This Week in Hockey East: Nov. 29, 2007

On Slippery Slopes

Before moving on to look at a few specific teams, two coaches’ comments illuminate the parity within Hockey East.

“The margin this year between winning and losing, from my perspective, is very thin,” Boston College coach Jerry York says. “We’ve played 12 games, and seven have already gone into overtime.”

Northeastern coach Greg Cronin might have his team in first place, but he knows its hold on the lead is a tenuous one.

“With the exception of the North Dakota and New Hampshire games, the other ones were all one-goal games,” he says. “It’s a slippery slope we live on right now in Hockey East. If you slip, you could find yourself in the middle of the pack or in last place in the matter of a couple weeks.”

‘Nuff said.

In Second and Trying Harder

In the free-for-all known as the Hockey East standings, New Hampshire ranks second behind Northeastern both in total points and percentage. The Huskies have so far been UNH’s nemesis, delivering its only two losses. Considering that the Wildcats were expected to go neck-and-neck with Boston College for the title, the current result is either more or less on par — 7-2-1 and a number six national ranking isn’t exactly chopped liver — or perhaps just a little disappointing since BC has faltered.

“Overall I think we’re somewhat pleased,” UNH coach Dick Umile says. “We’re a little inconsistent playing a 60-minute hockey game, which you’re going to have to do in this league as we’re finding out. But we’re making progress.

“We lost to Northeastern, but they’re playing well. [Brad] Thiessen played well in the net. We played okay, but they found a way to beat us, bottom line.

“They’re a good team. There’s no question this is the year that the league is really up for grabs.”

The UNH offense leads Hockey East with 3.90 goals per game despite a mere 13.8 percent conversion rate on the power play. (Only Boston University is also over the 3.00 threshold.) The Wildcats have been dominant at times, scoring five goals in three of the last four games, but in the two losses to Northeastern the Huskies held them to only a singleton each night. Not coincidentally, those nights the power play was a collective 0-for-15.

“Short hand has been okay, but the power play hasn’t been great,” Umile says. “We’re still trying to find out what to do there, trying different combinations. Hopefully that will get better.

“We still like to move the puck and generate some offense. We like our forwards and our defense has been involved, which has been great. Brad [Flaishans] is playing well, so we’ve gotten some offense from our defense.

“We’ve got some young talented forwards that are getting better. [James] vanRiemsdyk, the Thompson kid from New Hampshire [Paul Thompson], and [Phil] DeSimone are playing well for us.

“But we’re always working at the defensive aspects of the game because that’s ultimately what you’re going to need at the end.”

As the number-two overall pick in the NHL draft, vanRiemsdyk was expected to make an immediate impact and he has, tying Matt Fornataro for the team scoring lead with five goals and nine assists. However, “the Thompson kid from New Hampshire” — he’s likely to keep that moniker for his full tenure at UNH as a Granite State native from Derry — has also made his presence known (6-4-10). When paired with vanRiemsdyk and Thomas Fortney two games ago, he immediately clicked, recording two goals and two assists.

“He’s a kid that played for the Junior Monarchs,” Umile says. “He was going to come in next year, but when Trevor [Smith] left early it opened an opportunity for him and he was ready to play.

“He’s a smart hockey player. He’s got a good stick. We’re very, very pleased with him.”

Umile has surprised some by giving backup goaltender Brian Foster more action (three starts in 10 games) than in the past. The sophomore has responded, matching senior Kevin Regan’s stats while going 2-0-1.

“Kevin [has been] nicked up, but he’s doing fine now,” Umile says. “He’s our goaltender. He’s going to play the majority of the games.

“But Brian proved last year that he’s a real good goaltender. He’s done a good job for us, and hopefully he’ll play a little bit more that he did last year. He’s gotten himself some starts and we’ll see where it goes.”

Looking ahead, Umile sees the current logjam in the standings as a good thing for his team.

“[The parity] will make us all better even though I think we’re beating each other up every weekend,” he says. “We’ll all be better teams at the end. It will be interesting to see how it shakes out.”

Resurgent But Thin

After three ties in four games, Massachusetts-Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald had grown tired of the “kissing your sister” results. So a week ago last Tuesday, he pulled out all the stops.

“I took a page out of Richie Umile’s book,” MacDonald says. “I went to the mock turtleneck and it produced a victory.”

The River Hawks followed that 3-0 win at Merrimack with another, 6-2, at home.

“Merrimack is playing really well, so we knew we had to be at the top of our game to compete,” MacDonald says. “I was really happy with our effort and execution on that Tuesday night. It was one of our best games of the season. We got great goaltending and had terrific energy.

