December 1, 2011

Hockey East Journal: New coaching eras showing promise

By Andrew Merritt

Three Hockey East teams started the year with new coaches. The early success of Providence under Nate Leaman has been one of the big surprises of the year, particularly given the Friars’ longstanding struggles. But the other two teams sailing with new captains are suddenly players, too.

First-year Providence College coach Nate Leaman (photo: Providence College Athletics)

And, in a happy coincidence, Providence, UMass-Lowell and Northeastern are all tied up for fifth place in the league entering this weekend’s games.

UMass-Lowell brought in Norm Bazin to replace Blaise MacDonald (Billerica, Mass.) after the program lost just about all the momentum it had gained three seasons ago when it made a shocking run to the Hockey East championship game. The River Hawks have been a playoff team in nine of the last 11 seasons, though they finished in last place in 2010-11, so their mountain may not have seemed quite as high to climb as Providence’s.

Nevertheless, Bazin has turned the ship almost fully around at his alma mater, and the River Hawks enter this weekend’s home-and-home against New Hampshire with five wins in the last six games.

Central to the rehabilitation has been sophomore Doug Carr (Hanover, Mass.), a revelation in goal who has been in net for all but one of the River Hawks’ seven victories this season, and has most recently posted back-to-back shutouts against UMass and Alabama-Huntsville. His 1.57 goals-against average is the fourth-best mark in the nation, and his .933 save percentage puts him eighth in the country.

But it’s not all puck-stopping that has folks abuzz along the Merrimack River. UMass-Lowell also has the league’s fourth best offense, averaging 3.45 goals per game, and the power play is clicking at a 23.9 percent rate, second only to first-place (and No. 1 in the nation) Merrimack. Most impressive is the offensive depth, with five players in double-digit points, something only three other teams – Boston College (eight), Boston University and UNH (five each) – can claim.

A little ways down I-93, the road hasn’t been quite as smooth for Northeastern, and the Huskies’ 1-7-2 start suggested that alumnus Jim Madigan’s (Milton, Mass.) first season behind the bench might be a long one. Yet in a testament to not closing any doors after only two months, the Huskies are suddenly on a three-game win streak, including two league victories over Providence and Vermont, plus a non-conference scalping at Michigan.

Northeastern may be on the bottom end of the three-way logjam in fifth place, but with 13 goals in the last three games, the offense is coming alive and finally bringing junior goaltender Chris Rawlings a little more support. It’s probably safe to say that the 4-0 win over New Hampshire in the second week of the season was at least a little fluky, but Madigan’s influence is starting to show, and with two games this weekend at Notre Dame, the Huskies have a premier opportunity to prove themselves as contenders.

It’d be hard to believe that all three teams will be able to last the whole year in their new coaches’ debut seasons, but for now, the league’s three hottest rookies might be guys wearing suits to the rink each game night, not sweaters.

Game of the Week

Boston University at Boston College, Friday

The ancient rivals get together for a home-and-home that starts at Conte Forum Friday night, before moving to Agganis Arena Saturday, and it’ll be the last time the first-place Eagles see the third-place Terriers until the second night of the Beanpot at the earliest.

Hockey East power ratings

1. Merrimack (9-0-1, 6-0-1 HEA) – Two weeks ago, the Warriors became the No. 1 team in the nation for the first time in the program’s history. After a 6-0 stomping of Alabama-Huntsville to run their season-opening unbeaten streak to 10 games, the Warriors got an even louder endorsement, earning all 34 first-place votes in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll.

2. Boston College (10-4-0, 7-2-0) – It’s sort of hard to believe, but at the moment the Eagles might be struggling more than almost any Hockey East team, with three losses in their last five games. A 3-2 win over Yale on Nov. 26, anchored by a sterling 31-save debut effort by freshman goaltender Brian Billett (Kennebunk, Maine), calmed the waves a little bit, but with two games against suddenly surging BU this weekend, BC needs to batten down the hatches and get things straightened out quickly.

3. Boston University (7-4-1, 5-3-1) – The Terriers might just be the hottest team in the league after Merrimack, with four straight wins pulling them into contention for home ice and the No. 13 ranking in the nation. Goaltender Kieran Millan, in particular, has sparkled with just two goals allowed in his last three starts, including the Nov. 13 shutout of BC.

4. UMass-Lowell (7-4-0, 4-3-0) – As we covered above, the River Hawks are on a tear of late, with five wins in their last six games – four out of five against Hockey East teams. It doesn’t get any easier, though, with a home-and-home this weekend against New Hampshire, the team that handed them their only loss in that six-game stretch.

5. Providence (6-6-1, 4-3-0) – The Friars have come back to earth with three straight losses, including a 5-2 defeat to Northeastern. They’ve been outscored 14-5 in those three losses, after outscoring their first 10 opponents 37-27.

6. UNH (6-6-2, 4-4-1) – It’s been feast or famine for the Wildcats over the last few weeks, with a pair of runaway wins over UMass-Lowell (5-0) and Alabama-Huntsville (9-1) bookending a pair of ugly losses to BU (4-1) and Harvard (7-6) – the former because of the score, the latter because of the caliber of opponent, which is currently seventh in ECAC.

7. Northeastern (4-7-2, 3-7-2) – It’s amazing what can happen in three games. With a 5-2 win over Providence and 4-1 victories over Vermont and Michigan (highlighted by Essex, Mass., native Cody Ferriero’s first-ever two-goal game), the Huskies have themselves a season all of a sudden, after starting with just one win in their first 10 games.

8. Maine (4-6-2, 3-5-1) – Maine snapped a five-game winless streak with Nov. 26’s win over Clarkson, but they still don’t have a victory over a Hockey East team since Oct. 29 against Providence, and have to be looking at this weekend’s two-game set at last-place Vermont as a chance to get back in the hunt.

9. UMass (4-7-3, 2-6-2) – The Minutemen started November with such promise, winning three out of the first four games of the month, including a huge victory over then-No. 1 Boston College on Nov. 5, but it’s gone pretty sideways since, with no wins in their last four games.

10. Vermont (3-8-1, 1-6-1) – The Catamounts played three games in five days last week, but made the most of the schedule crunch with a pair of wins, including the Nov. 22 victory over UMass in an annual Thanksgiving appetizer game. Freshman Kyle Reynolds earned league rookie of the week honors after scoring two in that game, including the winning goal, as well as an assist in the 5-3 win over Dartmouth on Nov. 27.

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