The Weight of Expectations

Nov. 9, 2006

By Elliot Olshansky


Speed kills.



Elliot is's hockey editor and runs his Rink Rat hockey blog on
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It's a phrase that applies more and more in hockey, as coaches continually search for the players that will allow their teams to play a more up-tempo game, or maintain the pace that has been set previously. However, there's a different kind of speed that comes into play early in the college hockey season, one that can be much more elusive than a player who can skate a lap around the rink in 15 seconds.


In the grand scheme of things, a team's speed coming out of the gate at the beginning of the season probably feels more important than it is.  After all, wins in October and November count just as much in the standings as wins in December, January and February. However, for most teams, October is a time for non-conference games, which figure heavily when teams in different conferences are compared and evaluated for NCAA tournament purposes.  In addition, when a highly-touted team gets off to a rough start - as is the case at Boston College, Boston University, and Michigan, among others - fans and media are quick to ask, "What's wrong?"


"I think it's a little bit of human nature," said Boston University head coach Jack Parker, whose No. 8 Terriers are 2-1-3. "You think you're going to be better than you are. You hope it's going to be easier. You don't play as hard as you should. Then, after you get slapped up the side of the head a little bit, you start to play better."


No. 10 Michigan has been "slapped up the side of the head" a fair bit thus far at 5-3-0 (2-2-0 CCHA), the problem is clear enough: defense.  Through eight games, the Wolverines are averaging 3.5 goals-against per game, good for 39th in the country.  Given that the Michigan blueline corps boasts three first-round draft picks in Jack Johnson, Mark Mitera and Chris Summers, not to mention a strong senior leader in team captain Matt Hunwick, much more is expected from the Wolverines.  However, it's not just a blueline issue.


"It definitely hasn't been a defensemen-specific problem," assistant coach Billy Powers said. "I think it's been quite a few things, but obviously our defense contributes to that stat quite a bit. You look at our penalty kill, it has not been up to snuff yet [80 percent, 40th in the nation]. That's a team thing. To be honest, we haven't played enough in the other team's zone, and that's how a forward can contribute to goals-against. It's something that we've been working on quite a bit."


As far as the defensemen themselves are concerned, one needs to keep in mind that it's still early.


"I still think, early in the year," Powers said, "you're trying new pairs.  You're trying to find some chemistry between new guys.  A couple of the pairings are starting to get a little more acclimated with each other, so, hopefully, that will lead to us being better as a group with our goals against. "


Of course, some of the issue can also be traced back to goaltending, as Billy Sauer's struggles last season appear to have carried over into the early portions of his sophomore year.  Through eight games, Sauer has posted a .881 save percentage, which certainly hasn't helped the Wolverines' cause, but it isn't because he's failed to progress from last year's performance.


"Billy Sauer is a different goaltender from a year ago as far as his presence in the net, his confidence, and his ability to handle good and bad situations." Powers said. "With that said, Billy, has, early on, made quite a few save to keep us in games we've played poorly in. Now, what Billy has to do, is he has to continue forward in that game and play the full 60 minutes. I think there's been that odd bad goal that creeps up at the wrong time. So, you forget about all the good things he did prior to that goal to keep us in it. I think it's just Billy focusing in on the full 60 minutes. We're not happy with his save percentage, Billy's not happy with it, but he actually has made great strides from a year ago, and continues to progress. We're very confident in our goaltender right now."


At Boston University, goaltending hasn't been the problem, as senior John Curry has maintained his All-American form. One could argue that the Terriers don't have that much of a problem, having only lost one game all season and coming off of a tie with No. 1 Maine.  However, BU has more ties than wins, and scoring has been something of a concern, as the Terriers have four goals in their last three games, after lighting the lamp four times in each of their first three outings.


"We're not generating anywhere near the offense we were last year," Parker said, "but we weren't generating a lot of offense at this time last year, either, so I'm not really concerned about that."


In fact, Parker says, part of the problem the Terriers have had scoring has been excessive concern about scoring.


"I think guys have got to stop pressing," Parker said. "I think guys look at their point totals and say, `Geez, I thought I'd be off to a better start.' It's amazing how people get to the point where they're not scoring, so they start trying to score goals. If you play hard enough and smart enough, you'll get opportunities, and you're a good goal scorer, so the puck will go in the net. But, if you're shifting around, floating around trying to shift off the puck and think they're going to pass it to you, or you stay out on the periphery and try to take a one-timer, you're not going to score goals no matter what."


Of course, while the wins and losses in the standings count just as much in October as in February, there's more to this than just the scoreboard, as Parker points out.


"I think you're better off not doing too well in the beginning than doing less than up to expectations later on," Parker said.



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