The end is near to the Hockey East regular season and the race for the league title, home ice and the final playoff spot all tightened up this past weekend. What a few weeks back was five points separating three teams for the league title is now two. Two weeks ago it seemed like New Hampshire and Providence were fighting for playoffs spots; now they’re in the home ice race. And Northeastern and UMass are getting near desparation time. All of that in three things I learned this week:
1. There’s a new sheriff in town
Games in hand are now a thing of the past (except for Maine, which has played one more game than every other team), and the team at the top is – almost unbelievably – Massachusetts-Lowell. With Lowell’s win on Friday over Merrimack combined with Boston University’s loss moved the River Hawks into first place. It’s the latest in the season that Lowell has ever had solo possession of the top spot. That said, there’s is ZERO breathing room for the River Hawks. A loss on Saturday to Maine leaves BU and Boston College a point back and the Black Bears and Warriors two back. It seems almost inevitable this race will come down to the final weekend.
2. Battling for playoff life turns to a battle for home ice
It was just two weeks ago that New Hampshire and Providence seemed like they would be fighting only for a playoff spot. Now the Friars are five points behind fourth-place Merrimack and Maine; New Hampshire is six. With only six games left for each team, it may be a far stretch to think these teams can just all the way to fourth place, but each team is hot right now. UNH took three points this weekend from Northeastern (win) and Merrimack (tie). Providence earned four points with an upset of Maine and a one-goal win over UMass.
Do or die time for NU and UMass
Both Northeastern and UMass are playing decent hockey (heck, UMass just beat the number one team in the country on Friday), but seem poised to be the two teams looking for the final playoff spot. It’s remarkable to think that either of these teams could miss the playoffs. But this is a race for points. Hard to tell which team has a more difficult slate remaining. Each play two against Maine (though Northeastern’s games are at home). Northeastern has to play two versus BU and Providence. UMass gets New Hampshire and Merrimack for two each. Like the league title, this final playoff spot may not be decided until the final night.