Huge weekend awaits for teams at the top of Hockey East

Boston College and Providence play a home-and-home series this weekend (photo: Melissa Wade).

Can we agree that at this point in the season, winning percentage is the only sensible way to look at the standings?

After all, Providence has played only six league games so far (and New Hampshire has played seven), while Massachusetts-Lowell, the team with the most total points (15), has played 11 contests.

Six vs. 11? Total points really tells us nothing.

So if we’re in agreement on winning percentage, this weekend pits the league’s top two teams: Providence (.833, 4-0-2) and Boston College (.812, 6-1-1). And not just for a singleton. The two powerhouses, who not coincidentally are also the league’s top ranked teams in the Division I Men’s Poll at third and seventh, respectively, will be playing both of their league games in a Friday-Saturday home-and-home series.

So obviously the stakes are high.

And at least based on recent results, however, the heavyweight tilt comes while both are playing their worst hockey. Providence went through the first half without incurring a single loss, but since the holiday break has lost two out of three. The Friars even needed a third-period comeback against BC to pull out the lone win.

And not to belabor a point made in the Monday morning blog, but the Friars’ most recent loss came at the hands of 4-8-3 Brown.

In the other corner, Boston College lost its first game of the season on Oct. 11 but then reeled off 11 straight wins and a 13-game unbeaten streak. Since then, however, they’ve lost three straight.

Hey, that hardly makes this the Stupor Bowl, the college hockey equivalent of the Tennessee Titans facing the Cleveland Clowns, er, Browns.

But it sure is ironic that such a marquee matchup comes at a time when neither is firing on all cylinders.

The prediction here, however, is that both games are displays of the sport at its best and both clubs launch themselves into a tough-to-match second-half drive.

And the beat goes on

This is also a huge week for the rest of Hockey East, but for a different reason.

There are only two other league contests: Lowell at New Hampshire on Friday and Massachusetts at Boston University on Saturday. That, of course, means that there are a ton of nonconference games.

And those really, really matter.

In last week’s second half kickoff column, Jim Connelly rang the alarm that the league overall RPI was taking a nosedive based on recent nonconference play and that had the distinct potential of taking away NCAA tournament berths from Hockey East teams.

Well, things only got worse last week.

The league still has five teams in the top 16 of the PairWise Rankings, but other than Providence at No. 6, there’s BU, Notre Dame and Lowell at vulnerable 12-14 and with BC tied for 15th, the Eagles likely would be on the outside looking in after conference tournament champions got added.

You read that right. If the season ended today, Boston College, arguably one of Hockey East’s top two teams, wouldn’t make the tournament.


Well, last week didn’t do the league any favors. Or better put, the league’s performances didn’t do itself any favors.

In all those nonconference games starting on New Year’s Day last Friday, Hockey East won only two games. And those were Massachusetts over Army West Point and Connecticut over new independent Arizona State.

The league laid an egg. It went 2-6-3.

(For obvious reasons, that doesn’t include “nonconference” games between two Hockey East teams filling out their schedules, such as New Hampshire at Vermont.)

Looking at Hockey East’s nonconference records tells the story. Throw out the two wins over independent Arizona State as well as the statistically insignificant 2-2 record against the WCHA. Hockey East stands 11-5 (.688) against Atlantic Hockey, which doesn’t seem like part of the problem, but it’s not the same dominance of the AHC that Hockey East has displayed in the past. Arguably, an elite league shouldn’t lose five games to one that doesn’t give 18 scholarships per team.

Has the AHC gotten better? Or has Hockey East dropped closer back to the rest of the pack? Most likely, both.

Against the Big Ten, Hockey East is a mediocre 10-10-1. But the really ugly mark comes next: 17-23-4 against ECAC Hockey.

Hey, we all know the old days of the EZ-AC are over, but there haven’t been many years when Hockey East has posted a losing record against it. (From memory, I believe there was a 17-year-stretch where only a single year dipped below .500.)

There is one positive. Hockey East stands 11-5-6 against the NCHC.

But if you add up the numbers, the good guys haven’t beaten the bad guys often enough to warrant the NCAA tournament picture we’d like.

