Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Hockey East First Semester Report Card

The first semester is over, which means the first half of the Hockey East season has come to a conclusion. The second half always separates the pretenders from the contenders, but here is a look at how each team, position-by-position, including coaching staffs, would be graded at the mid-way point.

The grades will be listed in order of standings, not necessarily by highest to lowest grades. There is a discrepancy in terms of games played so conference standings are always skewed a little this time of year.

1. Boston College

The Eagles come in with high regard. They are winners of three of the last five national championships. Countless recent alums are in the NHL. Head coach Jerry York is one win away from holding the record for most career coaching wins all by himself.

The offense boasts two of the most prolific lines in Division I, including the incredible first line of Johnny Gaudreau, Pat Mullane and Steven Whitney. The second line is led by Kevin Hayes and Bill Arnold. The offense would receive even higher marks if not for a lack of scoring depth. The third and fourth lines have not even really broken the scoring sheet.

The defense has been very solid, even after losing Brian Dumoulin, Tommy Cross and Edwin Shea from last year's team. Freshman Michael Matheson is one of the best rookie defenders in the NCAA. Patrick Wey, Teddy Doherty, Patch Alber, Isaac McLeod and Colin Sullivan have all played in every game, as well.

Parker Milner has been the only goaltender to see any action. He has posted very respectable numbers, but has let in some soft goals that he would like to have back. Yet, his numbers from the end of last season and the beginning of this year are off the charts. 

What can be said about this coaching staff that has not already been said? Not much, but to re-affirm the notion that there is no better staff in the country. Jerry York  tied Ron Mason for most wins all-time earlier this month and lays claim to 5 NCAA Championships and numerous Hockey East Regular Season and Tournament Championships. The Eagles usually soar highest down the stretch so no reason to believe this team won't be even better.

Offense: A

Defense: A

Goaltending: A-

Coaching: A

Overall: A

2. New Hampshire

The Wildcats program has been remarkably consistent over the past two decades since Dick Umile took over and got the ball rolling. Multiple runs of 20+ wins seasons and NCAA Tournament appearances has highlighted the past two decades. The one thing missing has been that elusive national title. No one is predicting one this season, but UNH fans have to be pleasantly surprised with a number one ranking, even if only for one week, following last year's out of character 6th place finish.

The offense has been led by Kevin Goumas with eight goals and 16 assists. Grayson Downing, Austin Block, Nick Sorkin, John Henrion, Dalton Speelman and Greg Burke round out an offense that is capable of scoring from different lines.

The defense is led by two multi-dimensional players in Trevor van Riemsdyk and Connor Hardowa. The rest of the defense has been steady for the most part. The one area of concern is the periodic lapses on the back end.

The goaltending has been sensational. Casey DeSmith already has four shutouts on the season, boasting a .939 save percentage to go with his 1.82 GAA. In the one weekend where he struggled, backup Jeff Wyer came on in relief to backstop a win at Denver.

Dick Umile has to get credit for engineering the turnaround this season with largely the same cast as a year ago. His critics point to the lack of hardware, but in reality he has run a consistently good NCAA Tournament caliber team year after year, and this year looks no different.

Offense: A

Defense: A

Goaltending: A

Coaching: A

Overall: A

3. Boston University

The Terriers have gotten off to an acceptable start, considering the youth of the squad, especially in goal. Both freshmen goaltenders have had a rocky outing, but both have showed they are capable of leading BU well into March.

The offense has been led by Cason Hohmann and Wade Megan. When watching the Terriers skate, one can easily notice the skill of the forwards. Look for Danny O'Regan, Evan Rodrigues or Matt Nieto to pick their game up a level in the second half.

The defense has been led by sensational freshman Matt Grzelcyk. The Charlestown native and Boston Bruins draft pick has been solid at both ends of the ice, and is currently third in the team scoring list with two goals and ten assists. Garrett Noonan's play has been solid as well, earning the respect of his coaching staff to give him an "A" on his sweater.

Freshmen goaltenders Matt O'Connor and Sean Maguire have .931 and .930 save percentages, respectively. As long as they do not hit a wall, the Terriers are in good hands between the pipes.

Jack Parker's team has faced a tough early season schedule, two at North Dakota, three with BC and two with UNH. He has guided them through that stretch and has an overall winning percentage of .667. BU has been known to have a little spark in their steps come Beanpot time. Look for an even better grade report come the end of the season.

Offense: B

Defense: B+

Goaltending: B+

Coaching: B

Overall: B+

4. Providence

Nate Leaman's club is a very young, freshman-laden group. The Friars program is certainly heading in the right direction with one of the best regarded "up and coming" coaches in the nation.

Freshman goaltender Jon Gillies certainly deserves the highest marks, coming in with a .928 save percentage. The Calgary draft pick is currently off at the World Juniors. Leaman will look to the South Portland, ME native to ride throughout the second half.

Up front, the offense doesn't have a point per game producer, but the scoring by committee approach has worked fairly well so far, averaging just under three goals per game. Junior Derek Army and senior Tim Schaller currently are tied for the team lead with 11 points. However, if PC is going to keep home ice, they must have their most talented players - albeit freshmen - step up. Mark Jankowski, Paul de Jersey and Noel Acciari are the rookie trio who have potential to carry this program to the next level.

The defense certainly has its holes, but freshman John Gilmour has been a steadying force on the blueline. Senior Alex Velischek has been consistent as well, but some of the other upperclassmen have been mistake prone.

Nate Leaman is trying to re-build this once proud program back to where it was in the 1980s under Lou Lamoriello. He has a long way to go, but with his current crop of freshmen he is certainly making good progress. After leading PC to a quarterfinals upset last year, he has done a good job of steering the team in the right direction this fall.

