When the season opened with a mayday-mayday weekend, Hockey East’s chances of a second straight year with five teams in the NCAA tournament didn’t look promising. Only Merrimack escaped with a win back on that Friday the 12th that felt like a 13th.
Not to worry.
If the season ended today, New Hampshire, Boston College, Northeastern, Massachusetts-Lowell and Massachusetts would be in. The fluctuations at this point are admittedly enormous, but it’s a fun time, especially for fans of the Huskies and River Hawks who haven’t been to the dance for a while.
It’s worth noting, though, that since the expansion to a 16-team tournament in 2003, Hockey East has failed to get at least four teams in only once, in 2004 when Maine, BC, and UNH made the cut.
Interesting times ahead…
Pulling Away From The Pack?
There’s still a ton of hockey to be played, but New Hampshire has put itself in a great position heading into the stretch run. The Wildcats have won their last four league games including a pivotal sweep of Massachusetts two weeks ago. They now sit atop Hockey East, tied with Boston College but with a game in hand.
“It’s an opportunity,” UNH coach Dick Umile says. “We’re in a good position at this point anyway. It’s been an incredible league with the way that Northeastern, UMass, Lowell, and Providence have played.
“We’re in a position where we can kind of control our own destiny, but it’s all Hockey East [games] from here on in. We’re pleased with the way that the team has played since we’ve come back from break, with the goaltending and the line combinations. I’m comfortable with the team right now.”
The Wildcats have lost a couple recent nonleague games, one against St. Lawrence in which they held a 5-3 lead with less than 10 minutes remaining, and another last weekend in which they outshot Dartmouth, 57-26, but at least those stumbles didn’t impact the standings.
“We don’t like the losses, whether it’s St. Lawrence or Dartmouth, but we played pretty well in both of those games,” Umile says. “We kind of gave it up against St. Lawrence. Even though we lost the other night against Dartmouth, I was pleased with the team, pleased with the way the team played, not pleased with the outcome.”
The Dartmouth game notwithstanding — five goals allowed on 26 shots — goaltender Kevin Regan has been a key part of UNH’s success. In Hockey East games, Regan leads the league in all goaltending categories: goals-against average (2.01), save percentage (.935), and winning percentage (7.27).
“He’s playing extremely well,” Umile says. “He’s playing with an awful lot of confidence. I think the other night [against Dartmouth] the puck just found its way with a couple of tip shots and some crazy ways the puck bounced. He’s playing solid for us.
“It definitely starts from the net out with us this season. There’s a lot of confidence from everybody in front of him with him in the net.”
Another key weekend series awaits the Wildcats. Boston University, a big rival in any year, isn’t in a position to wrest first place away from UNH but is undefeated in its last five league games and is a big weekend away from being back in the mix.
“BU is playing extremely well,” Umile says. “They were snakebitten there for a while scoring goals and I think their goaltending was a little up and down, but they’ve got that together and they’re scoring. They’re right up there offensively.
“They’re always a team that plays extremely well the second half. This is a rivalry that goes way back as far as UNH is concerned. There’s a lot of respect there.
“This is an important time for us. The opportunity ahead is a great one if we want to compete for the top in Hockey East.”
Still A Big Story
A couple weeks ago, Massachusetts-Lowell was arguably the story in the league with five straight wins and seven of eight. A program that had gone through so much adversity and had looked to be at least a year away, vaulted into home ice contention and a national ranking.
Observers still have to be impressed despite splits the last two weekends: a home-and-home series with Providence followed by a loss to Boston College and a win over UMass. The River Hawks had a shot at taking all four games.
“We’re not at all focused on results as much as we are the process,” UML coach Blaise MacDonald says. “That has to be our M. O. — playing well.
“Fortunately we’ve done enough little things well at key moments to turn one-goal losses or ties we had last year into victories.”
The win over UMass was particularly important, not only in the standings but because the two sister schools also compete for the Alumni Cup, awarded to the winner of their three-game, regular-season series.
“We kind of framed that game as a championship game,” MacDonald says. “For a young team, we wanted to see how we’d respond, similar to when we played Maine in the Florida tournament. I thought we played really well and winning that was very big for us.”
