Three Things I Think: Hockey East, Jan. 14

Posted by: Joe Meloni

College hockey’s winter break came and went pretty quickly. As teams traveled to various holiday tournaments and other series around the country, Hockey East clubs produced some results that, as they often do, offered as many questions as they answered.

Even now, after another weekend of games, it’s difficult to say with any certainty where most teams stand.

The jump into the second half also leads to year-end award discussions. These arguments reveal as much about the league as any of the results on the ice. Within Hockey East, the coach of the year conversations are as wide open as any in recent memory. In the last two seasons, it came down to either Massachusetts-Lowell’s Norm Bazin or Providence’s Nate Leaman. With more than 50 wins in that time, Bazin was the clear favorite.

However, the presence of Jerry York always means there’s another candidate to discuss. Once again, York has his Eagles in great position. BC is atop the Hockey East standings to this point and in equally great shape on the national scene. That was expected, though. The Eagles are among the nation’s most talented clubs, and nothing they do really surprises anyone anymore. York’s the best at what he does. If he won the coach of the year award every season, it really wouldn’t come as much of a shock.

Beyond York, and even Bazin, there are four candidates warranting serious consideration. Leaman’s Providence team is in position to earn a bye in the Hockey East Tournament and an NCAA bid. Again, though, most anticipated a strong year from the Friars led by goaltender Jon Gillies and junior center Ross Mauermann. Outside of Leaman, Northeastern’s Jim Madigan, Maine’s Red Gendron and Vermont’s Kevin Sneddon are all guiding teams currently outpacing their preseason expectations.

Each, of course, comes with some caveats that we’ll get a better understanding of in the next two months. At this point, I’d give Madigan the nod. Northeastern missed the last two Hockey East Tournaments thanks to horrendous regular-season campaigns. While that can’t happen again as a result of a new playoff format, the Huskies are currently tied for second in Hockey East with Providence. NU holds the tiebreaker over PC after defeating the Friars, 2-1, last Tuesday in overtime and playing to a 3-3 tie at Matthews Arena in December.

There are some concerns with Northeastern moving forward (more on that later), but the Huskies continue to prove they’re a legitimate contender within Hockey East play. NU hosts Vermont this weekend for two games (only one is a conference game) before traveling to South Bend, Ind., in two weeks for a pair with Notre Dame. Outside of league play, the Huskies are ninth in the Pairwise.

Like it will for every club, the next few weeks will reveal Northeastern’s true standing. At this point, though, it’s not fair to say they haven’t earned some respect.

(After the jump: Northeastern’s possession problems; BC’s depth; Maine’s coming road test.)

Northeastern has to fix some things

Northeastern’s success has come mostly as a product of Clay Witt’s btilliance. In his first chance to claim the No. 1 job, the redshirt junior has become one of the nation’s best goaltenders. His .943 save percentage is second in the country, and he’s faced as many shots per game as anyone.

The issue isn’t whether or not Witt is a talented player, but .943 is so far beyond league and national averages that sustainability becomes a question. Some of those shots Witt is stopping will eventually sneak by him. That’s just part of hockey. Goalies don’t often maintain save percentages of .943 for entire at any advanced level of hockey.

For Northeastern, the easiest way to avoid some of these problems with regressions is to possess the puck more effectively. While a portion of NU’s issues with allowing lofty shot totals comes from score effects, it’s a legitimate trend at this point in the season. Playing a more effective puck possession game will make it easier to protect leads without relying on Witt to make 15 saves every third period.

After NU’s win against UMass-Lowell, Madigan conceded that he knows his team will allow more shots than he’d like based on system and personnel. However, being a contender means competiting with the best teams in the league and country. It’s not a formula for success when teams, such as BC, Providence and UMass-Lowell, are amassing high shot totals in the third period of games. If Witt’s up to it, Northeastern will avoid any setbacks, but history isn’t on NU’s side.

BC needs more than one line

The numbers Johnny Gaudreau, Bill Arnold and Kevin Hayes have put together since Jerry York stuck the group on the same line seven games ago are plainly overwhelming. In those games, the group has accounted for 40 points, and BC is 6-0-1 in that time.

There aren’t many teams that can boast a line with this type of talent. As the season goes on, the group will likely generate offense at a pretty normal rate. However, the goal for BC is never just a good regular season. Trophies are the goal in Chestnut Hill. And it’s difficult to win tournaments and championships without contributions throughout the lineup. This hasn’t necessarily been a major problem for the Eagles.

The gap between BC’s three dynamic scorers and the rest of the club is, however, pretty clear. Additionally, BC’s best offensive weapons that aren’t Gaudreau, Arnold or Hayes are all freshmen. With trophy season approaching, games come fast and furious. Ryan Fitzgerald, Austin Cangelosi and the other talented rookies have enjoyed successful seasons to this point. They need to maintain that level of play, though.

It’s funny to look at BC’s season a year ago, see only one championship (a fourth straight Beanpot) and call it a failure. This is Jerry York we’re talking about, though, and the winningest coach in college hockey hisory most certainly wants more from 2014′s trophy season.

Maine has to answer critics on the road

Looking back at that coach of the year conversation again, Maine’s Red Gendron really does deserve a lot of credit for the season his team has enjoyed to this point. Maine won 11 games last season under Tim Whitehead — Gendron’s Black Bears earned their 11th victory of the year on Saturday with a 7-3 drubbing of Boston University at a rainy Fenway Park.

No matter how you look at it, Gendron’s done a great job in his first season as a Divison I head coach. There is one major issue with Maine’s record to this point. The Black Bears are 0-6-1 in true road games. Victories at Frozen Fenway and holiday tournament games in Florida were impressive to an extent, but they weren’t true road games.

Maine’s next three Hockey East games are on the road against UMass-Lowell, Boston College and New Hampshire. This stretch won’t necessarily make or break Maine’s season, but wins against high-quality conference opponents on the road is the sign of a team truly capable of winning Hockey East. Maine has the pieces to be a winner, but we’re about to learn if the Black Bears are there yet.

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