This Week in Hockey East: Nov. 5, 2009

More Tightly Packed Than Ever?

Hockey East has gotten off to a sluggish (at best) start against the other conferences. A 16-14-1 record doesn’t appear all that bad at first glance, but once you get past the 5-0 record against upstart Atlantic Hockey, the results are decidedly underwhelming: 3-3 against the ECACHL, 6-5-1 versus the CCHA and an ugly 2-6 against the WCHA.

Admittedly, only two teams have losing records out of conference: Maine (1-3) and New Hampshire (0-4-1). UNH’s performance has been particularly schizoid. The Wildcats are Hockey East’s only undefeated team in league play (2-0), but have taken it on the chin worse than anyone else against the other leagues. Those results can probably be explained only by the quality of the nonconference opponents (two games each against top-ranked Miami and No. 18 Wisconsin) and the unreliability of small sample sizes.

Even so, as a local sports legend once said, it is what it is. The league will have its work cut out for it during the holiday tournaments if NCAA tournament bids are to be expected in abundance.

All that said, the Hockey East standings may be more tightly packed from top to bottom than ever before. The league has long boasted, and rightfully so, of this top-to-bottom strength and it may have more to boast about than usual this season in that respect, at least based on the first few weeks.

Merrimack and Providence, the two teams projected to finish out of the playoffs, are collectively a game over .500 within Hockey East and five games over .500 overall. Massachusetts sits atop Hockey East after being pegged for seventh.

The teams with losing league records make the case even stronger: Boston College (1-2), Boston University (1-2), Maine (1-2), Vermont (1-2) and Northeastern (0-2). Three of those five qualified for the NCAA tournament last year, with BU and UVM squaring off in the national semifinal game. This weekend or the next may be the last that some of these teams spend under .500.

As a result, the Hockey East standings may well be compressed like never before.

“I think you see some coaching staffs that are more familiar with the league,” Massachusetts-Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald explains. “They’ve been around for four or five years and now they’ve really been able to cement their philosophies [within their programs].

“You can see our league’s level of prestige nationally and how it allows everybody to recruit at a higher level. So the talent [is greater] top-to-bottom.

“There are also some teams in our league that have [a significant] home-ice advantage regardless of their talent. As long as you play half your games at home, you’ve got a chance to win some games.

“All those factors figure in. It’s just a question of who can sustain things and show consistency [week in and week out].”

No Problems With The Bull’s-eye

When this year’s preseason coaches’ poll picked Lowell to finish second, it evoked memories of past programs that hadn’t faced high expectations year in and year out and withered beneath the weight of suddenly being thrown into the limelight.

Not Ready For Prime Time Players, if you will.

Would the River Hawks fall into that trap? Before the season started, MacDonald scoffed at the prospect.

“I’ve been on teams before that [a poll like that] might have caused a little bit of shriveling — ‘Oh my gosh, now we’ve got to play up to these expectations,'” he said.

“It depends on the makeup of your team, but it’s a non-factor for us. This team is very, very focused and has tremendous leadership. Mature and confident.

“We have a team that played well in the Garden last year, but [after we lost in the championship game] it wasn’t like, ‘Wow!’ It was disappointment. When we beat Vermont [to get to the Garden], it was a good accomplishment but for our team it was, ‘What’s next?’

“It’s a cliché, but you can sense it when you’re around our team. Nobody could possibly set higher standards for our team than the players have for themselves.”

Based on the early going, MacDonald knew whereof he spoke. Of the teams projected to earn home ice, only Lowell has jumped out with a winning overall record. Last weekend, after losing a heartbreaker in overtime to BU, the River Hawks rebounded on the road with a 3-2 win to salvage a split in the home-and-home series.

“That was an impressive victory by our team,” MacDonald said after the game. “I give our team a lot of credit. Emotionally, that was a difficult game to swallow last night [but] good teams always bounce back.

“And then when you equate the fact that we’re playing a great BU team on the road, that’s a real credit and testimony to the mental toughness of our team. Winning on the road is huge in this league.”

Days later, MacDonald revisited the theme of his team playing with bull’s-eyes on their jerseys.

