In light of the holiday we’re celebrating, let’s take a change of direction from the usual column and enumerate the top 10 reasons for Hockey East fans to give thanks.
10. Your health and your loved ones
OK, so this one isn’t really about Hockey East or even college hockey in general. And in truth, if we’re going to include it, it should go at No. 1.
But I’m including it anyway just as a Big Picture reminder, maybe because a few personal developments have hit hard recently. A good friend at work died after an all-too-brief illness. I found out two days ago that a high school friend’s battle with the Big C has taken a decided turn for the worse.
So if you’ve got your health and your loved ones, be thankful even if your team always seems to lose the big game, its goalie can’t stop a beach ball, and its power play is so pathetic it looks like the game is at even strength.
Look at the Big Picture. Give thanks.
9. There’s a lot of hockey left to be played
That’s great for fans, but even better for teams that have gotten off to poor starts.
Until Tuesday, Vermont appeared to be in danger of burying itself as the Catamounts stood at 0-6-1 in Hockey East with a mere one point compared to seven for their closest playoff rival. Fortunately for them, the Cats won a proverbial four-point game with Massachusetts 2-1 to stay in striking distance.
For the other teams with losing records in the league — Northeastern (3-7-2), Massachusetts (2-6-3) and Maine (3-5-1) — their current position in the standings isn’t where they want to finish. With only a modest number of league games left before the holiday break, there’s time to get the freshmen up to speed and the struggling veterans back on track.
Give thanks for four more months of hockey. And for some teams, four and a half.
8. A couple bad weeks don’t make a season
Ask New Hampshire.
The Wildcats got off to a horrific start, losing their first three games — all within Hockey East — by a combined score of 14-1. They then traveled to St. Cloud State, where they lost a fourth straight game, then salvaged a tie.
But those three weeks didn’t end UNH’s season. The Cats came back and went on a six-game unbeaten streak to return to early contention for home ice.
They came close to burying themselves but not quite.
7. Teams that excel on special teams — all of them
We’ve got a few of them in Hockey East. Right now, Merrimack can boast of both the top power play conversion rate (23.5 percent) and top penalty kill percentage (90.9). Not far behind is Boston College’s third-best man advantage (21.7) and second-best PK (89.2). Then there’s Providence (21.3 and 88.3).
You also can’t overlook Massachusetts-Lowell. The River Hawks’ strong power play (23.3) isn’t dragged down much by a middle-of-the-road penalty kill (80.5) because they’re the best team in the league at staying out of the box. If you’re taking only 11.9 penalty minutes per game, shortcomings on the PK are hidden pretty well.
Putting it all together by adding short-handed goals, Providence comes in at the top with a plus-10 special teams net, followed closely by Merrimack at plus-9. BC and Lowell are also sharing in that success at plus-6.
Since we’re giving thanks here and not throwing darts, we won’t bring up the other end of that coin, teams that are killing themselves on special teams. (Like giving up five short-handed goals before it’s even Turkey Day. Or having such a weak power play that they’ve only scored three more goals while up a man than they’ve given up. Or struggling so much on the PK that very close to a third of all penalties result in a goal.)
Not surprisingly, the teams that are dominating on special teams are doing very well in the standings. The teams that are struggling all have losing records.
The old cliché about hockey boiling down to special teams and goaltending rings true.
Which brings us to …
6. A half dozen top goaltenders
Merrimack’s Joe Cannata has so far dominated the Hockey East overall statistical race among goaltenders. His save percentage (.940) and goals against average (1.48) have rendered all contenders as a speck in his rear-view mirror. Those numbers rank third and second, respectively, in the country.
Using save percentage from here on out since it’s far less dependent on the team’s strength, Chris Rawlings (Northeastern, .927) and Doug Carr (Lowell, .923) come in second and third.
BU senior Kieran Millan (.912) is likely to improve on his numbers, though he certainly won’t match those of his freshman year (1.94, .921, .897 winning percentage). That season, he backstopped BU to a national championship.
BC junior Parker Milner (.909) and Providence senior Alex Beaudry (.902) round out the half-dozen qualifying Hockey East goalies who top the .900 mark in save percentage.
