This Week in Hockey East: Feb. 4, 2010

None of That Talk

Here’s some news that should make fans of seven Hockey East teams stand up and cheer.

There will be no Beanpot talk in this column.

Thank you. Thank you. You can be seated now. Oh, you’re too kind. Please be seated. Thank you.

Hey, the Tournament-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named is great fun and generates enormous publicity for the game, albeit to the annoyance of many of the seven league teams on the outside. And I was prepared to make use of Boston University coach Jack Parker’s eyebrow-raising comments that people are sick of seeing his team against Boston College in the finals.

But our USCHO coverage has already captured that and more. There’s really not a lot more to add.

So let’s move on to a couple teams a good deal further than shouting distance from Boston proper.

Stronger Every Day

A few weeks into the season, the Maine Black Bears stood at 1-5-0 and NFL coach Jim Mora’s postgame tirade might have come to mind: “Playoffs? I just hope we can win a game!”

Based on e-mails sent to yours truly, the natives were getting restless.

Their team had missed the 2008 Hockey East playoffs entirely and managed only an eighth-place berth last year. In the eyes of the “what have you done for me lately” crowd, the 2006 and 2007 trips to the Frozen Four were old news and the 2002 and 2004 losses in the national championship game were ancient history.

Back when his team was 1-5, coach Tim Whitehead preached patience, and it turns out he was right. The Black Bears put together three straight wins, faltered with just a point in the next three games, but then shifted into overdrive after Thanksgiving with an eight-game undefeated streak.

Thanks to a three-point weekend at Vermont, the Black Bears are now on pace for a home-ice berth and are but a PairWise tiebreaker away from another trip to the NCAAs.

“It’s just a gradual process of maturing as a team and gaining confidence among each other with our systems of play,” Whitehead says. “Now we know we can be effective as a team.

“There wasn’t any lightning strike in one game. It was just the gradual process that all teams go through. We knew we had the potential of having a strong team this year.

“One of the big bright spots is we’ve been able to withstand some adversity with injuries this year and still find a way to win some games. That’s been a big positive. It’s not going to get any easier, but we’re excited about the stretch run.”

Taking three of four points at Vermont was a significant step forward for a team that had struggled on the road. The Black Bears had enjoyed a 7-2-1 record within the friendly confines of Alfond Arena, but entered last weekend 2-7-0 on the road.

“The weekend up in Vermont is definitely going to continue to build confidence for our team,” Whitehead says. “It’s tough to steal any points on the road in this league, let alone three out of four, so that was a very encouraging sign for our team.

“The first night was a very thorough victory and then the second night was a game we would have never been able to win or tie last year. We fell behind and deserved to be behind. Vermont was outplaying us and yet we found a way to recapture the game in the third period and even gain some chances to try to win it.”

Maine’s juggernaut power play displayed its prowess over the weekend, going 4-for-7 on Friday and 3-for-6 on Saturday. Not only is it converting at a 30 percent mark, it’s doing so with a wide variety of weapons. The seven power-play goals on the weekend came off the sticks of six different players. That’s no fluke. On the season, seven Black Bears have recorded at least four man-advantage goals with an eighth player having tallied three.

“That’s been the biggest key,” Whitehead says. “We are getting a lot of different guys contributing. Because of that, we’ve been tough to defend. If you shut down one guy, someone else steps up.

“We’ve really tried to develop as many power-play players as we can so that we’ll have a lot of options and a lot of different looks to attack with. I think that’s been probably our biggest strength. We’ve been resilient in being able to use many different players and attack in many different ways.”

Of course, Maine’s No. 1 weapon is Gustav Nyquist, whose 14-22–36 scoring line trails only James Marcou’s in Hockey East overall scoring. As a freshman, Nyquist recorded 32 points while earning a berth on the league all-rookie team but has taken his game to the next level this season.

“Everyone knows he’s got great skill and poise with the puck,” Whitehead says. “Even the casual fan can see those skills. But he’s also a real fierce competitor who has courage in traffic, wins loose pucks consistently, and gets to the net-front on offense and defense.

“He’s really become a complete player and just keeps getting better each month.”

Nyquist is but one of a dominating sophomore class that includes top goaltender Scott Darling, Brian Flynn and Will O’Neill, who rank second and third behind Nyquist in team scoring, and several other key contributors. All of which means that as good as this year could be for Maine, next year could be even better.

“There’s no doubt we’re excited about the future, but we’ve been down this road before and unfortunately lost some guys [early to the pros],” Whitehead says. “We would have gotten [to this point] in the building process earlier quite frankly if we hadn’t.

“Hopefully we’ll retain our elite players this time and if we do, we feel that we can be even stronger next year, which is very exciting obviously for all of us. We have a real good core of younger players that are playing most of the minutes for us so the future looks bright.”

In the meantime, this year looks like anything but the proverbial chopped liver. Maine is on the bubble for the NCAA tournament and based on Jayson Moy’s Bracketology, is a mere tiebreaker away from getting in. Considering their 1-5-0 start, the Black Bears have to like where they stand.

“We definitely have our sights set on returning to the NCAA tournament,” Whitehead says. “That’s always our goal here and we think that this year it’s a realistic goal.

“It’s going to be challenging. We’ve had an unusual number of injuries so that’s going to be tough for us. But we feel now that we’ve learned to play without key guys in the lineup so we can compete for the tournament.

“But one of the best ways to reach your goal is to focus one step at a time and that’s what we’re going to continue to do each week. This week’s step is a big one.”

