This Week in Hockey East: Feb. 7, 2008

Beanpot Post-Mortem — Northeastern

Northeastern came into the Beanpot with higher hopes than usual, only to have them more or less dashed within about eight minutes. Given that Harvard has been a perennial also-ran in the tournament over the last ten years–not to mention their one win in the last 12 games coming into the tournament–just about everyone bought into a Northeastern appearance on the big stage on the second Monday of February. So it was eyebrow-raising to say the least to see them jump to a 3-0 lead before much of the crowd had even arrived.

“They beat us off the wall,” Husky coach Greg Cronin said. “It’s a game of one-on-one battles, and they were able to spin off the checks. There was some hesitation. On the first goal, there was a guy in front of the net who decided he was going to play some man-on-man defense, and he let his guy right by him. Second goal a guy got beat off the wall, they wrapped it around, and they were able to score on their second or third shot. The third one was a blown coverage in front of the net where a guy danced around a defenseman during a delayed call and whacked it up. I don’t care what level of hockey you are, you can’t give up multiple shots within ten feet of the paint. They’re going to score goals eventually, and that’s what they did.”

To his credit, Cronin apologized to Husky fans at the post-game press conference, given what a huge letdown the game was after unprecedented hype on campus over this year’s Beanpot. “Representing Northeastern, I want to apologize to our fans who waited in line for six hours to go out and watch this game, and we were unable to give them too much to get excited about. We had over 3,000 people in the building, and I want to apologize to them.”

One writer raised the question about whether the young team lost their composure. Cronin had an interesting take on that theory. “Not to be a wise guy, but we were too composed the whole game. There was very little energy. We didn’t sustain any energy. It was almost like we were playing hockey and they were going out to win a hockey game. That’s what happened.”

To keep it in perspective, I view Northeastern as a program that took about three giant steps forward earlier in the year. Lately they’ve taken one or two steps back–not too surprising, really, given the dearth of upperclassmen in significant roles on the team. That said, I’m not about to sound the death knell for the Huskies when it comes to home ice and the national tournament. They are currently in fourth place but just two points off a tie for second. They are tied for 13th in the PairWise Rankings and could go up or down significantly depending on how they fare in home-and-home series with BU, Lowell, and UMass. Right now they face a test in terms of how they will rebound from a deflating loss. Don’t count them out.

Beanpot Post-Mortem Two — BU

Sure, most people expected BC to beat BU this year, but there was always that possibility that BU could extend their magical run in the tournament. The Terriers had one an astonishing 13 semi-finals in a row–not to mention 23 of 24–and did so despite the fact that they had nowhere near the best team in the tournament for many of those championships.

“They’ve had a terrific run in the Beanpot,” BC coach Jerry York said. “The chore in front of us was to get by them. In my time here, the goaltending play of [John] Curry (now tearing up the American Hockey League in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization), [Sean] Fields, and [Michel] Larocque was unbelievable. Some of the games we had territorial edges and the better of the play, but we just couldn’t get by the goaltender. They’re well-coached; they’ve got good players, but the goalies are what jump out at me.”

“I always say, it’s like flipping a coin,” BU coach Jack Parker said afterwards. “You may do that for a long time and then not get to do it again. We’ve had an unbelievable run. It’s not the first time we’ve gone a long, long time without having to play in a Beanpot consolation game. It was 13 this time; I think it was 17 one time. We’ve been very, very fortunate to be able to come out with great efforts in the first game of the Beanpot and get ourselves into the final.

“It’s uncharted territory for us to be in that consolation game next week. But you get what you deserve sometimes, and I think BC deserved to win tonight.”

