A Zero-Sum Game
If the season ended today, Hockey East would get three teams into the NCAA tournament but none would be seeded highly. According to the current PairWise Rankings, Boston College would top the league teams at No. 9, followed by Massachusetts (tied for 10th) and Vermont (tied for 12th). On or outside the bubble would be New Hampshire (tied for 15th), Maine (20th) and Massachusetts-Lowell (22nd).
All of which means that as the Hockey East teams got assigned to one of the four NCAA regional sites, not one would deserve higher than a No. 3 seed.
Which, if those numbers hold up, means the toughest possible paths to the Frozen Four at Ford Field in Detroit. No first-round cupcakes, if there is such a thing anymore. And conceding faceoff matchups throughout the entire NCAA tournament.
Of course, there’s a lot more hockey to be played. Unfortunately, the supply of nonconference games has been nearly exhausted. Only the Beanpot games against downtrodden Harvard (4-10-2) remain to fatten up records against the other conferences.
In other words, it may be early. But it’s also late. (How’s that for a Yogi Berra-ism?)
How did we get to this point?
Well, unlike last year when the league took no prisoners in the early nonconference games, Hockey East has posted indifferent results, especially with respect to the two Western conferences. Although Hockey East has gone an almost perfect 11-1-0 against Atlantic Hockey and the CHA as well as 15-9-2 against the ECACHL, its record against the CCHA (6-6-1) and WCHA (4-8-0) leave a lot to be desired. (By comparison, Hockey East teams last year went 10-4-2 and 7-4-2 against the CCHA and WCHA, respectively.)
So what’s the solution?
In short, it’s now a zero-sum game. The only way to move up in the PairWise will be at the expense of other Hockey East teams.
Going into New Hampshire’s Nov. 14 game against Massachusetts, Wildcats fans might have wondered if it was time to think about next year. Their boys had just lost an agonizing game at UMass, giving up an extra-attacker goal with 11 seconds left in regulation and then the game-winner in overtime. Even though it was the toughest of losses, that wasn’t the worst part.
The worst part? The result left UNH with a 2-6-2 record.
Since then, however, the Wildcats have gone 8-1-2 with the only loss coming in nonconference play. They now sit atop Hockey East a point ahead of Boston College and three points ahead of UMass, with a game in hand over both.
“Obviously, where we are sitting right now is a nice position,” UNH coach Dick Umile says. “We have quite a way to go but we had a good end of the first half and other than our game [coming out of the break] against Cornell, I think we’ve been playing well.
“I said it right from the beginning: I really like the chemistry of the team, the makeup of the team and we’re getting better each weekend.”
The turnaround has been no accident. At the depth of the Wildcats’ misery, they were giving up an average of 4.22 goals a game, worst in the league. Since then, they’ve been allowing an average of 2.67.
“We just got better defensively,” Umile says. “Everybody can say they’ve got younger players, so I’m not going to blame it on that. But I think as a team we figured out some combinations and figured out who we were and how we were going to play.
“More importantly, we’ve played pretty well defensively as a team. I’m talking about as a team playing off the puck defensively. I think that’s been the biggest change we’ve made since the beginning of the season to what we’ve accomplished since then.”
Fortunately for their position in the league standings, most of the lumps the Wildcats took in the early going came against nonconference teams, most notably Miami and Wisconsin.
“We probably weren’t ready to play some of those teams,” Umile says. “We took our lumps, but I think everybody realized we’d be OK. We just had to get better defensively and have some patience and we could become a good team.
“That has happened. Now we have to continue to do that and play consistently each and every night.”
At the same time that UNH has tightened up its play defensively, it has continued to put the puck in the net. Since turning the corner after that agonizing loss at UMass, UNH has averaged almost four goals a game.
“We have one line that is playing extremely well, that being the DeSimone-Butler-Thompson line [Phil DeSimone, Bobby Butler and Paul Thompson],” Umile says. “We’re getting some production from our other lines as well and hopefully we’ll get a little bit more as we keep tweaking things.”
Butler, who leads Hockey East in league scoring, has taken his game to another level as a senior. Always a threat, he’s already matched his point totals from last year.
