This Week in Hockey East: Oct. 23, 2008

A Wonderful Time Of The Year

When last season every team but Merrimack lost its Friday night opener, the first column here boiled down to this: “Mayday! Mayday!”

Not so this year.

Last weekend, Hockey East went 7-2-1 to run its overall nonconference record to 15-4-2.

Every team but Massachusetts-Lowell stands at least at .500 and the River Hawks just came back from Michigan State where they split with the number 11 team in the country.

Go ahead, fans. Pound on your chests and let loose a roar.

Time to start beating each other up.

Top Dogs

How ’bout them Huskies?

After taking three of four points in Alaska to open the season, Northeastern got off to a great start within the league, shutting out Providence, 4-0, before toppling number-one ranked Boston College, 4-3.

“I talked to a couple of coaches that did that Alaska trip about the fatigue factor coming back,” NU coach Greg Cronin says. “It’s a long day of traveling. So my biggest focus was getting the players mentally and physically reenergized for the Providence-BC weekend.”

That worked.

“We lost our best D, Drew Muench, who got banged up in Anchorage, and then during our BC game we lost [Denis] Chisholm and [Steve] Silva midway through the first period,” Cronin says. “It was and up-and-down track meet and I was really happy with our conditioning level. That’s one thing I can take out of the weekend: we’re in pretty good shape.”

Junior goaltender Brad Thiessen earned Player of the Week honors and now boasts a 1.71 GAA and .946 save percentage.

“He’s been terrific,” Cronin says. “He took it personally last year that his statistics were down at the bottom of the league — save percentage and goals against, even though those are team stats. He looked at this year as a big challenge for him to solidify himself as one of the elite goalies in the league. His whole focus and his whole manner this year to date has been very professional.”

While most everyone still expects Joe Vitale to be the go-to guy up front, he’s enjoyed plenty of company so far. Dennis McCauley has scored three goals while Vitale, Tyler McNeely, Ryan Ginand and Wade MacLeod have each added two.

“That’s a reflection of all the guys we have coming back,” Cronin says. “We’ve got a lot of veterans. From a coaching perspective, it’s a nice group to coach because they don’t have to be told two or three times what to do or how to do it.

“It’s a very veteran group and there’s a good chemistry there as well, which makes it easy for me coaching and I think it makes it easy for them, too, because they can read off each other really well.

“It’s early so who knows where it’s going to go as far as production, but it’s a good start obviously.”

In the preseason, Cronin talked about how this year’s freshmen won’t be square pegs pounded into round holes. Instead of being thrust into roles they aren’t ready for, as has been the case at times with Cronin’s first few recruiting classes, they’ll have to earn prime ice time.

To date only two of the five freshmen on the roster have broken into the lineup: forwards Steve Quailer (who has a goal) and Alex Tuckerman (who has an assist).

“Both Tuckerman and Quailer have veteran people around them,” Cronin says. “Their transition to college hockey isn’t as challenging [because] they don’t have to carry the play themselves. They have good wingers and centers with them.

“Tuckerman has been okay, but Quailer has been really good. He just hasn’t had the points to show it. But he’s an elite freshman in the league and he’s going to be terrific this year.”

Cats On The Prowl

Last year, Vermont didn’t get its first win until the sixth game of the season, digging itself a pretty good hole. Of course, the Catamounts climbed out of that hole quite nicely, finishing third in the regular season and advancing to the tournament championship game.

Based on the early returns this year, no such digging out will be required. After a season-opening 4-1 win over Rensselaer, the Cats hosted seventh ranked Miami and took three of four points, not to mention the shootout.

“Miami is a tremendous program, a very well coached team,” UVM coach Kevin Sneddon says. “I don’t know if I’ve seen a team as skilled as they are, although I think I’ll see one this Friday night against Boston College. They are just so talented and well-coached.

“We made each other better. Both teams left it all out there for what turned out to be 125 minutes plus a shootout. Both teams were challenged from start to finish and obviously we rose to the occasion. We’re both better for having gone through the weekend and we feel fortunate that we were able to come away with three out of four points.”

To no one’s surprise, Peter Lenes leads the team with six points.

“He’s such a passionate player,” Sneddon says. “He sparks our team not only with great offensive plays, but he’s become a great defensive player when we need him to do that.

“Even though he’s 5-6,” he plays like he’s 6-2.” He finishes every check. He gets the team going, he gets the crowd going. He’s just an exciting player.

“It’s nice to see him have some early success. Now we’re just looking to seeing that on a consistent basis.”

Justin Milo, a transfer from Cornell who sat out last year, has gotten off to a great start in his fill-the-net role, scoring three goals already. A dual-sport athlete, Milo could only practice with the hockey team last year while joining the baseball team right away. Neither the tough grind of playing both sports nor the year away from game action seem to have slowed him down.

