This Week in Hockey East: Jan. 15, 2009

New Blood is Net Gain for Friars

Often you’ll hear college hockey coaches, when their team is struggling, say, “This isn’t the pros. The players in the dressing room are our team.”

That’s a fact. There’s no minor league in college hockey. A few teams may have a rare junior varsity, but for the most part, the players that form the varsity at each school in September are the players that form that team until season’s end.

So when Providence, winless in league play exiting the winter exam break, showed up to face Mass.-Lowell on Saturday night with a new face in the lineup, it might have been easy to take notice.

For those who did not, by game’s end goaltender Alex Beaudry was noticeable. One day after joining the team, Beaudry backstopped Providence to its first Hockey East win of the season, making 19 saves in victory.

While that’s a good story, it got a whole lot better on Tuesday night. Providence traveled to face Boston University, at the time the top team in the PairWise Rankings and second in the College Sports poll. The Terriers entered the game on an eight-game unbeaten streak.

Everything seemed stacked against the Friars. But the ace in the hole, Beaudry, may have been what turned the tide. A more-confident Providence club shocked the 4,242 in attendance at Agganis Arena, with Beaudry stopping 38 shots to post back-to-back 4-2 wins.

Beaudry, who hails from Cumberland, Ont., became a target of the Friars in the first half of the season when goaltender Ryan Simpson was injured for the third straight season. Providence still had senior Chris Mannix and rookie Justin Gates to fill Simpson’s shoes, but that duo’s presence and performance didn’t result in victories.

So with Beaudry in head coach Tim Army’s sights, the question became whether the 19-year-old netminder could pull everything together to become part of the Friars for the second semester.

“It took some time,” noted Army. “I felt that we needed to find somebody for the second term. We had a number of goalies we were evaluating.”

Army and his staff felt that Beaudry was ready to step in and make an immediate impact, something that’s since been validated. But getting to this point wasn’t without red tape.

“Verbally, we had things done, but you have to go through the paperwork,” said Army. “Being a Canadian citizen there’s immigration and so forth — it took time. With the holiday it was hard to get everything done.”

Scheduling didn’t help. With Christmas and New Year’s falling on Thursdays, meaning shortened weeks for many of the school’s administrators coupled with snow storms that closed the college, final paperwork that confirmed Beaudry’s enrollment at the school didn’t come until Friday, January 9 — exactly one day before the Friars’ game with Lowell.

No fear. Beaudry practiced that Friday morning and was on the ice ready to earn a victory the next night. Though the intention was not to have Beaudry become such a late arrival, the result is more of a tardy Christmas present to the club than anything.

“It feels really good to come out and win two straight,” said rookie Matt Bergland, who scored two goals against Boston University to help his club earn the victory. “We worked hard over Christmas break. Every Hockey East game is big but to come out and beat Lowell and BU, which is having a great season, feels great.”

Bumpy Road for Black Bears

Before the season began, expectations for Maine were low. A preseason ranking of ninth in the coaches’ poll added to the club’s first missed playoff in Hockey East history a year ago to help fuel the belief that Maine was rebuilding.

But a fast 10-5-1 start to the season that included an impressive home victory over Boston College began to turn some heads. Granted, the slate of opponents aside from the Eagles wasn’t that impressive — none of Maine’s wins came against nationally-ranked opponents — but some had to believe that the Black Bears might be better than expectations.

While that still might be the fact, the party train has begun to derail a bit of Maine. Since returning from break, the Black Bears are 0-3-1. What’s possibly the most disappointing is the way in which the losses have come.

Things began in Estero, Fla., at the Florida College Classic. An opening-round game against Colgate saw Maine cough up a 2-0 lead and head to overtime. Then as the closing seconds of overtime ticked off the clock, a pinball shot ended up on the stick of a Colgate forward and in the net — with one second remaining.

The next night, Maine mustered its only non-loss since the break, rallying from a two-goal deficit to earn a draw with St. Cloud State. The Black Bears won the shootout that was held to determine third place, but that has no bearing on Maine’s overall record.

Upon returning to Orono, Maine suffered possibly its toughest loss in years. Holding a 4-2 lead late in regulation, the Black Bears surrendered three late-game goals to none other than their top rival, New Hampshire, to grab defeat from the jaws of victory.

Last Saturday night came what might have been the team’s biggest test. Not only were the Black Bears rebounding from a difficult loss, they were facing a white-hot Boston University team on the road. Maine was outplayed for the opening 20 but looked to be headed to the locker room with a 1-1 tie. That was until goaltender Scott Darling made a save with 2.6 seconds remaining in the period and, instead of waiting for a whistle, attempted to throw the puck to the corner, only to have BU’s Jason Lawrence pick up the puck and backhand it in front. Chris Higgins deposited it over a surprised Darling’s blocker with eight-tenths of a second remaining. BU seized the momentum on the way to a 2-1 win.