“We’ve been fortunate in years past to have players who become [over the seasons] a real offensive threat, and Bobby Butler is someone we felt could do that,” Umile says. “He’s playing extremely well.
“A big part of that is his work ethic. He’s a scorer. He’s got a great shot, a good release, and he’s got confidence when he’s shooting with accuracy. But he’s not waiting for things to happen. He creates opportunities with good aggressive play along with his playmaking ability.
“His linemates, DeSimone and Thompson, have developed a great chemistry with him. Paul Thompson is kind of following Bobby Butler’s path as a junior, [elevating his game], so that line has become a very, very solid line.”
Defenseman Blake Kessel adds a lot more offense from the blue line, giving UNH a hard-to-match weapon. He totaled four assists in UNH’s most recent game, lifting his overall total to 26 points. He leads Hockey East defensemen in scoring and ranks fifth overall in league points.
“He’s got as much awareness as any kid that we’ve had back there,” Umile says. “He skates with his head up, he’s a great passer, he anticipates, he creates offense.
“You just look at the type of player his brother [high-scoring Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel] is. His sister is an Olympic-caliber player. Blake has some pretty good genes there.
“He’s a very, very talented hockey player who really understands the game extremely well and sees the ice extremely well.”
The challenge for UNH, of course, will be to keep the good times rolling. It doesn’t take much within Hockey East to knock you off the pedestal.
And five of the next six games come on the road, starting with games this weekend at Providence and Boston University and ending with two games at Maine.
“No doubt about it, this weekend will be a difficult task,” Umile says. “We’re going down to play Providence, who is coming off the biggest weekend they’ve had in a while. They’re a good team. We played them just before the break. [Alex] Beaudry, their goaltender, played extremely well. They play hard, they’ve got some skill and they’re playing right now with a lot of confidence.
“Then we go to BU the next night. That’s how it is in our league, and we’re ready for that.
“We struggled on the road early on this year, but we became a good road team by the end of the first half. Hopefully, we’ll continue to do that.”
Surprisingly for a first-place team in Hockey East, UNH has little margin for error down the stretch. The Wildcats’ nonconference struggles — a league-worst 0-5-1 before defeating Dartmouth last weekend — have put them in a precarious position in the PairWise standings. The current tie for 15th place won’t be good enough.
But the Wildcats are employing the oldest of cliches — take it one game at a time — figuring that if they can take care of business within Hockey East, the NCAA tournament picture will take care of itself. Even, that is, if they don’t get an automatic berth by winning the league tournament.
“We know that if we play well and continue to play at the top of our league, we will be an at-large team,” Umile says. “It’s all about Hockey East right now, and that’s what we’re focusing on.
“Obviously, we want to get into the tournament. The way we do that is by winning games in Hockey East.”
Expectations and the River Hawks
It might be easy to ask, “What’s wrong with Lowell?”
After all, preseason expectations were high for the River Hawks. Impressed with their play last season down the stretch and the return of virtually the entire roster, league coaches pegged them to finish second. Jim Connelly and I both upped the ante, picking the Hawks to take first.
After dropping both games last weekend to UMass, however, Lowell fell to fifth in Hockey East with a 6-6-2 league record, 12-9-2 overall.
Is the correct question, “What’s gone wrong for Lowell?”
Or is it, “How did the preseason expectations get over-inflated?”
“When we were successful last year, we managed games and got some breaks,” UML coach Blaise MacDonald says. “It was always a slim margin of error that we were on the right side of. For us, it’s a team game, [not overwhelming individual talent].”
Looking at the rosters, MacDonald has a point. Unlike a BU or BC, which have 13 and 11 NHL-drafted players, respectively, Lowell has one, fewest in the league. (The one is Chris Auger.)
Which is not to say the River Hawks roster is the equivalent of chopped liver. But when so many in the media, yours truly included, rushed to anoint them favorites — declaring them the Flavor of the Month, if you will — it almost certainly set the bar unrealistically high for a team that wins by managing slim margins of error.
Unfortunately, the breaks that went Lowell’s way last year, have not been going its way much of late.