Offense: B

Defense: B-

Goaltending: A

Coaching: A-

Overall: B+

5. Vermont

Vermont is off to a better start than a year ago, but that is not saying much. The Catamounts are still struggling to score goals, but have eked out some wins by playing strong defense and getting above average goaltending from freshman Brody Hoffman.

The offense has started to come around the last two games, scoring five against St. Lawrence and four at Providence. Up front, UVM will get a boost when Connor Brickley and Colin Markison return from injury, which could happen in the next few weeks. Chris McCarthy currently leads the team in scoring with 13 points.

The defense is young with two freshmen getting significant minutes and only one senior dressing. UVM really tries to clog the neutral zone and keep chances to the outside. It is certainly a recipe for boring hockey, but the defense has tightened up significantly compared to a season ago.

Freshman goaltender Brody Hoffman has played well with a .911 save percentage. He replaced Rob Madore, who after a spectacular first couple of years, fell on hard times. The Wilkie, Saskatchewan native could possibly be the key to UVM remaining a playoff caliber team in the second half.

Offense: C-

Defense: C-

Goaltending: B

Coaching: C

Overall: C

T-6: Merrimack

When you think how much talent Merrimack has lost over the past few seasons, it is remarkable for a program of its stature that the Warriors are .500 in conference play at the break. Merrimack's list of losses include Stephane Da Costa, Chris Barton, Joe Cucci, Jesse Todd, Ryan Flanigan and Jeff Velleca on offense and Karl Stollery and Joe Cannata on defense and in goal. So Merrimack's standing is really a testament to the coaching ability of Mark Dennehy.

Mike Collins has been the spark on offense with nine goals and ten assists. Josh Myers got off to a hot start, but has cooled down. The offense will need some other guys to step up in order to keep the three goals-a-game pace.

The defense has stepped up into the offense nicely. Second year captain and junior Jordan Heywood is tied for second on the team with nine points. However, he has made some uncharacteristically bad turnovers and mistakes. Along with him, Brendan Ellis, Kyle Bigos and Dan Kolomatis, the Warrior defense certainly is capable of holding down the fort.

Both goaltenders have had their highs and lows, but overall Rasmus Tirronen and Sam Marotta have done admirably well in replacing program leader Joe Cannata in net. Warrior fans should be confident that one or both can get the job done in the second half.

The coaching staff deserves a ton of credit for keeping the Warriors in the thick of the home ice race, especially with all the talent that left North Andover. Mark Dennehy used a lot of the non-conference games to experiment and see what worked and what didn't. Merrimack's second half is tough, but with Dennehy in the mix, that gives the Warriors an edge over some of their nearest competitors.

Offense: B

Defense: B-

Goaltending: B

Coaching: A-

Overall: B

T-6: UMass-Amherst

The Minutemen have been extremely inconsistent, being one of only two teams to knock off New Hampshire, yet losing some games that are inexplicable. First year coach John Micheletto's team is a tough read right now based on the performance of the last few weeks.

Up front, Branden Gracel, Rocco Carzo and Steven Guzzo are three top scorers, which would have been mind boggling to consider going into the season. While those three have emerged, Conor Sheary and Michael Pereira have regressed so far this year. If all five can get on track, the Minutemen might have something cooking.

Defensively, Conor Allen is one of the better blueliners in the league with four goals and six assists. Joel Hanley has also been a steadying presence with three goals and six assists. 

Goaltending is the biggest question mark, heading into the season. Sophomore Kevin Boyle emerged as the clear cut number one after the first month and a half, but the past four games have been disastrous. The success or failure of the second half could hinge on the play of Boyle.

Coaching is difficult to judge after only a few months, but Micheletto has proven he can get his teams up for the big games, judging on close calls with BC and upset win over UNH. However, bad losses to Colgate and this current stretch where the team is 1-4-1 leaves more questions than answers.

Offense: B-

Defense: B

Goaltending: C+

Coaching: C

Overall: C

T-8. UMass-Lowell

The River Hawks got off to a brutal start, in part due to a brutal early season schedule that included three games against UNH and two against BC. A trip out west to face perennially strong Colorado College and Denver didn't help.

Up front, it was clear the loss of Matt Ferreira and David Vallorani was more crucial than a lot of people expected. It took a while for Scott Wilson to rebound into last year's form. The Penguins draft pick will need to continue his climb up the scoring charts. Riley Wetmore and Derek Arnold have also gotten off to disappointing starts while Joseph Pendenza and Josh Holmstrom have been pleasant surprises.

The defense has been the biggest issue so far, albeit against tough competition. UML will have to clamp down on the blueline and avoid the costly turnovers and undisciplined play that hurt in the first half.

Doug Carr has also been a disappointment in net for Norm Bazin's club. The junior, coming off an unbelievable sophomore campaign, has a .893 save percentage in conference games. Freshman Connor Hellebuyck has a .939 save percentage and two shutouts in a row going into the break. Expect Carr to be pushed by the rookie and the goaltending to improve dramatically in the second half.

Bazin and the coaching staff had to battle a tough schedule and has gotten UML through it without being too far down to recover. An easier second half schedule and games in hand should help UML climb right up the standings in the second half. A sixth place finish should be the worst UML does.

Offense: C

Defense: C+

Goaltending: B-

Coaching: B-

Overall: C+

T-8. Northeastern

The Huskies started off 2-0 with home wins over Merrimack and top ranked Boston College. It has been all downhill since then, including a goaltending controversy, players leaving the program and recruits de-committing to go with the ugly record on the ice.

Up front, freshman Kevin Roy is the lone bright spot with seven goals and six assists. Vinny Saponari is second with 11 points and Ludwig Karlsson has piped in five goals. Other than that, the offense has a serious lack of depth, which will only increase with the departure of Joseph Manno and Cam Darcy.

Defensively, the Huskies are very weak, turnover-prone and lacking in Hockey East level talent on the blueline. The only defender that would be coveted by other league teams is Colton Saucerman.

