The first half of the season was fun. These last two weeks stuffed with holiday tournaments and non-conference matchups produced some memorable results. But, now, as January grows older, the season shifts and schedules slant to conference play. This weekend, the only non-conference games are a pair of exhibition series for Division I’s independent schools.
In Hockey East, two home-and-home series will prove vital to the final league standings and eventual playoff seeding. Boston College and New Hampshire play their first game of the season in Chestnut Hill on Friday night before heading to Durham for the back end. Meanwhile, Massachusetts and Providence finish their series for the year, starting at the Mullins Center Friday night.
League games are always important. Every point claimed this weekend will impact league play, as well as Pairwise positioning. However, these two series are particularly interesting. BC and UNH have been among Hockey East’s — and the nation’s — best this year. The four points available will help either side in the race for a top seed. Additionally, wins will solidify as either team in the race for more favorable NCAA Tournament positioning. With a regional in Manchester, N.H., we already know where the Wildcats will play. A strong performance this weekend could make their road to Pittsburgh slightly less bumpy, however.
For UMass and Providence, currently separated by three points, strong games are critical in the race for the final home ice spot in the Hockey East tournament. Moreover, both clubs have outside shots at earning at-large bids to the NCAA tournament. Losses could damn either cause. Nate Leaman and John Micheletto will have their clubs focused solely on taking points, and it’s sure to be an impactful weekend in the race for home ice.
BC’s defense needs to grow up fast
A 3-3 tie with Yale last Friday is hardly a bad result for Boston College. Despite the expectations of the Eagles’ faithful, the draw won’t harm BC’s NCAA tournament resume too much. The 65 minutes of hockey, however, showed one issue BC needs to address moving into the second half. Patch Alber’s injury prior to the first game of the Mariucci Classic made a thin part of BC’s lineup even more barren. The defenseman is likely out until late March with a torn meniscus. It’s a troubling situation for Alber, a senior who worked tirelessly to become a regular on the blue line at Conte Forum.
From a team standpoint, Alber’s loss forces seldom-used freshman Travis Jeke into the starting lineup. I visited the current situation for the Eagles after Friday game. You can find the story here.
The presence of Parker Milner in goal and the Eagles’ potent offense can will offset some of the issues. Regardless, Jeke’s insertion into the lineup means four freshmen are now among BC’s top six defensemen. The group is still talented. And the mastermind running the show in Chestnut Hill has a trick or two ready to position his club for success. Still, these four young players have some serious growing up to do with the critical UNH series on the horizon — not to mention the Beanpot until less than a month.
Lowell’s run has to translate into conference success
Since Dec. 8, Massachusetts-Lowell is 5-0-0. The River Hawks entered a game with Northeastern that night on 2-4-0 run that made most dismiss them as a team that can replicate its success from a season ago.
UML defeated Northeastern that night, and it’s beaten Harvard, Bentley and Clarkson after that win. The two points picked up against the Huskies were important for Lowell to get at the time. Currently, UML is tied for eighth in Hockey East with Northeastern. The advantage for Lowell is it has two games in hand over a Northeastern team that can’t get out of its own way.
In these last five wins, UML has scored 18 goals. It scored 28 in its previous 12 games. Offensive issues aren’t entirely figured out for Norm Bazin’s club. Even with more goals coming, putting up those numbers against league opponents will be important for the River Hawks to show they can earn a favorable position in the Hockey East tournament. UML is off to Vermont this weekend for a pair with the Catamounts. UVM’s team defense — led mostly by freshman Brody Hoffman — has proven stingy at times. Solving it and leaving Burlington with some points and a bunch of goals will help the River Hawks in their quest for that fourth spot in the Hockey East tournament.
Scheduling teams from Atlantic Hockey is good for college hockey
Bentley’s visit to Matthews Arena on Saturday night wasn’t exactly a marquee game for the Huskies and their fans. Atlantic Hockey opponents rarely draw major crowds when they visit Hockey East rinks. The fact that Bentley beat Northeastern, 6-3, showed there is some risk to scheduling teams from the AHA. Now, Northeastern isn’t exactly a club fighting for an at-large bid, and the Huskies have plenty to worry about in conference play. Still, Northeastern deserves some credit for scheduling this game, especially since it’s the second consecutive time Bentley has won at Northeastern.
For the top programs in college hockey, losses to Atlantic Hockey schools and other smaller programs in larger conferences can be dangerous. These are the type of defeats that flip Pairwise comparisons and end teams’ seasons. It’s hypocritical, however, for coaches to talk about different things as “good for college hockey” unless they make certain arrangements to ensure their program is equally as beneficial for the sport. It’s critical for teams in major conferences to play these games. Even if it’s just a couple times every season, college hockey wins when teams from the WCHA or Hockey East play weaker non-conference opponents.
With realignment coming and the sizes of college hockey’s conferences dictating fewer conference games in most cases, the biggest programs in college hockey need to make room for the little guys. There are plenty of schools already doing this, but there are others who aren’t. Some schools simply don’t seem to travel for non-conference games, nor do they dare condescend to play less established programs. The risks associated with losses to certain teams and the expense of bringing them across the country are both legitimate gripes. But the people charged with growing college hockey must make certain concessions to make it happen from time to time.