“We’re so acutely aware of what we need to do and who we are and how we’re going to get to where we want to be that it’s all about us as opposed to other external things such as peoples’ opinion of us, other teams’ opinion of us, and where we are with respect to everybody,” he said. “We just go about our business.

“I like a lot about our team in terms of our commitment — how we conduct our business on a daily basis. [But] I think we need to, and can, play a lot better than we have. We’re just too inconsistent to be able to reach our standard of excellence. …

“I think this team has a lot of potential to get better. We’re playing OK. I say that because this [past] weekend our best players were freshmen and sophomores. I see them almost every day getting better and they’re going to give us a good dimension for our team.”

Given that Lowell has one of the most veteran teams in the country, that assessment of his underclassmen is a stunning one.

“First of all, the reason that our younger players are playing well is because they’ve been taught by our veterans,” MacDonald said. “They’ve done a great job leading our freshmen and sophomores to a place where they feel confident to contribute and they understand how to really prepare emotionally for when they come to play.

“I thought this past weekend we had a line of Matt Ferreira, who’s a sophomore and Riley Wetmore, who’s a freshman, and Colin Wright, who’s a freshman, and they impacted the games all weekend. On Friday, David Vallorani, Michael Budd, and Mike Scheu had an unbelievable night and a pretty good Saturday night. They’re all sophomores.

“Those are some guys that are really important players for us with a terrific amount of drive.”

As a result, the River Hawk scoring is about nicely distributed as possible (two players with six points, four with five, and another four with three or four points).

“One of our strengths going into the season was that we had good quality depth in a lot of areas,” MacDonald said.

That depth will be challenged as defenseman Barry Goers has been lost for a while to injury. Tim Corcoran filled in on Saturday. MacDonald sees the group as one that hasn’t yet played to its full potential.

“We have what we feel are six defensemen that [make up] a really dominant D-corps,” he said. “That unit can play better, but for them to play better we need better back pressure from our forwards. But I think our defensemen have some room for improvement as a unit.”

Are the River Hawks on track for a successful season? BU coach Jack Parker sure thinks so.

“I like that team,” he said after losing to them on Saturday night. “They’ll be a home-ice advantage team in our league. There’s no question in my mind.”

Maine Rebounds

A week ago, the Maine Black Bears had just lost to New Hampshire, 5-2, dropping their record to 1-5 overall and 0-2 within Hockey East. On tap were four games against teams that played in the NCAA tournament last year (Vermont, BU, and two at Northeastern), followed by three against projected home ice teams (two against Boston College and one at Lowell).

On the surface, two words might have come to mind: Long Season.

However, after an impressive 4-1 win over Vermont, Black Bear fans have more reason for optimism. They’re more likely to recall the split with 17th-ranked Michigan State, an impressive achievement in its own right that was threatening to become overlooked in light of the 1-5 record.

“We’ve made some progress,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead says. “We have a long way to go but certainly the games against Michigan State and Vermont were a good step for us.”

Glass-half-empty fans will note that Maine has yet to win a game on the road. Glass-half-fullers will retort that the Black Bears are now 2-1 at home and perhaps moving back to the old days of Alfond Arena dominance.

“That’s definitely very important for us,” Whitehead says. “For many years there was such a strong home ice advantage here. We’ve lost some of that the last couple years. A big part of us establishing ourselves as a legitimate program and a contender will be to reestablish our home-ice advantage.

“Having said that, we obviously need to improve on how we perform on the road.”

Special teams proved decisive in the win over Vermont. The Black Bears scored three power-play goals, killed off all five of their penalties and added a goal while shorthanded. Their power play now ranks second in the league, converting at 27.7 percent rate. The weekend improved the PK’s standing to eighth (76.5 percent).

“The power play has certainly been a bright spot for us so far this year,” Whitehead says. “It’s been very consistent and we’ve created a lot of offense off it.

“Our penalty kill has not been very strong so we’ve spent a lot of time on it. It was just one game, but [killing] 5-for-5 with the shorthanded goal gives us the confidence that we can continue to improve in that area. So that was an even bigger step for us than the power-play goals.”

Defense in general, and not just on the penalty kill, has been a focus after starting out as Hockey East’s worst defensive team. Even after holding Vermont to a single goal, Maine still ranks last at 4.14 goals against per game.

