January 3, 2014

Hockey East Journal: Big-time battles at the ballpark

By Andrew Merritt

When he was little, Jeff Costello had to carry buckets of water down to the nearby pond to resurface the ice. Otherwise, he said, his older brothers Dan and Matt would beat him up.

On Saturday, Costello doesn’t have to carry the water. He just gets to play with his Notre Dame teammates in the featured game of Frozen Fenway 2014, the third series of outdoor games at Boston’s beloved Fenway Park in the last four years.

The Irish take on rival Boston College at about 7:30 Saturday night in what has to be the most unique edition of the schools’ rivalry. It’s the nightcap to a doubleheader that starts at 4 p.m. with Providence and Merrimack, who like Notre Dame are both making their debuts at the grand old ballpark.

All four of Saturday’s participants practiced Friday, a day that certainly earned the event’s “Frozen Fenway” moniker with temperatures barely scraping double-digits. The frosty setting led to some hard lessons in equipment and preparation.

“I think after today, almost everyone will wear a hood,” said Boston College forward Kevin Hayes, who grew up a few MBTA stops away from Fenway in Dorchester, Mass. “The guys that weren’t wearing hoods complained about their ears.”

But the complaints were certainly muted given the surroundings.

It’s the third time Fenway is hosting hockey. In 2010, the NHL’s Winter Classic came to Boston to pit the Bruins against Philadelphia with a spirited BC-Boston University clash a week later. In 2012, BC closed out a series of college and high school games with a tilt against Northeastern.

So it’s not a Fenway first for the Eagles, nor is it a first trip outdoors for the Irish, who beat Miami-Ohio 2-1 at Chicago’s Soldier Field on Feb. 17, 2013. More than 52,000 people came to the home of the Chicago Bears for that game, and while that number might dwarf the attendance at Saturday’s tilts in 37,400-seat Fenway Park, the Irish are aware of how special it is to be playing at the place John Updike once called a “lyric little bandbox.”

“I mean, it’s incredible,” said Costello, who was the Irish’s player representative at the announcement of Frozen Fenway during the 2013 baseball season. “I was fortunate enough to come out and throw out the opening pitch at a Red Sox game. It was the first game I’ve been to, and it was one of the best sports experiences of my life. Because of that, I was really able to appreciate the dedication of the fans and the history of the franchise.”

It’s not just a sightseeing trip, however. While the Providence-Merrimack clash doesn’t count in the league standings, the BC-Notre Dame game does, just like the UMass-Lowell/Northeastern and Maine/Boston University games scheduled for Jan. 11. There’s more than just bragging rights and a cool game-winning photo riding on Saturday night’s meeting of the Eagles and Irish.

The Irish are 10-7-1 overall coming into Saturday’s game, but at 3-4-1 in Hockey East play, they’re sitting in eighth place. Their debut season in Hockey East hasn’t quite been what they might have hoped, and with only 12 league games left to play, they need to start trending upwards if they want to earn a decent playoff position.

“It’s a league game, there’s points on the line,” said Notre Dame goaltender Steven Summerhays. “It’s not just an exhibition game or something that doesn’t mean anything. We need to have fun with this, but we also need a big win to get back on track.”

Where the Eagles are veterans of the outdoors at Fenway, the Irish are newcomers, and they’ll need to get over the jitters of playing on such an auspicious stage. If they do, they could have the highlight moment of their season in their rival’s backyard.

Either way, Summerhays said, “we’ll definitely remember tomorrow for the rest of our lives.”

Player of the Week

Martin Ouellette, sr. G, Maine

The Black Bear backstop made 68 saves on 69 shots in a pair of games at the Florida College Classic, starting with his third shutout of the year in a 33-save effort against Princeton. And while the result is officially a tie, his seven stops in a shootout against Cornell gave Maine the tournament title.

Games of the Week

Providence vs. Merrimack; Notre Dame vs. Boston College – Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014

On Boston’s grandest stage, the Friars, Warriors, Irish and Eagles battle for some big-time bragging rights as Frozen Fenway 2014 gets to its first of four games involving Hockey East schools. The ND-BC tilt at 7:30 p.m. will also be televised on NESN and NBC Sports for those less willing to brave the elements.

Hockey East power rankings

  1. Boston College (12-4-2, 6-1-1 HEA) – How dominant were the Eagles at the Three Rivers Classic in Pittsburgh? Their 13 goals in two games was more than the tournament's other three teams (Penn State, Bowling Green, Robert Morris) combined.
  2. Providence (13-3-3, 6-2-1 HEA) – The Friars, who beat host Dartmouth but lost to Air Force in the Ledyard Classic tournament, matched their best win total for October to Dec. 31 with 13, matching the 1989-90 team.
  3. UMass-Lowell (13-5-0, 4-2-0 HEA) – A scheduling quirk has the River Hawks playing Clarkson in three straight games – the first time UML has played a team thrice in a row since 1991-92. Game 1 augurs well for the River Hawks, who beat the Golden Knights 3-1 at the Catamount Cup.
  4. Northeastern (10-6-2, 4-4-1 HEA) – Some wild swings for the Huskies at the Ledyard Classic, where they were held to their lowest shot total (16) by Air Force, but combined with Dartmouth for the most goals (16) in a game involving NU since Nov. 6, 1993.
  5. Vermont (10-6-1, 4-5-0 HEA) – The Catamounts continued to own their home tournament, taking the Catamount Cup for the second straight year and the fourth time in the last five.
  6. New Hampshire (10-10-1, 5-5-0 HEA) – UNH has outshot its opponents in each of its last eight games, though that hasn't been too fruitful for the Wildcats, who are 3-5-0 over that stretch.
  7. Maine (10-6-2, 4-2-1 HEA) – Maine's resurgence has been keyed by its defense, one of the best units in the country. The Black Bears have allowed one goal or fewer in their last four games, and their 2.00 goals against average is tied for fourth best in the country.
  8. Notre Dame (10-7-1, 3-4-1 HEA) – The game at Fenway against BC on Saturday night will mark Notre Dame's first action in 28 games, dating back to their 3-2 loss to UMass on Dec. 7.
  9. Boston University (7-8-2, 2-4-1 HEA) – One thing the Terriers are getting right in the David Quinn era: Discipline. After leading Hockey East with 15.0 PIM per game last year, BU is averaging just 9.6 per game this year, which would be the program’s lowest average since 1973-74.
  10. UMass (6-13-3, 2-7-2 HEA) – Junior Troy Power had 17 points in his first two years as a Minuteman. This season, he’s got 14.
  11. Merrimack (4-9-2, 1-5-2 HEA) – It’s somewhat appropriate that Merrimack will see Providence in Saturday’s Frozen Fenway opener. The Warriors have played the Friars more times (120) than any other opponent in Merrimack’s history.

Twitter: @A_Merritt

Email: amerritt@hockeyjournal.com