“[On Saturday], we were sluggish in the first period, but [Nevin] Hamilton gave us a chance to stay in the game and then we broke it open on some fortunate, timely goals in the second.”

The wins were Lowell’s first in league play, but the resulting 2-3-4 record was enough to vault the River Hawks into a bazillion-way tie for fourth place.

The Tuesday-Saturday sweep wasn’t a fluke. Over the past six games they’d also tied UNH, Massachusetts, and Providence. Their only loss came at the hands of first-place Northeastern, 2-1, with the difference coming on a power-play goal.

“We are most proud of our consistency,” MacDonald says. “We work very, very hard at practice every day. I think we’ve competed very well in every game, even the BU game where we had a 4-2 lead going into the third. We played well; we just got outmatched for 20 minutes.

“We’ve had a couple of great chances in most of our ties to win the game. We’ve been battling very, very well and easily could be in second place. But we’re happy with our overall consistent play against a very tight league.”

An important part of Lowell’s success has been its goaltending, a position that has sunk several recent River Hawk teams. Sophomores Carter Hutton (1.36 GAA, .945 Sv%) and Nevin Hamilton (2.61, .911) have formed a strong tandem.

“That’s been the most frustrating thing since we’ve been here,” MacDonald says. “We feel like we’ve changed a lot of the elements of our program and have played very well during that time but really lacked in consistent goaltending. When it seems everybody else gets it and you don’t, it’s even more amplified.

“Hutton and Hamilton have played as well as all the other goalies in the league. They’ve given us a chance to get some confidence. The underlying variable that drives success is confidence and usually that comes from your goaltending.”

On the offensive end, Mark Roebothan leads the goalscoring with six.

“I don’t look at Mark’s role as a real goalscorer for us as much as a guy that jumps into the battle zones and works for dirty goals,” MacDonald says. “Because of his behavior in getting into those areas recently, he’s scored some of those goals.

“We’re very much a collective unit when it comes to putting goals up on the board. It’s been great to see his gritty, hard work and determination pay off in goals lately.”

Despite the strong performances of late, MacDonald knows his already banged-up team doesn’t have the depth to withstand an onslaught of injuries. The uncertainty the program faced during the offseason scared away some recruits. Then serious illness and injury claimed another two players expected to be key contributors.

“We went into the season with one extra forward and one extra defenseman,” MacDonald says. “We’ve played 11 games and in eight of them we had zero healthy scratches, which might be a record.

“If some teams have the wrong guys get injured, it really can change the complexion of their team.”

On The Rebound

For a while there, things were looking pretty bleak for the Vermont Catamounts. They lost four of their first five, with the lone exception being a tie. Then following their first win, 2-1 over Merrimack, the Cats bottomed out with a 9-1 loss to Boston University.

Nine to one. Nine goals allowed. At home. Other than the lone win, the Catamounts had allowed three or more goals in all but one game.

Whatever had happened to the team that had been the master of the 2-1 win and consistently one of the top defensive clubs since it joined Hockey East?

“As a coach you spend that night, the next morning and all of the day waiting to play again and waiting to see how your team is going to respond,” UVM coach Kevin Sneddon says. “Obviously our team showed a lot of character in the way they responded from that embarrassing defeat at home and came back from a 3-1 deficit on Saturday night to come up with a 5-4 win.”

The Catamounts didn’t stop there. They followed that huge win up with another over UMass, 4-2.

“[Defeating BU] seemed to really spark our team,” Sneddon says. “We played very well the following Tuesday night against UMass. It was probably our best game of the year in that we played 60 complete minutes.”

They even held a 5-3 lead going into the third period at Maine on Sunday before letting a point slip through their fingers when the Black Bears scored an extra-attacker goal.

“We did a lot of great things up at Maine,” Sneddon says. “Our team is starting to click offensively. We’re just giving up too many second and third opportunities right now defensively that are costing us.

“But we’re really pleased with the skill level of our team. We’ve come together as a team. I think it took that 9-1 blowout game to really pull us together, as strange as that may sound. We’ll hopefully be able to look back at that game and say that was a key turning point to our season.”

It hasn’t just been a switch from momentum going in the wrong way to the right. Vermont is on a goal-scoring binge — fourteen goals in three games — quite unlike Catamount teams of recent vintage. Not since the first game last season had they scored as many as five goals in a game. They’ve now done it twice in the last three.

“We switched around our lines after that 9-1 game and seemed to have found more
chemistry,” Sneddon says. “[Colin] Vock, [Dean] Strong and [Corey] Carlson have really caught fire not only on the power play but it seems to me every time they are on the ice they are doing something well offensively and defensively.

“Our second line is really starting to produce. Viktor StÃ¥lberg has been fantastic for us and so has Peter Lenes. I think Brayden Irwin slowly but surely is finding his way.

