Hockey East Tournament Preview
by Matthew Conyers/CHN Correspondent
BOSTON After nearly six months of hockey, 29 overtime periods and a regular season championship that came down to the final game, the Hockey East conference returns to Boston for the 22nd Championship Tournament on Friday. However, despite all the twists and turns throughout the season there is a distinctly familiar vibe in Beantown this weekend: The four powerhouses are back.
For only the second time in conference history, the same exact field from the previous season returns to the semifinals. The only differences this time around lie in the seedings. The first place slot now resides on Commonwealth Avenue with the Boston University Terriers thanks to a dramatic second-half charge that saw the squad rebound from a 5-7 start to open Hockey East. The reward for their endeavors arrives in a duel with 2004 tournament runner-up New Hampshire.
"We were very fortunate to have things fall our way," said BU coach Jack Parker. "Now that's over with, now it's a new season and we will see who will be the real champion of Hockey East because the real champ will be crowned this weekend, the best team in the league will be the team that wins this tournament.
"We would like to have the chance to get to the final, and in order to do that we're going to have to get by a team that has played great all year, and especially well against us."
The Wildcats defeated Boston University 5-2 as three-seed last year. They return to the hub this time around as a surging four seed. In the prime time game, second seed Maine will look to exorcize some demons of their own against heated foe Boston College, who knocked out the Black Bears 2-1 in the longest semifinal contest in tournament history. The Black Bears aren't the only ones with something to prove. The Eagles, the 2004 No. 1 seed and eventual champion, are hoping a strong tournament performance can eclipse their near disastrous end to the regular season, where they went 4-7-1.
Most importantly, each squad is hoping the weekend serves as launching pad for next week's NCAA Tournament. With Hockey East failing to crash the 2005 Frozen Four, the four storied programs are eager to gain some momentum headed into this year's party in Wisconsin.
Regular season champ Boston University enters Friday eyeing their first Hockey East Tournament Championship since 1997.
Said coach Jack Parker, "We played Boston College in January and we beat them, and as we walked out I told a friend of mine, 'I hope nobody else beats BC the rest of the year, that they keep beating everybody so we have a shot at getting home ice if they keep beating the teams ahead of us.' And lo and behold, everybody kept beating everybody else, and we had a shot at not only getting home ice but getting the regular season championship."
Much like that talented team, which eventually fell to North Dakota in the National Championship game, the Terriers are currently led by a tenacious netminder in junior John Curry and a talented offensive core. Anchored by Curry, this week's Hockey East Defensive Player of the Week, BU skated to a 2-0 sweep of Massachusetts in their quarterfinal series. Curry allowed just one tally in each decision, while garnering 57 of the 59 shots he faced in the series. There was a bit of disappointment for Curry, however, if it can be called that over the weekend. The 5-foot-9 Minnesota-native witnessed the end of his own quarterfinal shutout streak when UMass scored at 5:52 of the third period on Friday. The score capped the streak at 215:01. With the sweep of Toot Calhoun and company, the Terriers advanced to the semifinals for the fifth straight season.
The big game antics of Curry alone won't be enough to carry BU; although it could put them very close to a title. The Terriers' line of Kenny Roche, Pete MacArthur and Bryan Ewing will need to remind hot at the right time. In the past five games the group has combined for 17 points. Roche leads the team with 16 goals, 13 of which came after Jan. 22 [22 points since Jan. 7]. It would be hard to find a player in Hockey East who has risen as fast as Roche in such short time.
The all-senior line of David Van der Gulik, Brad Zancanaro and John Laliberte is slightly more impressive with 20 points in the last four outings. Van der Gulik and Laliberte are both coming off an inspired weekend, which saw them record eight points combined. Van der Gulik had three goals, while Laliberte recorded two goals and three assists.
"People ask me all the time, 'What was the difference? What did you do differently?' Well, we 'inserted' No. 7 in the lineup, he missed the whole first half of the season — David Van der Gulik, he came back after Christmas," Parker said. "And about a week and a half later we 'inserted' No. 14 in the lineup — Jekabs Redlihs. And all of a sudden we had a different lineup.
"It really helped us to become a more consistent team down the stretch."
BU wins it all if: The first three lines can continue to break down opponents in crucial five-on-five situations and head coach Jack Parker is able to find a way to overcome weak special teams. This year BU is .832 on the penalty kill and .164 on the power play.
BU loses if: Opponents can find a way to get to Curry. In opening periods, he can be susceptible to low-laying shots from the point or corner. Second and third chance opportunities are crucial with Curry. He is rarely beaten off a first shot in a big Hockey East game which these will be. Teams will also need to take advantage of a weak penalty kill unit.
Towards the end of January, several media pundits were ready to write off the second-seeded Black Bears. Not so fast. After a second half resurgence that has all but become a tradition in Orono in recent years, the Black Bears are poised to make a run at the crown. Since Jan. 20, when Maine suffered a devastating 4-0 shutout at the hands of Providence, the squad is 12-1-2. Maine has had to overcome adversity on the ice and off it.
