This Week in Hockey East: Feb. 11, 2010

Unlike My Counterpart…

There are a lot of things different between Dave Hendrickson and myself. Dave is married. I am not. Dave is an avid reader. I have a hard time getting to the end of reading my own column. Dave will eat anything and is a two- or three-plate guy at the free media buffets. I’m a picky eater and lucky to be able to fill one plate.

Dave also chose not to talk about the Beanpot anywhere in his column last week. I will not do that. Sure, I’ll talk about league play and the playoff races, but I’m not about to hold back coverage of what I still believe is the greatest college hockey event each year outside of the national tournament.

So let’s get things started there.

Northeastern’s Consolation

This year’s Beanpot title game was yet another memorable one for the annuls. But for the eventual champion, Boston College, the game didn’t carry with it the same weight that the Beanpot consolation game did for league mate Northeastern.

The Huskies, despite losing to BU, 2-1, in the Beanpot semifinals, have been playing extremely well of late. Since what was likely its most embarrassing game of the year, a 9-2 loss at Vermont, Northeastern has strung together a 4-1-0 record in its last five, including three straight league wins. The team still sits in the eighth and final playoff spot in Hockey East, but with 17 points, they’re a point from fifth place and just five points behind Massachusetts for the fourth and final home ice playoff spot.

Monday’s victory also catapulted Northeastern into the PairWise Rankings, placing it 24th, though still a ways away from earning an NCAA tournament spot.

That, then, magnified the importance of the Huskies’ consolation game matchup with Harvard. For the second straight week, Northeastern received a strong goaltending performance from rookie Chris Rawlings, who was barely edged out by BC’s John Muse for the Eberly Award, presented to the Beanpot goaltender with the highest save percentage.

Huskies coach Greg Cronin sang the praises of Rawlings, who has struggled at times this season but performed well on the team’s biggest regular-season stage.

“Brad Thiessen will go down as one of the best goaltenders in Northeastern history,” said Cronin. “Brad was known as a poised, level-headed goalie, and I really feel that Chris has made some incredible strides, especially after the Vermont game [the 9-2 loss], when he had his worst outing of the year and then went into the Beanpot.

“That first 8 p.m. game for a freshman — particularly against BU — with 17,000 people here is probably one of the most pressure-packed games a college hockey goalie will face, outside of the national championship. I thought his poise, his consistency, and his aggressiveness in the BU game was outstanding.”

Though Rawlings mustered just one victory in the two games — he finished the tournament with 60 saves on 63 shots — the consolation game victory was extremely important to springboard the Huskies into the final eight games of the regular season.

Though the NCAA playoff picture might not be front of mind, you could tell by Cronin’s comments on Monday, he’s hardly written off his team’s chances of making the tournament.

“I don’t follow [national rankings] much, but we’ve been popping in and out of those RPI and [PairWise] ratings,” said Cronin. “Prior to the BU loss [in the Beanpot semifinals], I think we were as high as 22, then we were bounced, and now we’re back in briefly. It’s very, very important for us to hang around the pack.

“We learned last year that if you can get yourself into striking distance of the top 16, then you get those quality points around playoff time, not only does it give you a chance to fight for home ice for the playoffs, but it puts you in position where if you have a couple of good weekends like Maine did against New Hampshire [this past weekend], you can really move yourself up that [PairWise] ratings ladder.

“I told them that this may be insignificant in the newspaper or to the championship game, but this is an important game for our season. I don’t know the last time Northeastern had back-to-back winning seasons, but that’s another important feather these seniors can put in their cap before they leave.”

‘Pot Survival

You can’t blame Boston College if it looked a tad bit nervous in the final half of the third period of Monday night’s Beanpot championship game. The Eagles held a 4-1 lead near the midway mark of the third and were on the power play with the chance to deliver the knockout blow. Then a beautiful move and backhander by David Warsofsky with exactly 11 minutes remaining resulted in a shorthanded goal for the Terriers.

It was almost as if those in attendance at the sold-out Garden knew they were watching a horror movie where they could predict the ending.

BU’s dominance in the Beanpot is marked. They have 29 titles in the first 57 years of the tournament. They are an absolute staple in the championship game — the only miss in recent memory was 2008.

Thus, when you play BU, as the opposition you understand well that regardless of the score, the Terriers always believe they can win.

When BU pulled within a goal with just under three minutes left — this time it was the 2009 NCAA Frozen Four hero, Colby Cohen, scoring — you could almost feel the BC fans in the Garden stop breathing.

“You never go into a championship game expecting it to be a cakewalk,” said Eagles forward Matt Price. “[Monday] was a case in point. You know it’s always going to be a battle and you gotta win all sorts of games.”

But a 4-1 lead with just over 11 minutes left. Could that lead really evaporate?

The answer, of course, is yes. Heck, this BU team erased a 3-1 deficit in the final minute against Miami in the national title game last year.

But for BC, this time the answer was no.

