It’s that time again. Ten of the 11 Hockey East teams are enjoying the semester break with Providence joining them after a game at Army Friday night.
Some programs are in command under the new scheduling formula with only 20 league games, and others are struggling. For the first time, though, all 11 teams make the postseason. That fact alone sets the stage for potential first-round upsets.
It’s a given that all the teams are a work in progress, but some have made more progress than others:
Boston College (10-4-2, 6-1-1)
The Eagles are very young and also very talented. The biggest question mark going into the season was goaltending. Junior Brian Billett (right) and freshman Thatcher Demko have answered the bell, however. The young forwards and defensemen have contributed and no doubt will play a bigger role in the second half, although they will be short-staffed because of the World Junior Tournament. Johnny Gaudreau continues to dazzle. Two areas that need improvement are team defense and consistency.
Providence (11-2-3, 6-2-1)
You can’t argue with the results, but the Friars will have to rally around freshman goaltender Nick Ellis as sophomore Jon Gillies departs for the World Juniors. Providence has built on last season’s fine campaign and coach Nate Leaman has his sophomore-laden squad moving in the right direction. The Friars have the second-best offense in the league (3.56 goals per game, behind BC’s 4.19) and the second-best scoring defense (2.06, behind UMass-Lowell’s 1.88). The power play, tied for ninth in the league with 11 goals on 76 attempts for 14.5 percent, needs to be better but the Stanley Cup champion Bruins fared pretty well in 2011 with no man advantage to speak of.
New Hampshire (9-9-1, 5-5-0)
The Wildcats stumbled out of the gate with a 1-5-1 record. They responded with an 8-2 run over the next 10 contests, including three shutouts. They ended the semester on a sour note, though, when they were swept by BC. Look for the Wildcats to come into the second half hungrier. The team is one of the more balanced in the league, with nine players scoring 10 or more points. Junior Casey DeSmith (right) continues to be a stalwart in goal. Areas that need to improve are the penalty kill, which is 10th in the league, at 79.3 percent (46 for 58). UNH is the highest scoring team in the league in the second period (24 goals) but the team needs to clamp down also, because the Wildcats have given up 22 goals in the middle 20 minutes, second most behind UMass (27).
Maine (9-6-1, 4-2-1)
It’s been an up-and-down season for the Black Bears under first-year coach Dennis “Red’’ Gendron. But they went into the break riding a three-game winning streak by beating UMass-Lowell and sweeping American International. Everyone appreciates home-ice advantage but the Black Bears’ biggest challenge is figuring out a way to win away from Alfond Arena. Maine is 9-1-0 at home but a dismal 0-5-1 on the road.
UMass-Lowell (11-5-0, 4-2-0)
The River Hawks got the mother of all wake-up calls in the opener when they lost to Sacred Heart. A 1-3 start was the last thing they expected coming off the program’s first appearance in the Frozen Four. But coach Norm Bazin’s squad has certainly figured it out since and is 10-2 in the last 12, which started with victories at Michigan State and Michigan. Although the scoring isn’t prolific — senior forward Derek Arnold (right) is at the top with 12 points in 16 games — the goaltending tandem of sophomore Connor Hellebuyck (.947, 1.72) and senior Doug Carr (.933, 1.82) has been pivotal.
Vermont (8-6-1, 4-5-0)
The Catamounts went into the break on a strong note with five victories in six outings. But the fact of the matter is, if the team is going anywhere down the stretch, it has to beat the better teams in the league, which it has been unable to do to this point. Next up is the Catamount Cup, which Vermont will hope to build on when the break ends.
Northeastern (9-5-2, 3-4-1)
No team was more surprising at the beginning of the year than the Huskies, who won their first five games. There have been some growing pains along the way. They stumbled to a 1-5 record following that, including sweeps at the hands of BC and UNH, but have since righted the ship. In the final six games heading into the recess, the Huskies went unbeaten in six (4-0-2). Three of the top five scorers are freshmen and sophomore Kevin Roy (right) leads the way with 24 points.
Notre Dame (10-7-1, 3-4-1)
Given the Fighting Irish’s talent, it’s a bit stunning to see them below .500 in their first half league schedule, but the team was so burdened by injuries that coach Jeff Jackson (right) had to tap into the club team to fill out the roster. That has to be frustrating for any bench boss. As much as their schedule is very difficult in the second half, look for Notre Dame to make a strong push down the stretch.
UMass (6-12-2, 2-7-2)
It’s been a bumpy road for the Minutemen this season, particularly on the road, where they’ve won just three times (3-8-1). Although the team is at the bottom of the league statistics in scoring (10th at 2.05 goals per game) and scoring defense (11th at 3.30), the bright spot has been the power play, which is second only to UMass-Lowell with a 22 percent success rate.
Boston University (7-8-2, 2-4-1)
Credit first-year coach David Quinn with throwing himself under the bus when the Terriers lose. However, as noble as that is, it’s not very accurate. Have there been injuries? Sure. But there’s a word for it when some of your better players are on the sideline — opportunity. The remaining Terriers need to step up and contribute more in the first half, particularly five on five. It’s not a great sign when two of your top three scorers are defensemen. The forwards need to do more not only in the attacking zone but in front of their overworked goaltenders.
Merrimack (4-9-2, 1-5-2)
The Warriors probably deserve a D given their anemic offense. The team is dead last in the league in scoring (only 1.73 goals per game), ninth in scoring defense (allowing an average of 2.47), and is last on the power play with an 11.7 success rate (9 for 77).The penalty kill has been good (No. 3 at 85.9 percent). Slow starts have been the killer for the Warriors, with only four total goals scored in the first period in the first 15 games. Lots of improvements are necessary.