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Hockey East Preview 2011: BC, BU Leading The Pack Once Again

College hockey returns in full force this weekend, with many teams in Hockey Easy kicking off their regular season slate. Without much surprise, Boston College and Boston University are still the teams to beat entering the new year.

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By Biz Jacobs, Correspondent.

The Hockey East Coaches Poll came out on Tuesday at the annual Hockey East Media Day at TD Garden in Boston, and it was no surprise that the No. 1 and 2 teams were once again Boston College and Boston University. Though there hasn't been any shortage of changes in Hockey East coming into the season, one of the aspects that remains the same is the undisputed fact that it once again is going to be a free-for-all from the get-go.

1. BOSTON COLLEGE - Despite losing some major components from last year including the wall between the pipes, John Muse and leading scorer Cam Atkinson, this team is still scary, both on the ice and on paper. Any coach in Hockey East will tell you that looking at veteran coach Jerry York and players like Chris Kreider, Brian Dumoulin, Parker Milner and captain Tommy Cross, doesn't really give any sense of relief. The Eagles finished last season as the Hockey East regular season champions, as well as the conference champions, beating Merrimack in the finals. By the looks of it, the Eagles have no loose links in their armor. 

Kreider is entering his junior year and already has quite the impressive resume under his belt. He scored 11 goals and added 13 assists in 32 games last season and missed two games to the World Junior Championship and five at the end of the year after suffering a broken jaw. Expect him to take the place of Cam Atkinson and provide that offensive prowess for Boston College this year.

2. BOSTON UNIVERSITY - Of all the teams in Hockey East, BU has the most returning players from last year, and most of them still hold important roles. Coach Jack Parker is returning his veteran goaltender Kieran Millan and some strong forwards including Corey Trivino, Alex Chiasson and last year's standout freshman Sahir Gill. On the defensive end, Adam Clendening will take hold of the reigns and provide a solid core in front of Millan alongside Max Nicastro and Ben Rosen. The Terriers will play host to UNH in their first regular season game. With two teams with solid goaltending, it will be interesting to see who takes the early season series lead.

3. UNIVERSITY OF NEW HAMPSHIRE - A growing trend at UNH is having a couple of seniors explode on the first line for a season and then leave the next year, only to have another couple of players step up and do the same the following year. This year, however, the trend has changed and it looks more like they are less one big line, and more a lot of depth. The Stevie Moses, Mike Borisenok and Kevin Goumas line will still be the top dogs to contend with, while John Henrion, Jeff Silengo and Austin Block also bring up some offensive power.

Defensively, the Wildcats show a bit less experience. The loss of Blake Kessel to the NHL late in the offseason was a real knock to the team. UNH now showcases three returning defensemen and three that have never played a minute of college hockey, including the 6-foot-6 behemoth, Eric Knodel and freshman Trevor van Riemsdyk. Luckily for the Wildcats, Matt DiGirolamo will be back between the pipes to provide the support for the young defense.

4. UNIVERSITY OF MAINE - Despite losing forward sensation Gustav Nyquist to the Detriot Red Wings, Maine has no shortage of talent still kicking around. Led by seniors Brian Flynn and Spencer Abbott, the offense is still capable of drawing blood quickly. Last year, Flynn tallied 20 goals and 16 assists to lead the team, and now, serving as captain, will have those same expectations going into the season.

The one question that could be of concern for the Black Bears is the goaltending situation. Both Dan Sullivan and Martin Ouellette are entering their sophomore seasons with some experience under their belts. Sullivan entered a stretch in February of last year where he had three straight shutouts to set a school record, but his time was split with Ouellette, making the situation less than ideal for either player.

5. MERRIMACK COLLEGE - The Warriors are coming off their most successful year in the school's history. Coach Mark Dennehy led Merrimack to the Hockey East championship final and the college's first ever appearance in the NCAA tournament. Though MC also lost some key factors, including Stephane Da Costa to the Ottawa Senators, there seems to be enough play makers that close the void nicely. Ryan Flanigan and Elliott Sheen were two of the heroes in last years Hockey East Championship run and will look to start right where they left off. The most exciting return for the Warriors is their goaltender Joe Cannata. Cannata posted a 25-10-4 record with a 2.48 GAA and .911 save percentage last year, becoming the school's winningest goalie ever.

6. UNIVERSITY OF VERMONT - Vermont has had its fair share of road blocks for a couple of years, missing the Hockey East tournament as well as the NCAA tournament last year. However their young team has matured a little bit, and Rob Madore is once again in net for the Catamounts. Coach Kevin Sneddon has some up-and-coming stars on his team including Sebastian Stalberg, brother to Chicago Blackhawk forward Viktor Stalberg. Also, you can expect Matt Marshall and Drew MacKenzie to have a big impact on the season.

7. UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS - The University of Massachusetts sits below Vermont, but isn't too far beneath them. The Minutemen are bringing back three 20-point scorers including Danny Hobbs, Michael Pereira and T.J. Syner. With the excitement building for Frozen Fenway, coach Toot Cahoon was saying he is excited for the state of Massachusetts and of course for the state university. While that won't happen for another couple of months, he is convinced that this year will be a great one for the hockey program.

8. NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY - Northeastern is one of the three programs in Hockey East that has gone through a major coaching change. With the loss of Greg Cronin and former assistant coach Sebastian LeBlanc, new coach Jim Madigan will have his hands full bringing a team back together. Madigan did make it known that this year's team is a resilient group with what they have had to deal with the past year, and he is certain that will only help them coming into this year. Northeastern also lost a number of players from last year, including Jamie Oleksiak who left to play professionally, and a couple others to graduation like Tyler McNeely and Wade MacLeod. MacLeod led the team in goals and assists last season. However, with a solid young class and a veteran goaltender, this team could make some noise all season.

9. UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS- LOWELL - UMass-Lowell will also be going through some coaching changes. Former coach Blaise MacDonald was replaced by Norm Bazin, with many question marks still up in the air. While the River Hawks do have a number of offensive returners, their goaltending is one of the biggest question marks. Last year, they went 4-21-2 in Hockey East play, and Bazin will be expected to kick start the team. However, he will have help from 30-point scorers Riley Wetmore and David Vallorani.

10. PROVIDENCE COLLEGE - The third team to lose a head coach position is the Friars. Nate Leaman will be taking over and he has quite the job ahead of him. The Friars finished last season 8-18-8 overall and with the addition of a new coach it could either take a couple games to get used to the new season, or they could respond very quickly. Either way, he will have Alex Beaudry back in net to help in the process.