This Week in Hockey East: Dec. 3, 2009

Marcou, Minutemen Putting Best Foot Forward

As December has arrived, I think the feel-good story of the year in Hockey East is Massachusetts. Few gave the Minutemen a chance preseason, including yours truly, who picked them to finished eighth in Hockey East.

But with the holiday break right around the corner, the Minutemen have shocked plenty. UMass has the best overall record in the league at 9-3-0, and its 5-2-0 record in league play has the club in second place, trailing only New Hampshire but with two games in hand.

To say the Minutemen are off to a quick start is an understatement.

“We’re happy that we’ve been able to execute enough to win a large majority of our games,” said coach Don “Toot” Cahoon. “If you had told me we would be 9-3 after 12 games, I would have been ecstatic.”

A major reason for the early season success has been an offense that is currently producing at a league-best 3.92 goals per game, a far cry from the 2.87 goals per game pace from a season ago.

It also helps that the team possesses the league’s leading scorer in talented playmaker James Marcou. Recently, USCHO.com columnist and CBS College Sports analyst Dave Starman compared Marcou to 2008 Hobey Baker Award runner-up Nathan Gerbe. The two certainly share the stature — both hover in the mid-5-foot range (Marcou lists at 5-7; Gerbe listed at 5-5 when he was at BC). Both have an instinct for scoring, though Marcou is more of a playmaker than Gerbe was. The only standout difference between the two is Gerbe’s physical edge.

Marcou, for anyone who has watched him, is pure finesse. He has an uncanny ability to find teammates in scoring situations.

According to Cahoon, though, what has made the junior forward explode offensively (he has four goals and 19 assists in just 12 games) this season has been matching him with talented forwards who can finish.

“When we put [Casey] Wellman and Marcou together, we knew there was some chemistry there,” said Cahoon. “Marcou is such a playmaker that we needed to give him someone that could really shoot the puck and score. Wellman has showed he can do it with 11 goals so far. What has improved is that they are now getting points not only on the power play but during even strength as well.”

While the Minutemen have proven they can score, they’re also doing a pretty good job keeping the puck out of their net. UMass has allowed the third-least goals in the league (2.67), thanks in part to junior netminder Paul Dainton taking a major step forward in performance. Dainton ranks third in the league in goals against and second in the league in save percentage.

If there’s anything that is a concern for Cahoon, it’s his club’s consistency. The issue isn’t a night-to-night consistency as there have been few, if any, “no-show” nights thus far for UMass. The issue is minute-to-minute consistency, particularly in the opening minutes of the game.

Nine times in 12 games, UMass has allowed the first goal of the game. Six of those games resulted in the Minutemen trailing at the end of the first period. Cahoon knows that as the season wears on playing from behind will eventually wear his team out.

“When we went up to Vermont [a 6-2 win] we could have been up or down by three, as it certainly wasn’t what I had in mind,” said Cahoon. “Going back to this past Saturday at Quinnipiac [a 5-4 OT loss], we found ourselves down three goals and it was a real credit to our guys how they climbed back in it to take the eventual lead.

“But we have to play the entire game at this level in order to be successful.”

A major test comes this Friday night as UMass hosts Boston College, a team that has played extremely well of late thanks in part to a white-hot power play. The home advantage that the Minutemen get at their home rink, the Mullins Center, should be on full display that night as the team looks to break the all-time attendance record of 8,389 set last year against BC.

“We’ll have a big [crowd] for Boston College this Friday,” said Cahoon. “It’s really wonderful to have both the students and the community at our games. It’s great how the entire Pioneer Valley has taken an interest here. Our hockey program has really taken everybody’s interest, and it’s just great for college hockey and Hockey East.”

BC’s Sneep Beginning to Snipe

I’ve always been one to believe that statistics are great in sports, but they always need some context.

A perfect example is Boston College’s power play. Red-hot last weekend, dumping four goals in the net against Clarkson, the Eagles still rank fourth in Hockey East with the man advantage.

In that context, BC seems average. But given the fact that Hockey East boasts four of the top six power plays in the country (BC’s ranks sixth), you quickly realize the Eagles are one of many forces to be reckoned with in Hockey East when you give them the man advantage.

A major cog to the power play resurgence for BC has been the play of blueliner Carl Sneep. Entering his senior season, Sneep was known for his solid play on the blue line. Offense was never really a thought for the 6-foot-3 presence of a defenseman. He scored just six goals in his first three seasons at the Heights.

That all has changed this season for Sneep. The lanky defenseman has significantly improved his offensive abilities and his knack for blasting one-timers, particularly when BC is on the power play, has results in five goals in the first 11 games. Four of those goals have come on the power play.

“Carl is having by far his best year here at BC,” said BC coach Jerry York. “He’s been a dominant player for us right from the start [of the season] and it’s great to see that.”

Sneep leads a power play unit that includes Brian Dumoulin on defense with senior Ben Smith, rookie Paul Carey and junior Brian Gibbons up front. That unit has begun to connect seemingly each and every night for BC and has sparked the Eagles’ ascent to a tie for second place with UMass in the Hockey East standings.

