This Week in Hockey East: Oct. 30, 2008

The View From Below

This column usually emphasizes teams’ highlights — if you want nonstop negativity to raise your blood pressure, turn on talk radio — but sometimes the lowlights can’t be overlooked. As a result, this week we lead off with two teams that have gotten out of the Hockey East chute slowly.

Maine and Providence have both lost their first two league games and by a combined goal differential of 15-2.

Time for gloom and doom? Where’s that panic button?

Or were those just a couple of potholes on the road to better things?

Let’s see.

Part I: Maine

Few expected Maine to jump out to a great start. After finishing ninth last year, the Black Bears graduated a host of important seniors then saw forward Andrew Sweetland and goaltender Ben Bishop bypass their remaining eligibility (three years and one year, respectively) to turn pro. That all added up to a loss of the top seven scorers and a dominant netminder.

Since Teddy Purcell left early for the pros the previous offseason; this left a very young team that was expected to struggle. League coaches picked Maine to finish ninth this year.

That pessimistic projection doesn’t look far off base in the early going. After splitting their games in the Alaska Goal Rush tournament, the Black Bears hosted Northeastern and lost 5-0 and 2-1.

“We’re not pleased with the results this past weekend, but we’re very pleased with how we played with the exception of our goal scoring and our goaltending,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead says. “Those are the two areas we knew would be difficult for us because of losing [Bishop, Purcell and Sweetland] early.

“So it’s not a surprise to us. It just reaffirmed that we’ve got to keep working at the areas that we already knew would be focal points for us this year.

“Special teams certainly are going to be key. We made some real good progress on the penalty kill and we’re taking some baby steps on our power play.”

So despite getting outscored 7-1 on the weekend, Whitehead preaches patience.

“We’re a young team,” Whitehead says. “It’s not a surprise that we’re going through some growing pains. We are very focused on improving, but it’s going to take some time.

“To put it in perspective, if this past weekend we’d put Ben, Andrew and Teddy on the ice, we’d have been a very different team, [especially] in the areas that we need to improve: goaltending, scoring and the power play.

“If you took the three best players off anyone else’s team, you wouldn’t expect them to turn it around right away. So that’s why we are trying to be as patient as we can be.

“At the same time, we want to fast-track this rebuilding process as quickly as we can so we can really surprise some people. But the reality is that it’s going to take us some time. We understand that; our players understand that.”

In goal, junior Dave Wilson and freshman Scott Darling have split time. Wilson’s numbers are as unimpressive (4.03 GAA, .857 Sv%) as Darling’s are impressive (1.01 GAA, .946 Sv%). Nonetheless, Whitehead isn’t ready to discard Wilson for the hot phenom.

“Scott’s a freshman goalie so I’m cautious about letting him run with it right now,” Whitehead says. “He’s not ready for that. He thought he was going to be Ben Bishop’s understudy this year and that would have been a perfect scenario for him for one year. So to throw everything at him [would be premature].

“Yes, he’s shown some great signs, and I’m very confident at where he’ll be in the long run, but I’m trying not to give him too much right now because I don’t think he’s ready for that. If we get to the point that we need to, so be it.

“But part of the reason for that [approach] is that I really think Dave Wilson can do more for us. I want to give him that opportunity. Although his stats don’t reflect it, he is much improved over last season. He’s in great shape and he’s focused on improving. He is making progress. I think he’s going to have a much better year than it appears right now.

“That’s why we want to make sure that both of our goalies are developing. We’re very committed to giving them both a chance.”

Up front, no one has yet stepped up to fill the voids left from all the departures. Only two players have more than a single point: freshman Spencer Abbott (three) and sophomore Josh Van Dyk (two). Since the team has only four goals after four games, that’s not exactly news.

“We’re just very young at the forward position and the guys that were going to be our go-to guys are in the pros,” Whitehead says. “That’s why we’re going to be patient.

“There’s no point to putting pressure on players that aren’t ready to handle that kind of scoring weight. If you’re under pressure and holding that stick tightly, that’s not a good formula for scoring more goals. There’s no magic wand we can wave this week and all of a sudden get six goals a game.

“I am confident that we will improve our scoring.” Whitehead laughs ruefully. “It’s tough not to considering how many goals we’ve had.

“We will get there, but it’s going to take time.”

Fortunately, Whitehead doesn’t have to make bad long-term decisions to save his own job. He has the security befitting a coach who led his team to the NCAA tournament his first six years at Maine (missing for the first time last season), advancing to the Frozen Four four times, and the national championship game twice.

