By Dan Rubin
Since its inception, the Hockey East Association has been one of the preeminent college hockey power conferences throughout the NCAA landscape. Its tradition is unmatched, and its ability to produce NHL players is unrivaled. In recent years, it established its presence as THE national championship conference, holding the last three titles.
Two of those titles belong to Boston College, a team making a strong run at #3 this season. They’ve been among the best teams in the nation all season, and regardless of how this weekend at TD Garden turns out, the Eagles are a top seed in the national tournament, and they remain penciled in as one of the teams most likely to raise the trophy in St. Paul, Minnesota.
But the Eagles also find themselves in a dogfight to win the league championship. Where there are definite favorites in the other two eastern leagues, this year’s Hockey East could belong to any one of the four remaining teams. They all have good reasons why they should and shouldn’t win the tournament. Even Northeastern, the lowest seed of the bunch, has a solid argument outside of Dan Libon’s fandom.
Noontime Sports will be at the Garden this weekend to cover these games, and we’ll have full coverage of the Hockey East Championship starting this evening and continuing through tomorrow.
#1 Boston College Eagles
How They Got Here: [28-7-1], [20-6-1 Hockey East], Swept UMass 2 games to none.
Why They’ll Win: You find me a better team in the nation this year, and I’ll argue it to my grave. BC is among the nation’s elite, and the case can be made that they’ll be facing North Dakota with the national title on the line in Minnesota. They’re the best overall team, and the names of players who can make an impact roll off like a Murder’s Row of sorts – Cam Atkinson, Brian Gibbons, Jimmy Hayes, Brian Dumoulin, Joe Whitney, Chris Kreider, Tommy Cross, Philip Samuelsson, Pat Mullane. That’s a better lineup than an All Star team from other conferences. They’re the best-coached team, with Jerry York. And their nonconference schedule isn’t about whom they beat because they beat pretty much everyone. They swept Denver, and they won the Beanpot. They lost two games after New Year’s. And it gets even scarier when you think that this team hasn’t quite hit its ceiling yet. They can only get better.
Why They’ll Lose: The biggest hole for BC is goaltending. John Muse is prone to a bad game and soft goals. He’ll win games for the Eagles, but he only faced 840 shots this season. He made a 92% save percentage, and he posted six shutouts. Despite this, he hasn’t had to make 30 saves since the Beanpot opening round game against Boston University back on February 7th. I’ve never been sold on Muse, especially not after he coughed up seven goals to Yale in last year’s NCAA tournament. One of the losses post New Year’s was to Northeastern, their semifinal opponent. Don’t discount the fact that this is the sixth meeting between the two teams. Northeastern knows everything there is to know about BC. Add Libon pulling for Northeastern, and that actually could make “Super fans,” (like yours truly) slightly nervous.
#2 UNH Wildcats
How They Got Here: [21-9-6], [17-6-4 Hockey East], Swept Vermont 2 games to 0
Why They’ll Win: They’re one of the better overall teams, and they are able to fly under the radar because of Boston College. They also played well enough out of the conference to warrant mentioning, including a win over Miami and a tie with Michigan at the beginning of the year. Statistically, they have a lineup that rivals BC’s – Paul Thompson, Mike Sislo, Phil DeSimone, Blake Kessel, John Henrion, and Dalton Speelman, with Matt Di Girolamo in net. And they have a battle-tested coach in Dick Umile. They have a lineup to hang with the Eagles, as long as you ignore that last weekend blowout at the hands of the top seed.
Why They’ll Lose: You don’t get a nickname like “University of No Hardware” by winning conference championships. UNH chokes on the biggest stage, historically, and last year, they were one game from the Frozen Four when they ran into RIT. Rochester dominated the Wildcats and took their spot in Detroit. UNH was also crushed the last weekend of the regular season by BC, and they went 1-0-2 against Northeastern. But the most damning stat is that they draw Merrimack in the semifinal round, a team they were swept by in February. Yes, they beat the Mack at home earlier in the year, but that sweep is not a good sign.
#4 Merrimack Warriors
How They Got Here: [24-8-4], [16-8-3 Hockey East], swept Maine 2 games to 0
Why They’ll Win: They’ve beaten everybody. They have signature wins over every team in the league, and they bounced back from a late-season choke to dominate a good Black Bear squad in the playoffs. They were head and shoulders better than BU this year, even though BU was the #3 seed, and they were in the #1-seed, national ranking argument until the last weekend of the season. But the slide seemed to reignite the Warriors, and they righted the ship. Their lineup includes seven double-digit goal scorers, including Stephane da Costa and Chris Barton. They also have the best goalie of the four remaining teams, a very underrated Joe Cannata. With bigger names like Muse, di Girolamo, and Rawlings, Cannata can be overlooked. But on talent, Cannata is the best big game goalie of the lot. They’re the most dangerous team because they’re talented, they’re good, and everyone expects a BC-UNH final.
Why They’ll Lose: Each of the other remaining teams has been here before. Merrimack has never been. And when I say they’ve never been, they’ve legit never had a relatively decent season before this year. This is their first .500 or better season since 1988-1989, when they were an independent. And they’ve never been tested in the playoffs like this before. They’ve never been to an NCAA tournament while a member of Hockey East. And while Mark Denehy is a good coach, he’s not the same as having York or Umile.
#6 Northeastern Huskies
How They Got Here: [14-15-8], [10-10-7 Hockey East], Beat BU 2 games to 1
Why They’ll Win: Because Dan Libon is going to use his Liboninator powers.
They’ve played Boston College so much that they are most likely not intimidated by them. They’ve proven they can hang with BC, and they’ve proven they can beat BC. That weekend series following the Beanpot championship game was so epic that I had a feeling these teams would meet again. Wade MacLeod leads the Huskies up front, and Chris Rawlings is a very good goalie. I personally think Rawlings is a little overrated, but I’d still take him over Di Girolamo and Muse any day of the week. The Huskies also have the benefit of being an underdog and playing the “nobody believes in us” card. Greg Cronin is a great motivator, and don’t think that won’t factor into the weekend.
Why They’ll Lose: Because I won’t be there to curse Boston College on Friday. Seriously – every time I pick a team and say great things about them, I curse them. Look at Harvard last week for hockey, and I’m not getting started on Louisville and St. John’s in yesterday’s debacle in the NCAA basketball tournament
Yes, they can get up for Boston College, but Northeastern went .500 for a reason. They lost to Holy Cross, Bentley, and Niagara. They lost the season series to BU, and I personally believe the only reason they beat BU in the playoffs was because of a cocktail of disaster for the Terriers. BU had to play Games 1 and 2 on Thursday and Friday because they hosted the America East basketball finals (which they won). That meant that the student fan base was divided between an underachieving hockey team and a new, fresh basketball team. The remaining students went out on Spring Break, and the hockey team drew a team with a rabid fan base that sits just 5 miles away. When NU packed Agganis last week, everything I said came true. Three game victory for Northeastern. Hockey East this year is a three-team league, but four teams had to make the Garden.
Be sure to check out Noontime’s coverage of the Hockey East championship weekend. Dan Libon will be covering both days, and I’ll be joining him for the championship tomorrow as the banner patch is raised to the Garden rafters. I’ll also be making my championship predictions and bracketology, listing what’s at stake for teams with consolation and championship games tomorrow.