This Week in Hockey East: Jan. 7, 2010

Dave Hendrickson is probably writing a food column this week, based on his rhapsodizing on Facebook about key lime pie and angel hair carbonara in Key West. Jim Connelly is likely still unbundling after dressing for maximum warmth at Fenway Park last Friday. So feel free to start the “third-string sieve” chant as you read this week’s column.

Ice Field of Dreams

On Friday, Fenway Park will be filled to its ancient rafters with droves of hockey fans savoring college hockey in its hallowed setting. The players will be pumped full of adrenalin, as archrivals Boston College and Boston University fight for supremacy on the diamond.

On Wednesday, though, there was ample time for players from both teams to soak in the atmosphere and simply have fun when the Eagles and Terriers experienced their first al fresco practice as collegiate athletes. “Emotionally, it’s unbelievable,” Eagles captain Matt Price said. “It’s really exciting. The anticipation has been building slowly.”

“It’s a unique experience to be able to skate at Fenway Park,” BC assistant captain Matt Lombardi added. “We’ve all skated on ponds and outdoor rinks growing up, but to do something like this is something special.”

“It was a more upbeat practice,” Terriers assistant captain Eric Gryba said. “It was a lot of fun. It was like a bunch of 12-year-olds playing out there.”

Some of the BC players couldn’t resist taking a few shots toward the Green Monster.

“A couple of guys were talking about it out there,” Price said. “I may have seen a couple of guys sneak one out there, but I don’t think anyone got it close.”

“I think Pat Mullane did …” retorted Lombardi.

“He got one over it?” Price asked his teammate. “Oh, wow.”

“Not over, but he hit it at the bottom,” Lombardi said.

Price obviously found that much more believable.

“Catchable puck,” Eagles coach Jerry York quipped.

All coaches and players were fascinated to study the myriad variables of the venue. “Practice was pretty nice,” BU coach Jack Parker said. “It was certainly unique. We’ve never practiced outdoors let alone in Fenway Park, so that was something for us. I think the NHL and the Fenway Park people made the right decision by not putting stands anywhere near the field. When we’re out there, it looks like Fenway Park, and it’ll look like Fenway Park to the fans as well. The ice itself was pretty good. There was a soft spot because of the sun, but that won’t be a problem on Friday night. The overall atmosphere is just fabulous.”

“The wind is a little bit of a factor,” York said. “I didn’t realize that. That could be a factor. The lights weren’t a problem, though some of the players put black under their eyes like football guys do for the glare.”

“I think the biggest problem is the sightlines,” Parker said. “You’re looking up over the boards, and you don’t see fans. You see distance before you see anything else. It might be a problem for the goalies; we’ll have to see at the pre-game skate on Friday.”

Walking around the rink, it’s hard to believe that it’s a regulation NHL rink. Everyone agreed that it looks smaller — no doubt because of the vast surroundings. Yet the biggest issue could be the weather. With light snow and dropping temperatures in the forecast for Friday night, the weather very much could affect play. “The faster you skate out there, the colder you get, so we might be pretty cold out there on Friday,” Price said.

Soon enough, the players will put aside their revelry and focus on the game at hand. After an unusually long layoff over Christmas break, BU looked positively refreshed in last Saturday’s 7-3 romp over UMass. However, the Terriers have a great deal of ground to make up in the standings, so much is at stake there. According to York, BC played poorly in a 5-2 loss to St. Lawrence at the Denver Cup. The Eagles looked much better against host Denver the next night, but the upshot was another loss. “Denver is an excellent hockey team, and we were right with them,” York said. “They showed a little more hockey savvy late in the game and caught us and beat us. But probably right now most people feel the gold standard of this year’s season is Miami and Denver as the two top teams.”

So both teams are reminding themselves to not get too caught up in the hype with two valuable points at stake in what may well be the most intense Hockey East race in league history. “I think we enjoyed it,” York said after the practice. “But as the game approaches and the clock counts down, we’ll have laser-beam focus on the game. But right now, the kids are still buzzing about shooting the puck off the left-field wall and the wind being a factor. It was the hardest time we’ve had getting the kids off the ice.”

