Not Your Father’s League
Hockey East has long prided itself on its top-to-bottom strength, but the fearsome foursome of Boston College, Boston University, Maine and New Hampshire has been a tough nut to crack at the top.
Yet if the season’s opening night was a stunner as only Merrimack emerged with a win, so too was this past Friday night, though for a different reason. Providence defeated Maine, 6-2. Massachusetts knocked off BU, 5-3. Merrimack and Massachusetts-Lowell seized early leads over BC and UNH, respectively, and the two nationally ranked teams could salvage only ties.
What’s more, all four of the perennial powers, none of which could manage a win, were at home!
Tied atop the league standings now with seven points are five teams, three of them “interlopers”: Providence, Northeastern and UMass. Of course, this is just mid-November and there are games in hand. This observer still expects BC and UNH to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. That said, the evidence so far would indicate unprecedented levels of parity within the league.
“It’s still early, but all indications are that February and March might produce the same type of close-knit scramble in the standings,” BC coach Jerry York says. “We’ll have to wait and see, but I have a feeling that the whole year could be like this.”
Don “Toot” Cahoon, whose UMass Minutemen broke through for home ice last year and are taking the early steps to do so again, concurs, at least to a point.
“There are certainly some strengths that a few of the teams have that maybe are a little different than the rest of us,” he says. “But on a team basis there’s not as much disparity or discrepancy between one’s team ability to play one night than the other’s. You had Merrimack playing BC to a tie [on Friday] and playing them close in another game out of their three. That speaks volumes, a team that was rated number one in the league going into the season and a team that was rated in the bottom. It’s very clear that the league is close.”
Cahoon adds the following cautionary note, however, to those who might take the parity talk a little to far especially with respect to his team. “I think we know that every night, regardless of who we’re playing, unless we play well we’re in trouble. If we’re struggling, it’ll be hard to get points.”
BC: Good So Far, But Not Yet Great
Boston College fell out of the top 10 in the national rankings last week, landing at number 11. The Eagles’ record of 3-2-4 has been no disaster, but at the same time more was expected of the team that came ever so close to winning the national championship title last year and then returned such a high percentage of that stellar cast.
The Eagles are winless in their last three games with ties against Maine and Merrimack preceding a 5-2 loss to New Hampshire on Saturday. Attrition has become a factor. BC lost several key players after the season opener, Brock Bradford to injury, Brett Motherwell and Brian O’Hanley to disciplinary suspensions. Then neither Dan Bertram nor Nathan Gerbe suited up for the game against UNH. Bertram had suffered a slight shoulder separation while Hockey East suspended Gerbe for the game due to “inappropriate behavior” in the tie with Merrimack.
“We’ve had to find some new combinations and we’re breaking in some new people at different spots,” York says. “That’s the process we’re going through right now. Against New Hampshire, it was a very different team than we envisioned back in September.
“But it’s something every team deals with. It’s up to us to find some solutions.”
The end of Motherwell and Brian O’Hanley’s suspensions remains unknown.
“That’s still indefinite,” York says. “We haven’t moved off square one yet.”
(Late update: Motherwell has left BC for the AHL)
Gerbe returns this weekend as might Bertram, who is day-to-day. Bradford, however, won’t return until late January.
“He’ll give us a big boost offensively, but between now and then we just have to find some new combinations,” York says. “We may be a little different team than we envisioned, but we still can be a very, very good club here.”
Part of that optimism stems from the play of two freshmen, forward Joe Whitney and goaltender John Muse. Whitney leads not just BC but all of Hockey East in points. (What were the odds against that back in September?) He has 12 in nine games. Muse, the number one question mark following Cory Schneider’s departure, has been solid (2.23 GAA, .914 Sv%).
“Joe has had a real good impact on our club as well as Johnny in goal,” York says. “Johnny has stepped in and has given us a chance to really compete and win every game with his goaltending.
“We’ve had some really pleasant surprises. Johnny and Joe are certainly two that jump at me.”
Arguably, as players return to the lineup, some of the ties — BC already has four — will become wins and no one will be talking about a lukewarm start.
“I like our club,” York says. “I liked it early in the year before the suspensions and some of the injuries. “I still like the chances of our club becoming a very, very good hockey team.
“It’s a process we’re going through. Sometimes rocky situations help produce better teams as the year progresses. We just have to be careful with some injuries because right now we’re playing with a real short deck of cards.”
The First-Place UMass Minutemen
Since opening the season with an overtime loss at Clarkson, UMass has gone 4-1-3. The Minutemen took three-of-four points on the road last weekend, defeating BU and tying Lowell. They now own a five-way share of first place.
“We’re not discouraged by any means,” Cahoon says. “We know that we haven’t been as consistent as we need to be, but that probably is not so different than a lot of other teams.
“There have been a few nights where we think we’ve played at a pretty high level. Certainly last Friday night [against BU] we thought we played pretty well. Then there are other nights where there are holes in the armor, where we’re struggling to put a solid effort together, or we have part of our offense in place and another part missing. or we’re a little bit inconsistent defensively.
“So we’re working on the same things a lot of other teams are working on to try to shore up the consistency of our play.”
