Hockey East aims for Frozen Four return

The skinny

By the lofty standards set by Hockey East in recent seasons, the end of the 2011 campaign on the national scale came as a bit of a disappointment. For the second straight year, three league teams made the NCAA tournament, but none advanced to the Frozen Four in St. Paul, Minn. -- the first time since 2005 that Hockey East was shut out of the season's final weekend.

That doesn't mean that the 2010-11 season was a complete washout. Five clubs were in contention for the NCAA tournament with Merrimack earning its first berth since joining the league in 1989-90. Boston College claimed both the league's regular-season and tournament crowns and New Hampshire, the regular-season runner-up, stretched its string of consecutive NCAA tournament berths to 11.

The offseason wasn't without incident, either, as the league welcomed three new coaches into the fraternity of bench bosses. UMass Lowell, Northeastern and Providence will all have new faces directing the programs this season, with each new coach facing a unique set of challenges.

Breakthrough team

It's difficult to call a traditional power such as Boston University a breakthrough team, but the Terriers are more likely to find themselves in Tampa, Fla., come April as opposed to being on the outside looking in when the NCAA tournament selections are announced. Boston University lost just three players (forward Joe Pereirra, defenseman David Warsofsky, and seldom-used netminder Adam Kraus) from last year's roster and had three current sophomores picked in June's NHL draft, including second-rounders Adam Clendening and Matt Nieto. Couple the depth among the skaters with a veteran netminder in Kieran Millan, and head coach Jack Parker's squad appears poised to add to its extensive collection of hardware this season.

Primed for a fall

New Hampshire had three players ranked among the top 10 in Hockey East in scoring last year, including league co-leader Paul Thompson. None of those three will be playing in Durham this season, while defenseman Blake Kessel, the club's fourth-highest scorer last season, also elected to turn pro. Those four players combined for 47 percent of the Wildcats' offense, a number that will be difficult to replace. But then again, we picked UNH to fill this same spot last year, and that didn't work out so well for us, either.

Pressure to perform

Maine has missed the NCAA tournament in each of the past four seasons, exactly half of the number of tournaments that the Black Bears have not been a part of since first qualifying in 1987. With a pair of 30-plus point men returning in Spencer Abbott and Brian Flynn plus a young yet experienced group of netminders in Dan Sullivan and Martin Ouellette, Maine has many of the components in place to finally snap that NCAA drought.

Toughest act to follow

After making its first appearance in the NCAA tournament in its 21 seasons as a member of Hockey East last season, Merrimack won't sneak up on anyone this year. While the team lost its top three scorers, the Warriors returned three 30-plus point scorers plus an additional eight others who scored in double figures, not to mention a reliable goaltender in senior Joe Cannata.

Best player

Had they not elected to leave their respective schools early for the professional ranks, the options for this category this season would have included Cam Atkinson, Stephane Da Costa, Blake Kessel, and Gustav Nyquist -- each an All-American last season. Still, there is one first-team All-American returning to his Hockey East school this season: Boston College defenseman Brian Dumoulin. The runner-up for INCH's National Defenseman of the Year last season, Dumoulin led all Hockey East blueliners with 33 points. More than just an offensive defenseman, though, Dumoulin combines size and skating ability with heady play that allows him to avoid costly penalties, spending just 24 minutes in the box in his first two seasons combined.

Impact newcomer

With only four incoming freshmen selected in the NHL draft in June bound for Hockey East clubs, we're going to take bit of a different approach and give the nod to the three new coaches in the league. For Jim Madigan at Northeastern, his arrival brings the program closure after a tumultuous finish to last season when then-head coach Greg Cronin and his staff were suspended for NCAA rules violations. In the case of Norm Bazin at UMass Lowell and Nate Leaman at Providence, the energy brought to their clubs by a fresh face behind the bench will be welcomed to the two sides that missed out on the Hockey East playoffs last year.

