It’s a little later than we’re used to, but Hockey East will be back in action Friday night for the first time since the 2019-20 season was halted by the COVID-19 pandemic on March 12.
Initially, six teams were supposed to be in action this weekend, but both Maine and Vermont decided to postpone their season openers. That left four teams standing, with Boston College set to play New Hampshire in a home-and-home series beginning Friday at BC and concluding Saturday in Durham. UMass and UConn, who were scheduled to be on the road for games at Maine and Vermont, respectively, will now face off in a home-and-home series of their own beginning Friday night at Amherst at 6, and concluding in Storrs on Saturday at 4 p.m.
It was a whirlwind for UConn, which found out Sunday that its series against the Catamounts was postponed, and then learned Wednesday that it would indeed be playing this weekend, against the Minutemen. UConn coach Mike Cavanaugh told his players at the beginning of the season that the team is going to have to be flexible, and they are excited to be playing this weekend.
“Before I was heading into a meeting [on Wednesday], I got a call at 2 o’clock saying ‘You’re going to play one game vs. UMass,’ ” said Cavanaugh. “I get out of the meeting and before I could get on the ice and see the players again, we’re playing two games against UMass. So those are the types of things we just have to roll with.”
The league’s goal is to have 11 teams play each other twice for a 20-game season. The schedule includes flex weekends, which will allow games that have been postponed to be made up. Those are already becoming necessary, with numbers for the virus trending in the wrong direction.
“We think the protocols we put in place give ourselves the best chance,” said Hockey East commissioner Steve Metcalf. “There is some optimism.
“I read the same newspapers you do, I see where the cases are in New England, and over the last week or two those numbers have risen. Does that make our lives a little more difficult? I’m sure the answer is yes, but our institutions have been great partners.
“We are trying to establish the protocols in place that we think give us the best chance, and I think that’s what we have done.”
For this week, four teams are ready to hit the ice. Here are some things to look for this season.
A pair of happy returns
Fans stinging from the abrupt end to last season got some good news when a pair of the top performers in the game announced that they would return for their senior seasons.
Boston College’s Logan Hutsko, who had 19 goals and 14 assists last season skating on the first line with David Cotton and Julius Mattila, is back. With Cotton and Mattila departing after their senior seasons, it was not hard to envision Hutsko, selected by the Florida Panthers in the third round of the 2018 draft, moving on. But he wasted little time making his intentions clear, posting a video on the team’s Twitter account.
“Becoming an Eagle was one of the best decisions of my life,” he said. “My teammates are my brothers for life. I came to BC to win, and we have the group to do it. So why leave now?”
The video concluded with a closeup of Hutsko, with the words “I’m back” written across his face.
Boston University’s David Farrance led all Division 1 defensemen in points (43), goals (14), and power-play goals (9). He was a top 10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, and a Hockey East first-team all-star. It was fair to wonder whether the third-round pick of the Nashville Predators in 2017 would return to the program. But he answered those concerns with a note on the team’s Twitter account.
He ended the note by writing, “I love the guys on our team and we believe in each other to reach the high goals that this program sets for itself. See you at Agganis next season.”
Changing of the goaltenders
There will be some new talent between the pipes across the league. Two schools that return their starting goalies face off this weekend when BC plays UNH, with Spencer Knight back for the Eagles and Mike Robinson for the Wildcats. UMass returns the dynamic duo of junior Filip Lindberg and senior Matt Murray, who have split time the last two seasons.
“Now we have the veteran goalies, a senior and a junior, both capable of winning games for us,” said UMass coach Greg Carvel. “We’ve really stressed to the team, and I showed them the stats from last year, the top four teams in our league last year were the top four defensive teams. Offense doesn’t win. Defense wins, so we feel we’ve got two strong goaltenders.”
Among those who have departed is Jeremy Swayman, who captured the Richter Award after a spectacular junior season at Maine and signed with the Bruins last spring. Both BU and Northeastern saw their starters graduate, and will look to replace them with freshmen.
Norwell native Drew Commesso joins the Terriers after spending the last two years with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. He was one of 15 Hockey East players, including Knight, who participated in the US National Junior Team Evaluation Camp in October. Those selected will play in the World Junior Championship from Dec. 25-Jan. 5. Should Commesso be unavailable to BU, sophomore Ashton Abel, who appeared in nine games last season (including eight starts) would likely get the nod.
Northeastern will be looking to Quebec native Devon Levi, but the Huskies will have to wait, as he was invited to Hockey Canada’s National Junior Team Selection Camp from Nov. 16-Dec. 13 in Red Deer, Alberta. Should he make the team, he would not be available to return until early January. Veterans Nick Scarpa, Curtis Frye, and Connor Murphy will compete for job while Levi is away.
The Eagles will soar
Hutsko isn’t the only reason BC fans are smiling. As last season’s outstanding freshman class progressed throughout the year, it seemed inevitable that at least one of them would depart. But that was not the case as Knight came back, along with forwards Alex Newhook, Matt Boldy, and Mike Hardman, as well as defensemen Drew Helleson and Marshall Warren.
Newhook, who posted 19 goals and 23 assists en route to being named NCAA and Hockey East Rookie of the Year, will be joining Levi at Hockey Canada’s selection camp.
And with another solid incoming freshman class, it’s easy to see why Jerry York’s squad was voted as the preseason favorite to win the league.
Best seat in the house
Fans won’t be allowed to attend games, but they’ll be able to watch at home for free. The league announced that games will be streamed online on ViacomCBS Digital properties. All games will be made available across the US and internationally on SportsLive, while all games televised on NESN and NESN Plus and other select matchups also will be made available on CBSSports.com and the CBS Sports app outside of New England.
Follow Andrew Mahoney on Twitter @GlobeMahoney.