The season stretches so long at its beginning — for most teams, 34 games and a postseason to follow. Suddenly however, February has turned to March, and the only way for many to delay the season’s end is to keep winning.
Half of the clubs that will compete in the tournaments in the ECAC and Hockey East this weekend are either assured of a spot in the NCAA field or scenarios exist such that they can gain an at-large berth. The other four are aware that each additional game on their schedule can only be earned through a victory on the ice. For Boston University and Providence in Hockey East, and Quinnipiac and St. Lawrence in ECAC Hockey, two more wins brings not only a conference championship, but a place in the national tournament. Anything less, and the curtain falls.
Of these four teams, it is most surprising that the Terriers find themselves in a situation where they must win to continue. BU played in the national championship game a year ago, and although they graduated some key pieces, a return to the NCAA bracket was anticipated.
“I think our season has been kind of into three chapters,” Terriers coach Brian Durocher says. “The first chapter, where I felt like we held serve despite some injuries. Middle of the year, both sides of the holiday break, we had less-than-perfect runs there. Since that, we’ve gone on a nice run.”
A loss to UNH on January 19 dropped the Terriers (21-13-1) below .500, and since then, they’ve won 10 of 11, losing only to Northeastern in overtime in the final of the Beanpot.
Durocher says his team is now playing its best hockey, and is also the healthiest it has been in months. Throughout the campaign, BU has had to deal with injuries, most notably to star Marie-Philip Poulin, who has missed 22 games and played at less than 100 percent in others.
“Now the only person that is going to be absent is Jenelle Kohanchuk,” he says. “Albeit that she’s a great player, the rest of the squad is in pretty good order, and we should be ready to go. There’s been no excuses, and there will continue to be no excuses.”
No excuses, but now, no margin for error either. The Terriers will need to defeat Boston College, the team that claimed the HEA tournament a year ago, in order to advance to Sunday’s final.
“Katie [King Crowley] does a fantastic job coaching there, and we know we’ll have our hands full to get after it,” Durocher says. “This will be a one-goal game somewhere probably down there in Hyannis. We know we’re going to have to deal with good goaltending, probably the most talented group of defensemen I think they’ve had since I’ve been around, and plenty of depth up front from all three lines.”
Despite BC having an all-around strong team, a higher national ranking, and a better seed in the league tournament, BU took it to its rivals in the most recent meeting, winning on home ice by a 6-0 score.
“I think that recent win, I’m tossing in the basket,” Durocher says. “Maybe if that was the hard-fought, 3-2 game that I’m expecting down here, it would be different, but I think that was one of those games that their team and our team will get over and say that was a little bit of a fluke.”
The semifinals and finals will be held at the Hyannis Youth and Community Center on Cape Cod.
“I think our kids will certainly be excited and curious to go down there and play in a new venue,” Durocher says. “It’s obviously a neutral site, so nobody has got an advantage.”
Beyond the excitement of playing a rival in a new location, Saturday is basically just another hockey game, one that the Terriers must find a way to win to avoid placing the final punctuation on their season.
“Our kids know what’s at stake,” Durocher says. “Half the team went through it two years ago down at Providence when we ended up winning the Hockey East in 2010. Last year, we were in a game against Mercyhurst where it’s win or go home, so there’s kids who have a lot of experience here. There’s kids who have played in big games: the Hockey East championship games, and Beanpots, and certainly the NCAA Tournament last year. So I like to think for us, it’s one game come Saturday. Nobody is thinking about Sunday.”
On the other side of the Hockey East bracket, Providence is in the same predicament. After falling to Maine in overtime on January 22, the team’s fourth straight loss, the Friars were 9-15-3 and did not look destined to still be playing hockey in March.
“I think the key word to our season is patience,” coach Bob Deraney says. “We have a very big senior class; we have a very big freshman class. Unfortunately, we were injury prone at the beginning of the year to our upperclassmen, so it really took a lot of patience for us to continue to deal with the adversity that we were facing, night in and night out. If we didn’t have bad luck, we didn’t have any luck.”
The Friars battled back, closed out the Hockey East schedule with a 5-1-1 kick, and earned home ice for the first playoff round.
“It’s really a credit — our freshmen have really matured,” Deraney says. “I think at the beginning of the year, they were put in situations that they weren’t prepared for, but I think that experience has paid dividends now. I like the fact that we’re healthy, and the fact that we’ve found line combinations consistently throughout our lineup.”
