January 15, 2004
BC: Playing Favorites

By Nate Ewell

 Hockey East Notebook

Ben Eaves is tied for second in the nation in assists with 20, trailing only UNH's Justin Aikins.

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Life as the favorite can be among the most treacherous positions in sports. Just ask Minnesota, after its difficult start this year. Or either of last year’s Super Bowl participants.

But among the impressive accomplishments of Jerry York and the Boston College Eagles this year has been living up to expectations. The Eagles, overwhelming favorites in the preseason, haven’t run away from the pack in the conference standings, but they do stand in first.

With head coach Jerry York fighting off a cold and laryngitis, assistant coach Ron Rolston tried to explain the Eagles’ success despite the weight of preseason expectations.

“I think first and foremost we’ve got the same group of kids back from last year, and we learned a lot of lessons last year,” Rolston said. “We tied for the league title last year, but we weren’t successful in winning a lot of championships, like the Beanpot and the Hockey East Tournament.”

Those letdowns have helped the Eagles focus on each challenge they face during the course of this season.

“There are six or seven possibilities of winning a championship during the year,” Rolston said, “starting with the Ice Breaker, then the Great Lakes Invitational and so on. We’re moving through the season and focusing on each of those one at a time.”

That now-familiar challenge – of playing as the favorite – confronts Boston College in an unfamiliar situation this weekend. When the Eagles, ranked second in the nation, meet Boston University, stuck at 6-6-6, historically it’s a toss-up.

Boston College believes, of course, that it still is.

“We were probably the favorite last year at the Beanpot, but that didn’t matter,” Rolston noted. “Any time you play in a rivalry, it’s so emotional. The team that can stay on an even keel will be the one that has success.”

BU head coach Jack Parker was among the most effusive in praise of Boston College before the season. “On paper, BC is far and above everyone else in the league,” he said before the first faceoff. “They have a few more offensive threats … and I think they have a lot of experience in a lot of areas.”

During the year, Parker has made more noise speaking in unfavorable tones about his own team, which makes you think this series may be as lopsided as it appears. We’ll find out this weekend, in two televised games (NESN Friday, FOX Sports New England Saturday).


Now, Since the Cats Are in the Bag – Hockey East’s decision to welcome Vermont in 2005-06 came so quickly – just three weeks after the school’s letter of inquiry, with the holidays included – that the conference scarcely had time to consider the consequences the decision would have on its schedule and tournament. But now that the Catamounts’ position in Hockey East is secure for the 2005-06 season, the conference will devote some time to those topics and how they will look now with 10 teams in the fold.

Two three-person committees have been formed to explore each of the two subjects, and they will report their findings to the rest of the conference athletic directors to make a decision, most likely at the league meetings in Florida after the season. In the meantime, Commissioner Joe Bertagna said that he plans to draw up two sample schedules to show the schools: one 27-game slate in which each team would play the others three times, and one 24-game, unbalanced schedule.

Similarly, two viable options stand out for the conference tournament: keep it at eight teams, or expand to 10 with a final five format like the WCHA. Schedule restrictions at the FleetCenter may prevent Hockey East from holding games on three straight nights like the WCHA does, however.

Ties are up, goals are down – You could note this trend in the NHL, minor leagues, and probably even the mite games at any MDC rink around Boston: scoring is down, and ties are up. The two trends – scoring and stalemates – work hand-in-hand, of course, since goals help break ties.

Hockey East teams scored an average of 2.87 goals a year ago, and that’s dropped by more than one-quarter of a goal per game this season (2.60). That’s only a decline of one goal every four games, so it might not be time to sound the alarm.

But suddenly, tie games have all the predictability of a Roger Clemens money-grabbing comeback.

In each of the last two years, 12 Hockey East games finished in ties. Already this season we’ve had nine conference games finish tied, which puts us on pace for 20 ties on the year – nearly double the total from each of the last two years, and more than the single-season record (18 in 1999-2000).

