This Week in Hockey East: March 6, 2008

Pile-up At The Finish Line

I’m not going to even try to figure out all the different possible orders of finish in this absurdly close race as we go into the final weekend of the regular season. If I tell you that BC or Providence could finish as high as second and as low as seventh, I think you’ll get the idea.

Still, a few facts are worth noting:

• BU has their destiny in their hands when it comes to finishing second. If they sweep Providence, they will be second no matter what happens; they hold the tiebreaker advantage over Vermont. For that matter, they would hold the tiebreaker edge over Providence if they ended with a tie and a loss against the Friars this weekend. BC is the one team that would have the edge on BU with the tiebreaker if the two teams ended up tied. A BC sweep and a BU split would be one scenario that would give the Eagles a better seed.

• While Northeastern and Lowell are technically alive for the last home ice spot, the odds are against it. An NU sweep over BC–or a win and a tie, with the tiebreaker–would put the Huskies ahead of BC, but they still would need BU to sweep Providence and Lowell to get less points than they do this weekend.

• UMass is two points up on Maine for the last playoff spot… but Maine wins the tiebreaker against the Minutemen. So Maine would need to sweep Lowell up at Orono and then hope that UMass gets no more than a split against Merrimack. The somewhat dubious prize will be a date with top-seeded UNH.

So how did Dave and I fare in predicting the final order of finish? That still remains to be seen:

Dave’s Preseason Picks
1 BC
3 BU
4 Maine
5 Vermont
6 UMass
7 Northeastern
8 Providence
9 Mass-Lowell
10 Merrimack

Scott’s Preseason Picks
2 BU
3 BC
4 Maine
5 Vermont
6 Northeastern
7 UMass
8 Providence
9 Mass-Lowell
10 Merrimack

We were equally far off in our prognostications on Maine and, in all probability, Providence. I have a little edge with UNH in first, perhaps, but Dave can root for a BC sweep to help him be exactly right on Northeastern and as close as possible with BC. We’ll see who gets bragging rights by Saturday night.

Husky Believability

This year’s curious race is most epitomized by BU, Vermont, UMass, and Northeastern. The Terriers and Catamounts had a bad start, while the upstart Minutemen and Huskies dented the national top ten late in 2007. Then there was a turnabout, and we see BU and UVM tied for second while Northeastern and UMass have sunk below the .500 mark in the last few weeks.

Talking to Husky coach Greg Cronin, I told him that I viewed the Northeastern program as having taken three or four steps forward this year… followed by two or three steps back. He offered his perspective in response.

“All coaches have different ways of evaluating the game,” Cronin said. “You try to do it objectively so you’re giving your team information that’s got some integrity with it, right? Two words that I use together quite a bit are believability and substance. And I said all the time that there was not a lot of substance behind our winning because we were winning games by one goal. If you look at that streak — that 9-0-2 — I believe that with a couple of empty netters and the two ties that nine out of the 11 were one-goal games [or less]… We’ve been in these battles all year long, and you are what you are, right? So if you’re winning one-goal games, it’s just as possible that you’re going to lose those one-goal games as well.”

I can attest that Cronin was far from giddy by the team’s successes when I spoke to him back earlier this season. He dismissed the team’s top 20 ranking as a “superficial pat on the back” and just about shrugged off the team’s holiday tournament victory. The successes were enjoyable, but he was clear that the program had not arrived just yet.

“I said before the year started that it we could get some production out of our freshmen early that we’d be in good shape. I felt that just being here in the league for two years at that point that the upperclassmen on most teams are the ones that guide the team early in the year. And then as the younger ones get comfortable, they start to produce. I think what happened to us is that the young kids were the catalyst behind the success early and then we got injuries, which in our situation is really difficult. We’ve only got six D playing right now, and we started the year with ten. When we got injuries, it knocked us out of that rhythm. And that believability we had became less and less and the substance I identified with earlier in the year became more of an issue.”

The Huskies showed signs of turning the corner on the tough stretch in the last couple of weeks. “If you look at the last three games, we could’ve won. The path to losing is paved with coulda woulda shoulda but that’s what we all do. I’m sure UMass would say the same thing. We actually played better in the last three games against BU and Lowell than we did the first time we played those teams, when we won and tied against them. Statistically we actually played well in all three of those [losses]. We played our style of hockey, but we didn’t score the timely goal, and we didn’t keep the puck out of the net. Someone said to me today, ‘If you just won two out of those three, you’d be sitting in third place right now.'”

I asked if it had been difficult to manage the team’s psyche given the letdown in 2008. “That’s the biggest challenge of coaching at any level — getting guys to feel confident and good about themselves when you’re losing. And I think that the other thing that’s exacerbated the whole situation is that there was so much enthusiasm, [visions of] 20 wins, national tournament, home ice… a program that is really starving for some success.

