This could be one of the more interesting races to the finish line in recent memories for Hockey East. Four teams have seemingly set themselves apart from the rest of the field, but there are plenty of questions left to be answered before the 2016 Hockey East Tournament starts in March.
What makes the start of the second half even more intriguing is the current status of some of the top teams. Defending NCAA Champion Providence is the only team without a conference loss, but Nate Leaman's team has lost two of its past three. The only win in that span is over Boston College who the Friars face twice in a home-and-home series this upcoming weekend.
The Eagles have lost three in a row, keeping legendary bench boss Jerry York stuck on 997 wins. Suffering from injuries and the loss of the team's top player to the World Juniors, BC has been in a rut. Even with a lack of depth at both forward and defense, there is too much firepower to expect anything other than a quick turnaround for the Eagles. However, some uncertainty lingers with Wednesday's report in the Boston Globe that indicated Thatcher Demko could miss time with an injury.
After starting 10-1-3, UMass Lowell has gone 1-3-1 over its last five, including its first two conference losses at the hands of UConn. Surprisingly, the River Hawks' problems have been on the defensive side of the puck. Senior goaltender Kevin Boyle had a .956 save percentage through the first 14 games, but that has seen that stat slip to .881 the past five games.
Notre Dame is the only team in the top four of the Hockey East standings to be playing good hockey lately. The Irish are 4-0-2 over their last six, including a big win at Boston College and two ties at Denver. Sophomore goaltender Cal Petersen's emergence as a bona fide number one goaltender has been a big difference Jeff Jackson's club. What should be even scarier to Irish opponents is senior sniper Mario Lucia hasn't even heated up yet this season.
The overall mediocrity of the league this season is putting some team's NCAA hopes in peril. Providence is the top Hockey East team in the Pairwise Rankings, sitting at sixth. Boston University and Notre Dame (12th) and UMass Lowell (14th) are the only other teams that would make the national tournament if it started today. Even Boston College with just four losses sits at 16th, which would not be good enough to make the post-season. According to College Hockey News' Inter-Conference Records page, Hockey East has the third best winning percentage among conferences at .537. The NCHC (.633) and ECAC Hockey (.615) are ahead.
The race for home ice in the first round of the playoffs should go down to the wire, as well. Not factoring in games in hand, sixth place and 10th place is separated by just two points.
- When will Jerry York pick up his 1,000th win? It could be as early as next Friday night against archrival BU, which would be fitting. However, it is unlikely with the health concerns related to the team's top two goaltenders.
- Despite losing two of its last three games, Providence seems like the odds on favorite to win the league and get back to the national tournament to defend its NCAA Championship.
- Can Cal Petersen continue to lead the charge for Jeff Jackson's Fighting Irish? The Buffalo Sabres prospect is playing as good in goal as anyone in the NCAA. Notre Dame has yet to finish inside the top four, earning the pivotal first round bye, since joining Hockey East for the 2013-14 season.
- Will Boston University overcome adversity and questionable goaltending to land a first round bye? A healthy Matt Grzelcyk would go a long way in making that happen. The Bruins prospect leads a very mobile defense that has been better in the possession game this season.
- Several teams at the bottom of the Hockey East standings are reeling, and some head coaches are certainly on the hot seat.
UMass Lowell (11-4-4, 6-2-3 HE)
Norm Bazin's club has yet to face the brunt its of Hockey East schedule. Out of UMass Lowell's remaining 11 conference games, six of them are against teams in top five -- two each against BC, BU and Providence. Two more against surging UNH, a pair against rival UMass and a single game versus Northeastern round out the league schedule.
With the current slide of the River Hawks, combined with the brutal second half schedule and the fact teams behind have games in hand, it would only seem reasonable to predict a fall down the standings. Just how far that dip is probably rests in the hands of Boyle, the team's senior goaltender that has far exceeded expectations in his two seasons in a UML uniform after transferring from UMass Amherst.
