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Hockey East: Midseason Report

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Fabbro and Roberto John Corneau/SB Nation

Boston College

Joshua Kummins: Even with so many losses to graduation and the pros this offseason, I still expected Boston College to be near the top of Hockey East. The surprise to me is how solid the Eagles have been in maintaining first place and the depth they’ve quickly established. Scoring was not a worry with Ryan Fitzgerald and Colin White returning, but I sure didn’t expect Matthew Gaudreau to be their leading scorer, already with just six fewer points (22) than he scored in his first three college seasons combined. Losing the lines of Ian McCoshen and Steve Santini has not made their defense vulnerable either, as the unit ranks 13th nationally and third in Hockey East with just 2.35 goals allowed per game. Casey Fitzgerald has improved in back and provides a strong offensive touch too, Michael Kim really elevated his game and was a constant in the lineup in just his second semester of college hockey, and freshman Joseph Woll has been rock solid for a team that had not needed to worry about goaltending for a couple years thanks to Thatcher Demko. An 9-1-1 start to league play is the Eagles’ best-ever, and this weekend’s series with Boston University will tell a lot about their chances to remain ahead of everyone else. The elder Fitzgerald just returned from a six-week absence due to a high ankle sprain, already providing an extra spark to the lineup.

Jeff Cox: Jerry York and his coaching staff have done a terrific job of changing their philosophy and style of play from last year to this year. The Eagles don’t have anywhere near the talent or experience of last year’s squad so they have reverted to playing a more structured game. Matthew Gaudreau, Chris Brown and J.D. Dudek have all taken significant steps to help contribute to the offense as they’ve earned more playing time. With Colin White and Austin Cangelosi, the Eagles have two of the better centers in the league. While White is a bona fide pro prospect with the explosiveness to take over a game offensively, Cangelosi is one of the better face-off men in college hockey. On the defensive side of the puck, the Eagles have had a few ups and downs. Sophomore Michael Kim has been a pleasant surprise. He’s chipped in offensively, scoring a few big goals and helping push the pace in transition. While Casey Fitzgerald is prone to making mistakes in the defensive end, he grinds, retrieves pucks and does a good job breaking it out of his own zone. Freshman Joe Woll has come in and been calm, cool and collected between the pipes while doing a more than adequate job of replacing Thatcher Demko. The Eagles’ schedule was a little soft in the first half so there might be a slight step back going further, but look for York’s squad to secure a first round bye.

Boston University

Kummins: Boston University’s freshman class was the talk around Hockey East entering this season. After the first semester, it is safe to say the talk was well worth it. Clayton Keller has been as dynamic as advertised when he’s been in the lineup and is one of those guys who makes everyone around him better, including classmate Patrick Harper. Despite being small in stature, Harper put his incredible skill on display early and often this year and leads the Terriers with 22 points. Overall, having seven players at the World Junior Championship is a microcosm of BU’s season to me. Jordan Greenway is showing he has become an even bigger force and got off to a strong pace as a sophomore, just as we’ve Charlie McAvoy shine as a top defenseman at BU and probably Team USA’s top option at World Juniors too. Jake Oettinger is another rookie who made an immediate impact as he leads Hockey East with a 1.94 goals-against average and has pitched three shutouts. BU is a team with an obvious load of talent and I think only time will tell how far it can go.

Cox: Who would have thought Patrick Harper, and not Clayton Keller, would be the freshman leading the Terriers in scoring? The much-hyped rookie class has lived up to its billing for the most part, with the lone exception being Kieffer Bellows who has struggled somewhat with the faster pace of college hockey. However, he had a good World Juniors and had perhaps his best game in a BU uniform at Fenway Park this past Sunday. Sophomore Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson is starting to heat up. The two-way center has five goals and two assists over the past three games compared to just three goals and 10 assists in his first 16 of the season. Jordan Greenway hasn’t scored a goal in almost a month, but his physical presence and ability to win battles along the wall and in front of the net is second to no one in college hockey. The defense, led by super sophomore Charlie McAvoy, can really skate and push the pace, but it has also made mistakes. Freshman goaltender Jake Oettinger, who was 17 when the season started, has been terrific. He’s so poised for a young goaltender it’s almost hard to believe. David Quinn’s team is likely to go on an absolute tear in the second half. There is just too much talent for it not to happen.