“Quite frankly, we played phenomenal Saturday night,” MacDonald says. “We out-chanced and out-played UMass by a huge margin. We lost 2-1 on a five-on-three power-play goal with a minute left. I don’t think that really tells the story.
“The night before, we played a great road game, tied up with a little more than four minutes to play, and then they got a kind of crazy four-on-four goal. They got the bounces, we didn’t. It could have been so easily us on the other side of it. That’s the way it goes.
“The weekend before, we got 3 out of 4 points on the road, and in Hockey East that’s pretty good.
“The weekend before that, we lost to Northeastern, 2-1. Same deal. We out-chanced them, 2-1.”
The team defense ranks first overall in Hockey East. Lowell’s special teams are strong. The offense, however, ranks seventh.
“We’re just having a hard time scoring goals,” MacDonald says. “We’ve essentially lost all our games by a goal. We’re still playing well. There’s a big difference between that and losing games 5-1, 5-2 and 6-3.
“As coaches, we’re happy with how we’re playing and where we’re going, but we’re not defining the game the way we need to in critical moments. We just need to solve fixable problems and penalties are certainly one of the areas we can fix. We’ve been taking far too many penalties in the third period. That’s something we’re addressing.”
Could the team’s offensive struggles be because the players are pressing because of those high preseason expectations? MacDonald doesn’t think so.
“That’s very difficult to measure, but it’s an easy conclusion to draw,” he says. “I just don’t see a difference in our players’ anxiety, frustration level, or work habits. We still go about our business like we have for years.
“I just think we’re going through a stretch where — and a lot of teams do it — where something in your game is off a little bit. In this league, if you’re off your game just a little bit, it’s a one-goal loss.”
One of the positives has been the play of senior goaltenders Carter Hutton and Nevin Hamilton.
“They’re both playing great,” MacDonald says. “Since the break they both have played really at a higher level and done everything to give our team a chance to win. That gives us the confidence going into games, regardless of the great opponents in our league, that we have a chance because we have really great goaltending.”
The ingredients are there for a strong stretch run. Great goaltending and team defense. Good special teams. The River Hawks just need a little puck luck, especially in their offensive end.
It wouldn’t take much for their fifth-place position to turn into a home-ice berth of some type.
“We’re not a team that focuses on our record or on our positioning in the league or our statistics,” MacDonald says. “We do a critical analysis of how we’re playing and how we’re preparing and putting the right pieces in the right places.
“We just feel we have tangible experiences, great leadership and health and hard-working, honest players and things will come our way as long as we stay strong physically and mentally. We feel good about our play.
“We really, really like our team a lot and we know we can continue to get better. We have a good group that can meet those challenges.”
For a while there, Merrimack was turning many heads. After opening the season with two losses at North Dakota, the Warriors won a stunning six of seven games, including wins over BU, BC, and Vermont.
Unfortunately, those good times have ended. Merrimack has now lost six straight and nine of its last 10.
Which is not to say the Warriors are getting shellacked. They aren’t.
Two weekends ago, they were tied at Maine, 2-2, until the Black Bears got the game-winner with 17 seconds remaining in regulation.
Then came last Saturday’s loss at BU, perhaps the most frustrating of them all. The Warriors outshot BU 43-27 but lost 6-4 with BU’s final goal coming into an empty net with four seconds remaining.
“I thought we played really well for large stretches of that game,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said after the loss. “At the end of the day, this time of year you just want to be playing well, and I thought we played real well.”
Warriors’ captain Chris Barton elaborated on the recent tough luck.
“Any time you put 44 shots on the net, you’re doing some good things,” he said. “One bounce or another and that game’s different. I think that’s been the story for us the last few games.”
While the shot totals reflected Merrimack’s dominance in the first two periods — this was no “dump it on net” mirage — they also reflected Dennehy’s demand that the team avoid the one-pass-too-many syndrome.
“We want to shoot the puck more than we have in the past,” he said. “At times, too many of our players think pass first. With a 250 dollar, one-piece stick, if they want me to keep buying them for them, they better shoot more.”
Contributing: Scott Weighart