This Week in Hockey East: October 22, 2009

Undefeated UMass

There’s only one Hockey East team still standing with an unblemished record — the Massachusetts Minutemen. UMass followed up a season-opening, non-league win over Rensselaer with its first points in Hockey East, a 3-2 win over defending national champion Boston University.

There isn’t a coach in the universe who wouldn’t choose to be 2-0 rather than 0-2, but neither UMass Coach Don “Toot” Cahoon nor his players are getting carried away just yet, for good reason: they’ve seen it before.

The Minutemen have gotten off on the right foot the last three years but finished the way they’d wanted to only in 2006-2007. That year, a 6-1-1 start was matched by a trip to the Hockey East semifinal game and an NCAA Regional Championship appearance.

Two years ago however, stellar play in the first half — a 6-2-4 record within the league and a 9-3-5 mark overall — didn’t hold up in the second half, and UMass finished with a losing record.

Last season saw the same outcome after a 4-1-1 and 5-2-1 start.

So you’ll forgive Cahoon and company if they’re not breaking out the bubbly quite yet.

“Obviously we’re more pleased than disappointed,” Cahoon said. “But there are certainly some areas of our team that must improve in order for us to have consistent success. There’s a lot of work to be done.

“People have been quick to point out that the last couple of years we have been off to good starts and have not be able to be sustain it. So that’s a challenge we’re trying to overcome.”

In the nets, Paul Dainton has allowed only two goals each game, stopping 67-of-71 shots for a .944 save percentage. His 39 saves, which tied a career best, keyed the win over BU and earned Dainton league Defensive Player of the Week honors.

“Paul has a year more experience now,” Cahoon says. “Very often, he’s been a very good player for us. We’re just hoping that he will continue to improve and grow in that position so that instead of being a very good goaltender for us, he becomes an elite-level goaltender for us.

“[So far] he’s very comfortable, he’s poised, and he’s stronger. We’re hoping that continues. [But] it’s only the middle of October.”

On the blue line, sophomore Matt Irwin has more than picked up where he left off last year. Already, he’s scored three goals, two on the power play, and assisted on another.

“He can really shoot a puck,” Cahoon says. “He’s been put in a couple situations where he’s been able to put the puck on net and he’s found the twine a few times. I don’t know if he’s going to be able to score three goals every two games for us, but it’s certainly a nice dimension to the defensive core that hopefully plays out during the season.

“Matt is a kid who was seriously hurt with a leg injury the first half of last year. It took half the season to get him back into the groove so [he could] have a really good second half.

“People were talking about him as if it was kind of a surprise. [It wasn’t a surprise to us.] We felt that when we recruited him, we recruited a really top-end player. To have him healthy at the beginning of this year is a big plus.”

Before the season started, Cahoon envisioned an all-freshmen line centered by Rocco Carzo, but an injury to Michael Lecomte in the season opener prompted Cahoon to move Carzo into a more prominent role. The rookie has responded with two goals and two assists.

“I’m amazed at how much poise he’s playing with,” Cahoon says. “Michael Lecomte was centering one of the top lines that got a lot of ice time. [After his injury], we were forced to move Carzo into a different role on that line along with Danny Hobbs, who also played extremely well.

“Carzo has been able to find the back of the net the first couple of games. That’s a big plus for us to have a young player that’s being productive.”

With the mindset that you’re only as good as your last game, the Minutemen now head into a Friday night matchup with Maine. The Black Bears have gotten off to a slow start, losing twice at Union before splitting at home with Michigan State.

According to Cahoon, that 1-3 record, along with a buck-fifty, will get you a cup of coffee.

“Maine hasn’t lost any games in Hockey East yet,” he says. “This is the start of the true schedule. People know that Michigan State has a great history and it’s a terrific program so for Maine to get the split and to get themselves moving in a positive direction before they get here is only going to make this Friday night that much more difficult.

“We know that we have a good goaltender to face, we’ve got a team that’s shown that they have a nice power play look, and they have some special players. So we’re going to have more than our hands full.”

Merrimack Rolls

Last weekend, Merrimack rebounded from two losses at North Dakota with wins over Holy Cross, 3-1, and Army, 6-3. According to Warriors’ coach Mark Dennehy, those wins were no accident.

