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Hockey Banter, Week I, Part II: The Top Of Hockey East

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Started analyzing the bottom, now we here...

BC Athletics

Joseph Gravellese: When I started thinking about teams going into this season my initial instinct was to not think much of Maine. We liked to go at a certain USCHO poster last year for calling BC a "one trick pony." Maine... now that was a one trick pony. All they could do was win at home.

They were 13-3-0 at home, and a staggering 1-12-3 on the road. What?!!!

So therein lies my skepticism about whether Red Gendron's Maine revival is for real. But, looking at their roster, they return their top 4 scorers from last year, and 11 of their 12 double-digit scorers. This includes Devin Shore (forward) and Ben Hutton (defensemen) who both appeared on a lot of all-Hockey East ballots.

The big question for Maine, other than can they win on the road, is in net. Both of the goaltenders who split time between the pipes last year for Maine graduated -- Dan Sullivan and Martin "Omelette" Oulette.

Matt Morris, a redshirt sophomore who has yet to play a game at the NCAA level, will likely start as the #1. Freshman Sean Romeo is a candidate for the job as well; I hope he gets it for the inevitable "Romeo oh Romeo" chants and signs.

Grant Salzano: That's a pretty good summary of the Black Bears. I knew they had trouble on the road but had no idea the difference between home and away was so staggering. That's got to be the largest home/away split I've ever seen, in any sport.

I asked myself why it would be such a big deal and the only thing I can come up with is that the bus travel must really take a toll on the teams going up there, and on Maine when it has to travel down south to civilization. That's a long, long bus ride to take every other week.

It will be interesting to see what Maine can get in goal. It felt like Omelette had been there forever.

I have Maine holding steady at 6th, partially because I think BU will leapfrog them and partially because I think UNH will drop below them. What say you?

JG: Well, this happens far too often in our chats, but... yeah, I agree with you.

Finishing #5 last year, always an intriguing team to discuss: Northeastern.

Northeastern is another team I'm of two minds about. Their downfall last year from their perch in the top 8 of the PWR to all the way out of the tournament was very predictable and very Northeastern. It wasn't just predictable because they were NU, though -- it was predictable because they were routinely getting soundly outshot and relying on Clay Witt to just go totally nuts in net.

So on the one hand I think well they finished the second half so weakly, how can I expect them to do much better this year? On the other hand, they may have the most impressive crop of returning forwards in the league. The fact that they have a guy as good as Kevin Roy coming back for a third year is a great sign for that star-crossed program. He's a strong candidate for league MVP.

On paper they look like a team that will play in a lot of high scoring games. That's not really what played out last year, averaging 3.16 goals for, 2.78 goals against. But their games featured a lot of shots, with NU averaging being outshot 34.56-30.27.

They were 48th in the nation in shot differential, with only BU coming in below them in Hockey East. So, what to make of the Huskies, who are getting some serious preseason love, at least from the media anyway, who picked them 3rd?

GS: I really think most of it comes down to two things:

1) They have a proven goaltender coming back who did, by all measures, extremely well last season. Even with coming back to earth, which everyone knew would happen, he still had a fantastic year.

2) They really lost pretty much nothing. They have so many good players returning. Only one of their top 11 scorers graduated. That is really, really something. And of course you mentioned Kevin Roy returning who can take over a game by himself.

Those two things alone should move them up quite a bit. And I did, in fact move them up -- I, like many others in the media, have the Huskies 3rd, and a bit ahead of the big mess in the middle.

JG: Those are both good points. Northeastern does look like an appealing pick to do some damage this year. Though for whatever reason I can't embrace them as a true contender. I really don't believe in their coach.

For a long time I always looked at Northeastern teams as being greater than the sum of their parts. #Hustle #Grit #Passion #Pride etc. It seems like during the last few years Northeastern has been less than the sum of their parts, underachieving relative to their expectations. I feel like when I look at that team there's always some unsavoriness going on. I mean, Vinny Saponari was their captain, y'know? They continue their tradition of taking on flameouts from BC/BU by adding Brendan Collier this year.

All that said, I did pick NU 3rd too. I just wouldn't be remotely surprised to see them epically flame out.

GS: #GoNU

It's like #goacc, only capitalized.