Indeed they did. For 40 minutes, it looked like we very well could have the Terrier starring in an underdog role once again. They played with a ton of energy, made the most of their opportunities, and emerged with a 3-2 lead after two periods. But then it slipped away in the third period, as the Terriers appeared to run out of gas. The Beanpot gods appeared to be watching over them as BC proceeded to hit posts and inexplicably miss on any number of point-blank shots the rest of the way. Sure, BU got a bad break on a very questionable delay of game call on goalie Brett Bennett–who knocked the net off the moorings sliding across the crease–leading to the tying goal early in the third period. Still, it could’ve gone from 3-2 BU to 6-3 BC over the last 20 minutes of regulation based on the number of grade ‘A’ chances.

In some ways the game was characteristic of many BU losses this year. They had some bursts of brilliance and some terrific goals. But they struggle to put in a 60-minute effort and make me wonder whether they are not confident enough or too confident… or both, somehow. The goaltending has been okay, but I can’t say that a goalie has stolen a single win for them this season. Bennett was by no means the culprit on Monday, but he wasn’t fantastic either–and it was something to hear the BU faithful shriek from the balcony every time he got a little wanderlust behind the net. At times Bennett looks like an above-average stickhandler, while at others he seems a bit cavalier about handling the puck away from the net with an attacker closing in on him. He definitely looks better than earlier in the year, but the bottom line is that BU’s team save percentage of .861 is just not good enough in this era to have anywhere near a winning record. That’s a stat that reflects on both the goalies and team defense, to be sure, but until BU is back around .900, they’re not going to win too many games.

The rest of the season will be a real character check for the Terriers. They have showed again and again that they can compete with anyone in the country–just ask No. 2 Michigan, who had all they could handle when BU visited Yost Arena in October. The key will be remembering that they still have enough talent to finish strong, get to the Garden, and possibly win the league tournament if they can get all cylinders firing simultaneously for an extended period.

Eagle Eyes On The Prize

Meanwhile, BC can feel really good going into the final. How well a freshman goalie will play in the Beanpot is always a question, and John Muse was very solid. They withstood the emotional, physical play of the Terriers and didn’t get too rattled after falling behind a couple of times. Ultimately it began to feel like a matter of time before they pulled out the win.

One major key was obviously Nathan Gerbe, who scored the game-tying and game-winning goals. Gerbe is the guy you love to hate if you’re not a BC fan. He is about as elusive a skater I can recall, and he is truly an agitating presence as well. As long as he keeps his cool and focus his intensity on scoring instead of impulsively lashing out at an opponent, all parties agree that he is becoming one of the dominant players in college hockey, like him or not.

“I thought he wasn’t noticeable in the early part of the game, but as the game progressed he started putting a lot of pressure on guys,” Parker said. “He’s a tough guy to handle one-on-one through center ice; he’s a tough guy to handle coming out of the corners. He’s a goal scorer, and he’s a very competitive guy. I think he’s the guy that runs that team — that stirs that drink, so to speak. He’s one of the great players in college hockey, that’s for sure.”

York was quick to agree. “He’s as good a player as I’ve had since I’ve been at BC, and I’ve had some good ones,” York said. He’s so competitive, and he really realizes to the challenge. He’s dynamic; he’s what college hockey is all about. You watch him play and you’re up off your seat watching him. He’s a terrific skater.

“In all the big games we play — and the Beanpot tournament starts the crescendo toward the league championship, the playoffs, and the nationals — I think each year he’s raised his play at each one of those levels.”

We’ll see if Gerbe can take it up a notch against Harvard with the Beanpot at stake on Monday. Eagle fans may be licking their lips over a rematch with Harvard, given that they whupped them by a 7-2 total back in November. But I don’t think anyone on either team believes we’ll see a replay of that sort of game. BC will be favored, but Harvard showed that they can be a dangerous team. They have seven very determined seniors and a more reliable goalie in Kyle Richter than BC faced in Brett Bennett.

The first 20 minutes will be huge for each team. Harvard is really tough to play when they get a lead. A couple of early goals for BC and it might be all but over. Two quick goals for Harvard, and it could be very interesting.

Expect everyone in the arena who is not a BC fan to be rooting for Harvard, as it’s high time for someone other than BU or BC to take home the hardware.

