– UMass Lowell coach Tim Whitehead
Last year, Boston University, New Hampshire, Boston College and Maine all spent virtually the entire year in the top eight positions in the national rankings. After the four teams qualified for the NCAA tournament, BC and Maine advanced to the Frozen Four and BU came within a clanged post of making it a Hockey East threesome for the second straight postseason, falling to St. Lawrence in a record-setting quadruple-overtime thriller.
This year, Hockey East appears likely to once again be dominant on the national scene. The Big Four may all have one potential chink in their armor, but still look like season-long Top 10 material as well as serious contenders for the NCAA title.
Which is not to say, however, that the other five teams in the league will be little more than cannon fodder for the four perennial powerhouses. It sure didn’t happen that way last year.
Witness: Northeastern went undefeated against Maine (two wins and a tie) and New Hampshire (a win and two ties). Providence toppled BC, UNH and BU while also tying Maine. UMass-Amherst defeated St. Lawrence in a midseason nonconference game and then knocked off BC and tied UNH down the stretch. Merrimack topped BC and tied both Maine and BU. Only UMass-Lowell failed to post an upset of an NCAA-bound team and even so, the River Hawks still could claim five one-goal losses to various powerhouses.
Cannon fodder? Hardly. More like ticking time bombs.
Or check out these statistics: first-place Boston University finished with a goal differential in 24 league games of a mere plus-16. Second-place New Hampshire’s margin was an even more razor-thin plus-7. UMass-Lowell finished minus-18, a very strong figure for a last-place team.
Compare those numbers — unparalleled for parity in Hockey East history — with those of the first and last place teams in the other conferences: CCHA (Michigan plus-47 and Alaska-Fairbanks minus-35 in 28 games); ECAC (St. Lawrence plus-29 and Brown minus-26 in 20 and 21 games, respectively); WCHA (Wisconsin plus-42 and Michigan Tech minus-89 — ouch! — in 28 games); and MAAC (Quinnipiac plus-92 and Fairfield minus-75 in 27 games).
“I keep telling people the reason our league is so good is not who the top three teams are but who the bottom three teams are,” says BU coach Jack Parker. “Nobody has the quality top to bottom like we do. That’s what makes our league so exciting, game in and game out.”
Nonetheless, BU, UNH, BC and Maine do seem to be entering the season as clear picks to finish in the top four spots.
In which order? Last year’s preview coined the phrase Five To Nine Lottery to describe the logjam of teams not winning home ice. This year the operative phrase is the First to Fourth Lottery. Select any one of the four teams and you’d have an excellent first-place pick. Or an excellent fourth-place pick. There’s even a temptation to weasel out with a prediction of a four-way tie for first.
Weasels aside, though, here’s a quick look at the nine teams, in order of predicted finish, with links provided for more detailed analysis. (Picks were made before the Hockey East Coaches’ Poll was announced.) Click on any team’s name for its individual season preview page.
Had Ricky DiPietro returned, this would be a no-brainer. At the other five positions, the Terriers boast both top-level talent and depth. They’ve also shown a mindset that has led to first-place finishes in six of the last seven years. If goaltending becomes a major problem, however, BU could be the first team out of The Big Four to fall out of playoff home ice.
The Wildcats stumbled late last season, arguably finishing fourth among the Hockey East titans, but enter this year with the least serious questions. They did struggle offensively last year and now need to replace the lost scoring of Mike Souza and other graduated seniors. But even if the offense doesn’t explode, they still have the best goalie in Hockey East, Ty Conklin, a veteran defense and some guy named Darren Haydar.
Those who anticipate the demise of the Eagles following the graduation of Mike Mottau, Jeff Farkas, Blake Bellefeuille and company forget that there’s still a lot of talent returning. Brian Gionta and Bobby Allen comprise the best forward-defenseman tandem in the league and there’s a lot of depth and experience to join them. The only reason not to pick the Eagles to finish first is the competition, and that they didn’t finish first in either of the last two seasons. Don’t bet against another Frozen Four appearance, though.
Maine returns a strong defense and a highly underrated goaltender in Matt Yeats. There is, however, a lot of scoring to replace and it hurts mightily to lose Niko Dimitrakos for the first month of the season. Of course, an even more major concern is the health of coach Shawn Walsh. The Black Bears aren’t the Black Bears without him behind the bench, coaching with all of his accustomed energy.
This veteran club boasts a strong blue line, but needs improved goaltending and a lot more scoring to crack the top four. Don’t count the Huskies out, though. It wasn’t a fluke that last year they took five out of six points from Maine and four out of six from UNH.
Jeff Turner and goaltender Markus Helanen are the most obvious reasons for optimism, along with new coach Don “Toot” Cahoon. But the Minuteman defensive corps also returns intact and with another year under its belt could make a big difference this year. The big question is the offense.
Only three defensemen return from last year’s squad. The almost inevitable growing pains of freshmen blueliners could put more of a load on goaltenders Boyd Ballard and Nolan Schaefer than they can handle. What’s more, the Friars didn’t score a lot last year, even with since-departed Fernando Pisani, Doug Sheppard and Jerry Keefe (for the first half). So offense could be a question mark, too.
The Warriors lost number-one goaltender Cris Classen, four defensemen and two forwards to graduation last year before also taking a shot to the solar plexus when top scorer Greg Classen turned pro early. There are some exciting recruits coming in, however, and the team speed should improve, particularly on the blue line. So the future is looking better each year, but there are likely going to be some troubles in the early going.
The River Hawks will need to get better goaltending or generate more offense to avoid a second straight year in the cellar. Can forwards like Yorick Treille, Brad Rooney and Dan Fontas elevate their games to the next level offensively? More importantly, can Cam McCormick, Jimi St. John or Chris Davidson step up and consistently provide the solid goaltending this team needs?