In goal, Chris Rawlings and Bryan Mountain have respectable statistics with .924 and .918 save percentages, respectively. However, that doesn't begin to tell the story. The pair have given up some seriously soft goals which has killed momentum and deflated the team.

Jim Madigan's stock is dropping by the day. The former Huskies player was out of coaching for nearly two decades, having worked in the Development Office at NU and doing some scouting. He might still have an eye for talent, but he clearly cannot develop talent or grasp the x's and o's necessary to coach in this league. The players leaving school and recruits de-committing, both show this theory is widely accepted throughout hockey circles.

Offense: D-

Defense: D+

Goaltending: C

Coaching: D-

Overall: D+

10. Maine

The Black Bears are off to one of the worst starts in school history in almost every possible category, whether it is wins or losses overall, conference record or home record.

The offense clearly misses the departed Brian Flynn and Spencer Abbott as well as Matt Mangene. Joey Diamond, Mark Anthoine, and Kyle Beattie are better players than their numbers currently indicate. Injuries have also hurt the Black Bears. Devin Shore leads the offense with a goal and six assists for seven points. Fellow freshmen Will Merchant and Ryan Lomberg have shown flashes of skill, but haven't yet gained the knack for finding the back of the net.

The defense has given up 30 shots a game, a troubling statistic to be sure, but the blame cannot be placed solely on the blueliners. The Maine defense ranks 7th in the conference, which would have led to a few more wins had the offense not been so inept. Mark Nemec has been his usual stay-at-home solid presence while freshman Ben Hutton has displayed skill at both ends of the ice. Untimely breakdowns and bad turnovers have led to some odd man rushes for the opposition.

In goal, junior Martin Ouellette has taken over Dan Sullivan's number one job, having come on strong. The Columbus draft pick has a .915 save percentage, and his goals against average is better than either of his cohorts by a goal.

Tim Whitehead's time has come in Orono. It truly is as simple as that. He took over for the legendary Shawn Walsh and with capable assistants like Grant Standbrook, he kept the engine running temporarily. However, he has now shown a clear inability to recruit or manage in game situations without Standbrook. It should be easy to recruit at Maine with the amazing tradition and atmosphere of the Alfond, but he has failed to recruit consistently. Sure, he has recruited some guys who have made it to the pro ranks, but not consistently enough, and the supporting cast just isn't there.

Offense: F

Defense: C

Goaltending: C

Coaching: F

Overall: D-

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Hockey East First Half Award Winners

These awards are based purely on the first half of the season and how the teams have played to date. This is not a projection of what the awards will look like at the end of the season. The majority of the first half winners will look the same as the year end award winners. However, there are sure to be players who step up and some players who regress in the second half.

The player and coach of the first half were no brainers. Johnny Gaudreau is clearly the most dynamic player in the league and is the catalyst for the best first line in the nation. Dick Umile has turned around a team that struggled last season, leading the boys from Durham to the top ranking in college hockey for a week.

Hockey East Player of the First Half

Johnny Gaudreau, Sophomore forward, Boston College

Hockey East Coach of the First Half

Dick Umile, New Hampshire

Hockey East Rookie of the First Half:

Jon Gillies, Goaltender, Providence College

All-Hockey East First Team

Forward: Johnny Gaudreau, Sophomore, Boston College
Forward: Pat Mullane, Senior, Boston College
Forward: Mike Collins, Junior, Merrimack
Defense: Trevor van Riemsdyk, Sophomore, New Hampshire
Defense: Alex Velischek, Senior, Providence
Goalie: Casey DeSmith, Sophomore, New Hampshire

All-Hockey East Second Team

Forward: Steven Whitney, Senior, Boston College
Forward: Kevin Goumas, Junior, New Hampshire
Forward: Wade Megan, Senior, Boston University
Defense: Garrett Noonan, Junior, Boston University
Defense: Conor Allen, Junior, UMass-Amherst
Goalie: Jon Gillies, Freshman, Providence

Honorable Mention: Scott Wilson, UML, Cason Hohmann, BU, Michael Matheson, BC, Jordan Heywood, MC, Connor Hardowa, UNH, Parker Milner, BC

All-Hockey East Rookie Team

Forward: Kevin Roy, Northeastern
Forward: Danny O'Regan, Boston University
Forward: Devin Shore, Maine
Defense: Matt Grzelcyk, Boston University
Goalie: Jon Gillies, Providence

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Ranking the Hockey East Coaches

These rankings are based on who an athletic director would hire if he could hire any coach in Hockey East at this exact moment.

1. Jerry York (Boston College) - This ranking is fairly simple. Jerry York is older and probably wouldn't coach for very long, but if I was an athletic director and could hire anyone, I'd take the Watertown, MA native even if it was only for a short period of time. York has picked up five NCAA Championships, four at BC and one at Bowling Green. He's produced numerous NHL players and besides the championships, his teams have made countless Frozen Fours.

2. Nate Leaman (Providence) - The former Union bench boss has really turned around the Providence program. Recruiting is up, talent is on the upswing and the team is in fourth place, at the semester break. The 2011 Spencer Penrose Award winner as the best coach in the nation guided Union to success never seen before in that school's history. He is in his second season behind the bench at PC and will bring the Friars to heights not reached since Lou Lamoriello was behind the bench.

3. Mark Dennehy (Merrimack) - The Dorchester native and BC alum is two wins shy of 100 as head coach of the Warriors in seven plus seasons. The last three seasons have seen Merrimack finish 6th, 4th and 5th, including a trip to the NCAA Tournament and an appearance in the Hockey East Finals. It was the first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1988 and it was the first time in school history making the Hockey East Finals. He is a great game manager and has done a solid job of recruiting western Canada, as well as picking up blue chip recruits in Joe Cannata and Stephane Da Costa.

