This Week in Hockey East: March 12, 2009

The Second Season Begins

It’s been five years since a lower seed advanced in the Hockey East quarterfinals. Will the home teams once again all move on to the Garden?

If you look at the PairWise, you’d say that the identities of next Friday’s semifinal contestants are already known. Boston University, Northeastern, New Hampshire, and Vermont all rank in the nation’s top eight teams. Every other Hockey East team will need to advance at least to the championship game (hello, Boston College) or win it (everyone else) to make the NCAA tournament.

So based on those numbers, this weekend should be sweep city. This writer, however, isn’t so sure. An upset or even two wouldn’t be at all surprising.

Why?

Fifth-seeded Massachusetts-Lowell traveled to Vermont three weekends ago and took three out of four points. Give one reason why the River Hawks can’t do it again.

Sixth-seeded Boston College may have gotten swept by UNH a few weekends ago, but finished the season with a big win over Northeastern and has been to three straight national championship games. You’re going to bet the ranch against the Eagles?

Seventh-seeded Massachusetts took two-out-of-three this year from Northeastern. Why can’t the Minutemen do it again?

Even eighth-seeded Maine tied BU once this…

Okay, okay. I’ll confess. I can’t go that far. Sorry, Black Bear fans. I don’t think your team has a snowball’s chance this weekend. No disrespect intended, but if BU doesn’t make it to the Frozen Four this year, I’ll post a photo of Sasquatch in my office right where I’ll have to look at it for the entire offseason.

The Terriers are that good.

Here’s a closer look at the matchups.

No. 1 Boston University hosts No. 8 Maine

Could any team be on more of a roll than BU? The Terriers have lost one game since Thanksgiving. They won the Hockey East regular season title on the final day of the regular season. They rank tops in the league in offense, defense, power play, and penalty kill.

Are they, like Alexander the Great, left with no more worlds to conquer?

“The goal of every BU hockey team is to make sure we win enough games in the regular season to get home ice in the Hockey East playoffs and to get selected to the national tournament on the basis of our regular-season play without having to win our [conference] tournament,” BU coach Jack Parker says. “If you said that the entire college hockey season ended today, we would say we had a very successful season.

“But that isn’t how college hockey, and certainly not Boston University hockey, is measured. We will be judged on how well we do from here on out, when the two biggest tournaments are available and the biggest championships are available.

“So far, so good. Now it’s, ‘Clean the slate.’ It’s all new — everybody’s got a chance.”

As satisfying as it was to come from behind and take the regular season crown, that pales in comparison to the satisfaction the Terriers will feel if they win at the Garden next Saturday.

“There’s no comparison,” Parker says. “The regular season championship is nice, but you’re not the Hockey East champion. Whoever wins the Hockey East playoffs is called the Hockey East champion.

“We have flags [at Agganis Arena] for Hockey East champions but not for regular season champions. We only have a list for that, not individual flags, because it’s not as big.”

Although Maine has struggled in the second half, Parker sees strengths to be wary of.

“They’re a very quick team,” he says. “They’re great killing penalties. They’re pretty good on the power play lately.

“Their goaltending has been up and down but when it’s up, it’s real good. When it’s down, it’s not so good. We went up there and blew seven by them one night and then the next night we struggled to get two for a 2-2 tie.

“So a lot will be decided by special teams and who’s playing well between the pipes.”

The one-seed vs. eight-seed matchups can also pose motivational potholes even against a traditional rival.

“At this stage of the game, everybody worries if their team is going to be ready for the playoffs,” Parker says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a four [seed] playing a five or a one playing an eight.

“We have been involved on both ends on it. We’ve been a one team that got beat by an eight team, and we have been an eight team that’s beaten a one team. So we know exactly what can happen in that round, and hopefully our guys know that.

“The good part about that is that the last time we played Maine, they tied us 2-2 in what was a really well-played, tough contest for us and for them. It’s not like we blew them out and we think it’s going to be an easy game.”

Parker knows that not even a team as talented as his can just show up and win.

“There’s nobody in this league, and I mean nobody in this league, that is capable of beating anybody in this league by thinking they’re going to win on talent,” he says. “We have a lot of talent, but we’re not going to win on talent.

“The question is, will we come with effort, intensity, focus, and good decision making? If we have that, we’ll be a good team. We may not win but we’ll be a real difficult team to play against.

“Maine has got enough talent to beat us.”

