Grading Hockey East teams as they head toward the break

This is the final column before the winter exam break for most Hockey East teams, so it’s time I roll out my mid-season report cards. And before you leave 100 comments below telling me this isn’t the middle of the season yet, trust me, I’m aware. But with every team taking at least one weekend off in the near term, this is as good of a time as ever.

Let’s start, though, by looking at some of the candidates for the league’s top awards. If the season ended today, this is how my award ballot might shake out:

Player of the year: You could almost give this to the entire New Hampshire first line of Mike Sislo, Paul Thompson and Phil DeSimone. The trio are the top three in points per game and can absolutely dominate on any given night. Another strong candidate with 14 goals already is Boston College’s Cam Atkinson.

Rookie of the year: I’d be voting for either Michael Pereira at Massachusetts or Sahir Gill or Charlie Coyle at Boston University. I’ll admit that Pereira gets on this list on points alone as I haven’t seen him play enough to determine if he’s the best rookie. I have seen Gill and Coyle a number of times and think the two are both excellent first-year players and are having a significant impact on keeping BU near the top of the standings.

Coach of the year: Hands down, Tim Army at Providence gets my vote for first-half coach of the year. He has taken a team that most people felt was a lock for the cellar and has the Friars playing .500 hockey. Long way to go, and you do have to watch out for Mark Dennehy at Merrimack.

OK, so on to the grades:

Boston College: A-

The defending national champions had high expectations entering the season and with weekend sweeps of Denver, Maine and now Boston University, you can say that they’ve delivered. There have, though, been games where the Eagles haven’t played to their potential and that accounts for the five overall losses. That’s the only reason the grade isn’t higher.

Boston University: B+

A few weeks ago, this would’ve been an A+ as the Terriers were riding high in the No. 1 ranking in the country. But as competition has gotten stiffer, the results haven’t been there. After being swept by BC, the Terriers are 1-3-4 in their last eight games.

Maine: A-

Maine had a bit of a hiccup three weekends ago when it was swept by BC and it blew a late lead to walk away with a tie last Friday against Providence, but the Black Bears have played well much of the first half. Maine followed a disappointing early series against Michigan State with a dominating sweep of North Dakota. This Friday’s game against New Hampshire will be a good litmus test to know if the Black Bears earned that grade.

Massachusetts: C

The Minutemen nearly reached this point in the season without a win. But instead, three wins in as many games have UMass looking positively heading into the second half. They will have to face Maine at Orono this Sunday and that could easily be the end of that win streak. 3-6-3 isn’t a record to write home about, but 0-9-3 would look a heck of a lot worse.

Massachusetts-Lowell: D

Yes, Lowell has been damaged by injuries and yes, Lowell is young, but this year’s River Hawks team is truly plagued by a lack of depth more than anything else. The recruiting cycle hurt Lowell, having to replace 11 graduated seniors. But you have to play the hand you’re dealt and right now it doesn’t seem like this poker game will go Lowell’s way this season.

Merrimack: B

I like Merrimack. A lot. But I’m not ready to give the Warriors the same grade as teams like BC and Maine. They’re close to being included alongside teams like BC, BU, Maine and UNH. But I think they’re just this short of being in the same breath. There were two excellent home wins against BC and two very good ties against BU. But there are also losses to Northeastern and Providence on that slate and those are must-win games to break into the top of this league.

New Hampshire: A

The Wildcats earn my only pure “A” on this report card. UNH is one of the most dominant teams in the league and has successfully reloaded after losing some significant contributors, including goaltender Brian Foster and Hobey Baker Award finalist Bobby Butler. This team’s offense is potent, and Matt DiGirolamo has done a more-than-satisfactory job in net for the Wildcats.

Northeastern: D+

The only reason there is a plus next to that “D” is because the Huskies have posted a 2-2-1 record in their last five games. Other than that, this first half was pretty disastrous, highlighted by three straight non-conference losses to Atlantic Hockey foes (all of which came on home ice). Just a couple of years removed from being a dominant team at Matthews Arena, the Huskies finished their home slate for 2010 with just a single victory.

Providence: B

I know expectations were low for the Friars, and maybe compared to those expectations they deserve an “A,” but I’m not a soft grader. Providence is greatly improved, as evidenced by a seven-game unbeaten streak through parts of October and November. But then there are games like Tuesday’s 4-4 tie against Brown, where the Friars blew a late two-goal lead. Those are the back breakers that keep a team from earning the top grades in this class.

Vermont: D

You can put the Catamounts into the same class as Lowell and Northeastern as the first half has not been pretty for the green and gold. Impressive is that Vermont beat BC. Not impressive is that it remains the Cats’ only win. Worse off are the recent blowouts to BC (6-0) and New Hampshire (5-1). Vermont has a strange schedule here in December where maybe it can get a little confidence back. The Catamounts have the shortest break, facing three non-league opponents in Yale, Dartmouth and St. Lawrence that will keep them on the ice until Dec. 18. They’ll return just 11 days later for an exhibition against the U.S. men’s national university team before hosting their annual holiday tournament. Maybe some non-conference success will help right this ship.


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