December 21, 2012

Hockey East Journal: Handing out midterm grades

By Andrew Merritt

UNH's Casey DeSmith has been Hockey East's top netminder so far this season. (Dave Arnold Photography)

T’was a few days before Christmas, and all through the land, college students headed homeward, for the holiday break was at hand.

No, we’re not really going to do a whole hockey-themed rendition of Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, though the NHL’s prolonged and frustrating lockout has made us almost crazy enough to seriously consider it. But the break is upon us – there will be no college hockey around these parts until the end of December, so while the players finished their finals this week or last, we’re only midway through the season, and that means it’s time for Hockey East midterm grades.

There’s a heck of a lot still to be settled over the final three months of the season, so before we get to the fast and furious fight to the finish in New England’s top college league, let’s take stock of Hockey East’s 10 teams at the unofficial halfway mark of the season.

Boston College (A) – The top-ranked Eagles have done just about everything right this season, to the point that the few blemishes – a season-opening loss to Northeastern and a tie with Providence with Jerry York’s sole claim on the all-time coaching wins record on the line among them – have been somewhat shocking. But BC is scoring at a 3.57 goal-per-game clip (second best in the league) and the defense is third-best with 2.29 goals allowed per contest. It seems that the reigning champs might have some real challengers this year, but for now they’re still at the top of the heap, with Johnny Gaudreau and captain Pat Mullane (Wallingford, Conn.) leading the way.

Boston University (A-minus) – There have been years when an 8-4-0 league record at the break would be good for first place, but this year it’s only good enough to put the Terriers third. Still, they’re ranked sixth in the nation, with Cason Hohmann and Wade Megan among the league’s scoring leaders and freshman goaltender Matt O’Connor has proven a fine No. 1 with the league’s second-best save percentage (.931) and fourth-best goals against average (2.22).

Maine (F) – There’s no two ways about it: This is one of the worst seasons in the Black Bears’ storied history. The 1982-83 team, which finished 5-24-0, was 1-14-0 record through 15 games – the last time a Maine team was this far in the hole – outside of the 1992-93 team’s 6-29-1 record due to forfeits because of an ineligible player. The offense is dead last with 1.33 goals scored per game, while the defense has managed to be seventh in Hockey East with a 2.80 goals allowed per game average.

UMass (C) – The Minutemen have been inconsistent at best this year, having not yet put two back-to-back wins together. They do have wins over New Hampshire and Providence that look better and better each week, but they’ve hit the break among a glut of middling teams, tied with Merrimack for sixth place with nine points. Leading scorer Branden Gracel is eighth in the league with 7-6–13 totals, and Conor Allen is tied for third among the league’s defensemen with 4-6–10.

UMass-Lowell (C-minus) – The River Hawks’ follow up to the stunning 2011-12 debut of coach Norm Bazin has been a bit of a disappointment, with a 2-5-1 start putting them in a bit of a hole. They’ve won four of their last six, but still enter the break tied for eighth. Scoring woes have been the main culprit, as UML is seventh in the league with 2.50 goals scored per game, and there are no River Hawks in the top 15 in scoring. Defensively, they’re also allowing 2.50 goals per game.

Merrimack (C-plus) - Neither Rasmus Tirronen nor Sam Marotta have proven a complete replacement for Joe Cannata in goal, and that’s one of the reasons the Warriors are stuck in the middle of the pack. They’re also not scoring at a great clip, though their 2.75 goals per game has them competitive with the four league teams ahead of them, and Boston native Mike Collins is tied for third in Hockey East with 19 points thus far. A 4-3-1 start was tempered by a five-game winless streak in an up-and-down season so far.

New Hampshire (A) – A year after finishing 15-19-3 overall, the Wildcats have completely turned around and become one of the best teams in the country. Ranked one spot behind Boston College, they’re actually outscoring the Eagles with 3.60 goals per game, and the defense has been simply sublime, allowing 1.80 goals per game thanks in large part to Casey DeSmith (Rochester, N.H.), who leads the league’s goaltenders in goals against (1.82) and save percentage (.939). Up front, Kevin Goumas is currently the league’s scoring leader with 24 points, having dished out 16 assists – also a league high.

