This Week in Hockey East: Oct. 16, 2008

The Beast of the East?

Late afternoon this past Saturday, yours truly penned a short sidebar that appeared alongside the Massachusetts-North Dakota game story on I asked the question, mostly tongue-in-cheek, whether we could judge a semi-domination for Hockey East over the WCHA.

At that point, Boston College had beaten Wisconsin, and both Boston University and Massachusetts had knocked off North Dakota in the Ice Breaker.

The reason I refer to the piece as tongue-in-cheek is because it wasn’t meant to ruffle any feathers. That mission, thankfully, was accomplished.

But the more I thought about it over the week, the more I came to realize that Hockey East had one heck of a weekend league-wide.

New Hampshire followed suit with Boston College and not only beat Wisconsin, the Wildcats trounced the Badgers. Northeastern traveled to Anchorage, Alaska, and earned a tie with Alaska and beat host Alaska-Anchorage the next night to finish second in the Kendall Hockey Classic. Merrimack handled Robert Morris at home, 3-1. And Vermont went north of the border to Canada and beat Rensselaer, 4-1.

The only casualty of the weekend was Mass.-Lowell’s loss to Colgate on the road, 2-1, on Saturday evening, despite holding a decided advantage in shots.

Yes, just two evenings of games have been played. And yes, there’s a long season ahead. But Hockey East fans, at this point, certainly have reason to believe that this will be a strong year for the league.

Terrier Turnaround

Possibly the most anticipated turnaround this offseason was that of the Boston University Terriers. A year ago, questionable leadership, poor effort and a struggling goaltending corps led to a mediocre season on Commonwealth Ave. But head coach Jack Parker, from day one this season, has preached that he believed this year’s team would be different.

BU had plenty of opportunities to prove that immediately by hosting the Ice Breaker Invitational last weekend — which let the Terriers face top-notch competition in North Dakota and Michigan State right from the get-go.

BU manhandled North Dakota on Friday night, stifling the Sioux defensively while pounding the net to post a 5-1 victory. A night later, BU found itself in a tighter game against Michigan State but managed a victory nonetheless, coming out on the right side of a 2-1 decision to take the Ice Breaker title.

It’s a positive sign for a club that has been looking to turn things around since the second the season ended last year. There’s no denying this was a long offseason for the Terriers, but with one weekend in the books, it appears that the fruits of their labors are being reaped.

“We had a long, long summer. We had a long offseason,” said senior co-captain Matt Gilroy last Saturday. “I think most of the guys came in on August 30th, and from day one we’ve said we’re going to be a team this year, and we showed it tonight and this whole weekend. It was great how we played together.”

“There seems to be a different mindset, that’s for sure,” said Parker. “The mindset is ‘Keep the pedal to the metal. Do the next thing right and play as hard as you can.’ Against North Dakota we were up 2-1, 3-1. Ordinarily last year some guys would’ve tried to get a goal or all of a sudden lay back a little bit, and before you knew it, it would be 3-3. [Against Michigan State] it’s 2-0, and we only tried to make it 3-0 by playing defense first.”

Part of the renewed confidence for BU may lie in goaltending. A year ago, a trio of Terrier netminders struggled to stop the puck. Last weekend, two freshmen were not overly tested but each showed he was ready when push came to shove.

Parker was happy about the performance of his goaltenders but is also cautious not to get too far ahead of himself after just two games.

“As the legendary [Boston College coach] Snooks Kelley said, ‘One snowflake doesn’t make a blizzard,'” Parker said of Kieran Millan after his 22-save performance against North Dakota on Friday. “But I thought first of all he looked like a goalie: He never got rattled, and he never got out of position.

“One thing we liked when we recruited him was that he always looked like a goalie. It looked like he just stands there, and you hit him. He’s never really flopping all over the place. He made a couple of post-to-post saves and a couple of good glove saves, but in general he was just in position.”

A night later, fellow freshman Grant Rollheiser saw just 12 shots but was solid in Parker’s eyes.

“The most important thing we want to see is poise around the net, poise handling the puck,” said Parker. “If there are a lot of shots, he’s going to show us something about stopping the puck. Most importantly, I thought he was just very settling in there.

“Two nights in a row, each goaltender was giving our team a lot of confidence because of the way they looked in the net, which was important to us.”

Raising the Banner

Boston College kicked off its season as the defending national champion with a 5-4 victory over Wisconsin on a night that was full of pomp and circumstance for the Eagles.

Even in an early-season game — which have not always been well-attended by BC fans (and this one was up against the Red Sox ALDS game versus Los Angeles) — Conte Forum was filled to the brim with a very vocal crowd.

Those in attendance were treated to plenty of entertainment. After former Eagles Nathan Gerbe and Matt Greene raised the championship banner, Boston College played a game light on defense that featured nine goals, three lead changes and one very happy capacity crowd.

Though there were plenty of storylines on the evening, the one that resonated the loudest was the presence of senior forward Brock Bradford.

A season ago, you might remember, Bradford was hampered by not one but two breaks in his upper left arm. He played in just three complete games and parts of the two games in which he got injured. So to make it through Friday night sans injury was a major accomplishment that Bradford was happy to joke about.

“It was nice to play all 60 minutes,” said the senior forward.

His presence was felt. Bradford scored a goal on the power play and set up two others. He moved around the ice effortlessly and created a major defensive hindrance to Badgers.

Another positive for the Eagles was the play of Brian Gibbons. Besides the fact that he buried two goals and assisted on a third, Gibbons showed he’s a very able replacement for Gerbe on the right side of the Eagles’ top power-play unit. The all-forward top PP line is identical to a year ago save for Gerbe, but Gibbons showed the ability to generate similar opportunities as old No. 9, as BC registered two power-play tallies in eight attempts.

Also of note: Gibbons was a great fill-in for Gerbe on the penalty kill, aggressively pressuring the puck which led to a shorthanded goal for the sophomore, one of two that the Eagles scored on the evening.

Potent Wildcat Offense

Anyone who imagined that UNH was going to struggle a bit offensively after graduating four of its top eight scorers from a year ago can think again.

A potent New Hampshire attack took a tiny bit of time getting going last weekend but proved to everyone, particularly the Wisconsin Badgers, that this Wildcat squad can score goals.

After falling behind 1-0 early in the second, UNH scored five unanswered goals from five different players, including two in a 39-second span that gave UNH a lead it wouldn’t relinquish. That burst gave the Wildcats the spark they needed.

“Whenever you get a goal in a game, everyone gets a little more fired up,” said junior goaltender Brian Foster, who was tested throughout, finishing the game with an impressive total of 30 saves. “Once we got two, you could tell everyone was running around a little faster. You could just tell with the emotion, everyone was excited and ready to go.”

For head coach Dick Umile, it was a good start for his club. There’s room for improvement, but Umile feels good about his team based on the first official 60 minutes of play.

“I’m just pleased overall. I thought the guys responded pretty well for our first game,” said Umile. “I thought we got too many penalties there, especially in the second period. Other than that, I thought they skated hard and did a lot of good things. We’re pleased with the overall effort early on against a good Wisconsin team.”

Scott Weighart and Todd D. Milewski contributed to this report