Thursday, November 5, 2015

BU hits the Skids, Nate Leaman Hits his Stride at PC

Crossroads Clash in the Home of Twain
Three dark suits walked slowly off Hartford's XL Center ice surface Tuesday night, heads bowed, their moods darker than their attire. BU hockey's braintrust: David Quinn, Scott Young and Albie O'Connell had seen this once proud group of Terrier pucksters manhandled 5-2 by the fresh faced upstarts of UConn. Strains of Brass Bonanza, the iconic ditty from the old Hartford Civic Center was ringing in their ears from the Huskies mind numbing 4 for 7 power play success at the expense of last year's NCAA finalists. "The story is the penalty kill," said Quinn. "They get four power play goals, tonight we let everything get through us." Dissecting the score sheet reveals a startling breakdown with the game on the line in the decisive third period: BU allowed two power play goals within 45 seconds, the first took UConn 15 seconds to cash in, the second took a mere 10. The instant carnage turned a 3-1 struggle into a 5-1 route, revealing BU as a team much more reminiscent of Quinn's first BU squad than last year's juggernaut. Don't let their #7 national ranking fool you, BU is a team that has lost its way minus their best goalie (Matt O'Connor), their best forward (Jack Eichel) and their best defenseman (senior Matt Grzelcyk to injury) from last year. "Right now we're just playing an immature game. We've got to change our approach in a lot of ways," said Quinn. "The good news is that it's October, we get to go to practice tomorrow and get better." There is some cruel irony in that UConn freshman Max Letunov set up the Huskies' two power play daggers in the third period, and scored both UConn goals in Saturday's game at Agganis. Letunov is a four-star recruit who actually de-committed from BU this past August, the guy Quinn was counting to fill the Eichel void. Letunov now leads Hockey East with five goals, and piled up four points in the extended home-and-home series with BU. At the handshake line Quinn spent a few extra seconds talking to the man-child that slipped from his grasp this summer. The final question for Quinn in the bowels of Hartford's aging mausoleum was about the nature of his encounter with Letunov. Quinn didn't miss a beat. "I told him the bus was going to leave at 10:30. I'd like him to be on it."

Over the course of that evening's post game press gathering, Letunov acquired the nickname "Letti" from his linemate, a fellow 6'4" freshman Tage Thompson, who parlayed Letti's PP puck love into a hat trick on a night he will never forget, hist first NCAA goals. "It's been awesome playing with Letti, I feel like we're really starting to click, especially in practices, and its starting to show in games." The Moscow native concurred. "We had great chemistry on the power play, and five-on-five we just keep cycling down low, and just keep working in practice, and it's working." If there is any one individual who is emblematic of the rise of fledgling UConn and the apparent free fall of historic Boston U, it is supreme prospect Letunov, the 52nd pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. BU's loss is clearly UConn's gain. The Huskies are certainly a team on the rise, led by a brilliant coach in Mike Cavanaugh, an elite goalie in Rob Nichols (career .925 save %), and two supreme freshmen, one groomed in the famed Red Army hockey program in Moscow, the other a coach's kid from Connecticut, Tage being the son of Sound Tigers bench boss Brent Thompson. Cavanaugh's response to the reminder that his team is 4-3-1 against top-10 teams over his first two years in Division I is an indicator of where this team is heading. "I don't want to be known as a team that knocks off top-ten teams, I want to BE a top ten team."

Beware the Crimson
NCAA hockey season has been underway for nearly a month, yet if you believe USA Hockey personnel man Ben Smith, the top team in the country has yet to play an official game. "Harvard's the best team in the country," said Smith from Hartford. "I think they are going to win it all and they should have won it last year." Idle until Halloween due to Ivy league restrictions, Harvard dropped two spots in the pols, yet they were the only squad in North America to claim a point from the rough and tumble New Brunswick squad in an exhibition last Saturday, the Canadian University loaded with CHL vets that swept down through New England, busting up the Black Bears, BC and even the the AHL Portland Pirates before running into the Crimson Saturday night in a near empty Bright Center Saturday night (355 loyal souls). The scoresheet is a neon Crimson harbinger: Jimmy Vesey and perma-mate Kyle Criscuolo (think Batman and Robin in Crimson Capes) lit the lamp, as did Ryan Donato, coach Ted Donato's kid that carries enough reputation to bring USA World Junior scout Smith back to his Alma Mater. Harvard stormed off to a 3-1 lead entering the third, with a wide disparity in shots, before settling for a 3-3 tie. It was a nasty game, as the former CHL pros from New Brunswick amassed 44 minutes in penalties including two game misconducts against their preppy opponents. "New Brunswick went out to hurt guys, pisses me off," said former pro Jim Vesey, father of the All-American, from the Bright Center. Harvard opens their season at raucous Thompson Arena vs Dartmouth on Halloween, and then completes the home and home in what might be a church setting Sunday in Alston. If the Vesey gang collects four points over the weekend, and survives fright night in Hanover, then it's time to take Ben Smith at his word. Hopefully the populace of Harvard Yard will find it in them to endure the Anderson Bridge construction and cross the Charles River to see the best offensive talent in the NCAA.