Future Prospects for Fenway

Given how hard it was for the coaches to get their guys off the ice — not to mention the fact that Friday’s doubleheader of women’s and men’s action sold out in just five and a half hours — one has to wonder about making it happen again. When we talk about future prospects for Fenway, we usually are referring to a pitcher who is currently throwing heat for the Portland Sea Dogs or an outfielder hitting .330 for the Greenville Drive. In this case, though, it seems as if there is a good argument for expanding college action at Fenway Park in the future.

In fact, there very well could have been more games played these year. Jack Parker acknowledged that a scenario involving more men’s hockey games definitely was proposed. He alluded to an option in which BU would’ve played Vermont while BC played Providence, and other ideas were on the table as well. However, Parker was adamant that it had to be a BU-BC matchup — something that he and York apparently had discussed ever since Michigan played Michigan State in an outdoor game in the “Cold War” at Spartan Stadium in 2001.

“I think a BU-BC rivalry is something special,” Parker said. “One of my great friends in college hockey, former assistant coach Don Cahoon, the coach at UMass-Amherst, called me up [after the decision was made] and said, ‘You said it had it be BC and BU or you were going to take your ball and go home! Is that what happened?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, Don, that’s exactly what happened.'”

Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna acknowledged that there were some hard feelings among the schools that were not included. “Those of you who know our community know that there were probably a few coaches who were not to be happy to be left out of the mix,” Bertagna said. “But to be candid, I don’t think anybody thought it was going to be a slam-dunk to sell out the building. The novelty of outdoor hockey has started to become a little more commonplace, and the feeling was that if we’re going to do this, let’s do it right. And if it’s going the be the only time, let’s put our best foot forward and move our schedule in an effort to deliver the last two national champions. It’s a great matchup in any event, but the fact that it’s the last two national champions gives it greater cache outside of the area.”

In retrospect, it seems obvious to me that the league could have sold out two or perhaps even three nights of college hockey at Fenway Park. The trick would be to include schools that have a good fan base. Everyone agrees that a future event would have to involve some different schools, so how about a holiday tournament featuring, say, Northeastern, Cornell, Michigan, and UMass? I also think three nights in which you had a women’s game early and a men’s game late could do very well. You could repeat a BU-BC slate, have another night for Northeastern-UNH, and another night for Cornell and Harvard. All six schools have ranked women’s teams.

“We did look at a couple different models, but you’ve got to allow ‘X’ number of days for each event,” Bertagna said. “You’ve got to extrapolate the make-up dates.”

Still, everyone is enthused about the possibilities. “I think in all probability Fenway would be crazy not to do this again — maybe with different teams, not BC-BU. Maybe it would be an invite for Vermont and New Hampshire to come down and play against UMass and Northeastern,” Parker said. “Or maybe it would be Northeastern and BU playing two western schools. I think you could guarantee yourself an attraction after what’s happened here this week.”

“I think it’s certainly feasible,” York agreed. “I was very surprised at how quickly it was sold out. For somebody thinking of revenue sources and thinking of sort of a college football bowl atmosphere, it certainly deserves looking at whether it’s just BU and BC doing it by themselves or someone else experiencing it, it’s a great venue to play at.”

At that point, York couldn’t resist giving me a playful dig, alluding to my recent book about BU’s championship season. “Would you put up some money from the proceeds of the book to pay for it?”

I can’t say I’ll be able to sponsor it to the degree that Sun Life has, but, hey, I’ll put up a few hundred bucks to help make it happen!

First, though, Fenway Sports Group President Sam Kennedy cautioned that we have to see the impact of the current event before debating when and if it will happen again. “The short answer is I think we would explore having hockey at Fenway in the future,” Kennedy said. “But it’s probably a bit premature. We need to see how the facility responds to some of the changes — the winterization that we had to put into the facility — see how the field responds on April 4 against the Yankees when we open up on Sunday night, see how our staff responds. We’ve had a lot of people working a lot of long hours. Personally, I would like to see hockey back at the Fenway, but we’ll have to see how all the constituencies respond.”

By the end of Friday’s game, I think a good 100,000 fans will be eagerly watching to see when these particular prospects are ready for the big stage.

