Three Things I Think: Hockey East, Feb. 24, 2014

Posted by: Joe Meloni

As much as the 2014 Winter Olympics disappointed American hockey fans, it’s abundantly clear that the state of hockey in the United States is strong. On both the men’s and women’s sides, strong American teams fell to worthy opponents despite rightfully lofty expectations. The talent pool for each of these national teams is only going to get larger moving forward. There won’t always be generational talents with each new crop of 18- or 19-year-olds, but there’s more talent than ever before.

It’s with this that the role of college hockey takes on an even greater responsibility. College coaches draw the difficult charge of having to focus on the development of their players while also trying to win games. Looking around Hockey East rosters and the minutes players receive, it’s often a balancing act between helping an 18-year-old with all the upside in the world and a 22-year-old who may not have the ceiling but is a more effective player at this time. Regardless, most of what we’ve seen from USA Hockey of late is generally positive for the future.

That in itself should be enough for the NHL to guarantee that the next round of Winter Olympics includes NHL players. It’s, in my opinion, because NHL players represent their countries in the Olympics that more Americans have started watching the game. Moreover, the annual World Junior Ice Hockey Championships have reached a level of popularity and esteem in this country that they wouldn’t without NHL players appearing in the Olympics.

The ongoing rivalry between the U.S. and Canada is great for hockey in North America. Seeing this rivalry play out at the junior level each year and the senior level every four years is good for everyone. If NHL players aren’t going to appear in the Olympics, the tournament loses a lot of its cachet. Before everyone starts ranting and raving about the Olympic spirit and the archaic ideal of amateurism in athletics, think about what this specific Olympic event means for hockey. No, hockey shouldn’t be considered more important than the other events in the eyes of organizers. The NHL and USA Hockey need the Olympics, however. If the teams competing in those games aren’t made up of the best players in the world, then there is no major ice hockey tournament that truly suggests which nation is the best.

The IIHF World Championships aren’t taken too seriously by North Americans because of when they occur. A World Cup of Hockey, while an interesting idea, would invariably come with the same hiccups as the world championships. Playing the event at anytime in the summer would prevent some players from participating. As much as all of us like to think representing your country should come first, professional players’ first responsibility is to the organization that guarantees them their paychecks.

The current status quo is the best arrangement. Annual matchups between the best young players in the world, along with a premier senior tournament every four years gives us the best opportunity to showcase the sport’s growth and significance while also attracting young athletes to local rinks.

Any discussion about removing NHLers from the Olympics must consider the potential influence of this tournament on the game itself. Aside from the prospect of losing high-quality college players for a season like occurs in the women’s game, it also will comes with a significant drop in interest for a game that simply can’t afford that in the United States.

Kevin Roy again proves he’s an elite player

A couple weeks ago, I released my first look at the Hobey Baker field for the season. One name absent from the list was Kevin Roy, Northeastern’s dominant playmaking winger. The sophomore has put together another strong season for the Huskies. The performance of NU goaltender Clay Witt, along with the presence of Johnny Gaudreau at BC, has overshadowed a lot of Roy’s contributions this season.

He’s been very good for most of the year and led a successful Northeastern team in the process. Midway through Friday’s 4-4 tie with Maine, the Huskies were trailing, 2-0, and Roy had been mostly anonymous. The points available in this game were crucial for Northeastern, and it needed something to come back from this deficit. It needed Kevin Roy to be Kevin Roy. From that point forward, the winger was plainly superb for the weekend’s remaining four-and-a-half periods of hockey.

He scored once and added five assists in that time. Northeastern ended the weekend with three of four possible points, moving into third place in Hockey East. In terms of the Pairwise, the draw and win over Maine left NU in ninth, a great position heading into the final weekend of the regular season.

Roy’s had more help this season than most expected. Linemate Braden Pimm has been revelatory as a senior and freshman John Stevens adds a great complement to that line. Roy is the most important part of that line, though, and he revealed as much when the Huskies needed it most.

Notre Dame is waking up

When Notre Dame returned from a weekend with New Hampshire two weeks ago, the Fighting Irish were in especially strange place. UND is among the most talented teams in the country. Jeff Jackson is a truly great hockey coach. And the team hadn’t really looked especially bad at any point in the season. Even with some bad losses on its resume, the Fighting Irish passed both the eye and numbers tests. They just couldn’t string any wins together.

After a frustrating 2-1 loss to Maine on Feb. 7, UND wasn’t just in bad shape in the Hockey East standings. They were in serious jeopardy of having to travel for the preliminary round of the Hockey East Tournament, even with objectively bad teams like Massachusetts, Boston University and Merrimack destined for those bottom three spots.

Since that point, Notre Dame is 4-0-1 with three consecutive shutouts to their credit. On the surface, shutting out Providence and BU isn’t a wholly remarkable task. But going 180 minutes without allowing a goal is something different entirely. Again, the Fighting Irish have been a good team all season. A combination of bad luck and the occasional breakdown has doomed many teams, especially in league as tight as Hockey East.

UND hasn’t been infinitely better of late than it was previously, but picking up a few convincing wins heading into the postseason has given this group some confidence. Moreover, the team that draws Notre Dame in the Hockey East quarterfinals after it lays waste to whichever team it draws in the preliminary round is going to have quite the task on its hands.

The Fighting Irish end their season next Saturday night with a game against Boston College. A win over the Eagles to carry them into the postseason will make UND an even tougher out.

It’s Jon Gillies’ time to shine

Earlier this season, Providence revealed it was a team made up of more than just Jon Gillies. A number of PC players have enjoyed strong seasons. Even as PC has been pretty bad in the second half, Ross Mauermann, Steven Shamanski and some others have emerged. However, the Friars just can’t score like the other top teams in the league. When everything went in for Mauermann and some others through the season’s first few months, PC’s eventual struggles seemed almost inevitable.

Those issues also came with an unlikely catch. Gillies has been rather ordinary in his last 12 games. Since returning from the World Junior Ice Hockey Championship, he’s recorded a 2.68 goals-against average and .904 save percentage. These aren’t the worst numbers any of us have seen. But this is Jon Gillies were talking about. He needs to be better. Providence as a team must also improve to get where it wants to go, but its best player must lead the way.

Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, the Friars still have a chance to finish in position for both a first-round bye and home ice for the quarterfinals. That, however, means taking maximum points from Alfond Arena. Maine has lost exactly one game at home this season, and that was in November.

PC started the season 13-2-3. Since, the Friars are 4-7-3. Gillies clearly isn’t the only reason for this turnaround — just like he wasn’t the only reason for the hot start. If PC wants to build on last weekend’s sweep of UMass, Gillies must be at his best. A lengthy run in the Hockey East Tournament and potential NCAA bid are possibilities for this team if the real Jon Gillies stands up.

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