This Week in Hockey East: Nov. 25, 2009

From the Penthouse to the Outhouse

Boston University fans lived charmed lives last season, watching their Terriers win championship after championship, including the big enchilada in dramatic fashion.

So far this year, however, those fans are paying for it. After finishing in every first place possible one season ago, the Terriers now find themselves in last place within Hockey East. Technically, they share that position with Providence, which also has a mere five points, but there’s a key difference. The Friars hold three games in hand over BU.

In fact, every team in the league except for Boston College (currently tied for first place) holds at least one game in hand over BU. Providence and Merrimack hold three such games and the two Massachusetts state schools hold two.

There are holes teams dig themselves into. And then there are HOLES.

BU, at 2-6-1 in the league and 4-7-1 overall, is in the latter.

“We’ve already buried ourselves pretty far in the standings,” BU coach Jack Parker said recently. “We’ve got to put more than a few games together to get out of where we’re at. We’ve really put ourselves in hole here as far as Hockey East and everything else is concerned.”

Arguably, the preseason pick for BU to repeat as Hockey East champions failed to sufficiently account for the graduations and early pro signings from last season’s title winners. You don’t lose Matt Gilroy, Brian Strait, and your entire top two lines except for Nick Bonino — that’s a total of 258 points as well as two stellar defensive blueliners — without taking a step back.

Still, the thought was that as a perennial powerhouse, BU would do what perennial powerhouses always do: have youngsters ready to fill the void and recruit more youngsters to keep that pipeline going.

What has gone wrong?

Some slow starts. One-goal losses. And injuries and illness up the wazoo, most notably to key players like Bonino, Chris Connolly and David Warsofsky.

“For us to be preseason favorite in the league was a bit of a stretch considering what we lost,” Parker said. “That was some polish from the national championship last year. We started off with some of our key guys not playing well early and then we got all the injuries. The injuries really made a mess out of it for a while for us. We had guys out with the flu and guys out with [injuries].

“What goes around comes around. I think last year Strait missed five games and [Chris] Higgins missed four or maybe five. I don’t remember too many others. This year was a mess [in terms of missed games] right off the bat.

“The good part about it is, if we can keep our head above water while we get everybody back [and in playing shape], we’ve had some guys who’ve had to step up and play different positions. [They] might not have had the opportunity if everyone was playing.

“I certainly don’t like the way that we’re so buried in the league, but at the same time it’s given us a chance to see some guys we wouldn’t have gotten to see.”

In many ways, the freshmen have been the least of BU’s problems. As a group, they’ve played well and proven that they deserve more playing time. The problem has been with the holdovers from last year’s national championship. Whether due to injury, illness, or a lack of focus, the group collectively hasn’t delivered as expected.

Last weekend’s disappointing home-and-home series with UNH was a case in point. Both teams entered the Friday night game with similar and uncharacteristic records: UNH at 3-6-2 and BU at 3-6-0. UNH, however, had won its games in Hockey East while going winless out of conference, and as a result, was within striking distance of first place, a distance the Wildcats closed with a 4-2 win.

BU, by contrast, entered the weekend in ninth place with a 2-5-0 record, and promptly dropped to 2-6-0.

In the third period on Friday, UNH played Roadrunner to BU’s Coyote.

“It thought we played OK in the beginning, pretty well in the second, and ran out of gas in the third,” Parker said. “The difference in the speed of the game between BU and UNH in the third period was like night and day.

“I was disappointed with how un-thorough we were and how slow we looked as the game progressed. We turned pucks over at blue lines. We had opportunities to make some plays and fumbled them. We were forcing pucks and just hanging on too long sometimes. Eighty percent of our forwards had tough nights.

“UNH outbattled us. All in all, not a good showing.”

Earlier in the season, after Bonino went out, the team struggled with faceoffs, losing 85 percent of them over the first two periods in a loss to Lowell. Against UNH on Friday, the percentages shifted into BU’s favor, but UNH capitalized at the right time, scoring two crucial faceoff goals.

“We’ve been very good at faceoffs lately,” Parker said after the loss. “In fact, one guy was 13-for-17, one guy was 14-for-16, one guy was 5-for-9 and one guy was 11-for-17.

“But we lost a couple of them that were absolutely brutal. It looked like the referee threw it back to [the UNH shooter].”

The power play, which has been middle-of-the-road all year when it was expected to be great, struggled.

“We can’t seem to recognize that when people are taking away [Kevin] Shattenkirk and [Colby] Cohen on the point on the power play, we’ve got to get the puck down low,” Parker said. “We keep forcing it up top and we’re playing 3-on-3 up top instead of 3-on-1 down low. We’re not doing a good job on our power-play recognition as well as not moving the puck.

“It’s not because of Shattenkirk and Cohen. They had all kinds of pressure on them and made great plays with guys all over them at the blue line.”

