The first half of the season has seen its share of surprises, peaks and valleys.
The top stories?
Boston College coach Jerry York tied Ron Mason for the all-time winningest coach, but he’ll have to wait until after Christmas to try to break the mark at the Mariucci Classic.
BC and New Hampshire swapped the Nos. 1 and 2 positions in the national rankings with Boston University coming in at No. 6.
There’s plenty more, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Without further ado, let’s give out some awards.
Breakout team of the first half
Providence would be a worthy choice, but the Friars are going to serve as runners-up in this category. Picked to finish in a tie for sixth, they’ve moved into fourth place, a game over .500. But the tougher half of their schedule remains and their surprising performance can’t measure up to that of one other team.
Hockey East coaches picked the Wildcats to finish fourth, with a significant gap between them and BC, Massachusetts-Lowell and BU. Instead, the Wildcats have posted an impressive 11-2-2 record, good enough for No. 2 in the country.
They rank first in overall Hockey East offense, defense and special teams net. Concerns about where the offense would come from have proven unfounded as Kevin Goumas leads the league in scoring with 24 points while Grayson Downing, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Austin Block, Nick Sorkin and John Henrion are already in double digits.
Goaltender Casey DeSmith broke the school record for scoreless streak and the team is playing the kind of defense that should translate into postseason success.
While some might argue that picking a perennial powerhouse as a breakout team doesn’t pass their litmus test, the shoe fits.
Breakout player of the first half (returning player)
BU forward Cason Hohmann is the no-brainer choice. As a freshman last season, Hohmann recorded only two goals and six assists in 35 games.
But what a difference a year makes.
The small (5-foot-8) but speedy playmaker ranks in the top five in Hockey East overall scoring. His 12 assists trail only the 16 by UNH’s Goumas; Hohmann’s four goals include a game-winner.
I believe in plus/minus statistics only some of the time (that is, when it backs up what my eyes see), but Hohmann ranks third in the league with a plus-15 mark. Works for me.
An afterthought a year ago, he now centers the Terriers’ top line, flanked by captain Wade Megan on the left and first Yasin Cisse and then Sahir Gill on the right.
“Hohmann has been the biggest surprise [of our sophomores] and is playing the best of all of them,” coach Jack Parker said a few weeks ago. “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.”
Note to BU haters: No, this isn’t a matter of Parker lobbying better than his counterparts. Watch this kid during games. Or more accurately, try not to watch him. He’s eye-catching and effective. No way any other league player has emerged as completely from the shadows.
Breakout player of the first half (rookie)
For the rookie component of this category, there’s plenty of competition. Northeastern’s Kevin Roy has recorded an impressive 7-6–13 stat line and any number of defensemen warrant consideration.
But when it comes down to biggest impact, two goaltenders rise to the fore: Providence’s Jon Gillies and BU’s Matt O’Connor. I’m giving the nod to Gillies based on a heavier workload. He’s played between the Friars pipes for all but 20 minutes.
The South Portland, Maine, native has recorded a 1.95 goals against average and a .928 save percentage, numbers that are second and third in Hockey East, respectively.
“He really has a great composure about himself,” PC coach Nate Leaman said. “There’s really nothing that rattles him. He’s gotten run over, it seems, once a game and it doesn’t rattle him. The time of the game really doesn’t rattle him. He’s extremely mature for being a ’94 birth date.”
Team most in need of the break
Can there be any doubt that the no-contest winner here is Maine?
Picked to finish fifth in the preseason, the Black Bears have endured a first half that conjures comparisons to Biblical plagues. While there may not quite be swarms of locusts, frogs or lice in Alfond Arena, that’s about the extent of the good news.
The Black Bears occupy Hockey East’s cellar with a 1-7-2 league mark, 2-11-2 overall. To hear some fans talk, the team would need a telescope to see fifth place.
In short, the Black Bears can’t score. Averaging 1.33 goals a game, they’re the worst offensive team in the country. Number 59 of 59.
Thank goodness for Harvard because the Crimson is all that separates Maine’s power play (7 percent) from also ranking 59th.
Hey, to paraphrase Rick Pitino, Paul Kariya isn’t walking through that door. Steve Kariya isn’t walking through that door. And Martin Kariya isn’t walking through that door.
(Heck, not even Noriko Kariya is walking through that door.)
So the Maine Black Bears are going to have to win defensive struggles, much like their 1-0 loss at BU to close out the first half. An admirable performance, but still an L.
Yeah, Maine definitely needs a break.
Team poised for a second-half surge
Massachusetts-Lowell, to be sure.
Don’t forget that the River Hawks were picked in the preseason to finish second. So what are they doing mired in eighth place with a 3-6-1 league record?
For starters, they’ve played a very tough schedule to date, one that has included all three of their games against UNH and two games against BC. Excluding the two recent losses to the Wildcats, Lowell is on a four-game winning streak. That could easily reach nine or even 10 by the middle of January.
Watch out for the River Hawks over the second half.
Roughest road ahead
Vermont may be in a three-way tie for fifth place but there are thunderclouds in the distance. The Catamounts have played only two games against Hockey East’s Big Three and only one against Lowell, projected to be near the top of the league and a likely tough opponent in the second half.
But what tops all roughest road rivals — say that five times fast — is the final three weekends of Vermont’s regular season.
Two against UNH. Two against BU. And two against BC.
If the Catamounts haven’t built up a buffer in the standings, those final three weekends of the regular season also will be Vermont’s final three weeks of the season.
One last thought
Happy Holidays to all and thanks for reading!
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.