Up Is Down And Down Is Up
It’s enough to make you cue up Diana Ross singing “Upside Down.”
(I’m not going to infringe on the copyright of songwriters Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards by adding anything more than, “inside out and round and round.” Got the tune in your head now? OK, let’s roll.)
While the season is still young, its topsy turvy nature has led to a number of anomalies.
• Defending national champion Boston University is in last place, 1-4 within the league.
• The two Massachusetts state schools are atop Hockey East (Lowell at 3-1-1 and UMass at 3-1-0) an awfully short time after some questioned whether the two programs should be combined so they could be more competitive. (Of course, the phrase “programs combined” was nothing more than a euphemism for blowing up Lowell and its proud history.)
• Nine of the 10 league teams earned votes in last week’s USCHO.com/CBS College Sports Division I Men’s Poll. The lone holdout? Maine. Go back a couple years, and imagine the odds you’d have gotten on that one.
• Merrimack, picked to finish last, got more votes in the poll than New Hampshire.
• BU is tied for last in the league (with Northeastern) for overall offense.
• UNH is last in the league for overall defense and penalty kill.
Inside out and round and round …
On the one hand, UNH’s 2-1-1 league record puts the Wildcats in a tie for third place, just two points out of first with a game in hand. On the other hand, their 2-5-2 overall mark is the slowest start in coach Dick Umile’s 20 years.
It’s been a roller coaster season so far for UNH. The team has shown its customary firepower, exploding for five goals in eight minutes against Miami, the consensus No. 1 team in the country. Last Friday, the Wildcats stunned Boston College with three third-period goals to force overtime, an extra session in which they almost pulled out the win.
Those heights, however, are more than matched by the depths of a weekend double-shellacking at Wisconsin and last weekend’s failure to get more than one point (the comeback point against BC) in two admittedly tough league games, the latter against fifth-ranked Lowell.
Which version of the Wildcats will show up this weekend?
“That’s exactly how we’ve felt,” Umile says. “We’ve been inconsistent. We’ve been making improvements and just as we make the improvements in our five-on-five game, we get penalties and [lose on the penalty kill].
“I consider Lowell to be a pretty good team, especially down there, and I thought we played well this past weekend for two periods. Then in the third period we came out and got penalties and made it very difficult for ourselves. They put us away a couple of times on the power play. There were penalties and a couple of mental mistakes on our part that cost us the game.”
The statistic for the weekend that leaps out at you is the UNH penalty kill. BC went 4-for-5 on the power play and spent the fifth opportunity in the offensive zone for virtually the entire two minutes. In fairness, a defender had lost his stick, making the needed clearing play all the more difficult. Additionally, three of the four power-play goals came from the point, one a deflection off a UNH stick.
But it didn’t get much better against Lowell, where the Wildcat PK allowed three goals in six opportunities.
Getting a single point out of a weekend in which the PK allowed a 7-for-11 conversion rate borders on the miraculous.
“You have to evaluate how they went in,” Umile says. “Most of them were scored from outside with a couple of deflections. They got the puck out to the point, got shots off, and there were screens.
“So I don’t know if it was fundamentals as much as us not getting in shot lanes and the other team executing. It’s hard to say.
“We’re obviously not playing great in special situations. We allowed seven power-play goals [last weekend]. It happened, it was disappointing and it cost us games.”
In large part because of the penalty kill struggles, UNH ranks last in Hockey East in overall defense, allowing an average of 4.22 goals per game. That’s over a goal per game allowed more than every other Hockey East team but one (Maine at 3.88).
Brian Foster, an All-Hockey East team runner-up last year while posting a 2.68 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage, has seen his numbers plummet to 4.19 and .871. However, Umile is quick to defend his goaltender.
“If you were to look at Brian Foster’s numbers, [you’d say that] they’re not good,” Umile says. “But he played well against Miami when we lost. He played well against Wisconsin. So I don’t know if those numbers really equate to what kind of goaltender he is.
“PK has been a big part of it. The percentage against us is not good. We struggled early on with team defense at Wisconsin.
“I think we’ve made improvements. Hopefully we’re getting better and we’ll just have to continue to look ahead and play each week and start over again. That’s how were going to approach it.”
At least the firepower up front remains.
“Offensively, we’ll be able to score,” Umile says. “Hopefully we’ll be able to score more often by playing better defense. I thought we played better team defense, especially five-on-five against Lowell.
“We just need to improve in that area. There’s no question.”
Given the slow start overall, this weekend looms large with two games at UMass. A strong showing will push the 0-4-1 nonconference record into the background as the Wildcats take their accustomed place at or near the top of the standings. However, UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon will have his boys prepared to make a statement themselves.
“I know that Donnie has got his team playing well,” Umile says. “They’re very good in specialty situations so we’ll have to pay attention there.
“It’s going to be a battle all year long. This weekend its UMass; next weekend it’s BU. So you just have to pay attention to your next game and continue to improve. That’s where our focus is right now.”
Vermont got off to a good enough start with a split at Denver and a 4-1 win over BC, but lopsided losses at Merrimack and Maine raised a few eyebrows. The Catamounts had been projected to finish well ahead of both teams and the 5-2 and 4-1 scores made matters even worse.
Last weekend, however, the Vermont team most people expected to see this year showed up. It battled back to earn a hard-fought 3-3 tie with fifth-ranked Lowell, then shut out Providence, which had entered the contest 5-2-0.
“They played really well,” UML coach Blaise MacDonald said after the tie. “They kept us disjointed for most of the game. I would say it was a very disappointing game for us and I think you have to credit UVM for making us play that way.”
From the other locker room, Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon waxed effusive in praise for his team.
“I’m not going to go negative tonight at all,” he said. “I don’t think our penalties [early that led to two Lowell power-play goals] were anything other than playing aggressive.”
“I just love the way our team played tonight. You can look at the result and say it’s not a win but if we play like that the rest of the year, we’re going to be a tough team.
“We played 65 of the hardest minutes we’ve played all year. As a coach, that’s what we’re trying to get out of our guys. We played a very good team and I thought we played very well against them.
“We certainly made mistakes, but we didn’t have any letdown moments, even down, 3-1. We fought our way back to make it 3-3, and we had some great chances to win the game.”
Sneddon spoke similar words two days later after the Catamounts shut out Providence, 3-0.
“I thought we gave it our all for 60 minutes,” he said. “We were excellent for two periods but a real intense effort for 60 minutes again. [It was a] very complete weekend for us obviously against two good teams.
“[We played] defensively some of our best hockey. We made the most of our opportunities.”
One obvious difference in the weekend lineup was Justin Milo, who returned from injury to play his first games of the season. And what a return. The senior scored a goal and added an assist against Lowell, then scored two goals against Providence.
“The thing we love about Justin is he loves to shoot the puck,” Sneddon said. “Most players nowadays want to pass first, then their second thought is to shoot. He knows what his job is. He knows what his role is, and that’s to get pucks going to the net.
“He’s a very special athlete. To play in a high-tempo game like [the one against Lowell] without much practice or conditioning just speaks volumes for what kind of athlete he really is.”
The Catamounts now must take their success on the road for two games at Boston College.
“I think we’ve got our confidence back,” Sneddon said. “Our guys are understanding their roles better now than ever before having gone through some adversity.
“We’ve got to take our energy and the way we played this weekend at Gutterson and play that way on the road. That’ll be our challenge.”
Thanks to Diana Giunta.