This Week in Hockey East: Jan. 29, 2009

Beanpot Heavy Hitters

The Beanpot sure is coming along at the right time.

As Jim Connelly noted recently, if Michigan sweeps Notre Dame this weekend, Boston University and Northeastern could rank number one and number two in the country. Should both win their semifinal contests this Monday, what a championship game that would set up!

(Yes, rooting for Michigan to sweep does feel like rooting for the Yankees despite that Wolverine alum named Tom Brady, but perhaps we can hold our noses and hope anyway.)

Of course, Boston College will have something to say about all that. In theory, so too will Harvard, though does anyone give the Crimson even a snowball’s chance?

In any case, the Beanpot should shine in all of its usual luster.

Coincidentally, this column’s two featured teams will be playing on Monday, but they’ve earned the attention with their play apart from this tradition.

All The Pieces

Boston University, second in the polls and first in the PairWise, appears to have everything needed for a serious run at the national championship.

(Note to some Bostonians: most people, shocking as this may be, consider a national championship to be even more important than a Beanpot title. Yes, really.)

The Terriers can boast offense, defense, special teams, stars, role players, senior leadership and yes, coaching.

The first line of Colin Wilson, Chris Higgins, and Jason Lawrence has been a force all season long and especially of late. Wilson, an early first round NHL draft pick (seventh overall), leads Hockey East in scoring with 30 points. He’s dominated many games so far this year, including Friday night’s 5-0 win over UNH, after which BU coach Jack Parker said Wilson was the best player on the ice, both offensively and defensively.

“I don’t think we’ll have him after this semester,” Parker says with a rueful laugh. “So we might wear him out.”

The combination of Wilson, Higgins and Lawrence (a.k.a. Willie, Higgie, And J-Lo) has proved lethal for many opponents. Hardly pylons about which the superstar Wilson skates, the two seniors generate plenty of offense all by themselves and have each scored 11 goals.

“Higgins and Lawrence are playing the best hockey they’ve played here,” Parker says. “Higgie doesn’t quite have as many goals yet, but he’ll get more goals than he did last year. Jason’s already surpassed any year he’s ever had.

“They’re playing very well with Wilson. I’m sure they think they’ve died and gone to heaven playing with Willie the way he’s playing. The entire line has played great all year long.”

On the second line, Nick Bonino, like fellow sophomore Wilson, centers two seniors, captain John McCarthy and Brandon Yip (aka Yipper). Bonino ranks eighth in overall league scoring. Yip has ten goals. Yet the lead story on the line may be McCarthy.

“He’s a guy that was relegated to the fourth line as a defensive center, doing that job and not complaining about that role,” Parker says. “He filled that role very well.

“This year we’ve moved him up to the top two lines, got him playing left wing, playing some power play, so now he plays power play and kills penalties.

“When your seniors are leading like that, everyone follows. He’s been doing it all year long.”

The all-freshman third line includes Chris Connolly, Corey Trivino, and Vinny Saponari. The latter two each scored in the Friday night win over UNH, but it’s Connolly who’s been doing it all season long. He already has 17 points and scored the game-winner on Saturday after assisting on his linemates’ two goals the night before.

“I really like this kid Connolly,” Parker says. “If somebody gets hurt, I can put him on the fourth line, the first line, killing penalties, playing the power play. He’s been a helluvan addition to our club.”

Arguably, the Terrier blue line impresses even more than the forwards. The group played a major part in almost shutting UNH out for the entire weekend, surrendering only a deflection off of one of their own skates.

They move the puck efficiently out of their own zone and often get involved in the offense. Senior captain Matt Gilroy, sophomores Kevin Shattenkirk and Colby Cohen, along with freshman David Warsofsky have all topped the 14-point mark already. Colby leads Hockey East in defenseman scoring with the other three also in the top eight.

Assistant captain Brian Strait plays the more stay-at-home role along with Eric Gryba.

The Terriers’ defensive intensity and talent all but eliminated the term “grade A opportunity” from UNH’s vocabulary on Friday night and continued that impressive play one night later.

As Parker puts it, “Everybody else plays better when they know the puck’s not jumping in the net.”

That’s where freshman Kieran Millan comes in. Recruited along with Grant Rollheiser to solve the goaltending problems BU experienced last year, Millan won the number one job after a rotation that extended into the new year.

Millan’s stats are stunning: a 1.50 goals-against average, a .935 save percentage and best of all, a 14-1-1 won-loss record.

He’s earned the highest of compliments from his coach.

“It’s almost like he’s John Curry for me now,” Parker says. “If somebody scores a goal on him, I’m surprised. How did that happen?

“He’s a very calming influence for everyone else because he’s so calm.

“Rollie [Rollheiser] has looked jumpy in the net. When he looks jumpy, everybody gets jumpy. When he calms down, he’ll be a terrific goalie for us too.

“But from day one, Kieran Millan has looked like he’s playing a pickup game on the pond. Nothing rattles him. I’m supposed to be having fun out here. I’m playing goal and it’s a nice crowd. We’ll have fun with this. He keeps everyone on an even keel.”

The Terriers also have intangibles such as role players like senior Steve Smolinsky, who has played only four games but earned quick praise from Matt Gilroy after one game.

“He’s probably the best teammate on the team,” Gilroy said. “If you ask any kid on the team, ‘Who’s your favorite teammate? Who’s the best guy in the locker room?’ They’d say Steve Smolinsky.

“That helps out.”

The other Terrier seniors combine for what could be the final piece in the puzzle, veteran leadership.

“The senior class is the straw that stirs the drink on this team,” Parker says. “The captains anchor the defense and Higgie, J-Lo, Yipper and McCarthy are having the best years they’ve ever had here.

