Commentary

2009-10 Hockey East preview

Updated: October 9, 2009, 9:36 PM ET
By Inside College Hockey

The Skinny

Boston College coach Jerry York pointed to a pint-sized problem that proved to be the most difficult for his team to overcome last season while attempting to defend its national championship -- the early departure of leading scorer Nathan Gerbe.

BU

A year later and just a few miles down Commonwealth Ave., Boston University coach Jack Parker is dealing with a similar issue. His Terriers are forging on without Colin Wilson, the smooth-skating power forward who could dominate a shift and lift his linemates because of his playmaking ability. BU has plenty of talent returning -- particularly Hobey Baker candidate Nick Bonino -- and is still the best team in Hockey East, but the Terriers have to find some other scorers if they don't want a demotion from the penthouse to the doghouse.

Parker has recently spent time seeking the advice of Don Lucia, who led Minnesota to national championships in 2002 and 2003, and George Gwozdecky, who guided Denver to titles in 2004 and 2005. Parker, who is entering his 37th season on the BU bench, has won three national championships. He followed his first two with productive seasons in 1978-79 and 1995-96, but the Terriers fell short of the title each time.

Because of this, Parker is studying former champions and drawing upon previous experiences with the hope of finding the recipe to repeat.

"What we're concerned about -- that was a problem most of the other years -- was the fact that we were still pretty impressed with ourselves from the year before," Parker said. "I'd settle for either one of those years as far as the number of wins, but the quality of the games and the way we were focused at the end was not there for us. That's a long way out. We've got to make our team better during the course of the season and then worry about what happens in the playoffs later on."

Breakthrough Team

UMass Lowell was listed in this same exact spot last year, but for a different reason. The River Hawks were coming off of a seventh-place finish in Hockey East in 2007-08 and were expected to challenge for home ice for the first time in a few years.

UMass Lowell

They missed out on hosting a playoff series but they did indeed grow, as the River Hawks were the most improved team between October 2008 and March 2009. Lowell cashed in by making a valiant run to the Hockey East championship game before falling short to Boston University 1-0. Nearly everyone is back in 2009-10, and contending for a league title is a realistic possibility.

"Those were really good tangible experiences we had," Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald said. "I don't think we were overly excited about [the way 2008-09 ended]. It was disappointing, quite frankly. We thought we deserved a little bit better. I like that attitude in our team. I think that comes from having strong leadership. Not only do we have a lot of seniors and upperclassmen, but we've got the right guys, guys that hold each other to a high standard and are accountable. And we understand that last year means zero today. I think our team feels confident about our style and how we play, and they've seen the results."

Primed for a Fall

Brad Thiessen, the 2008-09 Inside College Hockey Goaltender of the Year, left Northeastern after his junior season to sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins' organization. The only player in Northeastern history to be named Hockey East Player of the Year was the driving force behind the Huskies' run to the NCAA tournament, NU's first in 15 years. Thiessen's .931 save percentage was the best in the league and fourth nationally, and his 2.12 goals-against average was third in Hockey East and 12th in the nation.

Most importantly, Thiessen made 1,195 saves last season, more than any other player in the nation. He lifted a defense that allowed high amounts of shots and an offense that struggled to find the back of the net, as the Huskies were ranked 24th in the nation with 2.95 goals per game. Northeastern had 18 games last season in which it scored two goals or fewer and managed to come away with four wins and four ties because of Thiessen, who was the only Husky to play between the pipes in 2008-09.

Northeastern will give the keys to junior Mike Binnington and freshmen Chris Rawlings and Bryan Mountain (cue the puns). The Huskies return a good chunk of their scorers in junior forward Wade MacLeod (14 goals and team highs of 21 assists and 35 points last season), sophomore forward Steve Quailer (10-15--25), sophomore forward Alex Tuckerman (8-14--22) and junior forward Tyler McNeely (8-12--20). However, Northeastern lost forwards Ryan Ginand (led the team with 20 goals and second on the team with 32 points) and Joe Vitale (second with 20 assists and third with 27 points).

Unless the Huskies have another Thiessen in waiting or learn how to consistently score four goals a game, they won't have enough to repeat their second-place performance from 2008-09.

Pressure to Perform

[+] EnlargeJohn Muse
Steve BabineauGoaltender John Muse will play a different role for Boston College this season as he recovers from surgery.

Boston College junior goalie John Muse has started all 81 of the Eagles' games over the past two seasons, but his role will take a big hit in 2009-10. Muse is coming off of hip surgery to repair a torn labrum and he spent eight weeks on crutches over the summer. Jerry York classified Muse as "day-to-day" once the season starts, and it's a positive sign that he played in BC's exhibition game last weekend.

Muse has a 43-25-13 career record with a .913 save percentage and a 2.44 goals-against average, and he was the Eagles' rock in net during their national championship run in his freshman season. Without Muse, York will rely on sophomore Chris Venti and freshman Parker Milner. Venti relieved Muse for 7 minutes and 56 seconds of a game against Northeastern in the first round of the Beanpot last season and stopped all three shots he faced. It was the only time in the Muse era someone else was between the pipes for BC.

Even when Muse is healthy enough to return, he won't play every game, according to York. Boston College missed the NCAA tournament last season for the first time since 2002 and is already faced with the challenge of trying to return to the national spotlight. There will be a tremendous burden on Venti and Milner to provide the effort the Eagles need while Muse is sidelined.

Toughest Act to Follow

Boston University's insanely improbable comeback to beat Miami 4-3 in overtime in the national championship was a remarkable way to end the season. Surely, the game belongs in the conversation among the greatest of all time, but that's a debate that could last forever.

