Slow start, strong finish: New Hampshire carries hot streak into playoffs

New Hampshire’s Tyler Kelleher has followed up a 16-point rookie campaign with 13 goals and 37 points in 33 games (photo: Melissa Wade).

There are a number of teams that seem to be playing their best hockey of the season heading into the Hockey East playoffs. But no team likely seems as dangerous as New Hampshire.

Before the season started, the team lost its only experienced goaltender, Casey DeSmith, when he was suspended and later dismissed for an off-ice incident. So entering the year, UNH had a big question mark.

The first half of the season was a disaster for coach Dick Umile’s club. UNH reached the holiday break 5-10-1 and a dreadful 2-6-1 in Hockey East. The Wildcats had the worst offense in league, scoring fewer than two goals per game while giving up just short of three goals per game.

It looked like this could be a lost season for the Wildcats.

But things turned around in the second half. The offense clicked at three-and-a-half goals per game. Umile was able to accelerate a goaltending recruit, Daniel Tirone, who has a 10-4 record to date.

And now entering the Hockey East tournament, UNH might be the hottest of the teams that will play in this weekend’s first round, winning five straight and posting a 9-6 league mark in 2015.

“We got off to a slow start on the season,” said Umile. “We had a difficult time scoring goals, we were young on defense. We found ways to lose games, a lot of one-goal games.

“Danny Tirone is a goaltender we recruited for next year and he came in January. He came in and added some competition. He got a couple of starts and played well, so we’ve been going with him to take nothing away from [fellow freshman goaltender] Adam Clark,” who Umile noted carried the goaltending load until the break.

Umile said the move to have Tirone come to Durham a semester early had to be difficult, knowing his career for UNH will be only three-and-a-half years instead of four.

“He’s giving up a half a year of his eligibility and there’s no guarantee that he’s going to play all of the games,” Umile said of Tirone’s willingness to enter a semester early. “He’s a fierce competitor with a lot of confidence. He anticipates plays and he found himself competing for game time and we found ourselves coming back to him.”

Goaltending isn’t the only major difference in the second half for Umile, whose team will open a best-of-three first-round series on Friday against first-year league member Connecticut. The offense has finally began producing as expected.

And while seniors who Umile knew he could rely upon have been able to produce, possibly the most pleasant surprise has been the play of Tyler Kelleher, who has followed up a 16-point rookie campaign with 13 goals and 37 points in 33 games to date.

“Tyler is an excellent hockey player who has a very good hockey sense,” said Umile. “He’s awful good with his stick. He’s a goal scorer. There are some guys who can score goals and some who help others. Tyler Kelleher is a goal scorer.”

Saying that UNH is among the hottest teams entering the playoffs is one thing. Backing it up with numbers is another.

Since Feb. 1, The Wildcats have the best record (6-2) in Hockey East, the third-best offense (3.88 goals per game, behind Northeastern and Boston University), and have a goal differential of plus-11, tied for second with Northeastern, behind only Providence.

That doesn’t translate to any cockiness if you believe the head coach.

“We’ve got to worry about ourselves and try to do what we do best,” said Umile. “UConn is going to be a team that is well-prepared. We’re not going into this thinking that Connecticut, because they’re a first-year team in Hockey East, that it’s going to be an easy weekend. That’s the farthest thing from the truth right now.

“We will have a tough challenge. It’s a whole other season right now. You can forget about the regular season. It’s all about this weekend.”

Providence forward Noel Acciari’s work in the defensive zone deserves attention (photo: Melissa Wade).

Handing out the hardware

Here we are, the postseason upon us. That also means that the coaches have submitted their ballots for league awards. As I try to do each year, I’ve put together my own ballot to share with our readers. Some decisions are easy. Others, not so much.

And I know that I may offend some people if I leave off your favorite player. This is a totally unbiased list based on my viewing of every team in the league multiple times. Yes, you can write hate mail but also know my ballot means zero, zilch, nada in the grand scheme of things.

