May 10, 2011

From NEHJ: Hockey East dismount wasn't graceful

Merrimack goalie Joe Cannata watches Notre Dame's game-winning overtime goal. (photo: Dan Hickling)

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

After three consecutive years of Boston teams raising the NCAA trophy, it had come to be something of a habit.

That’s why, despite the sheer difficulty of reaching college hockey’s ultimate prize, it was jarring this year to watch one, two and then three Hockey East teams — all with stellar resumes — get handed their tickets home without so much as setting foot in St. Paul for the Frozen Four.

Down went Boston College, the most shocking of all the exits, handed an 8-4 spanking by Colorado College in the first round of a tournament some thought the Eagles were favored to win. Down went Merrimack, the darling of the season, which did everything right in its regional semifinal against Notre Dame except score the winning goal. Down went New Hampshire, the only Hockey East team to advance past the opening round, but without enough gas in the tank to find its way to the Frozen Four.

Suddenly, the seemingly sure bet that at least one Hockey East team would challenge for the national title was up in smoke, putting a dour end on the league’s promising year.

BC coach Jerry York’s diagnosis was simple.

“I think we caught (Colorado College) at the very top of their game, and we weren’t really as sharp as we would have had to have been to beat that team on that very night,” said the Watertown, Mass., native, who was equally if not more surprised to see Merrimack fall after controlling the play over most of the program’s first-ever tournament game.

Regrets? The Eagles, Warriors and Wildcats will have a few this offseason. Like not playing their absolute best when it absolutely counted most.

“Four out of seven, we probably advance for sure,” York said, “but that’s the beauty and the excitement of the national tournament, it’s one game to advance.”

And one game to give spring an earlier start than expected.

BOSTON COLLEGE

The Good: The defending champ cruised for much of the season, picking up repeat Beanpot, regular-season and league tournament titles. Senior goaltender John Muse (East Falmouth, Mass.) put a stamp on his BC career with the best performance of any goalie in the league, posting a 2.30 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. Junior Cam Atkinson (Greenwich, Conn.), in what turned out to also be his swan song, was one of the most electrifying players in the country and split the league scoring title with UNH’s Paul Thompson. Quietly, the Eagles defense also came into its own, combining with Muse to allow the fewest goals of any Hockey East team.

The Bad: As sweet a season as it was for the Eagles through the first 38 games, it all turned quite sour with the 39th, an 8-4 loss to Colorado College in the NCAA first round. BC looked nothing like the team that had steamrolled through the final months of the season, scoring first but then giving up four goals in the first period and another three in the second. It might be harsh to judge a season on one game, but the memory of the March 25 loss will be hard to erase.

The Future: Muse is gone to graduation. So are forwards Joe Whitney (Reading, Mass.) and Brian Gibbons (Braintree, Mass.), who combined for 59 points and 23 goals. Their linemate, Atkinson, opted for the pros instead of his senior year, as did Jimmy Hayes (Dorchester, Mass.), which leaves the Eagles without four of their top five scorers going into next season, as well as standout sophomore defenseman Philip Samuelsson, who also defected early. If there’s any team in the league that can reload quickly, it’s BC, but York and his staff will have some work to do.

BOSTON UNIVERSITY

The Good: The Terriers were a perfectly average team and did enough things right to earn home ice in the conference quarterfinals. An influx of talented freshmen put a new face on the team, with Charlie Coyle (East Weymouth, Mass.) leading the group with seven goals and 19 assists. Coyle, Adam Clendening, Sahir Gill, Matt Nieto and Garrett Noonan (Norfolk, Mass.) had their struggles at times, but all made big leaps in their rookie year.

The Bad: Home ice didn’t do much to help the Terriers advance, as they were bounced by Northeastern in three games. Even worse was the Beanpot, where BU lost twice for the first time in more than 30 years — a particularly damning statistic for the program that has owned that tournament.

The Future: The five impact freshmen are the core for years to come, and the Terriers also return all of their top eight scorers, including leader Alex Chiasson, who should be able to improve on his 14 goals and 20 assists in his junior year. Goaltender Kieran Millan, who was very good if not great in 2010-11, enters his senior season with the starting job in hand, and could be one of the league’s elite next year. The leadership of Joe Pereira (West Haven, Conn.) goes out the door with his graduation, but otherwise the losses are minimal for BU, which has to enter 2011-12 as a league favorite.

MAINE

The Good: Gustav Nyquist didn’t quite match his otherworldly sophomore season, but his 18 goals and 33 assists led the Black Bears and earned him a spot as a top-10 Hobey Baker semifinalist. An unsure goaltending picture gave way to the emergence of Dan Sullivan, a freshman who ended up posting a 2.73 goals-against average and .890 save percentage over 21 games, including all but one of the last 10 of the season following a seven-game absence due to injury.