JG: Oh and they probably won't win the Beanpot.

GS: Hide yo kids if they do, though.

JG: The Last Great Boston Sports Riot.

Other than the Revs winning MLS cup obviously.

Now on to the team that ended Northeastern's season: UNH, who somehow glided through a nondescript season and ended up in the Hockey East championship game, where they were summarily outclassed by UMass-Lowell. Pretty much everyone expects them to be riding the down elevator this year, and a malaise seems to have settled in with the UNH fanbase.

GS: UNH was in the Hockey East championship game? I don't even remember that game happening -- no joke.

JG: Yes. They were. Believe it or not, they were somehow one game away from making the tournament. But obviously they were never going to beat Lowell.

GS: UNH lost a lot -- 4 out of their top 5 scorers in fact. The weird thing about UNH was that they were hovering around 7th or 8th in the Hockey East standings for much of last year but also managed to hover around the NCAA tournament bubble, which, lol Hockey East.

I suspect Hockey East supremacy may only carry them so far this time around.

JG: And then there's the fact that their senior goaltender is probably permanently gone from the team and suspended from UNH after being arrested on suspicion of a pretty ugly domestic violence incident.

It hurts to lose your starting goalie, and to lose someone who was supposed to provide some veteran leadership for a team that just seems to be lacking that certain > lately. Remember when UNH used to actually scare people? (Until March, anyway.)

GS: Oh man, I totally forgot about that. Has he been DeSmithed from the team jutht yet?

100 Whose Line Points to you, by the way, for using the > quotes in your French. I hope that doesn't screw up our post's HTML.

EDITOR'S NOTE: It did. HA!

JG: Well, he was "indefinitely suspended."

If the allegations against him are true -- innocent until proven guilty, of course -- but if the allegations are true, there's no way he's seeing the ice again, certainly not in the NCAA.

And I imagine it will take a while for that legal process to play itself out. So I'm assuming UNH is planning to go without DeSmith.

GS: You're right, you would have to think his chances to come back are pretty slim, especially with how much of this is going on in the sports world lately.

JG: I don't think that even plays a role -- the allegations against him are pretty nasty and the police appeared to witness some of what went on. Anyway, this isn't the police blotter, so you can feel free to google if you're interested. But it's not a good situation for anyone involved.

GS: So, to sum, UNH is going to be not that great this year. I have them down to 7th.

JG: Yeah, I dropped UNH to 9th on my list, slotting ND ahead of them and BU ahead of them.

Finishing 3rd last year, and topping all the preseason polls, the Providence College Friars.

PC is getting some hype similar to what Lowell experienced coming into the 2012-2013 season when they came off a surprise run to the NCAA quarterfinals, falling short against Union. They returned a lot of that team and came in to the year as a team on the rise with a well-regarded coach who seemed poised to permanently station their team in the upper echelon of Hockey East. The next year, Lowell won the Hockey East title (regular season and tournament) and went to the Frozen Four.

Does a similar fate await PC this year?

GS: It certainly could. I have them at #1 in my poll as well. They also have Gillies coming into his third year in goal and one of the top talents between the pipes not just in Hockey East, but the country.

The thing about PC this year, though, is it isn't The Gillies Show as much as it was the last couple years. They retain a lot of talent all around.

JG: Though I'm officially starting a totally unfounded "Gillies is a choker and not a big game goalie" narrative. I don't know how these things start so I'm just gonna throw that out there without evidence.

GS: Didn't he do not that well in World Juniors? Or am I making that up?

JG: He did not. Neither did the US team as a whole, but yeah, he wasn't great.

GS: Alright, well, consider the rumor started.

JG: He was great for Providence in the first half of last season, when the Friars went into the holidays briefly kissing the #1 spot in the PWR. But the second half was a downhill slide for PC. It wasn't Gillies' fault, though -- the Friars stopped scoring.

That's the big question for PC, will their considerable returning talent put more pucks in the net. #HotTakes

GS: I think they'll top the conference but they aren't as much of a slam dunk as Lowell was last year, though.

JG: That's how I feel too. I think it's going to take some of the other top teams in the league -- particularly BC -- some time to find their legs. Providence should be smooth sailing from day one, so long as they deal well with the weight of expectations.