Is it time to return to the shootouts that were held to settle tie games in 1994-95 and ’95-96? The coaches’ sentiment, by and large, seems to be against that. Tweaking the overtime to four-on-four, like the NHL, or even doubling its length to 10 minutes, could be an option.

“I tend to like experimenting with rules,” Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna said. “We may consider what we do serious business, but it’s still college athletics. We can experiment with things.”

Like the shootout, any experimental rule change would take place for two years, either in one conference or nationwide, before it is reevaluated. Any experiment would have positives and negatives, of course, one of which being how the results of those games would be factored into the Ratings Percentage Index that’s part of the NCAA Tournament selection criteria.

“Our preoccupation with the RPI could be an issue,” Bertagna said. “It would be unfortunate if that gets in the way of someone trying a legitimate experiment to improve the game.”

Worst to first – Welcome to the league, John Yaros. The UMass Lowell sophomore goaltender, a transfer from Army, delivered a 3-2 win at Michigan State in his first appearance for the River Hawks. He should make his conference debut against Merrimack this weekend, as those nearby rivals faceoff in a home-and-home series.

“Yaros had looked very good in practice, but the decisions you make in a game, moving the puck, when to tie it up, where to put rebounds, I didn’t know how he would react to those factors,” head coach Blaise MacDonald said. “(Saturday night) he excelled in those areas.”

Because of his transfer status, Yaros was ineligible in the first semester, and his debut was delayed further thanks to an extended bout with mono. Now that he’s arrived, he joins Chris Davidson and bolsters a suddenly imposing UMass Lowell goaltending situation.

From the hard-to-believe file: the River Hawks were dead last in Hockey East in conference save percentage for a team last year (.843, and it wasn’t even close). This year UMass Lowell sits atop that list with a .919 team save percentage in conference games, edging out even Maine (.915) and the Black Bears’ remarkable goaltending tandem. Yaros, once seen as a potential savior in nets for the River Hawks, is now half of what could be a very effective duo in the nets at Tsongas Arena.


Great Weekend Getaway
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Massachusetts at Maine (Fri.-Sat.)
It takes a lot to overshadow a Boston College-Boston University series, but this may just be the matchup to do it. It’s a rematch, of course, of last year’s Hockey East quarterfinal upset in which Massachusetts signaled its true arrival to the rest of college hockey. In that series they snapped Maine’s perfect home record in Hockey East Tournament game; this weekend, they have a chance to spoil the Black Bears’ 7-0-0 home record this season.

While You’re There: A guy named Mad Chad Taylor will perform at the Memorial Union after Friday night’s game, and you can watch him “juggle three running chainsaws, light his finger on fire, and catch a 15 pound anvil with his head.” And you thought scoring on the Maine goalies was tough.

Stick Salute

Providence’s new uniforms have arrived, and they artfully blend old and new. The classic Skating Friar – which was missing from the front of the new jerseys at the start of the year – rests atop the school name, in its new font, on the front of the jersey. The font, in black and surrounded by silver, looks good for the player names and numbers, too, something that’s not always the case when you using anything more than the standard block letters.

Bench Minor

If you think BU’s record is more than a little creepy at 6-6-6, consider this: earlier this season they have been 5-5-5, 4-4-4, 3-3-3 and 2-2-2. It’s a bit like looking at the buttons in the hotel elevator after a really late night at the Frozen Four.

• NHL followers have noted the recent success of backups, including Rhode Island native Brian Boucher’s remarkable run and UNH grad Ty Conklin’s success in Edmonton. It’s a trend that’s evident in Hockey East as well. Providence’s David Cacciola started both ends of the home-and-home against New Hampshire last weekend, and while he lost Saturday, he looked good in a 33-save tie Friday night. Opposite him in that game was Jeff Peitrasiak, who is 3-0-1 in seven games after making just two appearances all of last year behind Mike Ayers. At BU, Stephan Siwiec stepped in for Sean Fields and earned the win as the Terriers came from behind to beat Northeastern in overtime. Siwiec is 2-0-2 after playing in just three games all of last year, and Jack Parker told the student paper that fans may see Siwiec again this weekend against BC.

