While four Hockey East teams took part in the first two Frozen Fenway games of the season, another four played regular league action that kicked off the official start of Hockey East’s second half. We saw Massachusetts pick up three points in its two games to sneak back into a playoff spot, while Boston University’s win over Merrimack pushed it into first place — for the time being.
Both of these teams enter the final two months of league play among the most interesting stories. Aside from UMass Lowell’s chance to turn its strong first half into a strong season and New Hampshire’s decline, the Minutemen and Terriers both still have much to prove in Hockey East play — though their aims are very different at this point.
Their fans are pleased with their performances over the weekend, but neither side is satisfied — knowing they have far more ahead of them.
Three points are big, but UMass is still looking likely for ninth place
Prior to Saturday’s game with Vermont, UMass left Schneider Arena disappointed and relieved with its tie at Providence on Thursday. It’ll take the point, but UMass wasted a pair of leads and eventually saw the Friars take a 4-3 lead before Danny Hobbs‘ extra-man goal sent the game to overtime. The extra period proved kinder to the Minutemen Saturday afternoon, as Michael Marcou scored with 22.9 seconds remaining to pick up two points.
Now, a team hoping for nothing more than playoff spot isn’t complaining about a three-point week. But the Minutemen didn’t show much beyond a little more maturity than they had through their first 17 games of the season.
Against UVM, they failed to control play for any extended period of time nor did they plainly look to be the better team. As it often does in hockey, luck played a major factor in the win. In overtime, goaltender Jeff Teglia stopped a point blank attempt from former junior teammate Colin Markison — the two won a championship with Omaha of the USHL — that was about a half a foot from sneaking over Teglia’s shoulder. Similarly, no one really knows how exactly Marcou’s shot found its way past UVM goaltender Rob Madore and the handful of players battling before him.
The wasted leads and eventual deficit at Providence tell the same tale, really. The Minutemen are a fairly talented team, but they’re not a club that can build a lead it and hold it — at least they haven’t done so consistently. The wins over Cornell and Yale may tell a different story, but the keyword is “consistently.” Some will say UMass is still young, and this is part of its process. But if the Minutemen want to make the Hockey East playoffs, the process better become a whole lot shorter.
UNH’s team defense will be its undoing
For all intents and purposes, Casey DeSmith now seems like the No. 1 goaltender for UNH. After a pair of losses to Lowell in early December, UNH coach Dick Umile had seen just about all he had to from senior Matt Di Girolamo. Since the initial benching of Di Girolamo, the Wildcats have improved to a point.
Not much else has, though. The Wildcat skaters have still failed to provide the support necessary for any collegiate goaltender to win, and they’ve gone 0-3-0 in that stretch. Against Maine on Saturday, the UNH offense, which has been its usual self for the most part, put four past Maine goaltender Dan Sullivan. However, defensive breakdowns, paired with brilliant play from the Black Bears’ top line, eventually undid UNH in overtime.
Saturday’s loss was hardly the best example of the defensive daze that has been UNH’s 2011-12 season, but it put the Wildcats in as bad as a spot as they’ve been in years. The defeat and UMass’ three-point week dropped UNH to ninth place in Hockey East — one point behind UMass and Northeastern, who sit tied in seventh place. Now, the Wildcats are a better team than UMass, so qualifying for the Hockey East playoffs really shouldn’t be a problem. Hell, they have 14 more league games, including two with the Minutemen and one with the Huskies, so they have plenty of chances to get points.
Those aren’t the expectations for the Wildcats, though. Despite a trophy drought of seven seasons — UNH’s last postseason title was the 2003 Hockey East Championship — fans throughout New Hampshire expect championships. They’re not going to get it this season, though, and poor defensive execution will be the reason.
BU played a complete game, and it never really seemed in doubt
Before Corey Trivino was kicked off the team and Charlie Coyle left for Saint John, the biggest problem for BU was its inability to finish games. The most glaring offense came on Nov. 11, when the Terriers allowed Merrimack to tie the game with 1:56 left in regulation and net the winner in overtime. Despite these struggles, which BU coach Jack Parker has been unhappy with even after certain wins, the Terriers ended the first half in pretty good shape — a point back of BC in second place in Hockey East and top 5 in the PairWise.
On Friday night, the Terriers defeated Merrimack, 4-2, and seemed to play their best hockey after the Warriors cut a 3-1 BU lead to 3-2 in the second period. The selfish play that frequently concerned — infuriated — Parker in the first half was absent against Merrimack. Players like Alex Chiasson and most BU defensemen notorious for their poor play late in games were terrific in finishing off Merrimack.
Losing to Notre Dame on New Year’s Eve was a tough way to begin the first half for BU. But the Terriers responded with one of their best efforts of the season.