This Week in Hockey East: Oct. 29, 2009

Terriers Make Much Needed Rebound

Could everyone hear that collective sigh of relief coming from Commonwealth Avenue on Saturday evening? That was the Boston University Terrier faithful breathing once again after the defending national champions earned their first win of the season, 3-2, over Michigan.

After opening the season with losses at Massachusetts two weekends ago and then falling at home last Tuesday, 3-0, to Notre Dame in a game where BU looked lethargic at best, one had to wonder how long it might be before the Terriers entered the win column.

That question was answered Saturday night as BU took a 2-0 lead over the Wolverines, let the lead slip away in the third period but eventually grabbed the victory when Joe Pereira scored with 2:31 remaining.

Coach Jack Parker was more than pleased to walk away with the victory, particularly given the fact that his club had manhandled a talented Michigan bunch for two periods.

“I thought it would’ve been a shame if we didn’t get some points out of this game the way we played for the first two periods,” Parker said. “I thought we played a pretty solid game in many areas but I think the best thing we did was we competed throughout the whole game. Even when we were exhausted, we were competing real hard.”

Things couldn’t just be simple, though, and a march to the penalty box in the third period allowed the Wolverines back in the game.

“We were self destructing with penalties in the third period,” Parker said.

Alas, though, things finally went the Terriers way, and as a reward they remained a top-five team in the national rankings (fourth in the USCHO.com/CBS College Sports poll), despite having a below .500 record at 1-2-0.

The upcoming weekend, though, will be yet another solid test for BU as they faceoff against Massachusetts-Lowell, a team many think will be a power in Hockey East this season. BU holds a lopsided 62-17-8 record over the River Hawks, including a perfect 4-0-0 mark a year ago. But never has BU faced a Lowell squad with such high expectations and one that is looking to avenge a 1-0 loss to the Terriers in last year’s Hockey East championship game.

When the Terriers take the ice, though, they’ll be without arguably their best offensive player in Nick Bonino, who was helped off the ice with a shoulder injury last Saturday night. Though Bonino’s long-term prognosis looks OK, he’ll be missing from the Terrier lineup in the short term.

“[Bonino’s] status is he dislocated his right shoulder, which is a whole lot better than a separation for us,” said Parker. “It popped out and by the time he got to the training room they got it back in again.

“It was the first time it’s happened to him which is good and bad. He’ll take a little bit longer to get back to the lineup but if you give it time to heal it might not happen again. If it starts popping out more than once, you need an operation.”

Cats Put in their Place

A little over a week ago, Vermont was flying high. Coming off a road victory over Denver and a 4-1 punishing at home of Boston College, the Catamounts had climbed to No. 7 in the USCHO.com/CBS College Sports poll and were poised to move to 3-1-0 on the season facing Merrimack, a perennial cellar dweller, last Friday night on the road.

Once the Catamounts scored 20 seconds into the game, things seemed well on their way for Vermont. Unfortunately, the players may have believed that the game was only a shift or two long as well.

Once Merrimack evened the game at the three-minute mark, it was all downhill for the Catamounts as they were absolutely manhandled for the final 57 minutes of the game by a hungry Merrimack team looking to prove their worth.

When the dust cleared, Vermont had dropped a 5-2 decision and was found after the game licking its wounds.

“Our best shifts were our first two of the game,” said coach Kevin Sneddon, who hoped for a fast start to the year to build on the momentum of the school’s second Frozen Four appearance a year ago. “From that point on Merrimack was the better team tonight, hands down. They won more puck battles. They won more races to the puck. They blocked shots. Their special teams was better. Their goaltending was better. We got beat by a better team. I can’t name a positive we had going other than those first two shifts.”

Glaring in the loss was the play of goaltender Rob Madore. A standout a year ago as a freshman, Madore has given up four or more goals in three of the first four games for Vermont and struggled at times on Friday night.

“I thought he was not great,” Sneddon said of Madore after the Merrimack loss.

Coaches always fear sophomore slumps for goaltenders and the fact that Madore has now allowed 14 goals in four games has to be somewhat disconcerting for Sneddon and his staff.

If there’s any good news for the Cats, it’s their upcoming opponent, Maine. The Black Bears have struggled to open the season as well, having dropped five of their first six, their only win coming at home against Michigan State.

Still, another dud road performance and Vermont could quickly find itself below .500 at a very early point in the season.

Huskies’ Road Bumpy at Season’s Start

While 2008-09 was a banner season in many ways for the Northeastern Huskies, a lack of postseason success certainly left coach Greg Cronin and his squad longing for more.

Achieving that “more” though would be a challenge, or so it seemed prior to the season. The Huskies lost Hobey Baker finalist and Hockey East player of the year goaltender Brad Thiessen to the NHL and graduated a class that included two solid blueliners in Louis Liotti and Denis Chisholm.

But Northeastern also returned five 20-point scorers from a year ago including leading scorer Wade MacLeod and freshman standout Steve Quailer. So the preseason thought was solidfy the defense, break in a rookie goaltender and see how things go.

That plan, though, has seemingly derailed. The team has been bit by the injury bug early in the season, Quailer among those currently out of the lineup.

Those struggles translated to the scoresheet last weekend when the Huskies dropped games to New Hampshire and Lowell, the first time the team has lost back-to-back games in a single weekend since the end of the 2007-08 season.

