In many ways, it has been an unusual Hockey East season. UMass Lowell will host a playoff game Thursday night after a 17-win improvement in the first season under coach Norm Bazin. The River Hawks face Providence College, in the playoffs for the first time in the four-year careers of its seniors.
Merrimack became the smallest school ever ranked No. 1 in the nation, yet has to travel to Maine to play a quarterfinal series at Alfond Arena. Boston University lost three of its most important players yet finished tied with Lowell for the second-best record in the conference.
New Hampshire had to put together a strong second half to make the playoffs, but isn?t hosting a quarterfinal series for the first time in 16 years.
Then again, some things haven't changed much at all. Boston College is once again at the top of the charts entering its quarterfinal series with UMass. The Eagles won their second straight regular-season title, the league-leading 11th title in the 28-year run of Hockey East. They enter the playoffs as the favorite again, looking for a remarkable sixth Lamoriello Trophy in the last eight years.
The Eagles' season can be divided into three parts. They started the season by winning eight of their first nine games, and finished the year with an even more impressive 11-game winning streak. In the middle was a 6-9-1 run that had the team sliding down the conference and national polls. Things looked bleak in late January. After a 7-4 loss at Maine (televised on NESN), the Eagles were 2-4-1 since the holiday recess. They had real concerns in net, where three different goalies were vying for the number one job.
Junior Parker Milner (Pittsburgh, Penn.) had started the first 13 games of the season for the Eagles, but struggled toward the end of that stretch and gave way to freshman Brian Billett (Brunswick, Maine) and senior Chris Venti (Needham, Mass.) Venti had never started a game until the Frozen Fenway matchup with Northeastern. Venti won that game, and was back in net a week later for the first game against the Black Bears.
Eventually, Milner regained his spot as the Eagles' top goalie. He hasn't given it up, and goaltending is now one of the team's strengths heading into the playoffs.
"We were really in a hard situation early in the season and through the middle of the season with stopping pucks," said Eagles coach Jerry York. "We had three goaltenders all get a chance to jump up. We sensed at the time we had a lot of 'B' goaltenders. It's hard to win championships without an 'A' goaltender. It just doesn't happen."
"We challenged our goaltenders. Parker stepped up. His numbers are off the charts. He's given up one goal in the last four games. I pull the goaltenders late because I'm not concerned about getting shutouts. So, he would've had three shutouts in the last four games, but I put Venti in with one minute left one night and with three minutes left the other night. So, he?s basically had shutouts in three out of his four games. He's allowed only one goal in those four games. His positional play, his confidence level and the numbers he has posted ?- save percentage and win-loss ?- have all of us excited."
York won his 900th game as a Division 1 coach this season ?- just the second coach in history to reach that milestone ?- so it means something when he?s excited. His Eagles allowed only 60 goals in conference play this season, fewest in Hockey East. It continues a recent run of defensive excellence that has allowed his team to remain on top despite losing an incredible group of players after last season.
"Over the last three years, we've given up 60 goals this year, 58 goals last year and 60 goals the year before that," said York. "We share that same principle of good defensively play -? led by John Muse for a while and now Parker Milner. We skate well as a team. But to lead the league in goals against three years in a row is very special."
This Eagles team is special. The current senior class has won 102 games (and counting) in its four years at The Heights. Two members of the group -? Jimmy Hayes and Cam Atkinson ?- left school after their junior years to go pro. They are part of a group of 20 former Eagles to play in the NHL this season.
Members of the current Eagles team will be playing soon enough. Brian Dumoulin (Biddeford, Maine) and Tommy Cross (Simsbury, Conn.) are two defensemen with the size and skill to make it in the pros. New York Rangers fans have already begun talking about how Chris Kreider (Boxford, Mass) can help the Blueshirts when his run with BC is over.
Eagles fans have nothing against New York, but they're hoping Kreider doesn't play a regular season game for the Rangers this spring. New York's regular season ends April 7 at home against the Capitals. The NCAA championship game is on that same date in Tampa, and BC is hoping to be busy with its own game that night.
Photo via John Quackenbos