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December 11, 2013 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

Second Thoughts

Still No Telling Who's Good in Hockey East

by Ryan Lambert/Columnist

One of the things we're always told about Hockey East is that it's the best top-to-bottom conference in the country, and usually that's true.

Last year, UMass Lowell finished first in the league with 34 points, only four ahead of fifth-place UNH, and 20 ahead of dead-last Northeastern. And while it's not usually that tight, things are often still more than a little difficult no matter who you're playing, which is something you can't always say for some other conferences that will go unmentioned.

This year, it's tough to say that this is a very good league from Boston College and Providence, sitting atop the standings with 13 points in eight and nine games, respectively, all the way down to Merrimack, sitting alone in the basement with four points from eight games, three of which came this past weekend against second-to-last BU (five points in seven). While one might see BC, Providence, UNH, Maine and Lowell — the league's current home-ice teams — and say, “Yes, that looks about right,” the fact of the matter is that even those top teams have taken bizarre paths to where they are, and have all exhibited some serious flaws along the way.

BC's defense and goaltending are, for example, only okay, and the offense is very often finding itself running short on scoring chances and shots on goal, but winning anyway thanks to the high conversion rates an Eagles-y skill level generally gets you. Case in point: They got drilled in the shots department by UNH at home on Friday by a margin of nearly 2-to-1, and nonetheless won 6-2. They also did this against RPI earlier in the season, and have likewise struggled to eke out three-point weekends against UMass, gotten creamed by Maine, lost to Holy Cross, and so on.

That's hockey, to some extent, but these are persistent issues.

“Teams are presented problems during the course of the season,” Eagles coach Jerry York said after Friday night's win, the first in a home-and-home sweep of the Wildcats. “It could be flu bugs, it could be a team playing their 'A' game, and you bring just an average game. There's generally a reason why you lose, and we've been trying to correct that.”

Likewise, you look at Providence with just two losses this season, and you think that's pretty great. But a deeper look shows a team that's played a pretty soft league schedule and is shooting at an unsustainable 10.9 percent. Everyone has said all along that this is a team which will go only as far as Jon Gillies will take it, and when some of their hotter shooters start cooling down, the goals aren't going to come anything resembling this easily, and they've struggled to put away teams like Merrimack.

“I said this to Coach [Jim] Madigan before the game, but I really feel like there are four or five teams in our league that could potentially go to the Frozen Four,” Nate Leaman said after his team erased a 3-0 deficit at Northeastern on Friday. “It's early. We've played a tough schedule. We haven't had a weekend off and it caught up with us; I thought we had a five-game lull and I was glad to see us back tonight.

“Right now anyone can beat anyone, and we have to focus on doing well out of our conference because we know the second half of the season, our conference is going to be really tough,” he said. “Hopefully we can be one of those teams at the end of the year. If you look at the results, you're going to press too much and get too competitive. You got to take it one week and one opponent at a time because every team in our league brings something pretty special.”

UNH too has suffered season series sweeps at the hands of Lowell and BC, split with Providence, lost to Harvard, and gotten some not-great goaltending along the way (team .903 save percentage in league games).

Maine is a juggernaut at home at 7-1-0, but can't score away from Alfond to save its life, which makes for a record of just 7-6-1. It's played just two league games away from home, and won neither of them. Eight of its final 14 league games are on the road, and if they don't figure it out, they're going to drop points in a hurry.

Lowell is a team with few apparent weaknesses except for an occasional inability to kill penalties (55 of 68, or 80.9 percent, or not good enough) and simply not coming to play at all. The River Hawks at least have the benefit of having played fewer league games than anyone but BU.

Meanwhile, this is also serving to make teams look better than they probably are. Northeastern and Vermont have inexplicably given good teams fits all season; the Huskies having beaten Lowell on the road, taken BC to overtime, and built a 3-0 lead against Providence on Friday before succumbing to inevitability and still getting a point out of it.

The fact of the matter is that we're now just a week away from the league-wide winter break, with some teams having already gotten there, and this league is currently impossible to figure out. Usually you're at least starting to get a little bit of a sketch of where things are going to end, but not this time around. Go to a game and you have just as good a chance of seeing the expected result or a wacky one, for no particular reason whatsoever.

