One More Time!
Welcome back, my friends, to the column that never ends.
A year ago, the season’s first missive celebrated USCHO’s 10-year anniversary with a top 10 list of reasons why the year promised to be a good one. We’ll reprise that theme to open this season, but decline to move to a Top 11 in the interest of keeping the rampant verbosity within check for at least a week.
Here then are the top 10 reasons why this will be a terrific year to be a Hockey East fan.
Reason Number 10: Off on the right foot.
Great starts don’t always mean great finishes, but the early returns look good. Hockey East stands 7-4-3 in nonconference play with a couple big wins under already under the league’s belt. Vermont didn’t just claim the Ice Breaker Invitational, it outscored Colgate and Miami a collective 10-1. And in the Hall of Fame game, Maine knocked off Minnesota in its own backyard.
Number 9: There’s a playoff race.
Two teams won’t make it. It says here that’s a good thing. The regular season means something.
Take, by contrast, the WCHA tournament. To paraphrase Henny Youngman, “Please, take it.” All 10 teams qualify for the WCHA’s tourney, with an execrable play-in game the night before the semifinals. This stacks the deck inordinately against the four and five seeds who, if all favorites prevail, must win on three straight evenings to take the title, facing an especially unfair challenge on the second night when lining up against a rested opponent. In essence, the four and five seeds are sacrificed to accommodate teams nine and ten.
Hockey East gets it right. Last year, Northeastern and Merrimack finished nine and 11 points out of the last playoff berth, respectively. Those teams didn’t deserve to make the playoffs. Had the league taken the WCHA approach, New Hampshire and Providence would have faced uphill challenges just to give spots to two teams with not much more than one-third of their points.
A similar situation arose the year before that in which Merrimack had its worst season ever, winning only a single league game. Did that team deserve a charity playoff spot?
This isn’t PeeWees. The players are big boys. If they don’t make the playoffs, they won’t be in therapy for the rest of their lives dealing with the trauma.
Besides, that frantic race for the final playoff spots can sometimes provide the greatest drama. Boston University and Northeastern fans won’t soon forget the 2003-2004 season in which the Huskies, after tough times in the early going, took seven of eight points in the final two weekends to appear to clinch the final playoff berth only to have BU score in overtime against UNH to snatch it away.
Number 8: Rivalries in peak form.
Boston University against Boston College always provides great drama, even when on paper there’s a mismatch. But for a fair amount of Hockey East’s history one or the other has held the upper hand. The Eagles and Terriers finished one-two the first two years of the league, but following that BC took four of the next five regular season titles. In fact, the only season of the first seven that Boston College didn’t finish first was an Olympic year.
Then, however, BC hit hard times while BU became dominant, winning five straight titles and six of seven. Not until the late nineties did the Eagles reassert themselves, perhaps not coincidentally, during a slight lull for the Terriers. Not coincidentally, that is, because the two go toe-to-toe in many recruiting wars.
There are no lulls in this rivalry now, however. BC and BU have finished one-two the last two years and are pegged to do so again. Before the season even starts, they’re also favorites to be playing each other on the second Monday in February.
Not that the rivalries start and end there. New Hampshire and Maine have waged wars in past years and will be going at it again, not to mention nipping at the heals of BU and BC for the league title. Vermont will also be looking to add itself to that Northern State School rivalry.
Number 7: Great goaltending.
All-Hockey East and All-America goaltenders John Curry and Cory Schneider are back for another season of excellence.
And it doesn’t stop there. Only one of last year’s top seven netminders, based on conference goals against average, has moved on and that one, UNH’s Jeff Pietrasiak, shared time with number seven, Kevin Regan. Joe Fallon (UVM), Ben Bishop (Maine), Tyler Sims (PC), Patrick Watson (Merrimack), and Jon Quick (UMass) all made strong cases for themselves last season.
Sieves will be in short supply.
Number 6: Great scoring.
Similar to the goaltenders, the cream of the goal-scoring crop returns. Of last year’s top 15 point-producers, 10 are back for more. Brian Boyle leads the group on the basis of his 22 goals, but UNH poses the dual threats of Brett Hemingway and Jacob Micflikier while Maine offers Josh Soares and Michel Léveillé.
BU’s Peter MacArthur tallied 39 overall points as a sophomore. Is there any reason to believe he won’t be even better this year? The same can be said of Vermont’s Torrey Mitchell and PC’s Jon Rheault.