You have to wonder if the youth of this team is working to Lowell’s advantage in that the kids may not have fully realized that they weren’t supposed to be this good.
“We don’t focus on it,” MacDonald says. “As coaches, we’re pretty well-suited to bringing people back down to earth.
“We still have that approach that we’re in the batter’s box, it’s an 0-2 count, Jonathan Papelbon is on the hill, and we’ve just got to fight like heck to get our bat on the ball.
“That being said, I must compliment the leadership we’ve had from Ben Holmstrom and Mark Roebothan as well as Barry Goers and Jeremy Dehner. They have done a tremendous job with the guys and turning a lot of those tight games into victories.”
Roebothan has gotten the job done not only in the locker room but also on the ice. This year, he’s taken his game to a new level, already almost matching his scoring totals from his first two years combined. Not with the flash of Top 10 Plays of the Day, but with trademark grit.
“If you look at his goals, those are signature goals, dirty goals, tough goals,” MacDonald says. “One hundred percent effort. That’s the type of guy he is.
“He’s doing it statistically, but it’s [also important] the way he’s doing it and where he’s doing it — right in the battle areas.”
In another season, this weekend’s two-game set against Minnesota-Duluth might have been a chance to experiment in non-league games. But if the season ended today, the River Hawks would be in the NCAA tournament. It might not be prudent to start talking in those terms — focus on the process, focus on the process — but that possibility puts a whole new spin on the series.
“Originally I was looking at this as a nice change for us, a chance for us to play a great opponent without it affecting our standings in Hockey East.” MacDonald says. “In the back of your mind you can look at it that way, but in the forefront you’re looking at it like it’s Hockey East against the WCHA. We have a responsibility to Hockey East to do everything in our power to see if we can get the results we desire.”
Not to mention — shhhhhhhh! — take two more steps to what would have been unthinkable at the beginning of the season: an NCAA berth.
Turning It Around?
Going into last weekend, Vermont hadn’t won a league game since Thanksgiving, had just been swept by Boston College, and was in distinct danger of not making the playoffs. Coming in to town were one of Hockey East’s top teams, the Northeastern Huskies. Not exactly a recipe for a turnaround.
The Vermont Catamounts, however, took a vital three of four points from Northeastern.
“It certainly was a very positive step in the right direction for our team,” UVM coach Kevin Sneddon says. “We’d come off a relatively poor performance in Boston the previous week just in terms of our overall intensity.
“We challenged the team. We told them as a staff we were going to take the reins and hold players far more accountable than we had in recent weeks. Then we pushed the team very hard.
“They responded like any coach would hope a team would respond. They were very motivated to prove to themselves that they were far better than what they’d shown recently.
“We were pleased to take a big step forward. But it is just a step. We’ve got a long way to go. Not sound too much like a coach, but that’s just a very small step forward and we’ve got to continue to take those steps if we want to be a competitor in this league this year.”
Perhaps most encouraging is that the Catamounts, one of the top defensive teams since joining the league but last in goals allowed this year, gave up only two goals each night.`
“The best part of it was the number of grade A opportunities that we actually gave up,” Sneddon says. “I think particularly on Saturday night we did a nice job of limiting those chances for Northeastern.
“They scored a power play goal and then a shorthanded goal which was disappointing. But five-on-five we limited their scoring opportunities. We didn’t give up any odd-man rushes. We were really solid in our own zone.
“Unfortunately up to this point we’ve given up several odd-man rushes in games and we just haven’t played well as a five-man unit defensively. That was probably the best thing about our game. We were physical, we won races to loose pucks, we limited Northeastern’s opportunities to some degree, and we got good goaltending when we needed it. So it was a very positive weekend all-in-all on both sides of the puck.”
This weekend another huge series beckons, two games at UMass. The Minutemen had been flying high until dropping four straight. Is this the best time or the worst time to be facing the Minutemen?
“I have such great respect for [UMass coach Don] Toot Cahoon,” Sneddon says. “I’ve seen him throughout his coaching career, when he was at Princeton and I was at Union and then again since his [arrival] at UMass. His teams don’t often go into lengthy slides. And there is a reason for it. He is a very good coach at changing the direction quickly and getting his team back on the right track.
