February 3, 2011

Hockey East Journal: Make-or-break time for freshmen

by Andrew Merritt

Merrimack forward Mike Collins, who scored his first career hat trick Saturday against Vermont, is one five freshmen keeping the Warriors in the upper half of the league. (photo: Merrimack College Athletics)

One of the biggest X-factors for Hockey East teams each year is the performance of their freshman classes. The rookies can make or break a team depending on how well they assimilate into the overall systems and culture of the squad.

But that doesn’t really start bearing out until about this point every year. Great and mediocre first halves can be flukes as the freshmen settle in, figure out college life and get used to the game at its new level. But it’s in February, when almost every game is a league clash with vital points on the line, that skyrocketing rookies can crash back to earth and timid first-timers start to find their stride.

As a general rule, having a lot of freshmen involved can be troublesome. Of the bottom five teams in the Hockey East standings entering the weekend, all but one (Providence) have at least five freshmen with 20 or more games to their credit. Sixth-place Northeastern has a whopping seven — we’ll get to that in a minute — while seventh-place UMass and cellar-dweller UMass-Lowell each have six (and Minutemen defenseman Conor Allen’s next game will be his 20th).

It’s not a perfect rule. Boston University sits in third entering the weekend with its fab five frosh — Sahir Gill, Charlie Coyle (Weymouth, Mass.), Garrett Noonan (Norfolk, Mass.), Adam Clendening and Matt Nieto — all playing starring roles, and fourth-place Merrimack also has five players — Rhett Bly, Jordan Heywood, Shawn Bates, Brendan Ellis and Mike Collins (Boston, Mass.) — with at least 20 games on their rookie resume. But for the most part, the bridge-year teams who are in the midst of grooming their future cores are on the bottom looking up, while the more seasoned squads are in the upper half.

That made last weekend’s two-game set between UMass and Northeastern all the more interesting, notwithstanding the playoff positioning implications. The Minutemen were coming off a 6-0 whitewashing of their state-school cousins from UMass-Lowell, while the Huskies’ last effort was a draw with Maine that required a dramatic goal from Wade MacLeod with less than three minutes remaining to tie it.

Yet when the teams took the ice Friday, the Minutemen looked to have garnered no momentum off their big night of offense against Lowell, and the Huskies looked positively professional — the team with the most freshman minutes logged of any in the league, playing very much like a veteran squad that had no fear about the opposition. The result was a 3-0 Northeastern win in Boston that wasn’t that close.

The key — to Northeastern’s win Friday and, in no small part, its success all year — might just lie in the rough-and-tumble style of play that coach Greg Cronin has made a hallmark on St. Botolph Street since he stepped in almost six years ago. The Huskies hit hard, work the corners and smother opposing puck carriers, all while scoring the second fewest goals of any team in the league this year. It might not be pretty, but with a bevy of young players requiring an instantly understandable system, it definitely works.

“It’s not a hangover (from the UMass-Lowell thrashing); they played harder than we did,” UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon (Lynn, Mass.) said last Friday. “They played the physical, aggressive game they always play, and we didn’t measure up. They’ve got three power plays in the first half of the game; we’ve got none. Two of them were stick infractions, which means we’re playing at the end of their stick; they’re playing through us and drawing penalties. That tells you a lot right there.”

While Northeastern has consistently played that gritty game that’s so reflective of its no-nonsense coach, the Minutemen are still looking for any consistency at all. After going nine games without a win to start the season, UMass reeled off three straight just before the holiday break. But Cahoon’s charges have won just three since that stretch ended, though they had designs on a fourth Saturday before Northeastern’s Wade MacLeod forced a 2-2 tie in the rematch. The formula is almost too simple to mention — score more goals — but it stands out that UMass’ six wins this season have come in games when the Minutemen scored at least four times. Yet they’ve only scored four or more goals seven times in 23 contests.

