Yes, that is the 2012-2013 college hockey season staring you right in the face. Wednesday night at Matthews Arena Northeastern beat Merrrimack 4-2 and although the building was only a quarter full of Husky fans, the hockey lifers were everywhere. Jack Parker of BU sat on one side with his staff and with the unemployed Toot Cahoon (recently of UMass) sitting nearby. NHL scouts, who were obvious with their black jackets, black pants and shiny black shoes, sat in the corners. Junior coaches were all wearing their team jackets. And upstairs, BC assistant Mike Cavanaugh stood with Tom Fitzgerald, the former NHLer, current Pittsburgh Penguins assistant GM and father of Boston College's prized recruit for 2013, Ryan Fitzgerald.
"I didn't see the exhibition game last weekend (a 6-0 BC win over New Brunswick from Canada)," Cavanaugh said when asked about his team. "I was in Buffalo (watching Tom's son play in the CCM/USA All-America Prospects Game)." The young Fitzgerald, a lifelong Boston College fan, was named the MVP of the tournament.
Northeastern, who hosts Boston College at this same arena this coming Saturday night, jumped to a quick and unexpected 3-0 lead over Merrimack, who in their first game of the season last weekend beat Union, the team ranked fifth in the country. Merrimack made a game of it with two second period goals, eventually losing 4-2, but overall it was a lot of sloppy play by both sides. The weakness on each side appeared to be with goaltending.
Down on the first level of Matthews, directly below Coach Cav, a bunch of recognizable BC faces sat with some new faces that you will need a program to recognize. There was Parker Milner, Bill Arnold, Kevin Hayes, Brian Billett, Patch Alber, Danny Linell and their brand new 2012 National Championship rings, which they received in a brief ceremony last week. The obvious question for these guys is who will be their new teammates and will those additions be enough to repeat as champions, in Hockey East and in the Frozen Four, a long way off next April.
Of course earlier Wednesday, during their regular practice at the Conte Forum, the BC Eagles all looked sharp and animated as they went through their paces. But, just as Northeastern and Merrimack opened the new season locally, there is still a long way to go before the current edition of the Eagles will establish their own identity as a team. First and foremost, on a strictly physical level, who will fill the skates of those who left for graduation and/or the pros. Can Chris Kreider and Brian Dumoulin be replaced? How about their leader, Tommy Cross? And can we easily say good-bye to Paul Carey, Barry Almeida, Eddie Shea, Tommy Atkinson and the hard working Chris Venti. How long will it take this team to gel? Remember, last year's champions were hardly a .500 team before February and the 2010-2011 team never gelled, although they seemed an outright lock to repeat their April 2010 championship. So, you never know. At least not yet.
What we do know is the the Eagles' top two lines will be first-class. Johnny Gaudreau, Bill Arnold, Steve Whitney, Pat Mullane, and Kevin Hayes are proven entities. The big question is can Hayes finally live up to the hype that goes with being a first-round NHL draft choice (Black Hawks.) His four and seven goals in his first two seasons are hardly what has been expected. Arnold will probably grind in 20 plus goals and Whitney is heading in that direction too. Gaudreau? He appears to have grown an inch or two over last season and who knows how good he can be?
Destry Straight can almost be talked of in the same vein as these other guys. He got to skate with the big boys last season (Kreider) and he is an obvious favorite of Jerry York and his staff. A dark horse to emerge as a scorer is Danny Linell, a little guy with a lot of speed, moves and heart. His all-freshman trio was the fourth line last season, concentrating on defense, but this year maybe he will emerge as the next Barry Almeida. If not, it won't be because of a lack of effort.
On defense, BC has a lot of important slots to fill, but this is a grade A bunch of freshman awaiting the challenge, remeniscent of Dumoulin, Samuelson, Wey and Alber of the 2010 champs. Everyone is talking about Mike Matheson, the number one draft choice of the Florida Panthers last spring. He has been working with the first power play unit and usually a player has to earn Jerry York's absolute trust before he plays on special teams. Remember that Chris Kreider never saw a power play until late in his freshman year. "Maybe we had more depth that year," coach Cav joked.
Matheson is already the star of that defensive unit, his reputation eclipsing returnees Patrick Wey, Isaac MacLeod and Patch Alber who are already championship veterans. Colin Sullivan, is another impressive freshman with good size who will be playing right away. Teddy Doherty is another good looking freshman who will play right away and he is the nephew of Marty Hughes, who played both wing and defense for BC's 2001 champs.
No one seems to be questioning Parker Milner in goal after his two month streak last spring when nothing got past him. Soon everyone forgot that earlier in that season Milner was often careless with rebounds and left himself open to a slew of soft goals. Has he honed the mental parts of his game well enough to match the physical parts? If so he will again dominate. If not, York may be looking to Brian Billett again by mid-season. Remember, goalie is definitely the position of "what have you done for me lately?"
So, how will this season start out? You have Northeastern twice and UMass once on the first two weekends. Northeastern looked pretty good on Wednesday night, definitely better than expected. They have their own Johnny Gaudreau wannabee in freshman Kevin Roy and their first two lines are strong and experienced. The weakness of that team might be in goal. Chris Rawlings can stonewall any team on a good night, but he has concentration problems and sometimes seems to be out of touch. Of note, he seems to be playing back in his crease more now than previously. He isn't leaving himself as open to backdoor goals, but he can be beaten head on.
Oh. And from Wednesday night's game the referees seem to be a little more open to physical play and not as quick to interfere with the flow of the game. Whether this is a trend or an aberration remains to be seen. There is a lot of time between now and April.
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