Usually this column focuses on one or two teams, but this week let’s take a whirlwind tour around the league.
First stop, however, is at the league office, where Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna weighs in on “the usual suspects” (Boston University, Maine, New Hampshire and Boston College) once again showing up in the top 10.
“You look at four teams ranked in the top eight or nine, and that’s something you obviously like,” Bertagna says. “They’re familiar teams. One of the things we all have to acknowledge sometimes is that while we want to talk about the parity from top to bottom, the titles are won by the same schools in almost every league. Ninety percent of ours have been won by BC, BU, Maine and New Hampshire.
“But the play of Merrimack and the number of ties are early season factors [pointing to other teams’ strength] as well. I’m relatively pleased with what’s going on on the ice.”
On the downside, however, is Hockey East’s record outside the league, a cumulative .467. Most surprising has been the 1-4-4 mark against Atlantic Hockey teams. Even after subtracting Northeastern’s three losses, the upstart conference has still played Hockey East even.
“It’s a real concern in the sense [of the NCAA tournament selection criteria],” Bertagna says. “We’re not yet at the point where all of us turn on the computer and check out the PairWise every morning like we will in a few months. But those games played early [are going to have an impact]. The obvious one is Northeastern losing three straight to Atlantic teams.
“Quantitatively, these games have been played. These results count and they will have a negative impact. We’re all connected at the hip through the computer rankings.
“I’m not going to say that I’m not aware of it and I’m not concerned, but on the other hand if you look at our best teams playing strong teams, we’ve fared pretty well. I think our best teams are as good as anybody’s best teams. But they are going to be potentially hurt when you get down to those last comparisons [in the criteria].
“I’m not concerned qualitatively, with how good we are. I think we’re very good. But those games are in the books. Maybe we’ll get some holiday tournament success to make up some ground. We’ll get another snapshot when we look at our non-league record on Jan. 5 after the influx of holiday games.
“Some years we’ve gotten out of the gate very well and other years we haven’t. But in the end we’ve had the last team standing three years in a row.”
The Boston College Eagles aren’t falling apart or anything remotely like it, but their record (6-4-0 overall and 4-3-0 within the league) falls far short of expectations. The defending national champions opened the season as the nation’s No. 1 team and a unanimous selection in the Hockey East Coaches’ Preseason Poll to finish first. Some talked of a 40-win season.
So a game above .500 inside the league does qualify as disappointing even though BC under coach Jerry York has always focused on March and April at the expense of October and November.
“[The beginning of the season presents] an interesting dynamic,” York says. “As the year starts, you’re trying to self-scout your team while also scouting the league.
“Looking at our own team, we’re a club that returns a lot of players from last year. We have high aspirations to have a very successful year. [But] the reality is that the league is very good. We’ve been pushed by a number of different teams.
“We’re keeping our head above water; we’re still in the race, but we certainly haven’t broken any records in terms of how well we are playing. We’re getting excellent goaltending from John Muse. He has been on top of his game. Our defense has been fairly solid through the early part of the season. The problem we’re having is lack of offense. We’ve got to score more goals.
“We have a lot of goal scorers and, as the season progresses, I think they’ll put up some pretty good numbers for us. They’ll give us that balance between good, solid defense and contributing on offense. But right now, we’re struggling offensively.
“We’ve got good goal scorers. Once we get that cohesiveness and are more in sync, we should be a dynamic team.
“Right now, our heads are above water. We’re in the middle of November. Are we satisfied with where we are? No, not really. But we’re still in the race.”
Boston University enjoys the only undefeated record (6-0-4) remaining in Division I and a No. 2 national ranking. Not too shabby for a team that lost a ton of talent to graduation and early departures to the pros.
“Needless to say, we’re happy with our record and we’re happy with our standing in the league, but I don’t think we are quite in the lofty spot that everybody has us right now,” coach Jack Parker cautions. “We are a solid team and a very young team. I would have been happy with two games over .500 instead of undefeated at this part of the year.
“One of the major reasons why we’re doing so well is that we have a lot of enthusiasm. We certainly have talent, but our inexperience shows up a lot. But when it does, Kieran Millan has been absolutely fabulous. He’s been lights out from day one this season and playing the best he’s ever played here.”
One area that begs for improvement, however, is the power play. The Terriers have converted only 10.2 percent of their chances. It’s early, but that mark is second-worst in Hockey East.
