This Week in Hockey East: Nov. 20, 2008

On The Rebound

Could Massachusetts-Lowell stay afloat?

That was the question two weekends ago after the River Hawks lost top goalie Carter Hutton two periods into their game against Boston University. BU outscored them, 4-1, in the third period, inflicting a very tough loss. One night later the Hawks lost to Vermont.

With Hutton projected to be out for about a month, it looked like the next few weeks might bury Lowell so deep in the standings it couldn’t recover.

So much for that idea. Lowell whipped New Hampshire last Friday, 8-3, then went on the road and shut out UMass, 2-0.

“That was a good weekend for us,” UML coach Blaise MacDonald says. “We’ll take that for sure.

“Losing your goalie, especially the way Hutton had been playing, is so devastating. You look at other teams, if BC ever lost [John] Muse or [Cory] Schneider when he was there, or if Northeastern ever lost [Brad] Thiessen, it would be unbelievable how it would affect the team.”

Hutton’s replacement, Nevin Hamilton, did more than just keep the team afloat. He earned Hockey East Defensive Player of the Week honors, stopping 60-of-63 shots.

“It’s always great to see when somebody is given an opportunity and they make the most of it,” MacDonald says. “Nevin did that. He didn’t have to steal games for us, but he certainly had to make a couple of key saves. He gave our team a level of confidence: ‘This guy, he’s solid.'”

While scoring stud Kory Falite pulled off a hat trick against UNH and freshman playmaker extraordinaire David Vallorani added another two assists against UMass to lift his team-leading total to seven, it was just as significant the players who made their debuts in the goalscoring column.

Matt Ferreira and Sammy D’Agostino, both of whom redshirted last year — Ferreira after combating a brain tumor and D’Agostino after transferring — scored their first goals on Friday against UNH. (Ferreira actually scored twice.) Freshman Michael Budd followed suit the next night against UMass.

“There’s no question, the story line of the weekend played out perfectly where the right guys contributed to our success,” MacDonald says. “Sammy D’Agostino scored and played really well in both games over the weekend. Matt Ferreira got a huge shorthanded goal and a terrific first goal of his career.

“Mike Budd got thrown into the lineup Saturday for only his second game, but he’s played really well in practice. He did score, but he also played really, really well positionally and showed a lot of maturity in his level of play.”

And there were also guys who made a difference beyond what showed up in the box scores.

“Nick Monroe [who assisted in both weekend games] is a senior who’s playing extraordinary hockey for us,” MacDonald says. “It doesn’t show up in the stats as much, but he’s playing the best hockey of his career by a long shot.”

Lowell opens this weekend against a Providence club that is still looking for its first Hockey East game, but that, of course, is no guarantee of success.

“We know the margin for error is miniscule,” MacDonald says. “Providence has got a lot of great players — Matt Taormina, Pierce Norton, Nick Mazzolini, and John Cavanagh — some really dangerous players.

“[In the National Football League], it’s any given Sunday. [For us], it’s any given Hockey East game.”

Up And Down And All Around

If the Boston College Eagles have been consistent about anything so far, it’s been their inconsistency.

Last week’s column documented their hot-and-cold special teams.

This week? Well, the concern had been an offense held to only a single goal each against Notre Dame and Maine. Forget that concern. The Eagles scored a total of 13 goals over the weekend, tying Merrimack, 5-5, before defeating UNH, 8-6.

But defensively, the Eagles couldn’t feel good about losing a two-goal lead in the third period against Merrimack, forcing them to settle for a tie, nor digging themselves a 3-0 hole against the Wildcats and allowing 37 shots that resulted in six goals against.

“We were kind of concerned about our offense the week before and all of a sudden we figured out the offensive part of it but maybe cut some corners defensively,” BC coach Jerry York says. “Part of the process of becoming a better team is trying to figure out your strengths and weakness and solidifying the whole type of game that you have to play.

“We still have not put it together where we’ve played very well offensively and very stingy defensively. That’s a credit to the other teams we’re playing, I suspect, but it also highlights that we have some work to do in those areas.

“We’re showing flashes of becoming a very, very good team, but some areas of concern are jumping up at us as we go through the year. We’re trying to increase our strengths and certainly trying to work on our weaknesses. That’s part of just becoming a team.

“But it’s early season and we’ve shown a lot of positive signs. I feel pretty good about the state of our club.”

Brock Bradford has been a scoring machine, as most expected, but 6-5, 210-pound freshman Jimmy Hayes has also opened eyes with his five goals.

“He’s really contributed for us,” York says. “He’s a real power forward. He utilizes his size and his strength. He’s worked diligently on increasing his quickness.

