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BC and BU start on top of Hockey East

10/6/2011

Polls. League polls or media polls, it doesn't matter. Hockey coaches almost universally abhor them, while school marketing and sports information types love promoting them. That's especially true if your address is Commonwealth Avenue, Boston.

At the top of the heap of this year's Hockey East preseason poll sit Boston College and Boston University, familiar territory for two schools with rich pedigrees and unrivaled recruiting clout. These teams don't rebuild as much as they reload. National championships (three of the last four) will do that for you. The result is a blue-chip talent rush that resembles a cattle drive.

Of course, the flip side to bringing in top talent is that those players often don't stick around for four years. When Boston College lost All-American goaltender Cory Schneider after his junior year, the Eagles replaced the Vancouver Canucks first-round draft choice with stalwart netminder John Muse. This year, BC forwards Cam Atkinson and Jimmy Hayes departed the Heights a year early.

"When it comes to the hockey side of it, we've got guys on the roster who can step up, and maybe fill a scoring role or fill a checking role," said BC captain Tommy Cross, who lost two roommates as well as teammates in Atkinson and Hayes. "Then you have newcomers come in, and we'll have to have them contribute. The mentality is you don't even think about the guys you lost, you just look at what you have and make the most of that."

It's that raw talent that often gives schools like BC and BU the preseason nod. But even Jack Parker, BU's legendary coach entering his 39th year at the helm of the Terrier program, knows the polls only reveal promise, or potential. The results still need to be earned on the ice.

"Two years ago, our guys were all full of themselves from the national championship the year before, and they thought they could turn it on anytime they wanted to," said Parker about his 2009-10 squad that failed to make the NCAAs. "They didn't realize how many great players they lost. We had a solid team, but we didn't come anywhere near playing up to our capabilities.

"Last year, we played up to our capabilities most of the year. We got off to a fast start, and it made it look like we were a better team than we were," he said, referring to BU's brief dalliance with the with a national No. 1 ranking before New Year's Eve. "We were generally a pretty solid team, and gave everybody a hard time, but weren't anywhere near as consistent game-in and game out as we should have been."

In a league as strong from top to bottom as Hockey East, consistency will be critical for any team that wants to be playing for one of 16 NCAA tournament spots next March. Boston College, which won both the Hockey East regular season and tournament crowns a year ago, is the prohibitive favorite to repeat this year. However, BC's archrival at Agganis Arena is raising a lot of eyebrows this fall.

"Over the years, we've lost a lot of good players to pro signings, but last year we lost only Dave (Warsofsky), and [seldom-used goalie] Adam Krause and (forward captain) Joe Pereira both graduated," said BU goaltender Kieran Millan, a four-year starter who won a national championship as a freshman. "Obviously, losing those guys is a big loss, but that's small for us (as a program). We're basically returning almost the entire team we had last year, and I think that bodes well for us."

Millan's assessment appears to be spot on. Led by captain Chris Connolly and fellow senior Corey Trivino, the Terriers 13 returning forwards, including leading scorer Alex Chiasson and bruising NHL draftee Charlie Coyle, accounted for 74 BU goals last year.

"As a whole, we should have a good team, because we had a good team last year," said Parker. "We came in third place in one of the toughest leagues in college hockey, and it was the youngest team I ever coached, both in terms of class-wise and age-wise. So, we're already way ahead of the game, because these guys all got older this year.

"We've got sophomores and juniors this year, instead of freshmen and sophomores, and that's a big help for us," he said. "But we do have some key seniors, like Trivino and Connolly, and obviously our goaltender, Kieran Millan. So we're solid in areas you have to be solid at, and I think we've got a little more depth up front."

Along the blueline sophomores Adam Clendening and Garrett Noonan anchor a solid core that also includes classmate Sean Escobao and juniors Max Nicastro and Ryan Ruikka. "Garrett Noonan is a kid that people are going to look at and say 'Wow, this kid is a terrific defenseman,'" said Parker. "We were really impressed with him last year as a freshman, and I think he should have an eye-opening year."

The No. 3 ranked New Hampshire Wildcats are hoping for the same from Stevie Moses, a lightning quick forward who has shown flashes of brilliance over the past three seasons.

"I think he's going to be one of the top forwards in the league," said Wildcat coach Dick Umile, now in his 22nd season behind the UNH bench. "We've been fortunate the past couple of years to have one of the top scorers in the league, and I think Stevie's going to fill that role for us."

The Wildcats will need some offensive pop, having lost their top four scorers, including last year's Hockey East player of the year, Paul Thompson (28 goals, 52 points), plus Mike Sislo (48 points) and Phil DeSimone (41 points). The fourth was junior defenseman Blake Kessel (brother of former Bruin Phil Kessel), who signed a pro deal after three years in Durham.

