Yes, you have to account for the tournament champions in the six conferences so being in the PairWise’s top 16 isn’t good enough. That only puts you on the bubble.
Even so, what were the odds when the season started that Hockey East would have six teams in the top 16… and those six wouldn’t include either Boston University or Maine?
You’ve got to love it for the kids who play for Providence, Northeastern, Massachusetts-Lowell and Massachusetts. They’re all in the mix as the regular season moves to its final two months and that wasn’t an automatic before the season started for any of them.
Making A Move
Early in the season, it was looking like it would be a long one for the Providence College Friars. They lost their first four games and stood 1-5-1 after seven. Since then, however, they’ve gone 10-5-2 with last weekend’s sweep of Northeastern launching them into third place in Hockey East and 11th in the PairWise.
That would be called a big-time turnaround.
While PC coach Tim Army contends that his 0-4 club was playing much better than its record, he admits that the 10-5-2 edition had taken it up a notch.
“We’re reading better off of each other,” he says. “We’re playing a little more consistently.
“There are times that with a lot of freshman and sophomores playing we might read a situation and just not be aware of what everyone else is doing. It sometimes can cost you. I think as we’ve progressed we’re just doing a better job of being able to think more as a group on the ice. That really helps.”
During the losing stretches, Army preached focusing on the process of getting better. Now that the wins are coming in bunches and the PairWise is painting an attractive picture, he isn’t changing that tune.
“It’s something you’ve got to stress every day,” he says. “If you don’t stress it, your team can focus on other factors that they can’t control. You can’t necessarily control whether you win or lose. The way you can control it is by playing the best possible game you can play and getting better every day as a group and as an individual.
“When you’re able to win some games, it certainly helps the confidence level inside the locker room. You still preach about taking it one day at a time and trying to get better every day, but with that success they’re feeling real positive so you build off of those emotions as well.”
One of the keys to the Friars’ success has been the two offensively talented blueliners they have in Matt Taormina and Cody Wild. Taormina (7-14-21) trails team leader Jon Rheault by only a single point and Wild (4-13-17) isn’t far behind despite missing four games.
“We’ve always encouraged our defense to be part of our offense,” Army says. “We’ve tried to establish and create that as a staple of our program.
“Obviously Matt and Coty are the lead guys in that department with their numbers, but we also get that kind of activity from Mark Fayne, Eric Baier, Joey Lavin, Trevor Ludwig, and David Cavanagh. It’s been important for us.”
Although it has had a few dry stretches, the PC power play now ranks second in Hockey East with a 23.2 percent conversion rate and was a major factor this weekend with three goals on Friday and another two on Saturday.
“That’s always going to be a springboard for your offense,” Army says. “You need to have good players on your power play in order to produce like that because teams like Northeastern have exceptionally good penalty killing units.
“I think we’ve got 10 good players that play on our power play and that’s why we have a good one. You try to put the right people together and have your sticks lined up the right way and then you give them an opportunity to try to figure the game out for themselves.
“Matt and Cody are a couple of defensemen who have that [special] feel and instinct on the power play. Their ability to move the puck, their ability to be a threat from 55-60 feet with their shots, and their ability to quarterback the power play unit [are big factors in its success].”
Pierce Norton has also been able to bury six power-play goals, along with another five while at even strength. The junior has really blossomed this year, his 19 points already surpassing his combined totals from his first two seasons.
“He’s got a great stick and he’s really good down around the net,” Army says. “He’s really good from the top of the circle in. He’s big and rangy and tough. He’s certainly willing to go into those high traffic areas where you’ve got to get some secondary opportunities to score some goals. He’s got a good nose around that net.
“[But] I think what’s helped elevate his game is really preparing himself off the ice to be ready to play and the experience he’s gained playing against such good competition.”
Back Where They Belong
Before their Nov. 30 game, the Boston College Eagles were staring at an 0-for-November. Their 3-4-5 record — 2-3-4 within Hockey East — didn’t come close to matching preseason expectations.
They had lost Brett Motherwell and Brian O’Hanley to disciplinary suspension following the season-opening loss to Michigan and also lost Brock Bradford to injury in that same game. But a losing record and going 0-for-a-month was still a radical departure from the script.
Since winning that game against archrival Boston University, however, BC has gone undefeated in league play, suffering only a single loss to Clarkson while rolling up a 9-1-2 record. That’s despite Motherwell and O’Hanley not returning and Bradford lasting only four games before once again fracturing his left humerus.
“Even in the rough stretch we had in November, there were some pretty good signs that we were going to be a pretty good club,” BC coach Jerry York says. “The games were very competitive. The losses were generally by one goal.
“We’ve just become a better team as we’ve progressed through the schedule and practices. We’ve gotten a little more hardened by the process.
“The one steadfast has been Johnny Muse in goal. He’s been posting outstanding numbers right from the start of the year.
“Losing Motherwell and O’Hanley, we had to come up with some different defensive combinations and Timmy Kunes and Anthony Aiello have really taken advantage of more ice time and have become a really solid back of the blueline. Timmy Filangieri is having a exceptional year for us. He’s really developed into a top flight defensemen.”
Although the Friars may have something to say about it with their games in hand, BC and New Hampshire have now put some distance between themselves and the rest of the pack. That matches preseason expectations but has taken some time in developing.
“We had two genuine All-American candidates in Motherwell and Brock Bradford that we lost for the season,” York says. “We’ve had to become a different type of hockey club. So I think the projections were right but with those two key losses we took a step back.
