The unique characteristic of Hockey East is its parity.
Hockey East couldn’t have done a much better job of selecting teams from the now-defunct ECAC East to ensure that parity, though that was not the primary intent. The only two ECAC teams not invited to the new league were the head and the tail of the beast — Niagara, which won 19 of 21 league regular-season games, and Quinnipiac, which lost all 21.
With Hockey East retaining the inner core of the teams from the first and only edition of the ECAC East, a heated, unpredictable battle for the league crown is upcoming.
The primary example of its wide-openness: this year’s consensus pick for last place, Boston College, beat preseason favorite Providence on the final weekend of last year’s regular season. Friar coach Bob Deraney remembers that defeat well, and he speaks of his league’s competitiveness with pride.
“We don’t have haves and have-nots,” he said. “We have six teams that can beat anyone on any given night. We’re all playing a schedule where night-in, night-out, it’s an absolute ride.”
What Hockey East doesn’t appear to have, however, is a favored candidate to reach the Frozen Four. At present, women’s D-I college hockey has half as many teams as D-I men’s, but a tournament only one-fourth as large. That makes national postseason play extremely competitive, so it’ll be difficult for any Hockey East team to dominate the league sufficiently to get there.
The other side of the coin, according to Deraney, is that there are advantages to Hockey East having a stronger bottom half than the other conferences.
“The Hockey East schedule is going to prepare whoever’s fortunate enough, if we have a team, to move onto the national championship,” he said. “They’re going to be more prepared than anyone else because they had to go through such a grueling season to get there. I’m really excited for what our league brings to women’s hockey.”
The parity in Hockey East could be as good as any league in the history of women’s college hockey, and that should make it exciting for all involved.
“It’s nice to see this whole group start a new league and move forward,” said Maine coach Rick Filighera. “The coaches do a good job preparing the teams to play in this league, and that’s what’s going to make it fun for the players.”
What’s also fun for the players is that they finally have a home. Now their league opponents might actually be the same year in, year out for the foreseeable future. That hasn’t been the case as teams have bounced from the ECAC, to the ECAC East, to Hockey East in the past three years.
“It’ll be nice to finally have things set in stone rather than jumping around from league to league,” said senior Melanie Ruzzi of Providence.
Boston College and Connecticut might be the preseason favorites to miss out on Hockey East’s four playoff spots, but the pair has been improving at a faster rate than the bottom programs of the other three leagues. Connecticut brings in just its second full recruiting class, and Boston College continues to add funding to its program. The race for the playoffs is by no means predetermined.
In the upper half of the league, both Northeastern and New Hampshire are in somewhat of a transition phase — the Huskies have a 24-player roster with 12 freshmen, while the Wildcats are the league’s only team with a new head coach in Brian McCloskey. Both teams may need some adjustment, but they nevertheless expect to be in contention for the league crown in March.
The one team that truly could finish anywhere from first to last in the Hockey East standings is Maine. The Black Bears have two of the league’s top three returning scorers and a goaltender with Canadian national experience. While Maine scored goals in bunches last season, the question will be whether the team’s new defensive recruits will mesh with the current players and keep enough pucks out of the net to win games.
At the top, the Friars are the first and only ECAC East champion. With most of that talent returning, they are the preseason favorites, and deservedly so. But the task will be to prove which Providence team was an aberration: the one that placed a disappointing fourth in the Hockey East standings, or the one that ran the table to close out the postseason.
Capsule profiles of each team follow. Click on any team’s name for its individual season preview.
Coach: Tom Babson, 21-68-6 (3 seasons)
2001-02 overall record: 9-19-4
2001-02 ECAC East record: 5-13-3 (7th)
Notes: The Eagles have tripled their scholarship offerings since Babson arrived. Assistant captain Gen Richardson will miss time with U.S. Select team at the Four Nations Cup.
Coach: Heather Linstad, 14-31-3 at UConn (2 seasons), 175-102-30 overall (10 seasons)
2001-02 overall record: 11-21-3
2001-02 ECAC East record: 7-12-2 (6th)
Notes: The upcoming season will be UConn’s second with a full recruiting class. Sophomore Kimberly Berry scored twice as many goals as anyone else on the Husky roster. She has also made the U.S. Select team for the Four Nations Cup.
Coach: Rick Filighera, 62-72-10 at Maine (5 seasons), 86-81-2 overall (7 seasons)
2001-02 overall record: 16-15-4
2001-02 ECAC East record: 8-10-3 (5th)
Notes: The Black Bears have two of the top three returning scorers in the league in juniors Meagan Aarts and Karen Droog. Junior goaltender Lara Smart played for the Canadian U-22 team this summer.
Coach: Brian McCloskey, first season
2001-02 overall record: 19-12-5
2001-02 ECAC East record: 11-6-4 (3rd)
Notes: Sophomore Steph Jones was tied for second in the nation in game-winning goals last season. Two of the Wildcats’ top four returning scorers are defensemen-Allison Edgar and U.S. U-22 national defenseman Kristen Thomas.
Coach: Joy Woog, 43-22-2 at Northeastern (2 seasons), 54-32-3 overall (3 seasons)
2001-02 overall record: 27-7-1
2001-02 ECAC East record: 15-5-1 (2nd)
Notes: No team in Hockey East lost more to graduation than Northeastern, but the Huskies still return the league’s top-scoring forward in Brooke White, the top-scoring defenseman in Kim Greene, and the nation’s top goaltender in terms of save percentage in Chanda Gunn.
Coach: Bob Deraney, 58-37-10 (3 seasons)
2001-02 overall record: 20-13-4
2001-02 ECAC East record: 11-7-3
Notes: No team plays more people or spreads out its offense more than Providence. The Friars return eight players with 18 or more points, including leading scorer Jenn Butsch and Rush Zimmerman, both members U.S. U-22 Select team. U.S. Olympic goaltender Sara DeCosta will serve as a volunteer assistant for the Friars.