“Our power play has been anemic,” Parker says. “We’re still trying to get them to figure out that goals are scored at the crease and not from the perimeter. We have some talented guys that move the puck around and they keep moving it around and they shoot from outside and there’s nobody screening and there’s nobody getting rebounds.
“When we get that solved and keep it more simple, we’ll be better off. We certainly have enough talented players, but sometimes talent can over-think itself out there. I think that’s been our problem, but I do believe we’ll have a good power play before the season’s out.”
Maine has vaulted to a No. 3 ranking on the strength of its 6-1-3 record.
“It’s early in the season, so we often remind [the guys] not to get too high or too low at any point in the year,” coach Tim Whitehead says. “The records at this point of the year can be very deceptive.
“We learned that against Northeastern this last weekend. They were coming in with one win and they were extremely competitive. The results could have gone either way on both Friday or Saturday night. That was a very good reminder of what a fine line it is.
“Records don’t necessarily match up at this point of the year or even later because you see teams get hot down the stretch. We have a decent number of juniors and seniors so that helps keep it in perspective for their teammates. We rely on that experience.
“I don’t think that they are over-confident now; I think that they are just excited about the possibilities.”
The Black Bears have been scoring at a 4.10 goals-per-game clip, making them far and away the top Hockey East team in that category. The biggest question going into the season, though, was in the Black Bears’ defensive end. In particular, the goaltending looked like a very big question mark. Sophomore Shawn Sirman had not impressed last year (1-6-0, 5.19 goals-against average, .832 save percentage) and freshmen Dan Sullivan and Martin Ouellette were untested.
So far, the results look pretty good.
“We are a little ahead of where we thought that we would be in regards to goaltending,” Whitehead says. “That is a big thing. Your best defender is always your goalie.
“It is early in the year so we don’t want to get too excited about it, but there is real progress there. Dave Alexander, our goalie coach, has done a fabulous job helping these young goalies gain some confidence and improve technically and move forward each week.
“Dan Sullivan has taken the front spot for now, but Shawn Sirman, who is vastly improved over last year, is pushing him. Martin Ouellette, who might be the most talented of the three, is the youngest and he is going to start challenging for ice time.
“What is exciting for us is that what was a weakness last year has really become a strength now. It is going to be a long season so I am sure that there will be some ups and downs with the goaltending.
“[But] we are pleased with their attitude and focus. Their work ethic has been tremendous, improving each weekend. It’s not an accident; they are working hard to get better.”
Massachusetts has gotten off to a tough start, posting an overall record of 0-6-3.
“We’re still in search of our first win, so that in itself is an emotional challenge,” coach Don “Toot” Cahoon says. “Our guys are working really hard and going to practice with enthusiasm. There has not been any let-up on that front. We have competed every night with the exception of the Army game.
“We’ve had a lot of struggles within the framework of games, particularly on special teams, and that speaks by and large to our youth. It’s not so much our skill level or the quality of our players, but the experience of the players and their understanding of what the needs of special teams are. I think with time we will see some progress in that area which will in turn give us opportunities for better results.”
A veteran club typically handles the peaks and valleys more easily than one loaded with youth like the Minutemen. The latest valley came on Saturday night at UNH.
“They want to win so bad and they are so anxious to enjoy some success,” Cahoon says. “Saturday night’s game at New Hampshire by all accounts was a really solid hockey game for both teams. We had scored what we thought was the game-winning goal with a minute and 20 seconds [left] and then found a way to allow them to tie the game with their third goal. That was really a difficult time for us.
“Sometimes you go to UNH, you get a point and you say, ‘OK guys, that was a really good point. Keep working hard and maybe we can turn that into a win.’ Saturday’s game felt as much as a loss as it did a tie simply by the way it happened.
“That’s the [emotional] challenge. We’ve had three ties against three quality teams; we’ve had several one-goal losses against quality teams. The challenge is to get the guys to understand that it will come if we learn to do certain things, starting with the special teams.
“It’s just part of the growth and development when you are incorporating 13 freshmen into your lineup on a regular basis. Each and every night, the least amount of freshmen we have played is nine; most games we play as many as 10 or 11 freshmen out of our 18 skaters.”
The River Hawks are another extraordinarily young team, often playing more freshmen than sophomores, juniors, and seniors combined. Injuries to seniors Scott Campbell and Patrick Cey as well as junior Michael Scheu have exacerbated the experience deficit.
As a result, the 2-6-0 record in Hockey East (2-6-2 overall) is no reason for head-hanging.