Asked about the recent malaise after the game, head coach Tim Whitehead had difficulty explaining.

“I think that’s experience,” said Whitehead about the costly mental errors his team has made of late. “[We went] over four years between 2002 and 2006 without losing a lead in the third period.”

That might explain a couple of losses, but what about late-period goals? The anti-Christ to any head coach, these goals generally come from a team not playing through to the buzzer. When asked if his staff emphasizes play through and past the final whistle of each period, Whitehead acknowledged the fact that it is a focus every single game.

Which might actually explain the problem.

“It’s almost like we’ve emphasized [not giving up late goals] so much now, maybe they’re tightening, maybe they’re holding their sticks a little bit tighter and it’s almost like something’s bound to happen now,” said Whitehead. “Some of these things, you’ve got to play through them. But in those situations to just have more focus in those moments, it’s easier said than done.”

As he promised at the beginning of the season, Whitehead isn’t pressing the panic button. At the same time, though, he’s not afraid to make statements. On Saturday, captain Jeff Marshall was missing from the lineup, a definite head-turner but something with which Whitehead was very comfortable.

“We’re just going to play the players that play well,” said Whitehead. “[Marshall] has had a tough couple of games in a row. We’re a young club and we’ve got to put out the guys that we think are playing and performing their best so I’m sure he’ll bounce back and have a good performance next time.

“But we’re going to continue to recognize good performances and hopefully the next one is his and he stays in because he’s a tough competitor and we need him in the lineup.”

Despite his mental lapse at the end of the first period on Saturday (about which Whitehead said, “Nobody feels worse than him”), goaltender Darling continues to be a bright light for the Black Bears. His stabilizing effect has possibly been the biggest benefit to this young Maine team.

What lies ahead for Whitehead is the hope that as days and weeks pass, mistakes that can rightfully be attributed to youth and inexperience will pass and this will be a club that makes a run towards the postseason that has been a staple in Orono.

“We had some veteran teams and we had a good balance in our classes and now we’ve got a freshman and sophomore team,” said Whitehead. “I’m not making excuses for them, but just from experience … we’ve had trouble.”

Could There Really be Six?

When esteemed writer Jayson Moy released the first edition of his annual Bracketology on Tuesday, there as a noticeable change from recent years.

Hockey East, one year after fielding just two teams in the NCAA field (albeit the national champion, Boston College, was part of that field), is poised to put as many as six teams into the NCAA field for 2009. According to the current Bracketology, BC, Boston University, Vermont, New Hampshire, Northeastern and Maine would all be dancing if the season ended today (actually, Tuesday afternoon, when Bracketology was written). Tuesday night’s surprising loss for BU against Providence dropped the Terriers from the top spot in the PairWise Rankings to the number-five slot, but nothing else changed in terms of qualifying teams.

Now before we all go out pounding our chests, here’s a word of caution. There’s almost 12 weeks remaining in the regular season. And the fact that we’re in the second half of the year means that non-conference play is over or near over for most teams. Thus, the remaining schedule will force many Hockey East clubs to beat up on one another and thus cause volatility for those teams in the PairWise.

So before you send that nasty WCHA-fan friend of yours a note proclaiming Hockey East to be the greatest all-time hockey conference, take a step back. Realize this is a heck of a year thus far for the league’s 25th jubilee. But come season’s end, the odds for six teams from Hockey East playing for a national championship are not very good.

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

By this point, I should be finished griping about the U.S. loss at the World Junior Championship, which for the fifth straight year went to Canada. For some reason, it’s difficult for me to get past it.

One reason might be the fact that I ran into a pleasant gentleman from Ottawa at a bar on Tuesday night who absolutely loved rubbing my nose in the loss. His opinion of U.S. hockey players placed each and every one of them just below the class of peasant.

Maybe it was liquor talking (he was drinking straight booze, no mixer — guess it puts hair on your chest and cobwebs in your brain) the reason that he forgot some of the great American players — Jeremy Roenick, Mike Modano, Pat LaFontaine, etc. The list could go on forever.

But maybe he had a point. What can the U.S. say that it has done in the international game to help American fans pound their chests? I found myself almost unable to defend my country. He’s talking about Team Canada players who are impact guys in the NHL right now. I’m defending James van Riemsdyk and company without a leg on which to stand.

I know that we’re a country that hardly has the interest in the sport. Our passion comes nothing close to our neighbors to the north, that’s for certain. But I hope that I’m hardly alone in frustration because I believe that the U. S. of A. is loaded with talent.

I just wish that talent would come to the forefront when the spotlight is on.

Scott Weighart and Ellie Boynton contributed to this report.


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