Connecticut

Kummins: It seems this season could be called “The Year of the Freshman Goaltender” in college hockey. At Connecticut, there’s another good one in Adam Huska. The starter for Slovakia’s World Junior Championship team, Huska boasts the best save percentage (.940) in Hockey East play. As expected, he has received plenty of help from sophomores Tage Thompson and Max Letunov as well. The forwards are UConn’s leading scorers, with Thompson having scored ten of his team-best 20 points on the power play. The standout team stat is the Huskies’ penalty kill, which ranks fourth in Hockey East at 84.8 percent. All the right pieces are in place, but getting some other guys going up front and carrying the momentum from winning the Desert Hockey Classic against Brown and St. Cloud State ― without Thompson and Huska, to boot ― will be key for the Huskies as league play resumes.

Cox: As Josh alluded to, UConn has also benefited from a terrific freshman goaltender. Adam Huska is a legitimate game changer in net for Mike Cavanaugh’s team. While much of the hype regarding the Huskies prior to the season surrounded sophomores Max Letunov and Tage Thompson, the Huskies have received secondary scoring. Spencer Naas has 11 goals and Karl El-Mir has six. The defense is better than it has been in Cavanaugh’s tenure in Storrs, and the blue line just received a nice addition of Phillip Nyberg, a Buffalo Sabres prospect, for the second half. Sophomore Miles Gendron and freshman Wyatt Newpower have been solid for the Huskies. The Huskies still might be a year away, but road wins at UMass Lowell, Notre Dame and Boston University prove this is a team to be reckoned with down the stretch.

Maine

Kummins: Six of Maine’s seven wins to date came outside Hockey East play, but the first half showed that this team’s problems are not up front. With freshmen Chase Pearson and Mitchell Fossier standing out quickly and senior Cam Brown making plays to already surpass last year’s offensive output with a team-best 21 points, the Black Bears have averaged more than three goals per game. However, it’s the league’s second-worst defense (3.40 goals allowed) that is holding Maine back. Sophomore Rob McGovern has again been solid in goal as he led the league at the midway mark of the season with 481 saves, but the unit in front hasn’t helped his .909 percentage.

Cox: The Black Bears have yet to win a hockey game outside the state of Maine. A promising start to the season, including a come-from-behind overtime win against Quinnipiac, has quickly dissipated. The rookie class has shown some signs of promise, but it has faded some as well. Detroit Red Wings prospect Chase Pearson has been the most consistent Maine newcomer. Seniors Blaine Byron and Cam Brown have come on strong after the freshmen stole the headlines the first few weeks. The biggest glaring hole for Maine comes on the blue line as the defense continues to leave sophomore goaltender Rob McGovern hung out to dry on most nights. Until there is improvement in their own zone, the Black Bears appear to be stuck in the basement of Hockey East.

Massachusetts

Kummins: As expected, Greg Carvel’s first year at UMass has been a challenge, but the Minutemen already matched their two-win Hockey East total from all of last season and have five overall. There are positives for the future with four of the team’s top five scorers being underclassmen, including sophomores Kurt Keats and Austin Plevy. The Minutemen have a strong leader in senior Steven Iacobellis, whose 13 points match Plevy for the team lead. Griff Jeszka and Jonny Lazarus have combined for 11 goals as freshmen, and Jeszka leads the team in that category with six. Their classmate Ryan Wischow grabbed hold of the goaltending duties early. The goal was a weak position for last year’s team, and I think the fact the Minutemen have settled on a single man in the crease bodes well.

Cox: While the system the Minutemen play has greatly improved in Greg Carvel’s first year, the goaltending and defensive lapses continue to be issues that need to be addressed. Especially when the offense can only muster just over two goals per game, the defensive issues tend to be magnified. Improvement is on the horizon in Amherst, but it is still a few years away. William Lagesson has been a bright spot on the defensive side of the puck. The team’s leading goal scorer is Griff Jeszka, a late add in the recruiting process out of the NAHL. A big improvement has been the team’s ability to stay in most games, only losing one game by four goals. There were some downright ugly losses the previous two seasons.

UMass Lowell

Kummins: The first half was same old, same old for UMass Lowell, and nothing less than a solid team should be expected from Norm Bazin. The depth the River Hawks annually showcase is there as 19 skaters have points and all four goaltenders on the roster have seen game action for the first time in the program’s Division 1 history. One unusual trend on this year’s team is that senior Joe Gambardella and junior C.J. Smith are jumping off the stats page more than any River Hawk usually does. Gambardella’s 33 points are tied for third in Hockey East, while Smith’s 13 goals are two more than any other teammate and are good enough for a share of fourth in the league. Dylan Zink is always steady and has timely a knack for scoring as any defenseman in the country, sitting first among the league’s blueliners with seven goals. It’s been no problem without Kevin Boyle in net either with a cast of characters chipping into his void, but freshman Tyler Wall has been outstanding and run away with the job, ranking second in the league with a .927 save percentage ands 1.95 goals-against. New year, same River Hawks. They’re here to stay.

