This Week in Hockey East: Nov. 27, 2008

Whistles Galore

If anyone has attended a college hockey game this season, you may notice a few things are different. That’s particularly true when it comes to officiating.

A quick look on the ice identifies the biggest difference. Instead of the regular single referee with two assistant referees, Hockey East, as well as all of the other college conferences, adopted a two-referee, two-linesman system similar to the National Hockey League.

The two-referee system certainly has its merits. Each official on the ice has less territory to cover and thus will conceivably be in position to make critical calls more often. A good example was Saturday night’s Vermont-Boston University game, when the Terriers early in the third period thought they had scored the tying goal. A shot trickled through the pads of the Vermont goaltender and seemingly crossed the goal line. Referee Jack Millea was stationed right on the goal line and was about five feet away from the net as the puck appeared to cross. He emphatically signaled no goal.

After the next whistle, it seemed Millea didn’t even want to watch the play on replay but was eventually talked into it. The video confirmed Millea’s call: no goal.

But with the increase in referees, there has also been an increase in penalties. The question, then, is whether or not there’s correlation. I believe not.

The increase in penalties isn’t due to the number of officials calling the game. Rather it is what these officials are calling.

A new NCAA mandate came down prior to this season to protect the puckhandler. Thus specific attention is being paid to fouls that occur when a defending player tries to slow down or impede the puckhandler. What in the past was seen mostly as incidental contact now results in a trip to the box for two minutes.

The increase in penalties, which has led to some games being played on special teams for more than half the contest, may not be appealing to the fans. But at this point, the coaches, while not many whom I spoke to seemed enamored with the new points of emphasis, all had the same thought: it necessary for players to adapt quickly.

“The refs are going to call sticks that are parallel to the ice,” said Boston College head coach Jerry York. “We’ve got to learn to play defense with our feet and with our sticks on the ice.

“If the stick’s up around the waist, it’s almost always going to be a call almost all the time.

“We’re really guilty of back pressure and when you get your stick up and you put a little slash on a guy or something, it’s going to be called,” said Vermont head coach Kevin Sneddon. “It a point of emphasis.”

As difficult as some of the early-season games may have been to watch and enjoy, it seems that players have quickly begun to adapt to the mandate. In last weekend’s ten Hockey East contests, there was an average of nine power plays per game, a significant reduction from just more than 13 power plays per game during the weekend of October 10 and 11, which included 21 power plays in a single game when New Hampshire hosted Wisconsin.

“As the year progresses we’re going to see players have a better understanding of how to play,” said York.

Eagles Adding Offense on the Blue Line

When Boston College bested New Hampshire about two weeks ago in a shootout at the O.K. corral (the Eagles won, 8-6), you’d think the team’s offense was more than shored up. But paying careful attention to that game, longtime Boston Herald scribe John Connolly noted that BC was lacking the ability to move the puck from the defensemen to the forwards and thus their transition game lacked much punch.

York agreed. And to solve the problem, last weekend he made an interesting move to address the situation, placing sophomore forward Joe Whitney back on defense.

Whitney, who a year ago scored 52 points for the Eagles playing parts of the year alongside standout Nathan Gerbe, plays the point on the power play and York felt that he had enough know-how to be both an effective defensive player while also moving the puck well enough to create transition.

“We had problems last week breaking the puck out of our zone,” said York. “[Whitney] has the ability to do that. We’ve done that in the past here. I think Joe might have found a niche on our club.”

The timing couldn’t have been better for Whitney. A week before moving to defense, Whitney found himself benched for the first time in his career. Now, Whitney may have found a more permanent home, albeit an unfamiliar one, as York certainly likes what he’s seen.

“Clearly he’s got to get used to defending,” said York. “But if you can break the puck out cleanly, it solves a lot of problems in the defensive zone.”

Streaking Bears and Cats

Don’t look now, but possibly the two hottest teams in Hockey East are the northernmost members. Maine, a team thought to be in the midst of a major rebuilding year, has quietly put together a seven-game unbeaten streak (6-0-1). Fellow northerner Vermont has won four straight and has just one loss in its last eight games (6-1-1). Something will have to give, though, as the pair square off this Saturday evening in Burlington, Vt., for their first of three meetings in the regular season.