Notre Dame, which came in and was expected to run roughshod over the league and be within its top three, is instead dropping points to everyone, ever weekend (loss at Vermont, only three points from hosting Merrimack, swept at Lowell, split with UMass). It's very strange. Maybe everyone bought into the mystique of their newness, an exotic team from a faraway league that hadn't even played games against some Hockey East teams. Instead they're tied for seventh in the conference after eight games, with fewer wins than losses. Suffice it to say no one saw this coming.

You hear a lot that teams are “better than their record,” and in this conference this season it's tough to say that's necessarily true. But even Mark Dennehy and Dave Quinn, whose teams sit dead last in the conference, both said after their weekend series — in all sincerity — that they liked where their teams were at this point in the season. BU is, for all its well-publicized woes and a significant deficiency in both size and experience, likely to head into break a game above .500, and Merrimack just took three points from those Terriers, so perhaps it's not all bad.

That, of course, can't last. There's bound to be some should-be-better teams coming together (Notre Dame, BU), some playing-over-their-heads clubs sinking back to earth (Providence, Maine), and some continuing their strongish starts and turning into juggernauts (Lowell, BC). You'd think. Maybe.

This isn't a great league top-to-bottom. It's tough right now to even be convinced it's a pretty good one. And nonetheless, four teams already have double-digit win totals. Maybe that's just a sign that anyone can beat anyone else, and that everyone's kind of good. Or maybe everyone's kind of bad. It'll take some work from the top teams to show that they're any better than that.

Second thoughts

Atlantic Hockey

Air Force: Lots of sister-kissing in Worcester this weekend, as Air Force and Holy Cross skated to a pair of ties over the weekend. Air Force, though, probably feels better about all of that, having come back from being down more than halfway through both games.

American International: Tough week for the Yellow Jackets, having gotten creamed in Lowell and then swept by RIT. That last loss stings (sorry) worst, though, because they gave up three goals in less than five minutes in the third. AIC has lost seven straight, and it's only going to get worse with a trip to Orono this weekend.

Army: Nice way to bounce back for the Black Knights. After losing to Canisius 8-2 on Friday, they really pulled the defense together and got a shutout the next night. Can't imagine you see that kind of thing very often.

Bentley: Break up the Falcons. They're unbeaten in six, and now senior netminder Branden Komm is tied for the school record in all-time wins at 35. Odds are pretty good he's gonna break that 30-year-old record.

Canisius: More on that split with Army: Tyler Wiseman scored the Griffs' first-ever in school history 5-on-3 shorthanded goal in that blowout win. But why would you post video of something like that online? You wouldn't, apparently.

UConn: Last season the Huskies were swept and shut out in both games against Niagara. They returned the favor on the former this weekend, but did concede three goals in doing so. Not good enough.

Holy Cross: Skip to 25 seconds into this video to see Adam Schmidt smoke a BC defenseman to score the Crusaders' third goal out of five against BC. Still can't believe this result happened.

Mercyhurst: The Lakers were in an uncomfortably close game with Sacred Heart, but then scored three in the third to pick up their fourth win in a row on Saturday. In their last four games (and granted this is against AIC and SHU, so y'know), Mercyhurst has 23 goals.

Niagara: The number of road games Niagara has won this season is zero out of 10. That's bad. They did get a tie in that first one, though.

RIT: The Tigers are on five straight wins, so it seems like there's a lot of streaking in general going on in Atlantic Hockey these days. Here's a fun stat: AIC had just 25 shots in Saturday's game, while RIT had 23 in the second period alone. Fun night at the rink.

Robert Morris: Potentially some good news for the RMU program comes at the expense of the seven Div. I teams it is eliminating. That'll save the school $1.2 million, which will be used for “additional scholarships, facility upgrades and increased travel and recruiting budgets” for the 16 teams the school is keeping.

Sacred Heart: The Pioneers were 0 for 13 on the power play this weekend. If they'd scored on literally all of them, and kept their two even-strength tallies, they would have only scored four more goals than Mercyhurst.