So far, the biggest question mark for the team — how well would it replace Jon Quick in net — has been answered. Freshman Paul Dainton has played in eight of the nine games, posting solid numbers: a 2.42 GAA and a .913 Sv%.
“Paul’s a good athlete and he’s a mature kid,” Cahoon says. “That really helps him because the responsibility of that position is so enormous. He’s been thrown in there to the extent that he has because Danny Meyers got dinged up and wasn’t healthy for a couple of weeks.
“We didn’t plan to play Paul night in and night out, but he just was forced into the situation and handled it so well that it gave us a chance to understand how mentally tough he is and how he is able to compartmentalize all the details related to his position.
“He doesn’t get overwhelmed but just deals with it as it comes, whether that be with practice, with the pre-game preparation, or with the game itself. He’s able to deal with each element.”
Which is not to say that the coaching staff is thinking, “Danny who?” when it comes to the sophomore, who in his one game allowed only a single goal to beat St. Lawrence.
“Danny Meyers is not a forgotten soldier,” Cahoon says. “He’s actually back now, full tilt, and practicing very well. It will be our job to try to integrate him into the flow. I don’t have the answer to that, but I know that he certainly is going to be a piece to the puzzle before it’s all done.”
Another freshman who has hit the ground running has been forward James Marcou. He leads the team with nine points in nine games.
“He’s been a great young player for many years now,” Cahoon says. “He was a real talent when he played on Long Island for the Bobcats as a youngster in Midget hockey. Then he played on a couple of national select teams.
“He was in the National Select program in the summers and opted to go to Waterloo, Iowa, and play in the USHL for a couple of years. He went from having a pretty good first year in that league, scoring 30-something points to having a 70-point season last year. If you correlate that with a lot of guys that play at this level, it’s a big number.
“So he really has some gifts. He does things that no one can teach. He makes other people around him better. He’s unselfish. He’s been a real pleasant addition to our team and a real good player for sure.”
Sophomore Will Ortiz seems to have also taken his game to another level, burying five goals already, tied for first in the league.
“He’s a dynamic offensive player,” Cahoon says. “We don’t have a lot of one-on-one guys, [but] he has a tendency to handle that situation well and he shoots the puck pretty well. He gives us a lot of emotion and energy. It’s nice to see him pick up where he left off last year and grow into more of a threat.”
UMass’s momentum will be put to a test this weekend with a home-and-home series against the Boston College Eagles.
“I don’t have to speak to their greatness,” Cahoon says. “They’ve been one of the top teams in college hockey for many, many years and they’re still one of the classiest teams in our league. We think we’ve become a pretty good skating team, but they set the standard.
“We’re not the favorite going into this weekend, and we know that. We’re just going to have to play solid from start to finish, not self-destruct, and stay within ourselves to be able to play with them and hopefully have some success.”
Off The Schneid
After a loss to Northeastern on Friday night, Vermont held the only winless record in Hockey East: 0-4-1. Considering that the Catamounts were projected to at least threaten for home ice, the tough start had the potential to snowball. The grip gets just a little tighter on the stick. Every save gets just a little less automatic.
“[The players] are expecting to win every night, so when the losses start mounting up they’re disappointed,” UVM coach Kevin Sneddon said after the loss. “I addressed the fact that I thought we were forcing things, that we felt we had to get something done every shift.
“That’s not the game of hockey. That’s why it’s sixty minutes. You have to ride the momentum shifts. You have to pick your spots, when to take chances.
“We’re still learning how to play. Let’s not forget that we’ve got a lot of young guys back on the blue line. We’re still learning what it takes to win. We’re not there yet. It’s going to be a process.”
One night later, the process at least got the Catamounts off the schneid. Despite being outshot by a good margin in two of the three periods, including 9-2 in the third and 30-21 overall, the Catamounts finally did emerge with their first win, 2-1.
Nonetheless, Vermont’s offense ranks last in the league, having scored only 11 goals in six games. It has also been top-heavy with Peter Lenes and Brayden Irwin combining for six of the 11 goals.
How the process continues to work itself out will bear watching.
Last week’s two-part question concerned the brainiac side of our sport. Part 1: Name the two student-athletes on last year’s Hockey East All-Academic Team who recorded perfect 4.0 grade point averages. Part 2: Name all the members of the All-Academic Team who were also either first or second-team All-Hockey East selections.
Merrimack’s Andrew Brathwaite and Ryan Sullivan were the answers to Part I. Maine’s Mike Lundin and Michel Leveille, along with BU’s John Curry, were the answers to Part II.
The winner was Andrew Reilly, whose cheer is:
UNH! GO! FIGHT! WIN!
This week’s question concerns those teams which now hold their best Hockey East record in some time. Name the team whose current best record goes back the farthest. E-mail me with the team and the season when it last topped the current mark. The winner will be notified by Tuesday; if you haven’t heard by then you either had the wrong answer or someone else beat you to it.
And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…
What’s with A-Rod going back to the Yanks? This is not good news for the Sox even though it does greatly increase the chances of Mike Lowell coming back. A-Rod may well be selfish. His stunt announcing his opting out when the limelight should have been on the World Series was despicable.
That said, he’s a player of astounding talent whose post-season drought won’t go on indefinitely. I’d much rather see him in any other uniform.
Not that my offseason smile has even begun to fade.