Every team in Hockey East has played at least 10 league games as we enter the new year. And, remarkably, one could argue that every team in Hockey East still has reasonable hope for making the playoffs.
There is no juggernaut like last year’s Boston University squad, nor even a clear-cut favorite at the unofficial halfway point of the season, though first-place New Hampshire enters the new year with a two-point edge over Boston College – two teams that look primed to make deep runs over the next three months.
With that in mind, the league’s 10 teams all have something they’ll need to do over the next 2½ months if they want to call 2009-10 a successful season. In the spirit of auld lang syne, NEHJ has some suggestions for their New Year’s resolutions.
* UNH and No. 5 BC have both done a lot right thus far this year, but league games slated for almost every weekend for the rest of the season demand consistency – something previous halfway-point leaders haven’t been able to achieve.
The Wildcats, more specifically, will want to ramp up their production, because a mid-pack offense and a power play with the league’s third-worst success rate (16.0 percent) won’t make holding onto a home ice spot terribly easy. It might also convince national voters who currently have them outside the top 15 that they’re for real.
* Maine has been the surprise success of the season thus far, marching into 2010 with the third-best record in the league just nine months removed from an eighth-place regular season finish. But 2009’s surprise will be 2010’s target, so the Black Bears must resolve to be ready for the storms ahead, and the key will be taking advantage of their classic old barn, Alfond Arena.
Maine has weekend series against UNH, UMass-Lowell and UMass – the latter two of which will be battling with the Black Bears for playoff position – in Orono, and those six games will determine a lot about just how big a surprise Maine really is.
* As for the two UMasses, they may not quite have the juice to unseat UNH and BC atop the standings – though UMass-Lowell could make a very credible claim otherwise – but they have enough talent to be playing in their own arenas come the quarterfinals, so the formula is simple: Stay healthy. Injuries will come fast and furious to the league’s teams as every Friday, Saturday and Sunday become that much more important, so the teams with the least roster flux will be in the best position.
* Further down the standings are a trio of teams that fall into the old hockey adage of “looking for their identity.” Vermont, Northeastern and Merrimack are a few steps away from contending for home ice, but they are still inside the playoff bubble. Whatever their identities are, they’ll want to assert them quickly, before either BU or Providence get any ideas about sneaking into the top eight.
And that brings us to the outliers.
* Providence has two more league wins than it did at this point last year, but the Friars are still looking up from the bottom. They have allowed a respectable 2.71 goals per game as sophomore goalie Alex Beaudry and an improved defense have matured, but they’ve scored the second fewest goals of any conference teams, and that’s in two more games than Northeastern, which is 10th in that department. PC needs goals, and it needs them now.
* Finally, we have BU. Though the Terriers are a point ahead of last-place Providence and just two points out of the playoff picture, their precipitous fall from last year’s lofty heights has been dramatic and almost unexplainable, even when you discount the heavy losses they suffered after last year’s title run.
So BU’s resolution is also simple: Forget the past. Forget the 2009 Beanpot, forget the 2009 Hockey East regular-season and tournament titles, and certainly forget the storybook national championship victory. Heck, the Terriers ought to even forget the first half of this season, because they certainly haven’t done much worth remembering up to now.
2010 is a new year, and it’s not over for the Terriers. But it could be, very soon.
NEHJ Player of the Half-Year
Bobby Butler, sr., New Hampshire
This is far from an official award, but it seems worthwhile to recognize Butler, a New England kid (Marlborough, Mass.) for whom the light has most definitely switched on this year.
He’s scored the second most goals (13) of any Hockey East player, and he’s captained the Wildcats capably into the first-place throne left vacant by BU’s tumble.
Boston College at Denver, Saturday
Can you say national championship preview? The fifth-ranked Eagles go into enemy territory to play the No. 3 Pioneers in the Denver Cup finale, a clash of two teams that seem built for April.
Around Hockey East
The Eagles have been outshot five times this year, but in those games, they’re 5-0-0.
Eleven Terriers have scored at least three goals thus far, a departure from the 2008-09 team whose scoring was done mostly by a group of about five players.
Tuesday’s 6-6 tie with Princeton was the first game in six that the Black Bears allowed more than one goal. In fact, they’d allowed exactly one goal in each of their previous five.
Holyoke, Mass., native Kevin Czepiel scored his first collegiate goal in the No. 15 Minutemen’s surprising loss to Bentley Wednesday at the UConn Toyota Classic.
Although they stumbled a bit leading up to the holidays, including an ugly loss to Princeton, the No. 12 River Hawks are at 10-6-1 entering 2010, putting them ahead of where they were at this point last year, when they were 8-9-0 as the ball dropped.
The Warriors are doing a lot of things differently this year – most importantly, they’re scoring. Merrimack enters the new year fourth in the league with a 3.47 goals per game average. The last time they didn’t finish last in Hockey East team scoring was 2002-03, and the last time they weren’t in the bottom two in that category was 1997-98.
Coach Dick Umile (Melrose, Mass.) might have just had his masterstroke of the season when he put Butler, Phil DeSimone and Paul Thompson (Derry, N.H.) together on a line in November. In the 10 games since, they’ve combined for 19 goals and 21 assists, averaging four points per game.
Junior Steve Silva (Tyngsborough, Mass.) has made the Ivy League a shooting gallery over his 2½ years at Northeastern, scoring three goals and three assists in his five contests against teams from that conference. He’ll get another chance to up his total when the Huskies play Dartmouth Saturday for the first time in more than nine years.
The Friars, who aren’t back in action until Jan. 12 against BC, are one of only two league teams – UMass being the other – that don’t have a single non-conference game left on their schedule.
The Catamounts’ power play might be on to something, with four goals in the last two games after scoring just five over the first 13.
Andrew Merritt can be reached at email@example.com.