It has been a long wait, but the Division 1 men’s college hockey season is finally here.
Five teams in other parts of the country opened their schedules last weekend, the first New England action took place on Thursday night with Holy Cross falling, 3-2, in overtime to the nation’s newest program in Long Island University. The Crusaders are the first Atlantic Hockey team in action this season and will host the second game of the season-opening series on Sunday.
Hockey East’s season kicks off on Friday with the start of two home-and-home series. Boston College will entertain New Hampshire in its debut, while Massachusetts takes on Connecticut in a series that was scheduled on Wednesday after it was deemed that Maine was unable to host games in Alfond Arena this weekend and Vermont postponed its return to play until December.
The return of live action to New England is exciting in itself, but here are 10 reasons to keep your eyes — from a social distance, of course — on the college game this winter:
Even with a reduced number of teams in action nationwide due to coronavirus-related season cancellations, New England is home to seven of the top 20 teams in the national rankings. Six of those clubs play in Hockey East, which planned a 20-game league schedule and “non-conference” flex weekends for all 11 teams.
“I told the players right from the beginning in September that this is a year where we’re going to have to be flexible and very mentally tough because decisions change by the minute,” UConn head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “It’s been a long training session between quarantines, sitting out, contact tracing. It’s been fractured, to say the least, but our guys have been mentally tough … and they’re ready to play hockey.”
The nation’s No. 2 team is Boston College, the Hockey East preseason favorite for the third straight season and fourth time in six years. The Eagles finished atop the standings with 17 league wins a year ago, winning their record 17th regular-season championship.
Massachusetts (No. 7), UMass Lowell (No. 12), Providence (No. 15), Northeastern (No. 18) and Boston University (No. 20) are the other Hockey East teams holding rankings.
With ECAC powers such as Cornell — No. 1 in the nation when the pandemic derailed things in March — and Harvard not competing, polls have a certain “asterisk” feel to them this season but still can be an indicator of a program’s progress.
With the Ivy League season canceled, Quinnipiac (No. 13) will be the lone New England-based ECAC team playing in 2020-21, beginning its season with nine non-conference games before the start of 2021. American International, Sacred Heart and Bentley were predicted at the top of Atlantic Hockey’s preseason poll.
Providence’s Jack Dugan led the nation with 52 points in 34 games last season before signing with the Vegas Golden Knights, but New England is still home to four of the top five returning offensive producers entering the season.
While Harvard’s reigning ECAC Rookie of the Year Nick Abruzzese and the rest of the Ivy League won’t be in action this winter, Tyce Thompson (Milford, Conn.) returns to the Friars following a 19-goal sophomore year. BU’s David Farrance led the nation’s defensemen with 14 goals and 43 points, becoming the second-ever BU blueliner selected as a Hobey Baker finalist.
Rounding out the nation’s top scorers is BC sophomore Alex Newhook, the reigning Tim Taylor National Rookie of the Year who will be away from the Eagles through at least the end of 2020 as he trains with Team Canada for the IIHF World Junior Championship. BC senior Logan Hutsko matched Newhook and Thompson with 19 goals, while New Hampshire’s Angus Crookshank had 16 as a sophomore.
Quinnipiac returns senior Odeen Tufto, the ECAC’s top assist man and third-leading scorer following his third straight 30-point season. Bentley brings back its own 30-point scorer — the league’s top returner in the goals department — in junior Jakov Novak. Despite American International losing six senior forwards, senior Tobias Fladeby and junior Ellijah Barriga return after combining for 23 goals.
Stars in the back
Maine’s Jeremy Swayman, now a Boston Bruin, and UMass Lowell’s Tyler Wall are among the departures from last season’s outstanding crop of New England goaltenders, but there is plenty of new and returning talent to be showcased between the pipes.
Spencer Knight (Darien, Conn.) was highly touted as a BC freshman last year, finishing the year on a 8-0-1 run as he ranked ninth nationally with his 1.97 GAA and .931 save percentage. UMass returns an outstanding tandem of senior Matt Murray and junior Filip Lindberg, the former who has eight career shutouts, while UNH senior Mike Robinson (Bedford, N.H.) and UConn junior Tomas Vomacka also return to starting jobs in Hockey East.
One of the top ECAC netminders is now-Quinnipiac senior Keith Petruzzelli (Wilbraham, Mass.), who won 21 games and finished third in the league with a 2.01 GAA last year. In Atlantic Hockey, Matt Radomsky returns to Holy Cross after starting 34 of the team’s 37 games as a freshman.
There is plenty to like on defense as the likes of Providence junior Michael Callahan (Franklin, Mass.), Zac Jones and Marc Del Gaizo of UMass, Declan Carlile and Zach Uens of Merrimack, and Northeastern’s Jordan Harris (Haverhill, Mass.) return to Hockey East. Jones dished out 20 assists as a freshman.
American International’s Brennan Kapcheck, a former Atlantic Hockey Rookie of the Year and two-time All-AHC first-team pick who had 23 assists last year, and Quinnipiac’s Peter DiLiberatore are two of the best outside of Hockey East.
New England’s success of elite rookie seasons continued in 2019-20 as Newhook became the eighth New England player in 14 seasons to win the Tim Taylor Award. There is plenty of first-year talent looking to be the next in line this year.
The top Hockey East player drafted in 2020 was Northeastern freshman Sam Colangelo (Stoneham, Mass.), who went to Anaheim in the second round. Two other Huskies newcomers were seventh-round picks in forward Gunnarwolfe Fontaine (East Greenwich, R.I.) and goaltender Devon Levi, who has joined Newhook at Canada’s world junior camp.
“The talent level in practice and the speed is the best I’ve seen since I’ve been here at Northeastern,” said Zach Solow, the Huskies’ captain. “It’s going to open a lot of eyes when people see us play.”