“That weekend has been a long time coming,” he says. “The seeds for what we think is going to happen this year were planted a long time ago.

“I don’t think there was anybody in our program happy with [losing twice] at North Dakota, but on Saturday at the 10-minute mark of the second period North Dakota had only six shots on net. There aren’t too many teams that go in there and have that type of effect.

“We had to kill five penalties in the third period so we have to look at discipline and some other things that we need to work on, but as disappointed as we may have been, we gave them every bit to handle.

“This past weekend was different for a number of reasons. We’re starting to play at home with some confidence and when you score goals, it makes things a lot easier.”

Ah, yes. Scoring goals.

Against Army, freshman Stephane Da Costa completed a natural hat trick by the 13:36 mark of the first period and finished with five of the team’s six goals. In doing so, he set all sorts of marks: the first five-goal game since Brian Gionta in 2001, the first five-goal game for a freshman, the only time a player’s first five goals have all come in the same game, with presumably more records of increasing obscurity.

“I’m pretty sure I can go on record saying he’s not going to average five goals per game for us,” Dennehy quips. “But we thought he’d be someone who would come in and help us score goals.

“You’re talking about a young man who represented France in the world championships last year against NHL players. Who finished third in scoring in the USHL, giving up 15 games to the top two scorers because he was playing for France.

“Would I have predicted a five-goal performance by Stephane? No. But we expect him to be productive.”

So much for the talk about Merrimack’s offense relying too much on the top line of Chris Barton (four goals), Jesse Todd (1-3–4) and J.C. Robitaille (1-2–3).

“It’s funny how a five-goal game can shift everything,” Dennehy says. “Going into Saturday, all anyone was talking about was how our first line was the only line that did the scoring.”

Da Costa notwithstanding, that first line looks to be forming itself into a very potent unit, as Todd and Barton, in particular, increasingly become a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Last year, the two — Todd, a freshman and Barton, a sophomore — both totaled 23 points. It’ll be a surprise if they both don’t top that, pointing the way for the other younger players making a needed step forward.

“Seventy percent of our scoring was by our freshmen and sophomore class coming into the season,” Dennehy says. “You would naturally expect, though I don’t like that word, that those players will have some sort of growth from one year to the next.

“For Chris Barton and Jesse Todd, I think it’s the two of them becoming more familiar with each other. Jesse Todd was second in Hockey East freshmen in scoring last year and a lot of those points were second-half points. So we came into this year thinking that Jesse and Chris sort of had a relationship and played well together.

“They’ve picked up where they left off. It’s a combo that works pretty well together and J.C. has been a good complement there as well.”

Merrimack takes on its first Hockey East foe of the season in Vermont on Friday night. Can the Warriors keep the momentum going?

“I think there is a level of confidence going into the next game after you sweep a weekend,” Dennehy says. “But momentum in hockey shifts quickly. I don’t know how much of that lasts from a Saturday to a Friday.

“It’s a lot easier to come to the rink after you’ve won some games. So I think there will be a level of excitement and there will be a level of confidence, but I think the momentum will be established the first five minutes of the game.

“It’s important for us to focus on that and not dwell too much in the past.”

The 2-1 Friars

When Providence opened the season a couple weeks ago with a 2-1 win over Holy Cross, many (yours truly included) shrugged their shoulders and said, “Okay, but let’s see what you can do at Notre Dame.”

The trip to South Bend had “get swept” written all over it. The Fighting Irish, coming off a CCHA championship and a 31-6-3 record, were ranked seventh in the country. (They would also go on to visit Boston University two nights ago and win, 3-0.) By contrast, the Hockey East Coaches’ preseason poll pegged the Friars to finish next to last. Both Jim Connelly and I picked them for tenth.

Instead, Providence emerged with a very impressive split.

“I thought we played well both nights at Notre Dame,” PC coach Tim Army says. “It was nice to win on Thursday obviously, but I thought we also played well on Friday. We just didn’t capitalize on some chances that we had.

“They’ve got a very good team so it was another step in the process of watching our team evolve. We’re doing some things well and we’re doing some other things that we need to be doing better. That’s what we’ll work on in practice as we try to get better each day.”

