Hockey East has long prided itself on its top-to-bottom strength. Unlike top-heavy conferences that might boast comparable teams come NCAA tournament time, Hockey East could claim that most years even its teams that fell short of making the league playoffs provided significant challenges.
This season, however, we may be seeing that strength at an all-time high.
“From a historical point, this is the best league that we’ve ever had from top to bottom, vis-ÃƒÂ -vis ourselves and vis-ÃƒÂ -vis the rest of the nation as well,” Boston University coach Jack Parker says.
Massachusetts-Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald chimes in that it’s not even close.
“I don’t think there’s been a year that’s ever been this competitive,” he says. “And we’re just starting. This is easily the most competitive and challenging year ever.”
The strength at the top starts with Boston University, currently ranked number one in the country. Defending national champion Boston College, New Hampshire, and Northeastern all rank in the top seven, giving Hockey East four of the nation’s top seven teams.
Vermont and Massachusetts round out the Top 20.
And what of the four teams not in the national rankings?
You have Lowell, who last Friday night had the Terriers on the ropes but couldn’t put them down for the count.
“I thought we outplayed BU and deserved better,” MacDonald says. “But our goalie got hurt in the second period. It was a tough position to put a freshman [backup] in and they scored four goals in the third period.
“[But] we played great.”
You have Maine, a perennial power undergoing a rebuilding year after losing a big senior class. Yet that rebuilding includes a 2-1 win over the defending national champions last Sunday.
“We were a team that had no points in league play, going against one of the top teams in the country,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead says. “For us to beat them, 2-1, does show a lot of competitiveness for our league. It is an indication that it is
going to be another great season for the league.”
Then you have Merrimack, picked to finish last, knocking off a UMass club that had been undefeated in its last five games.
“What we ran into last Saturday at Merrimack was no huge surprise to us,” UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon said. “They skate better and move the puck better than they have in recent memory. Coach [Mark] Dennehy has a lot of young players there who are continuing to improve.
“I think a lot of teams are going to be in for a rude awakening if they go into Merrimack’s building unprepared.”
Dennehy isn’t about to disagree, especially since in the game before the win over UMass his Warriors took BC into overtime.
“I think the teams at the bottom end of last year’s table have strengthened themselves,” he says. “We think we have.
“One of the things I wanted to do when I came here was to make sure that there were no easy nights in Hockey East. Anyone who was at Lawler Arena last Friday against BC might have witnessed the most exciting game there in a number of years.”
Even Providence, still looking for its first league win, stormed back from a two-goal deficit on Friday to salvage a tie with Vermont.
“We are typically pretty tough when we have a two-goal lead,” UVM coach Kevin Sneddon says. “But give all the credit in the world to Providence, who in their own building just made it very difficult for us to play against [them].
“They really slowed us down in a good way, with their aggressive forechecking style. I thought they got better as the game went on.
“Any time you can get a point at Providence, it certainly is a good thing.”
Put it all together and the league’s 25th anniversary year looks like its best ever.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re rated down in the pack a little bit in this league because anybody can beat anybody,” Parker says. “I think what has separated this league — for a long, long time — from every other league is the fact is that it’s so strong from top to bottom.
“What makes it different this year is that everybody is strong compared to the other leagues. We’re in a situation where people ask me, ‘Do you like your team?’ and I tell them that I like our team a lot, but the problem is I like every other team in our league, too.
“Teams that were rated to be down in the lower echelon are as good as anybody in this league, and the teams in the upper echelon of our league are as good as anybody in nation.”
Small wonder eight of the league’s 10 team got votes in last week’s poll.
All if which promises exciting races for the league crown, home ice playoff berths, the last few berths themselves, and what will likely be a significant number of NCAA tournament selections.
Quick Hits Around The Rinks
Two weekends ago, Boston College dominated the special teams battle to sweep Merrimack, going two-for-nine and three-for-seven on the power play while shutting the Warriors out in their five man advantage opportunities.
This past weekend, however, the Eagles got swept themselves (by Notre Dame and Maine), scoring only singletons each game.
The power play failed to score in 16 total opportunities while the penalty kill gave up a goal both nights.
“Special teams kind of run hot and cold,” BC coach Jerry York says. “It’s hard to maintain great penalty-killing or a great power play for a long time.
“We weren’t real crisp in our entries. We had a lot of teams icing the puck against us. We’ve had a lot of shots blocked. We’ve got to move pucks quicker and get something on the goaltender.
