December 29, 2011

Hockey East Journal: Grading the teams on their first halves

By Andrew Merritt

The Hockey East season kicks back into gear this weekend, with nine of the league’s 10 teams in action. But before the holiday break gives way to the frenetic second half of the season, it’s time for some midterm grades. Oh sure, the student-athletes already took their finals for the fall semester, but as far as we’re concerned, we’re only halfway there.

Without further ado, let’s look at the report card. 

Merrimack's Jesse Todd (photo: Merrimack College Athletics)

Merrimack's Jesse Todd (photo: Merrimack College Athletics)

Boston College – A. The Eagles may not have been at their best throughout the first half, but other than a few somewhat noteworthy blemishes they’ve been the most consistently solid team in the league. They’ve made their bones most on offense, where they lead the league in scoring 3.61 goals per game, and junior Chris Kreider (Boxford, Mass.) is tied for the league lead in points (23).

Boston University – A-minus. The Terriers’ four league losses came against three of the best teams in the league (BC, UMass-Lowell and Merrimack) plus a Providence team that’s sniffing around a high playoff position. They’re third in the league with 3.38 goals scored per game and, until the weekend of Dec. 10, looked ready to challenge rival BC for the conference’s top spot. Then the wheels came off, starting with the arrest and dismissal of leading scorer Corey Trivino, followed by Weymouth, Mass., native Charlie Coyle’s defection to Canadian major junior hockey. Suddenly, surging BU is in a big hole after a great first half.

Maine – C-plus. It’s been an up-and-down season for the Black Bears, who slid through a five-game winless stretch against league teams in early November. They’ve shown some signs of promise, however, including an impressive tie earned at North Dakota on Oct. 15. They’re in the lower half of the league in most statistical categories, but they’ve shined on the power play, with a league-leading 24.3 percent success rate. Spencer Abbott leads the league in scoring.

UMass – D. Success has come in brief but notable spurts for the Minutemen, who rattled off three straight wins against BC, Holy Cross and Northeastern, and ended the first half with a win over Yale. Other than those victories, though, it’s been a down year in Amherst, with just two league wins so far. Springfield, Mass., native TJ Syner is tied for fourth in the league with 20 points, and West Haven, Conn., native Michael Pereira is tied for ninth with 17 (with teammate Connor Sheary one point behind), but it hasn’t been enough with a defense coughing up 3.31 goals per game.

UMass-Lowell – A-minus. The River Hawks aren’t getting a lot of love nationally, but they’ve quietly become one of the top teams in the league, firing off five straight wins (four against Hockey East teams) before Northeastern stopped them right before Christmas. They enter 2012 sitting fourth in the league, and they’re trending upward. Sophomore goaltender Doug Carr is second only to Merrimack’s Joe Cannata (Wakefield, Mass.) in the league in goals against (1.82) and save percentage (.934), and has been central to the surge by a team with no players inside the top 14 in league scoring.

Merrimack – A-minus. For the first time in the program’s history, the Warriors were ranked No. 1 in the nation in November, a two-week stretch at Thanksgiving that came at the end of their season-opening 10-game unbeaten streak. They went 1-3-1 in a December cool-off, and some injuries have slowed their momentum. Still, they’re among the league’s elite, made even more remarkable by the fact that they have the second-worst offense in Hockey East, averaging 2.93 goals per game. It helps that their defense is the league’s best by a mile, led by goaltender Cannata in his finest season.

New Hampshire – C-minus. The Wildcats took a while to get untracked at the start of the year, and it turned out that their four-game winning streak that started at the end of October seems to have been an aberration, not a trend. They’ve done well on one end of the ice, scoring 3.35 goals per game (fourth in Hockey East), but they’ve been woeful on the other end, allowing a second-worst 3.41 goals per game. Senior goaltender Matt DiGirolamo has fallen short of expectations, for sure, but he’s not getting a lot of help, either, seeing the third-most shots allowed by any Hockey East team (502).