“Well, it’s much like we anticipated after graduating a big group of seniors that played prominent roles over four years — there would be some rocky times, some learning and teachable moments,” coach Blaise MacDonald says. I’ve been very encouraged with how we’ve handled all of those situations.
“As I look back and compare this team to the young team we had four years ago, we’re in much better shape moving forward. That being said, I don’t think we could have had a more difficult schedule early on in the season. We just completed five Hockey East games in nine nights against highly ranked teams without our captain and best player. We’ve got a slew of injuries, but I really love our compete level and potential.”
Because of the youth, MacDonald has to coach this year’s team differently than last year’s senior-laden group.
“Fortunately and unfortunately I’ve had the experience of coaching young teams in the past, having coached 27 freshmen once,” MacDonald says. (He coached 27 freshmen in Niagara’s inaugural season.) “You have to celebrate little victories, celebrate progress.
“You have to be totally consumed with progress and the process, not necessarily the results. Have an outlook that’s really positive, yet with a high level of accountability. Just because they’re freshmen, there are certain controllable areas you have to hold guys accountable for. I think they see tangible development because of those components.”
Merrimack stands at 1-2-3 within the league and remains a dark horse for home ice. Although the Warriors suffered a defeat at Providence recently — no shame there — they have also split points in home-and-home series with BC and BU, an achievement many a team would like to have under its belt.
Even so, coach Mark Dennehy came away unsatisfied after last weekend’s ties with BU.
“I’m trying to put it behind us but it was tough to not get a win last weekend,” he says. “I wasn’t thrilled with the Saturday tie and that says something about where we are now as a program. It’s about us playing our best hockey.
“I do give our guys credit. BU is as good as any team in the history of college hockey in scoring goals in bunches. Our team stuck with it and we pulled out a point. So we’ll look at the positives. We knew coming off the loss at Providence that we had to work harder, and we did.”
Merrimack is allowing only 2.25 goals per game, an especially impressive figure considering some of its opponents. The Warriors rank third in Hockey East in team defense. They’re even better on the penalty kill — tops in the league with a 93.8 percent success rate.
The offense is none too shabby, either. The Warriors are scoring at a 2.88 clip, not far behind BU and BC.
It’s a winning ingredient.
“It starts in the net with Joe Cannata, who I think is one of the most underrated goalies in our league,” Dennehy says. “You look at what he’s done and you look at our top-ranked penalty kill and I think we’re doing a pretty good job of killing penalties.
“Offense comes and goes. We’re working harder offensively. It’s about getting better and we’re not even close to reaching our potential yet. When we put forward a disciplined, hard effort, we can beat any team, and I think that confidence is there for this team.”
UNH has moved up to the No. 7 ranking with a 5-1-3 record. Since losing to Miami in the season opener, the Wildcats have gone undefeated.
“I’m pleased with the start we’ve had,” coach Dick Umile says. “I’d like to have won a few more games — we’ve had three ties here — but they’ve been very good hockey games.
“Overall, we’ve gotten off to a decent start this year. A lot better than we did last year. You turn the page to the next game. The next page is Boston University coming in here so were focusing on that game and trying to play our best hockey.
“The season is early. We’ve gotten off to a decent start but it doesn’t add up to anything with the long schedule that we have. We have to continue to improve.”
Umile has targeted a few specific areas for that improvement.
“We’ve generated some good offense, but we need to get second and third shots, rebounds and maybe get in the hole a little more,” he says. “And always improve our defensive play off the puck. In this league, you have to be able to play defensively and trust each other that when we don’t have the puck, you’ve got your man covered on the backchecks.
“If you can’t play off the puck, you’re going to struggle in this league for sure.”
The UNH power play has certainly done its share of the damage. It’s converting at a league-best 23.1 percent.
“We’ve got some pretty good players out there,” Umile says. “[Phil] DeSimone. [Blake] Kessel is our quarterback back there. [Mike] Sislo and [Paul] Thompson. It’s a group that is skilled and can score goals.
“But the difference right now with our power play — and we use two different groups — is the puck is moving. We’re creating scoring opportunities. We’re not just standing still. We’ve done a good job in that area.”
It’s been tough times for the Huskies. Since earning their lone win of the season on Oct. 23, they’ve lost five straight, including three against Atlantic Hockey teams. That caught everyone’s attention.
Even so, the season is far from over. It’s November, after all, and the Huskies are only one point out of a playoff berth (as absurd as it might be to discuss matters in those terms right now).
