December 8, 2011

Hockey East Journal: League has good depth perception

By Andrew Merritt

You can look at the standings. You can look at the national polls. You can even look at our power ratings. 

Northeastern coach Jim Madigan, left, with athletic director Peter Roby, has the Huskies playing giant killer of late. (photo: Jim Pierce)

Northeastern coach Jim Madigan, left, with athletic director Peter Roby, has the Huskies playing giant killer of late. (photo: Jim Pierce)

But when you look at the results, the only thing that’s clear about Hockey East right now is that almost nothing is clear at all, save this: Hockey East might be stronger and deeper than it has been in many years.

Consider Merrimack. The Warriors entered last weekend as the No. 1 team in the nation, the first time that program has ever been atop the national polls. A three-point weekend or better against Providence would put the Warriors in first place in the league, and all but cement them as the No. 1 until at least New Year’s Day.

Providence, however, had other plans. The Friars swept the home-and-home set against Merrimack, winning Friday’s game at home on a Ross Mauermann goal in overtime, then providing some emphatic punctuation with a 6-1 victory on the road the next night, ending the Warriors’ two-week reign atop the national poll.

It was the start of a gut-check stretch for the Friars, who followed up two games against then-No. 1 Merrimack with a midweek trip to Boston College on Tuesday night.

“You go into a stretch where you’re playing the No. 1 team (Friday), the No. 1 team (Saturday), then the No. 2 team in five days,” Providence coach Nate Leaman said after Saturday’s win. “Three games in five days, I did take a bit of a gulp (last) Tuesday, like, ‘What did I sign myself up for here?’ But that’s Hockey East.”

By the time the Friars got to The Heights, the Eagles had slipped to No. 3 in the country, while Merrimack had fallen all the way to No. 5. Still, Hockey East has three teams –BC, Merrimack and Boston University – in the top 15 in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll, and two more – UMass-Lowell and Providence – earning votes but not cracking the top 15.

Last Friday night, the nation’s top three teams all lost, and they all fell to Hockey East squads – Merrimack to Providence, BC to BU and Notre Dame to Northeastern in the first half of a surprising sweep by the Huskies.

“It’s only been nine games, but it’s a very high-level conference; anyone can beat anyone, and our focus has been bringing it every night,” Leaman said.

Providence is 3-1-1 against ranked teams this year and undefeated in three games against top-10 squads. Add to that Northeastern’s upset sweep of Notre Dame, and even UMass’ win Tuesday night over Yale, which is receiving the 17th most votes in the USA Today poll, and it seems no one is safe when playing a Hockey East team this year.

Looking beyond the polls to USCHO.com’s PairWise rankings, which mimic the NCAA’s selection process, BC, Merrimack, BU, UMass-Lowell and Providence are all in the top 16, with Northeastern just four spots out. In other words, one year after only three teams made the national tournament, as many as five – even six – Hockey East squads teams could challenge for at-large spots if they don’t win the league title and automatic bid.

With the season’s midpoint approaching, it’s shaping up to be quite a year for Hockey East.

Game of the Week

UMass-Lowell at Northeastern, Saturday

The River Hawks are rising fast under first-year coach Norm Bazin, but they’re also catching Northeastern as it pulls out of an early-season slump and comes into this game, the last for both until after Christmas, fresh off a pair of road wins against No. 7 Notre Dame.

Hockey East power ratings

1. Boston College (12-5-0, 9-3-0 HEA) – The Eagles split their weekend series against rival BU, then dropped Providence on Tuesday to hang on to first place in the standings. They’ve also got three wins in their last four games, including two against ranked teams (Yale, BU), and an unexpected goalie rotation as freshman Brian Billett (Kennebunk, Maine) has been in net for two of those victories.

2. Merrimack (10-2-1, 7-2-1) – The Warriors’ time on the national mountaintop, and their season-opening unbeaten streak, ended abruptly with two losses to Providence, including a penalty-marred 6-1 defeat at home – their first in 13 games at Lawler Arena.

3. UMass-Lowell (9-4-0, 6-3-0) – Nobody seems terribly interested in slowing the River Hawks down, least of all struggling New Hampshire, and UML swept UNH in a home-and-home, including the program’s first win in Durham, N.H., since 2003. UML has won seven of its last eight games.

4. Boston University (8-5-1, 6-4-1) – Friday’s win was the third over a top-three team this year (BC twice, Denver), but the Terriers’ five-game win streak ended Saturday against the Eagles. With games against Maine and New Hampshire coming up, they have the chance to head into the new year in second place after starting the year 3-4-1.

5. Providence (8-7-1, 6-4-0) – The Friars hadn’t beaten a top-ranked team since Jan. 3, 2003, before edging Merrimack in overtime Friday night, but had to wait just 24 hours to do it again, and they regained their footing with the sweep, moving into fourth place with UMass-Lowell before falling to a BC team that’s rounding into form on Tuesday.

6. Northeastern (6-7-2, 3-7-2) – The Huskies have just about exorcised their early-season demons with a five-game win streak, and while only two of those wins were over league opponents, the other three were against quality non-conference foes (Michigan, Notre Dame twice). They’re also the only team to sweep a two-game set against the Irish this year.

7. Maine (6-6-2, 5-5-1) – Like Northeastern, the Black Bears have pulled out of a losing streak into a winning one, reeling off three straight including the weekend’s sweep at Vermont sparked by senior Spencer Abbott’s nine-point effort over the two games, including his first career hat trick on Friday.

8. UNH (6-8-2, 4-6-1) – Maybe it’s too early to call it an off year for the Wildcats, but it won’t be for much longer. They’re 1-4-0 in their last five and falling fast, with a rapidly improving BU team coming into town Thursday night to end the pre-Christmas portion of the schedule.

9. UMass (5-7-4, 2-6-3) – The Minutemen are officially the hardest team to figure out in the league this year. They’ve got a losing record, yet two of their wins were against high-quality opponents, then-No. 1 Boston College and a Yale team earning votes in the current national poll. They’re off until Dec. 29, at which point we’d love to see the real UMass stand up, whoever that may be.

10. Vermont (3-11-1, 1-9-1) – It’s clearly a down year for the Catamounts, but nobody told sophomore Connor Brickley (Everett, Mass.), who had at least a point in four straight games before being shut out of Wednesday’s loss at Merrimack.

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