ECAC

Brown: A sweep of Ivy opponents Harvard and Dartmouth is very respectable, and a great way to break a four-game losing streak and enter break. A not-great way to come out of it? At Denver, at Colorado College, and hosting BC in a nine-day stretch.

Clarkson: The Golden Knights just keep on winning, sweeping mega-arch rivals St. Lawrence in their annual battle. Both were one-goal games, and both appear to have been high drama. The winning goals were both scored in the third period.

Colgate: In a weekend one-off, the Raiders can't have been too happy to blow a two-goal lead and give up a point, even if they were on the road. Not too happy at all.

Cornell: But then again, when you give up two 5-on-3 power plays, I guess that's what happens.

Dartmouth: Tough as it probably was to lose to Brown on Saturday, getting that second W of the season away to the reigning national champions probably felt pretty great. Three goals in the first 10 minutes of the game or so helps a lot, in my opinion.

Harvard: Just one point on the weekend, and poor Raphael Girard under siege. In tying Yale 2-2, he made 52 saves, just a night after stopping 30 of 32. A .953 save percentage. Tough go.

Princeton: The Tigers are now on a four-game losing streak after — perhaps understandably — dropping games at Union and RPI. Outscored 8-2, and that's not a good trip through New York's capital region. Giving up two goals in the first 3:26 of that second game all but ensured an 0-fer weekend.

Quinnipiac: Sure, the Q lost to Union in a fairly surprising result, but at least goaltender Michael Garteig was credited with a second-period goal.

RPI: It's weird that RPI hasn't swept a weekend yet, right? A team that talented, you'd think, would have done it once. But they haven't exactly had a soft schedule.

St. Lawrence: If someone on this team besides the Carey Brothers want to start poppin' in a few goals, that would be fairly welcome. The Saints scored seven goals this weekend, and only two of 'em came from someone who had a different mom. Greg Carey assisted on both of those, by the way.

Union: Don't look now but the Dutchmen have a double-digit win total and have just one league loss. They're tied with Quinnipiac atop the ECAC but have two games in hand. Pretty impressive.

Yale: Tough to spin a one-point home weekend against Harvard and Dartmouth as anything but bad, and yet here we are.

Hockey East

Boston College: What's nicer: The pass from Johnny Gaudreau at 53 seconds or the finish by Austin Cangelosi?

Boston University: Dave Quinn on what his young, small team needs to get more shots on goal: “Steroids.”

Maine: Maine scored three power-play goals to beat Lowell on Sunday afternoon. Goals at even strength were tied 1-all. Turns out you shouldn't take penalties at Alfond. Who knew?

UMass: Ray Pigozzi was instrumental in helping his team pick up a frankly shocking split at Notre Dame, setting up four of his team's six goals on the weekend. That doubled his assist total for the year.

UMass Lowell: That loss to Maine snapped a six-game winning streak, but given how BC and BU got handled up there, they probably take the one-goal-plus-an-empty-netter loss.

Merrimack: When you can quadruple your season's point total in one weekend, you don't really ask how it went in general, but the Warriors are very happy with how they played. These weren't two fluke results. They outplayed BU both nights, and probably deserved all four.

UNH: Well sure UNH got swept again, but at least their new logo is actually really nice.

Northeastern: Man, he gets one writeup in the paper and all of a sudden Josh Manson thinks he's Paul Coffey. Two assists in a tie against Providence, and the Huskies have beaten taken points from the Friars and Lowell.

Notre Dame: Jeff Jackson is not happy with his team's play this past weekend. The Friday win? “Ugly.” The Saturday loss? “Disappointing.” Yeah, that sounds about right.

Providence: Someone has to stop Ross Mauermann. At some point. Right?

Vermont: The Catamounts had the weekend off but got a commit from a kid whose prep team wears green and gold. That's synergy, folks, and it's why they're rocketing up the standings.

Player of the Week

Greg Carey had six points in two games against his team's biggest enemy and somehow that wasn't enough.

Goal of the Week

Yes I know it's from out west, but c'mon. That's a hell of a goal.

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