Three Things I Think: Hockey East, Feb. 5, 2015

Posted by: Joe Meloni

I’ve been a pretty unrelenting critic of Connecticut this season. The Huskies have been better than anticipated in their first season as a Hockey East school.

Still, 8-12-7 overall isn’t a very good record.

There have been some brightspots, though, and goaltender Rob Nichols stands out as a legitimate all-star contender for the Huskies. Building teams from the goal out is a plan for most coaches. Nichols, a sophomore, has a .930 save percentage in 26 games played.

That’s not just a good season. Playing behind this UConn team, a .930 save percentage is truly remarkable.

The coaching and recruiting chops of Mike Cavanaugh suggest the Huskies are only going to improve in the next few seasons. A steady presence like Nichols in goal is precisely what a team in that transition phase needs to punch above its weight in a league like Hockey East.

For the next five years or so, UConn is going to be outclassed on paper by at least a few teams. It takes a long time for programs to build programs with enough good players to win games consistently and compete for championships.

In the short term, finding quality goaltending and coaching a team to support him with disciplined defending will help UConn win more games than sheer talent suggests it should.

It’s not a certainty if anyone to follow Nichols will play this well. Moreover, from watching UConn’s games, it’s abundantly clear that Nichols isn’t just a product of good defending. He’s a remarkable shot-stopper with the agility, skating and poise to steal certain goals. That’s not something every program can find for every recruiting class. There are otherwise great teams in college hockey right now that don’t have goaltending nearly as strong as UConn does.

Looking ahead to the Hockey East tournament, it’s difficult to see UConn winning two of three games from most teams in the league. Nichols, though, is a serious equalizer for the Huskies. As the Huskies improve over the next two seasons, Nichols may well be the type of player that can force a deep playoff run.

Beating Harvard a major consolation for BC

There’s always disappointment for the teams playing in the early game of the second Beanpot night. It means third place at best, and it’s frequently difficult to get up for.

This year, Boston College and Harvard play for the final two spots in the city tournament. And this game is more than that for both clubs but especially the Eagles.

BC’s difficult November has made an at-large bid, at least, less than a certainty for the Eagles. Currently, BC is 12th in the Pairwise, which is a favorable spot at this time of the year. There are clubs with better first-half records below the Eagles after their 9-1-2 run that followed the awful November.

The remaining Hockey East schedule, including Friday’s game with Merrimack, offers BC plenty of chances to boost its claim to an at-large bid. They’ll all be difficult tests, but Monday’s consolation game may well be a blessing in disguise. Harvard, which beat BC, 6-3, on Nov. 11, is currently 11th in the Pairwise — one spot ahead of the Eagles.

A loss to Harvard likely wouldn’t be too damning. A win, however, is major boost to BC.

NCAA tournament berth not enough for BU

At this point in the season, BU is essentially a lock for the NCAA tournament. The Terriers are currently third in the Pairwise. With eight regular-season games remaining, a couple wins from those eight should do it. That said, it’s almost a certainty that the Terriers will win a majority of those games.

The Terriers have won five games in a row and six of seven after a couple ties to start the second half. Returning to the NCAA tournament as a top seed is a great recovery for BU after last year’s debacle.

However, the Terriers’ struggles over the last five years aren’t just about missing the NCAA tournament. BU needs to win championships.

Next Monday is BU’s first chance to undo five years of frustration. A Beanpot title game against Northeastern is exactly what BU fans had in mind when the season began. BU hasn’t won the tournament since 2009 when it won basically everything it could have.

Losing to Northeastern doesn’t undo most of BU’s success, and there will be a few more chances to claim trophies at that point.

Currently, BU has a two-game lead on BC and UML in the race for the Hockey East regular-season title. Additionally, Friday’s game against UMass-Lowell is a huge chance for BU, which has a game in hand on the River Hawks, to make a regular-season title an even stronger possibility.

With two points against UML on Friday, BU would need seven points at most from its remaining league games to claim the regular-season title. Two games each against New Hampshire, Notre Dame and Northeastern mean it’s pretty much locked up for BU with a win on Friday.

Going into Lowell to beat the River Hawks is never an easy proposition. But BU won’t be intimidated by the River Hawks obviously. Championship teams win important games on the road. BU has two chances to prove it can be that kind of team in the next five days.

Providence still doesn’t have the scoring

Prior to the season, I picked Boston College to win the Hockey East regular season. With BU’s current two-game lead, it’s looking unlikely I’ll be exactly right. However, when I thought about the contenders way back in August, there was one team I didn’t think was quite as close as seemingly everyone else did.

When I looked at Providence’s roster and accomplishments, I saw an NCAA tournament team. I saw a likely first-round bye in the new playoff format. I saw a club more than capable of challenging for championships in a tournament setting.

I just didn’t see a team that would be consistently productive enough to win a trophy based on a performance over a 22-game span.

The Friars have been good defensively. All-world goaltender Jon Gillies has been every bit the stalwart he’s supposed to be. PC just can’t score enough.

In Hockey East games, the Friars are first in scoring defense. They’ve allowed just 1.6 goals per game in 15 league matchups. However, they’ve scored just 2.27 goals per game in the league.

It was never to be enough for PC to finish on top of the league standings after 22 games.

Nate Leaman’s coaching, along with the defensive ability of the entire PC roster, makes the Friars a scary opponent for even the most successful regular-season team when it comes to single-elimination tournaments. Should PC qualify for the NCAA tournament, I wouldn’t be surprised at all for them to advance to the Frozen Four.

I just never saw a team capable of outdoing all of BC, BU and UMass-Lowell over 22 league games.

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