4. Dick Umile (New Hampshire) - The Melrose native has led his alma mater since 1990, leading the Wildcats to 20+ wins in 17 of those seasons. The program reached an all-time high in the late 90s and early part of the 2000s. Umile seemed to reload consistently, alway having a few top notch forwards in each class and then some guys who would step up and fill shoes of the players lost to graduation. He would have been much higher up on these rankings in 2005, but the program has dipped some since, but it is still one of the premier programs in the country.

5. Jack Parker (Boston University) - The former Terrier captain, Parker is leading the Boston University hockey program for the 40th season this year. He has won three national championships, 1978, 1995 and 2009; 21 Beanpot titles and 7 Hockey East Championships. He is further down on the list because he is past his prime, and has to take at least some responsibility for the off ice issues that have maligned the BU program lately. Contrary to his counterpart at the other end of Commonwealth Ave, his performance has dipped significantly in the twilight of his career.

6. Norm Bazin (UMass-Lowell) - The former UMass-Lowell player, Bazin returned to his alma mater in 2011 after a successful stint as the head coach of Division III Hamilton College. He also has experience as an assistant at Lowell and Colorado College. In his first year at UML, the River Hawks went from last place to second place, and won an NCAA Tournament game before bowing out to Union in the East Regional Finals. UML is off to a slow start this season, but has had a brutal early season schedule with 5 games against UNH and BC. Winners of two in a row, this season should get better, and will solidify Bazin's position as an up and coming coach in the league.

7. Tim Whitehead (Maine) - Many Maine fans are calling for Whitehead's dismissal, and probably rightfully so. The once proud program has really fallen on hard times with the exception of last year's team that made it to the Hockey East championship game and the NCAA Tournament. The reason I rank Whitehead higher than the three below him is he has proven that with the right assistants, he can guide his teams to success. It is a tough task to follow such a legend as Shawn Walsh, one of the greatest coaches in the history of the sport. Whitehead did so admirably in the first few seasons following Walsh's untimely passing. He led the Black Bears to the 2002 and 2004 NCAA Finals, before losing in heartbreaking fashion in each. They made one more Frozen Four appearance before the program declined, with longtime Associate Coach Grant Standbrook moving on.

8. Kevin Sneddon (Vermont) - What a difference a few years make. A few years ago, Sneddon was a hot commodity. He had led UVM to the 2009 Frozen Four, and made it to the Hockey East finals the year before and the NCAA Tournament again in 2010. Since then, UVM has fallen on tough times, with a lack of scoring production and a goaltending issue last season. I still think Sneddon's stock could rise again, but for now, he is down on the list. With the team's inability to score again this season, he might have to find a job elsewhere.

9. John Micheletto (UMass-Amherst) - The first year bench boss has previous assistant coaching experience at Notre Dame, Union and most recently UVM. His first year was moving in the right direction until a three game losing streak at the moment. The Dartmouth grad hasn't had enough time to prove his worth, but for now, this ranking seems about right.

10. Jim Madigan (Northeastern) - The Northeastern alum had been out of coaching for nearly two decades when Athletic Director Peter Roby gave him a chance to take over for the departing Greg Cronin, who left for a job as an assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Cronin had guided the Huskies to the NCAA Tournament and two appearances in the Hockey East semifinals, which had been a rare occurrence for the program. Madigan's first squad at NU missed the Hockey East playoffs and this year's team has struggled mightily after a 2-0 start. There have been some mid-season player defections and some recruiting de-commitments that have plagued him in recent months.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Hockey East Power Rankings, December 12, 2012

In coming to my latest power rankings, it is clear the league is going to be divided into three tiers this season. It is often the case that the league finds itself with different levels of teams, and this year is no different. The top three are in a pack all by themselves and all should easily cruise to home ice. The next tier is a group that I think will almost all certainly make the league playoffs and one of the teams will narrowly clinch home ice. Then there is the bottom three teams, who will fight it out for the last playoff spot and the other two will miss the playoffs.

1. Boston College: Jerry York's bid for win 925 was sidetracked by a late Providence rally on Friday night, but the Eagles are still the top team in the league. The first two lines, especially the top line, is extremely dynamic. The only downfall currently is the lack of scoring productivity from the bottom two lines. BC teams under York have tended to progress and improve as the season goes along so expect the kinks to get worked out and the strengths to be emphasized.

2. New Hampshire: The Wildcats lost to BU in their only regular season game of the weekend, but their body of work is still better than that of the Terriers. Plus, UNH beat BU earlier in the season. The Wildcats still have a solid top group offensively, while getting balanced scoring when they need. The defense and goaltending should continue to be a strength for the Wildcats.

3. Boston University: Jack Parker's team picked up all four points on the weekend, knocking off top ranked UNH on the road and shutting out Maine at home. The Terriers proved Saturday night they can still win while not bringing their A game. BU now has two goaltenders who have shown they are capable of taking over a game.

4. Providence: The Friars scored a last minute goal with the goalie pulled to tie Boston College on Friday night, giving PC faithful yet another reason to hope this season is the start of good things on Huxley Ave. Nate Leaman is beginning to stockpile this program with young talent and it will pay dividends in the future.

5. UMass-Lowell: The River Hawks picked up two shutout wins, both with freshman Connor Hellebuyck in net. UML figured to have one of the best goaltenders in the league this year, with Doug Carr returning from a stellar sophomore campaign. Carr hasn't been bad, and certainly isn't to blame for Lowell's struggles in the early going. This team has a much easier schedule in the second half than they did in the first half and will charge up the standings now that Scott Wilson and Riley Wetmore have gotten on track.

6. Merrimack: The Warriors came out flying against Army, an admittedly weaker opponent, but really took it to the Black Knights. Mark Dennehy's squad doesn't have the talent or the superstar of the NCAA tournament team with Da Costa, Cucci and Barton, but Mike Collins leads an offense that can generate puck movement and has skating ability that few Merrimack teams have had. The defense has begun to come together and clamp down. The goaltending has also come together. If this team can learn to be more careful with the puck, eliminating turnovers and bury a few of those chances, they will have a chance to compete for that home ice spot.

