where you left off,” Merrimack said of his returning players. “I would say that probably 80 percent of Matt Jones’s points came in the second half last year. It just seemed like it clicked for him, and he understood what he needed to do to have success at this level. That doesn’t always translate into sophomore year, and I’m happy for him that it has. He’s someone who really works hard; he’s in great shape. He has a big body, and he and Ricc has sort of made a connection.”

Likewise, goaltending and defense has been an early factor as well. “You’re only as good as your goaltending, and in games that we’ve won our goaltenders — most recently Patrick Watson but even Andrew Brathwaite at the beginning — have been the best players on the ice. I look at a guy like Joe Loprieno — a stay-at-home defenseman is not as appreciated in the game as much now as it was — and he’s not fun to play against, bottom line. He gives us a home-ice advantage in our small barn: makes it difficult to get the grade ‘A’ chances, and he’s very physical — enjoys that part of the game.

“That said, if everybody in the locker room is not contributing, we’re probably not going to have success. We pride ourselves on being good from top to bottom, and everybody has contributed so far.”

All of which has Merrimack bubbling up in the USCHO poll. As you’ll see in the sidebar for this column, they’re already in my top 20, as I believe in rewarding teams with winning records more than theoretically better teams that are at .500 or below. “It’s good and it’s bad,” Dennehy said of the possibility of Merrimack cracking the rankings. “First of all, it’s great for recruiting: It’s good to be recognized as a program, and it’s great for our kids to have that recognition. It’s only negative if you put more weight on it than necessary. At the end of the day, it’s nothing more than a coaches and media poll. It doesn’t help you get into the Hockey East playoffs; it doesn’t help you get into the NCAA tournament — how you play determines that. It’s not much in the way of accomplishment.”

One curious factor will be how teams approach Merrimack now that they have shown themselves of playing with — and sometimes knocking off — the big boys in the early stages of the season. Certainly Lowell was ready for them on Tuesday night, shutting them out 3-0. Dennehy knows that the coaches won’t chalk up Merrimack as an easy win, but he admits that it’s harder to predict how his team — let alone their opponents — will respond to Merrimack’s success to date.

“I give a lot of credit to the coaches in Hockey East. I don’t think you’re going to pull a lot of fast ones on them. Every team we play is prepared for us. It’s tough to change the psyche of the players, and so I guess it will be interesting to see how they deal with it — the other team’s players as well as our own. But at the end of the day, I don’t think the coaches are looking by Merrimack. They haven’t played that way; that’s for sure.”

Doggy Downers

I would say that Boston University has had a Roseanne Roseannadanna season thus far. Do you remember that Gilda Radner character from the old days of Saturday Night Live? Her catchphrase was “It’s always somethin’ … If it’s not one thing, it’s another.” Of course, she would go on to say something like “either got a toenail in your hamburger or toilet paper clinging to your shoe.”

So where am I going with this unlikely analogy. It does seem like it’s always something for BU. If they get a good team effort in terms of energy, the goaltending is lousy. If the goaltending is good, the team doesn’t score. If BU scores some goals, their penalty kill stinks and they give up even more than they score. On those occasions — rare thus far — when all cylinders are firing together, they have enough talent to beat anybody in the country. Yet here they are at a woeful 3-7-2 going into Thanksgiving.

On Tuesday night, it was a case of good goaltending combined with a startling lack of urgency. “We had a lot of guys take the night off, I thought,” Terrier coach Jack Parker said after the loss. “I’m concerned whether this team knows how to get up for a game. At 3-6-2 coming into this game, this should’ve been a game we had to have. But we let it slip it away because we weren’t ready to play.”

At the press conference, I asked Parker about the team’s inability to get it all together consistently so far. “I would say that five out of our last six games I really liked how hard we played, what we looked like as a team. That’s why I was so disappointed tonight because again, it looks pretty good [in terms of shots on goal]: 16-4 in the first period, then 10-11 but they got all those power plays in the second period, and then 40-20 total and we lose the game. Hey: When you lose a game sometimes and your team plays really well, that’s okay. But this is phony stuff here,” Parker said, waving the stat sheet. “This covers up the problem; this doesn’t relate to what actually happened out there tonight. What actually happened is Harvard played harder than we did. Harvard was more prepared to play; they were more willing to lay it on the line to get things done, and they finally won a hockey game on the road.”

Pete MacArthur has been a bright spot on that stat sheet thus far, notching over a point a game. But the senior didn’t have an answer for the team’s lack of intensity the other night. “I wish I knew,” MacArthur said. “It’s just a roller-coaster ride right now. We play real well for a couple of games and then we think we’re good to go and we don’t have to come out and play the same way with the same urgency and alertness. We need to play hard. There’s some nights that you’re not going to have your skill with you, when you’re just a little off. But there’s no excuse for not skating hard and not going through guys.”