Notice anything? Only Rawlings is playing for a team with a losing record. Looking at the flip side of that coin, no team with a winning overall record has a top goalie whose save percentage is below .900.
You can’t win in this league with weak goaltending.
If your team has a good goalie, be thankful.
5. Two-way defensemen
While no one will confuse anyone from the current crop of Hockey East defensemen with Brian Leetch, there are some strong two-way defensemen.
That list starts with BC All-American Brian Dumoulin, followed by Merrimack’s Karl Stollery. Both have teammates — BC’s Tommy Cross and Merrimack’s Jordan Heywood — that also belong on the list.
Lowell’s Chad Ruhwedel (2-7–9) and Providence’s Myles Harvey (4-4–8) have both emerged as significant offensive threats under their new coaches.
Seniors Michael Marcou (UMass) and Will O’Neill (Maine) are leaders on young teams. Sophomore Adam Clendening is another in a long line of gifted two-way BU defensemen.
Hey, you’ll take your stay-at-home guys as well as the power-play specialists.
But the two-way defensemen are special.
4. New coaches having some great successes
Of the three coaches new to Hockey East this year, two are having surprising levels of success. Northeastern coach Jim Madigan is the exception, but considering that the three were projected to finish eighth, ninth, and 10th in the league, any success is noteworthy.
Lowell coach Norm Bazin has his River Hawks a game over .500 in Hockey East and two up overall. They’ve swept Maine at Alfond (when’s the last time that happened?), demolished BU 7-1 and last weekend blanked sister school Massachusetts 4-0. This from a team that finished a distant last place last year.
Providence coach Nate Leaman looked to have a long rebuilding effort ahead of him as he attempts to duplicate his success at Union, where he took a frequent ECAC doormat and turned it into a powerhouse. The Friars, however, jumped out with wins over BU and UMass in their first weekend and, although there have been ups and downs since then, they’ve also swept Vermont.
The challenge, of course, will be to keep the success going even after the initial honeymoon period. But so far, you’ve got to love what these coaches have done.
3. Old coaches who again have their teams in the national spotlight
No offense is intended by use of the word “old.” It’s merely there as contrast to the “new” coaches in the previous item.
That said, both BC coach Jerry York and BU coach Jack Parker will freely admit to having been around a while. You don’t get to be the two winningest active coaches in college hockey any other way. York (889 wins over 40 seasons) and Parker (859 wins over 39 seasons) aren’t far behind No. 1overall, Ron Mason (926 wins).
Especially the way their teams are going. BC (9-4-0) ranks fifth in the country and BU (6-4-1) 15th. These coaches have enjoyed sustained success over not just years but decades. Enjoy watching that ride continue.
2. The Irish are coming! The Irish are coming!
OK, so it doesn’t have quite the same ring as Paul Revere’s cry. It also isn’t a warning, at least not for fans of great hockey.
But it is significant.
That’s because in 2013, Notre Dame will be joining Hockey East and if the league isn’t tough enough already, the Irish will be bringing what is currently the second-ranked team in the country. They were in the national championship game as recently as 2008 (losing to BC) and the Frozen Four just last year.
Oh yeah, bring it on!
1. No. 1 in the country and No. 1 in the hearts of underdog-fans everywhere … the Merrimack Warriors
Does it get any better than this? A perennial doormat becomes the No. 1 team in the country for the first time in the program’s history.
Not that long ago, Hockey East fans would shake their heads and wish that Merrimack would just go away. Go back to Division II where you belong … where you can compete … because you can’t compete with the big boys.
The Warriors had years like 2004-05 when they went 1-21-1 in the league, followed by years of 3-19-5, 3-22-2, and 6-18-3.
You could count on death, taxes, and a preseason prediction of Merrimack finishing last.
Now the ugly duckling is one hot-and-smokin’ swan.
No. 1 in the country.
If that doesn’t put a smile on your face, check to see if you’ve got a pulse.
Hey, thanks for reading, have a Happy Thanksgiving and save me a drumstick.