Last week’s amazing photo finish of the regular season is now behind us.
Kudos most of all to New Hampshire for its eighth regular season title. And also to Boston College for its strong performances both inside and outside of Hockey East, putting the Eagles on pace for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA regionals.
Congrats are also due to Boston University and Maine for securing home ice berths after brutal starts.
To Massachusetts-Lowell for a home-ice worthy season, though nosed out by tiebreakers.
To Merrimack for its best season in 13 years, including a 12-3-1 home record.
And to Massachusetts and Vermont for pulling out playoff berths despite appearing to be in big-time trouble in the closing weeks.
Condolences to Northeastern, which finished only four points out of home ice, but one point out of the playoffs. And to Providence, which despite struggles inside the league posted a 5-2 record outside of it.
So without further ado, onward to the second season.
No. 1 Seed New Hampshire Hosts No. 8 Vermont
Usually the one versus eight matchup is a two-up, two-down affair, lacking the drama of a four versus five series.
Not so this year. While New Hampshire and Boston College put some distance between themselves and the rest of the pack as the regular season neared an end, Vermont will be no pushover.
There’s a reason the Catamounts are reasonably close to UNH in the PairWise (a tie for 10th compared to a tie for 16th). The Catamounts flourished outside the league and had many big wins within it, too. They swept BU the weekend before last and three weeks ago took New Hampshire to overtime twice at the Whittemore Center.
So forget about an automatic, ho-hum sweep.
“It’s a whole new season right now,” UNH coach Dick Umile says. “I don’t think one vs. eight has anything to do with it to be quite honest. We can throw those numbers out.
“We talk about parity all the time. We say it’s from top to bottom [strength in Hockey East and] there is no question that this season was the best. We are just planning on games that are going to come right down to the wire.
“You have to put yourself in a position to win the game, and that’s going to involve playing 60-minute games and making sure you do well with your specialty situations.”
Umile concedes that sometimes this season his team has had more of a flair for drama — a year of living dangerously — than he’d necessarily like, though no one would complain about the outcome.
“It’s a Jeykll and Hyde team,” he says. “We have good moments and then all of a sudden we sit back or lose the momentum. It’s partly us, it’s partly the teams that we are playing.
“But the fact of the matter is that they are a group that never quits. They hang in there and we’ve been fortunate and found ways to tie it up or win games.”
For Vermont, which had found itself potentially in the most bizarre of possibilities — missing the Hockey East playoffs but making the NCAAs — the second season is a way of erasing the ups and downs of an inconsistent regular season.
“It’s certainly been an interesting season for us filled with challenges, obstacles and adversity,” UVM coach Kevin Sneddon says. “We feel very fortunate to be involved in the Hockey East championships.
“Over the last few weekends we’ve played some good hockey. Lowell played tremendous against us this past weekend, but I thought we played well against New Hampshire a couple weekends ago and extremely well against Boston University here at home.
“Our team has sorted through a lot of issues. [They've] really bonded as a family. I think they are ready for this second season to start. They are focused and prepared and we have healed up from a couple of injuries we’ve had.
“We’re just thrilled to be a part of it because we obviously didn’t know until moments after the Saturday game we were even going to be part of the playoffs. So we want to take advantage of this opportunity.”
No. 2 Seed Boston College Hosts No. 7 Massachusetts
If play down the stretch dictates the results this series, BC should win in a cakewalk. The Eagles are 4-0-1 in their last five games (including taking three of four points from UNH) and 9-2-1 since late January.
UMass, on the other hand, went 0-for-February with bookend games against the Eagles, a 7-1 loss to start the disastrous month and a 2-1 loss in overtime to close it out. For sure, last weekend’s season-saving sweep at Maine may have changed all the bad momentum, but on the whole BC’s been playing much the better of the two teams.
“Our club has played very well down the stretch,” BC coach Jerry York says. “We’re getting contributions from a lot of people. The one thing that strikes me — and we have our own Vezina Trophy concept at BC — is that we’ve allowed the least number of goals in the league. That’s something we’re very proud of and probably one of the reasons we have home ice and finished in second place in the league.
“We know we have some really good offensive players who can move the puck extremely well, but the defense, we can really hang our hat on that. The two goaltenders — freshman Parker Milner and John Muse — have really good numbers and certainly deserve a lot of the credit for that.
“We have four freshmen defensemen who will play this weekend and one sophomore. So, five of the six players behind the blue line are still young, but they’re growing and getting a lot better as the year goes on. We’re very pleased with that.”
For UMass, the key will be which team shows up. Will it be the 0-for-February team which until the loss to BC closed out the month didn’t even have a one-goal loss, getting outscored 22-5? Or the team that with the chips down swept Maine at Maine (after taking BC to overtime)?
“We’ve obviously been on a bit of a rollercoaster,” UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon says. “It was a long slide down before we have started moving up.
“We’ve played pretty hard for a couple of weeks now, and we have played better defensively and gotten better goaltending. But it obviously takes on a whole new picture going into the weekend against a Boston College team that is so good defensively and so good in the net.”
