This Week in Hockey East: Jan. 17, 2008

Midterm Examination

I thought I had done a pretty thorough job in my column of two weeks ago, what with quotes from four different Hockey East coaches, but last week Dave Hendrickson wasn’t content to one-up me… he had to go and six-up me! The result was probably the first-ever Hockey East column with quotes from all ten Hockey East coaches.

I’m not feeling too competitive this week, so I was tempted to content myself with a long, meandering story about, say, what brand of whistles is most preferred by Hockey East officials (Is it a Fox40 Force? The Grays Whistle U002? Or some darkhorse contender? The suspense is mounting already!).

However, I looked over the standings and reflected on the fact that each Hockey East team plays a 27-game league schedule and that the teams are right around the halfway point in mid-January. So I thought it might be satisfying to put on my professor hat and conduct a midterm examination of sorts. At this admittedly early point in the season — in which a team’s place in the standings is more transient than ever — I thought it would be fun to reflect on who the league award winners would be at this stage. I also am going to strive for what is likely to be my first-ever quote-free Hockey East column. So here goes:

Coach of the Year
This is a challenging race at the moment. As expected, UNH and BC are rising to the top of the standings. But the most exciting story of the year has to be the emergence of UMass, Northeastern, and UMass-Lowell in the national poll. UMass achieved the highest poll ranking of the three thus far, and UMass-Lowell is a wonderful story after the program’s future was in doubt a short time ago. But right now I would have to give the award to Greg Cronin of Northeastern, as the Huskies have done the best in league play of the three and are just two seasons removed from a 3-24-7 record.

Player of the Year
There are plenty of players having really good years so far, but Boston College forward Nathan Gerbe is a decisive choice for me and probably everyone else right now. Gerbe is the kind of guy that is easy to love if he’s on your team and equally easy to despise if he is wearing the opposition’s colors. Let’s just say that he is not exactly a candidate for the league’s sportsmanship award. Gerbe is an agitator and a sparkplug — somewhat reminiscent of Brian Gionta but more mercurial in temperament, perhaps. He makes things happen, and he is the biggest reason why BC shook off their early-season doldrums and now are looking like a serious contender nationally, let alone in the league. Look at the numbers: Gerbe has posted 18-16-34 in just 19 games and is leading the nation in both points per game and goals per game. Throw in three short-handed goals on top of that. Right now, Gerbe should a leading contender for the Hobey Baker Award along with Kevin Porter of Michigan.

Rookie of the Year
This is a much tougher race to call at this stage. UMass forward James Marcou is averaging a point per game, and his teammate Paul Dainton has provided a badly-need answer to serious questions in net, posting a 7-4-5 record along with a .918 save percentage and 2.37 goals against average. Likewise, BC goalie John Muse had to fill some pretty big skates when Cory Schneider went pro last summer, and he has posted a 10-5-5 record as well as a 2.19 GAA and .922 save percentage. Initially I found it pretty hard to go against preseason favorite, UNH forward James vanRiemsdyk. Despite having played four games less than Marcou (largely due to his participation in the World Junior Championships), vanRiemsdyk has matched the Minuteman star’s point totals, posting 8-11-19 in 15 games.

In fact, when this column first came out, I did pick him… only to have an astute reader point out that I had selected BC’s Joe Whitney as a first-team all-star while leaving him off the rookie team altogether! The very simple explanation is that I’m stupid… I actually completely forgot that Whitney was just a freshman. As much as I would like to give vanRiemsdyk some hardware now in the event of jumping to the NHL in the off-season, Whitney is most deserving.

Sportsmanship Award
Here I looked for players who have put together impressive performances combined with minimal penalties. Jerry Pollastrone of UNH is a solid contender with 14 points and just 6 PIM. If we judged purely from PIM, I would go with BU forward Chris Higgins, who has been called for just one minor penalty while notching a solid 7-10-17. But ultimately my choice is Boston College forward Ben Smith, as he combine excellent offensive numbers (13-10-23 in 20GP, tied for 24th nationally in points) with just 6 PIM.

Team Sportsmanship Award
There is no judgment call here, as this goes strictly to the team with the lowest number of penalty minutes per game. Right now that would go to Umass-Lowell, as the River Hawks have just 9.9 minutes per game to date. Providence is second with 10.9 PIM per game, while this is one award that is sure to elude BC this season. They are averaging 16.1 PIM per game, last — or first, depending on how you look at it — in the league. But the Eagles surely would let the River Hawks have the gold stars on their forehead in this category if they can win another title.

Defensive Defenseman and Defensive Forward Awards
Personally, I don’t feel that I’ve seen enough teams to play this season to determine winners for these categories just yet. BC and Lowell are leading the league with just 2.20 and 2.21 goals-against per game respectfully, so I’d want to look long and hard at their teams for possibilities. Gerbe conceivably could be a contender here as well due to his speed and shorthanded numbers as well as his +15 rating. Eagle Brian Gibbons has the best +/- rating on the team with a +19, while defenseman Anthony Aiello is at +11. Lowell defenseman Ryan Blair also got my attention my a team-best +12 rating… as a freshman. For UNH, Joe Charlebois (+11) and Jamie Fritsch (+10) stand out among the Wildcat blueliners, while Matt Fornataro (+13) and Mike Radja (+13) are having great two-way years thus far.

