December 15, 2011

Hockey East: Upstarts Lowell, NU are not half bad

by Andrew Merritt

UMass-Lowell forward David Vallorani (photo: Dave Arnold Photography)

There are two kinds of college hockey teams around this time of year: The ones that say, “This break comes at the perfect time,” and the ones that say, “This break comes at the worst time possible.”

The holiday break for college students is a chance to go home, recharge the batteries and get ready for the second half of the year.

For hockey players, the same is true. The break for Hockey East teams this year lasts between 10 days (for Vermont, which hosts St. Lawrence Saturday and plays an exhibition two days after Christmas) and 26 days (for Providence, which packed it in for 2011 with a loss to Boston College on Dec. 6, and won’t play again until the Mayor’s Cup game against Brown on New Year’s Day.

The break means different things different teams. It’s a time to lick the wounds, literally, as a few weeks off can be enough time to let injuries heal. It’s also a chance for struggling teams to fix some problems and try to salvage a season that has gone wrong. For some, it inevitably comes at the worst possible time, breaking up a string of wins with a long period without practices or games.

Northeastern and UMass-Lowell could both fit into that last category. UMass-Lowell’s on a midseason surge that has them looking very much like a championship contender. Meanwhile, the Huskies’ six-game winning streak – the longest active streak in the nation – has turned them from a one-win squad into one playing .500 hockey with a very plausible path to a good playoff spot. And if Providence’s rise from the cellar is the biggest surprise of the season, the River Hawks have to be the second biggest.

In their first year under head coach Norm Bazin, the River Hawks are one of only four Hockey East teams with 10 wins – one of only 13 teams with double-digit wins in the nation – and if the season ended right now, they’d be hosting a quarterfinal playoff series against the Friars.

Lowell and Northeastern met Saturday night at Matthews Arena in a hard-hitting, high-paced clash that brought the first half of the league’s season to a pretty entertaining close. The River Hawks play an aggressive game, smothering puck handlers and running a very effective two-man forecheck, but all the energy expended on those tactics may have contributed to some tired legs. The Huskies won it 4-2, perhaps taking advantage of a River Hawks squad that was feeling the effects of a hard-fought victory over Boston College the night before.

“I think we expended a lot of energy last night at the rink, but take nothing away from the opponent, they were better than we were tonight,” first-year Lowell coach Norm Bazin said. “It didn't surprise me that we weren't executing as well as we have in the last five or six games, and some guys had very little left in the tank.”

So for Lowell, a few weeks off might be just what the doctor ordered, Bazin said.

“The break comes at a good time for us. We play the type of game where you're going to exert a lot of energy, and I think every team in this conference could use a break right now,” he said. “But at the same time I think in 48 hours the kids will be ready to go again, they're young enough to recuperate.”

The Huskies are still on a roll, though, and the respite could disrupt that. Still, coach Jim Madigan (Milton, Mass.) thinks a little time away could help his upstart team – particularly with a road trip to Minneapolis waiting on the other end of the break.

“You know, when you win six in a row, you don't want to stop,” he said. “But I think this is the right time, our kids still have a lot left in the tank, but this last week, I don't want to say (it was) draining, but we come off two long road trips, Michigan and Notre Dame, and we had a good week of practice, but then you've got kids in exams last week, kids in exams this week.

“We'll regenerate and reenergize, we'll practice a little next week, but then we'll come back on the 26th and get it going again as we head to Minnesota … so no, I think it's the right time.”

Game of the Week

Union at Merrimack, Saturday

Union’s not quite as good as it was last year under current Providence coach Nate Leaman, but the Dutchmen (8-3-5) are in a five-way tie for fourth in the surprisingly deep ECAC, and they come to North Andover to meet a Merrimack team looking to finish the first half on a high note after a few recent stumbles.

Hockey East power rankings

1. Boston College (12-6-0, 9-4-0 HEA) – Despite UMass-Lowell taking four penalties in the first period Friday, the Eagles surrendered two goals and couldn’t catch up, falling 3-2 to the surging River Hawks in BC’s last game until Dec. 29.

2. Merrimack (10-2-2, 7-2-1) – Merrimack only has one win against a Hockey East team since Nov. 11, and had to hang on tight for a 1-1 draw to Colgate, the second-place team in the ECAC, on Saturday.

3. UMass-Lowell (10-5-0, 7-4-0) – The River Hawks apparently didn’t pay attention to the script when they split their weekend against BC and Northeastern, beating the first-place Eagles Friday but falling to the seventh-place Huskies Saturday.

4. Boston University (10-5-1, 8-4-1) – The Terriers were all set to move up in our ratings this week off of a pair of road wins at UNH and Maine, led by a 58-for-60 save performance by Kieran Millan, but that was followed by the news that Corey Trivino, the team’s leading scorer (13-4–17) and the top goal scorer in Hockey East, was dismissed from the team after being arrested on charges he tried to rape a resident assistant at the school. Trivino’s dismissal creates a gigantic hole in the BU offense, which had no other scorer with double-digit goals.

5. Northeastern (7-7-2, 4-7-2) – Northeastern is the hottest team in Hockey East at the halfway point, riding the nation’s best win streak (six games). The Huskies have outscored their opponents 27-9 during that stretch.

6. Providence (8-7-1, 6-4-0) – Providence was idle over the weekend, and gets back to it on New Year’s Day against Brown. The last time the Friars had this many wins at this point in the season was 2005-06, when they finished 17-16-3 and lost to UNH in the Hockey East quarterfinals.

7. Maine (6-7-2, 5-6-1) – The Black Bears woke up the tiger a bit on Saturday, scoring first against BU only to see the Terriers score five unanswered to end Maine’s three-game win streak.

8. New Hampshire (6-9-2, 4-7-1) – The Wildcats go into their 22-day holiday break with one win in their last five games, and trotted out freshman goaltender Casey DeSmith (Rochester, N.H.) for his first collegiate action in Friday’s loss to BU rather than veteran Matt Di Girolamo, whose 3.36 goals against average and .885 save percentage are well off his career numbers (2.65, .915).

9. UMass (5-7-4, 2-6-3) – It’s a 22-day break for the Minutemen, who are 5-0-3 at home but won’t get back to the friendly-yet-spacious confines of the Mullins Center until Jan. 13. They’ll play four games in three different venues before that – two at Germain Arena in Estero, Fla., during the Florida College Classic, one at Providence’s Schneider Arena and finally Jan. 7’s outdoor excursion at Fenway Park against Vermont.

10. Vermont (3-11-1, 1-9-1) – The Catamounts’ opponent on Saturday, St. Lawrence, is tied for fourth in ECAC, but it’s definitely the odd one out of the group of five teams sharing their spot in the standings, with a 6-10-0 overall record and a negative-18 goal differential.

Andrew Merritt can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.