Providence handled Maine convincingly in the quarterfinals, scoring twice each period and winning, 6-0.
“Probably the most impressive thing about Saturday’s win over Maine — we played very well — is that we had six different scorers,” Deraney says. “When you have balance throughout your lineup scoring, that’s very hard to defend. And the fact that we’re playing some pretty good team defense, I like where our team is.”
And that’s in the Hockey East semifinals for a 10th straight season.
“Being a historian and a traditionalist, first of all to be a founding member of the league and then to win the first Hockey East regular season championship, and then to win the first tournament championship, and now to be the only team that has played in the semifinals for all 10 years, is really a credit to the program and our athletes and how hard they work and how committed they are,” Deraney says.
Having reached the semis, Providence runs smack into top-seed Northeastern, led by Olympian Florence Schelling in net. The Friars counter with senior Genevieve Lacasse, a goaltender with international experience of her own with the Canadian Under-22 team.
“It’s been just an incredible joy to watch Genevieve and Florence play head-to-head,” Deraney says. “And that’s the thing that personally, I’m very excited about come Saturday, but I’m also very disappointed about because you have two terrific careers that are coming to an end, and they’ve given us four years of unbelievable memories, unbelievable competition. Most of the times, it’s the teams competing against each other. I think these two terrific athletes, every time they square off against each other, they are directly competing against each other. Every time one of them makes a save, it puts the pressure on the other one at the other end. To watch them do battle is really a sight to behold.”
The two goaltenders definitely earned top billing when the two teams met in the final two regular-season games. After the teams played to a 0-0 stalemate on the Friars’ ice, the Huskies managed a 2-1 win to secure the Hockey East crown.
“Obviously, Northeastern is the favorite and deservedly so,” Deraney says. “They’ve had a terrific season. They’ve probably been the most consistent team, from beginning to end. We’re just happy to have the opportunity to play against such a good team. Last year, they came in as the fourth seed and went to the championship game. We’re coming in as the fourth seed, and we have a lot of work to do, but as long as you still get a chance to play, you get a chance to move on.”
Only Cornell has posted a better record since Thanksgiving than the 16-2-1 mark fashioned by St. Lawrence. In fact, both Saints’ losses over that stretch came courtesy of the Big Red. Had it not been for the Quinnipiac upset of Clarkson, the two hottest teams in the country would be squaring off in an ECAC semifinal; instead, SLU draws another nemesis, Harvard.
Saints coach Chris Wells wouldn’t blame the Crimson for feeling confident heading into Friday’s game. Harvard took both season meetings handily, as well as a pair of victories by five-goal margins when the teams were paired in the ECAC quarters a year ago.
“We’re a different team, but I think they match up pretty well against us,” Wells says. “We play very similar styles. We like to go; they like to go. I think their goalies have gone a little bit better than our goalies the last times that we’ve been out.”
The coach doesn’t think his team is too wrapped about playing Harvard on Friday as opposed to any other opponent.
“I think in terms of the past, our team is pretty focused on going one game at a time,” Wells says. “I think with the confidence that we’ve gotten over the past two and a half months, being able to go into the ECAC semifinals, I don’t think they’re concerned as to who we’re playing, they’re more concerned with getting themselves ready mentally and physically to play the game that we’ve been playing for the last couple of months.”
That style of game has produced mostly victories for a number of reasons, including the performance of a freshman goaltender.
“Carmen [McDonald] has been there when we haven’t been playing particularly well, and we’ve got some timely goals when we need them,” Wells says.
McDonald manufactured a 32-save shutout on Saturday to close out the Saints’ playoff series at Dartmouth. SLU had claimed a pivotal overtime victory in game one, when first-line center Kelly Sabatine provided the timely goal just 22 seconds into the extra session.
When the team was scuffling a bit through a 6-7-3 start to the season, Wells said that they’d need improved special teams play to improve in the standings, and that has been the case. The penalty kill, while still middle of the pack, has improved, and just as importantly, the team is committing less penalties.
Meanwhile, the team’s power play has climbed into the top 10 nationally. That’s not surprising, given the team’s skill in handling the puck.