“Entry into the zone and more crispness on our passing to open up a shot, and shooting the thing when you get a chance to are key for us. We’re passing up some good chances.”
Talk to Jack Parker about his team’s number one ranking and what you’ll get is a big yawn.
“I don’t think it means anything, to tell you the truth,” he says. “People knew that we had a pretty good team this year. We were voted fairly highly in the preseason polls in our league and in the nation.”
“The last time we were rated No. 1 was in 2006 — the very last poll of the year after the Hockey East tournament. Then we proceeded to lose two games later to Boston College in the national tournament.
“The polls are something for the fans to get involved in. When the NCAA comes out with [the PairWise] starting in January, that means a little more something because that’s the selection criteria. Even then, that changes so drastically
from game-to-game, the only poll then that counts is the last poll that selects the NCAA tournament field.
“After that, the NCAA champion will be the No. 1 team in the nation. That’s what everybody fights for and everybody’s trying to get to. One team wins their last game and everybody else loses their last game.
“This doesn’t mean much to us except that we’ll have a little bit bigger target on our backs.”
Sunday’s win over BC gave the Black Bears three straight wins and their first in Hockey East.
Maine coach Tim Whitehead says, “As one of the announcers said Sunday night, this would not be unusual for Maine to knock BC off at home just two years ago, but last year and this year we are in a rebuilding phase, so this one feels extra special.”
The graduation of last season’s large senior class has created an abundance of opportunities for this year’s rookies.
“We are very pleased with our freshman class,” Whitehead says. “They and the sophomores make up the bulk of our team, so it is important that they do contribute right away, and they have. We have strong freshmen at all three positions.
“We have Scott Darling in the net. We have Will O’Neill, Ryan Hegarty and Mark Nemec at defense. We have quite a few freshmen forwards in Spencer Abbott, Brian Flynn, Gustav Nyquist, Kyle Solomon, Theo Andersson, Nick Payson. They have all played significant roles for us.
“We are very pleased that each one is contributing. Nyquist has put up quite a few points. Scott has been very good in the net. They are perhaps the two most notable. Brian Flynn scored the game-winner against BC. The other guys have contributed quite a bit and we are happy with their development this year.”
UMass has enjoyed enviable special teams so far this year. The Minutemen rank second overall in Hockey East in power play percentage (21.6) and first in penalty kill (93.9).
“All of the credit on special teams go to the players as they are the ones performing and making the decisions on the ice,” Cahoon says.
“Red Gendron runs our man-down situation and Len Quesnelle has the power play. They have done a great job with the teaching and execution in practice and games.
“Plus we have veterans on both sides who have a wealth of experience. We also have a variety of abilities that we can put on the ice with speed, puck handling, and shooting on the power play. On the man-down, the speed and experience is a big part, with the addition of the willingness to block shots.
“The final part of it has been good goaltending. Paul Dainton was hurt earlier in the year, but Dan Meyers came back and had some great outings. The goaltending has been the biggest part of the penalty kill so far.”
Even though the River Hawks lost both games last weekend, with the one to BU especially agonizing, Blaise MacDonald remains very happy with his team.
“The Lowell team is pretty pleased with the way we’re playing,” he says. “We’re getting really good contribution from all four lines and six defensemen. We’ve gotten a little bit more out of David Vallorani than we expected as a freshman, leading our team in scoring.
“Overall we’re playing well. The defeats we’ve suffered easily could have gone either way. We feel like we’ve been very, very competitive in every game this season.
“We’re pleased with our attendance at home. It’s been spectacular. We’re averaging close to 4,500 people a game. The pride and enthusiasm on campus is the best it’s ever been.”
Mark Dennehy likes what he sees in his freshmen, and not just goaltender Joe Cannata (1.58 GAA, .950 Sv%).
“It’s our third recruiting class since I got here and this is the best class we’ve had,” Dennehy says.
“Karl Stollery is as good a young defenseman as I think there is in the league. He’s logging big-time minutes for us. He’s a plus six, tied for fifth in the league. He plays with incredible poise.
“[Forwards] Jesse Todd and Elliott Sheen are used to playing at a high level of hockey. Sheen can really get around the rink.
“We’ve tried to improve our speed. They’ve all come in and they’ve contributed. We have more depth than we’ve had in the past.
“We feel we have a core of players we can put on the ice against anybody in the nation and let the chips fall where they may.”
