One of the best examples of parity in Hockey East is that no matter how successful a weekend a team has just had, there is another formidable challenge right around the corner.
No. 15 Vermont (15-9-3) is coming off a sweep at the University of New Hampshire (16-15-1), but the Catamounts can’t afford to rest on their laurels. No. 1-ranked Boston College (22-4-3), fresh off its fifth straight Beanpot Tournament championship, will invade Gutterson Fieldhouse for a two-game set beginning Friday night.
Since coach Jerry York put together the Super Line of left wing Johnny Gaudreau, center Bill Arnold, and right wing Kevin Hayes on Dec. 6, the Eagles are undefeated (14-0-1).
Look for junior defenseman Michael Paliotta and his partner, freshman Rob Hamilton, to see a lot of ice time against that combination but it also will be defense by committee.
“It’s one of those situations where you have to make sure you’re playing as good as you possibly can defensively without giving them time and space,’’ said Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon. “The mistake we would make, or any coach would make, would be trying to pull back and only think defensively against that line. If you give them time and space, they’re going to make plays. We’re not in a situation where we shadow Johnny Gaudreau or anything like that. I think it would be disrespectful to the other players that they have. We’ve got a tall order, we know it. We respect them. But we just played a very good UNH team, which has a lot of talent. We feel that when we play a solid team game, we can beat anyone in the country.’’
The Catamounts will have last change, which will give Sneddon the matchups he wants, and Paliotta will have a large presence. He plays upward of 20 minutes per outing and that could be even higher in these two contests.
“He’s been our most improved player from freshman year to his junior year,’’ said Sneddon. “He came to us as a high-profile draft pick out of the [US] national program. His game has [grown by] leaps and bounds since his freshman year. He’s worked hard to improve. The offensive side is certainly a plus for us. He’s getting shots through for us five on five and on the power play. He controls things in our zone, he’s big and physical without taking a lot of penalties. That used to be something that plagued him.’’
Paliotta, who scored 10 points in each of his first two seasons, heads into the weekend with a career-high 19. Vermont is 10-2-0 when Paliotta scores a point.
Sneddon said Paliotta has worked in the gym to fill out his 6-foot-3-inch, 201-pound frame.
“He’s a very dedicated young man,’’ said the coach. “He’s really hungry, he wants it. He’s taken on some leadership responsibilities and I can certainly see him being our captain next year.’’
Vermont, 4-1 in its last five, has been consistent whether home or away. The Catamounts are 7-4-2 at Gutterson, 7-5-1 away, and 1-0-0 on neutral ice. They got a boost from their successful weekend against UNH at the Whittemore Center.
“We had a great weekend, our team played well,’’ said Sneddon. “It was kind of two different games. The first game, we had great jump to our legs and I don’t think they felt they worked as hard as they needed to. We were able to get some timely scoring in bunches and close out the game. We knew the next night, they would really come at us and it was a much closer, tighter game.’’
With only 20 league games this season, every point is precious and to earn four points in a weekend is a big boost.
“Any coach in the league would say, and it doesn’t matter who you’re playing, to go on the road and get a four-point weekend is huge,’’ said Sneddon. “It’s a very difficult task.’’
Taking on the Eagles will be difficult, too, but Sneddon said one thing the Catamounts won’t do is obsess about BC’s offense.
“If you worry so much about matchups and things like that, then your team’s not focused on doing the things they need to do and just playing the game,’’ said Sneddon. “Our strength is playing a team game. It’s five guys working well together. The strength of our team as of late is we’ve been able to go and utilize four lines and six defensemen so we’re not fatiguing our team too much. We feel we can skate with anybody and hopefully outwork people down the stretch.’’
Despite Northeastern losing in the Beanpot final, the Huskies proved that they could compete with the Eagles and Sneddon said he was impressed.
“I thought they played fantastic,’’ said Sneddon. “We had some great games with Northeastern this year. Their work ethic, their discipline — they didn’t take a penalty [in the Beanpot final] — they played aggressive. They tried to take away time and space from BC. I think they played a really smart hockey game. It really came down to that one play. Pat Brown makes an unbelievable tip while falling down. That’s the difference in the game and BC playing with the lead is very confident. I’m sure it’s disappointing for [NU coach Jim Madigan] but he’s got to be proud just the same that they played their game plan to a T.’’
Merrimack (7-16-3) will travel to Alfond Arena to take on Maine (13-10-3) for a pair of games. No. 9 Providence (15-8-5) will host No. 20 Notre Dame (16-12-1) for two at Schneider Arena. The Friars will try to rebound from a disappointing home loss to UConn on Tuesday night. Boston University (8-16-4) has a home-and-home series against the Wildcats this weekend. NU has Friday off but will travel to the Mullins Center for a game at UMass (8-17-4) on Saturday. The Minutemen play at No. 7 UMass-Lowell (19-7-3) on Friday . . . On Saturday, Holy Cross will host its fifth annual “Pink in the Rink’’ at the Hart Center during its game against Connecticut. The Crusaders will be wearing special edition white and pink jerseys to show support for breast cancer awareness.Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Elle1027.