While BU is entering the postseason firing on all cylinders, Maine represents the opposite extreme. The Black Bears’ last win came on February 7. Since the beginning of the new year, they’re a dismal 2-14-2.

“The season to this point has been disappointing, obviously,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead says. “The first half was surprising in a good way, and the second half has been disappointing. We are not exactly going into the playoffs with a bang here.

“Having said that we have had some success in the past bouncing back at playoff time, and that is what our objective is right now.”

While Whitehead’s Maine teams have typically entered the playoffs as favorites, he did lead some underdog Lowell teams to quarterfinal upsets. The foundation for any such win has to be a team’s belief in itself, easier said than done when facing a team as daunting as BU.

“It is always a tough challenge,” Whitehead says. “Although we did have several of those upsets when I was at Lowell, every year is unique. The challenge this season in particular is quite formidable because BU has no obvious weaknesses.

“They are very strong at all three positions: goaltending, defense and forward. They are pretty healthy right now, and their special teams are so strong; power play, penalty kill and four-on-four situations. They are a great team.

“But we have to clear the slate. It is a new season; and it might be a short one if we can’t clear the slate quickly. BU soundly defeated us in our first two games this season, 4-1 and 7-2. Fortunately, in our last game with BU we were able to have some success. It ended up in a tie, which is something to build on.

“It is a new season and a fresh start on Friday and anything can happen if we work hard and stay focused. Crazy things do tend to happen in the playoffs and that is going to be our mindset.”

No. 2 Northeastern hosts No. 7 Massachusetts

The Northeastern Huskies have to feel a little frustrated that they held onto first place wire-to-almost-wire, losing it on the final day of the regular season. That said, they’ll need to put all that behind them and focus on the task at hand, which isn’t as easy as a two-seed vs. seven-seed would usually promise. As noted before, UMass took two out of three this year from Northeastern.

“They are the only team besides BU that we didn’t win a series against,” NU coach Greg Cronin says. “They are probably thrilled that they drew us. There must be a certain sense of confidence knowing they can play well against Northeastern. I think they’ve got a very, very good hockey team.”

Northeastern’s number one weapon will continue to be goaltender Brad Thiessen, who if he doesn’t win Hockey East Player of the Year will at least be a leading contender.

“Everybody has been talking about Brad all year and I think he deserves the visibility and recognition that he’s gotten,” Cronin says. “He’s our best player most nights. It’s always good to have your goalie as your best player; it has a real healthy effect on your entire team. I think he’s probably been our most consistent player as well.

“I can’t say enough about him. He’s a great goalie, a great person. He’s great in the locker room. We wouldn’t be having the season we’re having without him.”

Weapon number two will be the crowd at Matthews Arena. Unless this weekend coincides with Spring Break, the chants promise to be deafening.

“NORTH-”

“-EASTERN!”

“You fight all year for home ice,” Cronin says. “Our arena has been a real special place this year. We’ve only had a couple of games when the students weren’t around that we didn’t have 4,500 people in the building. The energy in this building is a huge advantage.

“We’ve got to be able to use that. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing. Obviously each team presents a different identity when you’re trying to manage that series but you have got to maximize the energy that this building generates with a full house.”

With all due respect to Northeastern, UMass had to be counting its lucky stars when it drew the Huskies instead of the Terriers. BU pounded the Minutemen to the tune of 6-3 and 7-2 two weekends ago and clearly represented a tougher matchup.

The question now is: which UMass team will show up. As Winston Churchill once said of Russia, the Minutemen are “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

“The season has been up and down,” UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon says. “I think our record speaks for itself. We’ve been a hard team to figure out, both internally and externally. It seems to go as our team offense and special teams go. When we bring our best, like most of the teams in this league, we’re going to be competitive with almost everyone.”

Ironically, the inconsistent Minutemen will be facing one of the most consistent teams in the country.

“Northeastern presents a lot of problems,” Cahoon says. “Coach Cronin has done a tremendous job, and is deserving of all the accolades that he’s going to get in the future. Their team has had one of the best years in program history, and it has a lot to do with his leadership and his ability to get his guys to rally around some concepts that they fully bought into.

“It’s no easy task to disrupt their abilities, to penetrate their tenacious play, and be able to be productive enough to cause some problems that could create an upset.”

Cahoon isn’t placing much credence in his team’s two wins head-to-head with the Huskies.

“I think we’ve caught them at times when they’ve come off huge series,” Cahoon says. “When they came out here, Coach Cronin made it very clear that they didn’t bring their best game. We played really well for two periods and then they hammered us in the third, but we managed to survive.

