This Week in Hockey East: Nov. 6, 2008

Marching Minutemen

We’ve already established that many of the perennially “lower-tier” teams from Hockey East seem poised this early season to make a run towards the top. Northeastern and Vermont both have received the positive ink they deserve from this column. Mass.-Lowell opened some eyes out at Michigan State.

But last weekend another team threw its hat into the ring when Massachusetts swept Providence to improve the Minutemen’s record to 4-1-1 on the young season.

The early success shouldn’t be the head-turner. UMass has been there before including two seasons ago when it reached the NCAA regional finals. What’s shocking thus far about this club, though, is its offensive firepower.

To date, UMass has scored 25 goals in six games, and that includes two games (a 1-1 tie vs. New Hampshire and a 3-1 loss against Michigan State in the Ice Breaker) in which the team managed just a single goal. That’s an average of 4.16 goals per game, which certainly isn’t shabby for a club that last year ranked 31st in the nation with 2.72 goals a game en route to an eighth-place finish in Hockey East and a first-round playoff exit at the hands of New Hampshire.

“I think that we’ve got good offensive capabilities,” said head coach Don “Toot” Cahoon after Friday’s nine-goal outburst against Providence. “We’ve got one line that we all hoped would be prolific. [Alex] Berry has great puck skills and shooting skills, [Cory] Quirk, who has great shooting skills and puck skills and is tenacious, and [James] Marcou, who is just a brilliant playmaker.

“When you’ve got these guys playing in rhythm with one another, they’re going to produce some chances and get goals out of them. And this is a more balanced team than any other team I’ve had here. [Casey Wellman] is a talent in his own right, [Michael] Lecomte is an accomplished center-ice-man and [Brett Watson] is a very good defensive center. So you start with the anchor of each line; I like the composition of the forward lines. We’ve got some depth.”

Cahoon also learned last weekend that he has depth in another critical area: goaltending. After Jon Quick’s early departure from the team two years ago, the Minutemen struggled to assemble a consistent goaltending corps last season. To this point in the year, Cahoon had leaned on junior Dan Meyers, who’s posted admirable numbers (2.25 goals against, .923 save percentage). But Friday night, when UMass fell behind, 2-0, early, Cahoon decided it was a good time for a change.

“It wasn’t all [Meyers], it was a combination of things that made me think maybe it was a good time to get him out of there,” said Cahoon. “Paul Dainton] was chomping at the bit to get his shot. I assured him that he was too good a goalie here in his first year to think that he wasn’t going to get an opportunity.”

Cahoon said the move “got the team’s attention” but more importantly proved his team’s depth between the pipes.

“You don’t know what you’re going to get out of a goalie coming off the bench,” Cahoon said. “With Paul being as focused as he was, trying to get back in the mix, he was very much prepared to take over at that point. So we have two very good goaltenders at the end of the day.”

Dennehy Optimistic with Goaltending

Merrimack entered this season cautiously optimistic about the team’s promise to move out of the Hockey East basement and hopefully into the league playoffs. Much of that promise, though, lied in a somewhat unproven area for the club: goaltending.

In addition to returning junior Andrew Brathwaite, who at times last year showed signs of brilliance between the pipes, the Warriors recruited U.S. National Team Development Program goalie Joe Cannata, thought to be one of the best goaltending recruits in the nation this past year.

With so much hope at this position, it’s no surprise that head coach Mark Dennehy wanted to make it crystal clear that he has confidence in both players after pulling Brathwaite at the conclusion of the first period in Friday’s 4-1 loss at Boston College.

“I don’t necessarily blame Andrew,” said Dennehy. “He gave up three goals in the first period I didn’t think, well, he might have been the only guy who actually skated.

“Change it up, see if you can motivate your team. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it until it’s disproven: I think goaltending is probably our strongest position. Whether it’s Andrew, whether it’s Joseph, I think we’ve got some darn good goaltenders.”

To date, that statement has played true. Aside from last weekend’s two losses to No. 2 Boston College in which Merrimack surrendered four goals each night, the only time the Warriors have allowed more than a single goal was in the first week of the season against now-No. 3 Boston University.

In the remaining four games, the Warriors have surrendered a single goal three times and posted a shutout once, going 2-1-1 in that stretch.

Rest assured, if the Warriors are about to make a significant move in the league, it’s those types of goaltending performances that will be necessary to lead them there.

Title Game Redux

It’s been rare in recent years that when Boston College hosts football rival Notre Dame and the Fighting Irish’s hockey team for a two-game, two-night weekend in Boston that it’s the battle on the ice that takes center stage.

The perennial football powers both are experiencing somewhat down years (for Notre Dame, this is becoming a bit of a pattern). But when the Eagles and Notre Dame puckmen square off at Kelley Rink of Friday night, this matchup will have a new and unique title hanging over its head: national championship-game rematch.

After last April’s unlikely matchup of BC and Notre Dame in the title tilt in Denver — as you remember, BC came out on top for its third national title — Friday’s game takes on a whole new meaning.

