A Blast from the Past
Notice anything familiar at the top of the Hockey East standings?
How about the re-emergence of the old Big Four?
New Hampshire, Boston College, Maine and Boston University have once again claimed Hockey East’s top four spots and are all now in the driver’s seat for playoff home ice.
Until last year, you had to go all the way back to the 1995-96 season to find a playoff without at least three of the four defending home ice during the league quarterfinals. And the 2004, 2005 and 2006 playoffs featured all four at home.
Last year, however, showed how the increasing parity in the game had eaten away at the perennial powerhouses’ stranglehold. And when this season Maine and BU both got off to brutal starts — 1-5-0 for the Black Bears and 4-9-3 for the Terriers — it looked as though “the good old days” were over for those programs as a whole.
But like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator (or Jack Nicholson in The Shining, depending on your perspective), the collective Big Four is baaaack.
But on the Other Hand
A look further down the standings shows something even more interesting.
If Merrimack wins its game in hand, then every team but Providence is within three points of home ice.
So parity is back after all and with a vengeance.
Which means three huge weekends remain.
Definitely Part of the Picture
For a while there, it looked like the two teams left on the outside looking in come playoff time would be Providence and Merrimack, a repeat of last year.
Now, that isn’t so certain. Providence remains in trouble, but Merrimack injected itself back into the playoff race with three of four points at Vermont last weekend. If the Warriors win their game in hand, they’ll be tied with Vermont for the final playoff berth and as noted above, a mere three points away from playoff home ice.
This is no two-game fluke. The weekend before, Merrimack beat Massachusetts-Lowell and the one before that it split with New Hampshire. In their last seven league games, the Warriors are 4-2-1. It’s a stark difference from their record preceding the hot stretch: seven straight losses and a 1-10-0 record over 11 games.
“I think if you look at our schedule and you look at the areas where we struggled, a lot of it had to do with scheduling,” coach Mark Dennehy says. “We went 49 days between home games. So that in and of itself put our team in a difficult situation.
“Some of that was our own doing in the sense that we probably bit off more this year with our nonconference schedule than we had in the past. That was by design. I felt like we were ready for it and also thought we needed to strengthen our nonconference schedule a little bit to prepare us more for league play.”
The Warriors played two games at No. 11 North Dakota early this season and the Badger Showdown against No. 3 Wisconsin and No. 14 Ferris State. All were losses but two were by a single goal. Not to mention in hostile environments.
“I honestly think that had a lot to do with it,” Dennehy says. “That’s not an excuse; it’s an explanation.
“We still hadn’t figured out a way to win on the road. I don’t think it had anything to do with our athletic makeup as much as it did with our mentality. But I saw that continuing to improve all year long. We were close. We were playing well enough [on the road] but not well enough to win.
“Then this weekend [at Vermont] we found a way. It was a long time coming.”
Virtually every team has a better record at home than on the road, but Merrimack’s home-away splits boggle the mind. The Warriors are 10-2-0 at home, losing only to New Hampshire and Northeastern, but 1-12-1 on the road. For the mathematically challenged, that means they were 0-11-0 on the road until this past weekend.
How can a team that had been winless on the road be so dominating at home?
“We’re in a results-oriented business,” Dennehy says. “I understand that. At the end of the day it’s about wins and losses. But when I think of the word dominant … we didn’t blow too many teams out at home. A lot of those games were close. So the results may be dominant but if you look at the games themselves, a Hockey East game is going to be decided by a play or two per game.
“Then if you look at our road record and you look at how many one-goal games we’ve played there, especially if you take out the empty-net goals, we’re right there [with everyone else].
“What we’ve been able to do, whether it’s at home or on the road, is make it a one-goal game. Last year we had an abysmal one-goal record, but we put ourselves in those positions. Now, I think we’re better so we’re winning more of them. We’re good enough and we’re a little bit more battle-tested than last year’s team.”
Still, there does seem to be something special going on at the J. Thom Lawler Arena. You don’t beat teams like UNH, BC, BU, Vermont, Lowell, Northeastern and Providence by accident.
“There’s definitely a positive vibe in our rink,” Dennehy says. “[Athletic director] Glenn Hofmann and his administration, as well as our players, have done a good job of ingratiating this team with the student body.
“We’re averaging over 500 students a game and that is roughly 39 percent of our student body.”
Go ahead. Read that statistic again. Thirty-nine percent!
“When you’re at a small campus, if you have a group of guys that people don’t like then I don’t care how successful they are, people aren’t going to support them,” Dennehy says. “We have a good group of young men.
“You look at our achievements off the ice in the classroom, where we had 16 All-Academic team members. These guys come in here and they are here for more than just hockey, but it’s the hockey that drives them.”
Often what drives a team is a look at the standings. Sometimes it drives in a negative way and sometimes positive. You can bet the Warriors are taking a peek these days.
“It’s part guilty pleasure and it’s part my responsibility to pay attention to some of those things, but I talk to our guys all the time about not being distracted by that,” Dennehy says. “If I let myself get distracted by that, then it trickles down from the top.
“We need to pay attention to things, but what we really need to focus on is our own play. I believe if we take care of our own play, we’re going to put ourselves in a position to compete for a playoff spot.
“You’ve got to live in the day. When we have a practice, it has to be the most important part of their day. We need to put together a good practice every day and that will make us better the next.
“We talk it; we’ve got to live it.”
This weekend, the Warriors will take on a team that’s lately been going in the opposite direction. The Massachusetts Minutemen have lost three straight and five of six. There have been some ugly scores to boot: 6-2, 7-1, and 6-3.
