Margin for error gets increasingly smaller in Hockey East

“There’s a fine line between winning and losing,” Northeastern coach Jim Madigan says.

And that line has gotten even finer this year.

Madigan should know. His Huskies were taking no prisoners while compiling an eight-game unbeaten streak. During that stretch, they won four road games against teams ranked in the top eight nationally: Michigan (by a score of 4-1), Notre Dame twice (including a 9-2 thumping), and Minnesota. Throw in a home win over 11th-ranked Massachusetts-Lowell and you’ve got one extraordinarily impressive winning streak.

The Huskies, however, have followed that high with the low of a four-game losing streak. In their defense, all four of those losses came against nationally ranked foes — Boston University, Boston College and two at the hands of Lowell — with three of them of the one-goal variety.

But an eight-game undefeated streak is an eight-game undefeated streak and a four-game losing streak is a four-game losing streak.

A very fine line indeed.

The Huskies aren’t alone.

The Boston College Eagles opened 8-1, looking every bit the No. 1 team in the country that the polls said they were. Then they went .500 over the next eight games before plummeting to a 2-5-1 stretch recently that included getting swept by Maine last weekend.

Merrimack remained undefeated the longest of any team in the country, posting an early 9-0-1 mark. The Warriors then dropped onto the other side of that fine line with a 1-3-1 stretch going into the break. They’re 3-2-2 since then and have played nine overtimes on the season.

“It may be tighter than ever before within the league,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy says, “but it’s always been that tight for us.

“What it’s really about is you’re talking about the psychology of a young person. Even though it’s a long season date-wise, there are still only 34 games. So you get momentum swings. When you’re scoring goals, you get into a little bit of a groove.”

And when you’re not scoring, that groove is hard to find.

“A lot of what we do is just managing the psychology of the players,” Dennehy says. “We talk about not getting too high with the highs and not getting too low with the lows.

“Early on we were winning. I don’t know if we were playing much differently than we were during the spell where we struggled a little bit, but it was some of the little things, just thinking maybe that we might have been a little bit better than we were and not being willing or ready to do the things that we needed to do to succeed.”

The little things that make up that fine line.

“In the games where we’ve struggled, I felt like the other team has played with more of a purpose, they’ve played with more of an understanding of what they need to do, and a willingness to do those things,” Dennehy says.

The fine line may well become microscopic down the stretch.

“As you get closer and closer to the playoffs and all the games are within Hockey East, everybody is playing with a purpose,” he says. “There’s more on the line, so it seems, so every opponent is prepared.

“That’s the fun part of our job and it’s also the part of our job that gives us the most stress, trying to manage the psychological welfare of 19-to-23 year olds.

Is it BU and then everyone else?

With all due respect to the other teams contending for the Hockey East title, it sure is looking like Boston University is in a class by itself. While everyone else was battling tooth and nail for every last point this past weekend, the Terriers demolished Providence 6-1 and 8-0. The Friars, keep in mind, entered the weekend 7-5-1 in league play and on Tuesday recovered from the BU-inflicted destruction by defeating Massachusetts-Lowell 1-0.

Not that the Terriers are routinely blowing out opponents the way they did to PC. They’ve had plenty of close contests. But they are 12-2-0 over the last 14 games and rank first in the PairWise Rankings.

They’ve got the league’s best offense by a good margin (3.88 goals per Hockey East game, followed by Maine at 3.39). They trail only Merrimack in team defense (2.47 goals against per game). They’ve got the league’s best penalty kill (87.1 percent) and a killer power play (27.5 percent, trailing only Maine’s 28.0 percent).

Heck, they even lead Hockey East in penalty minutes (21.5 per game), though that’s one area of leadership coach Jack Parker could do without.

“It’s a pretty well-balanced team right now,” Parker says. “The word ‘team’ is the most important thing. We’ve come together as a team pretty nice.”