“It’s great for us to see him have this early success,” Sneddon says. “The bottom line is he loves to score goals; he loves to shoot the puck. In our program, we’re in need of players like that.

“We have some wonderful guys who offensively are good set-up guys, but bottom line we needed to find somebody who we thought could finish. Justin has had that track record over his career and has certainly proven right now that he can do it for us.”

The biggest question going into the season, however, was in goal following the graduation of Joe Fallon. Sneddon spoke confidently of junior Mike Spillane’s abilities before even bringing up freshman Rob Madore but some wondered about a goaltender who’d only managed 11 decisions in two years. Was Sneddon just whistling past the goalie graveyard? (Yes, I’ll plead guilty on that count.)

Spillane has averaged two goals against in his two wins, while Madore stopped 26-of-29 Miami shots in the tie then won the shootout.

“Obviously when you graduate a player like Joe it becomes a question mark from the media standpoint and certainly from our fan base, but we knew all along that our goaltenders were going to be solid,” Sneddon says. “I think they’ve proven that early on.

“Mike played great in his first three starts, and Rob in his first collegiate start certainly saw a little bit of everything. It was a little bit of a feel good moment when we saw our young freshman goaltender do so well and we were able to celebrate a minor victory like a shootout win.”

The road only gets tougher this weekend when the Catamounts take on Boston College fresh off its first loss.

“It’s a great challenge for us again, certainly a great opportunity,” Sneddon says. “[BC coach Jerry York] and his staff have put together another fantastic BC Eagle team. We’ve seen them on film, and they seem as if they haven’t missed a beat from the championship game until now.

“Their forwards are tremendously quick, very talented, very skilled, and our defensemen are going to be challenged. What we have to focus on is using our assets to our advantage and not standing around watching what BC’s going to do.

“We need to play our game, which is to use our speed to get pucks into the BC zone and make sure we’re playing great defense but make sure we’re trying to work on the offensive things that we’ve been stressing no matter who we play.”

River Hawks And The Road

Last weekend, the Massachusetts-Lowell River Hawks traveled to Michigan State where they split with the 11th-ranked Spartans. They trounced their hosts in the first game, 3-0, and led 1-0 going into the third period of the rematch before two MSU power-play goals sealed their doom.

“You look at the variables going into it and it’s their home opener and they have two games under their belt and we have one,” UML coach Blaise MacDonald says. “I thought we came out in the first game and thoroughly dominated them in all areas. Had a tough time scoring on [Jeff] Lerg, but it was a very thorough, well-executed victory on our part.

“On the second night, they came out a much different team, highly energized, extremely determined, feeding off the crowd. We played okay, but we had a one-goal lead going into the third and just a couple of penalties that were hard to see allowed them to strike in 16 seconds with two power-play goals and that was the difference.

“But we competed really hard and really well for both nights.”

If Lowell can continue to get from Carter Hutton the goaltending he’s given them so far (1.34 GAA, .941 Sv%), the team will be a force in Hockey East.

“In this league, the elite teams are driven by goaltending,” MacDonald says. “Carter has played exceptionally well in all of our games so far this season.

“We have to support his efforts with some more offense obviously. Our power play looked great Thursday night but then on Friday we were close but not enough to be the difference maker. The same thing happened in our Colgate game. We looked good but just didn’t convert.”

Sophomore Patrick Cey leads the list of those who have converted so far, notching goals in the first two games of the season after totaling five last year.

“He’s a big body, a sophomore now who has some experience to lean on,” MacDonald says. “He was an X-factor coming into the season, not knowing how he was going to progress, but so far so good.”

Ironically for a team that brought back virtually all of last year’s roster, freshman David Vallorani tops the points list with three assists. According to MacDonald, the rookie got robbed of another assist at Colgate “that was ridiculous.”

“He’s very talented player,” MacDonald says. “He’s a high-energy guy who plays with his eyes up and sees the ice extremely well. When you show up at the rink, you’ll notice him because he’s got a lot of fast-twitch [muscles] and he makes things happen. He’s a very pleasant surprise for us.”

After three nonconference road games, Lowell now hosts Providence with hopes of getting its league schedule off on the right foot.

“It’s exciting because this league is going to be right down to the wire again,” MacDonald says. “Providence is a team that presents many challenges. They’re well-coached, play hard, and are talented.

“We’re going to have a nice crowd here Friday for our home opener, so we need to use that as an ally of ours. I know there guys are really looking forward to it.”

Who Was That Imposter Last Week?

After last year, Scott Weighart decided to ride off into the sunset, at least as far as this column is concerned. He’ll still be writing features and BU game recaps but his insane trivia questions and snide remarks about my absences will be no more. Thanks to him for his contributions, the snide remarks notwithstanding.

Jim Connelly will be filling in every third column instead. Since I was traveling last week, he launched the new season and will be back again in two weeks.

Scott Weighart and Keith Lavon contributed to this column.