Northeastern (D) – It’s been a lot of one step forward, two steps back for the Huskies, who opened with a pair of wins over Merrimack and Boston College, followed with a four-game winless streak, swept Alabama-Huntsville, then went 1-5-0 over their last six. They’re not scoring a great deal (2.00 goals per game), nor are they preventing a great many goals (2.80 allowed per game), and have been adept at strong starts (15 first-period goals) with a penchant for sluggish finishes (15 goals combined in the second and third period).

Providence (B-plus) – The jury’s still out on where Providence fits in the picture this year – are the Friars merely the best of the middle of the pack, or do they belong with the three elite teams in the league? Either way, if the season ended now, they’d be hosting a quarterfinal series for the first time since 2003, and just two years removed from not being in the postseason picture at all. It’s been all about the defense, which is allowing the second-fewest goals per game in the league, sparked by the strong debut of freshman goaltender Jon Gillies (South Portland, Maine), owner of the second-best GAA (1.95) and third-best save percentage (.928).

Vermont (C-plus) – It’s been an inconsistent season for the Catamounts, but they’re in better shape than last season, with one more win and a much better standing (fifth) than at this time last year, when they were dead last. Vermont hasn’t been terribly good at any particular thing, with the league’s third-worst offense and second-worst defense, but the Cats have been opportunistic and stubborn, with their four draws, all in league play, helping the point total.

Player of the Week

Kyle Reynolds, so., Vermont

Reynolds led the Catamounts to a 5-2 victory over St. Lawrence on Dec. 15 with a goal and two assists, and added another helper on the goal that capped UVM’s dramatic comeback to tie Providence 4-4 on Thursday.

Game of the Week

Boston College vs. Alabama-Huntsville, Dec. 29, 4 p.m. (Central)

No, it’s not a rivalry game. But with Alabama-Huntsville in possession of only three wins – just one against a Division 1 team – it’s almost a foregone conclusion that BC coach Jerry York will earn his 925th win in this opening game of the Mariucci Classic in Minneapolis. That will make him the winningest coach in college hockey history.

Power Rankings

  1. Boston College (11-2-1, 9-2-1 HEA) – If the Eagles do, in fact, hand York his 925th victory on Dec. 29 against Alabama-Huntsville, it will come just over 40 years after he picked up his first head coaching victory, at Clarkson.

  2. New Hampshire (11-2-2, 8-2-1 HEA) – The No. 2 Wildcats are off until Dec. 30, when they play host Dartmouth in the Ledyard Bank Classic. They’ll see either Bemidji State or UMass the next day.

  3. Boston University (10-5-0, 8-4-0 HEA) – The Terriers next play at Denver in the Hall of Fame Game on Dec. 29.

  4. Providence (7-6-3, 5-4-2 HEA) – The Friars are off until Jan. 4, when they’ll play the first of a pair of games at Minnesota State.

  5. Merrimack (6-7-3, 4-4-1 HEA) – Merrimack’s 18-day layoff ends Dec. 29 with the Catamount Cup, in which they’ll play Princeton and then Union on Dec. 30.

  6. UMass-Lowell (4-7-1, 2-6-1 HEA) – UML hosts Bentley on Dec. 30, with a two-game winning streak and a 3-1-0 non-conference record at stake.

  7. Vermont (3-8-3, 3-5-3 HEA) – The Catamounts made the most of being one of the last teams to start the holiday break, beating St. Lawrence and tying Providence. Now, they’re off until Dec. 29’s game against Union in their home tournament, the Catamount Cup, which gives them the shortest break of any Hockey East team.

  8. Northeastern (5-9-1, 3-8-1 HEA) – The Huskies look to snap a two-game losing streak when they get back to action Dec. 29 at Harvard.

  9. UMass (5-9-2, 4-6-1 HEA) – The Minutemen are sitting on three straight losses, and will look to end that slide at the Ledyard Bank Classic in New Hampshire, starting with Bemidji State on Dec. 30.

  10. Maine (2-11-2, 1-7-2 HEA) – It’s gone from bad to worse, as sophomore John Parker, who’s been out all year with an injury, was dismissed for alcohol-related violation of team rules. The Black Bears play in the Florida College Classic starting Dec. 28 against Minnesota-Duluth.

Andrew Merritt can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @A_Merritt.