Worst of all, the Terriers continued a bad trend of taking critical penalties while already a man down. In Friday’s pivotal game, a two-man disadvantage led to the game winner.

“It’s a pathetic problem,” Parker said. “They don’t get the message. It’s not that important to them to fight hard and be tenacious without being stupid.”

One night later, BU sorely needed to rebound and at least hold serve back at Agganis Arena. You want more when you’re in ninth place, but once you lose the opening game, holding serve becomes mandatory.

The good news was that the Terriers played much better, a very encouraging sign; the bad news was that they managed only a tie, giving them only a single point on the weekend.

“The difference between last night’s game and tonight’s for both teams was like night and day,” Parker said. “I thought both teams played really well tonight. I think we needed the win more than they did, so they’re probably really happy to get three points on the weekend. We only got one, so that really hurts us. That was the only negative thing about the game for me.”

BU’s record stood at 3-7-1 overall and 2-6-1 in Hockey East. The Terriers remained in ninth place and would get caught by Providence three days later.

Ninth place?

For a team picked, perhaps optimistically, to finish first, but seemingly a rock solid pick to at least take home ice?

Ninth place about to become last?

“You get what you deserve,” Parker said. “I think our record is indicative of who we are at this point. It wasn’t as if there were many nights when we dominated teams and couldn’t get a ‘W’ or our goalie stunk and we didn’t get a ‘W’.

“There were many nights where guys just didn’t show up [and] play hard enough. We’ve played a lot of 3-2 games, games we were in, but we weren’t nearly as competitive [as we needed to be.] We’ve played two 60-minute competitive games this year, and how many have we played overall? Eleven?

“We played very, very well over at Northeastern from start to finish [in a 1-0 loss back on Nov. 6]. I thought that was our best game of the year. We dominated the game up and down the ice but couldn’t put it by the goaltender. Tonight, I thought we played really well.”

Progress, but not enough points.

On Tuesday, the Terriers faced Harvard in their traditional pre-Thanksgiving matchup. With no impact on the Hockey East standngs at stake, however, the contest hardly seemed like a potential turning point.

Instead, we may all look back on BU’s thrilling win as the point where the Terriers, having bottomed out, turned their season around. Reminding some of their stunning comeback over Miami in last year’s national championship game, they rallied to tie the game with 19.5 seconds left on a Zach Cohen goal and won it at 2:42 of overtime with Connolly’s game-winner.

Even though the win — a huge boost to the team’s psyche — did nothing for BU’s position in the Hockey East standings, the manner in which the Terriers played gave reason for great optimism. Those players who’d been injured or sick with the flu that had run rampant in the BU locker room showed a return to form. They’d gotten their legs back.

Even more importantly, the team’s focus was as intense as in that previous season-best game, the 1-0 loss to Northeastern.

“I was looking for a ‘W,’ obviously, but I was more interested in our intensity, how fast we’d play and how smart we’d play,” Parker said. “We had speed and smarts tonight, that’s for sure.

“This is the best game we’ve had since the Northeastern game. We were pretty good against UNH [on Saturday] but we weren’t anywhere near as intense and as thorough as we were tonight. Against Northeastern we played great and we lost 1-0. On this night we played really well and we won.

“The team made us [coaches] feel a lot better about focusing and ‘getting real’ here. Because we haven’t been ready to play a lot of games or made the effort we have to make to win games.

“Attitude is everything and our attitude hasn’t been real good. Our attitude was fabulous tonight. Before the game, you could tell this team was ready to play.”

A brief upturn? Or the start of a steep climb after bottoming out?

Don’t bet against the Terriers.

The First-Place Wildcats

A couple weeks ago, New Hampshire’s fate, at least on the surface, didn’t look so promising. The Wildcats’ overall record had just fallen to 2-6-2 after an agonizing loss to UMass, one in which the Minutemen scored with 11 seconds remaining to force overtime and then got the game-winner two minutes later.

The shift for UNH from two sure points to zero … bupkiss … a goose egg … was like a fist to the gut. The Wildcats had really needed those points.

Three games later, however, UNH now holds a share of first place in Hockey East with its 4-2-2 league record. A win over Massachusetts to salvage a split of their home-and-home series followed by taking three of four points from BU has made a huge difference.

In the what-if category, Wildcat fans can now rightfully point out that their boys are just 11 seconds away from having a dominating 5-1-2 record in Hockey East. So much for the ulcers that were developing in the Granite State while UNH went through its 0-4-1 stretch, dropping to 2-6-2. With five league points in the last three league games, all is well.

Especially since three of those came over a rival as tough as BU has been in recent years.

“We’ve been looking to play a 60-minute game and I thought we played one tonight from start to finish,” UNH coach Dick Umile said after the Friday night win. “We had good speed and quickness and specialty teams. We had some power play [goals] and killed penalties. A good team effort. We’re playing much better defensively.”

