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A glance at the Hockey East standings tells you that there is no clear-cut favorite to win the league. In fact, the playoff positioning only grew tighter with last week’s results.
Four teams — Boston College, UMass-Lowell, New Hampshire, and Providence — are tied for first place with 28 points. Six teams — those four plus Merrimack and Boston University — have clinched postseason berths. That leaves Vermont, UMass, Maine, and Northeastern in the 7-10 spots.
One of the best stories in the league this season is the continued growth of the Lowell and Providence programs. Both are led by second-year coaches: Norm Bazin at Lowell and Nate Leaman at Providence.
The River Hawks (19-9-2, 13-8-2) started slowly, with a 4-7-1 record through 12 contests. Since then, though, they have surged, going 15-2-1 in their last 18.
The Friars (13-10-7, 11-6-6) had a roller coaster ride through the first 18 games, earning a record of 7-8-3. In the last 12, however, they have been on a roll, earning points in 10 of their last 12 (6-2-4).
Both programs have excellent freshman goaltenders. Lowell’s Connor Hellebuyck is 10-1-0 with a 1.62 goals-against average and .936 save percentage overall. In league play, Hellebuyck has the best numbers (1.45, .942).
Providence’s Jon Gillies has a 1.91 GAA and .941 save percentage during the Friars’ current seven-game unbeaten streak.
The Friars face the iron of the league in BC this weekend and Lowell to close it out.
“This is the best time of the year,’’ said Leaman. “It comes down to two weekends. It’s a four-game season.
“This is a goaltender’s league this year. Jon is getting a lot of accolades but I watched [BC’s Parker] Milner Tuesday night [against Lowell] and he was outstanding. I watched our previous game against BC and Milner was outstanding.
“[Matt] O’Connor has played very well for BU. [Casey] DeSmith has played tremendous for UNH. [Sam] Marotta has played outstanding for Merrimack.
“The one key element is you need pretty darn good goaltending to compete in this league, and Jonny’s done that for us. He’s given us a chance.’’
When Leaman took the job, Providence had just 33 wins in league play the previous five seasons. So far in Leaman’s tenure, they already have 21.
“It was a program that hadn’t had a lot of success in winning,’’ said Leaman. “I tried to follow the same thing our staff did at Union, just continuing to take little steps. There are still a lot of little steps that our program has to take.
“I’m happy with the season to this point but it’s about taking steps along the way and making sure we don’t go backwards.’’
One thing Leaman needed to change was the players’ expectations. From the moment he started, he elevated the goals.
“I saw that a lot when we played BU and BC last season,’’ said Leaman. “In the second half, we lost those series [by a combined score of 24-1] so we had a fragile mind-set, there’s no doubt about it. They were playing not to lose.
“But in the playoffs last year, we took a pretty good step as far as going out and executing our game plan and playing to win, and this season, the guys have taken another big step in that direction, especially down the stretch here where it is toughest in Hockey East.’’
Bazin, whose team made it to the NCAA East Regional final last year, said this year has been more challenging than his first because he had nine freshmen in the lineup.
“We have come about this point in the year a lot tougher than we did last year,’’ said Bazin. “We were 4-7-1 at one point. We had played excellent hockey teams and we had to dig ourselves out of the hole. Thankfully for us, it’s turned the other way.’’
One reason is the leadership of senior captain Riley Wetmore.
“It’s very important when you have an inexperienced group that you rely on your captain,’’ said Bazin, whose team faces Merrimack this weekend. “Riley Wetmore, I can’t say enough about [him], he’s someone every team would like to have. He’s just as apt to block a shot in the last 30 seconds as he is to score a goal.
“He’s a genuine person and he cares about his teammates deeply. When you get a captain with very little ego who doesn’t care who gets the credit, he’s a special person.
“A lot of times, you get seniors in their last year and they’re looking at their stats and their future, he is absolutely more concerned with how we can get better as a team and how he can help somebody else. That’s what makes him such a special leader, his care factor. He is one of the better leaders I have been able to lean on.’’Continued...