Three Things I Think: Hockey East, Jan. 28, 2014

Posted by: Joe Meloni

Massachusetts senior Michael Pereira earned his 100th career point Saturday night in a 3-2 loss to Merrimack. Pereira scored twice in the game, both in the second period and on the power play. UMass lost the game, however, and the story of Pereira’s career in Amherst received another troubling chapter.

In the fall of 2010, Pereira arrived at UMass, along with about a dozen other freshmen. Naturally, that team struggled badly in Hockey East, winning only five games and just barely sneaking into the league tournament. At times, Pereira, Branden Gracel, Conor Sheary and other youngsters on that club revealed the talent and skill that made people wonder about the future.

In the last three-and-a-half years, that class has produced the occasional great result, but they, like UMass classes before them, have never amounted to much more than some good players who can’t win games. Mix in the departure of Don Cahoon as head coach two summers ago, and it’s been a difficult career for Pereira and his talented classmates.

Seven years ago, UMass was in the midst of one of only a few successful seasons since the program’s rebirth more than 20 years ago. That year, guided by all-American goaltender Jon Quick, was supposed to signify the beginning UMass’ ascent to regional prevalence. Instead, Quick bolted and everything fell apart. The Minutemen haven’t finished above .500 since that season, and the next couple seasons don’t look much brighter.

When John Micheletto took over for Cahoon in August 2012, he proclaimed, as everyone associated with that programs always has, that UMass would become “the place to be.” Moving toward the end of his second season with UMass, Micheletto is banking on his recruiting talent to turn UMass around. It’s inevitably going to take some time, especially with nine players graduating this season. At this point, though, it’s difficult to think it will ever actually happen.

(After the jump: BC’s Hockey East dominance; UMass-Lowell is very good no matter what else you’ve read; Still not sold on Northeastern? Nope.)

BC’s performance in Hockey East has been nothing short of amazing

Boston College was off from Hockey East play this weekend. The Eagles defeated Penn State, 3-2, in their only game. The Nittany Lions tested BC, and the scoreline didn’t end the way most expected it to. A one-goal win against a program in its second year isn’t type of result anticipated from a team with the loftiest of expectations.

In general, I don’t like to put too much stock on individual non-conference games. They frequently produce strange results that defy statistics, logic and everything else. BC’s loss to Holy Cross in November is a great example. Teams’ play in league tells me more about their true capability. Within conference, teams play the opponent they build their teams to compete against. There are no surprises. Travel arrangements are typically smoother, especially in Hockey East. Players know their surroundings. All of that stuff. Simply put, there’s less chance for truly strange results.

However, Hockey East going from 27 to 20 league games this year due to Notre Dame’s arrival meant a smaller sample, which should mean more parity. It has for most teams. Last weekend, all five league series ended in splits. From second-place Northeastern to 11th-place Merrimack, each spot is within a game of the team in front of it.

This is what’s made BC’s pure dominance of Hockey East even more astounding. The Eagles are six points clear of Northeastern. In Hockey East play, BC is 11-1-1. They’ve scored 52 goals and allowed only 29. If BC goes 4-3 in its final seven league games, it clinches at least a share of the Hockey East Regular Season Championship. Come tournament time — both regional and national — BC will meet plenty of challengers. In league play, though, no one’s really offered much of one.

Everyone focuses too heavily on outrageous results

Friday night, everyone freaked out when Providence came back from 4-2 down in the third period to defeat UMass-Lowell, 5-4, at Schneider Arena. The win was impressive for the Friars, and it earned them at least a split with a UML team they’ll be fighting for playoff seeding down to the last day of the season.

This result, though, shouldn’t tell anyone much about UMass-Lowell. If this win resulted in some kind of epiphany that maybe Lowell just isn’t very good then you A. haven’t been watching hockey very long and B. have never drawn a decent conclusion about the game. The reality of this sport is that most goals are random, isolated events that come on plays almost identical to those which produce no goals. As such, weird things happen all the time.

UMass-Lowell has been almost as good this season as it was last season. They’re a strong possession team. They rarely allow goals. And they score a good amount. A few statistical anomalies — basically every number associated with Scott Wilson — have hurt UML in some especially weird ways. Still, they’re clearly a contender to win the Hockey East Tournament and compete nationally for a title. I hardly consider them the favorite I did in September, but that’s mostly the product of BC’s emergence. Lowell is still the same team they’ve been since Norm Bazin arrived.

Friday’s collapse produced just the second loss when leading after two periods in Bazin’s near three seasons running the program. That, in and of itself, is a hard percentage to sustain, especially in a league like Hockey East and especially when you’re dealing with players between the ages of 18 and 23.

Lowell came out the next night and pummeled Providence at Tsongas Center just to silence all of their newly emerging critics. After the weekend, some actual problems with Lowell became public. Four different players suffered injuries in Friday’s loss and missed Saturday’s game as result. These are some actual issues for Bazin to worry about and address.

An odd third period where they didn’t play especially well and got horribly unlucky? That’s just hockey.

Northeastern won’t sell me if it keeps winning this way

Around 10 p.m. on Friday night, Northeastern coach Jim Madigan was vindicated once again. The Huskies recorded just 14 shots on goal and defeated Notre Dame, 4-0, in South Bend. Hobey Baker candidate Clay Witt made 30 saves, and NU rolled right on with its “More concerned about quality chances” philosophy. The next night, Northeastern received a bit of its own treatment, losing 3-0 despite putting 36 shots on Notre Dame.

Madigan has been quite plain in his belief that lofty shot totals aren’t too much of an issue. This part doesn’t bother me as much as the total lack of possession on the other side. NU, on average, allows 39.8 shots on goal per game and takes 25.9. Simply put: Northeastern has the puck about 40 percent of the time. Those numbers almost never result in a team even above .500. However, Northeastern is 8-5-1 in Hockey East and will most likely play a quarterfinal series at Matthews Arena.

Witt has been nothing short of phenomenal this season. It’s a great story, and Witt is genuinely enjoying the year while working just as hard to replicate his success every night. He leads the country in save percentage at .943. If it weren’t for Johnny Gaudreau’s marvelous season over at Conte Forum, Witt would be a lock for Hockey East Player of the Year and a favorite for the Hobey.

Instead, I find myself wondering if he can possibly keep this type of play up. (He can’t.) It’s just not fair to expect a goalie to make more than 35 saves every night for a team to win championships, no matter which part of the attacking zone those shots are coming from. If Northeastern proves me wrong in every way, I’ll applaud them like anyone else. Their fans and players deserve it, and Madigan is a genuinely great person to work with. I just won’t believe it until I see it.

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