If playoff hockey truly is all about goaltending and special teams, New Hampshire fans might want to start blocking out the dates April 11 and 13. Admittedly, it’s only November and the Playoff Goliath — top-ranked Boston College — will be making plans for those same dates, but it’s hard to argue with how well the Wildcats are playing right now.
Their 8-1-1 record has earned them the No. 3 national ranking (behind only BC and Denver) and second place in the Hockey East standings (behind you-know-who).
But what really catches the eye is their team defense. Led by goaltender Casey DeSmith, UNH has earned billing as the nation’s top defense with no one else even close. Seven schools are below BC’s 2.00 goals against average, but the Wildcats are way down at 1.20. (Second is Notre Dame at 1.64, then Dartmouth at 1.88.)
On Sunday, Boston University finally broke DeSmith’s three-game consecutive shutout streak, scoring the first goal against the sophomore in 204 minutes and 40 seconds (a UNH record). But that remained the only exception to the goaltender’s recent perfection, and the Wildcats won yet again 3-1.
DeSmith boasts an insane .961 save percentage.
“It’s a good thing to have going,” he said after shutting out Massachusetts-Lowell on Friday night. “I’m not going to complain. When you get on a run like this, pucks aren’t going in that might have gone in before.
“There were a couple shots from the hash marks tonight that I just knew weren’t going in because of how well I’m seeing the puck. It’s a good roll to be on.”
DeSmith also delivered the obligatory praise of his teammates’ defensive efforts.
“The team is playing unbelievable defense right now,” he said. “All the credit goes to them. They’re not letting much through.”
The praise, however, ranks as more than just mindless palaver. You sense that DeSmith means what he says and he ought to. The Wildcats are playing tremendous defensive hockey in front of him. They stifled the Lowell offense, holding it to only 23 mostly innocuous shots, then made most of BU’s 46 toothless.
(The Terriers piled up much of their shot advantage while on the first seven power plays of the game, an exception to UNH’s usual ability to stay out of the box.)
“I thought they played great defensively,” BU coach Jack Parker said after the loss. “It’s hard to say it’s a shutdown when we get 46 shots, but it was a shutdown because we didn’t get very many chances.”
The defense is led by star sophomore Trevor van Riemsdyk and senior captain Connor Hardowa.
“Everyone is committed to blocking shots,” van Riemsdyk said. “We don’t care if it hurts a little bit. We’ll get over it tomorrow.”
Of course, the team defense extends beyond the blueliners. UNH’s forwards have bought in, too, and in a big way.
“It’s just a collective commitment in our defensive zone,” Hardowa said. “It’s taken a team effort every game, from Casey out to the defensemen and forwards. As long as everyone’s on the same page, things are going to get done.”
Done to the tune of only three goals allowed over the last six games and an 8-1-1 record.
“The guys are believing in team defense and we’re playing smart,” UNH coach Dick Umile said. “We’re playing smart hockey and everyone is contributing. I’m pleased with the way the team is playing right now.”
UNH is scoring at a 3.20 goals-per-game clip, second only to BC. Not surprisingly, the Wildcats rank first in penalty kill (94.6 percent), leaving them tied with BC for best special teams net (plus-7).
In short, this looks like a complete team, one to be reckoned with all season long and then in March and April.
It’s early. Very early. But would I be surprised to see BC and UNH both representing Hockey East in Pittsburgh?
Not at all.
Boston University: Very good but not great. Yet.
The BU Terriers have played well enough to earn the No. 10 national ranking, a none-too-shabby position at this time of year. Even so, that still ranks third among the Hockey East elite and BU finds itself in a similar position in the league standings.
Much of that third-banana status (at least for the time being) comes from losses in head-to-head action, both to BC, 4-2 (with an empty-netter), and UNH, 4-1 and 3-1 (with an empty-netter). Other than that, however, the Terriers have split with seventh-ranked North Dakota on the road and otherwise taken care of business.
“We’ve played very well all year I think,” Parker said. “I’m very happy with my team to this point. We did not get W’s against UNH or BC, but those are two terrific teams. I thought we could have easily won a game from either one of them.
“So I like my team; I just don’t like the results in those two games. We’ve got to prove that we can beat good teams as well, although we did beat North Dakota on the road and I think UMass is a very good team the way they’re playing. So I like where we’re at so far.”
Easily the biggest question mark coming into the season — the reliance on freshman goalies Matt O’Connor and Sean Maguire — has been answered. O’Connor (1.90 GAA, .939 save percentage) excelled right out of the gate and Maguire has overcome a rocky start at UNH to post his first win last Friday.
“We’re getting goaltending in spades, so that’s a big plus for us,” Parker said. “If you had to pick one, it would be O’Connor. He’s been terrific. All his numbers are great, he’s played extremely well, and he’s really calmed things down for us. But both goalies have played well.”