7. UMass-Amherst: The Minutemen have lost three straight non-conference games, two to Colgate and one to Yale. The goaltending that had been so sharp early in the season, saw three very rough outings. The offense should be fine, and has more depth than expected. Michael Pereira hasn't really heated up yet, but once he does, it will add some firepower. The trouble with UMass is that the defense and goaltending appear to now be suspect.

8. Northeastern: The Huskies are in full meltdown mode. Players are leaving the program, recruits are de-committing and the team can't win games. If it wasn't for the total ineptitude of the teams below to find any offense, I'd rank NU lower. This might sound like a broken record, but the Huskies have two solid forward lines, but nothing below that and the defense is full of holes. The goaltending is hit or miss. Jim Madigan isn't a good enough coach to make up for those shortcomings.

9. Vermont: Kevin Sneddon's club visited Hanover, NH to face Dartmouth in a mid-week contest, and fell victim to the Big Green 4-2. About the only thing UVM has shown so far this season is it can score more goals than Maine in a weekend series. The Catamounts are in deep trouble already, and making it more a dire situation is their rough second half schedule. UVM finishes with six games against BC, UNH and BU.

10. Maine: The Black Bears couldn't clear the puck out of it's own zone for the first few minutes Saturday night at BU, as the Terriers cycled the puck at will around Maine defenders and backcheckers. After that, the Black Bears skated right with BU, but a Terrier power play goal was the difference. Maine created some decent opportunities, even outshooting BU, but couldn't find the back of the net. Especially with Martin Ouellette playing better in net, up to the level of an NHL draft pick, Tim Whitehead's squad has more talent than the other teams at the bottom of the standings, but just cannot seem to put the puck in the net.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Hockey East Game Previews (December 10-11)

Three non-conference games greet Hockey East fans over the next two days. UMass-Lowell travels to Harvard tonight. Merrimack hosts Army while UMass-Amherst heads to Yale in action slated for Tuesday.

UMass-Lowell (5-7-1, 3-6-1 HE) at Harvard (4-3-1, 3-3-0 ECAC)
Monday, 7:00, Bright Arena, Cambridge, MA

The River Hawks are coming off a 2-0 shutout win over Northeastern while the Crimson skated to a hard fought 2-2 tie at Merrimack. This is a big game for each team, as momentum is very important heading into the semester break. Both squads have gotten off to a slower than expected start. Each team should move up their respective league standings in the second half. This game has the feel of one that will help build confidence for the winning team. The key match-up in this game involves two young forwards, freshman Jimmy Vesey for Harvard and sophomore Scott Wilson of UML.

PICK: UML picks up a road victory, building momentum for what should be a second half where the Hawks move up the Hockey East standings.

Army (5-6-2, 5-2-2 AHA) at Merrimack (5-7-3, 4-4-1 HE)
Tuesday, 7:00, Lawler Arena, North Andover, MA

The Black Knights visit North Andover looking for their first non-conference win of the season. Brian Riley's squad is 3-1-1 in their last five contests. Their only game against a Hockey East opponent this season was a 4-3 loss to Maine. However, Army led 2-0 before Maine came back.

Merrimack will almost certainly start Rasmus Tirronen, continuing the goaltending rotation that Mark Dennehy has implemented so far this season. Mike Collins is obviously the key player for Army to focus in in, but if the Warriors are going to have any success in the second half, other players will have to emerge offensively. The last four games have all been decided by one goal or less, including two overtime contests.

PICK: Merrimack wins this game, 4-1.

UMass-Amherst (5-8-2, 4-6-1 HE) at Yale (6-3-2, 3-3-1 ECAC)
Tuesday, 7:00, Ingalls Rink, New Haven, CT

Both clubs are coming off disappointing weekends. UMass-Amherst dropped two non-conference contests to Colgate.

Yale only picked up one point out of four in ECAC action. The Bulldogs lost 6-1 to Rensselaer and tied Union 2-2. The Bulldogs are led up front by senior Antoine Laganiere and junior Kenny Agostino, a Pittsburgh draft pick. Laganiere has eight goals and six assists while Agostino has six goals and seven assists.

Michael Pereira and Conor Sheary were expected to be the go-to-guys for the Minutemen, but both have been quiet in the first half. This must chance in order for the Minutemen to be more successful. Kevin Boyle had two rough outings this weekend, after emerging as the clear cut number one. It will be interesting to see who is in net for John Micheletto's club Tuesday.

PICK: Yale keeps the Minutemen on the skids, winning at home 4-3.

Hockey East Weekend Analysis

The big winner in Hockey East over the weekend was the Boston University Terriers. Jack Parker's club upset top ranked New Hampshire Thursday night in Durham before shutting out Maine 1-0. Freshman Sean Maguire picked up his second straight shutout Saturday night, giving Jack Parker two reliable goaltenders.

UMass-Lowell shutout Northeastern 2-0 Saturday night, with freshman goaltender Connor Hellebuyck getting the nod in net. Scott Wilson picked up an assist, moving his point streak to five games. The Pittsburgh draft pick needs to lead this offense if the River Hawks will move up the standings in the second half. UML is 3-1-1 in league games against teams not named Boston College or UNH, compared to 0-5-0 against those two.

What does this mean? To me, the top three teams in the league this year is set in stone. BC, UNH and BU will finish in the top three. There are plenty of games left, and Providence, Merrimack, UMass-Amherst and UMass-Lowell all have the ability to grab that final home ice spot. UML, picked second in the preseason coaches poll, is clearly a step below the upper echelon of the league, but certainly capable of finishing at the top of the second tier.