I picked PC to finish #1 in the league, and I wouldn't be surprised to see them end up at TD Garden for the Frozen Four, but I'd be a little surprised if they end up winning the whole thing.

GS: Next up is Lowell. What do you make of the Riverhawks?

JG: Well, you know I have a man-crush on Bazin and the way he had his team operating like a machine the last few years. But they lose a lot of smart, veteran players. And they lose the guy who was, for my helle-buck, the best goalie in the nation in each of the past two seasons.

That's an awful lot to overcome.

The coaches poll has them sliding down to #7, though interestingly enough, they got a first place vote. I kind of feel like that might have been Jerry York who voted for them.

I picked them to finish 4th. They still have a lot of really solid players. Scott Wilson will be expected to step up his production as a senior. Adam Chapie was a nice sparkplug last year, and as usual Lowell brings back some good defensemen. Plus, guys are coming into a system now that's been well-established as successful. Though time will tell if that was more about that particular generation of talent they had.

A key question is if they get good goaltending, of course, since that was always key for them. But I feel like Lowell always gets good goaltending. Even back to the Ol' Blaise McDonald days. Carr, Hamilton, Hutton... they're a goalie factory.

GS: I have Lowell 4th too, but I'm not really all that down on them. They do lose both Hellebuyck and Carr which is going to sting, but you're right -- Lowell has had a pretty good string of great goalies for a while now.

JG: They seem like the kind of team that can slot good, smart players into their system and have them succeed. So, yes, they lost some good players, but like you I think Bazin will keep them afloat as a pretty good team once again.

Their goaltending battle comes down to newcomers. Jeff Smith, following being a four-year man of mystery/message board hero for the BC football team from 2006-2009, apparently switched to a hockey career and went on to have a standout career in the British Columbia Hockey League. He comes in to Lowell this year as a freshman poised to win the starting job.

Competing with him will be early candidate for the all-name team, Olli Kälkäjä, and Worst-UMass transfer Kevin Boyle.

GS: There's no way that's a real name.

JG: Go ahead, google it.

GS: That's the kind of name we would make up to make fun of a guy with a name similar to that.

I don't have an a with two dots on my keyboard so I'll take your word for it.

JG: Speaking of "no seriously, that's their name," BC's opponent on Saturday, the University of New Brunswick, defeated "Nipissing University" in an exhibition last week.

GS: Funny names are fun.

That BC team you speak of -- I believe they are our last team to rank this year.

JG: Yes.

The Eagles completely smoked everyone in the regular season last year, running away with the league's regular season crown; we know what then happened in the playoffs. But really, looking at last year is kind of pointless. This is essentially a new team. Last year wasn't so much "Gaudreau, Hayes, Arnold and pray for rain," it was "G-A-H and then you don't need anything else so don't worry about it."

I picked BC to finish #2 in the league in my poll and I do so with mild confidence. There are a lot of good teams that could sneak up and have good seasons but I think BC is going to find their legs and be quite good.

We'll have time to break down BC position by position next week so we don't need to go in to too much detail here. But my argument in a nutshell remains what it was when I posted my Baghdad-Bob, All-Is-Well manifesto after Milano's departure. There are too many talented goal scorers on this team for it not to be a pretty good offensive team, even if there is a precipitous drop off from last year. And the defense, on paper, should be one of the nation's best.

GS: Not to mention in goal, where as good as Demko was, everyone will look for him to make a big sophomore year jump. Having the talent in front of him on the blue line will definitely help.

I'm not quite as positive as you are but I haven't jumped off a cliff. I put BC second mostly because of just how much breathing room they had in front of the rest of the conference last year. They do have too much good, young talent to have anything resembling a collapse.

JG: I feel good about this group. There are just a lot of really solid players. If it comes together the way I think it will, it's going to be a team that looks entirely different from last year's team, but should still have every opportunity to win trophies.

We get our first look at them on Saturday.

I'm a little bit excited.

GS: Yeah, just a wee tad bit.

JG: Next week, we'll look at the BC roster in depth. And we'll have a little bit of live game footage to go off of, too.

Hockey season, folks. The world feels like a better place already.