Maine’s sweep of Boston University thrust the Black Bears into the national spotlight. Not only are they a realistic contender for their first Hockey East Championship since 2004, but Tim Whitehead’s club could very well challenge for a national title if it can sustain the level of play it has over the last two months.
Consecutive sweeps over BU and Boston College have Maine just one point short of first place in Hockey East, where BC and BU are tied with 25 points a piece. While the Black Bears have played more games than any club in Hockey East except for BC, they’ve made the most out of those games. With Alabama-Huntsville heading to Orono next week, Maine has the opportunity to maintain its current level of play without the grind of late-season Hockey East games.
However, the pair with UAH means that the league standings, and Maine’s position within the conference, will be drastically different when it resumes Hockey East play in two weeks. Visits to Providence and UMass Lowell on Feb. 10 and 11 will be as critical as these last four wins over BC and BU. Further showing that if red-hot Maine takes UAH lightly, it could easily suffer a major setback in its quest for a league championship and run through the NCAA Tournament.
There are 5 legitimate contenders for the Hockey East Championship
Despite its sweep at the hands of Maine, BU remains the favorite in Hockey East. The losses were a setback, but BU is still tied with BC atop the league standings with a game in hand over the Eagles and the tiebreaker already clinched. Both the Eagles and Terriers are, as usual, contenders for a league title.
Outside of those two, UMass Lowell, Maine and Merrimack are all good enough to unseat the Eagles and Terriers, who have won the last seven league championships between them. Maine was the last team outside of Comm. Ave to win the league, while Lowell and Merrimack are still looking for their first. Lowell currently sits in fifth, one point back of fourth-place Merrimack with all three games between the clubs yet to be played.
Meanwhile, BC used this weekend to quell concerns over its status. The Eagles swept New Hampshire this weekend after losing a pair at Maine last weekend. Goaltending is still a question for BC, with neither Parker Milner, Chris Venti or Brian Billet playing well — or poor — enough for Jerry York to name a No. 1. With January now over for all intents and purposes, both BC and BU will focus in the Beanpot before the final stretch of Hockey East play continues.
Much like last year, the league title and automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament are to be had. The question now is if anyone can actually knock BC or BU along the way.
Loss of Alexx Privitera could be a problem for BU
BU freshman defenseman Alexx Privitera suffered a broken wrist in Friday night’s 4-2 loss to Maine. Since December, Privitera has emerged as a strong offensive presence on the BU blue line, chipping in three goals and five assists on his way to becoming a regular in the BU rotation and on the power play.
As such, senior Ryan Ruikka, a part-time player for most of his career, will see more ice time with Privitera expected to miss at least four weeks. Now, Privitera was hardly a defensive stalwart, but the jump in his game in December and January compared to October and November was noticeable. BU’s power play improved drastically, along with its overall team defense. The club’s defensemen are largely responsible for that. With Garrett Noonan, Adam Clendening and Max Nicastro back there, Privitera was hardly the only BU blue liner capable of changing a game with his offense, but none of those three move the puck as well as the freshman.
Injuries are a concern for every club at this point, and BU is hardly shallow on defense due to Privitera’s injury. Still, the club does lose a dimension to its game with him on the shelf. One they’ll need to live without until he’s back.
UNH can’t catch a break, but it’s not exactly helping itself either
The sweep UNH suffered against BC last weekend means the Wildcats have now lost three in a row, after winning as many to start the second half. Currently, UNH is in ninth place in Hockey East, a point back of Massachusetts and Notheastern, which are tied for seventh place. UMass has two games in hand over UNH, while Northeastern has one. The Wildcats have as many games left against each club, though, so it can essentially offset those deficits with wins.
Getting wins has been the hardest part of the season for UNH, though. Dick Umile’s frustration is palpable. The Wildcats have had very little luck this season, but they’ve hardly created their own either. Throughout the year, defensive breakdowns and poor goaltending have led to scoring chances goals for their opponents. While UNH is still scoring at a UNH-like rate, the club has not been able to achieve any form of consistency on the defensive end at any point this year.
When Maine missed the Hockey East Tournament in 2008, most people were shocked to an extent. Still, the problems that plagued Maine that year were anticipated for the most part. After 10 consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament, few expected the Wildcats to miss its conference tournament entirely this season — if ever. Without some fast improvements and a few key wins, that’s exactly what may happen.