2006-07 Hockey East Preview
Last year’s Hockey East season was like
a fine bottle of wine, as it continued to get better with
age. The league welcomed Vermont as its 10th team at the beginning
of the season, Providence shocked the conference landscape
and entered the second half tied for first with Boston College,
and Boston University overcame an eight-point midseason deficit
to steal the regular-season championship from BC during the
final night of league play.
The rivalry between the Eagles and Terriers
turned out to be as exciting as ever last year. On top of
their three regular season meetings, the Commonwealth Ave.
counterparts hooked up in the Beanpot final, Hockey East championship,
and again in the Worcester Regional in the NCAA Tournament.
Though BU took three trophies from the Chestnut Hill gang,
BC laughed last when the Eagles gave the Terriers an old-fashioned
5-0 whooping to end their season in the big dance.
If that wasn’t enough, the difference
between regular season champ BU and fourth-place finisher
UNH was just three points, the closest the top four teams
have finished in league history.
So can Hockey East provide an appropriate encore
this season? That will be tough. When both Brian Boyle and
Cory Schneider decided to return to The Heights after briefly
flirting with the opportunity to play for money, two things
happened. First, Eagles coach Jerry York breathed one giant
sigh of relief, and then BC became a decisive favorite to
take back control of the conference.
Schneider and Boston College have their sights set on
a national championship.
But there are a ton of questions to be answered
this season as all eight playoff teams lost key scorers who
were some of the marquee names in the league. BC (Chris Collins,
Stephen Gionta), BU (its entire first line), Maine (Greg Moore),
UNH (Daniel Winnik, Brian Yandle), Vermont (Brady Leisenring,
Jaime Sifers), Providence (Torry Gajda), UMass Lowell (just
about its entire team; more on that later) and UMass (Marvin
Degon, Stephen Werner) will have some serious reshuffling
So, like always, the first half will be about
which team can make those adjustments the fastest before the
annual mad dash to the championship once the calendar turns
If any team has the ability to be last year’s
version of Providence, it might be the young and talented
Massachusetts Minutemen. For that to happen, however, Jon
Quick will need to stand on his head early in the season while
the offense figures out how to consistently light the lamp.
To a lesser extent, this year’s breakthrough
team will be Merrimack – but because the Warriors will
return to the playoffs for the first time in three years.
Bench boss Mark Dennehy isn’t shy to brag that his team
was in 23 third periods last season when it was either up
a goal, down a goal or tied, meaning – perhaps with
a little more luck, experience or any collection of intangibles
– the Warriors could have come away with a lot more
wins than they ended up with. With a full year under the tutelage
of Dennehy by the veterans and a full recruiting class hand-picked
by the second-year coach, Merrimack should be able to grind
out enough wins to surprise some teams.
PRIMED FOR A FALL
Simply put, the UMass Lowell River Hawks are
in a tough spot right now. They lost 14 players from last
year’s team, including eight of their top-10 scoring
forwards and two-year starting goalie Peter Vetri, who decided
to transfer. It helps that UMass Lowell has Inside College
Hockey’s ninth-ranked recruiting class coming in, but
asking a new crop of freshmen to fix this problem is a bit
much. The top two returning scorers are seniors Jason Tejchma
(10-17—27) and Jeremy Hall (12-13—25), and UML
also returns J.R. Bria and Cleve Kinley on the blue line so
the foundation has not completely collapsed. But since sophomore
Vinny Monaco, who played just 110 minutes over a span of three
games last year, is the lone returning netminder, things aren’t
exactly peachy along the Merrimack River.
PRESSURE TO PERFORM
Providence’s fast start last season was
overshadowed by its quiet finish, which was capped off by
a two-game sweep at the hands of UNH in the Hockey East quarterfinals.
Torry Gajda mustered only three goals in the second half last
year, and Tyler Sims tired a bit between the pipes. Sims has
put on an extra 10 pounds in the offseason and should be better
conditioned to handle the heavy workload given by coach Tim
Army. All eyes will be looking to see if Providence can –
to use a favorite word of sports fans – validate its
overachieving 2005-06 season. Including Gajda, the Friars
only lost three players from last year’s team that played
significant minutes, and six returnees scored at least 19
points last year. They have a real chance to establish themselves
among the elite of Hockey East this season.
TOUGHEST ACT TO FOLLOW
If Boston University is to improve upon last
year’s brilliant second half 19-1-2 run, which included
an 11-game winning streak, the Terriers will be forced to
do so without their entire top line. Coach Jack Parker admitted
that is easily his club’s biggest question mark this
season. But the catalyst on that line, senior co-captain David
Van der Gulik, is gone, and it was his return – along
with that of fellow senior Jekabs Redlihs – from injury
around the turn of the new year that sparked the magical BU
Without the Terriers’ heart and soul last
year, they stumbled out of the blocks to a 5-6-2 record and
earned harsh criticism from Parker, who said his team thought
it could win by simply showing up. In order to follow what
they did last year, they’ll have to first replace the
production from Van der Gulik, Brad Zancanaro and John Laliberte,
who combined for 36 goals and 54 assists.
When BC goalie Cory Schneider is on his game,
which is much more often than not, his opposition has less
of a chance to score than the kid who didn’t shower
on prom night. He was 24-13-2 with a 2.11 goals against average
and .929 save percentage last year. He also had that flashy
242:19 shutout streak in January, a BC record of eight shutouts
and became the first goalie to register back-to-back shutouts
in NCAA Regional action. And with the exception of a hiccup
late against North Dakota in the Frozen Four when he allowed
five goals (but still won), he never allowed more than two
goals in any postseason contest last spring.
BC freshman blueliner Carl Sneep was the first
Hockey East player chosen in June’s NHL Entry Draft
(by the Penguins in the second round, 32nd overall pick).