Cox: It’s a new year, but it’s been much of the same for the River Hawks. Norm Bazin’s team has protected leads and put itself in position to make another run into the NCAA Tournament. Senior Joe Gambardella and junior C.J. Smith have paced the offense and Dylan Zink and Michael Kapla have produced from the blue line. A player who continuously falls under the radar, but is worth mentioning, is junior Tyler Mueller. The Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native is one of the tougher defenders to play against in the league. New York Rangers prospect Tyler Wall has stepped in and been tremendous as a rookie. That is no easy feat, especially as a 1998-born true freshman out of the GOJHL. There’s no reason to believe UML won’t earn a bye in the first round and find itself in the post-season once again.

Merrimack

Kummins: Four of Merrimack’s six Hockey East games in January will be played at Lawler Rink, so home cooking could be a benefit to the Warriors improving upon their 1-4-3 league record. Injuries did not help their cause to date as both goaltender Collin Delia and defenseman Aaron Titcomb missed significant time. Drew Vogler held his own in starting 11 straight games through mid-November, but having two guys ready to go proves head coach Mark Dennehy’s point that goaltending is a “position of depth” for his team. In Titcomb’s absence, we saw that Merrimack has an all-around defense to be successful and the emergence of freshman Jonathan Kovacevic as one of the league’s top rookies in back.

Cox: Home cooking better be good to the Warriors this month or it could be another fight to the finish line. Inconsistent goaltending, defensive lapses and an inability to produce offensively outside of Brett Seney have been the issues for Mark Dennehy’s club. The most pleasant surprise has been the play of freshman defenseman Jonathan Kovacevic. He’s come right in from the CCHL and played well in all three zones. He’s tough to play against, can skate well and has above average hockey IQ. Look for him to be another player to continue the trend of NHL organizations selecting second and third year eligible prospects in the draft this coming June.

New Hampshire

Kummins: New Hampshire finished the first half looking good and sits in a current tie for fifth in the league standings, but the Wildcats have a real tough finish ahead with series at Notre Dame and Vermont, home-and-homes with Northeastern and Boston University, and a game against Boston College all left on the schedule. UNH has scored 32 goals in eight conference games and its offense overall (3.60 goals per game) is also the league’s best, but I’d expect those marks to slid back a bit. Talent is not missing though, as Tyler Kelleher is putting together one heck of a senior year and is Hockey East’s leader with 26 assists (five of which came in the Wildcats’ Sunday win at Brown) and 40 points, Matias Cleland has been outstanding chipping into the offense with 24 points, including at least one in all but three games this season, and Patrick Grasso is a budding star with 12 goals to lead all Hockey East freshmen.

Cox: Senior Tyler Kelleher is averaging two points per game after Sunday’s five point performance at Brown. The Longmeadow, Mass. native is pacing the offense, but the second half will be more difficult. The schedule gets harder with two road games at Notre Dame, a pair against BU and UConn and a home game with BC among the second half contests. Danny Tirone has been serviceable in net, but the defense continues to make plenty of mistakes in their own zone. That could be troublesome with the meat of the schedule upon the Wildcats.

Northeastern

Kummins: Northeastern has just a 1-7-2 Hockey East mark thus far, but its schedule lightens up a bit in the second half and perhaps leaves some room for another late-season push up the standings. Even though the Huskies left some work for themselves, they’re the only team in the country boasting three skaters with 30 or more points. Adam Gaudette and Dylan Sikura are much improved and playing more well-rounded games, but Zach Aston-Reese has already surpassed his junior year goal total and is a Hobey Baker candidate in the making. Aston-Reese surpassed Union’s Mike Vecchione as the nation’s leading goal scorer with 19, including eight total (and two hat tricks) in the last four games, while his nine power-play goals also top college hockey. Adding Maine transfer Liam Pecararo will only help an offense that is already rounding into form, so the Huskies will be in business if Ryan Ruck can improve even a little bit on his current .887 save percentage.

Cox: For a third consecutive season Northeastern has struggled mightily in the first half. Can the Huskies climb out of the bottom of the Hockey East standings once again this season? If Jim Madigan’s team is to do so, the goaltending is going to have to get a lot better. Ryan Ruck has struggled and performed well below par for Division I standards. The top two lines have not been the problem. Zach Aston-Reese and John Stevens and Adam Gaudette and Dylan Sikura have been great one-two punches. That is only going to better once Nolan Stevens returns from injury and Liam Pecararo is added to the roster. The defense might even be better than it was last season with the additions of mobile freshman Ryan Shea and Jeremy Davies. The second half, and any potential run, boils down to one thing. Can Ruck improve between the pipes? If the answer is yes, Northeastern has a favorable schedule down the stretch.