Special teams will be a concern for UMass. While both teams have strong power plays, BC holds the edge in that department and sports the league’s top penalty kill while UMass’s ranks last.
“Boston College has very gifted goal scorers and that is going to be a big challenge for us,” Cahoon says. “There have been several games where I felt our penalty kill executed pretty well, and some of that falls on the goaltending, because your best penalty killer is your goaltender. We had a couple injuries during February that we’ve now have back, especially Doug Kublin, who is one of our best penalty killers.
“He’s going to improve the penalty killing situations for us, and also we can get Justin Braun some minutes off the ice. One of our biggest struggles over the past couple years is that when we get into injury situations, Justin plays ridiculous minutes (about 35-37 minutes per game).”
Look for UMass to play relatively close to the vest, despite having two of the league’s top offensive talents in James Marcou and Casey Wellman.
“We’re not going to go toe-to-toe with Boston College on [offense],” Cahoon says. “We need to compete and play smart and be on the right side of the puck and play with a passion that’s going to allow us to hang in there with them.”
No. 3 Seed Boston University Hosts No. 6 Merrimack
The defending national champions against Cinderella.
The Terriers have impressed since New Year’s, going 12-6-0 including a sweep of Northeastern to gain home ice.
But don’t be quick to dismiss Cinderella. Merrimack enters the playoffs on an 8-4-2 run including wins over New Hampshire, Maine and Lowell.
“If we’re overconfident, we’d have to check ourselves into Mattapan State Hospital,” BU coach Jack Parker says. “Not just because how good a team Merrimack is, but who we were all year. We weren’t even close to them in the game we lost up at Merrimack and they could have won either of the games that were played [at Agganis Arena]. I’m flabbergasted that more people aren’t talking about how good they are.
“They present a lot of problems and their style presents a lot of problems — the way they stretch, the way they chip pucks out of the zone. They make it difficult for us to play our game and they make it difficult for any team to go after them, and we like to go after people. They make it difficult when they get the puck — they are so talented when they come across the blue line and center ice. They can bang and cycle with anybody.”
Of course, the Terriers have a few weapons of their own: forward Nick Bonino; three defensemen in Colby Cohen, Kevin Shattenkirk and David Warsofsky who can create offense with the best of them; and goaltender Kieran Millan, who seems back on track after stumbling in the early going.
The one warning sign for Terriers fans, though, is that BU enters the postseason in one very unaccustomed position, last place in the league in team defense. In its three games against Merrimack, BU gave up a total of 14 goals.
“I don’t think [the worst defensive ranking] had much to do with Kieran’s struggles, [though] that certainly was part of it,” Parker says. “It had just as much to do, if not more, with our overall team defense and our name-brand defensemen not playing as hard as they, and as well as they, should defensively. The forwards as well.
“We didn’t play with anywhere near the intensity and focus you need to play. We were full of ourselves for a long time after the year before and it took us a little while to get embarrassed, actually, before we started to play a little bit better. Even in the second half, we had phases where guys would fall in and out of how hard they were playing.
“It was a lack of commitment to defense that hurt us earlier and it has been a rejuvenated focus to defense that has helped us in the second half.”
For Merrimack, the obvious concern is whether the team will be happy just to be there. After all, five years ago the Warriors went 1-22-1 in Hockey East play and just last year they were 5-19-3. So this season has already been an unqualified success.
Even so, coach Mark Dennehy says that this series is just an extension of playoffs for his team.
“We’ve been in playoff mode for nine games,” he says. “We looked at it and were on the outside looking in and divided it up by three three-game playoff series. [We] thought if we could win all three, we could play in an actual playoff series. It’s no different now.
“As excited as our guys were [to make the playoffs], you get a sense to their satisfaction level. They’re proud of what they accomplished, but they feel there is still more work to do.”
People may point to Merrimack’s home-and-away split (12-3-1 vs. 3-13-1) and conclude that the Warriors have no shot at Agganis Arena, a place where they’ve never won. (Nine games, nine losses.)
That home-away split, however, disguises the surprising fact that when it counted most, Merrimack won three of its last four away games.
“I expect a pretty hard-fought series,” Dennehy says. “[BU is] big and physical, but we have those characteristics in our locker room as well.
“I’m sure Coach Parker is going to have everyone believe that we are the favorites, but everyone is 0-0 again. We have to take the positives that we can play with anyone in the league. But we have to notice the negatives.
“We laid a few eggs in the final stretch. You have to control what you can control and playing hard is one thing you can control.”
No. 4 Seed Maine Hosts No. 5 Massachusetts-Lowell
Based on past playoff performances, the River Hawks got a supremely bad break when they finished in a three-way tie for third only to be relegated to a No. 5 seed based on tiebreakers. Not only did a home ice berth slip through their fingers, they also got stuck with their personal first-round matchup from Hell: the Maine Black Bears.
Maine holds an unblemished 12-0 playoff record against the River Hawks. (Here’s where a blonde sportswriter might add Imagine that. Not even one tie.)
However, as a coach once said to a recruit, “I’m not interested in history majors.”