What cannot be debated were the dramatics that overtook the string of games involving Hockey East teams that wound down the 2008-09 season. After an exciting first round of the league playoffs, UMass Lowell erased a two-goal deficit to shock Northeastern 3-2 in overtime in the Hockey East semifinals. In the following game, Boston University scored three third-period goals in 44 seconds to top Boston College 3-2. Less than 24 hours later, the Terriers took a 1-0 thriller against Lowell in the league championship.

In the first round of the NCAA tournament, New Hampshire stunned North Dakota with a tying goal with one-tenth of a second remaining in the third period before winning 6-5 in overtime. A day later, BU knocked out UNH 2-1 by scoring the game-winning goal with 15 seconds to play. (In a 3-2 defeat, Northeastern surrendered two goals to Cornell in the game's final four minutes, including the decisive tally with 18 seconds remaining.)

Then there was Vermont, which downed Air Force 3-2 in double overtime to reach the Frozen Four. After a boring national semifinal between Miami and Bemidji State, BU and Vermont geared up for another thriller. The Catamounts erased a 2-0 deficit and took a 4-3 lead midway through the third period before the Terriers rallied with a pair of strikes in 1:13 to capture a 5-4 victory. Two nights later, Boston University scored two extra-attacker goals in the game's final minute and then beat Miami 8 minutes and 13 seconds into the extra session.

Last year was a celebration of Hockey East's 25th anniversary, and the teams certainly made it one to remember.

Best Player

Nick Bonino, Boston University

[+] EnlargeNick Bonino
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez MonsivaisNick Bonino is a candidate for the Hobey Baker award, All-America team and All-Hockey East team.

Boston University lost five of its six leading scorers from last season. The one remaining is junior forward Nick Bonino, who turned down the Anaheim Ducks to return to the Terriers. Bonino had 18 goals and 32 assists last season -- one more goal and six fewer assists than Colin Wilson -- and he centered one of BU's top two lines.

Bonino said he gained five to 10 pounds of muscle over the summer -- he definitely looks bigger than last year -- and spent time working with a skating coach in Connecticut, so his skills have elevated as well. Bonino is an early season Hobey Baker candidate, and coach Jack Parker believes his assistant captain is a key to going back-to-back.

"When we didn't lose Bonino, I thought maybe we'd have a good chance because he's the key guy on our offensive end this year, no question about it," Parker said. "Nick Bonino is a Hobey Baker candidate. He's an All-America candidate and he's an All-Hockey East candidate. Nobody knows that because the most recognition he got last year was Honorable Mention All-Hockey East, and I think he had five less points than Colin Wilson last year and he had more goals than Colin Wilson. And he was without question our best all-around defensive forward, as well. Amazing.

"I think he's as good a player as there will be in college hockey. When he didn't sign [with Anaheim] this summer, I thought, 'Boy, that's a big boost to us maybe having a chance to have a good year this year.'"

Impact Newcomer

Alex Chiasson, Boston University

BU freshman Chiasson is 6-foot-4, 195 pounds and a second-round NHL draft pick. He's got good skills around the net and should have the ability to score on his own, but he'll really see a spike in his numbers because he'll be playing with so many other talented scorers. When asking people around Hockey East which freshman will make the biggest contributions, Chiasson's name seemed to come up the most frequently.

Unsung Player

For good reason, forward Viktor Stalberg garnered much of the attention in Vermont last season, when the Catamounts put together their most consistent season as a Hockey East team and eventually wound up in the Frozen Four. Stalberg is gone, but his former centerman, Brian Roloff, is back for a senior season.

Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon credited Roloff for driving that line with his speed and puck-handling ability, and he had 10 goals and 19 assists as a junior, explosive numbers after tallying seven goals and 16 assists in his first two seasons combined. Expect Roloff's progression to continue this season.

Burning Questions

1. Can Boston University repeat as national champions?

2. How will UMass Lowell handle its most significant preseason expectations of the decade?

3. Can Merrimack return to the postseason?

Mark It Down

Five things you can take to the bank in Hockey East this season.

1. They'll play hockey outside. Boston University and Boston College will take their rivalry to a new level when they meet at Fenway Park on Jan. 8. The event sold out in hours.

2. UMass Lowell will be strong on special teams. Assuming not much changes due to the lack of roster turnover, the River Hawks ranked second in Hockey East last season for fewest penalty minutes (500, 13.2 per game), first in penalty kill (87.8), second in power-play percentage (19.2) and tied for first in short-handed goals allowed (two).

3. Maine has an interesting goaltending situation. Scott Darling emerged as Maine's top goalie during his freshman season, but a slow finish hurt his overall statistics. He was 10th in Hockey East with a 2.76 goals-against average, 11th with an .895 save percentage and he had a 10-14-3 record. Shawn Sirman enters with a nice résumé from the Ontario Junior Hockey League, and he is INCH's second-rated freshman goalie in the country. If Darling improves as expected and Sirman backs up his hype, the Black Bears will have their best one-two punch in quite some time.

4. Boston College will rebuild. BC has the third-ranked recruiting class in the nation, according to Inside College Hockey, and that's a good thing in Chestnut Hill because you won't know many of the returning Eagles. Gone are forwards Brock Bradford, Benn Ferriero and Andrew Orpik and defenseman Nick Petrecki, among the team's other top blueliners. The Eagles have some good talent, but their success will hinge on some bounce-back years from senior forward Ben Smith and junior forwards Brian Gibbons and Joe Whitney.

5. James Marcou will score, and he'll gain national attention if UMass wins. The junior forward was fourth in Hockey East last season with 47 points (15 goals, 32 assists), and he was second with 1.21 points per game. Marcou was the league's leading scorer among all non-BU players, so he had that going for him, which was nice.