This Week in Hockey East: Oct. 15, 2009

One Last Satisfying Look

For a while there, I was fielding the same question following one national championship game after another.

“Why can’t your guys win it all? You guys always finish second.”

The words invariably came from the mouth of a smug WCHA fan (pardon the redundancy), a drink in one hand and a mocking grin on his lips.

Oh, how I wanted to wipe that grin off those lips.

But the facts were the facts.

Since 1997, Hockey East had placed a team in the title game every season but 2005, the year of the all-WCHA Frozen Four. But until Boston College’s title two years ago, Hockey East teams had won it all only in 1999 (the all-Hockey East championship game between Maine and New Hampshire) and in 2001 (BC in glorious overtime over North Dakota).

Which boiled down to 1-for-9 against other conferences in that Bridesmaids Streak. Not much I could say.

But Hockey East has now taken two titles in a row, BC two years ago and Boston University last season.

So I’ve got to say it.

“Hey, WCHA? Where you been? You ready for us to three-peat?”

Let’s see if you can wipe the grin off my lips.

On the Other Hand

I suppose I should hold my braggadocio in check for a few more weeks to see whether or not Hockey East is going to duplicate last year’s commanding nonconference record. Last season, the league jumped out to a dominating start and coasted home with four (and almost five) NCAA berths. It made the most of those berths with BU and Vermont advancing to the Frozen Four where they unfortunately had to meet in the semifinals.

Last weekend’s start, however, wasn’t all that auspicious. Hockey East lost to all three of the other traditional conferences: 0-1 vs. the CCHA; 2-3 vs. the ECAC; and 2-4 vs. the WCHA.

A trend or a fluke? We’ll see.

One More Piece of Backtracking

In my opening comments, I didn’t intend to paint every WCHA fan with my smug brush. After all, the North Dakota fan who sold me his Frozen Four tickets couldn’t have been nicer. A great guy and a great college hockey fan. My son, his girlfriend, and her family enjoyed those tickets immensely.

My wisecrack was intended only for those WCHA fans who have filled my mailbox (and will no doubt fill it again this week) or rubbed my nose in some very painful losses before the wounds had even begun to heal.

So no offense intended toward all of you courteous WCHA fans. As for the rest of you …

If you dish it out, baby, you’ve got to take it.

Heh, heh, heh.

Husky Talk

Perhaps the single most scrutinized position in the first few weeks will be Northeastern’s goaltender. Freshman Chris Rawlings is being asked to fill the immense shoes of last year’s Hockey East player of the year, Brad Thiessen.

Rawlings got off to a rocky start last weekend at Colorado College. The freshman gave up a 65-footer less than three minutes into his official collegiate career.

“When the guy put the shot in from 65 feet, I think it was a reflection of how nervous [Rawlings] was,” NU coach Greg Cronin said after the game. “I was actually hoping the kid would shoot it on the goal because we had the puck the whole time and … maybe [Rawlings] stops that one and kind of gets a little confidence from it.

“I was looking at my notepad because I assumed it was going to be a harmless shot, but then I heard the crowd and I was like, uh-oh.”

The Huskies went on to lose with Rawlings giving up four goals, all even strength, on 37 shots.

Both Rawlings and Northeastern, however, turned it around the following night. The Huskies won, 4-3, with the goaltender stopping 34 of 37 shots. Two of CC’s three goals came on the power play.

“Tonight he played well,” Cronin said after the win. “I could tell before the game he was relaxed and confident. He’s a young goalie; he’s a freshman and it’s a process with goalies. There’s a total adjustment that needs to be made.

“[But] a lot of credit has to go to our goalie; he was the star of the game.”

Of course, the Huskies have to replace more than just Thiessen. Last year’s seniors imbued the program with their grit and perseverance.

“They went through a three-win season as freshmen,” Cronin said. “They created stability and composure with the strength of their willpower and their confidence as they built the program up.

“So we not only lost some hockey players, we lost people that were responsible for mortaring the bricks that are the foundation of our program.”

Everyone knows that it’s brutally difficult to get from three wins in a season to 25. But what often goes beneath the radar is how tough it is to keep those 25-win seasons coming even after players like Thiessen leave early, not to mention turn some of those years into 30-win campaigns.

“When I was at Maine,” Cronin said, “Shawn Walsh had that vision that we were going to sustain what we did. God bless him, if you look back and knock off those games that he was given a forfeit because of ineligible players, we were ripping off 30-win seasons something like five or six in a row and seven of nine.

“That wasn’t because we had luck. We had a program and a culture we developed and [assistant coach and top recruiter] Grant Standbrook reinforced that culture every year with players, knowing we were going to lose kids early like a Brad Thiessen.

“That’s what we’re trying to do here at Northeastern. We’re trying to get players that fit what we do as a program.

“I think our identity as a team has been very visible over the past couple of years. It’s a question of putting guys into roles that they’re going to be confident and comfortable in and then making sure that gels as a group. That’s the challenge of coaching.

“The nice thing is the foundation is there. Now we have to get players to replace the players that moved that foundation over the last four years.”

BC Eighth?

Are You Nuts?

