This Week in Hockey East: Feb. 14, 2008

The Latest Hot Team

On Jan. 19, the Vermont Catamounts’ record stood at 4-9-6 and it sure looked like a season to forget. They were giving up goals by the bushel and not scoring all that much themselves. A “rebuilding year” seemed like the best euphemism available.

Now, just a few weeks later, the Catamounts are launching a legitimate bid at home ice. They’re 4-2-1 in their last seven games and last weekend came within 16 seconds of taking three of four points from then 12th-ranked Providence. On the road.

How times have changed.

“We still, unfortunately are making some mistakes that are costing us at times,” UVM coach Kevin Sneddon says, “but the difference is we’re getting contributions from all three of our offensive lines, as well as some very good play from our fourth line.

“You have to have solid goaltending, and Joe Fallon has started to play like he has been over the past three years. He went through such a tough first half, but we feel like we’ve got him back and that’s exciting for our team, especially with a young defensive core that does still make mistakes in games. Knowing they have a guy between the pipes that’s going to make up for some of those mistakes is huge for us.

“I love our energy. The team is probably skating better than it’s skated all season. The trials and tribulations of the season both on and off the ice have really formed a nice character and identity for this team, and hopefully we’re starting to play our best hockey as we head into the most important time of the season.”

A key contributor has been Viktor StÃ¥lberg, who has collected points in seven of the last eight games. StÃ¥lberg leads a “third line” that has produced like a top one.

“They’ve just been sensational in making things happen at really both ends of the rink, and have been a threat every game, if not every shift,” Sneddon says.

“Viktor is a special player, at 6’3” our fastest player, one of the fastest players in the league. I think he’s starting to learn, more and more, the North American game. Taking the puck to the net hard, using his speed to drive the net, being able to play strong along the wall.

“He’s starting to learn and grasp the concepts of a more tight checking game than what he might be used to in a Swedish League. I think he could be a very special player not only this year, but certainly in the future for us.”

In Vermont’s first two years in Hockey East, its success came early in the season. The Catamounts attracted attention in the national rankings, sat pretty in the league standings, and then had to weather the stretch-run charges. Both seasons, they failed to hold onto home ice.

This year has been a different story. When you’re 4-9-6, you’re not distracted by national rankings, the PairWise or holding onto home ice berths. You’ve got to be focused purely on winning the next game.

“Our first two years, we fought to stay in that home ice playoff spot,” Sneddon says. “I think that the pressure kind of got to the guys. Instead of applying pressure, we let the pressure affect us and kind of slid down in the standings because of that. You can’t get too worried about power rankings and NCAA tournament bids, and home ice.

“This year, we’ve come from the bottom of the league, slowly climbing our way up. I’ve never felt that our team has even thought about national rankings, or the NCAA Tournament, or anything.

“We’re just trying to get better every weekend. As a result I think we’ve been able to chip points away in league play just by focusing on one game at a time and that’s certainly now more important than ever.”

Still In The Hunt

It might be tempting to dismiss the Merrimack Warriors this year, thinking some interesting talent among the underclassmen, but hey, they’re in last place, five points out of a playoff berth. Wait till next year.

Hello, McFly? Been watching what’s been happening in the league this year? Five points out is not the end of the season.

“We need to take points every week,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy says. “It becomes more and more crucial with the fewer games you have left. It’s a challenge. Our players are looking forward to being in the mix, being only five points out with eight games to go. We wish we were in better shape, but you are what you are, and we need to go from here.

“This is the time of the year that matters the most. Points are hardest to come by. Home ice and playoff opportunities are decided. It’s the time of the year when best players have to step up.”

Aside from top scorer Rob Ricci, two of those best players are sophomores Matt Jones and J.C. Robitaille, both of whom have taken major strides forward from their freshman season.

Jones, a classic power forward, leads the team in goalscoring with 13 goals and four assists. He’s scored goals in three of the last four games. It’s a major leap in production from his six points as a rookie.

“A lot of our freshmen were left on their own last year and had to compete against other teams’ top lines,” Dennehy says. “There was a lot of on-the-job training.

