By Dan Rubin
The Hockey East Conference is the second-youngest Division I hockey conference in the nation. Formed in 1984 in a split from ECAC Hockey, some of the best collegiate squads in the nation’s history have been from the group of New England schools. In 26 full seasons, a Hockey East team has appeared in the national championship game 19 times, winning seven championships, including the last three. During the 2000s, a Hockey East team failed to appear in the national championship game only once, when Denver defeated North Dakota in 2005.
So it’s not surprising that the Hockey East playoffs are among the most competitive and exciting times of the year. It’s also no surprise that a good run through the league tournament can lock up a team’s hope of a potential at-large bid for the NCAA championship. Indeed, the league championship tournament serves as the springboard to greatness as of late, since all four national champions since 2000 also had their name raised to the TD Garden rafters as league tournament champion.
With the local league boasting 10 teams for eight spots, rather than breaking down the stats, let’s take a look at this weekend’s matchups and what can happen looking into next week’s regular season finales:
#2 Boston College (national rank: 2) vs. #7 Massachusetts:
Tale of the Tape: Boston College enters the weekend trailing UNH by 2 points for first place. The Eagles are also tied for second with Merrimack and two points up on fourth-place Boston University. UMass, meanwhile, is mathematically eliminated from finishing higher than seventh (they trail Northeastern by nine points), but the Minutemen are tied for 7th with Vermont. Both Vermont and UMass are three points up on Providence for the final playoff spot.
What’s at Stake: UMass has one of the tougher roads to the seven seed. After a home-and-home with BC, they’ll take on fifth-place Maine next weekend at home. Consolation prize: Providence plays Merrimack next weekend. Boston College, meanwhile, is in the hunt for the #1 overall seed in the playoffs, but the #2 team in the nation is in danger of finishing as low as fourth in the standings. BC needs a good showing this weekend heading into next weekend’s potential 1-vs-2 showdown with UNH.
Keys to the Weekend: UMass needs to jump on Eagle goalie John Muse early. Muse allowed 15 goals in his last three games. BC allowed four or more goals six times this year – they’ve won only two of those games. But for UMass – I’m not sure I can trust a team that coughed up 11 goals to Merrimack less than a month ago, even if they can score a lot of goals. BC’s also [9-1-1] at home, whereas the Minutemen are [2-12-2] away from Mullins Center.
Prediction: John Muse needs to find his game…and fast. He’ll do it this weekend. Friday’s a shootout, with BC coming from behind to win 5-4, but the Eagle netminder will wake up on Saturday for a 5-1 win.
#3 Merrimack (national rank: 4) at #5 Maine (national rank: 16)
Tale of the Tape: Merrimack is scary good. They’ve beaten pretty much everybody – Maine, BC, BU, UNH. They hold season series wins over everybody in the conference. Maine, meanwhile, is on a three-game winning streak. But the last two of those wins were against UMass-Lowell.
What’s at Stake: Merrimack has a national vote for #1 (first time ever). If they sweep Maine and if BC and/or UNH slip up, they might slide into the inside track for a #1 seed and even (potentially) the #1 ranking. Not bad for a program that lost 20+ games two years ago. The Black Bears need to sweep this weekend’s games and have BU tank in order to get a home series in the playoffs.
Keys to the Weekend: Don’t fear the Warrior. Maine got waxed by Merrimack, 7-1, earlier this year. But it was in North Andover, and it’ll be a little bit different playing two games in Alfond Arena. Alfond is one of the most intimidating arenas to play in. That could be problematic for Merrimack’s weakness, which is that they don’t wear the sweet yellow jerseys (a personal favorite) on the road.
Prediction: I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop on the Warriors. The problem? It hasn’t. Merrimack wins on Friday, 3-1, and on Saturday, 2-1.
#12 UMass-Lowell vs. #11 Providence
Tale of the Tape: UMass-Lowell has four wins this season, three in Hockey East. One of them was against Merrimack. The other two were against Vermont and Providence. They also plopped eight goals on Bentley in their only non-league win. PC has three league wins, all against quality opponents. One of them was Merrimack. Maybe these teams know something about the Warriors we don’t?
What’s at Stake: The Friars trail Vermont and UMass by four points. Next week they’re playing a home-and-home against Merrimack. Odds are they won’t win those games, so they’ll need substantial help and a massive collapse by somebody to make the dance. The River Hawks have nothing left to play for except a spoiler role and for pride, but, like I’ve said before, teams with nothing left on the table are usually the most dangerous. I’m sorry, but this is the third straight year PC is out of the playoffs.
Keys to the Weekend: PC’s let up three or more goals 20 times this year [not including one exhibition game]. They lost in OT to UML earlier this year. Cue the spotlight on goaltender Alex Beaudry and the defensive unit of the Friars.
Prediction: UML wins Friday, 5-4, then ties PC on Saturday at home, 3-3. Another long spring commences at Schneider Arena.
Tune in tomorrow for previews of the remaining series of the weekend – UNH-Northeastern and BU-Vermont.