Handing out first-half honors among Hockey East clubs

 (Tim Brule)
Boston University and Providence battle in a hard-fought game earlier this season (photo: Melissa Wade).

With all but a few non-conference games separating Hockey East teams from the mid-season holiday break, now is a good of a time as ever to take a look up and down the league, make some observations and hand out some mid-year superlatives.

Let’s start with the most important element come season’s end: the PairWise.

Hockey East in the PairWise

It is right around this time of year that we can begin making some significant observations regarding the PairWise rankings. Every team, including the Ivies, has played enough games that the PairWise gives us a good snapshot of where teams stand. And, more importantly, most of the nonleague games are out of the way giving a solid understanding of how Hockey East measures up against the rest of the country. So here, on December 15, is what we know.

If the tournament began today, Hockey East would likely have five teams in the field.

Not bad, considering the league placed a record six teams in the tournament last season but, in doing so, didn’t have a lot of success once the tournament began. Boston College was the only team to advance to the Frozen Four and lost in the semifinals.

But right now, number of teams you might expect to have pretty good footing in the national picture do. Boston University and UMass Lowell are both top 10 right now. Boston College and Notre Dame are closer to the bubble at 13th and 14th, respectively.

And then there’s Vermont. The Catamounts are possibly playing the best hockey of any team in the league and at 10-4-2, are currently ranked sixth in the PairWise.

After those five teams, it will take a large leap for another Hockey East team to earn an at-large NCAA bid.

Sure, having five teams from the conference in the top 14 of the PairWise at the break is pretty good. But should one of those teams fall below the bubble, it might be difficult to find a replacement with an at-large bid.

Connecticut and Providence are the two closest teams to the bubble, but each sit more than 10 spots below the No. 15 spot (reality is both Atlantic Hockey and the WCHA each may not have a team in the top 16 this season, pushing the ultimate bubble up to No. 14).

Thus, if your favorite team isn’t in the top 16 of the PairWise today, you need to hope for either and incredible second-half run or a postseason title and automatic qualifier.

A check of the standings

In the entire PairWise conversation, one team that wasn’t mentioned is actually sitting in third place with the most games in hand of any: New Hampshire.

The Wildcats may not be part of the national picture right now, but a 5-1-1 start in league play certain places UNH squarely in the middle of the league race.

Now I’ll admit, the first-half schedule wasn’t exactly daunting for the Wildcats in Hockey East. Their only game against a team in the upper half of the league was a 5-3 loss to Boston College. But I’ve never been one to criticize a team for being successful against bottom feeders. The reality is if you want to have long-term success in a season, some of the most important wins must come against the bottom half of the league with a spattering of addition victories against the top teams.

And in reality, we may not know much about New Hampshire until late January when they head to Notre Dame for a two-game set. Prior to that, UNH’s four league games will come against Northeastern (2), Maine and UMass Lowell. The game against the River Hawks, part of a two-game series split by a month, will also give some indication.

The team that continues to struggle out of the gate is Northeastern. Nine games in for the Huskies (Note: no team has played more than 10 games thus far), the defending champs are 1-6-2. Even an overall mark of 5-7-4 is below expectations.

There is also an interesting bubble forming near the top of the conference that will determine a significant part of the postseason. Only three points separates second-place UMass Lowell and Boston University and Connecticut, tied for sixth. Add in UNH, Notre Dame and Vermont and those six teams likely will be battling for a first-round bye and home ice in the semifinals come March.

I’ve intentionally left out Boston College. The Eagles got off to an 8-0-1 start in league play, the best in the program’s history in Hockey East, before dropping a 3-2 decision at Notre Dame on Saturday. BC still has a four-point advantage over second-place Lowell. Not anything close to insurmountable, but when you’re adding in five other teams, that are sitting from first-through-seventh, BC needs only avoid a meltdown to be worried about missing out on a top-four spot.

Then there is the bottom five. With anywhere from three-to-five points, Maine, Providence, Northeastern, Merrimack and Massachusetts will all have to do something remarkable when the calendar turns to 2017 to avoid being in a position to battle for first-round home ice.

Providence, with 15 games remaining, might be in the best position but is currently seven points out of fourth place right now, leaving a razor thin margin of error.

First-half superlatives

I might as well go out on a limb with recognition for a number of individuals who have stood out through the first 11 weeks of play. We’ll start with what, at the end of the season, will be the top three league awards:

First-half MVP: Tyler Kelleher, F, New Hampshire

Kelleher is a major reason why UNH is 5-1-1 thus far and in position to battle for the title come the second half. Kelleher’s 18 points in seven league games is simply outstanding and has shown no drop off after losing linemate Andrew Poturalski to the NHL over the summer.
Honorable mention: Anders Bjork, F, Notre Dame

First-half Rookie of the Year: Joe Woll, G, Boston College
It can be frightening for any goaltender to enter a season without an experienced goaltender. When you also lose a quarter of your returning players to pro signings, you can’t blame BC coach Jerry York for having some concerns entering the season. Woll, though, has been a calming factor for BC and his 1.99 goals against average in league play that goes along with a .928 save percentage and a 7-1-1 league record are simply outstanding.
Honorable mention: Adam Huska, G, Connecticut

First-half Coach of the Year: Kevin Sneddon, Vermont

Though Sneddon knew that he liked his team entering the season, the Catamounts didn’t get a ton of preseason recognition in the Coaches’ Poll. Add in the fact that an off-ice incident led to Sneddon suspending four of his top players/leaders for five games and there was a tough hill to climb for Vermont. Through it all, the Cats have battled, won the Friendship Four tournament in Belfast with an upset of Quinnipiac in the title game and enter this weekend’s semester closing series against Vermont ranked No. 11 in the USCHO.com poll.
Honorable mention: Jerry York, Boston College

First-half All-Hockey East team

G: Joe Woll, Boston College
D: Dylan Zink, UMass Lowell
D: Matias Cleland, New Hampshire
F: Tyler Kelleher, New Hampshire
F: Anders Bjork, Notre Dame
F: Zach Aston-Reese, Northeastern

Happy Holidays

This will be the final Hockey East column for 2017 as we will pick coverage back up in the first week of 2017. Dave and I will continue to make our picks each week, particularly through the holiday tournaments.

To all of our readers, may you all have a happy, healthy and safe holiday season! See you in 2017!