Sophomore goaltender Alex Beaudry has played very well in all three games, posting a 1.68 goals-against average and a .948 save percentage. Admittedly, he also got off to a good start last year, jumping in mid-semester feet first with four games in nine days, only to tail off. But Army thinks that experience will work to Beaudry’s advantage.

“It was a lot for him to come in the way he did last year,” Army says. “I think it wore him down a little bit, but he still played some very good hockey even after that initial push he gave us. He struggled a little bit with his consistency because he started to get tired.

“But now he starts in September fresh with everybody. He’s got a semester under his belt. He knows the league. That allows him to find his rhythm.”

Beaudry certainly was a difference-maker in the win at South Bend. The Friars ran into early penalty trouble and had to weather the storm, getting outshot in the first period, 19-7. The Irish did put a power-play goal on the scoreboard, but went to the locker room merely tied, 1-1.

“There are always moments in a hockey game, no matter what the score is, when the opposition is going to have the better of the play,” Army says. “Your goaltender is always going to be the guy that’s going to guide you through those momentum shifts.

“Alex has done that very well in the first three games.”

Freshman Aaron Jamnick scored the game-winner late in the third period, always a good omen for a rookie. With him playing on a line with John Cavanagh and Matt Bergland, the top two returning scorers from last year, the game-winner won’t be Jamnick’s last.

“He’s a good skater, he’s strong on his feet, he’s a very intelligent player, he moves the puck well and he’s learning his assignments away from the puck,” Army says. “He had some opportunities in the first few games where he probably rushed a little bit. [With a] little more poise, he’s got the ability to make some plays and to take a little bit more time, to have a hurry-but-don’t-rush sort of mentality where he trusts himself to make those plays.

“I think each game his poise level has gotten better. He had a nice chance late in the game on Thursday and made good on it. He got the opportunity off quickly, but he got it off with purpose. So I think his game is evolving where he’s getting a little more self-trust. That’s the most important challenge for a freshman.”

This weekend, the Friars head back out to the Midwest for a two-game set at Bowling Green. That will give them five games under their belts before commencing league play, a stark departure from last season when they took on Northeastern without the benefit of so much as an Canadian exhibition game. Coincidentally or not, they lost that opener, 4-0, and went on to suffer through the program’s worst season in 23 years.

“The schedule kind of worked out that way this year because of our series with Notre Dame and Bowling Green,” Army says. “[But I also] wanted to play a few more non-league games because it gives you a chance to get your legs under you.

“We still have a young team. We only have three seniors playing regularly — John Cavanagh, Mark Fayne and Chris Eppich — so it lets us coaches watch our game evolve from a systems-advantage point as well as the chemistry between linemates and defensive pairs.

“It was good that we could frontload things and get some time to play some games before we got into our Hockey East schedule.”

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

I think Red Sox fans (and some writers) need to gain an appreciation for the term “small sample size.” Three games! Are there weaknesses that must be fixed? Yes. Is it difficult to see this team topping the Team From That City Which Must Not Be Named next year? Unfortunately, yes.

But Kevin Youkilis should not be included in the “old and slow” category simply because he went 1-for-12 in a three-game stretch. Youkilis is part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Jonathan Papelbon should not be thrown overboard because of one brutally bad blown save. (I mean, some of the viciousness has been outrageous. These are fans?) It’s happened to almost every top closer this postseason other than Mariano Rivera. Other than Rivera, is there a better closer in the American League?

And it’s about time people got off J.D. Drew’s back. Is he frustrating at times? Sure, but the same guy who’s been called “deadwood” by columnists and ranks as the fans’ number one whipping boy, ranked second in American League outfielders in OPS, behind only Jason Bay.

Hey, we really need to sign Bay or a reasonable facsimile thereof. (Duh!) We need to extend Victor Martinez’s contract. (Duh number two!) Adrian Gonzalez for the right price would be the perfect addition (Duh number three!), although I suspect the expected appointment of Jed Hoyer as the new San Diego general manager will make that all the more impossible.

All that said, I still like the pitching staff and the team’s young nucleus. Topping a team that can spend whatever it wants will be tough, though. It’ll be a fascinating offseason.

For now, Go Phillies!

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