In the losses, the most glaring deficiency for the Huskies was offense. NU fell behind UNH, 3-0, before scrapping for two third-period goals in a 4-2 loss. Same story a night later at Lowell as the River Hawks grabbed a 2-0 lead before NU scored its lone goal on the power play in a 3-1 Huskies loss.

“It’s been an offensively challenged team,” said Cronin. “We have some pretty good players not in the lineup and people playing roles they shouldn’t be. When you go into the season you have a plan but then when the plan changes you have to be a little more patient and let the plan come together.

“We’ve got to find out, out of this mix, how to get the pieces together so there’s a little more rhythm to our game offensively. I think that’s going to take time.”

If there was a silver lining to the weekend, it was the play of rookie goaltender Chris Rawlings. Though Cronin felt he gave up one soft goal on Friday night, he was solid throughout the game on Saturday and is showing signs of being a true talent between the pipes.

“He’s so big and he’s getting better and better every week,” Cronin said. “The knock on him was that he gets a little antsy early and then settles into a grove. He’s an elite goalie and I think he’s starting to prove that now.”

Egg on My Face?

Okay, I’ll admit that I totally wrote off Providence preseason. But regardless of what you feel the ability may be of Bowling Green, the Friars’ sweep on the road last week by scores of 8-2 and 3-1 was impressive.

Yes, they were picked 10th in my preseason poll. And, though I’ll admit I still have strong doubts about how the Friars will do in non-league play, I’m still not sold on the fact that they’ll make the playoffs.

Will I end up with egg on my face come season’s end? Quite possibly. At this point, the results to date make it seem certain.

Muse’s Quick Return Sparking Eagles

Last month at Hockey East media day, Boston College head coach Jerry York seemed like the face of gloom and doom. York talked of his No. 1 goaltender, John Muse, who underwent hip surgery in the offseason.

At the time, he said that the surgery ended up being more severe in scope than originally expected and that Muse spent more time on crutches recovering than hoped.

That was near the end of September and, as of that day, Muse hadn’t skated, according to York.

Thus, BC was about to embark on a season in a way they had not in years: without a pure starting goaltender. Even in Muse’s freshman season of 2007-08, York knew he had something special and felt goaltending wasn’t an issue. That proved to be true when Muse carried the club to a national championship.

But this season, York prognosticated that things could be troublesome in the nets. It was believed that Parker Milner, a late recruit to BC this summer after Muse’s surgery went forward, would have to start the season as the No. 1 goaltender.

When BC took the ice for its first exhibition game, though, on Oct. 4, Muse led the team to the ice. He played a full period in the game and stopped five of the six shots he faced.

Certainly good news for Eagles fans. It got better two weeks later when BC opened the season at Vermont. Muse played all 60 minutes of that game, though he dropped a 4-1 decision.

From afar, it was easy to maybe second guess: Was Muse back too soon? Was he ready to be the No. 1 goaltender? Two seasons ago, giving up four goals was a rarity. It happened just seven times.

But last Friday night, Muse proved his bench boss wise with an impressive 20-save performance in a 3-2 road victory over Notre Dame.

“I thought John played very well at Notre Dame against a very good hockey team,” said York. “His composure was good.”

Asked if Muse’ hip is proving to be any bit of a hindrance, York says no.

“I felt like his hip was no problem for him,” said York. “Every day in practice he says he feels a little bit better. He’s definitely becoming more flexible. He was one of the reasons we were able to win that game. He’s recovering even faster than we thought he would be.”

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

As a UMass-Lowell alum and former member of their hockey staff, I had great pleasure on Saturday to attend their annual Hockey Hall of Honor induction ceremony. This is the second year of the event. In year one, there was just a single inductee, coach Bill Riley, who is considered the father of hockey at Lowell.

This year, they inducted 10 players from all generations starting in the mid-60s right through the most recent graduate, my classmate Jeff Daw, class of 1996. Among those honored were well-known NHLers Craig MacTavish (Lowell’s only Stanley Cup winner) and all-American goaltender Dwayne Roloson.

Why am I talking about this in the “throw away” section at the end of the column? Read on.

One of the great parts of the day was seeing some past classmates who played at Lowell during my seven seasons with the program. Among them was Craig Brown, a sub-6-foot forward who played at Lowell from 1996 through 2000 and potted 26 points in 86 games over four seasons.

As the day wore on and the cocktails began flowing, conversation turned to next year’s Hall of Honor class. A former teammate of Brown’s, Kevin Kotyluk, said that of anyone from his era, Brown deserved entry into the Hall. Brown, as Kotyluk put it, was one of only two finalists for a major award in Lowell’s history: Dwayne Roloson was a runner-up for the Hobey Baker award in 1996; Brown was a runner-up for the Hockey Humanitarian Award in 2000. It generated a chuckle from those listening but by night’s end had become almost the stumping ground for the group, now charged a bit by “tonic water.”

Suddenly, yours truly got brought into the mix as Kotyluk said, “C’mon, can’t you write something in your column to support this?”

So here’s to you boys. Let me be the first to publicly support Craig Brown’s candidacy for UMass-Lowell’s Hockey Hall of Honor in 2010. And if you don’t get in, may you be named MVP of your over-30 men’s league this season!

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