|Tanner House (photo: Getty)|
Once upon a time, Hockey East was a two-tier league. There were five, and eventually six, teams that fought every season for playoff spots, but they were always looking up at the Big Four: Boston University, Boston College, UNH and Maine.
That quartet was perennially at or near the top of the standings for years. But things have changed a bit over the last few seasons, with underdogs becoming contenders and the usual favorites finding themselves fighting not just for home ice in the Hockey East quarterfinals, but for a spot in the quarterfinals at all.
Last year, Maine spent most of the season hovering around the line between teams that make the playoffs and teams that have the month of March off. It seemed unthinkable that the Black Bears, one of the league’s traditional powers, could even come close to missing the playoffs, but sure enough they finished eighth, just four points ahead of the two teams – Providence and Merrimack – who went home early. They were second to last in the league in scoring, and their defense was seventh, allowing nearly one more goal per game than top-ranked Boston University.
The troubles in Orono are still hanging over the team this season, but the sun might just be starting to peek through the clouds.
The Black Bears are tied with UMass-Lowell and Vermont for third place in the league entering this weekend’s games, and they’re coming off a pair of quality victories – one because of the opponent, the other because of the sheer offensive ferociousness they displayed.
On Friday, they slid past UMass-Lowell with three unanswered goals, including a pair from Tanner House. The next night, they beat up on St. Lawrence to the tune of five first period goals, dropping the Saints 10-1 at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, once again getting a pair of scores from House. That blowout featured the most goals scored by a Maine team since an 11-0 win over Nebraska-Omaha on Feb. 27, 1998.
Suddenly the Black Bears look an awful lot like their old selves. A big reason is the offense, which has rolled to an average of 3.64 goals per game, good for fourth in the league.
“From an offensive perspective, our coaching staff knew that we would be better this year because we saw our players in practice each day last year,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead, during a coaches teleconference earlier this week. “We had a taste of that offense in the Hockey East playoffs last year, and that gave our returning players a lot of confidence that we could play with anyone. As a result, we have kind of picked up where we left off there and have worked hard to keep improving. We have more improvement to go, but we have been much more consistent offensively this year.”
The playoff performance Whitehead spoke of came in a grueling quarterfinal series against eventual league and national champion BU. The Black Bears scored nine goals over the three games, including a 6-3 victory in Game 2. All of that happened at BU’s Agganis Arena, as Maine was the low seed. This year, the Black Bears might just find themselves hosting the quarterfinals at Alfond Arena in Orono once again.
NEHJ Player of the Week
Casey Wellman, soph., UMass
As good as Tanner House was for Maine over the weekend, Wellman was just as outstanding, scoring five goals in two games and adding an assist. He also picked up a hat trick that included the winning goal in Friday’s victory over Vermont.
Boston College at Boston University, Saturday
We’ll let BU coach Jack Parker (Somerville, Mass.) explain what Saturday night’s game is all about: “It’s the biggest game on the schedule, one of the most important regular-season games we play, and it wouldn’t matter if we only had four people there, it would be very emotional and very physical.”
Around Hockey East
The Eagles’ victory over Clarkson Friday ended a surprising – and long – streak of futility against the Golden Knights. BC had lost its previous 10 games against Clarkson, coach Jerry York’s (Watertown, Mass.) former employer, dating back to Jan. 21, 1991.
The Terriers’ thrilling 6-5 win over Cornell at Madison Square Garden Saturday was also the first game all year that BU wasn’t missing a player due to injury.
Another sign the Black Bears are headed in the right direction: They’ve got scalps from three wins over opponents in the national top 10 – Vermont, BU, and then-No. 3 UMass-Lowell on Friday.
The Minutemen’s road doesn’t get much easier after their dramatic overtime loss to Quinnipiac Saturday. This weekend they’ll play BC and UMass-Lowell, their fourth- and fifth-straight ranked opponents.
The River Hawks dropped to eighth after losing to Providence and Maine last weekend, but before that, their No. 3 national ranking matched the program’s best-ever spot in the national poll, previously reached in 2002.
Friday’s game against Northeastern is the Warriors’ last at home until Jan. 23, putting them on the road for their next seven games. They’re 6-1-0 at Lawler Arena this season.
The Wildcats may have the league’s most potent line in Bobby Butler (Marlborough, Mass.), Phil DeSimone and Paul Thompson (Derry, N.H.), who have combined for 21 points (10 goals, 11 assists) in UNH’s last three games.
It was good penalty news-bad penalty news Friday for the Huskies, who are averaging the fourth most penalty minutes per game (15. 8) in the league, but were assessed just one infraction in the loss to Vermont. On the down side, their four-game scoring streak on the power play was halted with an 0-for-4 performance.
Not only did the Friars shock third-ranked UMass-Lowell Friday, they picked up their seventh victory, matching their entire haul from last year. And despite Saturday’s loss to Dartmouth, they finished their non-conference slate with their best record in such games (5-2-0) since 2003-04.
Special teams seem to be the key to Vermont’s season, since the Catamounts are 5-0 when they shut out opposing power plays, but have scored the second-fewest power play goals (5) in the nation, behind only Alabama-Huntsville’s four extra-man tallies.
Andrew Merritt can be reached at email@example.com.