O’Connor has played eight games to Maguire’s three, but that’s been a reflection of O’Connor’s stellar start.
“That was just a stretch that he was on and Shawn wasn’t,” Parker said. “Shawn has picked himself up and gotten very much back into the 1 and 1-A type of arrangement. So we would like to be able to go more evenly with the goaltending the next few games out.”
The goaltenders haven’t been the only impact freshmen. Defensemen Matt Grzelcyk (10 points) and Ahti Oksanen (three goals) have impressed and forward Danny O’Regan leads the team with five goals.
“We thought we had one of the best classes in the nation, but a lot would depend on how well the freshman goalies played,” Parker said. “The way they’re playing, I think we definitely have the best class in the nation because that position is so important.
“The two freshmen defensemen, Grzelcyk and Oksanen, have played extremely well. They’re both very, very capable with the puck, without the puck, on the power play and man down. They’re doing an awful lot of good things for us as freshmen defensemen.
“Danny O’Regan to this point is one of our leading scorers, plays every power play, kills some penalties and is doing a terrific job. Wes Myron isn’t getting the points that Danny’s had, but he’s playing very well, making some plays, getting ice time. Mike Moran has done a good job as the fourth-line left winger giving us some size and some speed and some bang out there.”
The two other freshmen, Sam Kurker and Matt Lane, got off to a slower start but have begun to come on of late.
“They were both highly recruited and I think they’re going to be really good players, but they haven’t quite gotten comfortable yet,” Parker said. “But we see a lot of promise in both of those guys and [they're both] starting to get a little more confident. Once that happens, they’ll be really solid players for us as well.”
The three sophomores — forwards Cason Hohmann and Evan Rodrigues and defenseman Alexx Privitera — have also stepped their games up, especially Hohmann, who leads the team with a dozen points.
“We felt that the most important class for us was our sophomores,” Parker said. “It’s a real small class, a real young class. They were all 18-year olds coming in last year.
“In general, they did not produce the way we thought they would [last year]. But probably all of them, if they’d gone to other schools, would [have waited] and come in as older kids after playing a couple more years in juniors.
“That hasn’t been our philosophy. We think that right now they’re better off after playing a whole year of college hockey than they’d be as incoming freshmen after playing a year of juniors again.
“So they had to struggle through last year, but it’s paying off this year. Hohmann and Rodrigues have made huge jumps. Last year, Privitera showed a little bit more than the other two, Rodrigues was kind of in the middle, and Hohmann was at the distant end of that.
“Now, Hohmann has been the biggest surprise and is playing the best of all of them. He’s doing exactly what we thought he would do coming out of the U.S. Junior League, being an offensive guy who creates for his linemates, is a real water bug out there, and is a real noticeable forward in speed and cleverness. Rodrigues is the same and producing as well.
“Privitera is playing the point on the power play and killing every penalty. He’s our leading shot blocker and has played well defensively. He’s given us some great moments. He’s made a nice jump from his freshman year as well.”
One area, though, that could definitely stand improvement is the power play. BU’s mediocre conversion percentage of 15.9 (sixth in Hockey East) masks a bigger problem. In the three games against the rest of the Hockey East iron (BC and UNH), the Terriers have gone 1-for-19, including an 0-for-7 mark last Sunday against the Wildcats that included two five-on-threes. You can’t beat top teams with man-advantage performances like that.
“It’s been a real big problem for us,” Parker said. “Not only are we not getting goals, we’re demoralizing ourselves on the power play. We have not played anywhere near to our capabilities. We had a great power play last year, we’ve got a lot of guys back from that group and we’ve added a couple of terrific power-play defensemen.
“I think the Disease of Me has stepped in this situation. Guys are worried that that other power-play unit is getting more time than they’re getting. Or when a guy is out there, he’s not going to move it as quickly as he should [because] he wants to see if he can get a goal.
“The whole thing has got to revolve around me. I want the power play to go through me. We’ve got too much of that going on.
“There’s not enough puck movement. It doesn’t matter what the system is, if you’re hanging onto the puck, if you’re trying to just sit on the periphery and get a goal instead of playing the right way, getting to the net and screening goalies and delivering pucks to the net at the right time, your power play is not going to be successful.
“The only way to describe it is that we’ve been inept on the power play. But I do believe this goes in streaks, and I do believe we have more than enough power-play type players to be a really good power-play unit, so we’ll keep working at it.”
After hosting St. Lawrence this weekend, BU will get a chance to test its mettle against the Hockey East iron again and see whether it measures up or not. A home-and-home with BC followed by a trip to UNH may determine whether those two teams pull away from the pack, relegating BU to also-ran status, or whether the Terriers will be in the race to the end.
