Hockey East Championship Preview
by Joe Meloni/CHN Reporter
For years, fans have waited for the day when a team other than Boston College, New Hampshire, Boston University or Maine would claim the Lou Lamoriello Trophy. Not since 1996, when Providence, behind Joe Hulbig, defeated Maine, 3-2, has a club other than one of the big four won the conference championship. In fact, it’s proven to be more of a big two of late with no one other than BU or BC standing as the least team remaining since Maine beat Massachusetts, 2-1, in triple overtime in 2004.
Last season, Maine nearly clinched its sixth Hockey East Championship, losing to BC, 7-6.
In 2010-11, fans may have their best opportunity yet to see one of the other six emerge as the best.
Fourth-seeded Merrimack ranked among the nation’s top teams for most of the season takes on two-seed New Hampshire at 8 p.m. Friday night in the second of two semifinals from the TD Garden in Boston.
The Warriors’ turnaround made headlines all season as the club from North Andover, Mass., developed into one of the best teams in the 10-team conference before pushing a few more traditional powerhouses out of the way to claim a top spot in the PairWise.
At this point, though, Mark Dennehy and his club concerns themselves only with Friday night. The opportunity to play for a conference championship and a national championship next weekend stands as reminder of what they’ve accomplished thus far. But picking up the program’s first conference championship berth remains their sole focus right now.
“We’ve really tried to focus on what’s in front of us,” Dennehy said. “We’ve got an opportunity to accomplish another goal. We’ve made the playoffs, we got home ice and made it to the Garden. I told our guys not be focusing on Friday, we need to be focusing on today.”
Before the Warriors and Wildcats get going, though, top-seeded BC and Northeastern play the first semifinal – a game NU’s trophy-starved fans immediately dubbed a Beanpot rematch. On Valentine’s Day, the programs, whose arenas lie five miles from each other, played in the Beanpot title game, where the Eagles outlasted the Huskies, 7-6, in overtime.
“Everybody still talks about the Beanpot because it was such a great game, but we didn’t win the game,” Northeastern coach Greg Cronin said. “There were a lot of people that thought it was a great game, but we didn’t win it, though. You have to win those games.”
No. 6 Northeastern vs. No. 1 Boston College
Season Series: BC won, 2-1-1
Talking to either Boston College coach Jerry York or senior goaltender John Muse reveals two things about the Eagles: they’re confident in what they can do, and they know exactly the mindset it requires to achieve all they can.
These are traits clubs pick up over the years. Clubs, like BC, that have won 13 championships, including midseason events and NCAA Tournament regionals, in the last four seasons, know better than anyone.
With a weekend sweep of UNH in the final days of the regular season, BC earned its 13th title in the league’s regular season championship. It meant a lot to senior Joe Whitney, but the captain understands fans and the college hockey world expect more of the defending national champions. The expectations coming out of Conte Forum surpass the nation’s by pretty wide margin, though.
BC expects to win Hockey East this year. York knows Northeastern, Merrimack and UNH want it as badly as his club does, though.
“Everyone always talks about national tournaments but we really respect Hockey East and this is an important part of our whole year, to try to win our conference tournament,” he said. “We are focused completely on this. I know people are talking about seedings and [NCAA] regionals but that’s next week. This week we are trying to figure out a way to win the Lamoriello Cup.”
To pick up their third Lamoriello Cup in the last three years, the Eagles will need to stifle a Northeastern offense that gave it fits in two of the three meetings. The six goals NU scored in the Beanpot final is the second most BC allowed this season. The most came four days later, in Hockey East play, when the Huskies dropped a seven spot on the Eagles in a 7-7 tie.
One difference between that game and Friday night is that Muse will get the nod for the Eagles; sophomore Parker Milner started the game on Feb. 18.
Along with Muse, York expects the club’s two other seniors, Joe Whitney and Brian Gibbons, along with junior winger Cam Atkinson, to pace the Eagles’ offense.
“Our goaltender John Muse has been really the catalyst for our team,” York said. “I think he has had an outstanding career but this year – his fourth year with us – has been by far his best year. With that the other two are Brian Gibbons and Joe Whitney who both had outstanding years. Those three have led us.”
A gifted group of seniors lead the Huskies into their showdown with the Eagles as well. Wingers Tyler McNeely and Wade MacLeod flank pivot Steve Silva on a line that led the Huskies through a season that was difficult, controversial and surreal at different times.
A putrid 1-7-3 start provided the difficulty for the young Huskies. However, Cronin has recycled the word “unflappable” throughout the season, led by a strong corps of upperclassmen and a talented collection of kids in their first or second season in Hockey East. With the seniors providing a level of consistency, the freshmen and sophomores, led by second-year goaltender Chris Rawlings, freshman winger Brodie Reid and rookie defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, developed to propel the Huskies to a 13-8-5 record since Nov. 19.
