You learn a lot about a team when times are good.
Does it become a bit full of itself and become easy to knock of its perch, or does it stay hungry to keep the good times rolling?
Almost certainly, though, you learn even more when adversity hits. Does the team have what it takes to come out of the tailspin quickly, or do the bad times snowball until a season is lost?
Boston University had to deal with a double dose of adversity this past week when, fresh off being named the country’s number one team, it got upset by Merrimack on Tuesday and then again on Friday at home.
“Obviously, we were in a bit of a funk,” BU coach David Quinn said. “In a short period of time, we went from sitting on top of the world — and I don’t mean that because we were ranked No. 1, but just feeling good about ourselves — and in four short days, suddenly the world’s about to end. It’s the ebbs and flows of a hockey season.”
“We were fragile. I felt like Dr. Phil, trying to figure out what’s going on. I dug deep, put the white coat on, and we figured out as a group what we needed to accomplish.”
The Terriers showed they had what it takes to halt the slide, defeating UMass Lowell one night after the second loss, 4-2. They aren’t the top team in the country anymore. Getting swept by Merrimack took care of that. But they’re still third, both in the USCHO poll and the PairWise, so the damage was limited. More importantly, they seemed to get their mojo back.
The River Hawks, meanwhile, are finding themselves on the opposite end of the adversity stick. Used by BU to overcome its own tough times, Lowell must reverse a slide that has seen it lose four straight after reeling off a seven-game winning streak. The River Hawks now hold a mere .500 record in league play.
“There’s no question that we’re going through some adversity right now, and we’re going to find out what we’re really made of,” Lowell coach Norm Bazin said after the loss. “You go through seven games, and everything’s working out pretty well, and then, much like what BU’s going through, we go through some adversity. We’re going to have to work our way out of it.”
Providence provides another illustration of surviving adversity. Three weeks ago, a loss to Vermont on the front half of a weekend series — on Friday the 13th for those who pay attention to such things — dropped the Friars to an almost unthinkable 1-6-2 mark in Hockey East play. And with the next three games against nationally ranked league foes (one more against Vermont and then a home-and-home with Lowell), followed by two at a New Hampshire team in the upper echelon of the standings, the adversity-o-meter wasn’t just pointing full-bore into the fire-red, major panic area, it was clanging sirens and yelling, “Abandon, ship! Abandon, ship!”
Faced with such a challenge, the Friars proved their mettle and then some. They won all five of those games and are now back into the playoff discussion, albeit not for first place, and would make the NCAA tournament if the season ended today.
“We didn’t change our approach at all,” PC coach Nate Leaman said. “Our approach has been that every day matters and we’re in our process that we just want to keep getting better one day at a time. I believe if you do change your approach in any way, the players are going to read off that.”
Which is not to say that there aren’t adjustments made to prop up confidence during tough times and keep players on an even keel as winning streaks lengthen.
“You have different tones at different meetings throughout the year, there’s no doubt about that,” Leaman says. “There were times that our confidence was a little shaken, but we just continued to try to show the guys what makes us tick and what makes us successful. When we play our game, we can have success.
“You just try to change the focus in all these situations onto what we can control. That helps the team look ahead. We have to stay focused on what we can control looking ahead.”
There was additional adversity during the winning streak. Prior to this weekend at UNH, the Friars had fallen behind in five straight games. While they did lose that first game against Vermont, they won the other four.
“It was a good growth sign from our team,” Leaman says, “that we could stick with the game plan, we could stay patient, we could keep working, and if we stayed true to how we wanted to do things, we would have chances to be successful.”
A closer look at Providence
Beyond its ability to deal with adversity, Providence is a team that deserves closer examination. Why did the Friars struggle so badly in the first half, and why are they doing so much better now?
“Our team started off at the beginning of the year with a lot of players that were stepping into new roles or were stepping into college hockey for the first time,” Leaman says. “I just think they have a much better understanding now of our identity, of what makes us successful when we play, and they’re doing a great job of executing it.
“We dug ourselves a hole with our first half. We knew coming back from the break we were going to have to put it into the next gear, so to speak. We knew we had to make a push. Coming off of Christmas, we had Denver, BC, Vermont, Lowell and UNH up at UNH.
“It hasn’t been an easy road, but we’ve worked ourselves back to .500 in the league. But we still have a lot of work to do.”
Fortunately, the Friars’ gauntlet of one stellar opponent after another is over.
As of last week, as Jim Connelly pointed out, Providence had the fourth-easiest remaining schedule, and that was before its sweep over Lowell. Considering that the three teams with even easier schedules (on paper) were Northeastern, Maine and Massachusetts–three teams at or near the bottom of the standings, below Providence–that gives the Friars a great chance to continue rocketing upwards.
They finish with two games each against Maine, Connecticut, Notre Dame, and UMass. And while the tough Notre Dame series in on the road, the games against Maine will be at home, and (as has been pointed out well past nauseam) the Black Bears have yet to win on the road.
“All that stuff is on paper,” Leaman says. “The game’s played on the ice. You don’t have to look around the league much to see that you can be on top of the world, and then it can fall pretty quickly. Just look at Merrimack sweeping BU.
“Anyone in this league can beat anyone. If you don’t show up, or even if you do show up at times, you can be beat. There’s not a big talent discrepancy in this league.
“We’ve discussed that with the team. We realize in the second half of Hockey East that just about every one of these games is a one-goal game. You have to be prepared and show up every night if you want to be successful.
“We’re going to rely on our veteran players to convey that message. Everyone is fighting for something with our new playoff format, and you know that those teams our going to bring their best every night so you better bring your best every night.”
Kudos to Merrimack
Jim Connelly covered the Warriors in this column last week after their Tuesday night upset of BU, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a tip of the fedora to them for completing the tougher half of their sweep at Agganis Arena on Friday night.
Those of us who’ve been around a while–despite my age, I refuse to call myself an old-timer–will remember the other time the Warriors played David to BU’s Goliath and took two from the top-ranked Terriers. That came on an even bigger stage, the 1998 Hockey East quarterfinals, where eighth-seeded Merrimack toppled top-seeded BU, 4-1 and 5-4 in Games 1 and 3 of their series, to advance to the Garden for the first time.
A sad passing
It happened a few weeks back, but this is my first column since the passing of Wayne Smith. I only met him once, but he was instrumental, in an indirect way, to my writing for USCHO.
Back before there were websites, Wayne and Mike Machnik formed HOCKEY-L through which college hockey fans could communicate via email. We posted game stories, observations, and yes, we argued at times.
(Was the Minnesota program more pure than all others because it only accepted kids from that state? Was the late Shawn Walsh the college hockey equivalent of God or the Devil (Black Bear fans: “God!” The most vocal BU fans: “The Devil!”) Was UMass Lowell getting hosed by the NCAA tournament selection committee by being sent to play Michigan State in its own rink?)
You get the picture.
Ah, those were the days.
When Tim Brule and Lee Urton created USCHO, they saw my writing on HOCKEY-L and felt I could put a sentence or two together (although perhaps a few too many sentences) and I seemed to know the difference between cycling the puck and riding a cycle. And I certainly loved the game. As a result, I was asked to write about Hockey East.
So I owe a debt of gratitude to Wayne, a great guy based on that one time I met him and all those many emails shared. And even if you hate my writing, Wayne’s endless hours spent on HOCKEY-L were the foundation upon which sites like USCHO are based.
He will be missed. He will be remembered.
A free college hockey story
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