THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Disparity has been Hockey East’s top story

By Nancy Marrapese-Burrell
Globe Staff / December 30, 2010

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In the preseason coaches poll, the teams selected to finish 1-4 in Hockey East were Boston College, Maine, New Hampshire, and Boston University. Now, as schools prepare to emerge from the holiday break, the standings show those teams on top.

UNH is 10-2-4 overall, BC is 11-5-0, BU 8-4-5, and Maine 8-4-4.

No one is shocked by Merrimack’s 7-4-4 record, although Providence’s 7-6-5 mark is better than expected.

If there is a surprise, it’s the gap between the haves and the have-nots. The bottom four slots are stunning, with no team having more than three victories: Northeastern (3-9-4), UMass (3-7-3), Vermont (2-9-4), and UMass-Lowell (2-14-2).

“We’ve kind of gone back to the days where there’s a bit of a stronger block and a weaker block,’’ said Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna. “In recent years, we’ve enjoyed some pretty good parity from top to bottom, even though we’ve had stronger and weaker teams. But I think they were maybe a little closer.

“It looks like, this year, some teams have either been hit with injuries or, just on the cycle of things, are very young. We’ve got some teams that have had difficulty getting those wins.’’

UNH was hit hard when it lost key players from last season, but the Wildcats have rebounded behind the strong play of junior goaltender Matt DiGirolamo (.922 save percentage, 2.34 goals-against average).

Bertagna said if the Wildcats were a bit of a question mark to start the season, that is no longer the case.

“I think some of the teams that have new goaltenders where the goalies have played well, like UNH, are surprising people,’’ he said. “I think Merrimack has been a surprise. Even though a lot of people thought they were going to be pretty good, the fact that they’ve played BC and BU five times and only lost one of them, they’re probably a little bit stronger than people thought.’’

It’s been a rough first half for both Massachusetts state schools, and no one expected Vermont to stumble so badly.

“UMass has probably dressed 11 freshmen regularly, maybe not the same 11,’’ said Bertagna. “UMass-Lowell, they knew they were going to be young also but they’ve been hit with a lot of injuries. They’ve gone with a freshman goalie, Doug Carr, who’s a local kid from Hanover who also really hasn’t played that badly. He isn’t the problem. I think they’ve had trouble getting a healthy lineup along with some experience, so they are struggling.

“Vermont has had a little bit more trouble getting wins than they thought they would. They thought they were a No. 4 or 5. They’ve struggled, and Northeastern has struggled. Providence was picked for last place and they certainly look like they’re going to be better than that. They’re another team that has probably played better than some outsiders thought they were going to play.’’

BC is the top-scoring team in the league, averaging 3.75 goals per game. UMass-Lowell is 10th (2.11) and Northeastern is next to last (2.19). BC is also the best defensive team, allowing an average of just 2.12 goals. No one expects NU to have a second half like the first.

“They’re having trouble scoring, I know that,’’ said Bertagna. “[Goalie Chris] Rawlings has been pretty solid. They lost some surprising games. They lost three games to Atlantic teams but it was [because] they were having trouble scoring.

“Greg [Cronin] is a great coach. The intensity he has personally, he passes on to his team. The break probably has come at a good time for some teams so they can regroup.’’

BU coach Jack Parker said he, too, was taken aback by NU’s first half.

“I think they’re a better club than their record is,’’ said Parker. “I still believe they’re a team that could vie for home ice in our league before the season is over. They did not start off that way, that’s for sure.

“Other than that, we were probably the biggest surprise early on. We were probably the opposite — maybe we weren’t as good as our record. I think we’re going to grow into that.

“I’m really excited about the possibilities for the second semester. We’ve already got three months under our belt, so we’re not quite as young as we were in October.’’

“There is a lot to be played out,’’ said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy. “You could blindfold me and I’d say, ‘BC, BU, UNH, and Maine.’ Deja vu. It’s been like that for 27 years now. Those teams, for the most part, are usually going to be pretty good. Then, is it going to be a UMass or a Providence or Merrimack or Vermont?

“It’s as tough a league, top to bottom, as any league in the country. It’s going to come down to the last weekend.’’

Is it possible for BU to maintain its pace of the first half? Parker isn’t sure, but as young as the team is, it is loaded with talent.

“We’ve got to give these guys an opportunity to make their mistakes and grow a little bit,’’ he said. “We have to allow them to play without getting them rattled because there are really a talented group of freshmen and sophomores and we’ve got pretty good leadership in the few upperclassmen we have.

“So it’s a nice combination. We just have to make sure they’re allowed to play and showcase their skills, but at the same time, they have to take responsibility for the few things we’re asking them to do [defensively].’’

As for defending national champion BC, coach Jerry York believes the Eagles can build on their strong start.

“We’re kind of poised to make a good run in the second half,’’ said York, who will be aided by the return of defenseman Tommy Cross and forward Kevin Hayes. “We’re very creative and we’re creative with speed and that’s a good sign for your offense and we still play a pretty tenacious defense. I think we’re going to get better because the league is going to get better.’’

Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at marrapese@globe.com.