Remember The Maine… Black Bears

Trying times continue for the erstwhile powerhouse in Orono. Maine has an 8-13-3 record overall and is in very real danger of not making the Hockey East playoffs at all. “Yeah, it’s been a frustrating season for us,” Black Bear coach Tim Whitehead said. “And, as I’ve said before, our coaches — our coaching staff understood how difficult it was going to be prior to the season. But I don’t think our players really understood how challenging it was going to be. They certainly understand that now and they’re very determined — as we are — to still do something significant with the season, so we just have to continue to work hard each day and keep our heads up and bear down on executing details and try to get heading in the right direction as soon as possible.”

In the last few games, the devil has been in the details for the Black Bears. Asked what has gone wrong over their current four-game winless streak, Whitehead cited a variety of points. “Well, a lot of little things,” said Whitehead. “I think it’s a reflection of where we’re at right now. We’re close but not close enough to where we want to be, and we just have to keep working. It’s not going to come easy for us and one thing that will help obviously is we can get some of our top forwards back from injury and that’ll give us a lift but in the meantime there’s no reason why we can’t execute better and give ourselves a better opportunity to win, whether it translates into a win or not — you have to wait and see when the puck’s dropped, but that’s one thing that’ll help: if we can get some of them back. The other thing is a stronger commitment to executing, playing within ourselves — not trying to do too much on the ice and just play the team, so a lot of little things like that.”

Still, there is some reason to believe that the light at the end of the tunnel is not an oncoming train. “The guys that are out are Billy Ryan, Keenan Hopson, Chris Hahn, and David de Kastrozza,” Whitehead said. “They’ve been out for quite a while, but de Kastrozza’s out for the season with ACL surgery. He tried to play with it in a knee brace in the fall, but he couldn’t play without pain or play effectively. He’s a physical player so he decided to cut his losses there and get an operation, six-month rehab. His operation was successful. He had it over Christmas break, and so I’m excited for him to get going next season.

“Chris Hahn had a broken finger and then in his first practice back broke his jaw, but we’re hoping we can get him back anytime now. We’re hoping he can get cleared for this weekend. If he does, that would be great. If not, the next weekend. Keenan Hopson — kind of similar timetable. We’re hoping he can get cleared for this weekend. If not, next weekend. He’s out with an upper body injury. And then Billy Ryan could take some time. It’s a hip injury that he’d been playing with in a lot of pain so finally we had to do the smart thing and tell him he had to rest it. The doctors just felt it was going to get significantly worse; it was just too high a risk. So we’re hoping he can come back down the stretch run and really give us a lift. We’ve got some other guys who are fighting through injuries, but they’ve been playing for the most part, occasionally missing a game, but those are the key guys there I would say.”

In addition to some key players getting healthy, Whitehead was able to point to some bright spots despite the down year. “Bret Tyler’s always been a tremendous competitor, so he’s not really a surprise. Rob Bellamy, the same. They’re having great, great senior years. Wes Clark’s been a bonus and surprise from the outside looking in. We knew that with the guys we’d lost up front, he was a guy we were hoping could elevate his game. He’s done that, so he’s really contributing a lot.

“A couple of the freshmen are really starting to not just survive the games but to really make a significant impact. [Andrew] Sweetland, [Tanner] House, and [Glenn] Belmore up front would be the freshmen making the most impact. And then at defense I would say Jeff Dimmen and Josh Van Dyk are the guys, again, making the most significant impact. We’ve had a lot of guys playing pretty much every game. I wouldn’t say any are setting the world on fire statistically or anything like that. But I’ve been really encouraged by the improvement of our entire freshman class and how much they’ve elevated their games.