“Nobody’s pushing a panic button here,” Whitehead says. “Our staff is on a long-term contract and we’ve already been guaranteed an extension.

“We’re not going to make knee-jerk decisions just to win one hockey game when that’s not in the best interest of our program. We’re going to do what we believe is right and continue to develop our players. We’re going to get there sooner than later.”

Part II: Providence

The Friars hold an enviable nonconference record (2-0), but a mirror image (0-2) within Hockey East. They’ve split both weekends with wins over Bowling Green and Holy Cross but losses to Northeastern (4-0) and Massachusetts-Lowell (4-1).

“I think we’ve played well in some stretches,” PC coach Tim Army says. “We’re 2-2. It’s my fourth year here and we’ve only once started 2-2. We’ve been 2-2, 1-3, and 0-4, so I think we’ve come along quicker compared to other years.

“In the two league games, we got outscored 8-1, but we haven’t been outshot. We outshot Northeastern, 35-24, and lost, 4-0. We outshot them, 17-7, in the second period, but we were down, 2-0. You’re not playing that badly, but you make a couple of mistakes and it’s in your net.

“I’ve we were getting outshot, 30-15, and losing, 4-0, I’d be more concerned with that.”

Those kinds of numbers usually point a finger at the goaltending, an unsettled position following the graduation of Tyler Sims. Senior Chris Mannix and junior Ryan Simpson were expected to contend for the job, but Simpson’s injuries have opened the door for freshman Justin Gates.

Although neither Mannix (3.01 GAA, .893 Sv%) nor Gates (4.00, .822) has seized the opportunity and made the top job his, Army feels the statistics belie the two goalies’ abilities.

“Chris continues to improve and played very well in the Bowling Green game and then at Lowell I thought he played fine,” Army says. “We hung him out to dry in a couple of situations and could have played a couple other situations better to give him a better chance. I thought he held us in there and gave us a chance.

“Gatesy played well in both games he played. He’s a freshman and he’s learning to play at this level. I think it’s just a question of him playing and getting some experience at this level.”

Up front, freshman Matt Bergland has made the most of his opportunity. With a game-winning goal and four assists, he tops the Friar point totals.

“He’s a very instinctive player and he can really skate,” Army says. “He competes hard. He’s very hungry offensively. He wants to get into those areas where you need to be to produce offensively.

“He’s playing with Johnny Cavanagh and Ian O’Connor. John is now a junior and probably our most savvy two-way player so the line’s a good fit. [Bergland] adds something to the line and I think the guys add some things for him. He’s played really well, better with each game.”

This weekend, Providence faces Massachusetts in a home-and-home series. Most fans would consider the games critical, albeit just a few weeks into the season, based on the 0-2 start within Hockey East. However, anyone who’s been reading Army’s quotes in past columns recognizes that as a coach, he takes a different view.

“Obviously you want to get in the win column,” Army says. “You only play 27 league games so every game is important no matter when you play or who you play. So obviously you want to get yourself on track at some point.

“But I don’t really look at it in those terms. If you start focusing on winning games, you get away from the process. I think we need to focus on the process and just play well and play better.

“[UMass] has got an outstanding team. They’re deep. They’re fast. They’ve got some skill, they have some really good goaltending and they’re well-coached.

“We’ve got to play as well as we can play. That’s what we’ve got to focus on. That’s what’ll get us into the W column.”

Under The Radar

The Massachusetts Minutemen have played only a single league game so far, that being a tie, so they’re flying under the radar. But take a look at what they’ve done. They lost to 11th-ranked Michigan State, defeated No. 19 North Dakota, thrashed Rensselaer, and tied No. 6 New Hampshire.

“I’m thinking that we’ve got a pretty good team in a very good league,” UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon says. “We just take it day by day and stay in the present.”

The impressive start comes despite some adversity, most notably the injury to top goaltender Paul Dainton, who played in 33 games last year as a freshman. Junior Dan Meyers has taken the opportunity and run with it, recording a 1.47 goals-against average and a .948 save percentage. Last week he earned Hockey East Defensive Player of the Week honors.

“I like the way we’ve begun, getting through some challenges that speak well of the group,” Cahoon says. “I thought that there’d be a real good chance Meyers would be in the mix and get in games because I think he’s a good goaltender.

