Three Things I Think: Defense Win Championships Edition – Feb. 26

Posted by: Joe Meloni

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. 

Back to BU for a moment. The Terriers’ second half struggles have been the product of several different factors. In the season’s first 15 games, BU allowed about 31 shots per game. Their season average is up to 32.3 since returning from the break. This isn’t a drastic change. The issue hasn’t been goaltending either. Sean Maguire and Matt O’Connor have both played better than their records and even save percentages would suggest. The terrible defensive play BU’s exhibited in the last two months is more of an issue than shoddy goaltending.

In six years covering this league, I’ve heard just about every coach make the joke that hockey should be called goalie. They’re important. Big saves made or missed often define games and championships. But those quality scoring chances seem to come against certain teams less often. Those are the teams that win in this league. Having a good goaltender is important, but they can’t receive all the credit or blame.

Still picking Boston College

At the moment, Boston College is tied with New Hampshire and Providence for first place in Hockey East. The Eagles have one game in hand, which will be made up Tuesday night against UMass-Lowell in Chestnut Hill, Mass. For long stretches of the second half, the Eagles have looked … beatable. They’re BC, of course, so they’re winning more than they’re losing. Heck, they’re still in first place even while playing one less game. However, it’s become kind of interesting to look at the second half and say that some team will knock them off.

Count me among those still expecting BC to win Hockey East regular season and tournament championships. People had similar thoughts in years past. Last season, it was “They can’t possibly win 19 in a row, can they?” They did, and they trailed exactly twice in that time. Three years ago, they need overtime and seven goals to win Hockey East. They got it, and they rolled through the NCAA tournament.

Boston College is certainly beatable. Providence, UNH or any of the other teams currently battling for home ice in Hockey East can knock the Eagles off. Nationally, competition awaits from ever corner of the country. As long as Jerry York is guiding the ship, the Eagles are a favorite for any competition they enter.

What could’ve been for Maine

Even if Maine makes the playoffs, the Black Bears season is especially disappointing given the rise of Martin Ouellette this season. Since Ouellette took over for Dan Sullivan on Nov. 9, Ouellette has a 2.22 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage. In that time, Maine in 8-9-6 with Ouellete starting all but one of those games. five have been one-goal games. Even a league-average offense would have the Black Bears in a very different position than they are.

The losses the Black Bears sustained after last season’s Hockey East championship appearance and NCAA tournament berth are well documented. Some players Maine coach Tim Whitehead expected to replace the scoring took longer than expected to get going. Many of these players are freshmen, and it’s difficult to figure how long even the most talented youngsters will take to become good college hockey players. Maine’s anemic offense hasn’t been quite as bad as it was in the first half of late. Still, Maine averages less than two goals per game on the year. The Black Bears are fourth in Hockey East in shots per game at 31.75, but the quality scoring chances just haven’t been there. Luck plays a factor, too, of course, but it’s less influential than generally weak offensive outings.

Despite the struggles, the Black Bears are very much in the race. They host Northeastern for a pair at Alfond Arena this weekend, with eighth-place Massachusetts heading to Durham, N.H., for two with New Hampshire. Northeastern is also fighting for its life, and could very easily find themselves out of the race altogether if this weekend goes the wrong way. Needless to say, there’s motivation to get points for everyone at the moment, and Maine’s offense will need to continue its progress to head into the final weekend of the regular season with playoff hopes.

 

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