The rematch at BU on Saturday probably served justice in that it ended as a tie, but left both teams wishing they’d grabbed the extra point.

“There was pretty good action going back and forth, and both teams had a chance to win it,” Umile said. “I told my team that they competed hard, and we’ll take three points for the weekend and move on.”

Admittedly, UNH’s overall record remains below .500 (4-6-3), but that’s based on going 0-4-1 against nonconference foes with a collective 23-10-6 record, most notably two games (a win and a tie) against top-ranked Miami and two more at No. 15 Wisconsin (a weekend to forget).

“It’s been a crazy season,” Umile said. “We’ve played a tough schedule non-league, but it makes you a better team. We got our butts kicked out in Wisconsin. We played well against Miami and we opened our season at RPI and they’re obviously a good team.

“It all adds up to us getting better as a team. It’s early. We have a long way to go.”

UNH has tightened up its defensive play overall and has dramatically improved its penalty kill. After opening November with a brutal weekend in which BC went 4-for-5 on the power play and Lowell followed that with a 3-for-6 performance, the Wildcats held opposing power plays scoreless until BU’s third-period strike broke a streak that had reached nine chances over four games.

“We didn’t kill off many in the BC game so there was nowhere to go but up,” Umile said with uncharacteristic wryness. “We had to be better after that performance.

“But we’re doing a good job with it.

Junior forward Paul Thompson added: “Special teams are a huge part of the game now. If we’re scoring power-play goals and the penalty kill is doing the job, we’re going to be on the top of most games.”

And as always, the Wildcats can score, often in bunches.

“I think they’re the best initial-rush team in our league,” BU’s Parker said. “They’re really good speed-wise coming through center ice; they really put a lot of pressure on you. They don’t dominate you down low like other teams can, but they can really get opportunities on the initial rush.”

The Trouble With Heroes

Don’t forget to check out The Trouble With Heroes, an anthology of original stories looking at “the other side” of mythical and historical heroes. My own snarky story, “Beloved,” has garnered some kind words:

“Out of everything of yours that I’ve read, this is my favorite.”

and…

“It’s a great short story!”

and

“Now that I’ve read the opening, I’ve got to keep going.”

(Not all of those quotes come from family members.) And of course, observing a reader’s laughter speaks even louder volumes.

Check out the book 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.

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

While waiting for Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez to return their respective trophies for Coach of the Year and Rookie of the Year (bestowed by the New York media after two weeks), let’s look at the Patriots’ fourth-and-2 call.

I loved it even though it didn’t work. If faced with the same choice in the game to decide who’s going to the Super Bowl, I hope Bill Belichick makes the same call. I’m a percentages guy and I thought the Pats’ defense stood little chance of stopping Peyton Manning. Putting the game in Tom Brady’s hands gave New England the best chance of winning.

Or didn’t you hear what Manning told his team in the huddle when they got the ball 30 yards away from the game-winning touchdown?

“Let’s not score too fast.”

Confidence? Sure. But also an accurate assessment of a defense in tatters.

If it’s a question of not scoring too fast from 30 yards away, is it really a longshot for Manning to get his team to score from 70? With all that time?

Harder? Sure. But I’ll take my chances with Brady, Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Kevin Faulk.

Of course, it let the bloodthirsty nattering nabobs of negativity (hello, Ron Borges and Shank Shaughnessy) run roughshod over Belichick but my guess is that he couldn’t possibly care less what the bloodthirsty think.

More frustrating for me were the words of my favorite football writer, SI’s Peter King. He referred to Belichick as Grady Little and said the call “smacked of I’m-smarter-than-they-are hubris.” King then went on to use percentages to supposedly back up his argument, percentages that actually proved Belichick made the right decision (and presumably is much, much smarter than King and deserves all that hubris).

Not to mention that the percentages King used were stacked in the wrong direction. He estimated the odds of Manning scoring from 70 yards away with two minutes left and a timeout as 35 percent. What game was he watching? On two of the previous three Colts possessions, they drove 79 yards, once in six plays and the other in five. In the other possession, Manning threw an interception.

I put the Colts’ chances of scoring a touchdown if the Pats had punted at 70 percent at least. Maybe 75 percent.

Did the Pats have at least a 30 percent chance of getting the first down with the ball in Brady’s hands? Of course. (And that doesn’t even factor in the low, but not zero, probability of the Pats stopping Manning and company from 30 yards out.)

I’m glad I have Belichick running the Pats and not all the math-challenged nitwits out there who blindly accept conventional wisdom and love to prove how tough they are in second-guessing a coach.

Peter King and the bloodthirsty throng proved how tough they are.

They also proved how bad they are at math.


Thanks to Scott Weighart.

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