“We have two [power play] units that play and Carl Sneep’s unit … those five have really kind of figured things out,” said York. “They know where to pass the puck before they pass it. They have good anticipation for where the puck is going to go.”

As good as Sneep has become offensively, his biggest value to the club still remains his defensive prowess, particularly in a season where BC has one of the least experienced defensive corps in the country.

“Our three freshmen [defensemen] are playing a lot of minutes,” said York. “Carl has become a really great leader for all of them. We’re looking to Carl to really step forward. He’s doing that. He’s been a really solid guy for us.”

Recognizing Greatness

On Tuesday evening, the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame has its annual induction ceremony and dinner. This year, for the first time, the event was held in Boston. And what a fitting year to bring the celebration to Beantown!

The 2009 induction class included plenty of players with ties to the local area, including two players who played for current members of Hockey East.

Former Boston University Terrier Tony Amonte, a native of Hingham, Mass., and former Vermont great John LeClair, who is said to be the player who had the biggest impact on the UVM program all-time, joined a class that also included goaltender Tom Barrasso, innovator Frank Zamboni and the 1998 women’s gold medal Olympic team.

The evening, hosted by NBC play-by-play man and all-around good guy Mike “Doc” Emrick, featured plenty of humor. Not surprisingly, BU coach Jack Parker was at both the front and back end of a few jokes.

“When Tony Amonte arrived on campus he believed we had two great players,” said Parker. “And he was both of them.”

Amonte opened his acceptance speech with a barb back at the legendary bench boss.

“First of all, I don’t think there is anyone who had more confidence than Jack Parker,” said Amonte, responding to his coach’s dig. “How could you do that to me?”

The evening was a venerable who’s who of hockey and the college hockey community was well represented. This reporter’s eyes saw, in addition to Parker: York; Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna; CEO of the newly-created College Hockey, Inc., Paul Kelly; former Vermont coach Mike Gilligan; BU women’s coach Brian Durocher; and Providence women’s coach Bob Deraney. They were joined by the likes of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly as well as a host of executives from USA Hockey and other hockey governing bodies.

Tickets, Tickets Everywhere

Plenty of hot tickets that can be stocking stuffers this holiday season, but possibly the top college hockey ticket may be the most difficult to get.

When BC and BU square off at Fenway Park on Friday evening, Jan. 8, fans will have the chance to witness history as the first college hockey game played in a Major League Baseball stadium, not to mention the renewal of one of the game’s best rivalries.

Tickets for the event are sold out, but the league has announced that a limited number of packages that are being assembled allowing fans to purchase tickets to the Fenway Park game as well as the Hockey East championship tournament at the TD Garden in March.

With a price tag of $5,000, the packages seem aimed at the corporate ticket buyer or groups. Each package includes two seats to the men’s and women’s games at Fenway on Jan. 8, 20 tickets per game for the Hockey East quarterfinal series of choice, 50 tickets to the Hockey East semifinals and championship game (plus four loge seats to both nights) and four tickets to the annual Hockey East banquet.

“This unique ticket offering is a great way to support Hockey East and three of college hockey’s premiere events,” Bertagna said. “It’s also an opportunity for small businesses to support youth hockey team and corporations to show gratitude to their clients. Tickets are provided at a discounted ticket price and allow for company recognition at Fenway Park and the TD Banknorth Garden.”

Matt Greene, assistant captain of the 2008 BC national championship team, is heading up the sales effort of these special packages for Hockey East. Those interested can contact him directly at [email protected].

The league also announced this week that tickets to the 2010 Hockey East championship tournament will go on sale at 11 a.m. Saturday at the TD Garden box office. Tickets can also be purchased online through Ticketmaster or by phone at (800) 745-3000.

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

Judging by media reaction, I’m not the only person in the country enthralled by the whole Tiger Woods saga of the past few days.

I was sitting in the press room at Boston College when I first learned of the news Friday afternoon. At that point, I, nor anyone with me at the time, knew of the reported article about him cheating and a couple of us made a joke when we heard of the accident that he was probably running away from his wife.

Who knew that our joke at the time might just be true.

I, personally, have been surprised at how poorly the Woods PR machine has handled the incident. Though he’s always tried to hide from the public eye, and to this point has actually done a very good job, Woods should have known that his alleged infidelity would catch up to him.

I understand that some athletes believe that the media invades their privacy. In this case, Tiger is one of those. But Tiger Woods is in that elite group of athletes that make as much or more money from the corporate support they receive than they do for playing their sport. Woods is an egregious example as he makes about 90 percent of his earnings through endorsements. Those endorsements thrust him into the public eye and make him omnipresent on TV and in other forms of media.

Thus, I think it’s naïve to expect that once a negative story lands that the world’s No. 1 golfer could simply run and hide.

Yes, this is a personal matter and yes, people deserve privacy. But when you make a concerted effort to engage the general public like Tiger Woods, his charity and his endorsement contacts do, you can’t expect that public to turn a blind eye when it’s convenient to you.

Sorry, Tiger. It’s time to face the music.

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