That Was Then, This Is Now

I sat down on Monday with Northeastern coach Greg Cronin in his impressive new office at the renovated Matthews Arena, looking to catch up on the Huskies. The good news is that the Huskies returned to a .500 record for the first time since Nov. 20 last weekend, when they beat Dartmouth and Massachusetts-Lowell to claim the Ledyard Cup in Hanover, N.H. The bad news is that Cronin doesn’t believe that the team played very consistently during the weekend — an issue that has dogged the Huskies all season, and frankly quite a contrast to the team’s unbelievably steady play throughout the previous season. When you consider that BU lost only one game in league play after November and still could not nip the Huskies in the standings until the last day on the regular-season schedule, you get an appreciation for how good a year NU had. This year, though, it has been a different story thus far.

“If you get caught up in how good you are, people are just waiting to punch you in the nose,” Cronin said. “When you establish that level of credibility and prestige, you’re going to drown in your own confidence sometimes. That’s why I think last year our team was very, very consistent. We knew what we were. This year we don’t know what we are as a group. We flirt with being a real structured, reliable, patient team to being a team that gets caught being overly aggressive and overly passive.

“It’s a challenge, but it’s like what BU has gone through. The two of us have lost the most personnel. I think we graduated six or seven seniors and then we lost [star goaltender Brad] Thiessen, who was a big part of our team. They lose some guys early in [Brian] Strait and [Colin] Wilson. But then our problem got compounded by [Steve] Quailer going out for the year, [Randy] Guzior going out for the year, and [J.P.] Maley — who’s been out all year and then finally played three games. He’s out for the year again: He tore his ACL two nights ago [against Dartmouth]. You take that number of people out of your lineup, and you’re basically gutted. That’s one of the things that I’ve gone through this year.”

This is a new experience for Cronin, whose early years on Huntington Avenue were marked by enormous numbers of freshmen and sophomores with only a smattering of upperclassmen. “It’s the first time I’ve had a real tremendous turnover,” Cronin admitted. “And we’re products of our past, so I go back to the ’93 team at Maine [where Cronin was an assistant coach], where we lost all those players, and then we lost the Ferraros [Peter and Chris], [Paul] Kariya, and [Chris] Imes to the Olympic team as undergraduates, and that team had to be replaced by 10 or 11 freshmen. I don’t know what it was, but we kept winning, even with that turnover. You just don’t know how to measure how people are going to respond to playing quality minutes in college hockey when there’s not that support around them — that strength from the veterans. That’s what we’re going through right now.”

While injuries and departures are one culprit, Cronin remains vexed by the erratic play of his squad. “The whole thing with us is consistency. This is my theory: The power play is a manifestation of talent on your roster. That’s where talented people create visibility for that unit. There’s more talent on the ice for Northeastern than there was last year. The problem is that the strength behind that talent, the commitment to provide structure behind that talent, comes and goes. From the goaltender up to the first-line centerman, it just comes and goes. I can only go from last year because that’s the year when we had the most success: The talent wasn’t visible most of the time, but the structure and strength and rhythm that we played with were visible all of the time.

“I had a great comment from a pro scout who’s watched this program go from the basement to almost the penthouse last year. After one of the games, he spoke to one of my players who was injured, and his comment was, ‘Where’d your team go? Why aren’t you pursuing pucks and attacking like you did before?’ I don’t know.”

Last weekend was symptomatic of the team’s roller-coaster approach. “We [pursued pucks and attacked] for four periods up in Dartmouth and then we just looked like we were playing pond hockey in the second and third periods against Lowell,” Cronin said. “We were lucky to win the game. They took a lot of penalties, so they never really got into a rhythm, but we had a good grasp on the game, and then we loosened the grip. Lowell’s a really good team, and they play with a grip in every game. They’re structured; they’re mature. They play high-percentage hockey. We failed to execute the same type of image. And that’s what goes on with this team.”

Goaltender Chris Rawlings pulled the team through the weekend, shutting out Dartmouth 7-0 on Saturday before leading NU to a 2-1 win on Sunday. The freshman stopped 60 of 61 shots over the weekend. “He faced a lot of shots that first night,” Cronin said. “That could’ve been a 12-5 game. These holiday games … you’re off for three weeks and then you roll the dice; you don’t know what you’re going to get. You think you’re ready to go, but one of the strangest things about college hockey is having that long break.”