“It’s all just mental from here on out,” senior goalie and captain Paul Dainton said. “We have the skill, we have the speed, we have the coaching staff telling us and showing us what to do, it’s just the guys buying into the system and not making these one or two mistakes. We’re not executing consistently every single game, we’re not putting the puck in the net, and that’s our Achilles heel. It’s that consistency of execution that we have to figure out fast.”

And it wouldn’t hurt if those seven freshmen getting big minutes proved to be quick studies, either.

NEHJ Player of the Week

Mike Collins, fr., Merrimack

One rookie who showed he’s learning his lessons well is Mike Collins. The Warriors forward from Boston scored his first career hat trick Saturday in a 7-1 blowout of Vermont, leading Merrimack into sole possession of fourth place.

Looking Ahead

UMass at Merrimack, Saturday

Warrior coach Mark Dennehy (Dorchester, Mass.) welcomes his old boss, Cahoon, to Lawler Arena for the first time this year, and there’s plenty on the line as Merrimack is fighting to retain a home ice spot for the playoffs, and the seventh-place Minutemen are simply playing for their playoff lives.

Around Hockey East

Boston College

Freshman Bill Arnold (Needham, Mass.), is the only Eagles rookie to have played in all 24 games this season, and he’s rewarded coach Jerry York (Watertown, Mass.) with six goals and six assists, including one of each 27 seconds apart at the end of Saturday’s 5-1 win at UMass-Lowell.

Boston University

Senior Joe Pereira (West Haven, Conn.) had scored 22 goals in his three-plus years at BU entering Saturday’s game against Maine, but he’d never scored one shorthanded. That changed seven minutes in to Saturday’s game in Orono, when Pereira pulled the Terriers into a 1-1 tie with teammate Alex Chiasson in the box.

Maine

Tanner House was named to the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award finalist list this week, the only Hockey East player in the 10-man group of candidates. The award is aimed at rewarding athletes that stay in college the full four years, and the winner is determined by a combination of votes from coaches, players and fans. Cast your vote online here.

UMass

One area where the Minutemen have found consistency is the penalty kill, which has stifled 31 of the last 32 opposition power plays over an eight-game span. That includes a perfect 10-for-10 performance in last weekend’s games against Northeastern.

UMass-Lowell

The River Hawks picked up a new player for the 2011-12 season, and he’s certainly no rookie. Defenseman Malcolm Lyles, who played 13 games for Boston College in 2008-09 and 2009-10 before leaving to pursue more playing time with the Vernon Vipers of the British Columbia Hockey League, has committed to join UML next season, according to the Vernon Morning Star. Lyles played three years at Deerfield Academy before going to BC.

Merrimack

Chris Barton became the first Merrimack player in nine years to reach 100 career points with three goals and an assist over the weekend. The last was Anthony Aquino in 2002. Barton is the 10th player to reach the mark for Merrimack since the program joined Hockey East in 1988.

UNH

Mike Sislo became the first UNH player from Wisconsin to reach the 100-point career mark Friday. He’s the 68th Wildcat to reach the plateau, and linemates Paul Thompson (99) and Phil DeSimone (95) are poised to become the 69th and 70th this season.

Northeastern

Goaltender Chris Rawlings’ blanking of UMass Friday was his fourth shutout of the season, putting him in a tie for second most in the country with Scott Gudmanson of Wisconsin and Aaron Dell of North Dakota. The leader, John Faulkner of Nebraska-Omaha, has five shutouts. Rawlings’ seven career shutouts is also tied with Keni Gibson for second best at Northeastern, two behind all-time leader Brad Thiessen.

Providence

Derek Army (North Kingstown, R.I.) continued his solid debut season under father and coach Tim, picking up his fifth goal in Friday’s loss to New Hampshire. That’s the fifth most by any freshman in the league this season, and leads PC’s rookies.

Vermont

The Catamounts were swept in a weekend by Merrimack for the first time ever, and it was the first time they’ve been swept in a two-game series by anybody since UMass-Lowell dispatched them in the 2009 Hockey East quarterfinals.

Andrew Merritt can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com