The ups and downs could, of course, change this picture dramatically. Boston College has a ton of talent and could contend, especially if its goaltending situation improves. Merrimack has proven it’s no pretender and Lowell has impressed and holds games in hand against everyone but Massachusetts. Maine has been sizzling hot and with two games at BU this weekend could make a major move.

But at this point, no one looks better than the Terriers. Not even close.

Is it their regular season title to lose? It’s too early to say that, but if they sweep Maine this weekend, we’ll be getting close.

Lowell’s resurgence

Last year, Massachusetts-Lowell finished deep in the cellar with a 4-21-2 mark in Hockey East. When the River Hawks were picked to finish ninth in the coaches’ preseason poll, that seemed about right to this observer.

Not even close.

Lowell has been the league’s biggest surprise, just two points out of a home ice playoff berth while holding three games in hand. After sweeping Northeastern over the weekend, the River Hawks soared to a tie for the third position in the PairWise. Getting upset at Providence on Tuesday did knock them down a bit, but there’s no question this has been a banner year so far for the Hawks.

“It’s game-to-game with us,” Bazin says when asked about the standings after Friday night’s dominating 4-0 win. “We’re not a team that can look too far ahead. We’re a workmanlike team and we know how we have to play to be successful.”

It’s a mantra that gets repeated by Bazin’s players.

“You try to just stay away from that stuff [the standings] and let your game speak for itself,” defenseman Daniel Furlong says. “We’ve played great as a team and we look forward to doing that the rest of the way.”

The mantra has been reinforced by the ups and downs the team has gone through. The River Hawks put together a five-game winning streak that included two wins over New Hampshire and another over Boston College. Since the holiday break, however, their two losses have come at the hands of last-place Vermont and a presumed-to-be-struggling Providence club on Tuesday.

“You’re going to go through a season where there are a lot of highs and lows,” Bazin says. “You have to keep in mind that it’s a long season so you’re going to go through some of those lows where you have different parts of your game where you need to improve.”

Despite the pothole or two in the road, it’s been a great ride so far for a team coming off a very rough year. And there’s a nice mix of veterans and younger players. Freshman Scott Wilson leads the scoring with 11 goals and 20 points. Goaltender Doug Carr has emerged this year as a sophomore, recording a .934 save percentage.

“We’ve got a lot of great leaders,” Furlong says. “Our seniors are great role models for our younger guys and our younger guys are really stepping up. Our goaltender, Carrsie [Carr], has been there for us, backstopping us the entire time, doing a great job. And the coaching has been phenomenal. Everyone is buying in and it’s been great so far.”

Merrimack: Just a dip in the road

When Merrimack opened the season with a 10-game unbeaten streak, rising to No. 1 in the country, the doubters remained. Some had viewed the 2010-11 Warriors as “Stephane Da Costa and the seven dwarfs” (to use Dennehy’s words) and were waiting for the other shoe to drop. Others more reasonably contended that the tougher portion of the team’s schedule still loomed. So they, too, waited for the other shoe to drop.

So when the clumping sound echoed of a 1-3-1 stretch heading into the holiday break, many nodded knowingly and said, if not aloud, “I knew it.”

Dennehy, however, contended that the tough stretch was just a dip in the road. Whistling past the graveyard?

It turns out, no. Dennehy was right.

Following the break, Merrimack took three out of four points in the Ledyard National Bank Tournament, lost to BU, then tied BC. The Warriors then took three of four points from a red-hot Maine club and split with New Hampshire.

Not an undefeated stretch, but good enough to position Merrimack in second place, four points behind BU with a game in hand.

So much for “Stephane Da Costa and the seven dwarfs” minus Da Costa.

Arguably the most pivotal and certainly most impressive contest was a 6-2 drubbing of a Maine club that had won eight of its last nine. A bad weekend against the Black Bears could have prompted a downward spiral. Three points established that this team was very much for real, that the dip in the road had been nothing more.

“You can lose confidence in a hurry,” Dennehy says. “But you can also get it in a hurry.”

It goes beyond that superficial level, however.