In November, six players were suspended for actions taken in a brawl that happened at an off-campus apartment. Then after overcoming the court hearings and school suspensions, during the same game Maine lost assistant captain and playmaker Michel Leveille to a near-season-ending injury and key defenseman Bret Tyler. However, both were able to return three weeks later and the Black Bears once again overcame adversity.
With all their worries behind them, Maine has emerged as the hottest team in the conference. The Black Bears are set to tussle with the Eagles in their 17th semifinal [Hockey East record] after a hard fought sweep of Massachusetts Lowell in their quarterfinal series. Both games were decided by one goal, with the first game ending in overtime.
Maine's deep bench is led by captain and Hobey finalist Greg Moore, who is coming off a five-point series against the River Hawks. During the series Moore hauled in his 26th goal of the year. He is followed close behind by Michel Leveille, who had two assists in each game. Leveille has recorded a point in 17 of his past 18 games, 27 in his last 17. The Black Bear offense has eight players who have scored over 20 points, and three over 30 points.
Maine wins if: They remain disciplined [penalty kill .894] and are able to continue the high success rate of their power play which stands at .220. Maine will need its third and fourth lines to help take away some of pressure from the second and first line who have been carrying the brunt of the work lately. Maine cannot miss opportunities at the net front especially at the Fleet where they haven't scored over two in their last three games there.
Maine loses if: Their opponents are able to take advantage of a typically late-arriving Maine squad. Throughout the season, Maine has struggled to put together complete performances in the opening periods. Freshman netminder Ben Bishop has also been at his weakest in the opening frames. Last weekend, Bishop surrendered six goals, only one of those came after the first two periods. Otherwise if Maine gets the lead headed into the third watch out; they are 19-0-1.
It's been a strange season for the Eagles, who looked like a sure lock for both the NCAA tournament and Hockey East regular season crown in January. Yet, after a troublesome last month Boston College is showing signs of the team that impressed so many when they were No. 1 nationally in the polls. Boston College snapped out of their slump with back-to-back victories against an always ready to play Vermont squad in their quarterfinal duel.
Buoying the assault for the Eagles was senior blue liner Peter Harrold, who set up Chris Collins' late game tying goal in Game 1 and scored the overtime winner himself in BC's 3-2 nailbiting win. In the second contest, Collins shown why he was Hockey East Player of the Year with a hat trick and one assist en route to a 6-2 win. Collins' four goals brought him to 30 for the season.
Meanwhile, Brian Boyle used his impeccable size and wingspan to smack in a power-play goal in the 3-2 overtime win. However, that wasn't his best fit of the series. Against UVM, Boyle shown how good a distributor he could be adding three assists in the rematch on Saturday. One of the reasons Boston College was able to break out of its late slide was Harrold who has snagged multiple-points three times in BC's last five decisions and has at least one point in 13 of BC's last 15 games.
The Eagles will be hungry to face off with the Black Bears, who swept the Eagles season with them. The Eagles, who are the youngest team in the country, are rounded out by Nathan Gerbe and Dan Bertram on offense.
"We look forward to play a team in Maine that has beat us all three times this year, and we have also only scored three goals against them this year, so that concerns me," said coach Jerry York.
Boston College will win if: Netminder Cory Schneider is on his game and his defense allows him to get clear shots at the puck. As well, if their top three of Boyle, Collins and Harrold are on their game they will be hard to beat. Their freshman like Gerbe can play with anyone.
Boston College will lose if: Their transition game struggles and they force their special teams to log too many minutes.
Like Maine, New Hampshire had to overcome adversity off the ice with seven suspensions for a game in February. However once they did they were able to get the ball rolling. The Wildcats finished with a 5-1-3 record down the stretch while conquering quality opponents. New Hampshire gets the chance to duplicate last year's effort against the Terriers thanks to a 2-0 sweep of Providence in the quarterfinal.
The fourth-seeded Wildcats have been sparked lately by the play of goalies' Kevin Regan, who has posted a 4-0-2 record in his last six starts with a 1.62 GAA and a .945 save percentage, and Jeff Pietrasiak. Pietrasiak is 3-1-1 in his last five starts with a 1.95 GAA and a .929 save percentage.
Regan collected all 27 shots he took on in a 4-0 shutout vs. Providence last Thursday. Two nights later Pietrasiak made 34 out of 35 saves in a 2-1 double overtime thriller.
The Wildcats got serious contribution from their talented forwards as well. One of the most heralded forwards Daniel Winnik tallied one goal, one assist in Game 1 against Providence and the overtime winner in Game 2. Jacob Mcflikier helped carry the load by scoring a goal and grabbing two assists.
New Hampshire has now made the semifinal game for the fifth year in a row. Both Winnik and Mcflikier have been playing their best hockey as of late.
"We're looking forward to the matchup (with BU)," said UNH coach Dick Umile. "I'm sure the fans will enjoy the hockey that they are going to see."
UNH wins if: Their top line plays like it is one of the best in the country and their defense gets good point shots on Curry for deflections and rebounds.
UNH loses if: They fail to play at the high tempo they have been in their last six games. They have to capitalize on opponents' mistakes; they failed to do this early on in the year.
Mike Machnik and Mike McMahon contributed to this report.