“But I didn’t know that he’d have the whole thing put in front of him right away because of Paul’s injury. He’s answered the bell there and we’ve had solid goaltending. That’s been pivotal in getting off to a good start.”

Dainton is expected back soon, making the position even stronger.

In front of Meyers, the defense has played well, bolstered by the return of senior John Wessbecker last weekend. He’d been out since early last December.

“Getting him back gives us a lot of confidence,” Cahoon says. “He’s so experienced and so solid. We’ve been able to get good efforts from the other guys, Martin Nolet and Topher Bevis. And obviously Justin Braun is an extremely gifted defenseman.

“Then little Mike Marcou, who we didn’t expect to get early ice time, is getting a regular shift. Dougie Kublin played [20] games last year. Now he’s getting a regular shift and he’s doing a good job.

“So some guys have really stepped up.”

Up front, it’s been scoring by committee. Five players lead the scoring with three points each.

“One of our strengths is the depth of our forward lines,” Cahoon says. “For the first time, every guy I’ve got in the program is capable of playing over an extended period and not just filling in for a game here or there.

“Of course, you have your pivotal people, the point producers, the guys in the middle, that you certainly could do without having injuries. But overall, the depth up front is better than it’s ever been here. I think that will speak for itself over the course of the season.”

An Eye-Opener

A 7-2 result is always an eye-opener, but almost never more so than when BU clobbered Michigan by that score last Saturday. The Terriers are looking more and more like a team that can go deep into the NCAA playoffs.

Freshmen goaltenders Kieran Millan and Grant Rollheiser have both been impressive. The Terriers are winning the special teams battles (witness holding Michigan 2-for-12 on its power play while capitalizing 5-for-9 on their own).

And players like Colin Wilson, seventh overall NHL draft pick and the reigning Hockey East Rookie of the Year, are taking their games to the next level. Wilson assisted on three goals against Michigan and according to BU coach Jack Parker, that didn’t even begin to measure his play.

“I thought Colin Wilson looked like an NHLer out there today, boy,” Parker said after the win. “There are times out there when he can just dominate a rush or a shift.

“He did that almost the entire game tonight. He was always on the puck. He was always lugging the puck out. He did a great job killing penalties. He did a great job moving the puck on the power play. There were two or three instances where he was just determined to get the puck into the zone himself and just beat guys with his speed.

“He’s a much better skater than people give him credit for because sometimes he slows things down because he wants to play with the big body [6-2, 215 pounds] and hold people up. We’re trying to get him think that they can’t hold him up because they can’t catch him. He can play either game, but I’d rather see him using his legs more than his upper body.”

Freshman defenseman David Warsofsky, at the opposite size end of the spectrum from Wilson at 5-9, 170 pounds, has also opened eyes.

“He’s an eighteen-and-a-half-year-old freshman who plays like a senior,” Parker said earlier this year. “And what’s really good about that is that he plays like a very, very talented senior. He’s got a lot of poise out there.

“He’s got a lot of what I refer to as Larry Bird court sense. He sees what’s going on and he never gets rattled. It looks like someone is just about to take the puck off his stick and he pulls it by them or chips it to the right guy.

“He’s not as flashy as [Matt] Gilroy or quite as offensive-minded yet as [Kevin] Shattenkirk, but he’s going to be a terrific offensive defenseman. He’s really a smart player all over the ice right now for us, and he’s obviously playing a lot on the power play.”

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

I gave up on the email chase long ago. It comes in faster than I can handle it. At work, at home, on the road. Everywhere.

Not just spam. The good stuff too. It’s the borderline useful emails that give me problems, building up and up into a mountain that dwarfs Everest. I keep them for the same reason I keep all the papers that litter my office. I just might need them.

And by the time they’re no longer useful, they’re buried under the next batch of potentially useful emails and papers.

Even so, a couple months ago I swore I’d spend even less time reading email and less time writing it. I had better ways to spend my heartbeats. If the mountain towered even higher, so what? If some email thread had to do without my witty retort, it wouldn’t kill anyone.

This past week, however, the mountain’s size came into full view.

A migration at work from one email application to another forced a migration of that mountain of messages. I deleted a few easy mailbox folders but wasn’t about to tackle the monstrosity known as my Inbox.

The result stunned even me. This didn’t include any of the thousands of emails stacked in my various personal accounts, only my work emails since 2004.

The number of migrated emails was…


I can only shake my head.

Scott Weighart contributed to this column. My wife, Brenda, proved once again heroic in her assistance.