The Hockey East picture is becoming a little clearer, but, as is so often the case, parity and rivalries will make the 2011-12 campaign a long, arduous one.
Boston University (4-4-1, 3-3-1) got a big shot in the arm last Sunday with a 5-0 victory at Boston College, which dropped a spot to No. 3 in the USCHO.com national poll.
The Terriers were 2 for 5 on the power play, with the Eagles a fruitless 0 for 8.
Before that, on Friday, BU acquitted itself well against visiting Merrimack in a 3-2 overtime loss at Agganis Arena.
Heading into this weekend’s home games against Vermont (1-5-1, 0-4-1) and New Hampshire (4-4-2, 3-3-1), the Terriers are continuing to forge their identity.
The team was banking on last year’s freshmen taking bigger roles, which is exactly what is happening, as sophomores Matt Nieto (7 goals, 5 assists, team-high 12 points), Charlie Coyle (1-9-10), Sahir Gill (3-6-9), and Adam Clendening (0-7-7).
“We knew we had big expectations for them and they were going to get thrown right into the mix,’’ said BU captain Chris Connolly. “It’s hard for freshmen to have to carry that much responsibility. But I think, particularly in the second half of the season, they were all pretty comfortable in their roles and pretty confident in what they were doing.
“They’re adding a lot to our team. It’s not a surprise to see them picking up where they left off, especially Matt Nieto, who was arguably the hottest forward on our team come the end of the year, and it looks like he picked up right where he left off.’’
Senior goaltender Kieran Millan has held the fort. Against the potent BC offense, BU held the Eagles to 21 shots.
Connolly said it’s helped that they haven’t left Millan out to dry.
“Our mentality is we’ve got a guy back there who gives us a lot of confidence, but we can’t take that for granted,’’ he said. “We don’t need him to see 35 shots every night.
“Being able to keep [BC] to under 25 shots is a testament to our team defense and took a lot of weight off of Kieran’s shoulders.’’
Connolly said killing off the eight BC power plays is something they expect.
“Our [PK] has always been one of our staples here,’’ said Connolly, whose team leads the nation in shorthanded goals with five. “Special teams can win your games, especially in playoffs. We had a lot of sense of urgency in trying to get in front of pucks and making sure they only had one opportunity in clearing out some of the rebounds.
“We know what kind of offensive talent they have. They can explode for two or three goals in a period, no problem.’’
As for what the Terriers can expect for the long haul, the captain said it’s too soon to say, but their goal is to develop consistency.
“We’ve had some peaks and valleys, which isn’t what you want and isn’t the makeup of a great team,’’ he said. “A great team plays consistently night in and night out.
“Lucky for us, it’s still early in the season for us, so we’re still working out the kinks. We’re just trying to give a 60-minute effort every night. Friday was as close to that as we have had, and Sunday was our most complete effort.’’
Back on opening night, the Terriers shut down the Wildcats, 5-0, but Connolly said they’re not counting on that happening again.
“They’ve absolutely picked up their play since the start of the season,’’ he said. “They’re a different team than we saw.’’
Merrimack is off this weekend, which isn’t a bad time for a break. As the nation’s only undefeated team, the Warriors (8-0-1, 6-0-1) deserve to relish their No. 2 national ranking, the highest in school history. It’s a pretty substantial accomplishment, given that the Warriors lost their top three scorers from a year ago. One reason they are where they are is the stellar play of senior goaltender Joe Cannata, who has a .940 save percentage (fourth in the country) and a 1.48 goals-against average. “I think they’re a very solid team, there’s no question about that,’’ said BU coach Jack Parker. “I don’t think they’re anywhere near as good a team up front as they were last year. They lost an awful lot. I’m not sure that BC or Merrimack are as good as they were last year.’’
Parker said one of the best lessons the Terriers have learned came from up-and-comer UMass-Lowell, which delivered a 7-1 beating Nov. 5. “They blew us out of the building,’’ said Parker. “The score was not indicative of the game; they really hammered us. Hopefully, we learned that lesson and realize you have to play hard every night if you want to win hockey games in this league.’’ . . . Harvard kicks off its road schedule this weekend with visits to Clarkson tonight and St. Lawrence tomorrow. Although the Crimson have just one victory (1-2-1), they are getting balanced scoring, with 12 players registering at least a point last week in contests against Cornell and Colgate. Freshman goalie Steve Michalek is making a case for the regular starting job with a .910 save percentage and 2.65 GAA. Harvard has netted at least one power-play goal per game and is second nationally in efficiency (27.3 percent, 6 for 22).