Changing the Game

Feb. 15, 2007

By Elliot Olshansky


Elliot is's hockey editor and runs his Rink Rat hockey blog on
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This Friday, on CSTV, Maine faces Boston College (8 p.m. ET) in a crucial Hockey East matchup, as the Black Bears and Eagles jostle for position in the crowded league playoff picture. Elsewhere, Boston University, fresh off its Beanpot victory over BC on Monday night, takes on league-leading New Hampshire in a series that could sew up the regular-season title for the Wildcats, and Vermont meets Massachusetts in a battle of teams looking to emerge as new powers in the league.


The only thing harder than picking winners in those contests is deciding which of those six teams has the top goaltender.


The Eagles' Cory Schneider, a first-round draft pick of the Vancouver Canucks in 2003, has the best pedigree of the bunch, having represented the U.S. twice at the World Junior Championships. He's played well, posting a 16-11-1 record with a 2.32 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage, but he finds himself in the middle of the pack statistically, looking up at several of his Hockey East fellows. There's BU's John Curry, up to fourth in this week's Hobey Baker Watch after outdueling Schneider on Monday, UNH's Kevin Regan, who's been a rock for the Wildcats as they've defied preseason predictions to become the league leaders, Maine's Ben Bishop, who was key to the Black Bears' early run and Vermont's Joe Fallon and UMass's Jon Quick, who have almost single-handedly backstopped their respective teams into the Top 20 and home ice contention for the Hockey East playoffs.


It doesn't stop there, as Northeastern is quickly becoming a team that no one wants to play in the first round of the Hockey East tournament thanks to the stalwart play of freshman Brad Thiessen, and Providence's Tyler Sims has also been recognized as an elite netminder, a victim of the Friars' woeful shooting percentage.


"I think the goaltending in the league's been tremendous," said New Hampshire head coach Dick Umile. "The goaltending in the league, whether it's Fallon at Vermont or Schneider at BC, you have the kid [Thiessen] at Northeastern who's coming on and playing well. The league's got great goaltending. That's what makes our league real good."


Of course, when one takes into account the 1-0 goaltenders' duel staged between backups Dave Wilson of Maine and Mike Spillane of Vermont on Saturday night on CSTV (video), it becomes apparent that, with all due respect to all of the aforementioned netminders, there's something more going on in Hockey East.


"I think what's happening is the league--not just our league, but the entire hockey world--has become so sophisticated with the coaching and the video," said Northeastern coach Greg Cronin. "I don't care what anybody says. You can talk about the goaltenders' equipment and the athleticism and the goalies now and the size of the nets, but you watch any game, if you took a snapshot of the offensive zone when the puck's below the hash marks, there are five defenders from the dots to the goal line in front of the net. It neutralizes talent."


While talent is very hard to neutralize fully--even playing in Hockey East, UNH and Maine are among the top ten scoring offenses in the nation with 3.86 and 3.48 goals per game, respectively--there's no question that scoring is down in Hockey East, as a recent Boston Globe article detailed. The next question, then, is what happens during the playoffs, when the team strategies and superb goaltending that have limited offenses thus far are used in short series and single-elimination situations?

Unpredictability, that's what.


"All the teams that don't get home ice, they're going to have a good chance to advance," Boston College head coach Jerry York said. "There's no question."


 "I have a tremendous amount of respect for Providence," Cronin said of the eighth-place Friars. "You look at all their games, they outshoot teams. They're in all these one-goal games. That team's a talented team and it makes them dangerous."


Of course, the tight, low-scoring games are already having their effect as the regular season enters its homestretch. While New Hampshire has already sewn up home ice for the first round of the Hockey East playoffs and could clinch the league regular season title this weekend with a sweep of the Terriers, the rest of the picture is very muddled. Though BU appears to be relatively safe with 29 points, the Terriers could still wind up traveling in the first round. The final two home-ice berths are completely up for grabs, with third-place BC and Maine just a point ahead of Vermont and two ahead of UMass.


"You don't know who's going to be out," York said. "Heck, we could be traveling. We'd be a hard team to play against. Vermont could be traveling. It's hard to look at and say who's going to have home ice, besides New Hampshire."


To recap, it's very much up in the air where three of the four Hockey East first round playoff series will be played, and wherever the series do wind up, the road teams will have a good chance to win. Sounds like a recipe for a lot of exciting hockey over the five weeks remaining before the NCAA tournament field is selected, no matter how the final scores wind up.

The question of better goaltending and better defenses neutralizing talent is one that will certainly be explored further in the weeks and months to come, as is the question of what to do about it, whether that means enlarging the nets (as BU head coach Jack Parker and others have suggested), new strategies on offense to counter the defensive developments, or some heretofore unmentioned remedy. In the meantime, though, the playoff races and series in Hockey East and elsewhere should offer something even more compelling than debates about hockey: hockey itself.


Like Hockey East's slogan: "Great Hockey. Guaranteed."


"The competition in the playoffs is going to be tremendous," Umile said. "Everybody's got goaltending, everybody's good. So the parity in the league is as strong as it's ever been."



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