The Bad: The Black Bears were an uneven team at best. With some impressive wins over the likes of North Dakota on their resume but also some clunkers, such as the 7-1 drubbing by Merrimack and the 7-2 loss to eighth-place finisher Vermont. Too many nights like those kept Maine from being able to make the next step, and the Black Bears were ushered out of the playoffs by Merrimack in the semifinals.

The Future: Nyquist signed with Detroit instead of coming back for his senior year, which is an obvious blow to an offense that was just starting to get itself figured out. Fourth- and fifth-best scorers Robby Dee and Tanner House are also gone, to graduation, leaving Spencer Abbott and Brian Flynn as the only top-five scorers coming back for 2011-12. With some depth and a good defense in front of Sullivan, however, the Black Bears shouldn’t take much of a step back, if at all next season.

UMASS

The Good: Paul Dainton made his senior year one to remember, setting school records for career saves, minutes and games played. Freshman Michael Pereira (West Haven, Conn.) showed some signs of greatness to come with 12 goals and 13 assists, and freshman defenseman Adam Phillips also displayed some real promise.

The Bad: The Minutemen never got it together all season, finishing in the bottom half of the league in every major statistical category. Just three players — Pereira, T.J. Syner (Springfield, Mass.) and Danny Hobbs — scored more than 20 points, and only Hobbs, Pereira and Phillips had 10 or more goals. The Minutemen’s only league wins came against eighth-place finisher Vermont and cellar-dweller UMass-Lowell.

The Future: The goaltending situation is a big question going forward, as freshman Jeff Teglia played in only nine games and didn’t impress. However, UMass should have some depth coming back, with senior Chase Langeraap the only scorer in the Minutemen’s top 11 departing. Phillips at times looked lost on the ice, but a full year under his belt should allow him to correct some of those mistakes and lead the blueliners.

UMASS-LOWELL

The Good: This is a short list. David Vallorani (12 goals, 19 assists) and Riley Wetmore (14 goals, 16 assists) stood out for sure, and freshmen Chad Ruhwedel and Joseph Pendenza played at times beyond their years. The highlights include a surprising win over Merrimack on Jan. 21, and winning the season series against Providence, which finished a notch higher than the River Hawks in the standings.

The Bad: Unfortunately, the wins mentioned above were three of just five all season for UML, which had the league’s worst defense and its third-worst offense. Just two years removed from a surprise trip to the Hockey East final, coach Blaise MacDonald — a local boy from Billerica, Mass., who helped guide the program out of near-extinction and into what once looked like a promising future — was ousted.

The Future: Alumnus Norm Bazin was hired in April to replace MacDonald, moving up from Division 3 Hamilton, where he was the 2009-10 NESCAC Coach of the Year. If nothing else, the River Hawks can be optimistic because of this: It almost can’t get worse than it was this season.

MERRIMACK

The Good: The Warriors’ star kept on rising all season long, to the point where they were no longer a Cinderella but a true contender. Stephane Da Costa was a difference-maker in his sophomore year, goaltender Joe Cannata (Wakefield, Mass.) was one of the league’s best, and the stiff Merrimack defense was the second best in Hockey East. Renovations to the Warriors’ Lawler Arena were the icing on the cake in a breakout season for the perennial also-ran program, which made its first-ever appearance in the Hockey East final and its first trip to the NCAA tournament.

The Bad: For all the great things Merrimack did, the Warriors don’t have the hardware to show for it. Despite a strong showing in the league final, the Warriors fell short of toppling BC, and were surprisingly bounced in the first round of the NCAAs by a Notre Dame team that didn’t seem to be much of a threat until it scored in overtime. A knee injury to Da Costa disrupted the Warriors’ stretch run, and they clearly suffered from not having Chris Barton after an injury knocked him out of the Hockey East semifinal and final.

The Future: The trouble with a breakout year is that it’s often followed by a step-back season, and 2011-12 might be just that for the Warriors, who lost Da Costa early to the pros, compounding the loss of Barton and senior Joe Cucci, the other two of the top three scorers this season. Coach Mark Dennehy (Dorchester, Mass.) stressed that his team wasn’t just the Stephane Da Costa show this year. Next season, he’ll have to prove it.

NEW HAMPSHIRE

The Good: The Wildcats were strong all season, finishing second in the regular season and dispatching Vermont in the quarterfinals. They were also the only one of the three Hockey East teams in the NCAAs to advance past the first round, upsetting Miami. The line of Paul Thompson (Derry, N.H.), Mike Sislo and Phil DeSimone was arguably the best in the country, accounting for a combined 141 points — almost 40 percent of the team’s total scoring. Goaltender Matt DiGirolamo had a breakout year, notching a 2.44 goals-against average and .923 save percentage while playing all but 15:37 of the minutes in net.

