Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy has said that the name of the game hockey should be changed to goalie. The eighth year bench boss is obviously being facetious, but his message rings true regardless. Goaltending is such an important position - like a quarterback in football. If a team has a good goalie, it can mask some other deficiencies.
This year's Hockey East results have proven that time and time again. New Hampshire is in a three-way tie for first place. The Wildcats were nearly unbeatable in the first half when sophomore goaltender Casey DeSmith was stopping almost every puck he faced. The post-Christmas version of UNH has been more up-and-down with the play of DeSmith being hit or miss.
Merrimack was a mediocre club in the first half. They had their shares of ups-and-downs, but ended December two games below .500. Since January, junior goaltender Sam Marotta has been on fire. It is no coincidence Merrimack is 8-3-1 since the calendar turned to 2013. Another one of Dennehy's favorite sayings is to remind reporters, "The only save we need the goalie to make is the winning save."
Providence finished seventh last season in Nate Leaman's first season at the helm. The freshman class has some talent overall, but the main reason the Friars are fighting for home ice and potentially more is rookie goaltender Jon Gillies. The Calgary draft pick has been a difference maker. Leaman has stressed more than once the importance of Gillies needing to be good in order for PC to win.
Boston University is breaking in two freshman goaltenders this season. Matt O'Connor and Sean Maguire are not solely responsible, but when their save percentages were higher in the first half, BU's season was heading in a much more positive direction than it is now.
Maine's offense was absolutely anemic for the first half so it is unfair to blame the goaltending for first half woes, but once junior Martin Ouellette came on, the Black Bears have been much better. He has made some big saves and kept Maine in games.
It should also come as no surprise that two of the bottom three teams in the league have the worst goaltending situations in Hockey East. UMass and Northeastern have both struggled to find consistent goaltending. When their goaltenders have been on, the teams have had their best moments.
This isn't just a Hockey East or college hockey phenomenon. Just take a look at the NHL where after the 2004 lockout there was a slight uptick in scoring, but it has been on it's way down ever since. Borrowing another line from Dennehy, teams must build their teams from the net out. In other words, if teams do not have good goaltending and team defense, that team is very unlikely to make any noise in the post-season.
With the playoffs just three weeks away, every coach in Hockey East will be hoping his goaltender gets or stays hot and carries his team far in the playoffs.
Jeff Cox covers college hockey for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.