First-round bye a long shot, but Notre Dame hopes veterans play big late

Sam Herr (center) and Notre Dame are five points out of fifth place with three games remaining (photo: Melissa Wade).

Notre Dame’s entrance to Hockey East this season didn’t exactly come with a welcome mat from the other 10 teams.

The Irish have struggled at times in league play, battling injuries while trying to get comfortable in a new conference. With two weeks remaining in the regular season, Notre Dame is 6-9-2 in league play, placing it in a tie with Vermont for seventh place, the Catamounts holding a game in hand.

The team mathematically is still able to reach fifth place and a first-round playoff bye, but that has become a bit unrealistic with just three league games to play.

Thus, the most important thing for coach Jeff Jackson and his club is to be playing good hockey when the playoffs finally begin.

“We always want to try to be in the top four or five teams in the conference and earn a bye in that first round,” said Jackson, referencing Hockey East’s new playoff format where five teams receive byes past a single-elimination play-in round that the bottom six all experience. “That’s probably not as realistic as it was at the start of the year.

“But our long-term objective is trying to get to the TD Garden and trying to get to the NCAA tournament. Once you put yourself in position to get to those venues, anything can happen.”

Jackson admitted that he can’t really focus on the PairWise Rankings right now, needing instead to worry about a game-by-game approach that will put his team in the best position in the league and national standings. But should this team get a chance at the dance, it is laden with talented upperclassmen, something that is always valuable in the postseason.

“Having an older team has helped us get through [the challenges of the season] and helped us to battle through,” Jackson said. “It might have been easy to check out after a couple of the tough losses we’ve had in the second half. But our seniors are probably playing their best hockey.”

And while the success of the senior class has carried the Irish, continue to keep an eye on Notre Dame freshman Vince Hinostroza. Despite missing games with an injury and while playing with the U.S. World Junior team, Hinostroza is third on the team in scoring with 27 points and is leading the club in points per game.

“Offensively, he is a special talent,” Jackson said of Hinostroza. “If he’s not the top freshman in the conference, he’s one of them. He’s pretty dynamic. And I don’t know where we’d be without him.

“He’s got great vision and puck skills and he skates real well. He’s got great agility. But his real ability is to play under pressure — the visual play where he can find a guy when a lot of guys couldn’t.”

Between the young Hinostroza and a strong upper class, make sure you keep an eye on Notre Dame in the coming weeks. If there is team in the bottom six of this league that could still win a Hockey East championship, it’s certainly the Irish.

Matt Willows scored five goals in New Hampshire’s sweep of Boston University (photo: Melissa Wade).

New Hampshire’s Willows exploding offensively

If someone told me a Hockey East player put up five goals in two games this past weekend, I would have guessed that person wore a Boston College sweater.

Instead, it was a player for a team that at one point this season had some serious struggles scoring goals: the New Hampshire Wildcats.

The player is Matt Willows, who on Friday night scored two goals, including the game-winner, in a 4-3 win over Boston University. Despite having to wait two extra days for the rematch with the Terriers because of a snowstorm, Willows continued his domination scoring all three of UNH’s goals in a 3-1 win on Monday.

The five-goal outburst gives the junior Willows 18 on the season, placing him in a tie for ninth nationally. It’s quite a difference from a freshman year in which Willows was unable to score a single goal.

“He was a big point-getter and goal scorer for the [Jersey] Hitmen in the Eastern junior league,” Wildcats coach Dick Umile said of Willows. “It’s his junior year and he’s just taken off.

“That’s typical of what can happen in this league. Not many guys can put up a lot of points freshman and sophomore year. He has developed into a real strong two-way player who kills penalties and plays well defensively. That’s what we like about him.”

Part of the success of Willows can be attributed to his roommate and linemate, Kevin Goumas. Umile said Willows and Goumas, the top returning forward on the Wildcats, have great chemistry together. That’s something Willows won’t deny.

“Me and Kevin work great together,” Willows said of Goumas. “We’re roommates. We work well together. We just seem to know where each other is on the ice.”

Coming off two wins, UNH has put itself back in position to earn a first-round playoff bye, if not home ice. But a strange scheduling quirk that goes with having an 11-team league pops up this weekend as the Wildcats will sit idle while the 10 other Hockey East teams play.

That will put a good amount of pressure for UNH in the final-weekend series against Merrimack, where it is possible the club will have must-win games to avoid dropping to sixth place.