“It’s also important for us from a feel-good-about-yourself point of view,” Parker said. “[If you win], you know you’re growing and you’re getting better, that you’re going to be able to perform and get W’s in those type of games.
“We’re also playing Maine before the break as well, which has been a big rival of ours. So all four of those games getting back in the league will be huge. It will be interesting to see how we perform in those games, but any way you look at it, we want to be a top-four team in this league.
“It would be nice to be the No. 1 team in the league. The No. 1 team gets you a better chance of getting selected in the national tournament. But the first objective of any BU hockey team is to get home ice in our playoffs. So those will be important battles with those two teams as well as other teams trying to get into the top four.
“Every game is important. But from a psychological standpoint, I think it’s real important that we get some W’s against the two best teams in our league.”
Massachusetts-Lowell: Changing up
Heading into last weekend, Massachusetts-Lowell had been outshot by its opponents only a single time — and in that case by No. 1 BC and by the grand margin of 29-28 — yet was saddled with a disappointing 2-4-1 record. Over the first four games, the River Hawks had put either 38 or 39 shots on goal in every contest (with three of the four coming against nationally ranked opponents).
Clearly, putting the puck on the net was not the River Hawks’ problem. Putting it in the net was.
As a result, Lowell coach Norm Bazin decided that his players continuing to slam their heads against the “Shoot the Puck!” wall wasn’t a good idea. So they’ve switched to a different stance. Quality over quantity.
Unfortunately, their foe last Friday night was the No. 1 defensive team in the country, UNH. Not exactly the ideal opponent for a breakout.
Sure enough, the Wildcats blanked Lowell 3-0. No disgrace there. It was UNH’s third straight shutout. But the results were certainly disappointing. And after having outshot almost every opponent, the River Hawks managed a mere 12 shots over the first two periods and 23 by the end of the game.
“We’re trying to change some things so we’re not shooting for the sake of shooting,” Bazin said after the loss. “We’re choosing our chances maybe a little more wisely.
“However, it didn’t work out that way today. Today [we] were unfortunately not getting a whole bunch of chances and not penetrating. We had a couple of opportunities early in the game, but those didn’t go in.
“I think the guys are fighting it a little bit. We’ll look at some things. There’s a high level of frustration, there’s no question.”
Arguably, some of that frustration and sense of “fighting it” could be the result of the high expectations the River Hawks faced going into this year. Last season was comparatively easy. The bar was set low and they vaulted high over it.
This year, however, they were picked in the preseason to finish second in the standings. For a program not consistently at the top, lofty expectations can sometimes mean extra pressure that can be difficult to deal with.
“I haven’t really put much thought into that,” Bazin said. “However, it has probably affected a few guys. When things aren’t going well, it’s a domino effect; when things are going well, it’s a reversed effect.
“However, we’re going to look at some things again and try to change some things. I thought we took steps [forward] in a few areas and probably took a step backwards in two others. We’ve got to get our overall game back to a point where we’re playing hard, Lowell-style hockey for 60 minutes.
“The only thing we can do is keep working on our game and trying to come up with that 60-minute effort that we’re looking to display and getting back to some desperate hockey.”
Perhaps it was desperate hockey that led to Lowell’s 8-2 win over Massachusetts last Sunday. Or perhaps it was continuing the emphasis on quality over quantity of shots, only this time against a team other than the top defense in the country.
Either way, this is a lot closer to what people expected out of the River Hawks coming into the season. As noted in the Hockey East Blog’s Monday weekend wrap-up, however, they’ll have to face UNH again for a home-and-home series when they return to Hockey East action. So their work will be cut out for them.
“It’s been a difficult start for us,” Bazin said. “It’s no mystery. We’ll work ourselves out of it.”
And finally, not that it has anything to do with anything, but …
• I could have told you that my going on a diet would put the makers of Twinkies out of business.
• As soon as I heard the No. 1 hawk among the NHL owners was Jeremy Jacobs, I immediately sided with the players. He has earned our loathing. But it should come as no surprise that Bob Ryan’s column nails it.
• I’d been wondering if the Red Sox should have gotten in on the Miami Marlins fire sale until I heard some of the numbers. Jose Reyes will be getting $22 million a year at the end of that deal? No thanks.
• I hope you’re checking out Jim Connelly’s Hockey East segments on NESN Daily. He does a great job.
• If you’re starting to think about holiday shopping, please consider my novel Cracking the Ice, available at Amazon or Barnes and Noble online. If you’d like to order a personalized copy, drop me a line at email@example.com or send $15 (shipping included) via PayPal to that email account. Be sure to include address and personalization instructions. Thank you!
• Hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving and thanks for reading.
Thanks to Scott Weighart for use of his game quotes.
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.