Earlier this week, I looked back at the first half of the season for Hockey East teams. Grades were handed out with a few teams excelling, a few seeming middle of the road and a couple very close to bottoming out.
Now, as the second half of the season is about to begin, here is a look forward at each team to give some perspective in what each team needs to do moving forward to either keep its season successful or, in some cases, turn mediocrity into greatness.
Starting at the bottom of the league, here we go:
Oh, Catamounts, where do we start? To think that this season is going to be salvaged might be a bit of a stretch. Vermont did little to show it can contend this season in the first half. If they are to improve, the Catamounts will need help in all areas.
In net, Rob Madore needs to return to the form of old. In too many games he looked pedestrian, making some impressive stops at times but allowing way too many bad goals. Defensively, the team needs to play better in front of him. Blocked shots, attention to detail and not allowing goals in bunches are all areas to work on for the Cats.
More players need to produce offensively. The loss of Chris McCarthy to injury hurt but someone besides Connor Brickley and Sebastian Stalberg needs to contribute.
The Minutemen have suddenly become one of the best teams in the nation at home. Now the question is how does this translate to playing on the road? Zero losses at the Mullins Center; zero wins on the road. Yes, that equals a record around .500, but is that good enough?
This is a team with a huge upside. T.J. Syner is certainly an all-league player. Michael Pereira shows no sign of a sophomore slump. There is plenty of other talent on this team. The X factor, though, is consistency. There simply hasn’t been consistent night-in, night-out effort.
At the same time, none of the team’s three goaltenders has stepped forward to replace Paul Dainton. Rookie Kevin Boyle has the best record, but a save percentage below .900 and a goals against average just below 3.00 simply isn’t enough in Hockey East. This is the area that needs the most improvement.
If New Hampshire is to salvage this season, this team needs to believe in itself. The Wildcats are easily the league’s biggest underachievers from the first half. The reasons are many: lack of goaltending, not enough offense at times, inability to play a 60-minute game.
Like UMass, New Hampshire is unable to win on the road, something never associated with the Wildcats for the last two decades. Part of this becomes mental, particularly when a team knows it has the ability to win.
But there is no doubt the area that needs the most improvement is goaltending. Matt DiGirolamo’s goals against has jumped nearly a full goal since last season while his save percentage has dipped below .900. Confidence that your goaltender will stop the puck is a major part of overall team confidence. Right now UNH is lacking both.
Here is a simple note to Northeastern: Pretend like the break didn’t happen. There was no hotter team in the country before the break than the Huskies, riding six straight wins. So what was the difference between the winning streak and the 1-7-2 mark that preceded it?
Well, it starts with defense. The Huskies allowed three or more goals seven times in the first 10 games, five times allowing four or more. In the six wins, the max goals allowed was two.
At the same time, Northeastern’s offense came alive in those six games. Led by a nine-goal outburst at Notre Dame, Northeastern averaged 4.5 goals a game.
It seems like the Huskies may be buying into coach Jim Madigan’s system. Combined with solid starts in goal by Chris Rawlings, this team seems as confident as any in the nation. If that continues, expect Northeastern to earn home ice.
If I listened to the Maine fans who commented on my latest blog, you would think the Black Bears are meeting expectations. I said that much more was expected of this team preseason, while those who commented from Orono said .500 was where they believed this team would be.
Honestly, I have a hard time believing that. Maine has as much talent as any other team. Plenty of offensive ability, one of the better playmaking defensemen in Will O’Neill and an overall defensive corps most coaches would love to have.
Yes, goaltending is a question mark as neither Dan Sullivan nor Martin Ouellette has proven himself as consistent every night. But that’s something that I, along with most of the coaches in their preseason poll, believe the Black Bears could overcome.
And I still do believe that.