All in all, it hasn’t even been a month, but five of the conference’s nine teams have had significant contributions from their “backup” goaltenders since Christmas. That’s not even counting goaltending tandems at Maine (Frank Doyle and the injured Jim Howard) and UMass Lowell (Chris Davidson and John Yaros).

• When Providence grad Tom Fitzgerald scored a goal in his 1,000th career NHL game this week, his coach, Pat Quinn, reminded him to collect the souvenir puck.

“I have four kids, who was I going to give it to?" Fitzgerald said. "Then I saw my Dad behind the bench, so I flipped it to him."

• Commissioner Joe Bertagna’s take on Jerry York battling laryngitis: “I wouldn’t think that would bother Jerry too much. He’s not much of a yeller. Chris Serino would have a real problem with that.”

New Hampshire’s first line has received its long-awaited jump-start, with senior Steve Saviano leading the way. Saviano has four goals and an assist in the last three games, including a hat trick against Dartmouth Tuesday. The team’s scoring burst has coincided with a big improvement in its league-leading power play, which is four-for-nine in the last three games.

• It’s often dismissed as a meaningless stat, but plus/minus is telling the truth in Hockey East: the co-leaders in the statistic are two impressive but underrated defensemen, Prestin Ryan (Maine) and Stephen Wood (Providence).

Boston College freshman Adam Pineault is the No. 21 ranked North American skater in the NHL Central Scouting Mid-Term Rankings, tops among Hockey East players. Pineault would forfeit his college eligibility if he entered this year’s draft, however; if he stays in school he will be draft-eligible in 2005. Eleven other Hockey East freshmen made the list, with Pineault closely followed by three defensemen: Steve Birnstill (Northeastern), Mike Lundin (Maine) and Jeff Caron (Merrimack).

Northeastern’s Jason Guerriero (4-11—15 in a six-game point-scoring streak) remains the hottest hand in Hockey East. He and Providence’s Chris Chaput (3-12—15 in his last 11 games) could put up some good numbers this weekend, as the conference’s two worst overall team defenses face off in a home-and-home series.

• Former Boston University captain and Framingham native Carl Corazzini got called up by the Bruins and could make his NHL debut Thursday night in Buffalo.

"Oh, my God," Corazzini told Joe McDonald of the Providence Journal after hearing the word. "Just to have the opportunity to skate with these guys is great. To be out there with guys like Joe Thornton, Glen Murray and Brian Rolston – guys I grew up watching – just to skate on the same ice with them at a real Bruins practice is real exciting for me."

• Joe Bertagna made note of the long-standing relationship between Hockey East and Vermont. After the initial split from the ECAC, Bertagna said, intra-conference games were rare since some bitterness lingered. Vermont was the first ECAC team to really warm up to the new conference and schedule games against New Hampshire, BC, BU and the like.

• While the ACC tried to pry Boston College from the Big East a year ahead of schedule, Hockey East won’t try a similar move with Vermont. Bertagna indicated that the Catamounts will definitely join the league in 2005-06, and not sooner, unless the ECAC for some reason decides cut ties a year early. The guess here is that would only happen if the ECAC can get a replacement for the Catamounts in place for next fall.

New Hampshire’s Patrick Foley is one of five finalists for the College Hockey Humanitarian Award, an impressive recognition for the two-year Wildcat captain. He will be honored as a finalist for the award, which goes to “college hockey’s finest citizen,” prior to a home game later this season.

• Here’s a belated plug for a nice story on Maine hockey in the Maine Times, a publication that re-launched earlier this year as a full-color magazine. The cover story in the November 2003 issue does a good job of capturing the state’s passion for the Black Bears.

A variety of sources were utilized in the compilation of this report.

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