The ascent of Providence, Massachusetts-Lowell and Merrimack to the top of the Hockey East standings this season led many to point to goaltending as the deciding factor in success or failure in college hockey. Certainly, having a high-quality, reliable netminder is important, and the impact of a great goalie is unquantifiable, especially in the postseason. More than just the man between the pipes, though, Providence, Merrimack and Lowell have another thing in common: they win games because the skaters in front of their goaltender play strong defense.
The way these teams defend are different. They are equally effective, though. Connor Hellebuyck, Sam Marotta and Jon Gillies are very good players. The skaters on these teams, however, are vital to the goalies’ ability to win games. Last weekend, Lowell swept Boston University in a series that brilliantly illustrated the value of a strong defensive philosophy. BU didn’t play poorly in either game. Still, they managed very little offense — just one goal in 120 minutes — and seemed entirely inept offensively. This is uncharacteristic of the Terriers, even during this run of bad play that has been their second half. Lowell simply prevented BU accomplishing anything, especially once they established a lead. The River Hawks executed their system perfectly both nights, and BU had almost no answer for it.
Similarly, Merrimack and Providence play strong defense as well. They allow more shots than Lowell, but they don’t give up many quality scoring chances. At the moment, Lowell allows the fewest shots on goal per game in the league (27).
Compare that to Massachusetts, which allows a shade more at 27.2 per game. The Minutemen, though, have one of the league’s worst defenses in Hockey East. They give up far more grade-A scoring chances than Lowell. Moreover, whatever combination of Kevin Boyle, Jeff Teglia and Steve Mastalerz just isn’t as good as Hellebuyck and Doug Carr. UMass allows far more quality scoring chances than other clubs and has looked defensively uninterested for most of the season. (more…)