“In the second game out here, we got off to a good start, and then they hammered us in the second half and ended up walking away with a win. And in the third game, our backs were really against the wall, and we needed to get something going. We brought as good a game as we’ve brought all season, and we were able to walk away with the win.

“I don’t think it’s the matchup, and I don’t think that those games have anything to do with this weekend. This is a whole new season and a brand new start for both teams.”

Cahoon points to two keys for his team.

“The first thing we have to do is have perfect discipline,” he says. “We can’t be marching ourselves to the box repeatedly. Off and on throughout the season, we’ve gotten ourselves into trouble when we’ve taken several penalties in succession. Many of our key players that play special teams and a lot of 5-on-5 hockey end up getting fatigued.

“We end up playing ourselves out of the game because we’ve got our backs against the wall killing penalties; it just exhausts your team.

“The second thing we have to do is play great team defense. Teams that win in the playoffs play great defense, and we need to do that.”

No. 3 New Hampshire hosts No. 6 Boston College

New Hampshire has looked very… well… UNH-like down the stretch, winning six of its last seven games, including a sweep of BC three weekends ago.

“I have been pleased with our second half,” UNH coach Dick Umile says. “Our lines have some good chemistry, some good balance. We are starting to get some scoring from some different people.

“Brian Foster is consistent for us in the net. [Since] he got back healthy, he’s given us an awful lot of confidence.”

Unfortunately, the Wildcats’ reward for a third place finish is a team that has made three straight trips to the national championship game.

“We’re heading into the playoffs [against] Boston College, the defending national champs,” Umile says. “They get excited this time of the season and they just came off a very productive weekend, beating the number one team at that point, Northeastern.

“[BC coach Jerry York] has his team back playing well. The teams match up very well. We will need to play a great game defensively, especially our transition game. As always, special teams will be important.

“They present problems all the time. They’re a very, very skilled team and obviously they are well coached. We are going to worry about ourselves and make sure we are ready to play and are ready to execute when we get the opportunities.”

Umile looks for UNH’s seventh player — home ice on the Olympic sheet– to play a key role. His Wildcats finished the season a game under .500 on the road, but 12-3-2 at home.

“The Whittemore Center is a fun place to play and it’s a large sheet, but we will have to contend with their skills on the large sheet so it’s a task in itself,” he says. “Once everybody gets settled, we are going to hunker in here and UNH and BC will battle. Obviously, BC has been a team that’s been very successful on the road having gone to the national championship so many times. This will be a fun weekend up here.”

For Boston College, the season will come to a screeching halt without two wins over UNH. BC coach Jerry York sees no reason why his team can’t pull it off.

“I have read all of the releases from Hockey East,” he says. “Nowhere does it say that the traveling team has to get knocked off. We are a sixth seed going to the third seed, and we feel like if we play good solid hockey we have a chance to go to the Garden.

“I think we have played probably our best hockey over the last three or four weeks. Even when we lost the two one-goal games to New Hampshire in late February, I thought we played very well. They were just that much better than us on those two particular nights, but we played well as a club. We perhaps played our best game of the year on Saturday night with a 4-1 win [over Northeastern].

“We are playing good hockey on both ends, with the puck and without the puck right now. Johnny Muse appears to be much sharper now down the stretch. I feel, and our players feel, real confident going into the game.”

That said, York knows the Wildcats are a handful.

“They are an excellent team,” he says. “They have had a terrific year, maybe overshadowed a little bit by what Northeastern and BU have done. New Hampshire has been right there in the mix, and their players have assured themselves a spot of playing in the national tournament.

“We certainly have a great deal of respect for [goaltender Brian] Foster. I thought he played extremely well in the two games against us. He limited us to two goals both nights, so that’s one concern. Most teams that have had success have excellent goaltending. I think we have to find a way to manufacture goals.

“Also they are capable of a pretty high-powered offense, so we have to be certain that we are solid defensively. I like a lot of their players. They make good plays, especially [Peter] LeBlanc.”

The Eagles have been practicing at a local school with an Olympic size surface and will also practice at UNH on Thursday night.

“I tend to expect a low-scoring game, and a very competitive game,” York says. “It should be an exciting venue to play.”

No. 4 Vermont hosts No. 5 Massachusetts-Lowell

The Catamounts earned home ice this year with a remarkably consistent performance, losing back-to-back games only once and that coming in the first month of the season. They’re well-positioned within the league and even better-positioned in the national picture for a strong postseason.