“That’s what I really feel as the coach, and I don’t know if the players feel it as much, but I feel that we had really promoted such an exciting brand of hockey that was going to translate into an exciting finish. I think it really mobilized our alumni and injected them with enthusiasm. Their believability was sky high. As a coach, you’re trying to measure that. I’ve coached teams that have been to the national finals and to the national tournament, and I know what that substance represents. And I knew that we’re not quite there yet, but we’re very, very close. That’s why I was trying to temper some of that enthusiasm that was surrounding the program earlier in the year.

“Did I think we’d lose five straight down the homestretch? Not in a million years — not in a million years. But it happened. Hey, I was in the American Hockey League, and we won 23 or 25 games without a loss — some crazy stat like that — and then we went into a two or three-game losing streak. And those were pro players — really mentally tough — but they started gripping the sticks tightly. College kids, there’s a lot of days between games, so that sting sits there a bit. I’m not trying to put a superficial silver lining on it, but we’re going to learn from it. I can’t predict what’s going to happen Friday or Saturday. I just have to get our guys focused on what we have to do to manage a game well and win a game.

Last weekend was particularly painful. On Friday, the Huskies showed real heart by coming back with a 4-2 third-period deficit on the road against Lowell, only to lose in overtime. On Saturday at home, they again rallied from a two-goal differential, only to lose on a third-period goal.

“Either one of those games could’ve gone either way and to come out with zero… Even to get two points, Scott, you’re battling for home ice and you’ve got the same carrot that BC’s chasing. But the issue is to manage the game and to get that believability back.”

Even one win against BC would do a great deal to accomplish that.

Sixty Minute-Men

How about that other team that has seen their season turn around unpleasantly? I saw UMass lose in person at BU on Friday and then watched them get outshot by a significant margin at home on Saturday, only to come out with a 5-1 win. Coach Don “Toot” Cahoon’s comments after Friday’s game revealed a great deal about the team’s troubles as well as perhaps foreshadowing the victory the next night.

“The month of January was not a good month for us,” Cahoon said. “we were not playing very well, and it was interesting because we played two great periods against UNH in the beginning of January and then gave up a two-goal lead and that just kind of shifted gears for the next two weeks. Although we were in some close games, we knew that we weren’t in sync. The last three weeks, however, we’ve played pretty well and don’t have much to show for it and tonight we didn’t play well enough long enough. Last week that wasn’t the case, against Northeastern that wasn’t the case and obviously we just have to play three full periods and take whatever happens and keep moving forward.”

At the press conference, Cahoon was asked about how difficult it’s been to keep the team’s spirits up after slipping from a No. 5 ranking earlier in the year. “Well first of all, the kids know that we really like coaching them. This isn’t the type of thing where we’re running the rink with long faces. We’re not running the rink feeling sorry for ourselves; we’ve had really good practices all year long. There might have been a little bit of a struggle sometime in January when things started to go south but once we got through that it was just ‘this is what we get to do and this is what we enjoy doing.’ This is how we define ourselves so there’s been very little problem in that regard. No one likes losing and no one dislikes losing more than I do, but I like going to the rink and I love my team. I like coaching those guys, and they work hard. They didn’t do it in the third period but I hope they can figure out how to do it three periods in the very near future, like tomorrow.”

Hey, maybe Toot should make wishes like that more often. The win against BU was not as dominating as the 5-1 final indicated, but they got great goaltending and pounced on some careless plays by BU in their zone. The ability to put the puck in the net was a welcome relief from the team’s recent foibles in that area.

“We’re not executing around the net very well, I mean that’s been a longstanding problem with our program, we’ve really had to work to score goals. Last year it was a lot of scoring by committee and then you had [Mark] Matheson, [Matt] Anderson, [and Chris] Capraro at the end of the year really starting to light it up a little bit and that really picked us up a bit. A few years back when we had a little bit of a run we had Tommy Pöck who was just such a threatening player that the offense kind of took care of itself. So we just need to be a little bit more productive and a little bit more opportunistic and we’d be a whole lot more successful.”

It will be interesting to see if the Minutemen can put together a few more 60-minute efforts over the next few weeks. Regardless of what happens, they seem to be in good shape going forward.

Tim’s Army

Providence coach Tim Army is the master of understatement on the subject of the playoff race. “It’s pretty tight, isn’t it?” he said.

Following a disappointing sweep at the hands of Merrimack two weekends ago, Army is feeling pretty good after a somewhat improbable three-point weekend against BC left the Friars very much in the hunt for home ice in the quarterfinals.

“This late in the season, it’s nice to have the opportunity to compete to host a first-round event,” Army said. “I thought we played really well against Merrimack. If you look at Merrimack’s scores against UNH last weekend, UNH got three of four points but it was pretty tight. So I think we played really well in that weekend, we just fell behind and didn’t capitalize at some key times. They played very well and got some key goals, and that was the difference. So I thought we played well against Merrimack and carried that good play into last weekend against an exceptionally good hockey team. We capitalized on some opportunities and turned the tables a little bit from the week before when we weren’t able to get any points and were able to get three points. I still think we built off good play the week before and maybe had more timely goal scoring than the week before.”