All three of BU’s newest draftees came from the National Team Development Program and were taken within the first 86 picks in goaltender Drew Commesso (Norwell, Mass.) and forwards Luke Tuch and Dylan Peterson. Their U.S. teammate Eamon Powell is on the BC blue line, where fellow fourth-rounder Colby Ambrosio is a first-year forward.
Forwards Brett Berard (East Greenwich, R.I.) and Chase Yoder are the remaining two NTDP products in Hockey East who were drafted last month, both playing for Providence. In the ECAC, look for fellow NTDP alum Ty Smilanic to make an impact at Quinnipiac.
It’s no surprise that prep products dot New England college rosters, but the region’s top scorer last winter is making the jump straight to Hockey East this season in Merrimack’s Alex Jefferies (Lunenburg, Mass.), another 2020 draft pick who completed his career at The Gunnery. Former Lawrence Academy defenseman Conor Lovett (Franklin, Mass.) also has joined the Warriors.
Among others, UConn welcomes two familiar players to Nutmeg State fans in former Salisbury standout Nick Capone (East Haven, Conn.) and Hotchkiss grad Gavin Puskar (Farmington, Conn). Forward Gentry Shamburger and goaltender Henry Wilder (Needham, Mass.) went to BC straight from Avon Old Farms and Hotchkiss, respectively.
UMass Lowell’s rookie class includes former Dexter Southfield defenseman Ben Meehan, a Walpole, Mass., native who was drafted after spending last year in the USHL.
Vermont and Dartmouth are two former ECAC rivals in northern New England, and both programs welcomed in new head coaches this offseason straight from the National Hockey League ranks.
Todd Woodcroft takes over the Vermont program after spending the past four seasons on the Winnipeg Jets bench. His career has included time as a scout for several NHL teams and coaching at the international level in Olympic Winter Games and the World Cup. His team is led by a sophomore captain in defenseman Andrew Lucas, while his staff includes two very familiar names: NHL coaching veteran Mike Babcock as an advisor and former Boston Bruin Mark Stuart as a volunteer assistant.
Returning to the college game after two years as an assistant with the Washington Capitals is new Dartmouth boss Reid Cashman, a former All-American defenseman at Quinnipiac who later helped his alma mater to two Frozen Four appearances as an assistant coach. Of course, Cashman will have to wait until the 2021-22 season to make his official Big Green debut.
At this time, five Hockey East teams have New England natives wearing the ‘C’ as captains in 2020-21: BC’s Marc McLaughlin (North Billerica, Mass.), UConn’s Adam Karashik (Ridgefield, Conn.), Maine’s Jack Quinlivan (Shrewsbury, Mass.), UMass Lowell’s Connor Sodergren (Tewksbury, Mass.), and UNH’s Charlie Kelleher (Longmeadow, Mass.). Callahan was a co-captain as a Providence sophomore, but that team’s captains for this season have yet to be announced.
McLaughlin takes on a leadership role as a junior Eagle. Sodergren is the first River Hawk captain from within the state since Derek Arnold (Foxboro, Mass.) in 2013-14, returning to a team that lost just two senior skaters.
Especially in today’s circumstances, the leadership of those wearing letters is vital.
“It’s one thing to be a leader when you’re here at the rink with (coaches), but the guys are, most of the time, not with us,” UNH coach Mike Souza said. “That’s when leadership is really called for. Charlie and Patrick (Grasso), Benton (Maass) and Eric MacAdams (Salem, Mass.) have all done a tremendous job with that.”
BC enters this season as a definite national contender just as it finished in March, but the addition of freshman Trevor Kuntar makes the Eagles an even more intriguing team for New England fans to watch, as he is the first Bruins prospect on their roster since Ryan Fitzgerald (North Reading, Mass.) graduated in 2017.
An All-USHL second-team forward with Youngstown last season, Kuntar was Boston’s 2020 third-round draft pick. He joins Michigan’s John Beecher and captain Jack Becker, Clarkson’s Dustyn McFaul, Minnesota Duluth’s Quinn Olson, and Yale’s Curtis Hall as Bruins prospects on college rosters this year.
“People have to understand he’s a first-year Hockey East player, but he’s really competitive and an excellent prospect for the Bruins,” BC coach Jerry York, who enters his 48th year on a college bench with 1,091 career wins, said of Kuntar. “Seeing the success that Butch Cassidy has had is amazing and hopefully Trevor will improve and at some point help the Boston Bruins.”
In Hockey East, it’s free!
Though fan attendance is restricted due to COVID-19 protocols, every Hockey East game in the men’s and women’s leagues this season will be streamed for free.
All games will be made available across the U.S. and internationally on SportsLive, while the vast schedule of televised games on NESN and NESN+ and other select matchups also will be made available on CBSSports.com and the CBS Sports app outside of New England. The schedule of NESN games through Jan. 1 already has been released, with more to come.
Though Holy Cross took on an opponent from outside of New England in its season debut, the first-year independent Long Island program has established a scheduling partnership with Atlantic Hockey to make up the majority of its schedule.
South Hamilton, Mass., native Brett Riley leads the Sharks as the nation’s youngest head coach at 29 years old. His roster includes four Hockey East transfers in former UNH defenseman Nolan McElhaney (Natick, Mass.) and UMass Lowell forward Derek Osik (Shrewsbury, Mass.), and goaltenders Stephen Mundinger and Vinnie Purpura from Maine and BU, respectively.
Two other Bay State products are freshman forward Jack Quinn (Lancaster, Mass.), who played in the NAHL last season, and former RPI defenseman Mat Harris (Sudbury, Mass.). Zack Bross is another transfer on the blue line from D-3 UMass Boston.