“You want your team to play with confidence,” he says. “You don’t want them to think they’re good, you want them to play as if they’re good. That’s a really fine line.”

Where the Warriors have excelled for pretty much the entire season is in their own zone. They’ve held the top team defense ranking in Hockey East virtually from game one. Last year, they had more offensive firepower; this year, they’re allowing exactly two goals a game overall and a bit more in league play.

“It begins and ends with Joseph,” Dennehy says of his goaltender, Joe Cannata. “When this league is at its best, we’ve had great goaltenders. Joe is one of those underrated guys that really ran under people’s radar. He’s going to shatter most of our records in Division I.

“But I also really thought the defensive position was going to be [strong with] depth for us. We have four of the top 11 scoring defensemen in the league and there’s not another team with more than two. That speaks volumes. I look at our top four D — [Karl Stollery, Brendan Ellis, Jordan Heywood, and Kyle Bigos] — and we’ve got a lot of confidence in them.

“We need to play good D. Scoring isn’t something that comes naturally to us, so that needs to be our mind-set. As long as Joe’s seeing the puck, we have confidence in him saving it. That’s really where it begins and ends with us.

“When it comes to playoff time, they’re all close games. So being prepared to win those close games is really important. That needs to be our mind-set.”

While scoring may not come naturally to the Warriors, they’ve still got the league’s third-best power-play unit. It converts at a 22.1 percent rate in league games.

“We’re working on having objectives,” Dennehy says. “You know you want to score goals, that’s a result. But if you judge it on goals, even your best power play is going to fail 80 percent of the time. You’re going to be pretty disappointed.

“[So we’re working on objectives we can control.] It’s about outworking the penalty kill, getting the pucks to the net, spreading the zone, second chances, and puck retrieval. Those are things you can work on; those are things you can control. And if you do those things well enough, you’re going to score goals.”

As Dennehy surveys his team’s position in Hockey East, he likes what he sees but knows there are basic challenges ahead.

“Since Christmas, I think we’ve played pretty consistently,” he says. “We’ve given up more than two goals just twice, against BU and St. Lawrence, which was a little bit of an anomaly. We’re getting closer to playing 60 full minutes.

“Come the last week in [February and first week in March], there’s going to be plenty of people fighting for playoffs, home ice and first place. It’s about getting points every weekend and so far in the second half we’ve been able to do that. That’s crucial. You’ve got to get points every weekend.”

A peek at the PairWise

The volatility in the PairWise at this time of year can be seen clearly in two examples. Lowell’s loss to Providence on Tuesday dropped the River Hawks from a tie for third place to a tie for ninth. And with four losses to teams in the PairWise’s top 10, Northeastern plummeted from the bubble, a tie for 16th, to no-man’s land, a tie for 29th.

So it’s way too early to count any chickens, but here’s the current outlook for Hockey East teams. BU (No. 1), Merrimack (tied for sixth), BC and Lowell (both tied for ninth) are in. On the outside looking in are Maine (18), Massachusetts (24), Providence (tied for 27) and Northeastern (tied for 29th).

Cracking the Ice

I hope you’ve read the gracious praise given by several of my colleagues to my novel Cracking the Ice. Here’s a bit more, two from reviews by total strangers and two by good friends in the college hockey radio booths.

“Hendrickson’s debut novel paints a gripping account of a courageous young man rising above evil.” — Booklist

“It is very readable, written with a clear and powerful voice, and is engaging from beginning to end.” — Long and Short Reviews (a four-star review)

“To say I couldn’t put it down doesn’t say enough. A must read for every adult and young adult alike.” — Pete Webster, UNH Hockey Radio Network

“This is a terrific book and I would recommend it to anyone who likes a great story, hockey fan or not.” — Dan Hannigan, Maine Hockey Radio Network

Copies of the novel are on trucks being delivered to bookstores, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble online as you read this. If you’ve preordered a copy, you’ll be getting it soon. If you’d like to order a personalized copy, drop me a line at [email protected].


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