That said, Army has no illusions about the challenge ahead of his team this weekend. “BU always seems to play their best hockey this time of the year. This year is no exception. They’ve played very, very well since Christmas. We did play them earlier this year, and I thought that they completely dominated us. They played very, very well. It was a 5-2 game — 3-2 at one point, but I thought that they had had the much better of the play on that particular night. From the midpoint of the first period, they had control of the game. We haven’t seem them now for a long, long time so that goes back to November. The other night they lost but only gave up 15 shots, so sometimes the score is not indicative of the play.

“They are aggressive; they’re physical. They’ve got some very skilled players up front and some very talented defense. They’ve scored goals; they’re opportunistic. They forecheck hard; they come at you. They’re physical. So we recognize how good a team they are, and we’ve got to be prepared as well as we can play. We may need to make some subtle adjustments; we need to understand some of things they do well but also play to our strengths.”

Give that BU has been skating well and that Army’s philosophy is to always be in attack mode, this could be a very entertaining home-and-series. The fact that the games are Thursday and Friday instead of Friday and Saturday also gives both teams an opportunity to avoid scoreboard watching if they can take care of business before the other teams finish their battles.

Jacked Up

Up until their loss at UMass on Saturday night, BU was the hottest team in the nation with a seven-game win streak. After Friday’s win against the Minutemen, Terrier coach Jack Parker and his players reflected on how the team turned it around.

“Second semester we made practice a little longer in the month of January going into February.” Parker said. “We didn’t change any systems but we asked them to do a little bit more; we asked them to be a little bit more physical in practice and that has helped a little bit. We’ve lightened up a little bit as of late in the practices; we’ve been going 55 minutes to an hour, not going too long now because it’s the end of the season.”

Parker also had a unique compliment for Cahoon’s star-crossed UMass team.

“I think the hard work paid off and I think getting them to play more physical paid off but more than anything else it’s kind of snowballing. This team who we played tonight, it’s snowballing the other way for them. They’re a real good hockey team. If you saw what they did and how well they played against Maine on Sunday afternoon, and they wound up losing that game, they looked like the best eighth-place team any league has ever seen in the history of hockey. And they played really well the weekend before that… The two periods tonight they played real well so they’re struggling to change it around and us it’s all rolling for us the right way. I think it’s momentum and sometimes the luck of the bounce and we’ve gotten some pretty good bounces too.”

So perhaps it was UMass’s turn to get some bounces on Saturday night. Still, the Terriers have finally got all the cylinders firing at once after being mystified for much of the early season as to what was going wrong. After scoring two goals on Friday, freshman Nick Bonino reflected on what the missing ingredient had been back in the fall. “I think it was just basically we’d get really complacent after wins,” Bonino said. “Recently we had a representative of each class come by and talk with Coach about it and I think that really helped us out. We just can’t get content with wins and relying on talent too much early. Now in these seven games we’ve outworked the other team every game so I think that was pretty much the key.”

Did the team ever start thinking that it just wasn’t go to be their year? “Never,” senior Ryan Weston said. “And you want to know why we never thought that it’s because we’ve always shown signs of being a pretty competitive team. It just wasn’t a consistent sign. We’d take off five minutes here, and we wouldn’t consistently play the way we needed to play. I wouldn’t say we’re there yet but we’re making more strides and playing the way we need to play to be successful on a consistent basis. Early on in the year we’d be playing well for a period or two and now we’re playing two-and-a-half periods. We’re definitely not there yet.”

Over the next two weekends, we’ll find if the Terriers can get all the way there. At the minimum, they likely will need to not just get to the Garden to make it into the national tournament. A win in the semi-finals might be enough if it’s against BC or UNH… but it might not. That’s a ways off, though. The top priority is just to just keep their intensity up against Providence and whoever follows.

Trivia Contest

Time for one last trivia question… and high time that I give a question for which I actually know the answer! This one is called “Former Foes.” This pair of former Hockey East players used to face off against each other in college but are teammates this season on a professional team somewhere in the world. Both players are forwards. One had collegiate point totals 22-54-76 in 111 games played with 163 PIM. Since then, that player played for three teams in the AHL… but now is somewhere else. The other put up collegiate totals of 56-59-115 in an almost identical number of games (110) with just 54 PIM. Since moving on from Hockey East, the second player has played for professional teams based in a total of six countries. Finally united as teammates, the two players the only two former US college hockey players on their team… and they are 1-2 in scoring this season! Use your powers of deduction and see if you can narrow down the possibilities.

E-mail me with your answer. If the link in that last sentence doesn’t work for you (I had problems several 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

This is my last column of the season. Thanks to all of those who passed along a kind word over the course of the year! I could add more, but this column is long enough as it is.

Many thanks to Amanda Comak for transcribing a ton of quotes from Friday’s BU-UMass game!