This Week in Hockey East: Jan. 8, 2009

Around The Rinks

With the holiday tournaments under our belts (not to mention a few more pounds), let’s take a whirlwind tour of all the league’s teams.

But do check out the PairWise Rankings, where five Hockey East teams are on track to make the NCAA tournament and another sits on the bubble. Of course, it’s very, very early.

No. 2 Boston University (13-4-1, 6-4-1 HEA)

Seemingly, BU just needs to keep doing what it’s been doing. Ranked second in the country, the Terriers lead Hockey East by a wide margin in overall offense (3.72 goals per game to Boston College’s 3.31) and trail Maine in defense by only the tiniest of margins (2.05 to 2.06 goals against). Not to mention the best power play (23.7 percent) and special teams net (plus-10).

BU coach Jack Parker, however, doesn’t see it that way.

“Everybody can improve no matter what you’re doing or how it looks on paper,” he says. “An example is we have one of the best power-play rates in the league, but it’s been deceiving in the fact that we’ve been inconsistent on it. One night we go 0-for-8 and the next night we go 4-for-8. We haven’t been game-to-game as consistent as we’d like.

“This past weekend we got some big power-play goals. It was a 2-2 game against RPI and we got two power-play goals to go ahead, and then we got a power-play goal for our second goal against Denver. We only had about five minutes of power play against Denver — we went 1-for-5 with a couple of abbreviated power plays — but I was real pleased both nights with our power-play efforts. We’ve got to establish that every game, not just a few games.

“We’ve been terrific lately killing penalties, but it was the opposite situation in the first half of the semester. We did a real good job this weekend — we didn’t have a power-play goal scored on us this weekend. It remains to be seen if we can continue that.

“One of the reasons why we’re killing penalties well is we’re getting very good goaltending, and we’ve had some good puck luck. Denver could have had some goals on their power play. The puck was just bouncing around the crease and they didn’t put it in the net. Sometimes that goes with the streak and then all of a sudden you give up three out of five.

“It will be interesting to see if we can keep that as part of our winning formula, because if you can’t kill penalties, you’re not going to win too many games.”

No. 4 Northeastern (12-4-2, 8-2-1 HEA)

When asked about Northeastern’s first half success, coach Greg Cronin points a finger in one direction: goaltender Brad Thiessen.

“The key to our success has been well documented, that’s our goaltender,” Cronin says. “He’s been terrific, and when your goalie’s good, your penalty killing is good. If there is one common, reliable asset for us it’s been our goaltending and penalty killing.

“Anybody that has a really good goalie recognizes not only the impact he has on the game but also on how he affects the team psychologically in a real positive, confident way.

“So I’m not going to BS anybody. It’s been our goalie.

“Our team has bought into a system. Last year, there was some inconsistency and there were some players that really weren’t buying in. Now we’ve got a team that really believes in what they’re doing. I think that they believe that the fuel behind that success is basically within our system and our goalie.”

No. 9 Boston College (9-5-2, 5-4-2 HEA)

The Eagles are within striking range, as they so often are, but have been decidedly lukewarm heading into the second half. In November and December, they recorded a mere 4-4-2 record.

Even so, in recent years BC has been best judged in April not in January.

(Note to Eagle fans: if that last line doesn’t warm your heart and put a smile on your face, please go slap yourself.)

Onward…

“I’ve been excited by a couple of things,” coach Jerry York says. “I think our leadership has been excellent. We’ve got a good senior class. They’ve been here for four years and they’ve been through a lot of league races so they know what it takes.

“Our goal is to have incremental improvements every day in practice as we go through these terrific hockey months of January, February, March and April. Each day we try to get a little bit better.

“I think our special teams can improve. They’re going to be our key to getting two points when we play a Hockey East opponent. Can you defend power plays? Can you capitalize on your power plays?”

No. 12 Vermont (11-4-2, 6-3-1 HEA)

If not for a mere second of time,

Vermont could be boasting an eight-game unbeaten streak (nine if you add its exhibition against the US Under-18 Team). Only an agonizing loss to St. Lawrence with 0.8 seconds remaining sullies the Catamounts’ recent record.

