Three Things I Think, November 5: Hockey East

Posted by: Joe Meloni

Five weeks of the 2012-13 season have passed. Boston College put together another four-point weekend and currently has a five-point lead over Merrimack and New Hampshire. While the Eagles have at least games in hand on every conference foe, BC is most certainly the heavy favorite for the league’s regular season title at this point. Early as it is, the Eagles’ class is evident. There’s less fire power in the Heights, but the issues in goal that set BC back a bit last season are gone.

Through six games, Parker Milner has a .932 save percentage and a 1.99 goals-against average. Somehow, these numbers are step back from the ridiculous run he put together in his final 19 starts last season. In front of Milner, the Eagles’ blue line has rounded in to shape well. There is no Brian Dumoulin or Tommy Cross, but BC coach Jerry York seems pleased with his defensemen. Uncertainties exist for BC. Still, its minor problems are nothing from those plaguing some of Hockey East’s other teams.

After the break: It’s time for Maine fans to face reality; UMass may have found its No. 1; and BU has some serious potential.

It’s time for Maine fans to accept their program’s reality

One of the most famous soundbites in Boston sports history is Rick Pitino’s famous decree that Larry Bird was, in fact, not walking through some door. ¬†For Maine, it’s time to realize that the success Shawn Walsh, rest in peace, experienced represented a high that few programs will ever experience. Walsh took Maine to seven Frozen Fours in his 16 seasons in Orono and won a pair of national championships. Since Tim Whitehead took over in 2001-02, Maine has played in four Frozen Fours and two national championship games. Last year, the Black Bears returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time in four seasons, and many thought it signaled the rebirth of the club as national power once again. However, 2012-13 hasn’t supported that. Through nine games, Maine is 1-8-0, and it’s unlikely that things will get much better this year.

Many focused on the losses of Spencer Abbott and Brian Flynn. However, other departures have left Maine uncommonly thin at certain roles or within specialties that stand out badly with every loss. The graduation of Will O’Neil left Maine without an established No. 1 defenseman and a calming presence on the power play. Matt Mangene was among the best puck movers in college hockey a season ago and a fantastic scoring complement to the Black Bears’ vaunted top line. Beyond that, Ryan Hegarty’s graduation took away from a defensively dominant second pairing along with Mark Nemec. Whitehead hoped the scoring lost would be replaced by Mark Anthoine, Kyle Beattie and some others who had strong seasons a year ago, while some gifted freshmen rounded into form. Moreover, Whitehead believed goaltender Dan Sullivan’s junior season would prove the year he became a top-flight Division I goaltender.

Almost none of that has happened at this point. Only Connor Leen has multiple goals. Joey Diamond’s discipline issues have popped up again. In nine games, Maine has scored 10 goals and allowed 30. The power play has been woeful, with Maine converting on one of its 44 opportunities (2.3 percent). Meanwhile neither Sullivan nor Martin Ouellette has performed well in goal. Freshman Matt Morris picked up Maine’s lone win.

The reality for Maine fans is their program is no longer on par with the premier programs in Hockey East, and it isn’t anyone’s fault. Maine is still a desirable place to play, and there will be championship contending seasons. But there will be the bust years too. Inevitably, calls for Whitehead’s job are already heard ringing from Maine, but it’s time for acceptance in Orono.

Kevin Boyle has earned the No. 1 job in Amherst

In the first six games of the John Micheletto era, Massachusetts is 2-4-0. The record is hardly impressive, and UMass looks like little more than a marginal playoff team. There have been some bright spots, though, that suggest the Minutmen may improve as the season progresses. One of positives has been sophomore goaltender Kevin Boyle who may have emerged as the No. 1 goaltender in Amherst. In four starts, Boyle’s amassed a 1.99 goals-against average and .932 save percentage. It’s only four games, but those are impressive numbers. Last season, Boyle battled with classmate Steve Mastalerz and Jeff Teglia for playing time. Many expected the same level of competition this year. Boyle has played four of UMass’ six games, including its only two wins.

On Sunday, Boyle made 28 saves in a 3-2 loss to BC. Losses don’t sit well with any coach or player, but Micheletto is obviously impressed with Boyle’s play. Following the game, Micheletto would not say Boyle has emerged as the clear No.1 in Amherst, insisting this week of practice would determine the starter for Friday’s game against Providence. However, UMass captain Rocco Carzo said before the season that he and his teammates struggled in the past with uncertainty surrounding the lineup. Should Boyle put together another quality start or two, it will be time to cement him as the No. 1. He’s earned it to this point, but the results haven’t come for the team. A 1.99 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage will get wins eventually, though.

BU looks like a contender

All anyone wanted to discuss related BU took place off the ice prior to the season. Questions about task forces and players’ behavior overshadowed the Terriers’ actual season and the heights the team could reach. Thus far, it seems the answer is pretty clear. BU has one of the best teams in the country.

The Terriers split two games with North Dakota in Grand Forks over the weekend, and they travel to Merrimack and host Boston College next weekend. Both the Warriors and Eagles present interesting tests for the Terriers, but it’s clear BU can pass both.

The issues in goal seem to be figuring themselves out well. Freshmen Matt O’Connor and Sean Maguire will likely continue to split playing time. However, it’s clear through seven games that O’Connor has been the better goaltender. In four starts and one relief appearance, O’Connor has a .942 save percentage and a 1.81 goals-against average, compared to Maguire’s 4.61 and .854 line. Beyond that, O’Connor is 4-0-0 on the year, and Maguire is 0-2-0. The Terriers have played better in front of O’Connor, and Maguire is yet to start at home. Regardless, BU coach Jack Parker and his staff will have to decide how much longer they can give Maguire starts if he doesn’t make improvements.

Assuming O’Connor continues his success, the Terriers other underclassmen have driven a majority of their offense. Cason Hohmann has performed brilliantly, scoring three goals and assisting on five more. Meanwhile, freshmen Danny O’Regan winger (4-3–7), sophomore Evan Rodrigues (0-5–5) and freshman defenseman Matt Grzcelyk (0-5–5) have kept BU playing fast and contributed greatly on offense. The consistency of these players will be an issue, and it’s critical that BU’s Garrett Noonan and Sean Escobedo continue their successful seasons on the blue line.

The next couple weeks will say a lot about BU’s role as a regional and national contender. However, the season’s first few weeks have told us the Terriers may be playing into April this season.

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