At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, he may stand a full foot taller
than some of BC’s forwards, and the former high school
linebacker and tight end can also pack some scoring punch.
Over his last two years at Brainerd Senior High School in
Minnesota, he totaled 33 goals and 45 assists. The Eagles
won’t need Sneep to score to be successful, but it’s
a fair option to have. He was also one of 10 finalists for
Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey Award last year.
Michel Levéillé is one of the best set-up
men in Hockey East and had 24 assists last year.
Greg Moore got a lot of the attention last season
up in Orono when Maine scored the second-most goals in the
conference, but Michel Léveillé was a big reason
for that. Possibly one of the smoothest puck distributors
in the league, he had 24 assists last season on top of 16
goals. With Josh Soares and Billy Ryan returning, Léveillé
will have more proven scorers to help out. And if Ted Purcell
winds up on Léveillé’s line, the freshman
could come along faster than expected.
THREE BURNING QUESTIONS
1. Can BU overcome the loss of its first
line? Yes. Last year’s line of Peter MacArthur
– the team’s leading scorer with 14 goals, 25
assists and 39 points – Bryan Ewing and Kenny Roche
was a very formidable second unit. And the freshman line of
Hockey East Rookie of the Year Brandon Yip, Chris Higgins
and Jason Lawrence really came along as they gained experience.
But while the Terriers return plenty of leadership like Ewing
and captain Sean Sullivan, it will be the locker room presence
of the top line that will be missed every bit as much as the
2. Can Lowell win with so much youth?
Not this year. This will be Blaise MacDonald’s toughest
year on the UML bench. While the freshmen are talented and
might be able to solidify themselves in the second half, the
biggest loss was goalie and former Hockey East Rookie of the
Year Peter Vetri.
3. Can UMass replace the scoring production
of Marvin Degon and Stephen Werner? It doesn’t
matter. Just replacing those 23 goals and 33 assists isn’t
enough, as the Minutemen need to exceed that to make a jump
in the standings. They scored 2.14 goals-per-game last year,
only good enough for eighth in the league, and were just one
of three teams to surrender more than they scored. The talent
is there, but over the last two years, UMass may have been
the most snake-bitten team around the net in the history of
MARK IT DOWN
Five things you can take to the bank in Hockey East this season
1. There won’t be any swearing
at BU’s Agganis Arena. Seriously. We swear
– if that’s appropriate. Anyway, Boston University
has decided to crack down on its fans, whom have been known
for their heckling prowess for some time now and caused a
bit of a stir with the TV crew during the Worcester Regional
at the NCAA Tournament last spring. Hockey East commissioner
Joe Bertagna has given BU his full support and will try to
implement a similar policy at Hockey East events such as the
2. Even though he may be the best player,
Cory Schneider won’t win Hockey East Player of the Year.
It doesn’t make much sense, but that’s how the
league has worked. Entering the conference’s 23rd season,
only four goalies (Mike Ayers, Ty Conklin, Dwayne Roloson
and Chris Terreri) have won player of the year. Guys like
Brian Boyle and Pete MacArthur may have the early edge.
3. BC will win the league by more than
one point. If last year was for rebuilding, does
that mean it’s possible for the Eagles to win two national
championships this season? OK, so they need to win one first,
but the freshmen and sophomores really grew up fast during
their run to Milwaukee. As long as Brian Boyle and Cory Schneider
stay healthy, this year’s race shouldn’t be as
close as the last four, when the regular season champ didn’t
win the league by more than a point.
4. Northeastern will
be improved. One of the best stories before last
season was that first-year coach Greg Cronin took his Huskies
to the gym for boxing sessions to toughen the Huntington Hounds
up. That only translated to three wins on the ice, but as
the season moved along, NU’s toughness was very noticeable.
They skated with true fire, most notably Joe Vitale, and that
type of play really caused some headaches for opposing coaches.
With the Huskies returning 21 players from last year including
a very able goalie in Adam Geragosian, they should definitely
improve on last year’s win total of three.
5. Maine will
miss Matt Lundin. Ben Bishop’s backup goalie
left the program to continue playing junior hockey. In limited
action (15 games to Bishop’s 31), Lundin actually had
better numbers with a 1.72 goals against average and .934
save percentage in comparison to Bishop (2.28 and .907). It
always seems to be about goalies in Orono, doesn’t it?
||Winning the conference would be nice, but the Eagles
have their sights set on a national championship this
||This team has good enough defense and goaltending to
get to St. Louis, but can it replace the goal-scoring
production of Greg Moore?
||After BC’s dominant NCAA Tournament run, people
are seeming to forget the Terriers won the Beanpot and
both Hockey East championships last year.
||Kevin Regan is Richard Umile’s clear-cut No. 1
goalie right now, but if he struggles, freshman Brian
Foster is champing at the bit for playing time.
|| Torry Gajda is gone, but the Friars return five 20-point
scorers and goalie Tyler Sims. They could surprise people
… for the second year in a row.
|| There are some sophomores who can step up, but replacing
Brady Leisenring, Jaime Sifers, and Jeff Corey is a tall
task. Joe Fallon will need to be spectacular once again.
|| The Minutemen have enough talent to crack through into
the Big Four – with an improving defense and solid
goaltending tandem in Jon Quick and Dan Meyers –
but it will be up to the forwards to find the back of
||Mark Dennehy thinks he has one of the best – if
not the best – three-headed goaltending tandems
in the nation. Obviously he can’t play them all
at once, but it’s worth noting.
|| The Huskies are a scrappy bunch, which will make them
a team no one really wants to play, but execution remains
||The River Hawks lost eight of their top 10 scoring forwards
from last year, and their goalie of two years transferred.
To say that UML is rebuilding would be a bit of an understatement.