“When you get senior contributions and senior attitude like we have, it’s a pretty easy team to coach. It’s like we have a bunch of extra coaches out there.”

Small wonder that after Friday night’s 5-0 loss to BU, UNH coach Dick Umile said, “Tonight, we weren’t in their league, that’s for sure.”

Other coaches facing BU may or may not say it out loud, but many will be thinking the exact same thing.

Don’t Hold Your Breath

When it comes to Northeastern, the doubters remain. They watched the Huskies sit atop Hockey East midway through last year only to plummet in mid-January, failing to win back-to-back games the rest of the way, eventually losing in the league quarterfinals.

The doubters are holding their breath, waiting for the same thing to happen this season.

The doubters have been holding their breath since Nov. 16. Since then, Northeastern has gone 8-1 within the league, solidifying its first place standing.

The doubters are now turning blue.

Perhaps it’s time to call the EMTs for those doubters. These Huskies aren’t collapsing after all.

They’re still in first place with a four-point lead over BU, six points (minus a game in hand) over Vermont, and at least ten points over everyone else. They’re ranked third in the country and are tied for fourth in the PairWise. If the season ended today, they’d be a top seed in one of the NCAA regionals.

All of which, the players are mostly trying to ignore.

“Last year we were getting the same kind of [rankings and attention] and it maybe got to our heads,” star goaltender Brad Thiessen says. “Maybe that had something to do with us struggling down the stretch.

“Now, we’ve matured. We know that we belong there so we don’t worry about that kind of stuff. We just keep playing our game.”

Senior Wade McLeod seconds that emotion.

“It’s nice to be recognized,” he says. “We’ve had a tremendous start to the season but at the same time, we were kind of up there last year and we trailed off. So we’re just trying to take it one game at a time and not worry about the rankings.”

What they’re worrying about is how to get better.

So after a first half in which their penalty kill topped Hockey East but their power play displayed only moderate power, the Huskies worked overtime on the man advantage.

The result? Power-play goals in the last five games, including eight in the last four contests.

“First half of the year our power play was hurting,” top goal-scorer Ryan Ginand says. “It was something like 14 percent.

“At Christmas break, we had team building and we said we had to amp up our power play if we want to be a national contender. Special teams [decides] games.

“We’ve been working on it a lot in practices and things are starting to click now. We’re finding sticks [with our passes] and we’re being patient.

“Before we were just throwing pucks all over the place, forcing plays. Now we’re holding onto it and taking time.”

NU coach Greg Cronin adds, “You’re seeing guys developing chemistry. There’s pretty good puck rotation.

“Ginand is real clever on the half wall. He forces people to respect him so it opens lanes up. Getting Wade [McLeod] off the blue line and on the goal line, he’s able to see plays.”

Ginand and McLeod now lead the team in power play goals with six and three, respectively.

Ginand earned Hockey East Player of the Week honors for his four-goal weekend in a sweep over Providence. En route to Saturday’s hat trick, he recorded 12 shots on goal.

(No, that’s not attempts, which includes blocked shots and those wide of the net. That’s 12 official shots on net, requiring saves. Obviously, three more saves were required than were achieved.)

Ginand now ranks tied for second (with UNH’s Mike Sislo) in Hockey East in goals scored with 15, trailing only BC’s Brock Bradford.

“I’ve been telling him all year that when he goes to bed to remind himself to shoot the puck, shoot the puck,” Cronin says. “He’s one of those guys that tries to make a play fifteen feet from the net.

“He’s a goalscorer. Sometimes I want to strangle him because he makes some low percentage plays with the puck, but it’s real visible how badly he wants to score goals.

“He lights up like a Christmas tree when he gets the puck near the scoring area.”

At a time in the season when attrition often hits, the Huskies are getting some up-ticks in performance from unexpected places, most notably freshman Mike McLaughlin.

While fellow rookies Steve Quailer and Alex Tuckerman contributed right out of the chute and between them have 31 points on the second line, McLaughlin had to bide his time. He failed to dress for any of the first seven games and bounced in and out of the lineup after that.

In his first nine games, he recorded a single assist. But a week ago last Saturday, he scored his first goal against Vermont and then added two more on Friday against

He’s gone from sitting in the stands to skating with top linemates McLeod and Joe Vitale.

“We’ve had Tuckerman and Quailer who were more ready to play coming out of the gate so they’ve gotten the lion’s share of the time for the freshmen,” Cronin says. “[McLaughlin] started to come along at the break. He played at Minnesota and was really visible.

“We’ve got a veteran team, so he’s got to fight for his ice time, but it’s a blessing that he’s been able to stay with a positive attitude because he can be one of the most physical guys on the ice.”

There’s plenty left to prove for this team: the race for the regular season title… the Hockey East tournament… and then the NCAAs.

But before all that, there’s the Beanpot, a tournament the Huskies haven’t won since the glorious decade of the 1980’s when they took their only four titles. Especially for those Boston-area kids on the roster, its a draught they’re dying to end.

“Don’t tell Coach,” one senior said after a recent game, “but I’ve already started thinking about that game. It’s my last year. I can’t hold anything back.

“It’s the most important thing in my life right now. School is secondary. For me, it’s huge.”

Don’t worry, kid. Your secret is safe with us. We won’t tell Coach. We won’t tell your instructors, one or two of whom might argue with school being secondary. We won’t even tell your girlfriend, who might wonder why she isn’t the most important thing in your life.

It’s your last Beanpot.

Just win, baby.

Thanks to Scott Weighart and Keith Lavon.


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