Sophomores James vanRiemsdyk, Phil DeSimone and Danny Dries are doing the heavy lifting up front for the Wildcats, ranking first, third, and fourth in team scoring, respectively. Other members of that class have contributed another five goals.
“The sophomore class is a skilled group,” UNH coach Dick Umile says. “We have nine players in our sophomore class and I think there is a lot of skill there in the area of goal scoring and play making. They are the guys who are going to have to fill the roles [held] by Mike Radja and Matt Fornataro.
“James vanRiemsdyk is putting the puck in the net. Phil DeSimone is another sophomore who I think is going to be a goal scorer for us. Danny Dries and Mike Sislo are forwards [who] can add some scoring for us.
“We are going to need to get scoring from them. They have been an important group in that sense and hopefully that improves.”
At about this time last year, the Huskies were beginning an 11-game undefeated streak. This season, they’re already 6-1-2 and ranked seventh in the country, but coach Greg Cronin is looking for more.
“There was a little more of an identity to our team [last year] and that ended up emerging there in November when we hit our stride and we went 11 games without losing,” he says. “This year, we haven’t really had that identity early, and that’s why I’m thrilled that we’re 6-1-2.
“I’m happy with everything that we’ve accomplished this early in the season, but I just haven’t seen that rhythm, that identity that I would expect to have seen with a veteran team at this point.
“I’ll give you a case in point: Joe Vitale is one of the marquee players returning in the league, and I think if anybody watched the nine games we’ve played, I’d say he’s been really visible one game the entire game where last year he’d be visible in seven of the nine games.
“So we’ve got to get him going. He’s too good a player to be just a part of the scenery in the game.
“The other guy that I think is a real special player on our team that makes plays, an awkward skater, but has got to get more visibility is Wade Macleod. He has not been as visible as he was last year at this time.
“So there’s some key people involved in that identity that have not emerged and they’ve got to get going here because we’re hitting the gauntlet coming up here.”
Still waiting for their first league win, the Friars could use a big weekend against the visiting Black Bears.
“For us, it’s a question of recognizing what Maine does well and being prepared for things that they do well,” PC coach Tim Army says. “Obviously there’s certain things that we need to do to be successful and we have to be prepared to stay diligent in those areas.
“That’s the biggest thing that has plagued us early in the season. We’ve played some good stretches of hockey and we’ll make some mistakes — I call them unforced errors — that end up costing us. Sometimes that’s due to over-exuberance and not quite having the experience in those situations.
“Each game you play, you get a little bit better and a bit more experienced. We need to make sure that we are consistent.”
Special teams have been a point of concern so far for the Catamounts. They rank tied for sixth overall within Hockey East in power play percentage (14.6), but ninth in penalty kill (78.2).
Last weekend showed mixed results. They surrendered two power-play goals to Providence and had to settle for a 2-2 tie before outscoring Lowell 2-1 in the special teams battle.
“I have been very concerned not only with getting our power play to produce, but more importantly from our standpoint also making sure that we are keeping pucks out of the net,” UVM coach Kevin Sneddon says.
“We have done some things very well five-on-five in scoring goals, but our power play was really struggling, so we’ve switched things around. We’ve kind of overloaded one unit and simplified another and it paid off this weekend against Providence.
“Power plays are cyclical. We were getting chances, but we just weren’t finishing them. Hopefully it is now turning in the right direction for us.
“More importantly, I was really impressed with our penalty kill this weekend. Even though we did give up a couple of five-on-four goals, I just really liked our attention to detail. I think we had 22 blocked shots against Lowell.
“We had to kill eight penalties including a five-on-three. So, our guys paid the price, they did a lot of good things on the kill, so big steps for us in both categories.”
Don’t Forget To Vote
No, this isn’t a week and a half late.
It’s a reminder about the Hockey East 25th Anniversary voting at hockeyeastonline.com. Currently, fans can cast votes for “Hockey East’s Best Goal Scorer” and “Hockey East’s Best Playmaker” with more votes to come as the season progresses.
As with the vote 10 days ago, if you don’t cast a ballot, don’t complain about the results.
And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…
I got a note yesterday from my editor that my column would have to be in early this week because someone had pointed a gun to his head and forced him to accept tickets to tonight’s Coldplay concert.
At least, it sure sounded like a gun had been pointed. He’d been left without any choice whatsoever. Forced to see Coldplay.
I’ll make my adjustments so his teeny tiny brains don’t get blown to smithereens, but in the coming weeks I will get my revenge.
Deadline? What deadline?
Scott Weighart contributed to this column.