And don’t forget Northeastern’s Mike Morris if he returns in full force after a year off due to a concussion. Morris totaled 90 points over his first three years so, if healthy, he’ll be a major factor for the Huskies.
Number 5: The race for home ice.
This writer concluded that the four usual suspects — BC, BU, UNH, and Maine — will be tough to beat out for playoff home ice. (More on them later.) That said, Vermont and Providence should be impressive challengers.
Providence will have one more year of coach Tim Army’s system under its belt. You have to figure that makes the Friars stronger.
And in similar fashion, Vermont now has its inaugural Hockey East season behind it. That experience could be worth a lot. Not to mention that the Catamounts are already 2-0-1, holding down the 10th spot in the USCHO.com/CSTV poll.
In all likelihood, the race for playoff home ice will come down to the final weekend.
(That sound you hear is Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna nodding with satisfaction.)
Number 4: The four powerhouses.
All four could have juggernaut seasons.
BC is now spending its third straight week atop the polls. Maine, off to a 3-0 start, is ranked fourth. BU has played only a single game and UNH none at all, so their placement in the polls, sixth and 12th, respectively, doesn’t mean much.
What does matter is that all four teams have every reason to believe they’ll once again be taking their season into late March, if not April.
Number 3: Another record year for TV coverage.
Last year Hockey East provided a motherlode of 70 televised games. This year, the conference has topped even that number with 76.
What more do you want, Joe Bertagna to make the popcorn?
Number 2: Great coaches.
No, this is not shameless sucking up to those who I interview. Collectively, these guys really know their stuff. You don’t last a long time in this business without having what it takes.
Small wonder, then, that BC’s Jerry York and BU’s Jack Parker are the two winningest active college coaches. York celebrated his 750th win last Tuesday — congratulations to him for that feat — and Parker is only eight behind.
A stellar season for UNH will vault coach Richard Umile over the 400 milestone. Umile, who doesn’t get anything close to the credit he deserves for the Wildcats’ season-in and season-out excellence, trails only Michigan’s Red Berenson in winning percentage among active coaches. Berenson (.666) tops the list — and isn’t that a suspicious number for Wolverine-haters — with Umile (.651) edging out Parker (.650) for the number two spot.
The thing of it is, these coaches not only can X-and-O, motivate, and recruit with the best, they also collectively excel at describing the game. A friend who covers another conference once told me, “Parker and the rest of those guys write your column for you!”
While it often takes the right questions to elicit great quotes, my friend’s point is valid. After almost every Hockey East game, if you’re struggling for a decent quote to use, you shouldn’t be writing. You should be laying bricks, pounding them into place with your cement head.
And The Number 1 Reason Why This Will Be A Terrific Year To Be A Hockey East Fan: Even better than last year.
Last season, the league claimed two of the Frozen Four berths. Boston College advanced to the national championship game and Maine to the semifinals, both losing to Wisconsin, a team with a huge home-ice advantage.
For all the reasons already mentioned, this could be the year that Hockey East breaks the WCHA’s recent stranglehold on the NCAA championship. Until someone does, of course, the WCHA remains king, as fans from Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Denver keep reminding us over and over and over and over.
It’d be nice if on April 7, we get to do the crowing.
Congratulations to Dan Hannigan for winning the Joe Concannon Hockey East Media Award. Dan’s work has spanned not only Maine Black Bear broadcasts, but also the Inside Hockey East show that aired the past two years on NESN. The honor is well deserved.
This year’s inaugural trivia contest will debut soon.
And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…
• You had to love the celebration the Detroit Tigers shared with their fans after beating the Yankees. I did enjoy it a little more because it came at the Evil Empire’s expense, but the image of players spraying delirious fans with champagne was a great one all by itself. It was fun to see a great baseball town rejoice at the end of hard times.
• Congrats to Chris Drury, a personal favorite, on his first NHL hat trick.
• The Patriots’ philosophy is pretty clear. You win in the trenches, so you make sure you sign the guys in the trenches. Sounds right to me. Quality widebodies are harder to replace than quality wide receivers.
• Of course, that doesn’t mean that Chad Jackson or someone else doesn’t need to step it up at wide receiver. There may still be a void this year. Over the long haul, though, I’d much rather have the first-rounder than Deion Branch.
• And if I were an Indy fan, I’d be terrified that the Colts’ flashy attack will once again fall short because the team doesn’t have what it takes in the trenches. If you can’t stop the run, it’s tough to win in the postseason.