Parker wasn’t sure about how to solve it either, though it was evident that the team would have a challenging practice on Wednesday. “We didn’t skate tonight, so we’ll skate tomorrow, I know that for sure,” Parker said. “Other than that, we’ll see about changing some guys around, putting some new guys in the lineup and see if we can’t demand — or at least make as sure as best we can as coaches — that they get mentally ready because that’s what the other problem is.”

Adding to Tuesday’s disappointment was a serious injury to Jason Lawrence, who slunk off the ice in obvious pain after a second-period hit into the boards. “He’ll be out till January; he’s got a bad separated shoulder, grade 3,” Parker said. “And he had been playing real well and real well on the power play for us.”

“It’s not good,” MacArthur said of the injury to his teammate. “He was playing really well, giving us another element on that third and fourth line, playing really well in front of the net on the power play. It’s definitely a big loss. I just hope it doesn’t hinder him for longer than January, going into the rest of the year or even next year. You never want to see something like that happen.”

All of which makes it hard to predict how BU will fare on the big stage versus Cornell at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night. “No idea,” Parker said. “That’s a long way away.”

Trouble In Paradise

It hasn’t been the happiest stretch for the traditional powerhouses in Hockey East. In addition to BU’s aforementioned woes, Maine is 4-6-1 and in last place in the league, albeit with a game in hand against ninth-place Lowell. And, as reported last week on USCHO, Brett Motherwell — undoubtedly BC’s best offensive defenseman — jumped ship last week to sign with the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL, ostensibly ready to move on after being suspended for most of the year by coach Jerry York following a missed curfew early in the season.

I have heard a fair amount of scuttlebutt regarding Motherwell’s departure, and I see no point to repeating it here. But I do want to go on record as saying that I have a great deal of respect for BC coach Jerry York in handling disciplinary issues. York got my attention much earlier in his BC coaching career, when he suspended ten players who had gone out to Mary Ann’s, a forbidden bar near BC’s campus. BC lost the subsequent game, but it was a good example of being willing to lose a battle to win a larger war. Last season, York stripped the captain’s “C” from Brian Boyle due to his star’s academic performance.

How often do you see coaches take such stands in D-I athletics? Remember when Florida State star kicker Sebastian Janikowski missed curfew on New Year’s Eve before the Sugar Bowl in 2000? Coach Bobby Bowden couldn’t bring himself to suspend Janikowski. York would’ve done it. Denver coach George Gwozdecky DID do it, suspending his team’s third-leading scorer — Lukas Dora — for the 2004 NCAA hockey championship game in Boston due to a rules violation.

A few people have asked me how Motherwell could’ve been suspended so long for missing a curfew. Not knowing the details — but knowing Jerry York — I have to believe that there was a much longer list of issues or problems, and the curfew was a last straw. We may never know what officially happened on the record, but I have to side with York’s judgment on that one.

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question concerned those teams which held their best Hockey East record in some time. Dave asked you to name the team whose (then) current best record went back the farthest. The answer came straight from Keith Lavon’s game story: Northeastern’s 3-3-1 mark was their best in Hockey East after seven games since the 1997-98 season.

Since no one answered correctly, Dave’s cheer is:

“Go Wesleyan! Keep up what the Class of 2007 started!”

Now on to this week’s stumper. What with the Thanksgiving holiday, I think it’s appropriate to offer a trivia question that you can sink your teeth into. I think you’ll enjoy this one, as it will test your hockey history knowledge instead of purely testing your ability to comb With apologies to the late Chairman Mao, this trivia question is called the Great Leaps Forward.

Recently I wondered: What former Hockey East players ended up putting up much better numbers in the National Hockey League than they ever did in college? As a result, I ask you to give me a starting lineup — a goalie, three forwards, and two defensemen — that best exemplify that sort of great leap forward. But how will we quantify this, you may ask? It’s simple: Compare the “career year” of a given player in a college to his “career year” (to date) in the NHL. We’ll define that as points for skaters and wins for goalies. For example, consider Chris Drury. In his best year at Boston University, he scored 67 points. In his best NHL year thus far, he scored 69 points. So his “score” for this contest is a +2. Your goal is to come up with the starting lineup that gives you the highest possible total score. I will add that without trying too hard, I came up with a starting lineup that gave me a total of +208. So you will have to match that or beat that to win.

A few rules:

• The player needed to play for a Hockey East team when it actually was in Hockey East. So guys like Joey Mullen of BC do not count, though he certainly had a nice Great Leap Forward.

• 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,

• However, it appears that is not a fantastic source for determining goalie wins unless the goalies were pretty recent. So if you’re citing goalie wins, give me the URL of your source to prove it.

E-mail me 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.