That said, even +/- numbers don’t tell the whole story, as some of the best defensive players are matched up against some of the premier offensive players on other teams. So I will defer on winners until I get to see some more games.

First and Second-Team Hockey East All-Stars
I’m mainly going on stats here, though I’m also trying to consider each player’s supporting cast. Either way, these picks are highly arguable. A player who has had to go up against the defense of BC three times already may not look as good as someone who played BU repeatedly in the early going, when they were giving up goals about as fast as they were scoring them. With those caveats, here are my selections as of mid-January

First Team
Forward Nathan Gerbe, BC (18-16-34 in 19 GP)
Forward Joe Whitney, BC (5-22-27 in 20 GP)
Forward Matt Fornataro, UNH (7-17-24 in 20 GP)
Defense Matt Taormina, Providence (5-12-17 in 18 GP)
Defense Matt Gilroy, BU (4-8-12 in 20 GP)
Goal Kevin Regan, UNH (11-4-0, 2.27 GAA, .928 save percentage)

Second Team
Forward Bryan Ewing, BU (11-13-24 in 19 GP)
Forward Pete MacArthur, BU (8-16-24 in 20 GP)
Forward Ben Smith, BC (13-10-23 in 20 GP)
Defense Justin Braun, UMass (4-9-13 in 19 GP)
Defense Brad Flaishans, UNH (4-10-14 in 20 GP)
Goal Brad Thiessen, Northeastern (11-5-2, 2.34 GAA, .914 save percentage

There are quite a few honorable mention candidates who could claim a spot on the first two teams before the season is over. Forwards include Joe Vitale (Northeastern), Marcou (UMass), vanRiemsdyk (UNH), Jon Rheault (Providence), and Mike Radja (UNH) to name a few. Among defensemen, Maine’s Bret Tyler is tied for the team lead in points and Minuteman Mike Kostka’s numbers are almost identical to his teammate Braun. Among goalies, Lowell’s Carter Hutton and Merrimack’s Andrew Brathwaite have stellar stats but have not yet shouldered nearly as much of their team’s netminding workload as Regan and Thiessen, so they cannot be considered yet.

Rookie Team
This lineup is also highly subject to change, as there are inevitably guys who figure it around now and surge statistically through their second semester. But to date, here’s who I would pick:

Forward James vanRiemsdyk, UNH (8-11-19 in 15 GP)
Forward James Marcou, UMass (4-15-19 in 19 GP)
Forward Joe Whitney, BC (5-22-27 in 20 GP)
Defense Ryan Blair, UMass-Lowell (1-6-7 and team-best +12 in 19 GP)
Defense Kevin Shattenkirk, BU (3-6-9 in 20 GP)
Goal Paul Dainton, UMass (7-4-5, 2.37 GAA, and .918)

The most painful decision here was at goalie, as BC’s John Muse has slightly better numbers than Dainton but also has a more experienced defensive corps in front of him. Still, the pressure of coming in as a team’s only goaltender, sink or swim, means that Muse deserved serious consideration and may well pull ahead of Dainton by the end of the season. Another tough omission is BU’s Colin Wilson, the top goal scorer for the US at the World Junior Championships. He already looks to have all the makings of a NHL power forward, and he could put up big numbers the rest of the way. Fellow Terrier Nick Bonino is another solid contender at forward, while Colby Cohen is a talented blueliner for BU as well. Lowell has Scott Campbell (6-7-13) at forward as well as Maury Edwards on defense with the same point totals as Shattenkirk. I also know have heard NU coach Greg Cronin rave about Drew Muench on the blue line, so he may be one of those guys who is much better than the numbers indicate.

In any event, all of the above should be good fodder for message-board arguments as well as offering you a few players to watch when you take in some great second-half Hockey East action.

Handicapping The Second Half

I’m probably not alone among Hockey East fans in scrutinizing the Hockey East standings with real fascination on a regular basis. Here they are, going into this weekend:

Rk Team (GP) W-L-T Pts
1 New Hampshire (14) 9-4-1 19
2 Northeastern (13) 8-4-1 17
3 Boston College (13) 6-3-4 16
4 Mass.-Lowell (14) 5-5-4 14
5 Providence (11) 5-4-2 12
Boston University (13) 5-6-2 12
Massachusetts (12) 4-4-4 12
8 Merrimack (15) 4-10-1 9
Vermont (11) 3-5-3 9
10 Maine (12) 3-7-2 8

On the most obvious level, a few things stand out initially. When you look at games in hand as opposed to the total points, the picture changes to some degree. Here are some observations:

• Although there has been much talk about the topsy-turvy league standings, we’re not far removed at all from the possibility of a 1-2 finish for UNH and BC, just as most predicted at the beginning of the year.