The game itself is not likely to resemble the one six months ago. Take away the pomp, circumstance and high stakes of a national title game, and these are two quite different teams one season later.

The title game’s hero, Nathan Gerbe, is long gone from the Heights. But he’s been replaced by an offensive threat many hoped would be a factor a year ago, Brock Bradford. We all know the sad tale by now that Bradford missed most of last season with a twice-broken arm, but he’s made the best of his return and then some, posting six goals in as many games this season including the tying and overtime game-winning goals last Saturday night on the road at Merrimack.

Notre Dame has gotten off to a bit of a slow start this season in a season during which the Irish hope to return to the game’s ultimate stage. ‘
Despite returning nine of their top ten scorers and now-senior goaltender Jordan Pearce, the Irish are 4-3-0 through seven games with their wins coming against Atlantic Hockey’s Sacred Heart and Northern Michigan, which was picked middle of the pack in the preseason CCHA polls.

Still, expect Friday’s game to have all the furor of a late-season playoff battle as these two teams seem to be developing a rivalry on the ice that mirrors the one which has been a tradition on the football field.

Umile Likes the Huskies

Maybe his tune would change had his team dropped three of four points against Northeastern, but earning a win and a tie in a two-game home-and-home set last week had Dick Umile singing the praises of what he called a very good Northeastern team.

“You can see why they’re going to be a team to beat,” said Umile. “They skate, not only do they work hard, they move the puck well.

“[Ryan] Ginand is a threat all the time, he’s a threat there and [Brad] Thiessen is good in the goal; they’re a solid hockey team.

Umile’s Wildcats rallied for a 4-2 victory after surrendering a two-goal lead on Friday night but weren’t as lucky on Saturday when Northeastern came back from 2-0 down to earn a hard-fought 2-2 tie.

Maybe it was that resilience that opened Umile’s eyes the widest.

“They’ve got balance, they’ve got skill, they’re well-coached,” said Umile, “And you could see that.”

Thrown into the Fire

New Hampshire goaltender Matt DiGirolamo was tossed into the college fire on Saturday night having to be a last-minute starter for an injured Brian Foster against Northeastern at Matthews Arena.

A raucous 4,761 fans packed the oldest barn in North America as the rookie took the ice. He didn’t find out that he’d actually be playing that evening until after the pregame warmups.

“We wouldn’t know until [Foster] went out for warmups, and he knew right away into warmups,” said Umile. “We told Matt if he could go, he was in. Kid did a great job. We knew he was a good goaltender and he got his shot tonight in a tough situation and he responded unbelievably.”

“I was excited — everybody loves a shot to play, and I just had to run with it,” said DiGirolamo. “Everybody is nervous, but they were good nerves.”

DiGirolamo finished the night with 22 saves on 24 shots in a 2-2 tie, but he was the difference in overtime when Steve Quailer and Ginand rushed into the zone on a two-on-one. Quailer passed to Ginand, who had room but couldn’t lift the shot over the pad of DiGirolamo. The rookie’s answer as to what he was thinking was as youthful as he is.

“I was just thinking, ‘Don’t let it in,'” DiGirolamo said. “It happened so fast.”

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

Since Dave Hendrickson has bestowed me the honor of working with him this season, I figure that I might as well do my best to continue with a loose replication of the format of his column.

So as often as I have something to talk about, I’ll be sure to include this miscellaneous section at the bottom. I’ve often enjoyed the topics that Dave throws in this space, so hopefully you, the readers, may eventually feel the same about what I have to say.

This week, it isn’t difficult to find a non-hockey topic to discuss now after Tuesday’s historic election.

I must say that for the first time in quite a while, Tuesday made me proud to be an American. That fact has little to do with the leader we elected (full disclosure, I’m an unaffiliated voter who threw my support behind and voted for Barack Obama).

What gave me pride was that finally, after 17 years as a voter, I had to stand in line to cast a ballot. I’ve watched so many countries abroad where people risk their lives trying to vote and be part of a democratic process. So as one who takes the election process extremely seriously, I’ve always felt a bit put off by the fact that so many Americans never cared.

I don’t fully have the ability to explain why so many people turned out. For some African Americans I suspect that for the first time in their lives they felt they had a candidate worthy of their vote. For others, I feel they may have wanted to be a part of history (and typically, I would chastise these folks as the political equivalent to “bandwagoners.”

Call me naïve, but I sincerely hope that those who maybe cast their ballots for the first time will continue to see the value in the democratic process and will vote in future elections when the stakes won’t be as high.

One other note on the election: Say whatever you will about Obama, but he is one incredible orator. After giving his acceptance speech on Tuesday night, I was moved to lean over to the person sitting next to me as quietly say, “I wonder one day if this speech will be as well-remembered as ‘Four score and seven years ago …'”

Melissa Parrelli, Keith Lavon and Joe Meloni contributed to this report.