“Obviously it’s been a disappointment,” coach Greg Cronin says. “We’ve got a lot of young guys and when you have a lot of young guys, you never can predict how quickly they figure out what’s expected of them.
“I thought earlier in the year, especially in the Hockey East games, we played with a lot of energy. We had a tight game with Providence, a tight game with Boston College and a tight game with New Hampshire and UMass-Lowell. RPI was sandwiched into that block of five games there and I think if our power play was more successful during that time, we would have emerged with a winning record.
“Our power play has been floundering and then we got into the Atlantic conference games and we just got beat. We weren’t as energetic as we were in the other games.
“I thought the two games up in Orono [this past weekend] were the first two games I actually saw our team play with an identity consistently. I thought Maine smacked us pretty good in the third period on Saturday and they rolled the momentum right down to the end of the game. Other than that, there were five good periods played by Northeastern.”
Fortunately, Cronin still sees a positive demeanor in the locker room and an expectation of better things to come.
“You know, it’s weird,” Cronin says. “You lose a couple of games and the believability starts to fade a bit and you get the depression and the frustration and all of the other things that terrify a coach.
“But I don’t see it. It’s weird. We have about 19 freshmen and sophomores, and they seem to be upbeat. You wouldn’t know whether we won or lost on a Monday.
“We went through this five years ago in my first season when we won three games all year. Not to minimize those players, but we weren’t going to win games. We weren’t talented enough. This group has talent and they’ve got abilities.
“It’s on the coaches. We’ve got to get them to play with an identity and play as a group. You wouldn’t know it today, but if you walked down there, you wouldn’t be able to tell if we had won seven games or lost seven games, which is a good thing.”
Providence has been one of the best stories of this season. Coming off two straight years without a postseason, the Friars were projected for another finish in ninth or 10th place. Instead, they’re a game over .500 in both Hockey East play (3-2-2) and overall (5-4-2).
The Friars now own a six-game unbeaten streak.
“We’ve been consistent,” coach Tim Army says. “We’ve competed hard and we’ve been in a lot of one-goal games. And those games can go one way or the other. To this point, I like the progression of our team.”
The difference in the locker room has been evident.
“There’s a real good energy level in our locker room,” Army says. “We have a lot of energy with our younger guys and that also has added a different dimension to our room.
“Our junior class continues to mature and they also have been very good. I think our seniors have been terrific in the way they’ve integrated with the younger guys. So there has been a real nice energy level in our room.
“We went through some tough patches early and that didn’t change. The guys have been real upbeat, real positive and really energized. It’s definitely a different feel to our room than we’ve experienced probably in three or four years, and that’s been a real positive. Our seniors and our captains have been terrific in helping to create that atmosphere.”
The Catamounts finally got off the schneid on Saturday against Boston College. Which probably sounds worse than the reality. In addition to the win, Vermont has tied three games and also has an overtime loss to Maine and a one-goal loss to BC.
So the sky hasn’t been falling. The Catamounts aren’t far from turning it around.
“Obviously we have been through a lot of tight games here in our early going and our win-loss record isn’t where we want it, nor do I feel it’s reflective of how we’ve played,” coach Kevin Sneddon says. “Aside from our third period against UMass-Lowell, where I felt they completely out-worked us, I have been very pleased with the way our team has performed.
“What we’ve seen is a little bit of a lack of confidence. The one-goal games, the tight games, I think are typical of a team that has some young players. Freshmen and sophomores are playing very key roles for us right now.
“The win the other night against Boston College I think really took a lot of the pressure off of our shoulders. Just finding a way to come through a tight game with a win. I feel like we have played some excellent hockey. We’ve had a very difficult schedule.”
While the power play has produced well (17.1 percent), the penalty kill (80.0 percent) remains a work in progress. After holding the UMass and Providence power plays scoreless in nine chances, the Catamounts surrendered two Boston College power plays in just six chances.
“I think [the penalty kill] has been excellent at times,” Sneddon says. “We have unfortunately had a breakdown here and there, late in the penalty kill that has resulted in goals against.
“[It’s a] different system we are using this year, a little bit more of an aggressive approach and it’s going to take some our younger guys some time to get used to it. But in the long run we feel that’s the way we want to go to utilize our assets.
“We’ve had weekends where we’ve killed all of our penalties against and other weekends where we’ve had a few go in. But overall, we’ve been very pleased with our special teams growth from where we were at the beginning of the year.”