Merrimack skated to a 2-2 tie with a talented Harvard team Friday night. Merrimack has an abundance of forwards who can skate well with any team, a top four defensive corp that is solid and two improving goaltenders. The Warriors open up the second half with four out of five league games against UVM and Maine. Coach Dennehy's squad needs to capitalize on those opportunities to gain points as the schedule will get much tougher from there. Looking way ahead to the future, if Mike Collins, Brendan Ellis and Jordan Heywood all return for their senior seasons, the Warriors could have a big year next winter.

Northeastern lost sophomore forward Joseph Manno last week, as he opted to move his game to the USHL for the time being. This comes on the heels of losing heralded freshman Cam Darcy last month. There have also been several recruiting de-commitments since Jim Madigan took over on Huntingdown Ave. It is clear, with the results on the ice, as well as some of the off ice issues that NU Athletic Director Peter Roby completely whiffed on this hire.

UMass-Amherst was the big loser on the weekend, dropping two non-conference home games to Colgate. Fortunately for John Micheletto's club, the games won't count in league standings. There are some serious concerns for the Minutemen following the weekend. Kevin Boyle had a rough weekend, after playing so well for his first ten games. The sophomore let in 11 goals on 48 shots. Another issue is the lack of production from Michael Pereira, who only has eight points in 15 games. The Avon Old Farms product had 29 goals in his first two seasons.

Maine continues to be completely unable to score. Tim Whitehead's team has only 20 goals in 15 games played. After a rough first three minutes against Boston University Saturday night where they could not get the puck out of their own end, the Black Bears skated fairly well against BU, but could not put the puck in the net. There were numerous turnovers and chances negated due to not being able to get a shot off in time. Tim Whitehead just seems utterly confused on the bench, with no real ability to manage a game. The five minute power play at the end of the game, with some of the personnel used, was a perfect example of this.

Teams meet for a face-off Saturday night at Agganis Arena. BU won 1-0 over Maine.

Coming today on the blog

Later today on the blog, I will have coverage of this weekend's games, including analysis and thoughts on what transpired in Hockey East. Jerry York's bid for win 925 was sidetracked for now by a late Providence rally Friday night at Schneider Arena. Boston University went to Durham and beat #1 UNH before prevailing at home against last place Maine in a tight game.

Also, I will have previews of the three non-conference games over the next two days involving Hockey East squads. I will wait until Wednesday to unveil my latest Hockey East Power Rankings.

Sometime later this week or early next week, I will have first half award winners, report cards and grades for each team in Hockey East, and a column on who is on the coaching hot seat in the league and nationally.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Hockey East Weekend Preview (December 6-11)

This is the last full weekend of play before the Christmas break. The marquee game of the weekend will come Thursday night, with Boston University traveling to Durham to take on New Hampshire, the number one ranked team in the land in both of this week's national polls. Friday night, Jerry York will look to become the all-time leader in career coaching wins when the Eagles visit Providence.

Boston University (8-5-0, 6-4-0 HE) at New Hampshire (11-1-2, 8-1-1 HE)
Thursday, 7:00, Whittemore Center, Durham, NH

In the first meeting between these two teams, UNH prevailed 3-1 at Agganis Arena. The Wildcats, the newly anointed number one team in the country in both national polls, will look to avoid a letdown on home ice.

New Hampshire is coming off a sweep of struggling UMass-Lowell, winning both games 5-2. UNH has a balanced attack, but has gotten serious production from Kevin Goumas, Grayson Downing and Austin Block. The defense is led by solid two-way players in Trevor van Riemsdyk and Connor Hardowa. Casey DeSmith has proven he is an elite goaltender this season. He could be the difference maker in this contest. This is UNH's last non-exhibition game before the Christmas break.

BU split their weekend series with BC, winning at home before losing on the road. The Terriers are having to deal with the departure of Yasin Cisse, who left the team this week. The Winnipeg draft pick never seemed to mesh well with the Terrier program. BU still has plenty of talent, led up front by Wade Megan and Cason Hohmann. On defense, freshman Matt Grzelcyk is a fun player to watch. The Charlestown native and Bruins draft pick already has two goals and nine assists on the year.

PICK: It is tough to pick against UNH right now. Wildcats defense home ice with a 4-2 win.

Boston College (11-2-0, 9-2-0 HE) at Providence (7-6-1, 5-4-0 HE)
Friday, 7:00, Schneider Arena, Providence, RI (Cox Cable Network)

With Jerry York now tied with Ron Mason for most coaching victories all-time, this could be a historic night on Huxley Avenue. Second year Providence coach Nate Leaman, one of the rising stars in the coaching profession, will look to make York wait until after Christmas for the milestone victory.

Providence has an influx of young talent, that skates well and has some skill. It is still a work in progress, but the Friars can certainly compete with anyone in the league. One of the biggest factors working in the Friars favor is freshman goaltender Jon Gillies. The South Portland, ME native has a .930 save percentage and a 1.88 goals against average, starting every game so far. The Calgary draft pick was just named to the preliminary roster for the US in the World Junior Championship slated for later this month.

There is no shortage of talent on the BC roster. The first two lines are absolutely scary for opposing defenses. The first line, with Johnny Gaudreau, Steven Whitney and Pat Mullane, has accounted for 24 goals on the young season, just over half of BC's entire goal production. The second line is no slouch with Kevin Hayes and Bill Arnold. After adding Brendan Silk to the line last weekend, the line gelled well. Arnold had two goals and Silk one in the 5-2 victory over BU Saturday. Hayes picked up three assists. The Eagles will certainly have extra motivation to give York his 925th coaching win.

PICK: This is a tough pick. Upset minded Providence is no slouch, and BC's only two losses on the season were both on the road. With that said, Eagles win 3-1.

