There Are No Upsets in January
Hockey East Underdogs Must Prove Themselves in March
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
When last weekend's games were over, Hockey East fans seemed shocked. Words like "upset" and "parity" and "depth" bounced around as results trickled in from the corners of New England.
Massachusetts knocked off Boston College, 5-2. Massachusetts-Lowell defeated Boston University, 4-3. The Terriers fell to Northeastern, 6-5, the night before. Providence went up to Durham, N.H., and defeated New Hampshire, 6-5. These scores led many to hail the league's lower half for picking up key wins against Hockey East's powers.
However, it's not uncommon for Hockey East's lesser teams to pick up a few key wins or build lengthy unbeaten streaks. These "upsets" happen pretty often. UMass defeating BC on Friday put the regular-season series between the two teams at 3-3 in the last two years.
"There certainly is parity in our league," BU coach Jack Parker said. "As we saw last weekend, every team in this league is tough to play against.
"It's been going on a lot longer than I think people realized. The same schools were winning championships, but it was harder to get there than many people thought. I think a lot of it had to do with less well known programs learning how to recruit best for their programs."
Ultimately, though, this parity and increased competition hasn't provided the same results in March. In its 28 years, six programs have won Hockey East championships. BC has 11; BU has seven; Maine has five; UNH and Providence have two apiece; and Northeastern has one. Providence's championship in 1996 was the last by a school other BC, BU, UNH or Maine. More recently, since Maine's victory over UMass in the 2004 championship game, BC and BU have accounted for all eight titles. The Eagles' run of dominance since 2000 borders on preposterous. Most look at their four national championships in the young century, but their seven Hockey East titles are just as astounding.
It's this track record that makes last weekend's results seem overblown. Sure, it's interesting to see UMass upend BC, and Lowell certainly looks like a team capable of winning its first Hockey East championship.
The problem is that none of these schools pull off similar wins in the final stages of the season. They try, certainly, and their emergence is good for everyone. It's difficult to read much into these results, though, because they always seem to falter when attention shifts to the TD Garden.
"It's hard to win a championship. There are a number of things that have to go your way," Parker said.
"In these last few years, Boston College has had some special teams. I think our 2009 team was the most talented team in the country, and we were playing our best hockey when the postseason started. It gets harder to win Hockey East every season. Just because the same teams are winning, doesn't mean there isn't parity."
Overcoming the league's best isn't an easy proposition for any team. Jerry York's clubs are always at their peak when the games matter most. Parker's 2008-09 club was the nation's best from the time the season began to the moment Colby Cohen's slapshot deflected over Cody Reichard's shoulder in Washington, D.C. At some point, though, one of Hockey East's underdogs will break this trend. Until then, these mid-January wins will mean the same thing they did last weekend.
Throughout the league, coaches of the less-renowned programs attempt to instill the idea of consistent, small improvement on a weekly basis. As much as the concept manifests itself on the ice, behavior and demeanor off the ice tell the story as much as any play within a game.
"The first lesson came after our first loss of the season. I came into the room the next day, and it was quiet. There wasn't any music on, and it felt different than it did before every other practice," UMass coach John Micheletto said. "I got on them a little. I said it wasn't the way champions do their business. Win or lose, you have to learn from that victory or defeat then you move on. Carrying it over the next day or trying to show me how upset you are 24 or 48 hours later isn't good because you're impacting your preparation. I think they took it to heart. I want our guys to behave after wins and losses the same.
"It's the same after victories. They shouldn't be all smiles and having a good time. It's about being consistent. Win or lose, we have to behave, prepare and play the same way."
York's teams and others that win championships in college hockey understand this. At a certain point, talent takes over as well. There are plenty of instances when a coach saw the gradual leaps from his team and lost the season-defining games solely because the opposition was superior. Others suffer problems with health or other uncontrollable circumstances at inopportune times.
Last season, Lowell looked like a very real contender to challenge the Eagles. UML entered the Hockey East tournament as the No. 2 seed and dropped a three-game series to Providence in the Hockey East quarterfinals. The Friars picked up the underdog card from the River Hawks before the Eagles dispatched them without too much trouble in a Hockey East semifinal.
A year earlier, it was Merrimack advancing to the Hockey East title game for the first time. And just as it has always been, the Warriors fell just short in their bid to unseat Boston College. No matter the year, there's at least one team with a chance. And, without fail, that team always comes up short.
Before Merrimack, it was Vermont in 2010, and UMass Lowell and Northeastern in 2009. They played hard and certainly deserved to advance as far as they did. Still, in the end, it was the same old Hockey East story. BC or BU lifting a trophy.
"I thought the Merrimack team (from 2011) was good enough to win a national championship," Parker said. "They got to our championship game and fell just short. In the national tournament, they couldn't get it done either, but they were good enough to do it.
"The same is true for Lowell last year. They were strong all season. They slipped up in the Hockey East tournament, but they played well in the national tournament and almost got to the Frozen Four. Now, we're seeing them make a similar run this year. I don't think there's a coach in Hockey East that would be surprised to see them win a championship."
UML's recent run of success makes the program's first Hockey East championship a very real possibility. Despite its unbeaten run, UML coach Norm Bazin knows there is room for improvement. Instilling this belief in his players hasn't been particularly difficult since he took over at his alma mater, either. It's the same idea that makes Boston College so difficult for programs to defeat in the most important games. But it's a challenge Bazin and team want.
"(BC has) three or four high-end players that make the rest of their players more confident," Bazin said. "That's a big reason they're so successful. But we believe we have a very good term here. We have a few areas that we've focused heavily on improving this week. If we keep getting better, we hope we can be the team to end the trend."
Seven weeks remain in the regular season. Boston College has struggled to this point in the second half. The Eagles, who have been without York for the last two weeks as he recovers from eye surgery, are 3-3-1 since returning from the break. They're going to improve. York and his staff will eventually have their team right where it should be when the postseason begins.
The Eagles may drop a game or two on the way, but words like "upset" won't really apply. During the regular season, these things happen frequently. When one of these programs finally pulls of the same feat in March at the TD Garden, it will be an upset. Until then, there's no reason to believe 2013 will be the year.