This Week in Hockey East: Games slowly, but surely, getting underway as commish says ‘we can pick up some momentum’

UConn players celebrate the Huskies’ shootout win over UMass back on Nov. 21 (photo: Stephen Slade/UConn Athletics).

To say that the start of the Hockey East men’s season has had some bumps in the road may be an understatement.

But you might not know that by talking to first-year Hockey East commissioner Steve Metcalf, who is still upbeat and very positive that the season is close to getting back on track.

“It’s a little bit of a roller coaster ride, but maybe you just get used to it,” said Metcalf.

That turbulent ride began before the first scheduled games when both Vermont and Maine announced that their men’s teams would be either playing or hosting games for the first 3-4 weeks. Northeastern followed with a similar announcement, theirs shutting down all sports on campus.

That could be dealt with somewhat easily by moving some games and opponents around. Massachusetts and Connecticut were the first two opponents for Maine and Vermont, so the simple solution was to have UMass and UConn play a weekend series to begin the season.

Then, just hours before the first game of the league season between New Hampshire and Boston College would faceoff, an inconclusive test result forced the postponement of that game. When the test was conclusively positive the following morning, the second game of the season was postponed. The Eagles will now play Providence.

Since then, of the 12 league games that were on the original schedule, none have been played. Boston College and UMass faced each other last weekend to give the league a grand total of four games played to this point.

Not the start that Metcalf and the league was looking for.

“There’s obviously some unpredictability in this and maybe we didn’t realize how much of it we would have,” said Metcalf. “But also as programs get started, it’s something where we can pick up some momentum.

“We’re on the other side of Thanksgiving now, so whether it be the undergraduates leaving the campuses or people going wherever they went for Thanksgiving and coming back, if we get on the back side of those, it gives us a chance to play more consistently.”

This weekend, five of the 11 teams won’t be able to play games. In addition to Maine and Vermont, Northeastern, UNH is still finishing quarantine from its case and contact tracing while UMass Lowell, which experienced its first COVID case last Friday, will need to wait out this weekend as well.

That does leave six teams that are able to play, and Metcalf says the plan is to have all six of them play. This consistent need to reschedule is something that Metcalf and league knew would be likely throughout this challenging season.

“We knew going into the year we were going to have to have some flexibility,” Metcalf said. “You can see it in [college] basketball. The amount of opponent changes for these basketball teams, it’s hard to keep track of it, though some might say the same about us.

“What we’ve learned is because of a variety of situations – some directly related to COVID and some indirectly – setting a schedule too far in advance is a challenge.

“We have to find ways to schedule games for as many teams that want to play in a given weekend, and I think we can do that.”

Underclassmen playing significant role for Boston College

It’s typical in college hockey that in the early season, you need to rely heavily on your upperclassmen. They have the experience, are well-schooled on the pace of play and generally have the leadership skills any coach looks for out of the gate.

For this year’s Boston College team, currently ranked second nationally, the story doesn’t necessarily follow that script. Last year’s Eagles team graduated double-digits including eight players who coach Jerry York relied on night-in-and-night-out.

There was also a lot of young talent that showed some promise. The team, in fact, was led in scoring by freshman Alex Newhook. But he won’t be available to the team until after January; he is currently in isolation with Team Canada as they prepare for the World Junior Championships.

“He’s chasing a dream,” said York. “He wants to win a world championship for his native country. I’ve been chasing my dreams for 50 years in college hockey, so we welcome the opportunity that he can do the same thing for himself.”

But in last weekend’s two-game sweep of a very talented Massachusetts team, several members of the sophomore class showed they are ready to take the next step. And this year’s freshmen proved they’re no slouches either.

Leading the way is Matt Boldy. A highly-touted rookie last year, Boldy scored a goal in the season opener and then registered just two assists before the New Year. But his second half gave York a lot of hope. Boldy netted eight goals and added 15 assists once the calendar hit 2020.

Last Friday, Boldy scored the game-winning goal early in the third, firing a frozen rope into the top corner of the net. He added three assists on the weekend to lead the Eagles offensively.

On the back end, Drew Helleson was arguably the best blueliner on the weekend, significantly expanding his playing time from last season and netting a goal in Saturday 6-3 series finale victory.

“He’s playing close to 30 minutes and that’s an awful lot to ask for a young kid,” York said regarding Helleson. “He’s our best defender back there and we need him in a lot of situations – penalty kill, power play, just regular shifts.

“Last year, he played about 15 minutes a game, so we’ve nearly doubled his minutes. He’s shown a lot of improvement for us.”

Of course, the cornerstone of the sophomore class is between the pipes as Spencer Knight continues to look solid through two games.

What is a pleasant surprise – at least through two games – for York is the play of the freshmen.

In weekend one, Colby Ambrosio and Nikita Nesterenko each picked up their first collegiate goals, while defenseman Eamon Powell was solid in recording top-four D minutes.

York credits an extended preseason due to the delay of the season opener due to COVID as being extremely helpful in getting the rookie class acclimated.

“We have 11 freshman on our roster right now replacing 12 seniors from last year,” York said. “So, the extended preseason helped.

“But for all of us, we were itching to play a game. You can only practice so much. You need to see a different shirt.”

That luxury might be once again delayed this weekend as the Eagles were slated to face UMass Lowell, a series that has already been canceled as the River Hawks have shut down operations temporarily due to COVID and related contract-tracing within the team.

That, York says, is something his team and others will have to come to accept.

“It will probably be Wednesday or Thursday before we know who we’re going to play,” said York. “It’s a perplexing thing for all of us.”

Hockey East honoring Travis Roy across league

Many in the college hockey world were shocked at the end of August when Travis Roy’s passing from complications related to a surgery took his life.

Despite playing just 11 seconds in his collegiate career at Boston University, an abbreviated career that has been well-documented in the 25 years since his injury, his impact on college hockey and the world will never be forgotten.

The league will be recognizing Roy at the opening home game in each of the league’s 11 buildings. It was kicked off on Friday night at Boston College’s Kelley Rink with a 24-second moment of silence, a tip of the cap to Travis’ number 24.

Boston College’s York reflected on the moment after that game.

“Travis’ life is not going to go away,” said York. “What he left here for all of us to understand was just the battle in him. To watch him to develop as a spokesperson for all of college hockey. He’s left a lasting impact and not just for college hockey. The money he’s raised for spinal cord research, it means a lot.”

Hockey East well-represented at U.S. World Junior camp

As USA Hockey released its preliminary roster for the World Junior Championship, it had a heavy college influence with 26 of the 29 players having college ties. These 29 will compete for the final 25 roster spots during a training camp that begins on Saturday.

Hockey East had significant representation on the list, sending 10 current and one former players to Plymouth, Mich., to battle for roster spots.

Boston University led the way with goaltender Drew Commesso, defenseman Alex Vlasic and forwards Robert Mastrosimone and Trevor Zegras, who signed an NHL contract with Anaheim in March.

Boston College sends three to the US camp including the aforementioned Knight, Helleson and Boldy.

Three Providence players will hope to wear the red, white and blue including defenseman Cam McDonald, and forwards Brett Berard and Patrick Moynihan.

The final Hockey East player rounding out the roster is Northeastern’s Sam Colangelo.