“Our year has been a moderate success to date,” coach Kevin Sneddon says. “We love our team. We have had some moments where our team is one of the best teams in the country and we’ve had some moments where we’ve felt we weren’t quite there and it has usually resulted in a tough loss.

“[I’m] very impressed with our team and I feel like we haven’t hit stride yet; we’ve got a lot to work on.”

Ironically, Vermont’s statistics have flip-flopped from past seasons when they’ve excelled in the defensive end but showed limited firepower on offense. This year, they’re third in offense and second on the power play, but seventh on defense and ninth on the penalty kill.

“We spent all last season questioning our power play and [wondered] how we were winning games when our power play was under 15 percent,” Sneddon says. “We were able to advance pretty far in Hockey East play without a productive power play, which is pretty tough to do.

“This year, we have kind of flipped it around. We’ve had success on our power play, but our penalty kill hasn’t been very good. So if we ever put the two things together, I think we will be a pretty good team.

“Defensively, it obviously starts with our penalty kill and I think we are one of the lowest ranked teams in the country on our kill, which is unusual for us. We’ve typically been in the top ten. The nice thing about that is, again, we’ve won hockey games without having a very good kill and we can correct a lot of those things, and will correct a lot of those things, as we go into the second half.

“I think this past weekend was a big step. Our kill did a great job against St. Lawrence. That is probably the number one priority right now is just making sure we find the right players to execute what we want on the kill.”

No. 13 New Hampshire (9-6-3, 6-4-2 HEA)

Schizoid might best describe UNH’s first half. In all months other than November, the Wildcats posted a 8-1-1 record. In the month ushered in by Halloween, they were a spooky 1-5-2.

Then again, there are worse things than almost going winless in November. Ask last year’s Boston College Eagles, who suffered a similar fate yet finished as national champions.

“Offensively we thought we were doing okay early in the season but we struggled scoring goals especially in November,” coach Dick Umile says. “We lost some pretty good games against some good teams so it wasn’t like we totally played bad [although] we had one difficult weekend when [number one goaltender Brian] Foster got hurt and we didn’t play great defensively.

“But our scoring is starting to come back. It did just before the break. Jerry Pollastrone didn’t score a goal until the second-to-last weekend before the break. He’s back to scoring. He had gotten quite a few opportunities, but it wasn’t going in for him.

“Bobby Butler [who only had two goals] got the game-winner the other night. So we starting to get the scoring. Mike Sislo, a sophomore, has developed into being one of our goal scorers. James van Riemsdyk is leading Hockey East in points so he’s done his part. So I think our scoring is going to pick up.

“But we needed to play tougher defensively and I think we’ve done that in our last two or three games, the way we’ve played off the puck defensively [and been a] more physical, a tougher team to play against.

“Our specialty teams will be real important in the second half. Our power play is starting to pick it up. Shorthand four-on-five has been pretty good, but we’ve gotten too many three-on-fives and we haven’t done a great job in that area.”

Maine (10-7-2, 5-5-1 HEA)

After a few missteps getting out of the chute, Maine has outperformed expectations considering the talent lost last offseason and the resulting inexperience.

As might be expected, the Black Bears are only eighth in the league in scoring but rank first in defense. And the offense has improved greatly since opening the season at a one-goal-per-game pace.

Based on the PairWise, Maine remains on the NCAA bubble despite a tough loss to UNH on Sunday, a prospect few thought possible for such a young team.

“Overall, we are pleased with the progress that we have made this season in a lot of areas, mostly in our skill and scoring,” coach Tim Whitehead says. “We are starting to get that extra goal that we weren’t getting earlier in the year, but we have to be careful that we don’t sacrifice team defense and penalty minutes to do that.

“That is what bit us in the third period of the UNH game. We took some penalties, we did not get some pucks deep, and we paid for it. Sometimes you get lucky and you get away with it, but we didn’t. We will probably be stronger in the long run because we didn’t escape this time, but it certainly stings in the short run.

“The things that have been a pleasant surprise are our team defense and special teams. We’re either one or two [in Hockey East]. Those are areas we want to keep focusing on or maybe refocus on.”

Massachusetts-Lowell (8-10-0, 5-6-0 HEA)

The River Hawks had been playing well heading into December, having won five of six, but have lost all five games since. In those five losses, all by one goal, they’ve allowed only two or three but haven’t generated enough offense to win.