“I think we’re going to see a very highly focused and motivated team on Friday night. As I said to my team yesterday, [UMass] was the fifth-ranked team in the country two weeks ago. So let’s not forget that, how good they are.
“If anything, they are going to be on heightened alert by their coaching staff in terms of all the details of the game. We expect to see them at their best on the weekend. We’ve got to be even better than we were this past weekend.”
Complicating matters is that the series is on the road. Vermont is 4-4-1 at home this year but only 1-5-2 on the road.
“I think some of that is youth,” Sneddon says. “But we just haven’t played well up until recently. We’ve had good moments, but we haven’t had consistency and that’s the challenge. At some point it would be nice to say, ‘Hey, we’re a consistent hockey team home or away.’
“But we haven’t been a consistent hockey team at home or away. So we’re not really looking at the records or what’s going on when we head out on the road or what do we do at home.
“If we bring our game like we played this past weekend for 120 minutes every weekend, we at least give ourselves a chance to win hockey games in this league. The top four teams that are eventually going to make it to the TD BankNorth Garden are the teams that can do that consistently. The teams that play inconsistent are going to find themselves on the losing end.”
In Case You Missed It
(Correction: Cherie was mistakenly referred to as my daughter, not my niece.)
Last week Scott reported that his daughter had recently competed in her geography bee at school, putting the whole family into map fever for a little while. As a result, his question required some heavy use of Mapquest to solve it. He called this one “Far-Flung Teammates.” In the history of menâ€™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 playersâ€™ hometowns as they are listed on www.hockeydb.com.
This question really captured the imagination of our loyal readers, as we had several dozen respondents. Predictably, Scott’s own best guess of 4,728 miles was blown away by the best answer. Scott Kaplan came up with teammates Mike Fournier (Anchorage, Alaska) and goalie Jim Healey (Holyrood, Newfoundland) from the 2004-05 and 2005-06 Merrimack Warriors. The pair was indeed far-flung, as Mapquest reports a distance of a whopping 6,073.46 miles across the continent.
Better still, reader Joseph Burke was a little stunned to hear that the distance from Anchorage to Newfoundland could be more than the distance between Alaska and New Port Richey, Florida, hometown of UNH freshman Danny Vranek. Although Vranek has no current Alaskan teammate, Joseph still didn’t quite believe me when I told him that I thought it was farther from Alaska to Newfoundland in any event. Admirably, he put his engineer’s hat and calculated that Florida and reported the following:
“Assuming the earth is a perfect sphere, which it isn’t, but close enough, then using the general latitude and longitude of the cities I found…
Anchorage Alaska – 61Â° 13′ N by 149Â° 54′ W
New Port Richey Florida – 28Â°14’N by 82Â°43’W
St John’s Newfoundland – 47Â° 37’N by 52Â° 45’W
Well when you calculate the geodesic you find:
Anchorage to St John’s “as the crow flies” is 5852 km
Anchorage to New Port Richey “as the crow flies” is 6071 km
So Newfoundland is farther by car but shorter as the crow flies.”
He also added:
“P.S. This entire exercise had nothing to do with the real trivia question.
P.P.S. This one was fun.”
Phew! Hope all of you aspiring geographers kept up with that explanation! Obviously Scott will be devising more geographical trivia questions in the future, given how big a hit this one was.
Lest we forget, Scott Kaplan’s winning answer calls for the cheer of his choice:
“Let’s Go Lowell! 2007-08 Alumni Cup Champs!”
This week’s question involves one of the five league teams that would qualify for the national tournament if the season ended today. In its most recent NCAA appearance, that team lost to the eventual national champion in the first round, but would have taken a third-period lead if instant replay had been used. The goaltender involved in the play would go on to be a Boston Bruin.
E-mail me with the year, the two teams involved, the Hockey East player who took the shot, and the goalie. The winner will be notified by Tuesday 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…
If you like cooking, or if you just want to see photos that’ll make you hungry, check out my daughter’s blog. You can also click on the “About” tab and find out a fun tidbit of family history.
Go ahead. Click on it. Give Nicole a sharp spike in her page views so she’ll think that everybody reads this column.
I was going to blab on about other topics, but what better place to finish than talking about the best daughter in the history of the universe.
Thanks to my wife Brenda for her life-saving transcriptions.