Ah, yes. The Black Bears host New Hampshire this weekend for a two-game set that has titanic implications on the playoff race. The Wildcats are threatening to run away with the regular season title. A sweep, however, would not only make it a race until most likely the last weekend but would also almost certainly push Maine inside the NCAA tournament bubble.

“We have great respect for our opponents coming in,” Whitehead says. “They’re a very talented team at all three positions. They’ve got six forwards that are real sharp shooters. Blake Kessel is as good as they get on defense and obviously [Brian] Foster is strong in net. So we know we’ve got our hands full with them.

“But we’re at home, so that’s a big plus. We’ve been very strong at home and will have a great crowd.

“It’s obviously a great rivalry. Not as old as the BU-BC rivalry but certainly just as competitive and exciting. So it will be like our own mini-Beanpot up here with a sellout crowd and great excitement.”

Tops Within The League In PWR

The Massachusetts Minutemen have performed like a Timex watch this year. They’ve taken a few lickings, but they’ve kept on ticking.

Admittedly, they’ve laid a few eggs. Losses of 7-3 and 6-2 at Boston University. A 7-2 loss at UNH.

But taking the season as a whole, the Minutemen are in great shape. Tied for second place in Hockey East. Tops among league teams in the PairWise.

“I think in large [part] we’ve continued to move forward,” coach Don “Toot” Cahoon says. “There’s been some stumbling along the way. Not every game has been a great outing, but certainly the team has demonstrated the ability to be able to withstand some struggles and be able to move itself forward to better itself and improve itself.

“Our very good players are having very good years. That bodes well because you need your best players to be your best players.

“The goaltending situation, which is always crucial down the stretch, is better than it’s ever been. I’ve got two guys — [Paul Dainton and Dan Meyers] — that are making a contribution, so that bodes well.

“Having said that, every game’s a new event. Some days are better than others. We’re no different than everybody else. We just have to take it one day at a time.”

When Cahoon refers to his very good players having very good years, all eyes fall on UMass’s one-two offensive punch, James Marcou and Casey Wellman. Marcou (8-32–40) ranks tops in Hockey East overall scoring with Wellman (19-16–35) fourth. It’s a combination many teams’ coaches and fans look on with envy.

“If you go back and look at the great lines that have played in college hockey, it’s usually more than just one terrific player on the line,” Cahoon says. “It’s a couple of guys that really complement each other and bring out the best in each other.

“In our situation, we even have a third player in T.J. Syner, who is not the point producer that Marcou and Wellman are, but he’s every bit as good a hockey player and he skates extremely well. That line really brings out the best of all those guys.

“Wellman is a pure scorer and a shooter. He has real quick feet and gets himself into position to get scoring opportunities. Marcou is uncanny with his ability to create and make plays and then execute and find people in the most difficult of circumstances. It shows itself regularly; it’s not happening by accident.

“Quite honestly, you don’t teach what they do. Hopefully you try to bring the best out of them by putting them out there at the right times and giving them ample opportunity to showcase their skills. But they’re pretty special players.”

Cahoon’s one-day-at-a-time approach definitely applies to UMass’ position in the PairWise, tied with Ferris State for seventh place and tops among Hockey East teams, ahead of such perennial stalwarts as UNH and Boston College.

“It’s fleeting,” Cahoon says. “A weekend can change all of that so we don’t give it a lot of thought even though there is an awareness [of it]. Clearly we’re pleased to be in the mix, but we have to take care of the business of playing the games. Otherwise, you can fall out of the mix in a hurry with a bad weekend or two.”

Potential bad weekends could be looming like thunderclouds on the horizon. After playing at home the next two Fridays, UMass finishes the season with five of its six games on the road. Fortunately, the Minutemen have nearly matched their home record of 8-4-0, dropping only to 7-5-0 on the road, the aforementioned lopsided losses to BU and UNH notwithstanding.

“The one thing that we wanted to emphasize early in the year was, ‘Let’s take advantage of the number of home games we have, let’s be prepared for each one and take advantage of the home crowd makeup,'” Cahoon says. “So we got off to a good start. Then we realized when we started playing on the road that we were going to be doing this in the second a half of the year a whole lot more than we would be at home.

“So I think our guys are just trying to keep it between the glass. They’re diligent and they are not intimidated at playing in other barns.

“Some days are better than others. The games at BU on January second and then the game the following weekend at UNH weren’t good outings. So we have to keep a real tight lid on it and keep a narrow focus and be able to just play between the glass and do the things that good teams do.

“I don’t think there’s any prescribed method except not getting carried away and tying to consume the whole game in one shift or two. You just have to take it shift by shift.”

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

• Pardon me if I get a sense of smug satisfaction that Johnny (Judas) Damon and his hired henchman Scott Boras overplayed their hand and are now left out in the Yankees cold.

• Count me as one of those who think that with the change in their respective home ballparks, Adrian Beltre will hit more home runs next year than Jason Bay.

• Count me also as one who considers the Red Sox as the No. 2, or at worst No. 3, team in baseball on paper. Yet recently a columnist opined that the Sox were not legitimate World Series contenders. Geez, I wonder why some claim that our local sporting press is so negative.

• That said, the addition of Peter Abraham to the Globe looks like a good one. Objective reporting with none of the negative hysteria.

• Can someone explain to me why the Bruins would even think about a deal for Ilya Kovalchuk? I don’t get it. He’d be a great addition, of course, but you make a rent-a-player deal if that puts you over the top as a significant Stanley Cup contender. You don’t sacrifice future draft picks and prospects for a few months of a star if you’re struggling to make the playoffs.

Thanks to Diana Giunta and Scott Weighart for providing quotes.


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