“You can see the results. Now, when he’s got the puck, it’s hard to get it away from him. He uses his strength and his quickness and his hockey savvy. He’s becoming a very, very good player for us.”

Though it’s too early to talk about pivotal weekend series, BC’s home-and-home with UMass could help the winner try to separate itself from a logjam that has only four points separating second place from eighth.

“Don [Cahoon] has done a really good job with his club over the past few years,” York says. “This particular team is really dangerous.

“To beat BU, 5-1, was a significant victory for them and certainly has made a statement that they’re going to be in the hunt for one of the top four spots.”

Already, it’s looking like a neck-and-neck race for home ice.

“We had envisioned earlier maybe four or five teams crunching numbers trying to get into those top four spots, but now that’s expanded,” York says. “There are maybe seven teams that have a legitimate chance of finishing in the top four.

“And if you have a legitimate chance of finishing in the top four, you have a chance to win a championship. It’s a large field going into the quarter of the horse race here.”

Home Cookin’ And Doughnuts

If recent trends continue, look for Boston University to make a move over the next few weeks.

The Terriers returned home last Sunday following a loss at UMass and extended their regular-season winning streak at Agganis Arena to 11 games.

“It was important for us to continue defending home ice,” BU coach Jack Parker says.

And with the Terriers’ next five, and the six-of-seven going into the holiday break, at Agganis?

“Right now it’s time to make hay,” Parker says.

Although he intends to maintain his goaltender rotation of freshmen Grant Rollheiser and Kieran Millan — not faulting Rollheiser for the UMass loss since the team left him vulnerable too often — it had to be satisfying to see Millan get his first shutout.

“He played very, very well,” Parker says. “He made some big saves, especially early in the first. In the second, we’d get a three-on-two or four-on-two, but then our guys got a little too rambunctious on offense and left our goaltender out to dry a little bit, but he made a couple of huge saves.”

Asked if Millan has gotten more comfortable as the season has progressed, Parker says no.

“I don’t think he’s gotten more comfortable,” Parker says. “I think he’s been comfortable from jump street. Nothing seems to bother him. He doesn’t get fazed.

“Because of the style he plays, he looks even cooler and more calm. [In effect, he says], ‘Go ahead and hit me. You’re going to shoot from there? I’ll move over here and you’ll hit me here.’

“He does have a good glove, but he presents himself pretty well to [the shooter]. He stays square to the puck and if there is a rebound or if there is a goalmouth pass, he’s quick to move, but he’s quick to move squared up. He’s not making a stretched out save.”

Welcome To The League, Kid

You had to feel for UNH freshman goaltender Matt DiGirolamo. He’d backstopped a 2-2 tie against Northeastern on Nov. 1 to start his collegiate career, but had a rough two games last weekend after being forced into action in the wake of Brian Foster’s ankle injury. UNH gave up eight goals both nights, and only one came with an empty net.

After both games, however, UNH coach Dick Umile pointed the finger of blame elsewhere.

“We didn’t go a good job defensively in our own end,” Umile said after the second loss. “We’ve got work to do there. It’s a bunch of ‘almost covers’ [that cause defensive breakdown] and almost covers don’t count.”

Foster skated this week, but a determination of his availability this weekend has not yet been made.

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

The Mystery Writers of America announced today that it will name James Lee Burke and Sue Grafton as its 2009 Grand Masters. Not to slight Ms. Grafton, but my focus here is on Mr. Burke.

I recently read his In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead, a Dave Robicheaux mystery that was my first. I loved it. His descriptive powers are immense.

Witness this opening paragraph to the aforementioned novel:

The sky had gone black at sunset, and the storm had churned inland from the Gulf and drenched New Iberia and littered East Main with leaves and tree branches from the long canopy of oaks that covered the street from the old brick post office to the drawbridge over Bayou Teche at the edge of town. The air was cool now, laced with light rain, heavy with the fecund smell of wet humus, night-blooming jasmine, roses and new bamboo. I was about to stop my truck at Del’s and pick up three crawfish dinners to go when a lavender Cadillac fishtailed out of a side street, caromed off a curb, bounced a hubcap up on a sidewalk, and left long serpentine lines of tire prints through the glazed pools of yellow light from the street lamps.

Man, what I wouldn’t give to be able to write like that.

But there’s also a tale of perseverance here. His novel The Lost Get-Back Boogie, the one he wrote before beginning the Robicheaux series, was rejected 111 times over the course of nine years.

Yet he never gave up, and upon publication … it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Now that’s a Grand Master.

Scott Weighart and Jim Connelly contributed to this column. My wife Brenda continued to perform heroic transcriptions.