Cronin knows that it will be a battle royale across the league the rest of the way. “The teams that were at the bottom of the league are moving up the food chain,” he said. “Now you’ve got even more intense competition. That’s why I think this year it’s going to be an absolute dogfight — I don’t care if it’s from eight to seven or five to four [in the league standings]. It’s going to be tough.”

The Catamount Cup Runneth Over

Along with Northeastern and Maine, which won the Florida College Classic, Vermont came away with a holiday tournament championship of its own, defeating Alabama-Huntsville and Minnesota-Duluth to claim the Catamount Cup. Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon was delighted with the win, especially over a ranked opponent in the Bulldogs.

“I’m just so pleased with our team, aside from picking up the 4-on-4 goal at the end there,” Sneddon said. “I thought we executed our game plan to a ‘T’ and I’m really proud of the way our guys competed against a great team. You know Duluth’s got a ton of skill and I think we did a great job at taking time and space away from them in their zone. We wanted to work them low; I think our guys did a great job on the cycle. They obviously created a lot of great plays down low and more importantly we kept them out of the neutral zone and offensive zone as much as possible.

“It was a good college hockey game and obviously we were on the positive side.”

Curiously, the Catamounts are getting the shaft in the USCHO poll, where they are ranked just No. 19. In the PairWise Rankings, UVM is ninth. Given the choice, though, I’m sure Sneddon is much happier than he would be if those numbers were reversed.

Critical Mass

After starting out the season with an eyebrow-raising 9-2 record, UMass has gone through a rough stretch, going just 2-5 in its last seven games since the torrid start.

The downturn began with a tough 5-4 overtime loss to Quinnipiac on Nov. 28, followed by losses to two other ranked opponents in Boston College and UMass-Lowell. The Minutemen then won convincingly against Merrimack and looked to be a prohibitive favorite in the UConn Toyota Classic last week. They eked out a win over Union, only to get stunned by three third-period goals against Bentley in a 4-1 loss. Playing their third game in just five days against BU on Saturday, the Minutemen saw the Terriers ultimately run away with it, 7-3.

All of which led me to quiz UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon about the team’s recent slide. While he found the Bentley loss to be a deceptive anomaly for the most part, he acknowledged that the team has consistency issues. “First of all, let’s go to the Bentley game for a second,” Cahoon said. “We blitzed them for two periods — did everything but put pucks in the net — and we probably skated ourselves dead in period three. I’m very disappointed with how we played in the third period. We just didn’t negotiate what we needed to do with expending ourselves the way we did. We tried to put that to bed: It wasn’t what we wanted, the result was bad, but it wasn’t a bad effort.”

In contrast, Cahoon’s reflections on the team’s woes sound very similar to what BU’s Parker often had to say about his team a few months ago. “My assessment is that we haven’t played three good periods for six or seven games now,” Cahoon said. “We had one outing at home against Merrimack where we played three great periods and controlled the game from start to finish. Other than that, we’ve struggled for a period or in some cases for two periods in each contest. That’s the difference between winning and losing. We’re fundamentally not executing, whether it be breakdowns in defensive-zone coverage or someone not applying the pressure as frequently as we need to on the PK. And on the PK, your goalie needs to be your best penalty killer. If he’s not on any particular night, that lends itself to some problems.”

Cahoon believed that his team was no match for BU in terms of “physicality and tenaciousness.” Given that Hockey East is arguably in the midst of its most competitive season ever, there is no question that the winning team on a given night will often be the team who can persist in winning every possible puck battle or faceoff. “So everybody has to take a little bit of responsibility in this. But getting back to fundamentals and playing with more of an edge are two things that I think need to be injected into this team immediately.”

With road games against UNH and Northeastern this weekend, UMass will need to be ready to battle.

Three-Man disadvantage?

In case you missed it, I wrote this article a few weeks ago, in which Parker predicted that, if the circumstances were right, he might pull his goalie during the first or second period to enjoy a three-man advantage when an opponent has two men in the penalty box. One of the arguments for the tactic is that the lopsided numbers would result in the defending team being unable to even touch the puck while on the penalty kill.

