November 15, 2013

Hockey East Journal: Points at a premium this season

By Andrew Merritt

Nate Leaman's Providence Friars picked up four big points with a weekend sweep against Merrimack - the only chance those teams will have to battle each other for league points this year. (Photo by Dave Arnold/Hockey Journal)

The changes to Hockey East this year are some of the biggest in many years. The addition of Notre Dame broadens the league’s footprint all the way to the Midwest, and it brings a new playoff structure in which every team makes the postseason, not just the top eight.

But right now, the most obvious difference is that each league team only plays 20 games against conference foes – the fewest since Hockey East was born in 1984 – split into 10 two-game series. One of the side effects of the league’s big shift is that unlike the last nine years, the season series between many teams will be decided in a single weekend, instead of a three-game set spread out over the season.

Seven season series have already been settled, and after this weekend’s games, three more will be in the books. Come Sunday, UNH will have three of its season series decided – the Wildcats went 2-0-0 against UMass and 0-2-0 against UMass-Lowell, and play a home-and-home set against Northeastern this weekend.

For now, league points are league points, and with 20 games available to collect those points, every game matters even more than the 27-game league schedule each team had since Vermont joined in 2004.

“Just the fact that we’re down to 20 games – the Bruins and Chicago, I think the Bruins played 21 or 22 playoff games last year, and Chicago played 23,” said Providence coach Nate Leaman, whose Friars swept Merrimack in a home-and-home last weekend. “So these feel like playoff games when you’re down to 20 games. I thought the whole weekend was playoff hockey. It was very good, physical hockey, and we got better this weekend. That’s what I’m excited about.”

It also means a single weekend now can have big implications for the playoffs some four months down the road. Head-to-head results are the first tiebreaker in the Hockey East playoff procedure, so a two-game sweep now might be the difference between hosting a playoff series and hitting the road in March.

With the Friars off to a 7-1-1 start (3-1-0 in Hockey East) and the Warriors trying to get their feet under them at 3-5-0 (0-2-0), it looks unlikely that the two teams will be tied up by season’s end. Still, Leaman was encouraged to see how his team came back to beat Merrimack 4-2 after being down 2-1 Saturday night, a week after allowing the first goal to Boston University before scoring three unanswered to grind out a win over the Terriers.

“I think the key was, we got some good leadership in the locker room between the second and the third, and the guys didn’t get frustrated,” said Leaman, whose squad actually will play Merrimack again, but in a non-conference game at Fenway Park in January. “I think if you look back at us last year, we’re a year younger last year, we would’ve gotten frustrated in a game like that. We wouldn’t have stuck with a game plan, we wouldn’t have stuck with what we needed to do. I thought tonight the guys just took a deep breath after every period and said, ‘we’re gonna go after it every shift,’ and they stayed positive.”

Those kinds of efforts – the sweat-it-out successes that come on the second night of a weekend sweep – could certainly end up being the difference for Hockey East teams this year, when every league night matters just a little bit more.

Player of the Week

Johnny Gaudreau, jr. F, Boston College

Yup, here’s Johnny again. Gaudreau not only scored seven points (3g, 4a) over the weekend for the Eagles, he had both game winners against BU and Army as the Eagles outscored the Terriers and Black Knights by a combined 16-1 score.

Game of the Week

Boston University at Maine, Friday, Nov. 15

This clash is a perfect example of what we looked at above, how playoff positioning is already at stake with so few games between league foes. The Terriers enter Friday’s game tied with three other teams for third place , while Maine is just one point back but in seventh. A win by the Black Bears vaults them ahead of the Terriers, while a BU victory could have first-year coach David Quinn’s boys a breath away from first place.

Hockey East power rankings

  1. Providence (7-1-1, 3-1-0 HEA) – Goaltender Jon Gillies (South Portland, Maine), posted his seventh career shutout in just his 42nd game as a Friar on Friday night. That matches the program record set by Tyler Sims, who needed 94 games to reach the mark.
  2. Boston College (7-2-1, 4-0-0 HEA) – Needham, Mass., native Bill Arnold became the 75th player in Boston College history to reach the 100-point plateau, assisting on Johnny Gaudreau’s game-winner in a 5-1 victory over Boston University on Friday.
  3. Notre Dame (7-3-0, 1-1-0 HEA) – Sophomore Mario Lucia matched a career high when he scored two goals and an assist in the Irish’s loss to Minnesota. Of course, he had a little extra inspiration: his father, Don, is the coach of the Golden Gophers.
  4. Northeastern (6-3-0, 1-2-0 HEA)Mike Szmatula passed Kevin Roy for the team scoring lead with a goal and an assist against UMass-Lowell on Saturday, and is one of just four players in the country who have played at least six games and scored a point in every one.
  5. Boston University (4-5-0, 2-2-0 HEA) – How young are the Terriers? Just four players on the BU roster – Garrett Noonan (Norfolk, Mass.), Evan Rodrigues, Cason Hohmann and Danny O’Regan (Needham, Mass.) – have scored more than seven career goals.
  6. UMass-Lowell (7-4-0, 2-1-0 HEA) – After having their four-game win streak snapped, the River Hawks hit the road this week for one game at Princeton (a 2-1 win Tuesday), and two at Penn State. Senior Derek Arnold (Foxborough, Mass.) looked at the bright side on Twitter ahead of the trip, posting, “Mimicking the pro life this week with 3 in 4 nights. Should be a great test!”
  7. Vermont (3-3-1, 2-2-0 HEA) – Vermont’s 4-3 win over Maine was a special occasion for coach Kevin Sneddon. The Harvard alum collected his 200th career victory as a Division I head coach, and his 150th behind the Catamount bench. He’s now 150-177-54 since taking over at Vermont in 2003.
  8. Maine (4-4-1, 1-2-1 HEA) – Of the 23 goals scored by the Black Bears so far, 14 have been scored by freshmen and sophomores, and five have been scored by Mark Anthoine (Lewiston, Maine), who leads the team after scoring just four in all of 2012-13.
  9. New Hampshire (4-5-1, 2-2-0 HEA) – The 13 goals the Wildcats scored in a weekend romp over UMass totaled more than 50 percent of the 20 goals they’d scored in the previous eight games. Their nine goals in Saturday’s shutout was the most the program has scored in a single game since Nov. 26, 2011.
  10. Merrimack (3-5-0, 0-2-0 HEA) – Saturday’s loss to Providence was a rarity, as the Warriors were leading the Friars after two periods. It’s the first time they’ve lost in that scenario since Dec. 30, 2012, and they’re now 43-3-4 when leading after two.
  11. UMass (3-7-1, 1-4-1 HEA) – Despite a rough start to the year, the Minutemen are somehow leading the nation in something: the power play is clicking at a 28.6 percent rate, and the team picked up its 14th power play goal on Friday night, tying it with Denver for the most in the country.

Twitter: @A_Merritt