Credit to coach Jerry York. He called a timeout immediately after BU scored the third goal. Often times you see coaches hold off on calling their timeouts (see Indianapolis in Sunday’s Super Bowl). But York knew that he could settle his team, and settle he did. From that point on, despite BU pulling its goaltender for a sixth skater with about a minute and a half left, the only quality chance for BU was a wraparound bid by Nick Bonino in the waning seconds.

“You take the timeout to settle your team down a little bit,” said York. “Their eyes were focused pretty well on the prize, but I think at times it’s nice just to settle us down a bit. They handled it pretty well.”

The result was the return to the Beanpot winner’s circle for the Eagles, a small prize in comparison to, say, a national championship. But if history repeats itself, BC could be battling for the NCAA title come April. Each of the three previous BC Beanpot champions reached the Frozen Four, and two of those teams (2001, 2008), as you may know, came home with college hockey’s holy grail.

OK, Enough Beanpot, Let’s Talk Playoffs

From the tournament to the playoffs.

Hockey East’s playoff race went from lukewarm to scolding hot last week, thanks mostly in part to a two-game series in Orono, Maine.

The Maine Black Bears continued to be one of the league’s hottest teams, sweeping first-place New Hampshire to create a logjam at the top of Hockey East.

UNH knew entering the weekend that a road sweep of the Black Bears would open up at least a seven-point lead for first place as BC and UMass, which came into the weekend tied for second, five points back, faced one another in each team’s only game of the weekend.

But instead of gaining breathing room, UNH has choked itself with chasers. The two wins for the Black Bears pulled them into a tie with BC and both teams are just three points behind the Wildcats for the league’s top spot.

For UNH, possibly the most frustrating thing last weekend wasn’t the losses themselves but the nature of each loss. In both games, UNH jumped out to a 2-0 lead only to see Maine rally. On Friday, Maine scored the final three goals. Saturday was a bit worse with Maine outscoring UNH, 6-1, over the game’s final 33:14.

“We got beat,” UNH coach Dick Umile said after Saturday’s loss. “I’m not going to take anything away from [Maine]. They found a way to win the game. We went ahead twice and couldn’t hold onto it.”

The final impact of the two UNH losses on the standing is similar to a 2-ton truck running over a 6-inch-thick sandwich.

Not only has UNH’s lead over Boston College (and now Maine) shrunk to just three points, just 10 points now separate first place from eighth place (the spot held by Northeastern) with either seven or eight games remaining for each of those eight teams.

The Other End of the Spectrum

While UNH is worried about being caught, Providence sits at the other end of the standings wondering if it has any chance of catching up to Northeastern for the eighth and final playoff spot.

A year ago, Providence missed the Hockey East playoffs for the first time in the 25-year history of the league. One year later, the Friars are in an identical spot. Since beginning the year 7-4-1, Providence has just two wins in its last 15 games. What’s more difficult is the fact that 14 of those 15 games were in league play.

The Friars now have just 10 league points and will need to make up at least seven points on Northeastern — and in the process leapfrog ninth-place Merrimack — over the final seven games of the season.

“We’ve got seven games to go,” said Providence coach Tim Army. “I don’t want to focus on that we need the points [in the standings].”

Instead, heading into last Saturday’s game against Vermont, a night after the Catamounts hammered the Friars, 5-1, Army’s hope was just to keep his team in the game, having lost the previous three games by a combined total of 14-4.

“I just really wanted to be in a game,” said Army. “I wanted us to go compete and give us a chance to win it in the third period.”

The result was a 1-1 tie, which could be a step in the right direction, but at this late point in the season is probably one standings point less that Providence needs.

Things won’t get any easier for the Friars this weekend as they face UNH on the road for a single game on Friday night. Providence has won just three times at New Hampshire since the Whittemore Center opened in 1995.

The team Providence is pursuing, Northeastern, plays twice against UMass this weekend. Two wins for the Huskies combined with a Providence road loss would make the playoffs nearly impossible. But none of that is a given. Northeastern struggled with UMass at home this year losing, 4-1, while Providence lost a heartbreaker to UNH in overtime less than a month ago.

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

I often times find it sad that I come to learn good things about great people only after they’ve passed.

Such is the case with Brendan Burke, Miami’s student manager who was tragically killed in a car accident last Friday. Many people will associated Brendan with his father, Brian, who currently is the general manager of both the Toronto Maple Leafs and the U.S. Olympic team.

But in reading about Brendan in the days following his tragic death, I learned of a boy who was hardly a boy.

Brendan, who grew up about 20 minutes from my hometown, was courageous in coming out as a gay man in the sports world. Some of the top media in the sports world featured Brendan long before his passing. It’s so often these stories aren’t told while these people are alive. For Brendan that wasn’t the case.

Obviously, my heart and prayers go out to the Miami program as they mourn this loss. Having been a student manager myself through college, there is a strong bond that develops between the team, the coaches and the managers. His loss will most certainly be felt.

Contributing: Steven McCarthy


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