Maine’s streak may not be the litmus test that it seems on paper. Aside from an upset victory over Boston College on November 9, Maine has swept Niagara and Providence and took three of four in Orono from Merrimack last weekend. Not exactly what one would consider the road to the national title, but wins are wins nonetheless. Their truest test, then, may be this weekend against the Catamounts.

Vermont, on the other hand, has been facing some pretty difficult opponents over the last few weeks. On Tuesday night, the Cats came back late to tie the game against Massachusetts before winning in overtime. And last weekend, Vermont became the first team since the 1992-93 national champion Maine Black Bears to sweep Boston University on its home ice on back-to-back nights.

According to head coach Kevin Sneddon, the team’s confidence is flying pretty high right now.

“We’ve had trouble kind of finding our identity,” said Sneddon. “We look like an all-star team sometimes and sometimes we look like we don’t belong on the ice.

“[Recently] for the first time this year we looked like a team with collective energy out there. Our guys are starting to find that blend of taking chances offensively and paying the price and committing to excellence on defense.

“We still have a long way to go, but we’re doing things a lot better than we had been.”

One player who has made a major difference for Vermont of late is Viktor Stalberg. After putting up 15 points as a freshman and 23 as a sophomore, Stalberg already has 12 points (six goals, six assists) in 13 games. He scored a key shorthanded tally in Saturday’s 4-3 victory over BU that stemmed the Terriers’ momentum in the early going. Then on Tuesday night, he buried the tying goal in the final minute of play.

“Vik has come a long, long way in terms of his development,” said Sneddon. “Last year he was noticeable for a big stretch in the second half but his body kind of gave out on him.

“He committed to strength and conditioning probably more so than he ever has. And now he’s able to fend off some bigger guys where last year he’d get knocked off the puck.

“I think his speed and his puckhandling skills and his confidence stem from the fact that he’s a lot stronger.”

As the Catamounts and Black Bears meet this weekend, possibly the biggest factor will be goaltending. If Sneddon maintains his rotation, Mike Spillane will likely be between the pipes for Vermont. For Maine, there’s little doubt that Scott Darling, who has been a stalwart thus far in his rookie campaign with the second best goals against average in the nation (0.99 goals per game), will make the start.

Though the Black Bears will enter the contest as underdogs, they certainly have the answer to players like Stalberg and the rest of the Vermont offense with a stingy netminder like Darling.

Mustaches for Charity

A quick look at the Vermont bench last week might have made you think that the team is a throwback to the Slap Shot era of the 1970s. Everyone, from the players to the coaches and right on down the line are sporting mustaches, and the mere sight almost makes you want to pull out your disco record and polyester pants.

But before you think that the team has gone and lost its collective mind (or is attempting to imitate Jason Giambi), understand that the lip hair is all being done in the name of charity.

“We’re doing a fundraiser for the team called ‘Movember,'” explained Sneddon. “In Australia, a mustache is a ‘mo’ and it’s a web-based thing where guys grow a mustache and get sponsors for the month of November.”

A quick search of the Internet finds the site and the team name, in case you’d like to make a donation, is “Catamount Hockey.”

When asked if he intends to keep the mustache when the month ends, Sneddon’s answer was clear.

“When December rolls around, this will be off,” said Sneddon. “I know I look creepy with this on.”

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

Two notes this week to make — one hockey-related and the other not.

First, outside of Hockey East, I have at least make reference to a team that is beginning to turn some heads. Air Force has begun the season a perfect 12-0-0. Because this team is in Atlantic Hockey, it may not get the attention it deserves.

But this Falcons squad, under the guidance of head coach Frank Serratore, seems to be the real deal. They’re not just winning games. They’re dominating opponents.

This weekend will be the club’s truest test when it hosts No. 3 Colorado College on Friday night and travels to No. 9 Denver. If the Falcons should sweep this series, there’s little doubt in my mind they should earn the number one ranking in the nation. It’s not likely that poll voters will agree with me, but they’ve earned my respect and hopefully will earn the respect of many others. I rarely root, but this is such an incredible feel-good story, I’ll be pulling for the Falcons this weekend.

Secondly, I’d like to take this time to wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving and a happy and healthy holiday season. This will be my final column until after the New Year but I look forward to returning in 2009. God bless.