Friday, January 3, 2014
A season of surprises in Hockey East
By Brion O'Connor
So begins the second half of one of the most unpredictable Hockey East seasons of recent vintage. Every team, it seems, has recorded big wins, and laid the occasional egg, most notably Boston College losing to Holy Cross for the first time in more than 60 years, 5-4, before a home crowd at Conte Forum. Yet, as 2013 came to a close, the Eagles find themselves in their familiar perch atop the Hockey East standings.
The following is a quick look at the 11 Hockey East teams – where they've been and where they're heading – in the order of the league standings as of New Year's Day.
Boston College (12-4-2; 6-1-1 HE) Two years ago, the Eagles helped christen Notre Dame's Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend. On Saturday, the "Holy War on Ice" resumes at one of the country's oldest, and most venerable sporting venues, Fenway Park. Both teams are missing key players, with BC defensemen Ian McCoshen and Steve Santini and goaltender Thatcher Demko, and ND forwards Vince Hinostroza and Tommy DiPauli rostered on the United States squad for the World Junior Championships in Sweden. However, the 6th-ranked Eagles, fresh off their Three Rivers Classic Championship, still have a white-hot Johnny Gaudreau (15-18-33, and points in his last 13 games), who is again in Hobey Baker form, sniper Kevin Hayes (11-17-28), Bill Arnold (4-19-23), and freshman Ryan Fitzgerald (8-10-18). On the season, the Eagles have outscored their opponents by 37 goals. Aside from a post-Thanksgiving hiccup against Holy Cross on Nov. 29 (the Eagles' first-ever loss to an Atlantic Hockey team, despite outshooting the Crusaders, 38-18), Boston College has been formidable. Junior Brian Billet (2.23 GAA) and freshman Demko (2.31) give the Eagles a terrific tandem in goal.
Providence (13-3-3; 6-2-1 HE) The Friars, ranked No. 4 in the national polls, will also resume league pleasantries at Fenway Park on Saturday, taking on Merrimack College in a sort of "Holy War Light." However, Providence won't have its all-league goaltender, sophomore John Gillies (1.88 GAA, .941 save percentage), who is also on national duty at the World Junior Championships. Freshman Nick Ellis (2.56, .892) will step in between the pipes. Expect the Friars to come into Fenway with a chip on their shoulder, after getting clipped by Air Force, 3-2, in the final of the Ledyard Classic at Dartmouth. Overall, though, Nate Leaman's team has been more predictable than most, with Ross Mauermann (13-14-27) leading a balanced attack that features eight players with 10 points or more.
New Hampshire (10-10-1; 5-5-0 HE) Dick Umile's Wildcats have been an enigma, managing a .500 record while their normally reliable defense dropped to 8th in Hockey East rankings (2.48 GAA), the lowlight being a 6-3 home loss to Harvard. The Wildcats have balanced scoring – 10 players with 10 points or more – but few players who strike fear in opponents. Seniors Nick Sorkin and Kevin Goumas lead the way with 20 points apiece. After platooning earlier this season with senior Jeff Wyer, junior netminder Casey DeSmith (2.17 GAA, .919 save percentage) has reclaimed the starting role. UNH has already dropped five of six to league preseason favorites UMass Lowell, Boston College and Providence, and will need a strong second half to secure home ice for postseason play. The Wildcats begin 2014 by hosting non-league opponent Nebraska-Omaha for a two-game set, starting Friday.
Maine (10-6-2; 4-2-1 HE) After dropping two games against St. Lawrence to start the season, the Black Bears have found a nice groove under first-year coach Red Gendron, marred only by a two-game dip at Vermont in late November. Big home wins against Boston University (7-0) and Boston College (5-1) should give the Black Bears confidence, but they'll have to perform on the road to make noise in March. To date, youth has served Maine, with Mark Anthoine as the only senior among the team's top 15 scorers. Meanwhile, senior Martin Ouellette (1.87 GAA, .937 save percentage) has been a calming influence in goal. The Black Bears will be road warriors to start the New Year, traveling to ECAC power Quinnipiac on Friday, and then coming to Boston on Saturday, Jan. 11, to take on Boston University at Fenway Park. However, a pair of mid-January road games against BC and UMass Lowell might be the true litmus test for Gendron's squad.
Northeastern (10-6-3; 4-4-1 HE) Perhaps the single biggest surprise in Hockey East, the 17th-ranked Northeastern Huskies are indicative of the rollercoaster nature of the 2013-14 season. Consider their last game against Dartmouth, when the Huntington Hounds squandered a 4-2 lead, gave up six unanswered goals to the Big Green, and then roared back with four goals of their own to salvage a crazy 8-8 tie. If nothing else, Jim Madigan's team, which was predicted to finish last, is not boring. They've already won more games than last season, including hard-earned 4-2 victory over UMass Lowell. They also knocked off Notre Dame, 3-2, to take the Shillelagh Tournament at the Irish's home rink. But the Huskies have also lost a pair to both Boston College and New Hampshire. Junior Clay Witt (2.12 GAA, .940 save percentage) has been a stud between the pipes, relegating Chris Rawlings to "distant memory" status, and Kevin Roy is avoiding any type of sophomore slump, leading a crew of eight double-digit scorers with 13 goals and 12 assists for 25 points (helping Northeastern to a respectable plus-17 goal differential).
