Games in hand a big factor in the tight Hockey East standings

It’s early February and the 60th annual Beanpot tournament is upon us. But in deference to the seven Hockey East teams not in the Beanpot, I promise the remainder of this week’s story to be Beanpot-free. Well, except that I will state I hope, as a fan of the Beanpot that Northeastern wins this year’s tournament. Harvard would be just as good, but I’m supposed to be rooting for Hockey East, no?

And how could I?

How could I honestly sit here and talk about the Beanpot when the race for first place in Hockey East is this close? I’ve covered this league for more than a decade and followed it for nearly two. Never in my memory have we entered February with the league race this close.

Yes, four points separate first and fifth place right now, so maybe that’s not too unique. But let’s talk games in hand. Boston College and Boston University each have 25 points. Maine has 24. BC and Maine have played 20 games. BU has played 19. Merrimack is in back of Maine with 23 points and Lowell, in fifth place, is a point back with 22. Those teams, though, have played only 17 games. Three games in hand over BC and Maine; two over BU. Give Merrimack and Lowell wins in those games in hand, and this is how the standings would look:

Merrimack, 29 points
Lowell, 28 points
Boston University, 27 points
Boston College, 25 points
Maine, 24 points

Yes, games in hand matter. But games in hand aren’t won until they are played.

This weekend will have a major factor in decoding these games in hand. Maine plays nonleague games against Alabama-Huntsville, BC is idle and BU plays just one game. Merrimack and Lowell each play two.

So let’s revisit all of this on Monday, when the Hockey East standings could look very, very different.

No ignoring, the Black Bears are hot

Yes, Maine may be at the back of the “games-in-hand standings.” But after back-to-back weekend sweeps of Boston College and Boston University, the second coming on the road last weekend, there is no denying the Black Bears are one of the nation’s hottest teams.

Written off by some about eight weeks ago, Maine is now a top-10 PairWise Rankings team and in position not only for home ice but possibly for the Hockey East title.

“It’s great to knock off a couple of the top teams in consecutive weekends,” said Whitehead, still ready to ride the party line. “We’re just trying to focus on one weekend at a time.”

What’s impressive about the BC and BU sweeps is how close each game was. None of the games was decided until late third period or overtime, which could come in handy in postseason play.

“As a coach, it’s a good feeling to beat a team handily but you get more out of a close victory,” said Whitehead. “We’re not kidding ourselves that we could’ve lost any and all of those [last four] games. But you want your players to feel comfortable in close games.”

If there has been one positive to take from the last two weekends, it’s been the incredible play of goaltender Dan Sullivan. Once a concern, Sullivan has become a reliable goaltender for Maine, allowing the Black Bears’ potent offense to focus on scoring rather than protecting the net.

“It’s been immense for us,” Whitehead said of Sullivan’s goaltending. “That’s been our Achilles’ heel for the last three years. To see [Sullivan] rising to this challenge, I’m very proud. It’s not an accident. He’s worked extremely hard. He’s a real student of the game and a bright kid. He just keeps getting better.”

The upcoming weekend for Maine may look like a sleeper. The Black Bears host Alabama-Huntsville, a team with just two wins all season. That, to Whitehead, is hardly a reason to relax.

“[Alabama-Huntsville] is a team that is playing their best hockey of the season and has a goaltender in Clarke Saunders who is at the top of his game,” he said. “This will be a different type of challenge than we’ve had the last two weeks, but one we have to be fully prepared for. We have to be at our very best to get the win.”

Returning to the NCAA tournament is the main focus for the Black Bears, having missed the field for the last four years. A loss to Alabama-Huntsville wouldn’t just stop a winning streak for Maine, it might also crush its NCAA hopes.

“Players are aware of that,” said Whitehead. “You have to find the balance of matching the urgency of the situation with the poise to make plays. We have to find that balance. We have to treat it like a weekend in Hockey East.”

Massachusetts misbehavin’

After last Saturday’s loss to Massachusetts-Lowell, Massachusetts coach Don “Toot” Cahoon was vocal about his aggravation at his team’s lack of discipline early in the third period. It led to two power-play goals for Lowell, icing on the cake in a 5-2 River Hawks win.