Notre Dame (9-4-6, 6-1-2 HE)
The Fighting Irish are playing well and appear to be gaining steam. Sophomore goaltender Cal Petersen has become a legitimate difference maker in the crease. The Buffalo Sabres prospect has a 1.47 goals against average and a .957 save percentage during the current six-game unbeaten streak.
Jeff Jackson's team will regain the services of Anders Bjork this weekend, as he returns from his stint with the U.S. team at the World Juniors. As mentioned above, Lucia, who had 49 goals in his first three seasons, has just three so far this season.
Boston College (13-4-1, 6-1-1 HE)
Some in Chestnut Hill are pushing the panic button after three consecutive losses, but despite the team's thin lineup, there is plenty of talent to go around. In a down year for Hockey East, the Eagles will be fine as long as the reported injury to Thatcher Demko is not long term.
With Colin White's return from the World Juniors, the Eagles will once again have three good forward lines. Juniors Steve Santini and Ian McCoshen are the two most pro ready defensemen in Hockey East, and the supporting cast on the blue line is solid.
Outside of Providence, there is no lineup equal to that of the Eagles, if they are fully healthy. Once York reaches the 1,000 mark, BC should be able to fully concentrate on the day-to-day grind and have minimal distractions.
Health of key players is certainly an issue, but BC should be just fine.
Providence (13-2-3, 4-0-2 HE)
The Friars are expected to regain the services of stud defenseman Jake Walman, who is coming back from an injury suffered against Merrimack. His addition shores up the top defense in Hockey East. Outside of just how good the Friars are, having seniors like Tom Parisi and John Gilmour and juniors Anthony Florentino and Kyle McKenzie will be a huge boost down the stretch. Nick Ellis has proven to be a more than capable replacement to the departed Jon Gillies in net.
The offense might lack some of the true super stars that BC and BU have, but it's hard to argue against a top line of Nick Saracino, Mark Jankowski and Trevor Mingoia. Add in Brian Pinho, Brandon Tanev and Erik Foley and the Friars can score goals and compete at both ends of the ice.
Leaman's club has hit a rough patch, but this weekend's games against BC could be coming at the perfect time. The Friars can regain some conference momentum against an injury-depleted lineup.
Boston University (9-6-3, 4-3-2 HE)
The Terriers limp are quite literally limping into the second half with injuries, departures and suspensions. Leading goal scorer Ahti Oksanen is out, Nick Roberto has been suspended for the season and A.J. Greer left for the QMJHL.
Perhaps most significantly, senior captain Matt Grzelcyk's status is still unknown, but he has missed the last six games and has only played in that many all season. The Boston Hockey Blog did report that the status of Grzelcyk and Oksanen could be better than initially expected.
The Terriers added two bodies over the winter break for depth. Can David Quinn and company rely on a solid defense to hold the fort and pray it is enough with an offense that lacks a true finisher? Time will tell, but the blue line is the one position BU doesn't have to worry about depth.
Goaltending is a big area of concern for BU, and it's a major reason to not buy into success down the road in February and March. Sean Maguire has strung together two impressive starts in his last three outings, but overall, the play in the crease has been suspect at best.
Even with a depleted roster, BU still has more talent than teams below in the standings, but there are too many question marks to catch up with the top four.
Merrimack (7-7-5, 2-3-5 HE)
The Warriors, typically better on the penalty kill, have given up just over a quarter of their goals while shorthanded this season. Staying out of the penalty box and improving while down a man will go a long ways.
Not that Drew Vogler is directly to blame for the results of the past few games, but getting players back healthy and in the lineup is also a key concern for the second half. A fully healthy Collin Delia and Brett Seney are keys to success, as would be the return of Matthieu Tibbet, who has missed time due to a personal reason.
Merrimack's team speed and transition game has improved. If Mark Dennehy's team can remain healthy and play a full 60 minutes on a consistent basis, the Warriors should earn home ice in the first round.