Harvard (4-3-0, 3-3-0 ECAC) at Merrimack (5-7-2, 4-4-1 HE)
Friday, 7:30, Lawler Arena, North Andover, MA (WBIN, Fox College Sports Atlantic)

Harvard is loaded with talent, and over the next few years should get even better under coach Ted Donato, the former Boston Bruin. One of the intriguing story lines in this game is that of Crimson freshman forward Jimmy Vesey. The Charlestown native and Nashville draft pick is the son of Merrimack's all-time leading scorer, with the same namesake. The older Vesey was the leader of the 1988 Warrior squad that advanced all the way to the NCAA Quarterfinals, before bowing out to Lake Superior. The younger Vesey is the leading scorer for Harvard, with five goals and three assists in seven games. Bruins draft pick Alex Fallstrom is another forward to watch for the Crimson. Junior goaltender Raphael Girard has been solid in net with a 2.06 GAA and a .936 save percentage.

For the Warriors, Mark Dennehy's squad played two solid games last week, losing a heartbreaker in OT at home before prevailing 2-1 on the road, to split the weekend series with Providence. Junior Mike Collins continues his hot start, leading Merrimack in scoring with seven goals and ten assists. If the Warriors are going keep in the race for the final home ice spot, the rest of the forwards have to pick up their play. The last few games has seen the defense turn in more solid efforts. Look for the goaltending rotation to continue, with Sam Marotta getting the start tonight.

PICK: Merrimack wins on home ice, 3-2.

Colgate (7-7-2, 3-4-1 ECAC) at UMass-Amherst (5-6-2, 4-6-1 HE)
Friday and Saturday, 7:00, Mullins Center, Amherst, MA (CBS3 Springfield)

This is another non-conference battle Friday night, pitting the ECAC against Hockey East. Both teams have been inconsistent in the early season.

UMass is coming off a split with Northeastern, losing 1-0 on home ice and winning 6-3 on the road. The Minutemen have gotten spectacular goaltending from sophomore Kevin Boyle. The Manalapan, NJ native has captured the number one job, and more, with a 1.67 GAA and a .936 save percentage. Junior Brendan Gracel and senior Rocco Carzo have been two surprising players to start the season, leading the Minutemen offensive attack, with five goals and seven goals, respectively. If Conor Sheary and Michael Pereira can get on track, John Micheletto's squad could stay in the race for home ice, unexpectedly.

For Colgate, senior Robbie Bourdon leads the offense with six goals and seven assisists. The Red Raiders have been extremely inconsistent. In seven wins, the offense has averaged over five goals a game. In the other nine games, Colgate has only scored ten goals total. Goaltending has been sporadic, as well. Freshman Spencer Finney has played well, with a .913 save percentage and a 1.93 GAA. The returning starter, junior Eric Mihalek has a 3.09 GAA and a .886 save percentage.

PICK: The Minutemen pick up the sweep, with 4-1 and 3-2 wins.

Maine (2-10-2, 1-6-2 HE) at Boston University (8-5-0, 6-4-0 HE)
Saturday, 8:00, Agganis Arena, Boston, MA (CBS Sports Network)

The Terriers will have already faced New Hampshire two nights before and have the huge advantage on paper. BU will also have some extra motivation, as Maine knocked them out of the Hockey East tournament last March.

Maine missed a key opportunity to pick up points and ground in the standings last weekend, losing three of four points to Vermont at Alfond Arena. Senior Joey Diamond picked up two goals on the weekend, and almost had another, but it was waved off due to a crease violation. Freshman Devin Shore, a Dallas draft pick, leads the team in scoring with one goal and six assists. Scoring has been tough to come by for the Black Bears, averaging less than 1.5 goals per game. Maine has scored four goals in each victory, while scoring only 12 goals total in their other 12 games. Goaltending has improved since Martin Ouellette was handed the reigns between the pipes. The junior and Columbus draft pick, has posted a .911 save percentage to go along with his 2.40 GAA.

PICK: The Terriers salvage two points on the weekend, downing Maine 4-2.

Northeastern (5-8-1, 3-7-1 HE) at UMass-Lowell (4-7-1, 2-6-1 HE)
Saturday, 7:00, Tsongas Arena, Lowell, MA

This is a game that could have implications on the bottom of the standings and the race to make the Hockey East playoffs come March, if the River Hawks don't step up their game.

UMass-Lowell, picked second in the pre-season coaches poll, is off to a terrible start, albeit with a fairly difficult schedule. The Hawks have played five of their nine conference games against BC and UNH. However, they're also 1-1-1 in home games against Vermont and Maine, so it can't all be blamed on a tough early season schedule. UML has some offensive talent to right the ship, if guys like Riley Wetmore and Derek Arnold can pick up their play. Sophomore Scott Wilson has nine points in the last four games, after only picking up one in the first eight games.

Northeastern is one of only two teams to beat Boston College on the season. The Huskies are led up front by freshman Kevin Roy. Jim Madigan's squad doesn't have problems with the top six forwards, but the depth on the third and fourth lines is cause for concern. The defense is also a huge problem, with no real talent on the blue line. Goaltending continues to be inconsistent. Chris Rawlings had a big shutout at Amherst Friday night, but let in a soft goal that was the go-ahead goal for UMass Saturday. Soft goals and untimely lapses in play have been his downfall throughout his career.

PICK: UML wins this one easily, 4-1.

USA Under-18 Team at Merrimack (5-7-2, 4-4-1 HE) and New Hampshire (11-1-2, 8-1-1 HE)
Saturday, 4:00, Lawler Arena, North Andover, MA
Sunday, 4:00, Whittemore Center, Durham, NH

These are two exhibition games where Merrimack and UNH fans will get to look at some of next year's top freshman in college hockey. Two of the top prospects on the National Development team are UNH recruit, forward Tyler Kelleher and BC recruit, defenseman Steve Santini. Defenseman Scott Savage is another BC recruit. Michigan and Notre Dame have the most recruits on the team.

