BOSTON – Highlighting the importance of a goalie to a hockey team isn’t exactly uncharted waters. As far as insights go, that falls somewhere between “dough needs yeast to rise” and “humans need air to breathe.”
But as the 2011-12 season starts to unfold, it’s hard not to look around the league and think it might be more of a goaltending hotbed than ever.
Before you start pulling out the old yearbooks and point out the many elite netminders Hockey East has produced, let’s make one thing clear: The young men standing in front of the league’s nets this year still have a long way to go before they can rank with names like Rick DiPietro (Winthrop, Mass.), Chris Terreri and even the more recent Jon Quick (Hamden, Conn.).
That said, this year’s crop of puckstoppers is immensely deep, and it seems like every team has at least a good goaltender set to start every night, if not a great one. All but two of last year’s top 10 goaltenders return this season, and six of the returners – New Hampshire’s Matt DiGirolamo, Merrimack’s Joe Cannata (Wakefield, Mass.), Boston University’s Kieran Millan, Northeastern’s Chris Rawlings, Maine’s Dan Sullivan and Vermont’s Rob Madore – had sub-3.00 goals-against averages in 2010-11.
The cream of that crop seems to be DiGirolamo, Millan and Cannata – though Madore, who played well for a Vermont team that struggled last year, could make a case for inclusion among the elite, too. And after them, it’s not like there’s a huge drop-off among the remaining veterans. Providence’s Alex Beaudry has backstopped one of the league’s cellar dwellers throughout his collegiate career, yet he’s still racked up a respectable .904 save percentage and 3.17 goals against average.
“I don’t think you can win in this league without very good goaltending at a minimum,” UMass coach Toot Cahoon (Lynn, Mass.) said at the league’s media day last month. “I think anything less than good goaltending, you’re putting yourself in a position where the game could slip away, so that’s an absolute. All the teams you see succeed, they’re not sneaking in there without it.
“Everyone’s looking to BU” as the favorite, Cahoon said, “and it’s, ‘Why does everybody like BU?’ Well they’ve got some good players, but they’ve got the guy in the net too.”
Now that BC’s John Muse (East Falmouth, Mass.) has departed after a sterling four years at the Heights, the title of league No. 1 seems destined to go to Millan or DiGirolamo. But they won’t suffer from a lack of competition – and that’s a good sign for the league, according to Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy (Dorchester, Mass.).
“I think when the league’s been at its best, we’ve had elite goaltenders in it, whether it was (UNH’s) Mikey Ayers, you look at (Garth) Snow and (Scott) King in Maine, you look at (BC’s) Scotty Clemmensen,” Dennehy said. “I don’t want to say it’s cyclical, because hopefully it stays like this forever, but when this league’s at its best and competing for national championships, there are four or five elite goaltenders in it.”
Jim Madigan’s (Milton, Mass.) got a lot of work to do as the new coach at Northeastern, but goaltending, he says, isn’t one of the spots he needs to be as worried about. Not with Rawlings and his .917 save percentage and 2.75 goals against average between the pipes most nights.
“I’m not worried about Chris Rawlings,” said Madigan, after he’d seen Rawlings hold on for a 3-3 tie with UMass in his coaching debut last weekend. “If I am, I’ll be up all night long.”
Dennehy played for Boston College in an era when goals were scored by the bucketful, and the league was spotted with only a couple of high-quality netminders most years. In Dennehy’s senior season, 1990-91, his BC teammate, Scott LaGrand, led the league with a 3.02 goals-against average. Last year, that would have been only the eighth-best mark in the league.
“It’s such a specialized position now, and there are so many good ones,” Dennehy said. “I was looking at the (save percentages) when I played, and if you had a (.900), you were an All-Star. Now, if you’re not above (.900) …”
Last season, all but three of the 11 goalies who saw real minutes in Hockey East had at least a .900 save percentage. By the end of this year of the goaltender, any one of those top eight could join Ayers, Snow, King and Clemmensen in the annals of great Hockey East goaltending.
Game of the Week
Denver at Boston College, Friday
The nation’s newly-crowned No. 1 team (BC) goes up against the No. 3 Pioneers, who have risen in the national poll despite not having played a game. That said, Denver was a national tournament team last season, losing to fellow WCHA member North Dakota in the Midwest Regional final. It’ll be the third straight non-conference game to start the season for BC, which visits UNH the next night for its Hockey East opener.
Hockey East power rankings
1. Boston College – The Eagles ran amok out west, dropping Michigan State 5-2 and defending WCHA champion North Dakota 6-2 to take the IceBreaker tournament title.
2. Boston University – Only one game for the Terriers over the weekend, but they made it count with a 5-0 romp over UNH.
3. Maine – The Black Bears fell to Merrimack 2-1 Friday, but came back strong Sunday with a 6-3 win.
4. Merrimack – The Mack Attack won its first game at Maine’s Alfond Arena in 22 tries, a stretch dating back to Nov. 14, 1997.
5. Northeastern – Jim Madigan’s debut behind the NU bench was a hard-fought and dramatic 3-3 tie with UMass Friday night, but his first road game was a 6-3 loss at Maine on Sunday.
6. UMass – The Minutemen came out strong at Northeastern Friday, but gave up the game-tying goal with just two seconds left in the 3-3 draw.
7. UNH – The Wildcats stumbled out of the gate, getting whitewashed 5-0 by BU on Saturday, giving the Durham faithful cause to wonder if there’s a solution to losing last year’s big senior line of Paul Thompson, Mike Sislo and Phil DeSimone.
8. Vermont – Idle over the weekend, the Catamounts get their season started on Friday with an exhibition against the U.S. National Development Program’s Under-18 team.
9. UMass-Lowell – The River Hawks gave up a game-tying goal with one second left in an exhibition against the University of New Brunswick Saturday, and will play two at Minnesota State this weekend.
10. Providence – New coach Nate Leaman’s tenure at Providence starts Friday, when the Friars open their season at home against BU.
Andrew Merritt can be reached at feedbackhockeyjournal.com.