“We’ve got some injuries, so [the bye week] may turn out good for us,” said Umile. “Then we finish at Merrimack, which will be really tough. It’s always tough down there.”

Around Hockey East

• Tip of the cap to the Boston College Eagles, who clinched the Hockey East regular season title last weekend with a sweep at Vermont. Commissioner Joe Bertagna presented the trophy, which BC coach Jerry York always refers to as the Bertagna Cup (in reality, the trophy has no name, while the Bertagna Trophy is given to the winner of the Hockey East Women’s tournament), to the Eagles on Wednesday afternoon in the locker before practice. BC still has plenty to play for, namely the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, something that looks like will be filled with either the Eagles or Minnesota.

• Besides BC clinching the top seed, no other Hockey East team has clinched anything at this point. The remaining three home-ice seeds are still up for grabs, as is the fifth-place spot in the standings that, along with the four quarterfinal home-ice clinchers, will earn a first-round bye. Massachusetts-Lowell needs three points to clinch a top-five finish, but that is no guarantee with two games against Boston College this weekend and two more at Vermont the following weekend to close the season.

• Speaking of Lowell, freshman forward Evan Campbell is playing like a man possessed at this point in the season. After scoring just a single goal in his first 16 games with the River Hawks, Campbell has scored a point a game in his last six, including five goals, two coming last Friday in a 3-2 win over Massachusetts.

Saying goodbye to a good friend

I usually don’t take up much space in this column talking anything but hockey, but I feel compelled to share some feelings and thoughts on a good friend I met in my time covering Hockey East.

Richard Kelley, known to many around the college hockey world as either Dick, or the more popular “DK,” was one of the first sports information directors (usually referred to as SIDs) I ever met. Dick served many years at his alma mater, Boston College, primarily overseeing the school’s men’s basketball program but spending many Friday and Saturday nights making sure the hockey press box was running smoothly.

Over my years covering Boston College hockey as my main beat, DK and I became good friends. I’m not sure what it was, possibly my love for Buff’s Pub, a hole-in-the-wall bar about three miles from the BC campus that served the closest thing to authentic Buffalo wings, that bonded us. But after a number of visits there, most of them coming in the summertime so Dick could catch up on things in my life, we developed a strong friendship.

To know Dick was to know someone who loved his job. For DK, being an SID went well beyond game notes and dealing with media. He believed that every athlete that went through BC needed to leave there sounding educated. He schooled many players, from NFL quarterback Matt Ryan to countless BC hockey and basketball players, on the simple, yet still finer, points of dealing with media.

His simple instruction of speak slowly, articulate and be loud and clear are today carried to many professional locker rooms.

And while that is what Dick Kelley’s legacy may be to some at BC, to me it was very different.

I first came in contact with Dick in the late 1990s, when, and online media for that matter, was in its infancy. To be credentialed at many schools was a chore if not impossible. But never at BC.

Dick understood a vision for the future of media. He believed early on that online journalism may eventually take the place of print. Not only did he credential me as USCHO’s beat writer. He made sure that I received the same treatment as any of the top reporters to walk through the door and cover the nationally recognized BC hockey team.

Two and a half years ago, Dick was diagnosed with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He waged a courageous battle, finding a way to go into the office as long as his body allowed him. And even after the day when he became confined to a wheelchair, he still found ways to use technology to continue to communicate.

Dick Kelley was a passionate communicator. You would have to work countless hours reviewing his work to ever find an error, particularly a grammatical one. When he was confined to his wheelchair and had to use his eyes to slowly signal a computer to type for him, he turned to Twitter to find an easier way to express his opinions — all of which were generally complimentary to BC athletes and coaches and the media who covered them.

Dick’s final tweet came on Feb. 7, congratulating Jay Leno, a fellow Andover, Mass., native, on a successful career hosting The Tonight Show. Six days later, after listening with his parents Ann and Ed to a Georgia Tech-Boston College basketball game, Dick closed his eyes for the last time.

On Tuesday, I had the privilege of attending Dick’s funeral, one that came too early in the life of someone who gave so much to those around him. There were stories of his battle with ALS mixed with many anecdotes that made it impossible not to smile.

Though most may have considered DK a basketball man for his work with BC hoops, many around the college hockey world had the chance to be impacted by his presence at many BC hockey games.

I can say, and I know I speak for Dave Hendrickson, that Dick Kelley will be missed dearly. Rest in peace, DK.