New Hampshire (8-7-4, 2-1-4 HE)
The Wildcats had gone on a 5-0-1 stretch before last weekend's loss to Vermont. Buoyed by the top power play unit in the conference, Dick Umile's team has caught fire.
Tyler Kelleher and Andrew Poturalski are the best offensive duo in the conference, but their play in their own zone is a microcosm of the entire team. The defense and goaltending have been inconsistent, but Danny Tirone has a past track record of carrying the team on his back. His numbers are significantly better when UNH is even strength so staying out of the box would improve the team's status.
Massachusetts (7-9-4, 2-4-4 HE)
A new season, but it's same old, same old for the Minutemen. An inept system has led to numerous defensive breakdowns and poor goaltending numbers. A young team, UMass plays with energy, but is still falling well behind the upper echelon of the league.
John Micheletto's team started out 4-0-1, but has gone 3-9-4 since then. All seven of UMass' wins have come against teams with records three games below .500 or worse.
The biggest bright spot has been Senior Shane Walsh who had 18 goals during his first three years, but has 13 already this season.
Vermont (8-12-2, 3-5-2 HE)
The Catamounts have won three in a row, albeit against a fairly weak stretch of opponents. Can Kevin Sneddon's squad capitalize on the positive upswing to jump start another second half run?
Time will tell, but Mario Lucia and Brady Shaw will have to pick up their production. Shaw, the team's leading scorer a year ago, didn't post a multiple point game until this past weekend against UNH.
Freshman Packy Munson has been solid in net the past six games in place of junior Mike Santaguida, who has been out with an injury.
The freshman class that looked good on paper has yet to hit their stride outside of Liam Coughlin, an Edmonton Oilers prospect.
Connecticut (6-12-1, 3-7-1 HE)
The Huskies were unable to build off the momentum gained from a weekend sweep of previously undefeated UMass Lowell in early December. Mike Cavanaugh's young team is improving, but still has a ways to go before seriously competing in this league.
2016 NHL Draft prospect Tage Thompson and fellow rookie Max Letunov, a Coyotes prospect, are fun to watch, and have given UConn a legitimate offensive threat that it didn't have the first year in Hockey East. Fellow rookies, defensemen Joe Masonius and Miles Gendron, have also been nice additions.
No one outside the freshman class has more than 10 points on the season, which bodes well for the future, but brings uncertainty to this year. Can junior goaltender Rob Nichols get bet to the form he displayed for much of last year when he stood on his head? His drop in save percentage isn't just self inflicted. The Huskies have operated a more wide open game plan in their second season in Hockey East.
Maine (4-11-4, 2-5-1 HE)
The Black Bears have been plagued by a slow and unreliable defense, as well as inconsistent goaltending. There have been nights where freshman Rob McGovern has stolen the show, but others where soft and untimely goals found its way to haunt Red Gendron's team.
Maine's offense hasn't been much better -- scoring at a pace of less than two goals per game. One bright spot has seen senior Will Merchant, who leads the team with eight goals scored, just one shy of his career total entering the season.
The freshman class has not been able to infuse any production, totaling just two goals. Rookie defenseman Rob Michel leads the class with six assists.
Northeastern (3-12-4, 0-8-3 HE)
Kevin Roy and Dalen Hedges had a combined 28 goals and 50 assists last season. This year the duo has just eight assists. Sadly for Jim Madigan's Huskies, the offensive woes of their top two players are the least of their problems.
The goaltending has been abysmal with a team save percentage of .876. The defense is certainly not great, but Saturday's near win over Quinnipiac was a perfect example of goaltending costing the Huskies a win. The first two Quinnipiac goals were extremely soft.
Even if Roy and Hedges return to good health and their production picks up, it's tough to imagine Northeastern climbing too far in the standings.
Final Standings - Prediction
2. Boston College
3. Notre Dame
4. UMass Lowell
5. Boston University
6. New Hampshire