Which means this weekend’s games against the bad guys loom large.

Cats are snarling

Mario Puskarich leads Vermont with 17 points (photo: Melissa Wade).

Vermont may not have had the first half if was hoping for — 5-12-2 before Christmas — but the Catamounts have won three in a row and may be poised for a serious second-half run. First, they won their own tournament, defeating Lake Superior State 1-0 and Colgate 4-1.

Then, even more impressively, they toppled New Hampshire 3-2 in overtime, a contest closer on the scoreboard than in territorial play, if shots on goal are to be believed. Vermont outshot New Hampshire 37-19 (while having fewer power plays), and 16-2 in the second period.

But according to Catamounts coach Kevin Sneddon, the turnaround began before the current three-win streak.

“We started to see some positive signs at the beginning of December when we played at BU,” Sneddon says. “We played two pretty good hockey games against a very good Boston University team. It resulted in a split on the road, which is not tremendous but certainly not a bad thing, either.

“We followed it up while being in exams with a pretty strong effort against St. Lawrence when [freshman goaltender] Packy Munson made his debut for us. The team rallied together in my opinion. Sometimes you need something like that to turn a season around. I think they rallied together realizing that they had to play much better defensively in front of a new goaltender.

“We held the St. Lawrence team to no goals and limited shots. We paid attention to details in blocking shots. We did a lot of good things.”

While St. Lawrence salvaged a split and then Union defeated the Catamounts in overtime at home, Sneddon felt good about the team.

“I really liked the way we were playing,” he says. “After six or seven days off, they returned and had a different approach to things. The tournament went well for us and we followed it up with a really good game against UNH, a very, very potent offensive team. We did a good job of taking away time and space, creating turnovers and trying to possess the puck as much as possible.”

Munson, the freshman goalie, has been a revelation. Held back by a broken hand earlier in the season, not to mention incumbent junior Mike Santaguida, Munson jumped in when injury sidelined Santaguida. In the six games since, he’s recorded two shutouts and allowed a total of only three goals in the recent three wins.

“It [hasn’t just been] the team in front of him, by any means,” Sneddon says. “He’s made some brilliant saves. I just think the [previous] combination was of a team that was loose defensively in front of a goaltender [Santaguida] they thought would bail them out on every mistake. That’s just not possible.

“Now, it’s a team that’s focused on playing good, sound, what we call 200-feet-of-hockey in front of Packy. Packy hasn’t been asked to make the same kind of breakaway saves that Michael was asked to make at the beginning of the season. It’s a great combination of a team that’s very dedicated to blocking shots and taking care of our defensive zone first with Packy doing a fantastic job of making the saves that he needs to make.”

Despite the recent success, the team still ranks 11th in the league in offense and 12th on the power play. Even more surprisingly, the defense-minded Catamounts are 11th in penalty kill.

So better special teams and overall offense will be needed to keep the momentum going.

“If we’re going to do anything in the second half, the first thing we have to improve upon is our penalty kill,” Sneddon says. “That’s been a go-to for us for three or four years now, but it’s plagued us this year, giving up way too many easy goals. That’s No. 1.

“No. 2 is trying to find some offense on our power play. Clicking on just over 9 percent isn’t going to help us win hockey games. So it’s something we work on every day, both [special teams]. We’re starting to see some improvements there.

“Five-on-five, I’ve been impressed with our generation of chances.”

If the Catamounts can take off, there’s a tightly packed middle of the Hockey East standings from which they can move up quickly. The immediate task will be difficult, though. Following one final nonconference contest against Dartmouth on Friday, during which Vermont will retire the jersey of legend Martin St. Louis, the Catamounts kick off their second-half league schedule with two games against Providence.

“We’re really excited about the second half,” Sneddon says. “Providence is a tough task, but we have great opportunities in front of us.

“Certainly, by no means have we dug ourselves a hole that we can’t get out of. The way the team is playing right now, I really expect us to do good things here the second half.”

Huskies poised to shoot up the standings?

Yes, Northeastern sits at rock bottom of the Hockey East standings. Yes, the Huskies have yet to secure their first league win. And yes, they’ve already played 11 Hockey East contests. No team has played more. They hold no games in hand over anyone.