"Defense is going to be our challenge," said Umile. "We only have three returning defensemen with the loss of Blake Kessel. But (senior) Matt DiGirolamo is our goaltender, and we've got some young players coming in that will have to fill some important roles for us. But we're confident."

Umile said he was confident that his younger forwards, led by junior John Henrion, would pick up the offensive slack. "Obviously, there's a lot of parity in the league," he said. "It's going to be another long season, and we just want to be there at the end and give ourselves an opportunity to win it."

UNH's dance partner at Frozen Fenway doubleheader on Jan. 7, Maine, is slotted right behind the Wildcats in the preseason poll. Coach Tim Whitehead lost his top scorer and playmaker, Sweden's Gustav Nyquist (18 goals, 33 assists, 51 points), who left the Orono campus after his junior year to sign with Detroit Red Wings. The good news is that the Black Bears are returning their next two top scorers in Spencer Abbott and Brian Flynn.

"We've got two great captains in Brian Flynn and (defenseman) Will O'Neil, two Boston-area guys that are just fabulous," said Whitehead. "They've been tutoring under some good captain like (Tanner) House and (Jeff) Dimmen and Nyquist, so they both know how to lead. They're both naturals. They compliment each other really well, and both are fierce competitors and great hockey players. They'll be playing in every situation -- power play, penalty kill, first and last minute. So they'll have plenty of opportunity to lead on and off the ice. So far, they're doing a great job."

Whitehead will also have to hope that one of his two young goaltenders -- sophomores Dan Sullivan and Martin Ouellette -- steps up to seize the No. 1 spot in the mold of Ben Bishop or Jimmy Howard, though Sullivan, a league all-rookie selection, did log the bulk of the minutes last year.

At. No. 5 is the squad that bounced the Black Bears from last year's Hockey East tournament, Merrimack College. Warrior coach Mark Dennehy lost leading scorer Stephane Da Costa. The sophomore forward bolted after two sensational seasons for the Ottawa Senators, probably in no small part to a knee injury suffered last season. Harbingers like that are hard to ignore. Likewise, no one is ignoring the Warriors this season after last year's break-out, and record-breaking, 25-10-4 campaign, good for a fourth place league finish and an NCAA bid.

"We lost our top three point scorers," said Dennehy, referring to Da Costa (45 points), Chris Barton (39 points), and Joe Cucci (36 points). "But Jesse Todd scored 17 last year, and I don't think anybody had more goals than him on the roster. We return three of our top scoring defensemen in Karl Stollery, Jordan Heywood and Brenden Ellison. In today's game, a lot of offense gets generated from the blueline.

"I'd be a fool not to at least start that line of Elliott Sheen, Carter Madsen and Ryan Flanigan," said the Warrior bench boss. "They really cut their teeth in the final weekend of the season, and in the playoffs they were our best line. And I haven't even mentioned our all-rookie team member in Mike Collins. I like our depth. I think we might have to work a little harder to score goals than we did last year, and they might not be as pretty. We're going to have to play a little tighter to the vest than we did last year, a little bit more of a return to Merrimack hockey."

Suffice to say, Merrimack isn't sneaking up on anyone this year. But the No. 7 ranked Massachusetts Minutemen, like their namesake, just might. Tabbed to finish behind No. 6 Vermont, UMass-Amherst is Parker's pick to be the league's surprise squad, and coach Donald "Toot" Cahoon, a former BU assistant, isn't downplaying that possibility. Cahoon's young crew (14 freshmen on last year's 6-23-6 squad) returns more than 80 percent of its point producers, led by Danny Hobbs, Michael Pereira and T.J. Syner.

"Being young last year doesn't guarantee that everything's going to be just right this year, just because we're a year older," said Cahoon. "I was really happy with our competitiveness, but not the bottom-line results. But I felt, other than one weekend when we went to BC and Merrimack, there wasn't a weekend when this team didn't strap it on and compete. The thing that was disconcerting was that we didn't get the results, and it wasn't about effort, but our ability to bear down and take care of some little details that can make a difference in a game. Those areas need to be addressed."

One key will be whether sophomore Jeff Teglia or one of two freshmen -- Kevin Boyle and Steve Mastalerz -- can fill the void created by the departure of workhorse goaltender Paul Dainton.

"We've got three guys who clearly understand: Play well and you get rewarded with further play," said Cahoon. "There's great opportunity for one or more of those guys to really be a critical factor in our development."

"It must be interesting, from the outside, to see BU and BC and New Hampshire and Maine coveted as the top programs, and deservedly so, but I think the gap has closed between the bottom end of Hockey East and the top end," said Cahoon. "It's been pretty clear for a while now that, on any given night, any team can beat the other."

Brion O'Connor is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.