“It’s certainly one of the main focuses for us,” Wells says. “All of our practices are designed to have the puck and to try to keep control of the puck as much as we can and move it. So much of our play is based on people playing with each other and joining the rushes when they need to. I think one of the things we’ve done in the second half that wasn’t there in the first half is we’ve pretty much gone with the same lineup the whole way. Not only just the people in the lineup, but the lines in particular. I think that’s made a big difference.”
The only time the SLU cohesion failed to make a difference was in the two losses to Cornell, where the Saints were unable to overcome early deficits.
“That first period that we played against Cornell up here was one of the best periods of hockey we played all year, and we’re down 2-0,” Wells says.
In most of the other games from December on, St. Lawrence has been able to play with the lead. Likely that will be the key versus the Crimson as well.
“Harvard is so good at transition, that you can grab some zone time on them for a while, and a quick turnover and the thing can be in your zone faster than you can even think about it,” Wells says. “That is why Harvard is so dangerous. Those are things that we’re going to try to concentrate on heading into Friday. If we can make sure that we don’t get into an early hole, that will be a bonus.”
If the Saints’ quarterfinal victory was telegraphed by their strong play over three months, the Quinnipiac ambush of Clarkson was much better disguised. The Bobcats appeared to be reeling after a 3-2 loss to the Golden Knights on February 11, the fifth-straight setback for the team.
“Obviously, we had some disappointing games down the stretch, but I think they all pulled it together, played within their limitations, and played with a lot more confidence the last couple weekends,” coach Rick Seeley says. “I think that’s made a big difference.”
And in fact, the root of Quinnipiac’s struggles started much earlier in the season. After an encouraging split on the road at Mercyhurst to kick off the campaign, the Bobcats were unable to come away with points in a home series with Maine the next weekend, despite holding three-goal leads in each game.
“[Junior goaltender Victoria] Vigilanti will tell you that she just wasn’t herself this year,” Seeley says. “In both those Maine games, we gave up weak goals. We had a lot of injuries early, and I don’t think we responded well to it. It’s just been a question of them growing as a team.”
Some of that growth manifested itself in a 12-2-1 run to close out 2011, but the good feelings faded when the team won but two of its first 10 outings in the new year.
Vigilanti wasn’t the only Quinnipiac player experiencing a bit of a down year. After exploding on the scene with 59 points as a rookie, forward Kelly Babstock has been held to a more modest total of 39 thus far in her sophomore tour. According to Seeley, the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
“She gave us a lot more at the defensive end, too, this year,” he says. “There’s no question, she wasn’t surprising anyone this year. But when it’s been on the line the last couple weekends, she’s looked unstoppable. She’s just maturing as a player and an individual, and I think she’s going to continue to improve as a player.”
But if all is well that ends well, Quinnipiac is liking how the season is turning out after all. The Bobcats played what may be the defining series in the young program’s history, taking games one and three of a quarterfinal in Potsdam to vanquish Clarkson and reach the ECAC semifinals.
“Just getting there this year has erased a lot of the things we’ve carried with us this season, because we’re one of only three teams that have been there back-to-back the last two years,” Seeley says. “We feel good about that. And the goal at the beginning was to get there, and see what could happen. So we’re real happy to be where we’re at.”
The Bobcats are where they were a year ago, staring down top-seed Cornell in a league semi. Last time, Quinnipiac came up a goal short, but Seeley believes that it’s not out of the question for his team to pull off one more shocker this year.
“If we take what we did this weekend and obviously, perfect it a little bit,” he says. “From last year’s game in the semifinals, our kids gained a lot of confidence. I think obviously you have to go all out against Cornell. You can’t sit back, or that’s when they’re at their best. Our kids are not confident that they’re a better team, but they have confidence that if they play their best, they have a good shot of winning.”
This weekend, Seeley says the team will look to its seniors, his first recruits that he brought in late in the cycle upon taking the Quinnipiac job.
“They’ve developed into real critical leaders for this program,” Seeley says. “The three defensemen, [Bethany] Dymarczyk, Jordan Elkins, and Melissa Perry, the forwards, Kate Wheeler and Chelsea Illchuk — basically we have more talent, but this team doesn’t do well unless those five are hitting on all cylinders, and I think they played their best this past weekend, so we were really excited about that. We definitely don’t want their season and careers to end on any kind of negative note. We were just so impressed and proud with how they stepped up this past weekend.”