“We noticed a distinct improvement in Matt’s game between the beginning of last year to the end of last year. He took that into the summer, came into this season and got off to a great start.

“Even without playing with Rob Ricci as he is now, he still is one of the best players on the ice every night. It’s a tribute to his play.”

Similarly, Robitaille has recorded nine goals and four assists. Since Jan. 6, he’s totaled seven goals in nine games.

“J.C. Robitaille came into college from Quebec and never really committed to the strength and conditioning one would expect of an incoming Division I freshman,” Dennehy says. “He could play hockey, but he was not physically prepared.

“He quickly understood what he needed to do off the ice, and he did that and then some. It’s helped his skating and his strength down low. He was put in a position last year where he probably was not ready for it, but now as we move forward with this program, the experience that he and the other underclassmen have gotten will pay off down the road.”

Goaltender Andrew Braithwaite, another sophomore, earned Hockey East Defensive Player of the Week honors two weeks ago for his 78-save weekend, especially his 49 stops to steal a 1-1 tie with Providence. Braithwaite (2.39 GAA, .918 Sv%) recorded only three decisions last year but has played every minute in 2008.

“We want to start from the net out as we build this program,” Dennehy says. “We took him on a team that had two established goalies last year because you can never look by goaltending, especially at Merrimack where you can be the star of the game at times.

“He hasn’t looked back since coming off the bench on December 30th. He’s another incredibly intelligent young man and he knows what he needs to do.”

Dennehy points to a few specific areas for his young team to improve in.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to take fewer penalties, and not in clusters,” he says. “It completely debilitates your bench. A lot of times your better players have to kill penalties, and you go into a third period being physically and mentally exhausted.

“Having said that, when you take penalties, you have to kill them consistently and we’re only at an 81 percent clip right now, which needs to improve.

“We need to finish our chances offensively. We had 33 shots last Friday against Northeastern and two first-period breakaways and we didn’t finish. Teams are very good defensively and you have to convert your chances.”

Still On Top

The New Hampshire Wildcats continue to be the league’s top team, having now won their last nine league contests.

“If the team plays the way we are playing now, we’re happy,” UNH coach Dick Umile says. “The last month of the season, we’ve been playing solid two-way hockey. We’ve got production from a lot of people.

“Goaltending has been strong for us, our seniors, our best players, have been playing real hard hockey for us and younger kids, freshmen, have chipped in.”

UNH’s lead — five points over BC and six over Providence — looks safe but the next two weekends will say for sure. The Wildcats next four games are against those two teams. First up are the Friars in a home-and-home series this weekend.

“I think those two teams are playing as well as anyone right now,” Umile says. “We’ve had an unbelievable rivalry with [Providence]. Three of the last [four] years we’ve met them in the quarterfinal round; the games have been really close.

“Timmy [PC coach Tim Army] has tried to change the style up there over the last couple years and I really like the way they play. Johnny Rheault is one of the top forwards in the league. This will be a good match up. There are a lot of similarities between the two teams.

“The following weekend we’ve got Boston College, who we won’t worry about until after this weekend. But BC is coming off the Beanpot [championship]. Once Jerry [BC coach Jerry York] got through that first half — he got his team through some suspensions and some injuries — he got his team playing extremely well.

“It’s a major task for us right down to the end. It’s Hockey East at its best.”

Trying To Get Back On Track

Massachusetts finally got into the 2008 win column with its Feb. 2 victory over Maine. However, with a 1-7-1 record since rising to a ranking of fifth in the country, there’s plenty of work to do.

A top priority has been to stay out of the penalty box, a problem this year until recent weeks.

“One of our strengths last year was that we were the least penalized team in this league and we were one of the top two or three least penalized teams in all of college hockey,” UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon says. “That helped us control our net special teams play.

“If you don’t have the huge power play production — not many of us do — you can’t rely on the one, two or three goals on the power play each and every game. You can’t possibly be putting your penalty killers in the position of having to kill six, seven, or eight penalties and expect you are not going to crack at some point.