“The other guy is an upperclassman that we didn’t talk about was Simon Danis-Pepin. Simon is a defenseman and Clark is a forward, and they’ve made the biggest jumps as upperclassmen from last year to this. I’d say they’re both playing much more significant roles, playing power play and penalty kill. First and last minute type of guys now, so I’m really excited with their progress. And the entire freshman class is really doing a great job, becoming more significant contributors than just filling a roster spot. So that’s been good. If we can get some guys back, then we’ll certainly be a much stronger team, because these guys have been able to get some experience. Ben Bishop is back on track and playing really well right now and that’s given us a lift. We feel that despite our record that we think we can surprise some people down the stretch.”

That said, Whitehead is not trying to rally the troops with visions of playoffs dancing in their heads. “We’re focusing on one game at a time right now. I think that’s our key — just working on improving the little details of our game so we can give ourselves a better opportunity to win. One of the positives this year has been our discipline and that even slipped from us the other night [when Maine had to kill off eight UMass power plays while only getting two man advantages of their own]. That concerned me a lot because for a young team we’ve been playing very disciplined and our special teams have improved immensely, both penalty kill and power play. So I think those are key factors, but right now I think our best move is to focus one game at a time and continuing to improve in those little aspects and hopefully this past weekend was a blip on the radar as far as our penalty minutes. That had been a positive this year.”

It doesn’t look to get any easier this weekend with UNH coming to town… or with two-game road trips to BU and Vermont along with hosting Lowell for a pair. But it’s a safe bet that at least one of those teams will suffer an unpleasant surprise at the hands of Maine.

Trivia Contest

Last week Dave Hendrickson asked 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.

That’s an easy one. The answer was Boston University goaltender J.P. McKersie, winner of the first Hockey Humanitarian Award in 1995-1996. Though it is now presented at the Frozen Four in conjunction with the Hobey Baker Award, McKersie was honored in his final regular season home game.

Several readers recalled the overwhelming ovation at Walter Brown Arena when McKersie first returned to the BU net on Nov. 4, 1995, in relief of Tom Noble.

First to answer correctly was Mark Steffey. His cheer is:

“Go BU! Give us a long string of one-game winning streaks to get back in the NCAA picture!”

My last question had a geographical twist and proved to be quite popular. Therefore, I’m going to twist that a little by offering you a geopolitical challenge this week. Given that we are in an election year and that this was the biggest week for primaries with Super Tuesday, I offer you a “Red Army” challenge.

In the 2004 presidential election, the divide between red states (won by the Republican Party) and the blue states (won by the Democratic Party) was quite divided by north and south across much of the country. So my question: Give me a starting lineup (three forwards, two defensemen) of the all-time leading Hockey East men’s point scoring leaders from the red states.

What makes this interesting is that there are not exactly a lot of hockey hotbeds in the red states. Here is the complete list of those that voted for Dubya in 2004, going west to east more or less: Alaska, Nevada, Idaho, Arizona, Utah, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina.

When you submit your lineup of five players, be sure to include their names, teams, hometowns, and career point totals.

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.

Yadda, Yadda, Yadda

In his press conference, Jerry York commented that winning the Beanpot semi-final took the sting out of the Patriots’ upsetting loss to the Giants on Sunday. I was personally surprised that the loss didn’t upset me that much. Although I am more of a Charger fan, I went into the game hoping the Pats would win… but as it wore on, I found myself pulling a bit for the underdog, as I’m always a sucker for that kind of a story. It also became obvious that the Pats were not going to win in inspiring fashion if they won at all.

At the Beanpot, I heard someone mentioned knowing a guy who bet on the game. He bet purely on the Pats to win instead of giving up the points–a wise move in my view, as if you put a gun to my head and forced me to bet on the Super Bowl I would’ve swallowed hard and put my money on the Giants, mainly because I thought that they would lose by less than the point spread after the Pats’ uninspiring win over the injury-riddled Chargers. In any event, this guy had to bid $4 to win $1 because he was betting on the Pats to win without giving up any points. So what happened? He figured that by betting $40,000, he could win the quickest $10,000 of his life. Oops.

Thanks to my wife Ellie for transcribing the very long Tim Whitehead interview.