Three Things I Think: Hockey East, Nov. 11

Posted by: Joe Meloni

There really isn’t anything Connecticut fans care to discuss about last week’s results against Boston College and Boston University aside from the final scores. UConn defeated BC, 1-0, in the Huskies’ first-ever home opener in Hockey East. Then, they went to Agganis Arena and earned a 4-4 tie against BU.

Rightfully, UConn coach Mike Cavanaugh was thrilled with the three points and proud of the mettle his team showed in the face of a dominating even strength performance by BU. The Huskies did what inferior teams need to do to wins games. They kept most shots to the perimeter, blocked a ton of attempts and limited time and space when pucks did sneak into the grade-A. Beyond all that, goaltender Rob Nichols was fantastic; he stopped 64 of 69 shots in the two games.

At the moment, the team’s spirit is sky high, and Cavanaugh’s ability to adopt the same microscope and telescope approach his mentor, Jerry York, has long instilled in his own teams seems to be working for the Huskies. He said after Saturday’s draw that he and his staff have kept the team focusing on individual games instead of looking forward to every twist and turn the Hockey East calendar can offer.

A few nice results in November were important for UConn. It’s not going to last all season, and the Huskies are still certain to finish in the lower half of the league. The way they’re winning right now isn’t sustainable. However, there are plenty of positive characteristics of this team. They defend well in their own end, break quickly and efficiently up ice and avoid the type of high-risk plays that team like BC and BU can turn into offense.

Saturday night against BU, UConn got a pair of power-play goals — one during a 5-minute major — and kept the Terriers scoreless on their own man advantages. The Terriers were the better team, but UConn’s success in high-leverage situations warranted the point it received.

Prior to the season, UConn was picked to finished last in the league by both the coaches and the media. That may very well happen, but this year was never about championships. Even if the coaching staff and players say they expect to win trophies, the 2014-15 season is about building a positive foundation to continue attracting high-quality players to Storrs and eventually compete within Hockey East. Picking up three points last week was an important piece and that foundation, and it will be even when the Huskies start to struggle.

Providence needs to start scoring

There was some frustration on Nate Leaman’s part after last weekend’s split with Merrimack regarding the officiating on each night. Ultimately, Leaman wasn’t solely talking about the calls that went against his team, so much as the way games played out due to the sheer volume of penalties called.

Even with Merrimack struggling in the last couple seasons and Providence on its way up, the teams have developed a pretty strong rivalry with games looking like playoff hockey no matter the time of year. It makes sense for Leaman to be frustrated with the results, given his team’s slow start and the need for wins and points. The Friars wasted a number of opportunities in Saturday’s 1-0 loss to the Warriors, including a 5-minute power play at the end of regulation.

The Friars’ team defense and goaltending have been markedly better in its last three games. Jon Gillies’ save percentage in that span is .960, and PC is 2-1-0 in those games. It should’ve won all three, but the goals haven’t come just yet. The Friars have scored 15 goals in their eight games. No matter how strong a team defends, it can’t expect to win with fewer than two goals on the board.

Ross Mauermann, Noel Acciari, Niko Rufo and Brandon Tanev are all without goals to this point. Junior Mark Jankowski has scored just once and missed some time due to injury. As a team, the Friars are shooting just over 7 percent on the season. The goals will start coming.

However, PC’s efforts have been largely uneven in the last two weekends. Officiating aside, PC was dreadful two Fridays ago against BU, losing, 4-1, and in Saturday’s loss to Merrimack. Meanwhile, they played well in wins over those same BU and Merrimack teams.

Looking ahead to this weekend, the Friars host Vermont for a pair of games. The Catamounts have been one of the early surprises in college hockey to this point, losing only a Friday night road games at Notre Dame two weeks ago. Both teams have their sights locked on a first-round bye in the Hockey East Tournament, as well as NCAA Tournament bids, and the four points at stake this weekend will go a long way toward those goals.

Ahti Oksanen’s injury is concerning for BU

It’s not clear exactly what’s wrong with BU junior Ahti Oksanen. He missed Saturday’s tie with UConn after leaving Friday’s game against BC with an injury after the first period. The knock doesn’t appear to be a long-term worry for BU coach Dave Quinn, but it did highlight the fragility of BU’s balance at the moment.

BU’s problems a year ago ultimately boiled down to an overall lack of players prepared to contribute to a successful Division I hockey team. This season’s influx of talent, spearheaded by Jack Eichel, has erased most of those issues. BU is 5-1-1 in its first even games and looks like a club capable of winning trophies. Oksanen’s absence, though, did take away some of BU’s effectiveness, though, and any long-term injury to one of its top six forwards could be largely problematic.

Freshman winger Nikolas Olsson moved into the top two lines with Oksanen unavailable. Senior Evan Rodrigues played in Oksanen’s place alongside Eichel and junior Danny O’Regan with Olsson filling the left wing spot next to Robbie Baillargeon and Cason Hohmann. The Terriers’ attack was noticeably less dangerous without Oksanen.

When he left the game Friday, BU still managed to beat BC with a number of dirty goals around the Eagles’ cage. On Saturday, it was Eichel and O’Regan creating scoring chances with their supreme skill.

Without Oksanen, though, the Terriers just seemed to lack something at even strength and on the power play. His return, which should come this weekend in BU’s lone game at Maine, will likely erase the issues. The ramifications of a single injury to any of BU’s key pieces are clear, though.

No way back for Northeastern

After Saturday’s 5-0 loss to Massachusetts-Lowell, Northeastern coach Jim Madigan said his team was just plainly outmatched by the River Hawks. The numbers from the game suggest as much. The River Hawks dominated NU at even strength and at special teams. Even with nine power plays on the weekend, the Huskies managed just 48 shots on goal. Earning a draw on Friday night in Lowell was an important result for a team desperate for any bright spots.

It didn’t matter, though. The Huskies just aren’t a good hockey team. There’s plenty of talent on their roster, but the way they play with that talent just isn’t conducive to winning hockey games. The puck is always in their end and rarely can they exit the zone cleanly. Teams like UMass-Lowell that grind even strong opponents into mistakes are going to eat NU alive.

On Friday, Derick Roy made 38 saves to earn the point for Northeastern. The Huskies recovered well from a bad start to get back into the game, but it was Roy earning the point despite an overall poor effort from the team a whole.

The Huskies have a number of high-quality players committed to the program in the future. Moreover, the current roster has a lot of skill. But something just isn’t working. It’s been more or less the same in the last three seasons.

Last year and in Madigan’s first season, long stretches of great goaltending, first from Chris Rawlings and last year from Clay Witt, masked a number of problems related to puck possession. The inevitable regression in goal undid the ground Northeastern established, and seasons ended in disappointment. At some point this year, Northeastern will win a few games in a row, but it will likely be just another hot run for Roy or Witt in goal than any kind of actual improvement from the Huskies.

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