And yet, this team has shown surprising strength over the last half-dozen games. An overtime loss to Lowell followed by a 7-1 demolition of Colgate in the Friendship Four. Then, a this close home-and-home with Boston College, tying the Eagles 3-3 on the road before losing 4-3 at home. Then, a 2-1 win over Michigan State and a 3-3 tie with the No. 2 team in the country, 17-1-3 Quinnipiac.

That certainly doesn’t sound like a cellar dweller.

And that’s been with Kevin Roy and Dalen Hedges, Hockey East’s fifth and sixth top scorers in league play last year, sidelined with injuries.

“I look at our record and I don’t think it’s indicative of how we’ve played this season,” Northeastern coach Jim Madigan says. “But your record is your record and so you move on.

“Over the last six games or so, we’ve played very well. Our lineup has really settled into how we need to play and the players have settled into their roles. We easily could have been undefeated in those six games. Our players have bought into the game that we want to play. There’s believability in our locker room just like there was last year that we can turn it around.”

Yes, last year. The Huskies opened last season in similarly disastrous fashion, then turned it around with a 14-2-3 run and finished 11-9-2 in Hockey East.

Can it happen again? Keep in mind that Northeastern has already played nine of its requisite 10 games against the league’s five nationally ranked teams. (One remains against Lowell.) With the supposedly “easy” half of its schedule remaining — easy being a relative term and prone to volatility — the Huskies could be the surprise team of the second half. They’ll also be facing the teams in their immediate path of moving up the standings.

“If you look at the schedule we’ve played and that group of teams, it has given us some confidence that if we play to our identity, to the style that we want to play and have discipline for a full 60 minutes, we can be successful,” Madigan says.

From Madigan’s point of view, there aren’t multiple keys to the team’s second half. There’s only one.

“Good defensive play,” he says. “If we take care of our own end, play the five-man unit, then it will lead to our offense. Everything for us is all focused on the defensive end.”

If that happens, how far out of the cellar can the Huskies climb?

“Given what our record is, we’ve told our players, ‘Don’t focus on the record, just get better each and every game and as long as we’re playing our best hockey come February and into March we’ll be fine,'” Madigan says.

“I don’t care where we end up, if we’re in last place or if we’re in second-to-last place or if we get the sixth spot. Obviously, you want to finish the highest you can, but the most important thing is playing your best hockey, playing well.

“We’re playing well. Now we just have to close games out better and get some points. Forget about the record, just focus on getting better each weekend.”

A quick, personal salute

Congratulations to my niece, Cherie Hendrickson, who played at Gillette Stadium as a member of the Boston Pride of the National Women’s Hockey League. As part of the Winter Classic festivities, the Pride took on Les Canadiennes of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and played them to a 1-1 tie.

Whenever the extended Hendrickson clan got together in past years, it would always be Cherie, my son Ryan, and my nephew Kevin — aka The Three Amigos — down in the basement playing hockey or outside playing on a backyard rink. Inevitably, they’d envision a Stanley Cup Game 7 overtime against the Canadiens.

I’m so happy for her. It couldn’t happen to a finer young woman.

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

• There aren’t many better mottos for life than the one Tom Brady recently used for the Patriots right now: “I didn’t come this far to only come this far.”

• My new novel, “No Defense,” a hockey romance, is now available at all standard ebook and print outlets. I’ll list the top ebook ($5.99) links below, but if you’d like a personalized, autographed copy of the trade paperback for $15 (which includes standard shipping), email me at [email protected]. As a contemporary romance, there are a few steamy scenes, so this is definitely R-rated.

After giving up the worst goal of his NHL career and at the worst possible time — overtime of the Stanley Cup Championship Game 7 — Tyler McKenzie flees to Africa. But even a safari into the famed Serengeti can’t wipe away the sting of his failure. He sees it everywhere he looks.

Except when he looks into the eyes of Angie Smolinski, an outspoken, bull-in-the-china-shop firecracker he finds far more interesting than any of the beauties back home.

They fall head over heels for each other until the firecracker explodes like a bomb.

Available on Kindle, NOOK, Kobo, Smashwords, and in print.