The Hockey East Conference has always been known as arguably the toughest conference in college hockey. When the final national poll was released, Boston College, University of Massachusetts Lowell, Boston University and the University of Maine were ranked in the top 15. Boston College was ranked No. 1 after winning the national championship. The national champion has come from Hockey East four out of the last five years, with Boston College having won three.
UMaine will definitely have their work cut out for them, as they were picked to finish fifth in the Hockey East coaches’ poll released Sept. 25. For the fifth year in a row, BC was chosen to finish first in the conference with 90 points. The defending national champions are returning 19 players from last year’s squad. The most notable players from the Eagles’ team are senior goaltender Parker Milner, who won the Frozen Four Most Outstanding Player award, and Hockey East Tournament MVP sophomore forward Johnny Gaudreau.
Finishing second and third were UMass Lowell and BU, with 74 and 73 points respectively. UMaine rival University of New Hampshire finished fourth with 63 points, while UMaine grabbed the fifth spot with 56 points. Rounding out the rest of the conference were Northeastern University and Providence College tying for sixth, Merrimack finishing eighth, the University of Massachusetts placing ninth, and the University of Vermont being voted tenth.
Every year there seems to be a team that catches people off-guard by jumping out to the top. Last year it was UMass Lowell, and UMaine head coach Tim Whitehead expects a similar situation will arise this season.
“Nothing will surprise me anymore, every year someone gets into the top four that no one expects. Last year it was Lowell, the year before it was Merrimack, and before that it was somebody else. You just keep going down the line — Vermont, Providence, Northeastern, they’ve all had their moments up there and it gets tougher and tougher every year,” Whitehead said. “The universities in our league are pouring a lot of money, time and energy into their college hockey teams and it gets more and more competitive here and we’re very proud to be in this conference.”
Whitehead also believes that the preseason polls and rankings don’t mean much to the team.
“You’ve only got 10 coaches voting and they have to vote for somebody. We’ve lost a lot of scoring; on paper we probably don’t look that strong, certainly from an offensive perspective,” Whitehead said.
Which team will be UMaine’s toughest opponent to beat in the conference was a topic of debate among the coach and players, but the usual suspects of BC, BU and UNH were consistently mentioned at the top of everyone’s list.
“Teams like BC, UNH, all of the other teams in Hockey East. You gotta bring your A game, every team will test you,” said junior goaltender Dan Sullivan.
“It’s hard to count out BC, the rich get richer every year. But at the same time what makes Hockey East so fun is that every year everybody’s always ready to knock off the next team. But like I said, BC is always up there,” said co-captain senior defenseman Mike Cornell.
Whitehead pointed out that UMass Lowell will be added to the top of the list as a team to beat in Hockey East.
“My buddy [head coach Norm Bazin] at [the University of Massachusetts Lowell] has done a fabulous job and they return their goaltender and a great group of upperclassmen, so they are going to be very tough to beat,” Whitehead said.
UMaine expects to contend for the Hockey East Championship and will have a challenging road to travel if they want to get back to TD Garden and beyond this year. Look for UMass-Lowell to continue to stay atop the Hockey East standings. BC and BU will definitely be at the top as well. Watch out for a surprise team to possibly rise up in the standings. My pick for a surprise team is going to be Merrimack. They return 18 players from last year’s fifth-place squad, and even though they were voted to finish eighth and lost all-star goaltender Joe Cannatta to graduation, they still have plenty left in the tank with junior forward Mike Collins and junior captain defenseman Jordan Heywood leading the way to push for a high-ranking playoff spot in the Hockey East playoffs.
Look for the Black Bears to continue to improve their standing, even with the losses of Matt Mangene, Spencer Abbott, Brian Flynn, Will O’Neill and Ryan Hegarty. They will have to play a more defensive game, but if they get the right pieces in and get roles established early, they will have a chance to contend at the top.
UMaine begins their Hockey East season with a weekend series at Providence on Oct. 26 and 27 at 7 p.m. The Black Bears’ first conference home game will be against defending national champion BC the following weekend, on Nov. 2 at 7 p.m.