For the Minutemen, the penalties are hardly a new trend. Massachusetts ranks ninth in the nation (though fifth out of 10 Hockey East teams) in penalty minutes. Unfortunately for the Minutemen, though, their penalty kill ranks 56th out of 58 in the nation in efficiency, allowing a goal more than 25 percent of the time.

Cahoon’s comments, though, expressed his displeasure.

“If you want to call it discipline, that’s probably a good word, but our inability to manage ourselves is a real issue for this team,” said Cahoon.

One of Cahoon’s issues with his team discipline, or lack thereof, is not being focused on the road. UMass, at 0-8-2, is the only team in the nation without a win on the road.

“It shows itself on the road in a big way because if you don’t manage the game and manage yourself in terms of penalties you take and the situations you get yourself into you have little chance of winning,” said Cahoon. “This is a real issue for us. You saw it get away from us.”

Parker’s mea culpa

Anyone who watched Saturday’s BU-Maine game on CBS Sports Network in its entirety, may have wished they put the kids to bed early.

Lip readers — and even those not possessed with that skill like myself — watched BU coach Jack Parker, beyond frustration with the referees, launch into a profanity-infused tirade at referee Jeff Bunyon seconds after Maine scored an insurance goal with 4.6 seconds remaining.

Parker earned himself a rare ejection — a bench minor and game misconduct — which translated to Parker walking down the runway for the final faceoff but back out for postgame handshakes.

It also led to Parker issuing a statement on Wednesday, apologizing for his actions.

“I’d like to apologize to the fans at the rink and the CBS Sports Network audience for my verbal abuse of the referee at the end of Saturday’s game against the University of Maine,” said Parker. “It doesn’t matter what the substance was, the form was incorrect.”

What is interesting about the statement — beyond the fact that Parker, who apologizes for little, issued it at all — is the fact that he was careful to not excuse the referees. The substance of his argument seems to be something he believes in, but it’s the words I can’t write here that he regrets.

Quick hits

• It wasn’t long ago that I was writing with concern about the number of Hockey East teams in the PairWise Rankings. Of course, the volatility of the PWR, along with that they are irrelevant until the conference playoffs are complete, certainly made my rant a bit exaggerated. Well, I will make a similar rant for the positive this week as no fewer than five Hockey East teams are ranked in the top 10 of the PWR: Boston University (2nd), Massachusetts-Lowell (3rd), Boston College (tie, 5th), Merrimack (tie, 5th) and Maine (10th). Right now, the PWR shows a best-case scenario for Hockey East would be five NCAA bids (barring an upset conference tournament champion). But then again, there’s plenty of hockey left to be played.

• Maine’s Joey Diamond, who potted six goals and dished out five assists in January, is the Athletic Republic player of the month. Lowell goaltender Doug Carr posted a 4-2-0 record and 1.65 goals-against average to earn goaltender of the month. Vermont’s Kyle Reynolds, with three goals and four assists, earned Pro Ambitions rookie of the month honors.

• How dominant is Maine’s first line right now? Besides that the trio is first, second and third in both points and points per game in league play, all three are in the top 12 nationally in points per game. During Maine’s impressive run that includes sweeps of BC and BU over the last two weeks, the line has put forth “pedestrian” numbers of a combined four goals and eight assists.

And finally, not that it has anything to do with anything, but …

This section has been left out by both Dave and me over the past few weeks. But with Super Bowl XLVI just days away, and the Patriots team I know and love playing the New York Giants, I can’t withhold my thoughts.

First off, I think this is going to be a great Super Bowl. It will have the same legendary play of when these teams played four years ago. I think there is one very important question that has to be answered: How healthy is Rob Gronkowski?

Patriots fans would be lying if they said this team is worth a snuff without his play this season. It’s rare that he wasn’t the target of double-digit passes and his ability to make that big play in the end zone, particularly as a tight end, is unmatched. I think there are some decent players — Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Deion Branch — who can fill in as receivers to be targets of quarterback Tom Brady. But it is their threat that opens Gronkowski and, mostly important, vice versa.

If “Gronk” is 100 percent, no issue. At 80 percent, I’m nervous. Anything less, and I hope the Pats defense can bury Eli Manning and the Giants. Otherwise, I believe we’ll be watching the New York Football Giants parading around another Lombardi Trophy.