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Hockey East: 8 Reactions to the First 3 Weeks

Dick Umile UNH Matt Dewkett/SB Nation

College hockey never seems to go as predicted so it should come as no surprise that the University of New Hampshire is the last unblemished team in Hockey East.

The 4-0 Wildcats enter this weekend’s two-game series against Colorado College looking for the program’s best start since the 1993-94 season. UNH hasn’t been undefeated after five (or six) games since then, Dick Umile’s fourth season as head coach at his alma mater.

Of Course, this is Umile’s last season behind the bench in Durham. Umile now just sits 10 wins away from 600 on his career with a 590-353-108 record over his 27-plus seasons.

While Colgate certainly isn’t the toughest test, and UMass Lowell still figuring things out with a vastly different roster, this 4-0 start has been a pleasant surprise.

The biggest takeaway is certainly the importance of mobile, puck-moving defensemen in the modern era of hockey. UNH’s roster is largely the same as last season, sans the additions of freshmen defensemen Max Gildon and Benton Maass.

Maass has five assists through four games while Gildon has two goals and a helper. It’s not just the offensive production that makes a difference. Both rookies are poised, can break the puck out of their own zone and transition from defense to offense.

UMass Lowell’s struggles shouldn’t be a surprise

Before a 5-2 win over Omaha on Saturday night, the River Hawks were 0-3 for the first time since the 1999-2000 season.

The slow start can be attributed to a myriad of reasons, including the off-season departures of Joe Gambardella, Michael Kapla and Dylan Zink to graduation and C.J. Smith a year early to the Buffalo Sabres.

Sophomore goaltender Tyler Wall, who was very good as a rookie, has been less than stellar. He was yanked halfway through Friday’s loss to Omaha and sat on the bench behind junior Christoffer Hernberg on Saturday.

Any Lowell fan pressing the panic button at this point is crazy. Norm Bazin is one of, if not the best, coaches in college hockey in terms of scheming and x’s and o’s. The River Hawks will figure it out.

BC’s freshmen impress

In the preseason much of the talk surrounding Boston College’s freshman class was directed towards who didn’t make it to campus. While Eeli Tolvanen undoubtedly would have made a huge difference, some of the other newcomers up front have been impressive in the early going.

A pair of U.S. NTDP alums, Logan Hutsko and Jacob Tortora, have both been good in the first three games. Hutsko has three assists while Tortora has a goal and an assist. Right wings on different lines, the pair were clearly the two best offensive players in Sunday’s 4-3 come-from-behind overtime victory at Providence. They each made plays and used their speed and vision to get pucks to scoring areas.

Rookie Chris Grando, who was expected to play more of a bottom six role, has goals in back-to-back games for the Eagles. He’s still a bottom six type forward, someone who can be counted on to bring energy and kill penalties, but chipping in offensively is a nice bonus.

Merrimack still can’t score

The Warriors have scored just four goals in their first three games. Mark Dennehy’s team found the back of the net just once against Wisconsin, despite peppering Badgers goaltender Kyle Hayton with 42 shots.

Merrimack’s 3.6 shooting percentage ranks last in Division I, according to College Hockey, Inc.’s statistics page. While the Warriors have gotten faster over the past few seasons, the team still lacks a true goal scorer.

Merrimack’s best offensive player is senior Brett Seney, whose speed is dynamic, but he’s more of a set-up guy. This observer had high expectations of the Warriors, but the team will need to find some goal scoring touch, and find it fast.

Terriers starving for goals

There are two theories regarding BU’s 2-2 start. One is the team is far too talented to be concerned while the other train of thought is how can a team this skilled struggle to light the lamp?

Excluding two empty net goals against Union in the first game of the year, BU has scored just eight goals in four games. Six of those eight goals have come on the man advantage. Perhaps more concerning is Patrick Harper and Shane Bowers account for eight of the ten goals scored. Jordan Greenway and Dante Fabbro have the other two goals.

In the two games I’ve seen live, the third and fourth lines haven’t just been held off the score sheet, they’ve been a liability in their own zone. Both Quinnipiac goals were scored with the third line on the ice. A fourth line wing made a horrible clearing attempt that led straight to Minnesota State’s second goal on Friday night, which really turned the game around.

Another issue is the team’s youth. BU’s top players were all born in 1997, 1998 and 1999. Minnesota State was basically dressing a roster of players born between 1993 and 1996. It’s not an excuse as BU could have recruited those very same players, but it’s a fact. It’s the reason Union, Yale and Providence have won NCAA Championships over the past five seasons and why Quinnipiac and UMass Lowell have enjoyed such success.

With the league being down this year and BU possessing so much talent and one of the two best goaltenders in the league, the Terriers will win, and win often. But, one has to wonder why a team this talented up front and on the blue line can’t score more often.

What’s wrong with UConn?

The Huskies were able to salvage just one win against two separate Atlantic Hockey programs over the weekend, but it was almost uglier than that. UConn fell down, 3-0, to American International on Friday before rallying for a 6-4 win. The next night, Sacred Heart jumped out to a 3-0 lead and held on for a 3-1 win.

Mike Cavanaugh’s team is 2-2 on the season entering this weekend’s home-and-home series with Boston University, a team that will be smelling blood in the water after a disappointing two-game series sweep at the hands of Minnesota State.

The Huskies have a veteran defense that should be able to play well enough in front of sophomore goaltender Adam Huska for the team to win its fair share of games.

Friars can’t string together 60

For the first 25 minutes of Sunday’s home and league opener, Providence looked like the best team in Hockey East. It wasn’t even close.

Sophomore defenseman Jacob Bryson, a Buffalo Sabres pick, was tooling BC with his ability to possess pucks and move the play north. Vimal Sukumaran and Shane Kavanaugh were the perfect examples of what a Nate Leaman forward is expected to do. Both were going all out on the forecheck and blocking shots in their own zone.

Then, the tide turned. BC scored four unanswered goals en route to a 4-3 overtime victory. It was certainly a deflating moment for players, coaches and fans of the Friars.

Providence will be fine, but an inability to string together a full 60 minutes has been a recurring issue over the past two seasons. Leaman suggested his team executed better on the road against Miami than it did at home, so a two-game road trip to the North Country to face St. Lawrence and Clarkson could give the Friars a chance to settle down and bounce back from Sunday’s letdown.

New Kids in Amherst

The top six scorers for UMass are all newcomers in Amherst. That is five freshmen and graduate transfer Niko Rufo, who played previously at Providence.

Rufo, who scored just 10 points in 55 games in a Friars uniform, has two goals and two assists through four games for the 3-1 Minutemen.

Freshman John Leonard has three goals and four assists to lead the team in scoring. The local product was named the Hockey East Rookie of the Week. A prodigy out of Western Mass, he was invited to the NTDP Evaluation Camp in 2014. He played two seasons in the USHL with Green Bay after leaving the area where he had starred for Springfield Cathedral. His father was a former UMass basketball assistant coach.

After a relatively weak slate of games to start the season, the competition ratchets up this weekend with Ohio State coming into the Mullins Center for a pair.