Alas, here we go:

Best defensive forward: Noel Acciari, Providence

Despite just 16 points in league play, Acciari is plus-12 in conference play and plus-18 overall. While so many people think that Jon Gillies is the reason that Providence has impressive defensive numbers, it’s also the commitment to overall team defense that has made Providence one of the nation’s stingiest defenses. Runner-up: Joe Gambardella, UMass-Lowell

Best defensive defenseman: Noah Hanifin, Boston College

Though only a rookie, Hanifin’s bright future that will come to fruition in this year’s NHL Entry Draft is based significantly on defensive responsibility. In 22 league games, Hanifin was plus-11. Runners-up: Matt Grzelcyk, Boston University; Jake Suter, UMass-Lowell

Individual sportsmanship award: Dalen Hedges, Northeastern

While Hedges was putting together an impressive offensive season for the Huskies, he was whistled for just a single minor penalty in 22 league games. That came on a team that struggled at times with discipline, but Hedges was able to keep himself out of the box and keep his name on the score sheet. Runner-up: Nick Luukko, Vermont

Rookie of the year: Jack Eichel, Boston University

Probably the easiest ROY selection in Hockey East since Paul Kariya in 1993, Eichel helped lead Boston University from a forgettable campaign a year ago to the regular season league title. Eichel posted 44 points in 22 league games, becoming the first Hockey East player since Jason Krog at New Hampshire in 1999 to post an average of two points per game or better. For the record, Krog went on to win the Hobey Baker Award that season. Runners-up: C.J. Smith, UMass-Lowell; Alex Tuch, Boston College

Player of the year: Jack Eichel, Boston University

Not since Kariya in 1993 has the same player won both the ROY and POY awards, so awarding this undrafted freshman such an honor is making a major comparison. And while it is difficult to compare the players from such different generations of college hockey, here are some highlights of Eichel’s year that impressed me:

• He leads the conference in faceoffs won and ranks eighth nationally on draws in all games played.

• Eichel has been in a race all season for the national scoring lead. But every time another player gets close, Eichel pulls away. His 55 points is six points clear of linemate Evan Rodrigues and eight better than Michigan’s Zach Hyman.

• All of Eichel’s impressive statistics have come without him recording a single hat trick.

• Only five times has Eichel been held off the score sheet this season.

Some of these arguments stand on their own. Others rely on having great linemates, which Eichel certainly has. But this is certainly a rookie campaign unlike any in recent memory and I think is deserving of earning both of the league’s top player awards. Runners-up: Evan Rodrigues, BU; Kevin Roy, Northeastern

Coach of the year: David Quinn, Boston University

Quinn’s ability to bring his team from five wins in league play and a ninth-place finish a year ago to the top of Hockey East is impressive. Many will say, “If you gave any coach Jack Eichel, he’d win the league title,” but I don’t believe that to be the case. And even if it is the case, you have to tip your hat to Quinn and BU’s ability not just to recruit Eichel but to maintain his commitment in an ever-competitive war against major juniors.

Let’s also not forget that Quinn had the unenviable job of replacing a BU and college hockey legend after Jack Parker retired. Those aren’t shoes that every coach can fill, and for that I believe he deserves credit. Runners up: Norm Bazin, UMass-Lowell; Kevin Sneddon, Vermont

First team All-Hockey East
F Jack Eichel, Boston University
F Evan Rodrigues, Boston University
F Kevin Roy, Northeastern
D Matt Grzelcyk, Boston University
D Robbie Russo, Notre Dame
G Jon Gillies, Providence

Second team All-Hockey East
F Danny O’Regan, Boston University
F Vince Hinostroza, Notre Dame
F Dalen Hedges, Northeastern
D Mike Paliotta, Vermont
D Zack Kamrass, UMass-Lowell
G Rasmus Tirronen, Merrimack

Hockey East All-Rookie team
F Jack Eichel, Boston University
F C.J. Smith, UMass-Lowell
F Dennis Kravchenko, Massachusetts
D Noah Hanifin, Boston College
D Brandon Hickey, Boston University
G Cal Petersen, Notre Dame