Based on other factors, Lowell’s bad break might not be such a bad one after all.
To wit, while the River Hawks went undefeated over their last five games, Maine lost four of five (and six of eight). Even more ominously, Maine coach Tim Whitehead indefinitely suspended starting goaltender Scott Darling, who had accounted for all but one of the team’s wins.
Last weekend, freshman Shawn Sirman started both games (losses to UMass), got the hook, and was replaced by senior Dave Wilson.
Darling’s won-loss record: 15-6-3. Sirman’s: 1-6-0. Wilson’s: 0-3-0.
If Lowell can’t knock off the wounded Black Bears now, they never will.
Whitehead, of course, isn’t about to wave the white flag just because of the team’s poor finish.
“We kind of backed our way into the playoffs, but hopefully we earned it with some wins earlier in the year,” he says. “It is certainly not the way we wanted to go in, but we will take it. We are looking forward to the start of the playoffs, and hopefully we can extend our season beyond the weekend.”
Whitehead also concedes nothing because of the goaltending situation.
“It’s a challenge for us obviously,” he says. “Scott was our most successful goalie until the stretch run and then he faltered. It’s something we’ve been dealing with for a while.
“We’re very determined to play great team defense. We know we have a big challenge with Lowell coming in. They’re a real strong team, very talented and experienced. No matter who’s in the net, they’re going to have a tough go.
“But we’re confident actually in Wilson and Sirman. They’ve been playing much better lately. We’re excited that they’re going to have this opportunity and most importantly we want to play great defense in front of them so we give them an opportunity to succeed.”
Whitehead recognizes that the Black Bears have a very tough opponent on their hands regardless of past playoff history.
“Lowell has a lot of strengths,” he says. “They play really well as a team, most importantly. They’ve got a great fast break offense and can attack pretty quick so we need to be ready on transition.
“They’ve got a couple real good senior goalies so we need to get to the net front. In Dehner, Schaus and Edwards they’ve got a really nice corps of D. They present problems at all three positions so we’re going to have to bring our best game.”
Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald hopes his team can reprise last year’s Hockey East tournament run in which it upset Vermont on the road and then advanced to the championship game where the River Hawks fell to eventual national champion BU. A good part of that recipe is in place: a strong finish, a recent win or two in the opponent’s tough barn, solid goaltending, and veteran leadership.
“I think we’re on a pretty good run right now and it’s a good time for us,” he says. “For the most part, we’ve been very consistent. We’ve lost 14 games and  of them have been by one goal. We’re right there and we’re constantly in search of that extra 5 percent that turns some of those close games into victories.”
Ten seniors will be in the lineup, but MacDonald doesn’t see that as an automatic goal or two on the scoreboard.
“It’s all negligible unless you play, respond and execute,” he says. “It is better than having 15 freshmen, but there are advantages having young teams in those situations as well.
“At the end of the day, you [can] talk about being in close games, you can have watched it, but [until] you’ve experienced it, there is no way you can duplicate it. It is a tangible experience. We hope we use that wisdom when playing in a tough place like Maine.
“We’ve had success recently in the playoffs. In this league it is tough to get in the playoffs and once you get in, if you don’t have home ice it’s difficult to advance. We had a good experience last year and took Boston University to three games two years ago, so that’s something we will lean on a bit.”
While this writer would contend that Maine’s goaltending situation more than wipes out its home ice advantage, MacDonald disagrees.
“There are a lot of ways to look at that,” he says. “I’m not sure it means their fans are going to go mute on them. … I think most people’s opinion is that of all the home ice advantages, Maine certainly enjoys the very, very best and it is the toughest place to play for an opponent.
“It could amplify the confidence of any player that wears a Black Bear uniform, whether it is Joe MacDonald or Dave Wilson. That fan base gets a lot out of its team and that team gets a lot out of their fan base.
“[Maine's loss of its top goalie] is a non-factor to me. If anything, I think situations like this bring an opportunity for a team to come together with a more acute focus.”
And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But …
This will be my final column of the year since Jim Connelly returns with the true finale next week. Then it’ll be on to previews and features related to the national tournament.
So a few season-ending notes are in order.
First, if you want to follow my writing during the offseason — I’m hoping for some big news to announce — check out my Web site, www.hendricksonwriter.com. It’s barely under construction right now and will never have college hockey content on it (that’s what uscho.com is for).
But if you’d like to hear about my fiction becoming available or would like to read me blog (no promises about how often) about books and humor and writing and that good stuff, then please bookmark the page.
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t extend thanks to many people.
For starters, to all you readers. I’d be pontificating into empty air if not for all of you. I appreciate your attention and the kind words. And when you’ve given me the raspberry instead, you may have earned that right.
Thanks to Diana Giunta and Scott Weighart for consistently providing game quotes.
Thanks to Jim Connelly for contributing so many columns this year, especially those that came during times when I was traveling or was otherwise unavailable.
Thanks most of all to my wife for all the transcribing and unbelievable support. Here’s looking at you, Kid.
USCHO covers Hockey East all week long on the Hockey East Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.