That was the tenor of a couple emails I received this week after fans began to notice my projections in the Hockey East Season Preview.

BC eighth? After the league coaches picked the Eagles to finish third? Jim Connelly picked them third too. Eighth? Have you lost your mind?

Those with short memories might have even wondered if I’d become a BC-basher, forgetting that a few years ago some circles referred to me as “that BC grad.” Neither is correct. I’ve never attended the school and I’d like nothing better than for the Eagles to win the national championship. (I hope a Hockey East team wins it all every year.)

However, I have serious concerns about this year’s team.

Let’s start in goal. One could certainly argue that John Muse’s hip problems caused the “sophomore slump” in which he dropped from a .921 save percentage to .904. Makes perfect sense. But will he be better this year following surgery that went beyond the originally expected labrum repair?

“He spent eight weeks on crutches,” BC coach Jerry York said in the Season Preview. “It was a little bit more than the average hip surgery. They went it to repair the labrum but they also found some defects in his hip socket.

“Right now, Muse is day-by-day. He’s taken some shots. He’s not back to the form we’d like to see him.”

A little bit more than the average hip surgery?

I’m sorry, but if I’m a BC fan, the thought of my goaltender — the guy who has played virtually every minute the past two seasons — requiring hip surgery makes me cringe. And when the doctors find a little more that needs repair, the blood drains from my face and the room starts spinning about me. I reach for a chair because … I’m … going … down.

I think of Red Sox third-baseman Mike Lowell trying to flash a pad save, requiring a near spread-eagle and it simply doesn’t compute. I like to think I have a creative mind, but it isn’t that creative.

The original timetable was for Muse to return “no earlier than November.” He’s receiving shots now. Yikes!

Hey, when Jerry York speaks, I tend very much to believe him. But when he says of Muse, “As the year progresses, though, we think he’s going to be a lot more athletic,” I’m not sure whether that’s a realistic prognosis, a wildly optimistic one, or whistling past the graveyard.

Muse has played a period in both of BC’s exhibition games and is slated to start this weekend, but I’m not sure if anyone knows which John Muse the Eagles will get.

So what about the goalie BC recruited at the last minute, Parker Milner? I’ve never seen the kid play and I wish him all the success in the world. But the harsh truth is that cream-of-the-crop goalies were locked up by the time York and his recruiting staff realized they needed insurance. Milner was available either because he wasn’t quite good enough or because he was perceived to need a little more time. I suspect the latter since he just turned 19, but that doesn’t change my doubts about what he can do this year.

Perhaps Milner will make me eat my words. Perhaps Muse will be close to 100 percent in short order (before BC digs itself too deep a hole) and by the second semester he’ll be the difference-maker he was as a freshman.

But I have my doubts.

And in this league if you have goaltending problems, you can’t win.

What about the rest of the team?

On defense, the Eagles lost Tim Kunes, Tim Filangieri, Nick Petrecki and Anthony Aiello. Carl Sneep is the only returning blueliner who dressed game in and game out.

Up front, BC lost Brock Bradford and his 25 goals and Kyle Kucharski’s 10; they were the only double-digit producers in that category. The Eagles also lost Benn Ferriero (third in points) and Andrew Orpik.

Admittedly, BC’s recruiting class is a heralded one. The NHL drafted four of them in the top two rounds: Chris Kreider in the first round; Kenny Ryan, Brian Dumoulin, and Philip Samuelsson in the second. But the size that the NHL loves (those four top picks are 6-2, 205 pounds; 6-0, 186; 6-3, 195; and 6-3, 198) make me think more Brooks Orpik than Brian Gionta in terms of immediate freshman impact.

[Last minute update: Kenny Ryan has left school to play for the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League.]

Let’s also not forget that BC finished only .500 within the league last year. The subtractions and question marks weren’t applied to an NCAA title contender.

Personally, I suspect that if another school, one that hasn’t been a perennial Hockey East and national power, suffered a similar fate following a .500 campaign, most other projections would be close to mine.

It’s just that most people, myself included, have trouble envisioning BC having two straight down or even so-so years. A part of me says that somehow Jerry York will wave his magic wand and the Eagles will again be a force on the national stage, if not in the early going then down the stretch and into the playoffs.

I hope it happens. I love to see Hockey East teams be successful and for its standard bearers to kick butt and take names.

But if Muse doesn’t fully recover until next year (or too late this year) and if those highly regarded freshmen don’t produce, York’s magic wand will need to be made of pure gold.

Recommended Reading

USCHO’s own Scott Weighart has written Burn the Boats: A Seven-Championship Season for Boston University Hockey, chronicling last year’s magical ride for the Terriers.

Buying a copy is a no-brainer for BU fans — you haven’t ordered yet? — and recommended for all who’d enjoy an inside look at a championship team.

And Finally, Not That it Has Anything to do With Anything, But …

I’d planned all sorts of insightful Red Sox and Patriots comments but barely made this column’s deadline at all because I had to finish my taxes.

Whaddya mean, April 15? What good is a six-month extension if you don’t use it?


Thanks to Jim Connelly, Theresa Spisak and Candace Horgan.

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