Burning questions

Who will join BU, BC and UNH in hosting a Hockey East quarterfinal series?
Since 2004-05, that trio has finished with three of the top four spots in the league every year except 2008-09, when the Eagles finished sixth. Maine has captured that fourth home-ice slot three times, while Massachusetts, Merrimack and Vermont have each had it once.

Can Vermont rebound from a trying 2010-11 season?

After making the NCAA tournament in both 2009 and 2010, the Catamounts struggled to an 8-20-8 overall mark and a 6-14-7 tally in league play. The Catamounts will have to increase their offensive production after finishing ninth in scoring last season, but have a solid core of players returning. Vermont returns top scorer Sebastian Stalberg and adds the highest incoming freshman pick from June's NHL draft in defenseman Michael Paliotta, a third-round selection by Chicago.

Does Massachusetts' fortunes lie in finding a replacement for goalie Paul Dainton?

The Minutemen have an outstanding group of skaters back, including five of the six regular defensemen and 10 of their top 11 scorers. New York Rangers prospect Daniel Hobbs had a breakout season, scoring 28 of his 39 career points last year to lead the club offensively, while T.J. Syner finished just one point back. The lone question mark, it seems, is who will replace Dainton in between the pipes. The two returning netminders, sophomore Jeff Teglia and senior Kevin Moore, have combined for just 365 minutes of collegiate action. The duo will be pressed for playing time by a pair of rookies, Kevin Boyle and Steve Mastalerz.

Mark it down

Three things you can take to the bank in the Hockey East this season:

The league's best newcomer isn't really a newcomer.

Northeastern will receive a huge boost from the addition of Vinny Saponari, a transfer from Boston University who sat out last season and played for the Dubuque Saints of the USHL. Saponari had a 30-point sophomore season in 2009-10 for the Terriers and should provide a huge lift to the Huskies offense.

Hockey East clubs will get some extra exposure in some neutral-site venues this season.

Six of the 10 league teams have at least one neutral-site game this season (excluding holiday and in-season tournaments such as the Beanpot or the Ice Breaker). Boston University will again meet Cornell at Madison Square Garden in November, while Massachusetts, Vermont, UNH and Maine will do battle at Fenway Park in January. UMass Lowell will play UConn across the border in Nashua, N.H., while Maine's annual game in Portland features a visit from Clarkson. Finally, UNH and Dartmouth will play their annual rivalry contest in Manchester. No other league has more than half of its members playing at least one neutral site contest this season.

Parker Milner will try his hardest to make people in Chestnut Hill forget about John Muse.

It certainly won't be easy for the junior netminder, however, as he takes over for a player who started 144 games and backstopped Boston College to a pair of national titles.

INCH's predicted finish

1. Boston College
Pat Mullane had 28 points last year after 27 as a freshman. We'll bet he has more than 30 this season.

2. Boston University

Adam Clendening led all rookie defensemen and was fourth overall among blueliners in Hockey East in scoring last season.

3. New Hampshire
Could Stevie Moses be the latest in a long line of senior scoring standouts for the Wildcats?

4. Merrimack
Surprisingly, it wasn't Stephane Da Costa but Jesse Todd who led the Warriors in goals last season with 17.

5. Maine
Who is Hockey East's leading returning scorer? Hint: It's Spencer Abbott (17-23–40 last season).

6. Massachusetts
Michael Pereira needs to follow up on a 25-point rookie campaign with a strong sophomore year.

7. Northeastern
Defenseman Anthony Bitetto is the Huskies' top returning scorer after posting three goals and 17 assists a year ago.

8. Vermont

Connor Brickley had four goals and nine assists as a rookie last year, and the Catamounts had a winning record in games he scored a point.

9. UMass-Lowell
Riley Wetmore doubled his point total from his freshman season last year with 30 points. UML fans would love if he could repeat that feat as a junior.

10. Providence
On a team that graduated six of its nine double-digit scorers, it'll be up to netminder Alex Beaudry to keep the Friars in a lot of contests.

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