Notre Dame

Kummins: Notre Dame is a team I thought could finish its Hockey East stay with a bang and it has held strong so far, having lost just three of nine conference games thus far. Junior Anders Bjork has been held off the scoresheet just four times this season and is tied for third in Hockey East with 33 points, but it’s by no means a one-man show. Andrew Oglevie and Jake Evans have often benefitted from Bjork’s work, while Jordan Gross remains as strong a two-day defenseman as there is in the league. Cal Petersen has been there when he’s needed to be in net, ranking third in Hockey East with a .922 save percentage. The Fighting Irish have great depth and I expect it will get a good run later in the season.

Cox: Notre Dame is still somewhat of an unknown as Jeff Jackson’s team looks to make one final run in its years in Hockey East. Can the Fighting Irish pull together a second half run? A lot of that will depend on how well junior Cal Petersen can play in front of a largely inexperienced blue line. Junior Jordan Gross is the veteran of the Irish defense that typically plays two freshmen and two sophomores. The Irish have given up more shots on goal than any other team in Hockey East. Bruins prospect Anders Bjork has elevated his game and produced in a major way to help offset the losses the Irish sustained over the off-season. Montreal Canadiens draft pick Jake Evans, one of the more underrated two-way centers in college hockey, has scored at least a point in seven straight games. The Irish need to take advantage of their schedule over the next month as they visit Merrimack and Maine for a pair each and host New Hampshire.

Providence

Kummins: With its top four scorers from a year ago and goaltender Nick Ellis gone to graduation, Providence had a lot to learn early on this season. There is room to move up as the Friars have played fewer league games than almost every other team in the first half, but they dropped to 1-5-2 in Hockey East games after losing to Boston College in Sunday’s latter Frozen Fenway contest. Junior Brian Pinho has developed into a true top center this year, but has often had underclassmen on his wings. Their maturing takes time, although Josh Wilkins has been strong from the start and is the team’s second-leading scorer with 17 points, including a team-best eight goals. Head coach Nate Leaman knew it would be a process for this year’s team, especially with Hayden Hawkey seeing starter’s minutes in goal for the first time, but he’s turned a corner of late with four wins and two ties in his last seven games, including big non-conference wins over Denver and Yale. Sophomore Erik Foley and freshman Kasper Bjorkqvist are also back from World Juniors, and that should give the Friars a boost.

Cox: Inconsistency has plagued Nate Leaman’s club so far this season, which is to be expected with such a young group. Josh Wilkins, the last addition to the recruiting class, has been a pleasant surprise. The Raleigh, NC native has great hands and has produced at a nice clip. After a strong summer at the National Junior Evaluation Camp, Erik Foley hasn’t been able to continue the momentum in his games in a Friars’ uniform. Defense and goaltending have also been inconsistent. An early season game against Miami was indicative of how the first half has gone. Providence looked like the best team in college hockey for a period against the Red Hawks then let them right back in the game before eventually winning in overtime. The talent and coaching is there for PC to turn it around, but can they actually do it is another question entirely.

Vermont

Kummins: Vermont began the season with some questions, but its 14-6-2 record and six Hockey East wins thus far alone show that they’ve been answered quite well. Ross Colton and Derek Lodermeier are the Catamounts’ offensive leader with 15 points apiece as freshman, but captain Mario Puskarich has nipped at his heels since returning from serving a five-game suspension at season’s beginning and has totaled 12. Despite overall offensive numbers (now 3.41 goals per game) that ranked in the middle of the Hockey East pack at Christmas, UVM’s defense ranked third and freshman Stefanos Lekkas has taken a stranglehold of the job in net and sports a .920 save percentage. A tough beginning to the season seemed to bring the Cats together, and they haven’t set foot off the gas yet.

Cox: Kevin Sneddon has to be in line for possible Hockey East Coach of the Year honors at this point. The Catamounts were almost unanimously picked in the bottom four by most prognosticators before the season. The first month started off with controversy as there was roster turnover late in the preseason and captains were suspended due to a hazing incident. Despite all that, Sneddon has rallied this group and led UVM to a 14-6-2 start. Freshman Stefanos Lekkas has been a major reason for the hot start. His .920 save percentage and 12-3-0 record speaks for itself. The offense has scored by committee. The offense is averaging over three goals per game despite its leading scorer having just 15 points in 21 games played.