By Andrew Merritt
Of all the ingredients in the recipes for success used by the better Hockey East teams this year, there’s one common one: Goaltending.
Put simply: The top five goaltenders in the league, by save percentage, play for four of the top five teams in the league. Connor Hellebuyck (No. 1, .946) and Hanover, Mass., native Doug Carr (No. 5, .930) rotate in net for fifth-place UMass-Lowell, while Clay Witt (No. 2 .943) has keyed second-place Northeastern’s resurgence, South Portland, Maine, native Jon Gillies (No. 3, .936) continues to shine for third-place Providence, and Martin Ouellette (No. 4, .933) has led an improved Maine team to fourth place.
Only first-place Boston College, whose Brian Billett (Brunswick, Maine) is eighth with a .920, doesn’t fall in that category, thanks to the Eagles’ near-unstoppable offense.
Vermont, which struggled to a seventh-place finish last year, is a clearly improved team in 2013-14, and while the Catamounts are in seventh right now, they’re only two points behind sixth-place New Hampshire and five points behind the third-place Friars as the Hockey East standings continue to be a logjam in the middle.
A big reason for the steadier waters in Burlington is the goaltending situation. Last year, Brody Hoffman was the only freshman goalie in the league to play every game for his team, and by the end of the season, it showed. Hoffman’s solid start, which saw him carry a .913 save percentage into the Christmas break, gave way to a sluggish finish as the rookie showed signs of wear and tear.
“Brody, there were times where he needed a rest, or just a mental night off, and we just didn’t feel we had that when we were a club that was trying to eke out wins last year,” UVM coach Kevin Sneddon said after his team’s 4-1 win over Northeastern on Saturday, Jan. 18.
Sneddon and the Catamounts brought in freshman Mike Santaguida this year, but it was expected Hoffman would still hold the No. 1 spot as a sophomore. That all changed when Hoffman suffered an injury at the start of the year, and missed the first five games.
The door was open for Santaguida, a Mississauga, Ont., native who was named the British Columbia Hockey League’s top goaltender in 2013 after leading the league in save percentage (.932) and goals against average (2.28), and taking the Surrey Eagles to the inaugural Western Canada Cup title.
Santaguida’s debut, a 5-3 loss to North Dakota, was the first and last time he’s allowed more than three goals in a game. After that inauspicious opener, the freshman settled in and found some comfort in net.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity, it’s unfortunate that [Hoffman’s injury] happened early on, but that experience definitely got me real comfortable early on in the season instead of a game every five,” Santaguida said after stopping 23 Northeastern shots in Saturday’s victory. “Getting thrown right in the fire, that helped right off the bat, and it’s definitely paying off right now.”
“With Hoff’s injury early on, we got Santa some really good minutes, we got some excellent teams early on,” Sneddon said. “We were able to see him, and see how he was progressing.”
Santaguida posted his first career shutout on Nov. 24 against UMass, and while his numbers (.919 save percentage, 2.34 GAA) aren’t among the league’s best, his effect on his team has been obvious. Where Hoffman was the go-to guy whether he liked it or not last year, now the two young netminders are in a steady every-other-game rotation. Hoffman is slated to start Friday’s game at BU, and Santaguida will likely jump back in for Saturday’s rematch at Agganis Arena.
UVM is one of a handful of Hockey East teams using a goalie rotation. In the case of UMass-Lowell, it’s helped keep Hellebuyck and Carr fresh as the River Hawks try to defend their 2013 Hockey East title. At BU, sophomores Matt O’Connor (15 games, .919) and Sean Maguire (10 games, .918) have been good, if unable to do anything about the Terriers’ massive scoring woes.
At Merrimack, Rasmus Tirronen and Sam Marotta split time for the first third of the season, but Tirronen has taken over as the No. 1 since late November.
Sneddon knows he may have to make a similar choice regarding his two goaltenders at some point.
“We feel confident with both guys right now. Down the stretch do we need to make a decision one way or another? Possibly. But right now I think they’re playing very good hockey.”
Player of the Week
Kevin Hayes, sr., Boston College
The Dorchester, Mass., native’s breakout season continued with a seven-point weekend against BU and Maine, including a hat trick with two assists against the Black Bears. He also scored in Tuesday’s win over Merrimack, and is riding an 11-game point streak.
Games of the Week
Providence vs. UMass-Lowell, Friday and Saturday, Jan. 24-25
Two of the league’s former also-rans, the Friars and River Hawks have become powers, and will play a home-and-home starting Friday in Providence with only two points separating third-place Providence from fifth-place Lowell. The Friars have a little extra incentive in the form of revenge, as the River Hawks ended PC’s season in last year’s Hockey East semifinals.
Hockey East power rankings