But if you’re looking for pessimism, you came to the wrong place, pal.

“I like the way we’ve been playing,” coach Blaise MacDonald says. “I like our style of play. I like our commitment on both sides of the puck. We need to continue along that way and just get better and better at executing that. We definitely need to deliver more shots to the cage and simplify things offensively to see if we can score some goals that way.

“All in all, we’ve played very well. We’ve been competitive. Our special teams have been good. And we’re getting pretty balanced scoring. I really like this team. This team has tremendous character, work ethic and experience.

“What we’ve encountered in our last five games is five one-goal losses. We could have easily won all five of those, but we didn’t do enough to secure a victory. People talk about scoring being down in hockey in general. We’re experiencing that right now.”

Massachusetts (9-8-1, 4-4-1 HEA)

UMass’s results from the first half resembled a see-saw rhythmically going up and down. The Minutemen never suffered more than two consecutive losses; they never enjoyed more than two consecutive wins.

“I do not have the crystal ball, but I know the first half has been all about the unpredictable, and I think that has been the nature of our team,” coach Don “Toot” Cahoon says. “We have had some games where we have played at a very high level and executed well, but quite frankly it has been a while. [Before Thanksgiving], we lost to Vermont at home going into the third period with a lead and we have not been the same since.

“We are working on defining ourselves a little bit and playing with a little more conviction on a regular basis. It is not all bad, but it certainly is not good enough to compete for a top spot in the league.

“I think you get to the point where if you start pressing a little bit around the net, you do not put away golden opportunities. It shows itself a little bit in the power play.

“Hopefully we can stay fundamentally sharp and we do not let our inconsistency crawl too far between our ears. We have some good athletes who have shown that they can succeed, but now we need to do it on a consistent basis. There have been a few conversations, but you also need to relax sometimes and let the kids play a little bit.”

Merrimack (5-9-3, 2-7-2 HEA)

Although the Warriors have some ground to make up in the second half, they can point to wins over UNH and UMass in the first half, not to mention two more over Connecticut and the US Under-18 Team heading into this weekend.

“Our team believes we can play with anyone in the country and if we put our best foot forward we can have success,” coach Mark Dennehy says. “Without looking back too far, we feel we might have left some points on table in the first half of the season. But with 10 of our final 17 games at home, we are confident we can turn this around.

“When you look at our stats, and not just the wins and losses, a couple things jump out at me. We’re on pace to break our single season goals-against record for the second straight season and we’re scoring more goals than we did last season. I’m no mathematician, but that’s a pretty good recipe for success.

“The areas where we’re struggling are on special teams. It’s not just about scoring goals [on the power play]. We’re not creating momentum or getting increased puck possession or even feeling good out of it.

“On the penalty kill, we’ll have 1:58 of a good kill and two seconds of a bad kill and it ends up in the back of our net. We’ve given up 19 power-play goals and scored just seven. Our special team’s numbers need to be closer to even. Anyone who saw us play against the US team knows those numbers are headed in the right direction.”

Providence (3-12-1, 0-8-1 HEA)

To be honest, it’s tough to find a silver lining in Providence’s first half cloud. Without a league win, the Friars will have to crawl out of not just a hole but a crater to make the playoffs.

Nonetheless, coach Tim Army sees positives that he’ll look to leverage in the second half.

“Since I came in here in July of ’05, we’ve talked about playing an up-tempo game and being an aggressive fore-checking team, puck-possession oriented team and moving the puck,” he says. “Some numbers that are pretty good in our favor are that we’re giving up the third least amount of shots in the league both overall and in league play. In overall play we have the fourth most shots for per game and fifth in the league. Those numbers are pretty good numbers.

“Those are some positives and reflective of some of the good things that we’ve done and [reflective of] an aggressive team [that] forechecks hard and moves the puck.

“When you struggle the way we have in respect to gaining some wins, you don’t play as comfortably as you need to. You always have to be intense, but you have to play with some poise and I think when you’re not getting a lot of success from a win standpoint you lack a little bit of that poise in situations and I think that’s affected us a little bit.

“We don’t take a lot of penalties. We don’t beat ourselves in that respect. We play with good discipline.

“Those are some of the things we want to build on.”

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