“We’re thrilled obviously to be hosting a playoff series here at Gutterson Arena,” UVM coach Kevin Sneddon says. “[We were] fortunate to experience that last year and really feel proud of our program for being able to do it back-to-back years. It was a season of tests and obstacles, and [we’re] certainly very pleased that we were able to finish tied for third.”

However, as is so often the case for four-seeds vs. five-seeds, there’s a lot for the home team to be concerned about. Dropping three of four points to the River Hawks three weekends ago certainly caught the Catamounts’ attention.

“They believe in their systems and how they play,” Sneddon says. “They keep it very simple five-on-five and don’t make many mistakes. If your team feeds off of transition play and trying to capitalize on other teams’ mistakes, you can get frustrated by Lowell. They’re very disciplined.

“They do a great job of getting the puck out of their zone. Their special teams are very, very good. Their penalty kill has been a strength for them. It’s number one in the league [in league play] and they zip the puck around pretty good on the power play with some guys who can bang it pretty well. That gave us some problems this year when we played them.

“Their goaltending stood up very tall against us in the recent series. Their 1-0 win really came down to one tough goal against us on the power play, a shorthanded goal.

“They’re very well coached, very disciplined. They don’t take any unnecessary after-the-whistle penalties. They’re very solid from the net out.”

The River Hawks are also hot, bouncing back from a tough stretch around Christmas to finish 8-3-2 with eight of those final thirteen games on the road.

“We finished the season pretty strong,” UML coach Blaise MacDonald says. “Some of the keys for our success have been our special teams, our penalty killing and our power play. We’ve been streaky in scoring goals, but overall our team defense has been pretty solid.

“We’ve gained a lot of confidence in playing well and winning on the road in some tough environments. That builds confidence in a club and is something we will need for sure this weekend in Vermont.”

MacDonald knows his team will have its hands full in trying to duplicate the success of a few weeks ago.

“Our first mission is to try to limit all of the weapons Vermont has up front,” he says. “You’re not going to eliminate them, but just limit the high scoring opportunities their forwards are going to get. We have to play careful, tenacious defense.

“I think Viktor Stalberg is arguably one of the best, if not the best, three players in the entire country. He needs to be watched closely.”

While Lowell’s home and away splits were essentially identical, the Catamounts posted a 10-4-4 mark at Gutterson Fieldhouse.

“When you go up there, you have to take what the game gives you,” MacDonald says. “Your [game] management skills have to be at a higher level when you’re the road team. You have to control the controllables.

“You have to make good changes, make sure you stay out of the penalty box as best you can. You’re not going to be able to match lines so you have to be prepared for different line matchups that you may not want.

“You need solid defense. It starts with your defense being able to defend and transition the puck. We feel very confident that our core of defensemen is very good at that.”

Adios

Next week’s column is the final one of the season since the following week we switch to previewing NCAA tournament action. However, it’s Jim Connelly’s turn next Thursday, so let me thank you now for reading this year.

Thanks to Jim for his assistance and to those arena reporters who sent me recordings of their post-game interviews, especially Scott Weighart, Keith La von, and Jim.

And of course, thanks to my wife Brenda (a.k.a. The Kid) for her never-ending support and the life-saving transcriptions.

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

It won’t be available until early June, but there’s a book coming out I think you might enjoy. Published by DAW, it’s called Swordplay, an anthology of 17 stories about… you guessed it, swords.

It features big names like Kristine Kathryn Rusch (who has won a gazillion awards ranging from the Hugo to the Ellery Queen Reader’s Choice Award) and Nina Kiriki Hoffman (winner of the Bram Stoker Award and a nominee multiple times for the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards). Loren Coleman’s astounding story is sure to be short listed next year.

And yes, it also includes a story called “Back To The Garden” by little old me.

Check it out. Here’s the official blurb and a link to it on Amazon.

Seventeen rapier-sharp stories of swordplay, magic, and adventure…

From a samurai’s sword to an assassin’s blade, from Custer’s cavalry sword to D’Artagnan’s deadly weapon, from the sword of Damocles to the legendary Excalibur, these all-new spellbinding tales get straight to the point. Whether it’s a sword bespelled to crave blood, cold steel that magicks its wielder into a video game, or a dwarf-crafted blade meant to slay a dragon, these weapons each come sheathed in their own fascinating story that cuts right to the heart of fantasy adventure.

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