(Okay, maybe one.)
Fans of Hockey East over the last few years have grown accustomed to the recent lack of parity in the standings. Hockey East has been sorted into the haves and the have nots. Boston College, Boston University, and Providence have perennially found themselves finishing in the top five and obtaining either a bye in the conference tournament or an incredibly easy first round matchup, with nearly no opposition challenging to remove them from those spots. UMass-Lowell would have been on that list until a year ago when the River Hawks went careening down the standings and were replaced by the Huntington Hounds in the upper echelon.
But tiered standings are not what Hockey East has always been, and aren’t what you might envision when you hear interviews where coaches incessantly hit on their talking points about how every point matters and every game is a battle. While the big schools may always finish near the top, there’s historically been a bit of a stiffer competition up and down the standings. Take 2010, the poster child for Hockey East parity. Going into the final weekend of the season there were seven teams all competing for third place. In a ten team conference. The top two of those seven teams would get home ice in the quarterfinals. Four would move on. The last would go home with nothing. The difference between home ice in the playoffs and having your season end after the regular season could come down to a single goal, a single bounce. Could that scenario happen every year? Not a chance. But that’s the scenario playing through the coaches’ heads every time they give the same interview about every game mattering in Hockey East, a statement that our younger readers have never seen come true and likely view as somewhere between coachspeak and blasphemy.
But I’m here to argue that here, in 2018, a crossroads of college athletics where the big name schools seem to pull further and further ahead of the pack by the day, that era is back.
BC, BU, and PC are the unanimous preseason top 3 in some order. But you can find holes to pick in their rosters. The Friars, coming off an underwhelming 3-1 win over AIC and a shutout loss to otherwise ill-performing Notre Dame, have also already had two freshmen leave the team and return back to their previous homes. The Terriers lost two of their biggest name forwards and their head coach over the offseason, and while they may well stay on top, their last coaching change didn’t exactly lead to an inspired first season under David Quinn. This season started the same as the last one – with a sweep at the hands of Minnesota State. The Eagles have all the experience and freshman talent a team could ask for, but they too lose a coach in Greg Brown at a time where they’ve missed back to back NCAA tournaments, and let’s be honest, Jerry York isn’t exactly a young man. Who knows how much slack Brown was picking up that’s about to burst out into the open? The Eagles extended their non-conference losing streak to 700 days last weekend as Wisconsin swept them away.
That’s not to say that those three teams won’t wind up being great because of one week, but they have holes. We’ve already seen them. Nobody is going to be running through the conference like Johnny Gaudreau or Jack Eichel did.
Looking at the rest of the field, it’s hard to look at any team and say why they’re incapable of winning on any given day. Northeastern, led by Primeau and Davies, will always be a threat to pitch a shutout. Maine can roll 4 deep forward lines and beat you with them or with Swayman. UMass could score 5 goals on you and have them all come from freshmen. Lowell returns Norm Bazin, nearly all of their forwards, Norm Bazin, two goaltenders that are equally likely to shut you out or get run from the game, and Norm Bazin. UNH is under new leadership and gets Patrick Grasso back, and lest we forget, they only lost basically every game after he was knocked out of the lineup last year. UConn is young but has potential, the exact kind of team that loses games they should win but shows flashes and pulls out wins over teams you wouldn’t expect. Vermont just beat preseason top five ranked Michigan before quickly coming back to Earth.
Then there’s Merrimack. Let’s be honest here, there’s a nonzero chance that Merrimack doesn’t win a road game this season, and they’ve already started their season with three losses at the hands of also-rans Lake State and Army. But nobody wants to play in Lawler, an equal opportunity goal-killing arena that has stopped Gaudreau and Eichel just as easily as it stops the Warriors themselves, so they’ll probably win a couple of conference games at home anyway.
All this is to say, there’s a reason those bottom 8 teams are the bottom 8. To various degrees, they’re projected to be either less skilled, less deep, or have bigger holes in their rosters than the top three teams do. But they have something Hockey East has been missing, the ability to go out on any given night, execute their gameplan, and come away with a win regardless of who you put across from them. Unless you’re playing at home against the Warriors, one statement will ring true this season.
Every point matters in Hockey East.