“We’re focusing on giving our goalies a better opportunity to succeed by eliminating quality scoring chances and eliminating second shots,” Whitehead says. “I think that will allow Scott [Darling] and our other goalies to gain more confidence and start having more success.

“Scott played fabulous against Vermont. He really lifted up our team and gave us a great opportunity to win. He was the catalyst and that was a big step for our team.

“In the meantime, we need to help him play more consistently at a high level. We’re working very hard on our same-zone defense, the net front in particular where we’ve allowed some second shots and some back-door passes. We’re spending a lot of time in practice on that so we can get out from the bottom of the league in that category and help our goalies gain the confidence they need to play at their best.”

Freshmen aren’t often the keys to a team’s power play — “Hey, wait your turn, rookie!” — but that’s not the case for Maine. Adam Shemansky earned a share of league Rookie of the Week honors with his two man-advantage goals against Vermont. In seven games, he’s now scored five goals, four on the power play, and added two assists. Not bad for a kid who is only 5-7 and 160 pounds.

“Even for us, Adam has been a bit of a pleasant surprise,” Whitehead says. “We recruited him so obviously we saw a lot of potential there, but I’m a little surprised that he’s got a point a game at this point in the season. I’m very excited for Adam.

“As a smaller-sized player growing up, he’s had to earn everything that he’s gotten. So I’m very confident that with his attitude he’s going to continue to get better and this is just the tip of the iceberg for him.”

Shemansky isn’t the only shining light among Maine’s younger players. In fact, the top four Black Bear scorers are freshman or sophomores and the top 10 includes only one senior.

“No doubt, we feel we’ve had a couple strong recruiting classes here, making up for some lost time due to some pro signings and a couple of mistakes we made recruiting,” Whitehead says. “It’s helped us a lot and we’re really excited about the new players.

“The second part of that is that the players that are returning have made a stronger commitment to come back in great shape. We’ve seen some real big improvement in some of our juniors and seniors that we felt had been underachieving a little bit.

“You see guys like [seniors] David de Kastrozza and Kevin Swallow who have emerged this year as legitimate impact players for us. Their hard work has paid off. So that’s just as exciting of a development as the top players coming in.”

On The Importance of Faceoffs

At the level teams play at within Hockey East, subtle advantages often become magnified into the difference between wins and losses. Such may have been the case in Lowell’s 3-2 win over BU. Over the first two periods, the River Hawks dominated faceoffs, winning 85 percent of them.

“There’s probably about 70 faceoffs a game so if you can win a lot of those you’re playing offense, which is our goal,” UML’s MacDonald said. “That gives you some real positive rhythm to your game. But it takes five guys on the same page to win faceoffs.”

BU’s Parker rued his own team’s “horrendous” performance in the oft-overlooked area.

“When you win faceoffs, you get shots on net and you get absolute puck possession,” he said. “You demoralize a power play when you’re on the penalty kill because you win the faceoff and ice it. And when you’re on the power play, you keep it in the zone and you get a chance to play off your power play without having to go back and bring it up.”

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

This past Tuesday was the official release date of The Trouble With Heroes, an anthology of original stories looking at “the other side” of mythical and historical heroes. Some big names contributed to this book along with little old me. I really like my own snarky story, “Beloved.” If you read the opening, I think you’ll buy the book.

Here’s the official description:

These 22 all-new tales pay tribute to the true heroes — the people who enable and put up with heroes. From what it’s like to be Hercules’ wife (complete with an appearance by Hercules in drag) to the trials of H.P. Lovecraft’s housekeeper, from the perils of being King Kong’s girlfriend to the downside of dating a shapeshifter, this anthology turns heroism on its head, revealing the behind-the-scenes drama, as opposed to glorious rescues. From the Pied Piper’s power trip to David acting like a giant you-know-what after slaying Goliath, these stories show heroes in all their ignominy and shine a light on the unsung faithful standing in their shadows.

For your information, I’m the David-and-Goliath guy. You’ll laugh at least once. Trust me.

Check it out in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section (perhaps under new releases) under the editor’s name, Denise Little. Or order it through Amazon or any other online bookstore.


Thanks to Scott Weighart.

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