Northeastern – B. The start of Jim Madigan’s (Milton, Mass.) first year behind the bench wasn’t ideal, with the Huskies going 1-7-2 through their first 10 games. But things are starting to click on Huntington Ave., and Northeastern hit the Christmas break on a six-game win streak that included a 9-2 pounding of Notre Dame at South Bend. They’re largely doing it with defense, and goaltender Chris Rawlings is rounding into form after a shaky start that mirrored the team’s.

Providence – B-minus. The Friars for the first time in many years had people taking notice early in the season, winning six of their first 10. They lost four of the six games since, but still swept Merrimack in a two-game set just before the break. Overall, they’re the most solid special teams squad in the league, sitting third in power play (19.8) and penalty kill (85.7) percentages. Even more impressively, they’ve done it despite having no players inside the top 20 in league scoring – Tim Schaller (Merrimack, N.H.) is tied for 30th with 13 points.

Vermont – F. Nothing has gone right in Burlington this year, and the Catamounts are dead last on offense (2.25 goals per game) and defense (4.12 goals allowed). Other than Sebastian Stalberg, who’s tied for 15th in scoring with 15 points, there haven’t been a lot of bright spots at UVM. The Catamounts’ only league win came against a struggling UMass team, and they’ve been outscored by their opponents 66-36 this year.

Game of the Week

Boston University at Notre Dame, Saturday

The No. 9 Terriers enter the new year with some serious issues, and although they would have been playing this game without the World Junior Championship-occupied Coyle anyway, it’s their first game without the departed Coyle and the dismissed Corey Trivino.

Hockey East power rankings

1. Boston College (12-6-0, 9-4-0 Hockey East) – The Eagles play the stiffest holiday tournament competition of any league team, squaring off with Michigan Thursday night and then seeing either Michigan State or Michigan Tech Friday in the Great Lakes Invitational

2. Merrimack (10-3-2, 7-2-1)
 – The Warriors head to Hanover, N.H., for the Dartmouth-hosted Ledyard National Bank Classic, playing St. Lawrence Friday and either Dartmouth or Holy Cross on Saturday.

3. UMass-Lowell (10-5-0, 7-4-0) – UML heads to Connecticut for the UConn Hockey Classic, and squares off against RPI Thursday to set up a clash with either the host Huskies or Army on Friday.

4. Boston University (10-5-1, 8-4-1)
 – With a lot of figuring out to do following two major departures, the Terriers head to South Bend for a New Year’s Eve date with Notre Dame.

5. Northeastern (7-7-2, 4-7-2)
 – It’s the wilds of Minnesota for the Huskies, who play Princeton Friday in the first round of the Mariucci Classic, followed by either host Minnesota or Niagara on Saturday.

6. Providence (8-7-1, 6-4-0) – The Friars stick around for the weekend and, while their New Year’s Day game won’t help or hurt them in the standings, it’s all about local pride – and the Mayor’s Cup – against Brown on Sunday.

7. Maine (6-7-2, 5-6-1)
 – The Black Bears head to sunny Florida for the Florida College Classic, a tournament they won just two years ago. They’ve got Clarkson Thursday, and UMass or Cornell on Friday.

8. New Hampshire (6-9-2, 4-7-1)
 – UNH hosts Brown on Friday in one of the only non-tournament games of the weekend. They’re 20-13-2 all-time against the Bears, and tied them in the only meeting last year.

9. UMass (5-7-4, 2-6-3) – The Minutemen may end up going an awful long way to play a Hockey East foe on Friday. First, they’ve got Cornell in the Florida College Classic, and then match up with either Clarkson or Maine on Friday.

10. Vermont (3-12-1, 1-9-1) – UVM took it on the chin from a talented Russian Red Stars team in an exhibition Tuesday, and get back to games that count with the Catamount Cup against Lake Superior Thursday and Ferris State Friday.

Andrew Merritt can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.