• That said, Northeastern is four games above .500 in league play and still could win the league. Last weekend’s split against Merrimack raises a bit of a question of whether they can go another streak or be more up and down, but my gut feeling is that it will be difficult to dislodge them from a home ice position.

• If you buy my assumption that UNH, BC, and NU have the inside track on home ice between their talent and record to date, we could end up with a fascinating battle for the last home ice slot. Four teams — Lowell, Providence, BU,and UMass — have little separating them. Although Lowell and UMass are the sweethearts of the national rankings in recent weeks, the Friars, surprisingly, appear to be in the best shape when you consider games in hand. Obviously, though, any of the top seven teams appear to be good enough to go on a significant winning streak. For that matter, Merrimack, Vermont, and Maine are all good enough to beat any other team on a good night.

• Although there is a long way to go, the bottom three all face significant challenges if they are to garner the last playoff spot (let alone anything higher). For all of Merrimack’s impressive improvement this year, they have played at least three more league games than the teams that are nearest to them in the standings. Vermont and Maine are better than their records indicate, but they’re looking up at some very talented teams in BU, UMass, Providence, and Lowell.

But again, this is all a pretty superficial view. Taking a closer look at the remaining schedules, some other observations emerge:

• Providence may have some games in hand against the field, but they also are the only team in the top seven that still has to play both UNH and BC twice. On top of that, they play a pair each against Northeastern and BU as well. That’s eight really tough games for the Friars.

• UMass has home-and-home series against Northeastern and BU, but they are done with the Wildcats and have just one game left against BC — at home. They also play Merrimack twice. So that’s a relatively good draw for the Minutemen from here on in.

• For Lowell, the biggest challenge will be home-and-home pairs against BC and Northeastern.

• BU plays twice against UNH, UMass, Northeastern, Maine, Providence, and Merrimack as well as a road game at BC and another at Lowell. That looks pretty challenging, and sweeping some of those pairs and getting at least two or three points against the better teams will be necessary for the Terriers to be playing at Agganis in the postseason. One thing’s for sure: With Karson Gillespie out for several weeks with an ankle injury, we’ll find out how good Brett Bennett really is. If he can play as well as he did at Maine last weekend, that will make a big difference.

• I like UNH’s chances more than BC’s based on schedule. UNH has two games apiece to play against BU, Providence, Merrimack, and Maine as well as all three against Vermont. BC gets a pair apiece against Lowell, Northeastern, and Maine as well as all three against Providence. The two teams play each other twice, too, and that will loom large. BU often gives UNH trouble, but in general I like the Wildcats schedule a little more.

• Northeastern will be tested with two games apiece against BC, UMass, Lowell, and BU as well as a two-game road trip at Vermont. If they can finish first or second after all of that, they could go far in the national tournament. But that’s got to be the toughest schedule of the top three teams.

So based on all of this, here is my prediction for the final finish:

1. UNH
2. BC
3. Northeastern
4. UMass
5. BU
6. UMass-Lowell
7. Providence
8. Vermont
9. Maine
10. Merrimack

We’ll see if that’s remotely close to correct at the finish line.

Trivia Contest

What with many schools on break for the holidays last week, Dave decided to give himself a trivia break as well. But now it’s time to get your thinking caps back on again.

My daughter recently competed in her geography bee at school, putting the whole family into map fever for a little while. As a result, I have a question that will require some heavy use of Mapquest to solve it. I call this one “Far-Flung Teammates.” In the history of men’s hockey in Hockey East, name the pair of teammates who lived the farthest driving distance apart in North America according to Mapquest. To determine the distance, go to Mapquest and ask for directions between the two players’ hometowns as they are listed on

For example, let’s pick a pair of current teammates at random: Rob Ricci (Brampton, Ontario) and Francois Ouimet (Lorrain, Quebec) of Merrimack. Click on “Directions” on Mapquest, taking care to click on the “State” designation to get the right abbreviation for the US state or Canadian province (QC for Quebec, par example. When I did this for Ricci and Ouimet, I came up with the rather unimpressive total of 362.79 miles.

However, without trying too hard I came up with a pair of teammates that just shy of 2,800 miles apart… and with a little more effort I came up with another pair that was close to 2,500 miles apart. Then I got a little lucky and topped 3,700 miles. Finally I quit when I found a pair whose hometowns were separated by 4728.38 miles according to Mapquest, a drive of over 80 hours! So suffice to say that you’ll have to at least match that number to have the best possible answer.

E-mail me with your answer. If the link in that last sentence doesn’t work for you (I had problems two weeks ago), just e-mail to [email protected] to reach me. 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.

Yadda, Yadda, Yadda

Given that I’ve been a San Diego Chargers fan since falling in love with their uniforms around the age of five, I was delighted with their against-the-odds upset of the Colts, especially with their two best offensive players hurt. In all likelihood, the Pats will thump them this weekend, but it still is a very satisfying win… and it’s the first time I can remember that I’ve actually liked all four teams in the playoffs!