What will it take to turn things around, though? That’s the million dollar question. Obviously it begins with goaltending. Coach Tim Whitehead will need to choose his No. 1 and stick by it. Pulling goaltenders, as happened early in the season, can hurt a goaltender’s confidence. It seems Sullivan will be the No. 1 moving forward. Now it will be his job to play like one.
The Friars are on pace to return to the postseason for the first time in three years. That, though, likely won’t be enough to satisfy first-year coach Nate Leaman.
If you talk to Leaman, his expectations are high. And though Providence is much improved over last year, he believes there is plenty of room for further improvement.
The team lacks any sort of offensive superstar and has depended on depth in scoring. That needs to continue. Goaltending has been strong as Alex Beaudry has emerged as a true top-tier goaltender. His success will pace this team.
If Providence is to emerge, though, as a top-tier club it will need to be successful away from Schneider Arena. The Friars’ schedule was front-loaded with home games, and eight of the club’s league games in the second half will be on the road. With a 1-3-0 road record in the first half it’s hard to judge success or a lack thereof. But that success in the new year will dictate how far this team goes.
Lowell’s first-half success shocked many. Easy to pin as a potential cellar-dweller once again, suddenly everything turned around under new coach Norm Bazin.
Much of the turnaround can be attributed to goaltending. Doug Carr is a netminder beaming with confidence. He leads Hockey East in every goaltending category, a major step up from a goaltending corps that a year ago was near the bottom in all stats. That absolutely must continue.
At the same time, Lowell’s offense needs to produce. This is a team that likely won’t have a first team all-league forward come season’s end (defenseman Chad Ruhwedel is making his case, though, for first team). Thus Lowell will need three lines that can score goals in the second half.
One thing that has been advantageous for the River Hawks is home ice. Though playing only six games, Lowell packed the Tsongas Center and made it difficult for opponents to play. It is very similar to recent success at home for Merrimack: Winning translates to bigger crowds, which translates to a better atmosphere and home success.
The Warriors’ early success that led to the team’s first No. 1 national ranking was one of the best story lines of the first half of the season. Merrimack, though, learned that with success comes a bigger challenge.
It’s not too far of a stretch to say that the Warriors got caught up in the excitement. A 2-3-1 record after beginning 9-0-1 is proof positive. And one of the glaring problems in that difficult stretch was a lack of discipline.
It’s easy to believe that you’re successful, particularly with how well Merrimack has played for the past season and a half. But that doesn’t mean that discipline can be thrown out the window. Coach Mark Dennehy continues to talk each postgame about penalties, but the team has done little to eliminate them.
You can talk X’s and O’s, consistency and execution. For Merrimack, I think all of those things are in line. But this team must stay out of the penalty box if it’s to maintain the success to which it has become accustomed.
No team will return from break facing the challenges that BU will. Besides the inconsistency that, at times, frustrated coach Jack Parker, the Terriers must somehow replace their top scorer (Corey Trivino) and a top-three scorer (Charlie Coyle).
There won’t be any mid-season recruiting for BU. Thus players like Sahir Gill, Alex Chiasson, Wade Megan and Chris Connolly all need to begin producing more goals. Megan is the only player on that list in position to far exceed his offense from a year ago. Now, with goal scoring at a premium, it’s likely these players will get the opportunity to produce and must take advantage.
BU also needs goaltender Kieran Millan to play to his all-league ability each and every night. Soft goals against down the stretch will kill this team.
The Eagles may be well-positioned for another regular season title, but given the tight Hockey East standings, that could change at any minute.
BC’s offense has been strong all year, already boasting three double-digit goal scorers. Players like Kevin Hayes, Bill Arnold and rookie Johnny Gaudreau all had great first semesters and Chris Kreider continues to seem a man among boys. Obviously, that needs to continue.
If there is one question mark entering the second semester it is goaltending. Parker Milner started the year impressively but struggled down the stretch. Rookie Brian Billett was impressive in four starts before the break. So the question is whether BC has two solid options or a goaltending dilemma. The former in the second half could lead to another national title; the latter could mean disaster.