Most recently, NU defeated BU in the Hockey East quarterfinals. Led by Reid, who scored twice and added an assist in the decisive Game 3, NU upset the third-seeded Terriers to move on to the Garden. As the Terriers played for their season, the Huskies’ showed their coach their true mettle, earning the win despite a furious comeback by BU.
“[Defeating BU] takes this team, and it connects the dots and says ‘we’ve already done this,’” Cronin said. “You know? We have done this before. And it is interesting, because BU came right at us really hard in the third period (Sunday). It was almost like it was our guys were circling the wagons, which is not the way to deal with it. Then a couple guys stood up on the bench and said, ‘let’s go.’”
No. 4 Merrimack vs. No. 2 New Hampshire
Season series: Merrimack won, 2-1
Despite the respect and esteem his program has earned, UNH coach Dick Umile has been forced to deal with questions regarding his club’s futility in the conference and national tournaments for years. The Wildcats’ last Hockey East Championship came in 2003, meanwhile a national title has still never come to Durham, N.H., despite the efforts of their legendary coach.
UNH spent this weekend the last two seasons at home, watching other clubs battle for the Hockey East Championship. Getting back to the TD Garden wasn’t the easiest feat for the Wildcats, but the club showed its ability to play close, defensive games in its sweep of Vermont in the Hockey East quarterfinals. Advancing to Boston was the club’s first goal, the Lamoriello Cup is its second.
“Real excited to be back at the Garden,” Umile said. “As all the other coaches have referred to it’s a difficult place to get to. Our season has gone pretty well, we had an opportunity to win the regular season [championship], and we lost it in our last game to Boston College. But now we have an opportunity to get to Boston, and now we’re heading there to compete for the Hockey East playoff Championship. And we’re all really excited about it.”
The talk of the Wildcats all season has been their explosive first line. Led by senior winger Paul Thompson, who was named league player of the year Thursday night, the top trio has accounted for a majority of the UNH offense. In fact, Thompson alone scored 22 percent of the Wildcats’ goals this season. As a whole, the line scored more than 40 percent of UNH’s 126 goals this season.
Production from the remaining three lines will be key for the Wildcats. However, the largest question mark for UNH in October was junior goaltender Matt Di Girolamo. The junior finished his first season as the No. 1 in Durham with a 2.47 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage, while appearing in all but two minutes, 17 seconds of game time for the Wildcats this season.
“There were a lot of questions about how we were going to be in goal this season with Brian Foster leaving,” Umile said. “And Matt, just very quietly at the beginning of the season, I shouldn’t say quietly, but he’s played every game and he’s been tremendous. He’s been very consistent.”
In two of his losses this season, Di Girolamo made 36 and saves, but failed to pick the win. Both of these games took place against Merrimack, who is making just its second appearance in the Hockey East Semifinals – its first since 1998. A nice regular season isn’t enough for the Warriors, though.
“We’ve got a number of goals that we’ve tried to elevate since we got here and one of those was making the playoffs and we accomplished that,” Dennehy said. “I’m confident that our guys will be business-like this weekend as they have been all year.”
While the coach has been quick to credit his entire roster with a portion of the club’s success this season, there’s little denying that sophomore dynamo Stephane Da Costa’s role in Merrimack’s success. His 41 points on 14 goals and 27 assists led the Warriors. Without the Frenchman, the club posted a 3-3-0 record after he suffered lower body injury against UNH on Feb. 11. With Da Costa in the lineup, the Warriors finished 21-5-4.
“I can’t tell you how lucky we are with how understated he is,” Dennehy said. “I have never seen a player get so much attention from other teams. The only problem that he can have is getting frustrated. He has done a great job all year of not letting the attention faze him. You can look at the statistics and say that he didn’t do much this weekend but whenever he has the puck, he is dangerous and the guys on the other side of the ice know that.”
Players like senior Chris Barton, freshman Mike Collins and others supported Da Costa in amassing the leads second-best offense, scoring 3.69 goals per game. On the back end, the Warriors 2.42 goals allowed put them second in the conference. Perhaps no player in the league has been more overshadowed than Merrimack’s junior goaltender Joe Cannata. While his numbers fall just short of Muse and Di Girolamo, Dennehy is supremely confident that Cannata can lead the Warriors to their first Hockey East Championship.
“He has a real calm demeanor to him. A good goaltender has to make one save and that is the game-winning one,” Dennehy said. “He has done a great job of that all season long. Like a lot of our players, he has flown under peoples’ radars. Just look at our 7th place preseason poll and a lot of people didn’t give us much of a chance.”
Like UNH and BC, Merrimack’s bid the NCAA Tournament is a certainty regardless of their performance this week. However, the winner of the last three Hockey East Championships has gone one to win the national title – a streak the eventual winner will be desperate to continue, but not one they plan to think about until they meet league commissioner Joe Bertagna at center ice Saturday night.