“I said this to my team and I believe it: ‘There may be two teams at the top of this league that can put together a sub-par performance and take points and then there’s everybody else,'” Dennehy says. “I think we’re one of those [everybody else] teams.
“When one of those teams is playing each other it comes down to will, it comes down to who wants the game more that night, shift to shift, drop [of the puck] to whistle. I’ve seen it, I believe it.
“As a coach, you look and say, ‘We’re undefeated in three games.’ There’s that balance between feeling good about yourself and thinking your poop doesn’t stink.
“With UMass coming in without winning in three games, there’s going to be some fire there. I know [UMass coach Don] Cahoon, he’s going to have his guys ready to play. They’re going to be amped up, so if we don’t match that, we won’t succeed. It’s that simple.”
Rookie of the Year Shoo-In?
Can there be any doubt as to this year Hockey East rookie of the year?
Merrimack forward Stephane Da Costa ranks sixth overall among league scorers (fourth in league games) and may well be a unanimous pick. Since scoring an eye-popping five goals in his first game, he’s continued to be a force, getting held off the score sheet in only four games. He dazzled in the game-winner against Vermont.
“He’s electric,” Dennehy says. “He vanished on that goal. There were three guys around him and all of a sudden he was behind them and I don’t think he could tell you how he got there. He’s an exceptional player, probably the best I’ve coached.
“What really impresses me about Stephane is what impressed me about Jeff Halpern at Princeton and Thomas Pock at UMass. The best players I’ve ever been around want to be good at everything they do, not just one thing. If it’s a media relations class, they want to do well in that class. If it’s in the weight room, they want to be at the top of the list in terms of training. Those are the people that go the furthest.
“The recruiting process isn’t an exact science and you don’t get to know these kids as well as when they get there. If I had any concerns, it was how serious a student he was going to be and how serious in the weight room he was going to be.
“He’s been great. He practices hard. He doesn’t go through a drill half-speed. He’s always trying new things.
“It’s great when one of your better players is also one of your hardest workers. I think that’s what allows him to be consistent on a day-to-day basis. He needs to work on his faceoffs, and he knows that. Strength is a big issue for him. He wants to be an elite player and have a chance to play in the NHL, and he’s working on that.
“If he ever finishes four years here, he could probably run for office in the Merrimack Valley. That’s the type of personality he has. People flock to him.
“He’s always got a smile on his face. Sometimes it’s a wry smile because he’s up to no good, but he’s just a real good, respectful young man. Obviously, we’re thrilled that he’s a part of our program, but he brings more to it than just on the ice.”
Missing Their MVP
Few questioned going into the season that Massachusetts-Lowell would have one of the best defensive corps in the league, if not the country. Maury Edwards and his booming slap shot had earned All-America honors the year before. Although less flashy, the senior foursome of Jeremy Dehner, Nick Schaus, Barry Goers and Steve Capraro were forces to be reckoned with.
Injuries and off-years, however, have made a dent in the group. Edwards has seen his production drop from last year’s 11 goals and 29 points to four goals and 15 points.
The unkindest cut of all, however, has been the injury that has sidelined Dehner since Jan. 23 and will continue to keep him out of the lineup for another few weeks. It’s probably not a coincidence that the River Hawks have lost four of the five games played in his absence.
“Jeremy Dehner played 25 to 28 minutes a game,” coach Blaise MacDonald says. “He has really been the MVP of our team so far this season. He’s the type of player that kind of goes under the radar a little bit maybe because of his size and the way that he plays. But we’ve been missing him.”
Arguably, Schaus has been the one defenseman who has most risen to the challenge in Dehner’s absence.
“He has tremendous physicality to his game,” MacDonald says. “When he takes what the game gives him, he can really impact the game for us. He’s put up some points this year, which is good for him and good for our team.”
Goers, who had been an ironman of sorts in his first three years playing in 105 games, missed 10 games from late October through early December but has played inspired hockey of late.
“I thought he played the best game that he’s played in a couple of years [against BC on Friday],” MacDonald says. “That was great for us and was the kind of opportunity [that arises] when you have a good defensemen down.”
Not in the Box Score, Only in the Standings
Give a group of forwards the choice between time on the power play and on the penalty kill and you’ll get a unanimous opinion. All hands go up for the power play.
Yet as pivotal as power-play scoring has become, the grinding, no-glory time on the penalty kill plays every bit as much into a team’s place in the standings.
Last Friday, Lowell’s Chris Auger put on a clinic during one kill, tying up the puck in BC’s zone for what had to be 25 seconds but may have felt to the Eagles like hours. It never showed up in the box score — unlike his two assists — but played a significant role in the River Hawks win.
“It was huge,” MacDonald said after the game. “Chris has got terrific hockey sense, awareness, anticipation and really good stick skills. Some of your better offensive guys are really good penalty killers because they know what the offense is going to do. A kill like that amplifies the confidence and enthusiasm of your bench.”
Auger added, “If you watch our team, when there’s a big shot block, the whole bench is up cheering. Small things like that bring momentum to teams.
“We’ve got a good group of guys here that just build off each other. Those small things add up over a game. You keep doing the small things right, and it’s going to end up doing the right things on the scoreboard.”
Those things matter to every team, but perhaps even more so for the blue-collar River Hawks.
“It’s the difference between good and great,” MacDonald says. “Good year and great year. Coming in second and winning a championship. It’s everything.
“And it’s most important that the guys in the locker room understand that and they know who those contributors are.”
And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But …
Valentine’s Day was this past weekend, but I’ve got to send my love here to my wonderful, amazing wife.
This one’s for The Kid.
Contributing: Diana Giunta