Few people around Hockey East will deny that this was one pretty crazy first half of the season.
We mentioned weeks ago that the league began separating into two parts: a top three and a bottom seven.
Truth be told, at some point a middle will almost inevitably be defined. And the leader of that pack might just be Providence.
The Friars aren’t very close to third place (five points behind) and are just two points ahead of a fifth-place trio of Merrimack, Massachusetts and Vermont. But having seen all of those teams thus far, I can definitively say that the talent level on the Friars stands out from the rest of the bottom six.
Last Friday night, that was on display at home when the Friars battled to a 3-3 tie with Boston College. Providence rallied from a two-goal, third-period deficit and, most importantly, played with composure.
That’s something that coach Nate Leaman didn’t see last season.
“We struggle sometimes executing the game plan for 60 minutes,” Leaman said. “We could’ve easily imploded [against BC]. They kept coming back in the game. That’s a good learning tool for us. In the past, if you look at our record, when we get down by a goal, it hasn’t been very good.
“I thought it was a good sign for our team sticking with the game plan and showing some mental toughness.”
Even as the team entered overtime and BC had the better of the chances to score, Leaman said he believed that the result wasn’t going to be indicative of how he felt about the game.
“I was going to be proud of the guys no matter what because they stayed in the process and they executed,” Leaman said. “For our team it’s about the process right now. We want to keep getting points in the league, but our goal is to be playing our best hockey in February and keep improving. I saw improvement in our team in some key areas [against BC].”
All of the positives said, Leaman is conscious of the fact that his Friars team isn’t where he wants it to be. That said, when you look at the makeup of the league right now — with BC, Boston University and New Hampshire seeming like consensus top-three teams — being in position to take the fourth and final home-ice spot could be one of the most valued commodities come the second half.
“We’re just trying to stay in the process and make sure that we’re trying to get better every time,” Leaman said. “We’re just trying to give them the little things to focus on.”
Are the River Hawks back?
If Maine weren’t in Hockey East, Massachusetts-Lowell easily would be the biggest disappointment in Hockey East through the first half of the season.
The River Hawks began last weekend 2-6-1 in Hockey East and 4-7-1 overall, that after coming off an NCAA tournament season and losing few key players from the lineup.
Things, though, haven’t gone as planned for coach Norm Bazin through the holiday break. So last week’s two victories — through which the River Hawks didn’t allow a single goal — could be a motivating factor for Bazin and his club.
Lowell whitewashed Northeastern on Saturday with a 2-0 win, a game in which the Huskies posted just 10 shots in the first two periods. On Monday, Lowell blanked Harvard 5-0 on the road to close the first half just a game below .500 overall.
Both shutouts came from rookie goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. Realizing that Doug Carr was the man between the pipes that carried this team last season, you would wonder if there might be a goaltending issue in Lowell.
That is difficult to determine, but watching the River Hawks play on Monday, it seems this is a team that has a renewed defensive focus. While Hellebuyck stood his ground and played well, he hardly had to steal the game.
If anything, Lowell seems like a team that is more focused on how to score goals. That’s something that Bazin admitted was a major focus in recent days.
“When things aren’t going your way, you talk to your team about a lot of stuff,” Bazin said. “We really talked to our defensemen in the last few weeks to contribute because we only had one goal from the back end.”
On Monday, three different defensemen found the back of the net, music to Bazin’s ears. But there still is a long way to go for this club, their coach said.
“You don’t have enough time to go through the things [that have impacted the team],” Bazin said. “When things aren’t going well, it’s a domino effect.
“But we finish off [the first half] with two wins and I think that’s a great place to be. I wish we could keep playing. But we still have a mountain to climb. We worked ourselves into a hole and we have to work ourselves out of it.”
OK, seriously, where is Maine?
I mentioned the Black Bears and their offensive troubles earlier. But a quick talk about struggles doesn’t sum up where this team is right now.
Last Saturday night, Maine played an excellent game against a very good Boston University team. Maine came out slow, fell behind 1-0 on an early BU power-play goal and then lost by that same 1-0 score.
What was mind blowing was that the Black Bears had a five-minute power play for much of the closing minutes and couldn’t even come close to converting.
So the question is, what the heck happened to this Black Bears team’s offense?
Maine lost two talented players in Spencer Abbott (a Hobey Baker Award finalist) and Brian Flynn. Joey Diamond is the only returning player from the team’s top five scorers but everyone believed that Maine had one of the nation’s top offensive recruiting classes.
Thus far, rookie Devin Shore has more than done his job. He has scored seven points in 15 games as a rookie. The problem is, Shore’s numbers lead the team.
Maine’s offense is anemic. It has averaged just 1.33 goals per game, last in the country. The Black Bears’ power play, one of the best in the nation last year, ranks second to last (only Harvard is worse), and was a major contributor to last Saturday’s loss at BU.
It’s difficult to say why Maine is this bad. Youth is a crutch a coach can lean on through the first-half break, in this writer’s opinion. Once the calendar turns to 2013, the fact is Maine needs to show some improvement.
If not, this could be a very long, cold winter in Orono.
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.