Last Saturday, though, BU had the skate on the other foot when UMass pulled goalie Paul Dainton late in the game to try a three-man advantage of its own. Ironically, though, Gryba hustled over to a loose puck on the boards and fired the puck a good 175 feet into the open net to seal the win.

So much for the three-man advantage. Amusingly, Parker didn’t even notice that the situation had arisen. “I didn’t know they pulled the goalie,” Parker said. “I didn’t even see it. I don’t know if they knew that they pulled the goalie. I don’t know if they practiced 6-on-3. The puck went in the corner, and we just threw it out, and all of a sudden I heard cheering and thought, ‘What’s that all about?’ Then I thought the goalie flubbed it because I didn’t even notice he was out of the net.”

Actually, the unlikely shorthanded goal reinforced a few points that Parker and Denver coach George Gwozdecky made in that article. First, like anything, you have to practice the 6-on-3 power play in order to reap the benefit of the extra skater as fully as possible. Second, if you try the tactic, you need to accept the fact that you are going to surrender the occasional goal. The real question remains as to whether the significantly increased probability of scoring a power-play goal outweighs the slim chance of giving up a goal such as Gryba’s. It will be a long time before we have enough data to evaluate that, but in the meantime it makes for a great debate.

Trivia Contest

My brief cameo as guest columnist gives me an opportunity to showcase an endangered species in this space: the long-lost trivia question. Those who remember my columns from years past know that I can’t resist seeing who has made the biggest deposit in their memory bank of college hockey lore. So here’s one that I think is a very nice challenge.

Earlier this year, former BU star Colin Wilson scored his first — and, thus far, only — NHL goal while playing for the Nashville Predators in a road game that his team ultimately lost to the Boston Bruins. But what former Hockey East player also scored his first — and, yes, only — NHL goal while playing on a visiting team that also lost against the Bruins that day … and in the same building?

E-mail me with your answer. If the link in that last sentence doesn’t work for you, just e-mail to [email protected] to reach me. The winner will be notified by Monday night; if you haven’t heard by then you either had the wrong answer or someone else beat you to it.

Yada, Yada, Yada

Congratulations to Chris Kreider of Boston College and David Warsofsky of Boston University for helping to win the gold medal for Team USA in the World Junior Championship in Saskatchewan this week. The championship game was a real thriller. When Canada tied it with two late goals, I wondered if Warsofsky would get a taste of what Miami experienced against BU in last season’s championship game. However, the young Americans regrouped during intermission and won an absolute classic.

Speaking of that memorable championship game in Washington, D.C., I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has made my book, Burn the Boats: A Seven-Championship Season for Boston University Hockey a great success thus far. The project was definitely a labor of love, and the reaction from readers, players, and their families has been extremely gratifying. For those still interested in ordering the book online, follow that link above and note that you can get your book personally inscribed if so desired.

Speaking of books, I recently read The Trouble With Heroes, an anthology of original stories. It includes Dave Hendrickson’s short story, “Beloved.” Wow! What a fun read as well as a great bargain buy. The book’s authors ask us to consider alternative views of various mythical and historical heroes. Some I would call fractured fairy tales, while others put a contemporary spin on a classic story such as Cinderella. Dave’s story is a comical retelling of the David and Goliath bible story, and it’s excellent. He pulls off quite a few feats in a small number of pages: female narrator, historical context, and plenty of laughs to boot. My other favorites from the anthology include: “Geeks Bearing Gifts,” in which a Greek god tries out a present-day dating service; “If The Shoe Fits” (imagine Cinderella as a modern day businesswoman in search of a networking opportunity); and “Honey, I’m Home,” where Odysseus returns at last from his 20-year odyssey, only to be chewed out by his wife for, among other things, being a typical male who failed to ask for directions. Most of the book is a high-spirited romp, and I highly recommend it.

You’ll find it the Science Fiction/Fantasy section (perhaps under new releases) under the editor’s name, Denise Little, or order it through Amazon.

Thanks to Diana Giunta for providing quotes for this column.


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