A Champion at Work: Nate Leaman
At the same time the Crimson were slugging it out with Canucks from New Brunswick, an hour down route 95 the Providence College Friars were dealing with their own penalty issues in their sweep of Ohio State. PC totaled eight minor infractions combined in the 2nd period of both weekend games, allowing the Buckeyes back into potential blowouts on both nights. "We get to the second period and we were in the box most of the period," said 5th year Friar coach Nate Leaman. "Every time we got up a couple or three goals we got away from what we were doing. It will be addressed Monday, that's for sure." Leaman treats each season as an opportunity to teach and improve his squad, and there's no reason to believe that he won't have his #3 Friars in the thick of national contention by season's end. His legacy is cemented on the three crucial tiers of college coaching: teaching on ice; recruiting excellence; and alert bench work. He lost star center Mark Jankowski to a bruised forearm late in the second period Friday and played chess with his remaining players to close out the Buckeyes 2-1 in the opener. Challenging? "Not Really," said Leaman. "Cino (Senior Nick Saracino) has played center in his career, so that's an easy change there. It's really just making sure guys don't go every other shift." In terms of recruiting, Providence has historically been shut out of the Boston area, conceding the Hub's elite to brand names BC and BU. That has all changed under the Leaman era. If you look at his current roster you'll see junior defenseman and master blaster Anthony Florentino out of West Roxbury; sophomore center Brian Pinho from North Andover and freshman power forward Erik Foley from Mansfield. All NHL draftees, all on the Team USA radar, and all from the Bay State. Leaman's mastery of all three legs on the coaching stool helped him build consecutive NCAA champions (Union won in 2014 with his recruits). Calgary Flames President Brian Burke has total faith in Leaman to groom his future players, like Jankowski and John Gilmour, who combined on a big goal Saturday night. After Jankowski's x-rays turned up negative from blocking a shot with his forearm Friday, Leaman had him logging his usual heavy minutes Saturday, anchoring all special teams despite playing in pain. This was by design. "Sometimes, when guys get injured and they have pain, they just kind of make it through the game. Mark didn't make it through the game, he was really good. That's a big step for him as a player, a lesson for him for the rest of his life, that's what big time guys do, they rise to the occasion."  It's no wonder Burkie feels secure with players at his alma mater. Leaman and PC marketing are making the most to build off their Cinderella 2015 NCAA championship. Displayed prominently in the refurbished lobby of Schneider Arena is the current NCAA championship trophy, perfect for social selfies. After both games last weekend, the staff brought dozens of wide-eyed youth hockey locals into the locker room to schmooze with their sweaty heroes, creating lifetime memories for future Friars (or season ticket holders). The latest Frozen Four Championship banner hangs low over the ice, impossible to miss. The Nate Leaman era is in full swing in Providence, and if junior Nick Ellis maintains his .924 Save percentage, Leaman's Friars will be in the thick of the 2016 NCAA title hunt, business as usual for arguably the best college coach in the biz. Canadiens scout and college hockey guru Dave Starman was at Schneider Saturday, and did not think Leaman was a logical candidate to make the jump directly from college to the NHL, because of his lack of pro experience. First of all, it seems illogical that Leaman would even consider leaving his idyllic post in Providence, especially after they refurbished Schneider Arena into his own sparkling play pen. But if and when Burkie needs a change at the helm of the Calgary Flames, Leaman would be an obvious candidate for the Providence alum's short list.

Puck Droppings: Yale was in Providence Saturday, scrimmaging fellow Ivy schools Brown and Princeton at Bruno home Meehan Auditorium, as they prepped for their respective openers Friday. Prior to their first scrimmage, the Bulldogs performed a unique twist in their pregame dryland--all 20 players jiggling the soft tissue under their ribcage in unison. Not a stretch, not a twist, but a vibrating jiggle. Then they shifted to their high-tech rubber band resistance stretching. Rink Rap will post all developments to this breaking story... Yale has a freshman impossible to miss, JM Piotrowski from Irving, Texas. He dashes around the rink in an upright but urgent mannner, but it his not his play that grabs your attention. Piotrowski has a foot-long mane of bright orange hair descending from his helmet, something sure to shake up the country club at Ingalls this season. "I hope Keith Allain doesn't pull a Sampson and Delilah," said college hockey sage Bernie Corbett... BU frosh Bobo Carpenter, the son of the Can't Miss Kid Bobby Carpenter, is earning serious frequent rider miles on his Charley Card, taking the Green Line of Boston's Transit system from Boston's Comm. Ave to Chestnut Hill in Newton. Since enrolling at BU he has become a regular in his sister Alex Carpenter's dorm floor at The Heights, the senior superstar for the BC women's team. It is no coincidence that Bobo's girlfriend occupies the room next to Alex's... Reigning Hockey East goal scoring king Ahti Oksanen of Boston University is clearly suffering from the absence of Jack Eichel. Four straight games without a goal, a single helper his only mark on the scoresheets. "I hope it's bad luck," said Coach Quinn. "It would be more alarming if he wasn't getting chances."... A legacy of toughness has been transferred from former Islander, Sabres and Yale great Randy Wood. His elder son Tyler Wood (6'3" 190) spent four periods of hockey banging bodies of both Princeton and Yale on Saturday at the Meehan Auditorium scrimmages, while younger brother Miles Wood is firmly ensconced at Boston College. Miles, as you may recall, was a senior at Nobles prep school in Dedham, Mass. when he got invited to last year's Team USA World Junior final tuneup at BU, his first experience with the squad that was years in the making. He shocked some so called experts by making the squad, a preppy grinding it out against NCAA and CHL vets, earning him regular time on the Team USA's third line up in Montreal last January. That experience eased the transition for his NCAA debut at The Heights. His old man overcame similar odds back in the 1980's: an American Ivy Leaguer taking jobs in a predominantly Canadian NHL. Randy Wood carved out his impressive 11 year NHL career more through toughness than smarts. Look for both his boys to leave their mark on the NCAA this year.

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