UMass-Lowell (13-5-0; 4-2-0 Hockey East) The defending Hockey East champs, sitting just inside the nation's Top 10 (at No. 9), might be in 6th place to start 2014, but the standings in this instance are deceiving. The River Hawks have played just six league games (fewest of any Hockey East squad), so Norm Bazin's troops have plenty of time to gain ground. Playing the same gutsy, grinding style that got them to last year's Frozen Four, the River Hawks only have seven players in double figures, led by senior Joseph Pendenza with 13 points (six goals, seven assists). And, like last year, UMass Lowell is relying on a stout defense, spearheaded by sophomore Connor Hellebuyck (1.75 GAA, .945 save percentage) and senior Doug Carr (1.70, .934). However, it's a style that has served the River Hawks well, so expect more of the same, including on Jan. 11, when UMass Lowell squares off against Northeastern at Fenway Park.
Vermont (10-6-1; 4-5-0 HE) Along with Northeastern, the 20th-ranked Catamounts are the feel-good story of the season, and already within a game of their total win total from last year. Coach Kevin Sneddon's squad ended 2013 on a high note, winning seven of eight, and capturing its home holiday tournament, the Catamount Cup. Freshman goaltender Mike Santaguida (2.36 GAA, .920 save percentage) has been a pleasant surprise, recording a 6-4-1 mark in 11 games and challenging incumbent starter Brody Hoffman, a sophomore (2.01, .931). The Catamounts get back to work with an ECAC doubleheader, hosting Dartmouth on Friday and defending national champion Yale on Saturday.
Notre Dame (10-7-1; 3-4-1 HE) Welcome to Hockey East. The league's newest addition, fresh off winning the final CCHA title last season, is finding it tough sledding in the Northeast. After starting the season hot, with five straight wins against non-league competition, the Irish stumbled, getting tripped up by Minnesota Duluth and Hockey East's Vermont, and losing twice to UMass Lowell just before Thanksgiving. They also have a tie (Merrimack) and losses against teams (Northeastern, Massachusetts) not usually considered the class of Hockey East. And Jeff Jackson's job doesn't get easier in 2014, as Notre Dame starts the New Year against league-leading Boston College, without forwards Vince Hinostroza and Thomas DiPauli in the lineup. A win might help jump-start a strong second half, which ends with 11 straight Hockey East matches against teams currently above the Irish in the standings (Northeastern, New Hampshire, Maine, Providence, Boston University, and the season finale at BC).
Massachusetts (6-13-3; 2-7-2 HE) The sports universe in western Massachusetts continues to revolve around the UMass basketball program, and that fact can't sit well with coach John Micheletto in his second year at the helm of the Minutemen hockey team. There have been bright spots – two wins over Michigan State, and a 3-2 victory at Notre Dame – but not enough of them. UMass has some balanced scoring, with seven players registering 10 points or more (Troy Power and Conor Sheary are leading the way with 14 points each). The bottom line is that Massachusetts is bleeding goals (70), and the Minutemen have surrendered 24 more than they've scored. That's a recipe for failure. Junior goalie Steve Mastalerz (2.58 GAA, .917 save percentage) has respectable numbers, but the entire defense needs to tighten up if UMass is to make a second-half move. The Minutemen need to remember that they play in the Mullins Center, not the Mulligan Center. They won't be getting any more second chances.
Boston University (7-8-2; 2-4-1 HE) This is not where new BU coach David Quinn expected to find himself in early 2014. While Matt Grzelcyk and Danny O'Regan acquit themselves at the Junior World Championships, the Terriers are listing. On paper, BU is as good as anyone in the league (eight NHL draft picks). But the Terriers have simply failed to play to their potential, a reality that has frustrated Quinn (it's never a good sign when two of your top three scorers are defensemen). After losing to Boston College at home, 5-1, the Terriers traveled to Orono, Maine, only to get spanked by the Black Bears, 7-0. But the nadir might have been a 4-1 loss to Bentley on Dec. 14. It was BU's last game of the first semester, and the Terriers have had three weeks to right the ship. Saturday's game at Harvard, as well as the Jan. 11 Frozen Fenway game against Maine, should provide some indication if they've been able to figure things out.
Merrimack (4-9-2; 1-5-2 HE) This past year, Merrimack upgraded its North Andover athletic facility, including a new practice sheet. It is jokingly referred to in some circles as the "House that Joe Cannata Built," a neat tip of the cap to the Warriors' All-American goaltender (2008-12). Unfortunately for coach Mark Dennehy, Cannata won't be walking through that door. Junior Rasmus Tirronen (1.99 GAA, .924 save percentage) and senior Sam Marotta (2.73, .884) have been good in goal, but not game-changers. More importantly, the Warriors haven't been able to find the back of the net, with 26 goals in 15 games, and only senior Mike Collins (3 goals, 8 assists, 11 points) managing to break double digits. On the plus side, the team has only played 15 games (none since a 1-1 tie vs. BU on Dec. 7), and still has a chance to turn things around. There's probably no better time to start than Saturday's game against Providence at Fenway.