Wednesday, September 30, 2009
BU the favorite in Hockey East
By David Albright ESPN.com
BOSTON -- Heavy are the expectations on the heads that wear the crown.
Defending college hockey national champion Boston University was announced as the favorite to win the Hockey East regular-season title at the league's annual media day at the TD Garden on Wednesday.
BU won 36 games on the way to the school's fifth national championship.
The Terriers, coming off a school-record 36-win campaign that concluded with the school's fifth national title after a dramatic 4-3 overtime win over Miami University back in April, received six first-place votes and 84 total points from the league's 10 coaches.
UMass-Lowell (79 points) and Boston College (76) each received two first-place votes and were picked to finish second and third respectively. New Hampshire (59), Vermont (59), Northeastern (57), Massachusetts (47), Maine (32), Providence (24) and Merrimack (23) made up the rest of the predicted order of finish.
In the USA Today/American Hockey Magazine preseason poll released on Monday, BU was picked third nationally behind Miami and Denver. Michigan and Notre Dame rounded out the top five. Other Hockey East schools in the poll included: UMass-Lowell (10th), BC (12th) and UVM (15th). UNH and Northeastern also received votes.
"What we're concerned about is not being too impressed with ourselves from the year before," BU head coach Jack Parker said. "We have to make our team better during the bulk of the season and then worry about what happens in the playoffs later on.
"Our biggest question will be whether the freshmen coming in can step up and add a little bit to the offense, and secondly how much of a jump will our sophomores make."
Make no mistake, the Terriers are still loaded despite losing five of their top six scorers -- including NHL first-round pick Colin Wilson (17-38-55) and Hobey Baker Award winner Matt Gilroy (8-29-37).
Leading the way this season will be junior center and assistant captain Nick Bonino (18-32-50), who opted to return to Commonwealth Avenue instead of turning pro with Anaheim.
"As soon as we didn't lose Bonino I thought we would have a chance to be good again because he's the key guy on our offensive end this year, no doubt about it," Parker said. "Nick Bonino is a Hobey Baker candidate, he's an All-America candidate and he's an All-Hockey East candidate and nobody knows about him. He's as good a player as there will be in college hockey."
The challenge for Bonino and fellow captains Kevin Shattenkirk and Eric Gryba will be not to let the national championship hangover linger too long.
BU opens the regular season Oct. 16 at Massachusetts and then raises its latest title banner at Agganis Arena on Oct. 20 (ESPNU, 7 p.m. ET) when Notre Dame is in town.
"We've stressed it a lot in preseason that last year is done and behind us," Bonino said. "We enjoyed it all summer and the first week of school the guys were still kind of giddy about it. It came a point when you have to realize that's over and we're not national champions, we're defending national champions.
"The whole team is going to have to step up and be accountable because we have so few upperclassmen, so everyone realizes what has to be done to put that behind us."
The story at neighborhood rival Boston College is one of uncertainty.
Of the 26 players on the roster, 19 are either freshmen or sophomores. And junior goaltender John Muse, who won a national championship in net two seasons ago as a freshman, is still recovering from offseason hip surgery and may not be ready for the season opener Oct. 18 at Vermont (ESPNU, 5 p.m. ET).
"He's not back to the form we would like to see him in yet," BC coach Jerry York said. "Hopefully he can get back to his late freshman year type of goaltending."
If Muse can't go, sophomore Chris Venti (only 8 minutes of career playing time) or freshman Parker Milner (who played for the USHL's Waterloo Black Hawks last season) will be called into service to backstop the Eagles.
The goaltending is also very much in question at the other Boston Hockey East school.
Over at a revamped Matthews Arena, Brad Thiessen has taken his 25-12-4 record, 2.12 goals-against average and .931 save percentage to the Pittsburgh Penguins organization, and it has left behind a gaping hole in net.
That fact hasn't fazed Northeastern coach Greg Cronin ... yet.
"I think we can be better than we were last year," Cronin said. "That may be a bold statement but I think our talent level is better. But the goaltending position is the most important position -- it's like pitching in baseball, a quarterback in football and a point guard in basketball -- everything flows through that position.
"So our biggest challenge is sorting that thing out and finding out who's going to be the go-to guy. The question becomes who comes in with confidence and takes over Brad's position? I don't know; I wish I knew that."
The candidates are junior Mike Binnington, who last played in 2007-08 after Thiessen played every minute of last season, and freshman Chris Rawlings, who was the MVP of the British Columbia Hockey League last season while playing for the Cowichan Valley Capitals (35-15-1, 2.83, .915).
"Everybody looks great in the recruiting ledger," Cronin said. "We kind of lionize these guys like they're terrific players, but when the live ammunition flies around in college hockey that's when you find out what people really are."
For Cronin and the rest of the Hockey East coaches, the next six months will determine who gets to wear the crowns and who gets fed to the lions.
David Albright covers college sports for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.