The Bad: Stop us if you’ve heard this one: The Wildcats were top-notch throughout the regular season but faltered down the stretch and imploded in the playoffs. UNH lost the regular-season title to BC on the final night of the season, got manhandled in the semifinals by Merrimack and couldn’t advance out of the NCAA regionals. And until the last few weeks of the season, the Thompson-Sislo-DeSimone line was pretty much the only one producing on a regular basis.

The Future: That fantastic top line walks out the door at graduation this spring, but the losses are minimal after that. Junior defenseman Blake Kessel was the next best scorer on the team, so some of the forwards will be asked to step it up next season. Freshman Kevin Goumas showed some promise throughout the year, and junior Stevie Moses can impress with his speed and knack for the net.

NORTHEASTERN

The Good: The Huskies were the only road team to advance past the league quarterfinals, bouncing BU in three games before running into BC in the semifinals. And although it’s a defeat in the record books, the Huskies came the closest to ending their 23-year Beanpot drought as they have been in a very long time, dropping a thriller against BC in February. Sophomore goaltender Chris Rawlings showed maturity and growth in his second year, and has a firm grasp on the starter’s job going forward. Wade MacLeod’s 45 points led the team.

The Bad: A recruiting violation led to the suspension of head coach Greg Cronin (Arlington, Mass.) and assistant Albie O’Connell (Watertown, Mass.)for the final six games of the regular season, disrupting the team’s chemistry as it jockeyed for playoff position. The Huskies won back-to-back games just four times all season, and on two of those occasions, one of the opponents was non-league Harvard. That lack of consistency was evident even in the playoffs, where they beat BU 4-2 on the first night, only to lose 5-2 the next night.

The Future: Rawlings is the big star now, particularly after freshman forward Brodie Reid opted out of his final three years to pursue a pro career. Reid was the fourth-leading scorer, and all three players ahead of him were seniors, leaving some serious offensive holes to fill next season. Anthony Bitetto was the only one of the remaining players to score 20 points, and Mike McLaughlin the only one to reach double-digit goals. The hard-checking style Cronin’s teams play should offset some of the looses on the attack until the returners get things figured out.

PROVIDENCE

The Good: It would be pithy to write “not being Lowell” here but not necessarily inaccurate. The Friars had some flashes of good play during the year but never stitched those scraps together to generate any momentum. They did grab two (of a total of four) wins against Merrimack, but having the Warriors’ number was one of the only highlights for the season.

The Bad: We could go on for a while, here, from the lack of any scorers with more than 24 points to the subpar third year from goalie Alex Beaudry. The Friars were technically in the playoff chase until the final weekend but never showed any sign of being a very viable threat to anyone (other than, oddly, Merrimack). The math all added up to an eight-win season and the end of former Friar Tim Army’s tenure behind the bench, closing the book on a six-year stint during which the Friars went 66-116-28.

The Future: The Friars hired Union’s Nate Leaman, the Spencer Penrose winner as national coach of the year, to replace Army (Providence, Mass.). Leaman will have a lot of building to do, including replacing four of the top five scorers. If Beaudry can return to form for his senior year, the Friars may have the talent to play a low-scoring style and steal some wins, but it seems that much like Lowell, the sunnier days are still a few years away.

VERMONT

The Good: The Catamounts made the playoffs, which after a season full of turmoil is a testament to the way the team came together. Sophomore Sebastian Stalberg may not be on the torrid pace of his brother Viktor, now in the NHL, but he led the team in scoring with nine goals and 19 assists. Fellow sophomore Chris McCarthy also contributed with eight goals and 12 assists. Rob Madore was solid in his junior season, compiling a 2.98 GAA and .907 save percentage.

The Bad: The parade of Catamounts leaving the program early for one reason or another continued this season, with sophomore David Pacan dismissed before the season started and senior Wahsontiio Stacey left the team in January, when he was Vermont’s leading scorer. UVM slid into the playoffs with just one win in its final seven games, only to be swept by UNH in the quarterfinals.

The Future: Provided the exodus doesn’t continue with any big names, the Catamounts are actually in decent shape personnel-wise for next season. Madore is the anchor of the team, and his consistency suggests he’ll be one of the league’s best between the pipes. Jack Downing was the only senior in the top six in scoring, and the already-departed Stacey was No. 7. That level of scoring depth should allow for a few more points and the start of the crawl out of Vermont’s worst season in seven years.

Andrew Merritt can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com