October 20, 2011

Hockey East Journal: Big picture remains unfocused

By Andrew Merritt

BOSTON – It usually takes a few weeks for a clear picture of the haves and have-nots in Hockey East to emerge. 

BU sophomore Matt Nieto (photo: Dave Arnold Photography)

BU sophomore Matt Nieto (photo: Dave Arnold Photography)

This season, we might be waiting until the new year to get that picture.

It’s only been two full weeks of play, but there have already enough surprises for a month’s worth of games. From underachieving superpowers to overachieving also-rans, if the first two weeks are any indication, this could be a very fun year to watch Hockey East.

Let’s start with Providence. The Friars didn’t pick up their second win of the 2010-11 campaign until the end of October, getting off to a 1-4-1 start that never really improved much, and they finished with just four league wins, missing the Hockey East tournament as the ninth-place team.

Yet, in their first two games under new coach Nate Leaman, the Friars are off to a hot start with two wins, shocking Boston University and cruising past UMass over the weekend. It may not amount to a hill of beans come March, but right now, the Friars are in first place, and it’s been a very long time since they could say that.

At the center of the early-season surge is defenseman Myles Harvey, a junior who earned the conference’s Player of the Week nod after scoring on all three shots he took over the weekend. That included the game-winner against BU (the first goal of his collegiate career) and a pair of goals Saturday against UMass.

The Friars’ fellow non-qualifier from 2010-11, UMass-Lowell, also made a splash over the weekend, and while the road sweep at Minnesota State-Mankato doesn’t do anything for the River Hawks in the standings, it marked the first time they opened a season with two wins since 2001-02.

A stumble against Connecticut cooled the River Hawks’ jets Tuesday, but both of the league’s cellar dwellers from last year made it pretty clear they’re not going back down without a fight.

On what was supposed to be the other end of the spectrum, New Hampshire continued to underwhelm, falling to Northeastern and BC over the weekend. It was expected that with the departure of last year’s top line, the Wildcats wouldn’t have the same scoring punch this season. But one goal in 180 minutes of play? Seriously?

Nick Sorkin ended the drought for UNH with a goal at the 2:24 mark of the first period Saturday night, but Boston College, arguably the only Hockey team playing exactly to expectations thus far, scored four more over the final 57:36 in a 5-1 win.

If nothing else, BU coach Jack Parker (Somerville, Mass.) can thank UNH coach Dick Umile (Melrose, Mass.) for taking some of the heat off of his own team. The Terriers, who opened the season by spanking UNH at home, fell victim to the wily Friars on Friday, fighting all the way back from a 3-0 deficit only to allow a pair of Providence goals over the final 14:18 in the 5-3 loss.

Even BC can’t exactly claim king-of-the-castle status just yet, having come out flat against Denver in a 4-2 loss in the team’s home opener Friday night. The bounce-back win Saturday at UNH is a sign that the Eagles still know how to handle their league brethren, though.

It’s a long road ahead, for sure, but at some point it might be time to redraw the map.

Game of the Week

Northeastern at Merrimack, Friday

The Warriors were the feel-good story last season but have some big holes to fill this year, and they have a chance to build some confidence with their first home game against a league opponent.

The Huskies, meanwhile, are 1-1-1 in new coach Jim Madigan’s (Milton, Mass.) first three games, and are looking for their first win on the road, coming off a 4-0 victory over UNH at home.

Hockey East power ratings

1. Boston College (3-1, 1-0)

The Eagles lost their home opener for the first time since 2005-06 Friday night, but losing to Denver doesn’t hurt them in the standings. Putting a 4-0 bruising on UNH the next night, on the other hand, helps the defending champs a great deal.

2. Boston University (2-1, 1-1)

Which game was the fluke – the 5-3 loss to Providence on Friday, or the 4-3 win over a Denver team that had just beaten BC the next night? The Terriers aren’t a perfect team by any stretch, but they’re still one of the most talented squads in the league – on paper, anyway.

3. Maine (1-2-1, 1-1)

The Black Bears put themselves in penalty trouble Saturday, and gave up two goals to North Dakota on 5-on-3s before coming back to earn a draw. There’s no shame in losing to the Sioux, but letting Friday’s 1-0 lead slip away isn’t a great sign, either.

4. Northeastern (1-1-1, 1-1-1)

Chris Rawlings tied the program’s record for career shutouts (9) Friday night, and his 27-save clean sheet gave coach Jim Madigan his first victory behind the NU bench.

5. Merrimack (2-0, 1-0)

The Warriors handled Army in their home opener Saturday, improving their home record to 27-5-2 since the start of the 2009-10 season.

6. Providence (2-0, 2-0)

Maybe it’s too early to ask if these Friars are for real, but after a pair of two-goal victories to start the season, we can’t help ourselves. Coach Nate Leaman’s got the ship pointed in the right direction so far.

7. UMass-Lowell (2-1, 0-0)

The last time the River Hawks opened a season with a sweep was 1993-94 – when current coach Norm Bazin was a senior about to embark on a 20-goal, 15-assist season.

8. UMass (1-1-1, 0-1-1)

Friday’s game was a victory in the books, but the Minutemen got all they could handle from a lowly Atlantic Hockey team in Bentley – at home, no less – and followed it up with a loss to Providence on the road.

9. Vermont (0-0, 0-0)

The Catamounts fell to the well-traveled U.S. National Development Program’s Under-18 in their only tune-up before opening the season at Minnesota this weekend.

10. New Hampshire (0-3, 0-3)

They can’t score, and based on the 14 opponent goals scored on just 83 shots, they can’t stop anyone from scoring, either. Lots of work to be done in Durham.

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