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This Week in Hockey East

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This Week in Hockey East: Nov. 5, 2009

More Tightly Packed Than Ever?

Hockey East has gotten off to a sluggish (at best) start against the other conferences. A 16-14-1 record doesn’t appear all that bad at first glance, but once you get past the 5-0 record against upstart Atlantic Hockey, the results are decidedly underwhelming: 3-3 against the ECACHL, 6-5-1 versus the CCHA and an ugly 2-6 against the WCHA.

Admittedly, only two teams have losing records out of conference: Maine (1-3) and New Hampshire (0-4-1). UNH’s performance has been particularly schizoid. The Wildcats are Hockey East’s only undefeated team in league play (2-0), but have taken it on the chin worse than anyone else against the other leagues. Those results can probably be explained only by the quality of the nonconference opponents (two games each against top-ranked Miami and No. 18 Wisconsin) and the unreliability of small sample sizes.

Even so, as a local sports legend once said, it is what it is. The league will have its work cut out for it during the holiday tournaments if NCAA tournament bids are to be expected in abundance.

All that said, the Hockey East standings may be more tightly packed from top to bottom than ever before. The league has long boasted, and rightfully so, of this top-to-bottom strength and it may have more to boast about than usual this season in that respect, at least based on the first few weeks.

Merrimack and Providence, the two teams projected to finish out of the playoffs, are collectively a game over .500 within Hockey East and five games over .500 overall. Massachusetts sits atop Hockey East after being pegged for seventh.

The teams with losing league records make the case even stronger: Boston College (1-2), Boston University (1-2), Maine (1-2), Vermont (1-2) and Northeastern (0-2). Three of those five qualified for the NCAA tournament last year, with BU and UVM squaring off in the national semifinal game. This weekend or the next may be the last that some of these teams spend under .500.

As a result, the Hockey East standings may well be compressed like never before.

“I think you see some coaching staffs that are more familiar with the league,” Massachusetts-Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald explains. “They’ve been around for four or five years and now they’ve really been able to cement their philosophies [within their programs].

“You can see our league’s level of prestige nationally and how it allows everybody to recruit at a higher level. So the talent [is greater] top-to-bottom.

“There are also some teams in our league that have [a significant] home-ice advantage regardless of their talent. As long as you play half your games at home, you’ve got a chance to win some games.

“All those factors figure in. It’s just a question of who can sustain things and show consistency [week in and week out].”

No Problems With The Bull’s-eye

When this year’s preseason coaches’ poll picked Lowell to finish second, it evoked memories of past programs that hadn’t faced high expectations year in and year out and withered beneath the weight of suddenly being thrown into the limelight.

Not Ready For Prime Time Players, if you will.

Would the River Hawks fall into that trap? Before the season started, MacDonald scoffed at the prospect.

“I’ve been on teams before that [a poll like that] might have caused a little bit of shriveling — ‘Oh my gosh, now we’ve got to play up to these expectations,’” he said.

“It depends on the makeup of your team, but it’s a non-factor for us. This team is very, very focused and has tremendous leadership. Mature and confident.

“We have a team that played well in the Garden last year, but [after we lost in the championship game] it wasn’t like, ‘Wow!’ It was disappointment. When we beat Vermont [to get to the Garden], it was a good accomplishment but for our team it was, ‘What’s next?’

“It’s a clich, but you can sense it when you’re around our team. Nobody could possibly set higher standards for our team than the players have for themselves.”

Based on the early going, MacDonald knew whereof he spoke. Of the teams projected to earn home ice, only Lowell has jumped out with a winning overall record. Last weekend, after losing a heartbreaker in overtime to BU, the River Hawks rebounded on the road with a 3-2 win to salvage a split in the home-and-home series.

“That was an impressive victory by our team,” MacDonald said after the game. “I give our team a lot of credit. Emotionally, that was a difficult game to swallow last night [but] good teams always bounce back.

“And then when you equate the fact that we’re playing a great BU team on the road, that’s a real credit and testimony to the mental toughness of our team. Winning on the road is huge in this league.”

Days later, MacDonald revisited the theme of his team playing with bull’s-eyes on their jerseys.

“We’re so acutely aware of what we need to do and who we are and how we’re going to get to where we want to be that it’s all about us as opposed to other external things such as peoples’ opinion of us, other teams’ opinion of us, and where we are with respect to everybody,” he said. “We just go about our business.

“I like a lot about our team in terms of our commitment — how we conduct our business on a daily basis. [But] I think we need to, and can, play a lot better than we have. We’re just too inconsistent to be able to reach our standard of excellence. …

“I think this team has a lot of potential to get better. We’re playing OK. I say that because this [past] weekend our best players were freshmen and sophomores. I see them almost every day getting better and they’re going to give us a good dimension for our team.”

Given that Lowell has one of the most veteran teams in the country, that assessment of his underclassmen is a stunning one.

“First of all, the reason that our younger players are playing well is because they’ve been taught by our veterans,” MacDonald said. “They’ve done a great job leading our freshmen and sophomores to a place where they feel confident to contribute and they understand how to really prepare emotionally for when they come to play.

“I thought this past weekend we had a line of Matt Ferreira, who’s a sophomore and Riley Wetmore, who’s a freshman, and Colin Wright, who’s a freshman, and they impacted the games all weekend. On Friday, David Vallorani, Michael Budd, and Mike Scheu had an unbelievable night and a pretty good Saturday night. They’re all sophomores.

“Those are some guys that are really important players for us with a terrific amount of drive.”

As a result, the River Hawk scoring is about nicely distributed as possible (two players with six points, four with five, and another four with three or four points).

“One of our strengths going into the season was that we had good quality depth in a lot of areas,” MacDonald said.

That depth will be challenged as defenseman Barry Goers has been lost for a while to injury. Tim Corcoran filled in on Saturday. MacDonald sees the group as one that hasn’t yet played to its full potential.

“We have what we feel are six defensemen that [make up] a really dominant D-corps,” he said. “That unit can play better, but for them to play better we need better back pressure from our forwards. But I think our defensemen have some room for improvement as a unit.”

Are the River Hawks on track for a successful season? BU coach Jack Parker sure thinks so.

“I like that team,” he said after losing to them on Saturday night. “They’ll be a home-ice advantage team in our league. There’s no question in my mind.”

Maine Rebounds

A week ago, the Maine Black Bears had just lost to New Hampshire, 5-2, dropping their record to 1-5 overall and 0-2 within Hockey East. On tap were four games against teams that played in the NCAA tournament last year (Vermont, BU, and two at Northeastern), followed by three against projected home ice teams (two against Boston College and one at Lowell).

On the surface, two words might have come to mind: Long Season.

However, after an impressive 4-1

USCHO covers Hockey East all week long on the Hockey East Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.

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