“The other part of that equation is that like a lot of other teams in our situation right now, our best players kill penalties, they play four-on-four and they play on the power play. Now you get late into a game and if you have had those guys out there killing six penalties along with their regular shifts, along with some four-on-four play, and now you need energy, alertness, and sharpness, you can’t perform at the highest level.

“That is the one thing that we have begun to correct. We felt [it] would be an Achilles’ Heel and it certainly came into play in January when we took some really bad penalties that became our undoing in games.”

The offense has also struggled in 2008, averaging only 2.22 goals per game. Over the entire season, the Minutemen rank eighth in league games with a 2.58 mark.

“Obviously scoring goals has been a real problem for us since Christmas on a consistent basis,” Cahoon says. “If you tie yourself in a knot worrying about the scoring, it [gets] in the way. We have given up a few more goals as a result of it.

“That comes down to just our playing the type of hockey positionally and situationally that we need to play to succeed. We have gotten away from what we do best in some instances.

“If we get back to playing the game as thoroughly as we are capable of playing, the scoring will take care of itself. If we make the right plays in the right situations and we are smart on our line changes and everyone is into it and there is a lot of enthusiasm and we are playing well, the scoring will increase itself.”

Senior P.J Fenton ranks third on the team with 19 points. He’s recorded points in eight of the last dozen games and is a key contributor on the left point on the power play.

“That requires a confidence level and a great deal of poise when you take a forward and put him back there,” Cahoon says. “I know BC does with great success, but you don’t see that too often.

“P.J has done a good job of not putting himself in difficult circumstances out there and not been a liability defensively on that front and given us an added dimension on the power play.

“People tend to look at all of your big name players and say that they are going to be point producers, but I don’t think that that is the most important part of his game. The most important part of his game is the alertness, making the smart plays, winning a battle in the corner, being in good position.

“He is just a solid player who is very talented.”

Conference Call Humor

After a snafu prevented Massachusetts-Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald from being heard on the league’s media conference call, he muttered, “You lose a couple of games and you’re a nobody.”

He then recounted talking on the line he’d dialed in on only to be ignored. “It was like being at home.”

MacDonald recorded the humor hat trick with the following quip after being asked about this week’s opponent, the Boston College Eagles. “They’ve got a lot of guys my size.”

Topping all that off — though perhaps in a you-had-to-be-there moment — was the blood-curdling shriek that interrupted Northeastern coach Greg Cronin’s response to a question.

Everyone fell silent, wondering what horrific event had just occurred. reporter Elliot Olshansky quickly apologized. He’d been listening on his cell phone while walking outside and a passing car drove through a puddle, drenching him.

Rumors that Hockey East will be archiving a pay-per-listen copy of the tape have been denied, but in the past league commissioner Joe Bertagna has shown no more willingness to pass up a new revenue stream than a potato chip at a buffet.

Trivia Contest

Given that we are in an election year and that this was the biggest week for primaries with Super Tuesday, Scott offered you a “Red Army” challenge last week.

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 the question: Give us 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.

Well, Scott’s last question received droves of responses … but we only had one brave/crazy soul who submitted a reply this time, so he is the default winner. We should’ve heard from J.P. Joubert, as he has a relative on the list! Here’s what Scott Donnelly submitted:

F Jacques Joubert (BU); 131 points; South Bend, Indiana
F David Spina (BC); 103 points; Mesa, Arizona
F Mark Mowers (UNH); 197 points; Decatur, Georgia
D Eric Weinrich (Maine); 70 points; Roanoke, Virginia
D Peter Harrold (BC); 58 points; Kirtland Hills, Ohio

His cheer is “See You At The Tsongas….Go River Hawks”

Since it’s pretty hard to follow up that mind-bender, we’re going to skip the question the next couple weeks and charge up the trivia batteries.

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

Hey, I love all you readers, but this Valentine’s Day shout-out has to go to my wife.

We’ve been married for over 31 years and she’s still my best friend.

This one is for The Kid.