“Those top two lines obviously have created most of our offense but unlike in past years we’re getting some contributions from our defensemen joining the rush. We really didn’t have the ability to do that in the past. We’re really pleased in what we are seeing out of some of our young defensemen helping
us out offensively.”

The challenge will be to cut down on the goals allowed while maintaining the improved offense. After allowing exactly two goals a game last season, finishing tied for first with BU in that category, Vermont now ranks dead last, giving up on average 3.80.

“When you have five defensemen on your roster that haven’t played a game in college hockey, it’s a little different than when you are just a little young at the forward position,” Sneddon says. “When a young defenseman makes a big mistake, it leads to a scoring opportunity. When you have a forward make a mistake, a veteran defensive corps might be able to make up for that mistake.”

The defensive breakdowns, however, go beyond the blue line inexperience.

“I think it’s two-fold,” Sneddon says. “We’re giving up too many opportunities that we’re just not used to giving up. That is typical of some youth back on the blue line. [But] I think some of our veterans are more at fault than some of our freshmen of late. We’ve just had some bad turnovers at key points in the game. So you can’t point all of it to youth.

“I think that Joe (Fallon) has been very solid in net for us where we have maybe needed him to be excellent in every game early on to get through these growing pains. I think he has been average to above average.”

Sneddon, now in his fifth year at Vermont, has also made a conscious stylistic change.

“From a system standpoint, we used to out-number quite a bit in the defensive zone and pack our forwards down low,” he says. “You would see us give up no more than low twenties in terms of shots against. We blocked anywhere between 10 and 20 shots a game. That hard work didn’t really create anything from an offensive transition standpoint.

“[This year] we feel like we’ve got the skill level to be able to — I don’t want to say open things up because defense is obviously something that we still harp on an awful lot because we really feel that it does win championships — but instead of packing a lot of players in down low we’ve been a little bit more positional in terms of our defensive game, using our speed to our advantage.

“We’re able to attack coming out of our zone more so than we have in the past.
We’ve seen some great things over the last three games in particular. That shows we’re starting to get it. It’s a slow process with that youth. We’re trying to build our team for the stretch run and get better every week.

“I love our team. We’re under .500, but I think we can do a lot of great things in this league. I’m very excited about what I’ve seen so far.”

Trivia Contest

What with the Thanksgiving holiday, Scott Weighart thought it would be appropriate to offer a trivia question that might take several days to digest. With apologies to the late Chairman Mao, this trivia question was called the Great Leap Forward.

Recently Scott 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, readers were asked to submit a starting lineup — a goalie, three forwards, and two defensemen — that best exemplify that sort of great leap forward. But how did 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. Without trying too hard, Scott came up with a starting lineup that gave him a total of +208. So you had 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 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.

In a bit of poetic justice, Kurt Zwald came up with the best answer after failing to win Scott’s early contest asking for a lineup that asked for a sextet who were very last in the alphabet. Here is Kurt’s response:

F – Bill Guerin (45 points in 1990-91 at BC, 85 points in 2000-01 with EDM/BOS, +40)
F – Keith Tkachuk (40 points in 1990-91 at BU, 98 points in 1995-96 with WINN, +58)
F – Kevin Stevens (70 points in 1986-87 at BC, 123 points in 1991-92 with PITT, +53)

D – Brian Leetch (47 points in 1986-87 at BC, 102 points in 1991-92 with NYR, +55)
D – Ryan Whitney (25 points in 2003-04 at BU, 59 points in 2006-07 with PITT, +34)

G – Rick DiPietro (18 wins in 1999-00 at BU, 32 wins in 2006-07 with NYI, +14)

TOTAL: +254

Much to most everyone’s surprise, BC and BU players comprise the whole lineup. Even some of the close-but-not-quite responses–Adrian Aucoin, Brian Gionta, and Scott Young–were all BU or BC guys. Go figure.

Kurt Zwald’s cheer is:

“Come on Eagles, let’s turn things around and wrap up with a hot second half. Go BC!”

This week’s question asks about “well-rounded” hat tricks. That is, on Saturday, UNH’s Mike Radja completed the trick with one goal on the power-play, one while shorthanded, and the other at even strength. Name the last Hockey East player before Radja to score a “well-rounded” hat trick.

E-mail me with the player 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.

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

Congratulations to my niece Cherie for a great weekend last Saturday and Sunday. A senior at Providence, she scored two goals along with three assists.

I shouldn’t have been surprised that her response to my congratulatory email was to focus on the two wins and not on the individual attention. She was the consummate teammate last year in a lesser role; she remains that this year with time now on the power play and penalty kill.

Way to go Cherie! Go Friars!