PICK: Merrimack will probably play some reserves and might even let third stringer Nick Drew see some time in net. My pick is USA 4-3. UNH will prevail 4-2.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Hockey East Power Rankings, Week of December 3, 2012

1. Boston College: The Eagles split with arch-rival BU, losing 4-2 on the road and winning 5-2 at home. The victory Saturday night gave Jerry York his 924th coaching win, tying him with Ron Mason for most all-time. The top two lines for BC continue to absolutely dominate games. They possess such skill, it feels like anytime they are on the ice, there is a chance for a BC goal.

2. New Hampshire: The Wildcats are the only team in the nation to yet to lose in regulation. The lone blemish for UNH so far was an overtime loss at UMass-Amherst. UNH won convincingly both nights over a struggling Lowell team. This is the best UNH team in a while, with balanced scoring up front, led by a few snipers. The defense has been able to contribute offensively, leading the rush up ice and Casey DeSmith has been superb in net.

3. Boston University: The Terriers ended BC's 10 game winning streak Friday night with a 4-2 win at Agganis Arena. The Terriers are very talented, but extremely young. This should be a motivated BU team looking to put the scandals of last season behind them and prove their worth. Come February and Beanpot time, Jack Parker will have this team firing on all cylinders.

4. Providence: The Friars have a young team, with some up and coming skill, especially in net. Freshman Jon Gillies, a Calgary draft pick, was once again solid on the weekend. Another good story emerging out of Friar land is junior forward Derek Army. The son of former coach Tim Army, he stayed with the team after his dad was fired following his freshman season. Three generations of Army's have been PC hockey players. Many kids would have packed their bags and gone elsewhere, but Army chose to stick around, and is now the leading scorer for PC with nine points.

5. UMass-Amherst: The Minutemen outshot Northeastern both nights over the weekend, but were stymied by Chris Rawlings on Friday night on home ice. Saturday, John Micheletto's squad broke open a 2-2 tie to win 6-3. UMass has not gotten the production they expected from Michael Pereira or Conor Sheary yet, but a balanced attack has produced solid numbers. Kevin Boyle had his worst performance in five games on Saturday, but was still good enough for the win. His early season play has really solidified the goaltending situation in Amherst.

6. Merrimack: The Warriors split their weekend series with Providence, losing in overtime at home before squeaking out a 2-1 victory on the road the next night. Merrimack played well this weekend, really tightening up the defense. This team lacks a true superstar, even with Mike Collins' hot start, but if Mark Dennehy's squad brings the blue collar effort they brought both nights this weekend, they will be in the heat of the home ice battle come March.

7. Vermont: Vermont will fall in the standings, as their second half schedule is brutal. The last six games on their docket are UNH, BU and BC. However, for now, credit must be given for taking three of four in Orono and taking care of business better than some of the other teams at the bottom of the standings. In the long run, it will catch up to UVM that their team is made up of primarily grinders and role players.

8. Northeastern: The Huskies continue their inconsistent play, winning 1-0 at UMass Friday before losing 6-3 at home Saturday. Chris Rawlings was outstanding Friday night, but Saturday night was a different story. He made a lot of saves and faced a ton of rubber, but let in a real soft goal to break the tie at 2. Freshman forward Kevin Roy had two more goals on the weekend to bring his season total to seven.

9. UMass-Lowell: I'm still waiting for UML to turn things around and firmly believe they are a playoff team, but I can't justify a higher ranking at this point. The River Hawks lost 5-2 both nights over the weekend to UNH. Five of their six conference losses are to the top two teams, BC and UNH. UML will most likely take advantage of an easier second half schedule and move up in the standings a little, but that pre-season second place ranking seems unrealistic now.

10. Maine: This is not a team with last place talent, but the Black Bears rank last in the conference in scoring offense, scoring defense, and power play. Maine has taken more penalties than any other team in the league and could only muster 1 point at home against Vermont. Attendance was below 4,000 Saturday night. Tim Whitehead's days are numbered in Orono.

Hockey East Weekend Recap

Providence 3 @ Merrimack 2 (OT)
@ Boston University 4 Boston College 2
@ New Hampshire 5 UMass-Lowell 2
Northeastern 1 @ UMass-Amherst 0
Vermont 2 @ Maine 1

Merrimack 2 @ Providence 1
@ Boston College 5 Boston University 2
New Hampshire 5 @ UMass-Lowell 2
UMass-Amherst 6 @ Northeastern 3
Vermont 2 @ Maine 2 (OT)

Weekend Analysis

UNH continues to solidify their spot in the upper echelon of teams in the league and nationally. With their sweep of UML, UNH keeps rolling along, with a balanced offensive attack, a smooth skating defense, and an elite goaltender. This is the best team Dick Umile has had in a while.

BC and BU split their weekend series, which was to be expected. The Eagles won the season series between these two, from a league standpoint, but there is little doubt these two teams will meet again in February or March.

Maine's struggles continue. The Black Bears could only muster three goals on the weekend, leading the calls for Whitehead's dismissal to be heard louder. I've said it before, but it bears repeating. This team does not have last place talent. Something should click, but it is hard to tell when. This should have been the weekend, playing a subpar UVM team.

York Ties All-Time Wins Mark

Jerry York tied Ron Mason's all-time wins mark Saturday night at Conte Forum on the campus of Boston College. With the Eagles' 5-2 win over arch-rival Boston University, York recorded his 924th career victory. BC had lost the night before, 4-2, at BU.

York will go for win 925, which would be the record breaker, Friday night at Providence. Following that game, the Eagles will play Alabama-Huntsville and Minnesota in the Mariucci Classic. Thus, it looks highly unlikely York will be able to break the record at home.

The former BC player is one of the class acts in all of sports. Under his watch, the BC hockey program was reinvigorated, making numerous Frozen Fours, and capturing the 2001, 2008, 2010 and 2012 NCAA Championships. The Watertown, MA native also won the 1984 NCAA Championship while at Bowling Green and got his start in coaching at Clarkson.