Even as this appeared to be the year of the underdog in Hockey East, the top of the league standings are littered by its traditional powers.
Heading into the final weekend of conference play of the season’s first half, New Hampshire (7-2-2, 16 points), Boston College (6-3-2, 14 points) and Maine (6-4-1, 13 points) have locked down Hockey East’s top-three spots, overtaking UMass Lowell (5-4-1, 11 points) and Massachusetts (5-4-0, 10 points) to reclaim their upper-echelon status.
“We started off the year a little shaky there, but we’ve got a young team overall,” UNH sophomore defenseman Blake Kessel said. “I think our guys really finally stepped up their game and proved that we’re just as good as anyone out there as long as we play our game.”
To point out the obvious, the standings don’t hold a whole lot of weight until March, but UNH and BC have served notice that they’re not ready to fall off despite the departures of significant upperclassmen. All the while, Lowell (which started 4-1-1 in Hockey East before losing three of its last four games) and UMass (started 4-1-0 before dropping three of its last four league games), have fallen back to earth.
The River Hawks, who were universally picked to finish in the top two in Hockey East, have been riding the momentum they created last postseason. For much of this season, they’ve been nationally recognized as one of the best teams in the conference.
“To be honest, I think guys are just focusing on our business,” Lowell junior forward Scott Campbell said. “It’s nice to get the recognition in the polls, but we’re trying to just take care of our game and go about it that way. We’ve got an older group of guys here, a mature group, and a lot of the guys were there through it last year. I think a lot of the guys know what it takes.”
There have been some surprises along the way, both positively and negatively. Obviously, Maine’s resurgence was slightly unexpected, but the Black Bears overcame an 0-2-0 start in league play to go 6-2-1 in their last nine Hockey East games, including a current four-game unbeaten streak (3-0-1).
Similar to Lowell, Maine can trace its strong start in 2009-10 to last season’s playoff with Boston University. The Black Bears, who finished eighth in Hockey East, pushed BU to three games at Agganis Arena, and it gave them the confidence they could compete with anyone if they went to the rink with the right attitude.
“[Boston University] had a great team last year, and we felt we could play with the best team in the country,” Maine sophomore forward Gustav Nyquist said. “Obviously, we felt that we could do something special this year. A lot of different teams lost a lot of guys. We’re pretty much the same team here, so obviously we felt that helped us to realize we could do something special this year.”
And then, there’s the curious case of the Terriers, who again had fallen into the same trap that has bitten them at some point of every season in recent memory.
“We have a saying at BU that attitude is everything,” BU coach Jack Parker said, “and our attitude wasn’t too hot earlier on in the year because of, I think, a hangover of the NCAA championship, and feeling sorry for ourselves because a lot of guys were injured.”
The Terriers (2-7-2, six points) are in ninth place in Hockey East, one point ahead of last-place Providence, which has three games in hand on BU. As Parker said, they struggled without the injured Nick Bonino, and they’ve also been hurt by a sophomore slump from goalie Kieran Millan. The talent is still there, and the Terriers still have time to make a second-half run but they’ve got very little room for error.
“I think we have to work a little bit harder this year,” BU sophomore David Warsofsky said. “We had a lot of talented guys last year – not saying we don’t have that talent this year – but last year we had a lot of guys contributing and we always seemed to find that answer. This year, we’ve struggled to find that answer.”
There is plenty of shuffling left in the standings, as each team still has a minimum of 16 conference games remaining on its schedule. Plus, UMass and Vermont, which are tied for fifth in the middle of the standings, are six points behind first-place UNH and five points ahead of the cellar-dwelling Friars. No team is locked into its position, as any good or bad stretch will give its season a brand new outlook.
There are just four conference games remaining before the league’s holiday break – all of them are this weekend – which gives a few teams a chance to get that last bit of momentum in place before the stretch run begins in January.