Most energy this time of year is exerted on analyzing potential postseason matchups and the eventual NCAA tournament field. The national scene is always interesting to keep an eye on. Still, Hockey East typically raises a few questions on its own.
Merrimack’s surge in the second half has made the current league standings perhaps as strange as they’ve ever been this late in the season. It’s odd, for example, that Merrimack is still on the bubble for an at-large bid. Rarely has a team finished in the top few Hockey East spots and not been a lock essentially for the NCAA tournament. At this point, it looks like Merrimack will more than likely move itself safety should it play well enough in these final three weekends to win the Hockey East regular season title. The Warriors next four games come against Boston College, Boston University and Massachusetts-Lowell twice. All four of these are major opportunities to improve their league standing as well as their Pairwise resume.
The final two games of the season are against Massachusetts. Should the Minutemen get some momentum and gain TUC status by season’s end, a couple wins over UMass would make help Merrimack even further.
Regardless, the Warriors’ 8-3-3 run in the second half has made the playoff race in Hockey East entertaining we’ve seen in years.
(After the jump: BC’s MVP, Merrimack dynamic duo and the key to Vermont’s success.)
Steven Whitney: Boston College’s MVP
Every college hockey fan in the United States knows Johnny Gaudreau’s name. BC’s most dynamic player is among the favorites to win the Hobey Baker award as well as any number of regional honors.
Like he always does, though, BC coach Jerry York has a few high-quality players worth some acclaim as the postseason awards conversations arise. It’s here and now I’d like to suggest Steven Whitney, Gaudreau’s linemate and BC captain, as a candidate for Hockey East Player of the Year, Best Defensive Forward and whatever else he’s eligible for.
Few aspects of BC’s game are beyond Whitney’s grasp. He runs its top power-play unit, features prominently in the Eagles top six and, perhaps most impressively, plays defense on BC’s penalty kill. The 5-foot-7 Whitney hasn’t struggled in the slightest dropping back to defense down a man. Forced into the role by injury and inexperience, Whitney has excelled in shutting down opposing power plays.
He leads Hockey East and is third nationally with a plus-21 rating on the season. His 19-15–34 numbers are equally impressive and good enough for third in the league and 13th in the country. MVP isn’t an award in Hockey East, and it’s probably a good thing since the arguments would probably never end. For BC this season, the most influential player, though, has been Steven Whitney. Even with Gaudreau, goaltender Parker Milner and freshman start Michael Matheson on the blue line, the race really isn’t that close.
Sam Marotta, Mike Collins for Hockey East first team
When the season began, Marotta shared time with sophomore Rasmus Tirronen. The goalies traded starts for most of the first half. Since the start of the second half, it’s been pretty much all Marotta all the time for the Warriors. The junior has responded well, too. Since Dec. 29, Marrota is 8-1-3 with a 1.62 save percentage and .943 save percentage. Credit Mark Dennehy with keeping both of his goaltenders fresh and letting Marotta take a more prominent role without wearing down.
Merrimack’s Mike Collins is enjoying a strong season as well. Collins, however, has been more influential for the Warriors from beginning to end. The junior hasn’t put up Hobey-level number, but he has led the MC offense all season. With 15 goals and 20 assists, he is currently second in Hockey East, behind only Gaudreau. The second-highest scorer on Merrimack is defenseman Jordan Heywood with 15 points. Collins does it all for the Warriors.
Both of these players deserve spots on the Hockey East first team. If they bring the Warriors their first Hockey East regular season or tournament championship and a second NCAA tournament appearance in three years, both should be formalities.
Kevin Sneddon found a good one in Brody Hoffman
The race for the final two playoff spots in Hockey East has yielded just one favorite to this point. With its sweep of Northeastern last weekend, Vermont has solidified itself as the favorite to earn the No. 7 seed in the Hockey East tournament. The Catamounts swept Northeastern in Boston. The 2-1 and 3-1 wins were hardly convincing, except for one thing: Brody Hoffman was near perfect.
The 21-year-old freshman seized the No. 1 job early on, and Sneddon knew exactly what to expect when Hoffman committed to the program. After years in junior hockey, Hoffman refined a strong mental approach that helps him improve as games progress. On Friday, he made several key saves down the stretch to preserve a 2-1 win. He was similarly dominant late on Saturday, which quelled any hopes of a Northeastern come back.
His 2.74 goals-against average and .909 save percentage won’t earn him a spot on the Hockey East all freshman squad nor is he in the race for the league’s top rookie. Northeastern’s Kevin Roy, Providence Jon Gillies and Boston College’s Mike Matheson are the clear leaders in that regard. Hoffman has Sneddon and his staff excited about the next three years, though.