“But we’ve been able to work around that. Now we’re playing very good hockey. Timmy Filangieri has really stepped to the forefront on defense and Brian Gibbons and Joe Whitney are really coming on hard as young kids who offset a little bit of losing Brock. We’re a much different club than we thought we were going to be back in early September.”
Friday’s game against Providence will be a key one in the Hockey East race, but even so BC will have to fight the temptation of looking ahead to Monday night’s Beanpot matchup with BU. In some circles, the Beanpot trumps all.
“One of our goals when we start the year is to win the Beanpot,” York says. “We haven’t been as successful as we would have liked.
“You climb that ladder. The Beanpot is key, but then it gets more difficult. You try to win the league [regular season] championship. It gets even more difficult when you try to win the Hockey East Tournament, and then the NCAA regionals and then the Frozen Four trying to get a national title. It just ramps up.
“For us, the Beanpot is a real goal and then they just get loftier. This is the first one we really go after. You can’t win the triple crown unless you win the first one.”
Taking A Tumble
The last three weeks have not been kind to UMass. Since rising to fifth in the country, a stratosphere new to the program, the Minutemen have failed to win a game with only a single point in six league contests.
From the penthouse to the outhouse…
“It’s pretty simple,” UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon says. “Any athlete that’s been involved in pretty serious competition will tell you that focus becomes a major factor. As much as you talk about it, you can lose your focus if you allow your mind to wander a little bit.
“I think that has to some degree affected us and to recapture a total focus is not an easy thing to do. You can make improvements and I think we have. Who’s to say how it’s going to play out?”
Timing didn’t do UMass any favors. The players ended classes on Dec. 18 and didn’t return until this week.
“When our kids go on this huge intersession, it’s traditionally a really tough time of the year for us,” Cahoon says. “We need some stimulus during that time.
“There was so much discussion about the quality of the tournament we were going to and the challenge that we faced — [opponents Notre Dame and Colorado College, both in the top 10] — it seemed to be easy to maintain focus for that tournament.
“Then we had a two-week gap before UNH came in here where we didn’t play games. That’s where you could see little things seeping in. Who’s to say we have the ability to recapture that focus? We’ll find out what our resiliency is over time.”
Arguably, the fall from fifth in the country is one of those growing pains that comes from taking a program to a level it’s never been at before.
“Every coach in our league has probably read Pat Riley’s book The Winner Within,” Cahoon says. “In the book there is a chapter referred to as “The Innocent Climb” and then after that there’s a chapter called “Mastery.”
“The Innocent Climb always ends with a stumble and a fall because you’re going through it blind for the first time. It’s new to you or to the guys that are playing for you. It’s not until you really have mastery in place – a complete understanding of how you do things and why you do things and consistency in doing those things — that you enjoy the success that the BCs and the North Dakotas and the Michigans of the world seem to enjoy year in and year out.”
Taking A Big Step Back
The BU Terriers had seemed to be righting the ship until last weekend, going 3-0-2 within the league and positioning themselves for a home ice berth. Their home-and-home series with UNH, however, brought that momentum to a screeching halt.
While they were admittedly playing a terrific team in UNH, BU coach Jack Parker was even more upset with how the Terriers lost, especially in the rematch game on Saturday at home.
“We tried to play hard in the first two periods, got back in the game with three goals in the second period, and then inexplicably we go out in the third period and absolutely lay an egg,” Parker said after the sweep. “We had two shots in the third period.
“We acted like we were disinterested in the third period. There was no emotion. You’d think we’d be all jacked up. [It was] almost as if they were waiting to lose. A sad display by my team tonight; a great display by UNH.
“We’re in bad shape now because team-wise we don’t feel very good about ourselves, we haven’t got any confidence, we just let four points slip away that were very important to us and now we’re two games under .500 in the league. We’ve got to dig ourselves out of a hole again just to make the playoffs never mind get home ice.”
Last week’s question involved one of the five league teams that would have qualified for the national tournament if the season ended that day. In that team’s most recent NCAA appearance, it 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 went on to be a Boston Bruin.
In 1994, Northeastern’s Dan Lupo put a shot past Lake Superior State’s Blaine Lacher that crossed the line according to almost everyone viewing the instant replay. The Lakers, who did not get an opening round bye, won each of their NCAA tournament games in overtime until shellacking BU in the title game, 9-1.
First to answer correctly was Scott Donnelly whose cheer is:
“Let’s Go Low-ell, clap-clap, clap-clap-clap!!”
This week’s question asks what Hockey East player suffered a bicycling accident that left him in a coma but recovered to play after a year of rehabilitation and was honored with what has become one of the most prestigious national awards.
E-mail me with the player, the award and the year. 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…
• Do you like free food? If so, go to my daughter’s blog where she began a contest last week to welcome USCHO visitors. If you leave a comment, you’ll be eligible for free baked goodies. But the contest ends on Saturday when she gets up — that means about two in the afternoon — so act now.
• There’s a part of me that’s worried that this Super Bowl could be a replay of the one in 2001 when the Rams had the unstoppable offense and no one gave the Patriots a chance. But there’s an even bigger part of me that thinks that the warmer weather and faster track will shift the Pats’ offense into its highest, most unstoppable gear.
• A rotation with both Johan Santana and Josh Beckett would have been a delight to see, but I’m happy as long as Santana didn’t go to the Yankees.
• GO PATS!
Thanks to Scott Weighart, Jim Connelly and as always, my wife Brenda.