Just when you think you have Hockey East figured out, the league landscape changes.
Take Boston College, for example. The Eagles lost their season opener but then went on a 10-0 run before their next loss. The team has hit a rough patch, however, in large part because of subpar team defense. Over the last 12 games, the Eagles are 4-6-2; they have dropped four of their last five but remain in first place by 2 points.
UMass-Lowell has followed the opposite pattern. The River Hawks struggled at the start, going 4-7-1 in their first 12 games. But they are unbeaten in their last 11 (10-0-1) and have moved into a tie for fifth place, 1 point out of fourth — and home ice in the league quarterfinals — with 11 games remaining, seven of them on the road.
New Hampshire started similarly to BC, with a lot of wins out of the gate (11-1-2 in the first 14) but is 4-5-1 in the last 10 and tied for second place with Boston University.
The difference between first and sixth place is just 5 points. The difference between seventh and 10th is 3.
“It actually has taken a bit of a turn,’’ said Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna. “For a while there, it looked like the top three schools were really going to put a lot of distance between [themselves] and the rest.
“BC, New Hampshire, and BU really got off to strong starts and then there was a pack [in the middle] and Maine was really struggling and people were talking in terms of 10th place being theirs.
“Starting over the holidays, the top three started to have some mixed results, the middle group started to have better results, most spectacularly Lowell, and Maine’s [sweep of BC] actually got them back into discussion of grabbing a playoff spot at the end.
“So it’s really been a tale of two seasons. Now, we’re getting back to what we are somewhat accustomed to — going into the last month of the season with all sorts of computer possibilities and home-ice possibilities.’’
This is the last year that two teams will not make it to the postseason. Next season, everyone will qualify.
“Our track record has been such that the 10th place team knocking off the first-place team, as unusual as it is, it does happen in this league,’’ said Bertagna. “A lot of coaches have said that the strength of the league, as they see it, is not just the top teams that carry the banner but the teams at the bottom that make sure that every night, the games are tough so when you get to the postseason, you do feel like you’ve been tested.’’
One of the reasons the league has produced four national champions in the last five years is great coaching by BC veteran Jerry York and longtime BU bench boss Jack Parker. Bertagna said the new blood that has come into Hockey East in the last couple of years — Nate Leaman at Providence, Norm Bazin at UMass-Lowell, and Jim Madigan at Northeastern — has invigorated not only those programs but everyone else’s.
“This is the next wave of coaches who could be here for a long time,’’ said Bertagna. “They’ve made those programs a lot tougher. You hear that when a new coach comes in. Some of the old guard will say, ‘It got tougher still.’
“Jack and Jerry and Dick Umile are not going to be here forever. I think we’re in pretty good hands with [Mark] Dennehy [at Merrimack], and the Bazins and the Leamans. This next batch of young coaches is probably going to make their mark and be around for decades.’’
BU defenseman Garrett Noonan will be back in the lineup against UMass Friday night. Noonan was banished for two games last weekend for spearing UMass-Lowell goaltender Doug Carr. “I kind of learned my lesson,’’ said Noonan. “I’m ready to get back on the ice.’’ . . . Quinnipiac (18-3-3), which is undefeated in ECAC play (11-0-1), emerges from its nine-day break Friday night with a game at Brown, its first of four on the road. Senior forward Jeremy Langlois is averaging exactly a point per game with 23 (11 goals, 12 assists) . . . If you are interested in what goes on before the game in the Merrimack locker room, tune in to NESN Friday night. The network will cover Dennehy’s pregame speech before his team faces No. 12 UMass-Lowell . . . No. 4 UNH, which travels to Northeastern for a game at Matthews Arena Friday night, is the top penalty-killing team in the nation with a 93.4 percent success rate. The Wildcats have killed off 71 of 76 power plays, and they are 7 for 7 in the last two outings. UNH has the stingiest defense in conference play, giving up an average of 1.94 goals per game.
Hoffman is saving them
Vermont, which travels to Conte Forum for a game against No. 5 Boston College Friday, has an emerging star goaltender in freshman Brody Hoffman. Hoffman, who hails from Wilkie, Saskatchewan, has 30 or more saves in 11 contests this season. He has totaled 464 saves, an average of 27.3 per game, in league play which is tops among Hockey East netminders . . . After a busy Friday, there is just one Hockey East game scheduled for Saturday (Merrimack at UNH) and one Sunday (UMass-Lowell at Maine) because of the Beanpot, which begins Monday. How much juice the winners can take out of the tournament remains to be seen. “There have been two types of [bumps],’’ said Bertagna. “It’s been the BU type, a good team that just starts to play better then because they have such [an affinity] for that event. Then, occasionally there’s the team that’s not having a very good year at all and the Beanpot kind of is a season in itself. If you can win the Beanpot, it gives you an opportunity on a big stage to kind of make your season.’’
Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at email@example.com.