The Wildcats have won five straight entering a first-round Hockey East playoff series against Connecticut.
Connor Hellebuyck was a brick wall. That’s all you need to know about this past weekend in Hockey East.
1. Double shutout leads River Hawks to back-to-back title
You can’t win if you can’t score. That was the simple lesson learned by both Notre Dame and New Hampshire at the Hockey East Championship this weekend. The reason neither the Irish nor the Wildcats could find the back of the net was Massachusetts-Lowell’s Connor Hellebuyck. The sophomore netminder was simply phenomenal for the River Hawks making tough saves look easy all weekend. Hellebuyck became the first ever back-to-back tournament MVP, earning the vote this year unanimously.
2. Hockey East gets record five teams in field
There were a few tense moment of watching and waiting this weekend for Hockey East teams on the NCAA bubble but at the end the at-large bubble burst for only one team – Northeastern. All of the remaining teams with at-large hopes made the field: Boston College, Lowell, Notre Dame, Vermont and Providence. New Hampshire knew coming into the weekend it had to win the Hockey East title and got to the doorstep but couldn’t upset Lowell. The five teams in the NCAA field ties for the most Hockey East has placed in a field (2007).
3. League’s ”two best teams” in same region
The immediate reaction of Commissioner Joe Bertagna when shown Saturday night what I expected would be the field (and was correct) was that it was disappointing to have what most consider Hockey East’s two best teams – Lowell and BC – in the same region. BC, the regular season champ, and Lowell, the postseason title holder, will be joined by WCHA champion Minnesota State and NCHC champ Denver making the Worcester regional arguably the most difficult of the four. You have to believe whatever team comes out of the Northeast Region will be the favorite to win the national title.
Since the beginning of the New Year, I’ve been talking about a seemingly unlikely scenario that six Hockey East teams could reach the NCAA tournament. Well, in the sense of being greedy, it’s not out of the questions that seven – yes, seven - Hockey East teams could punch their NCAA tickets.
For a couple of teams – namely Northeastern and, to a lesser extent, Vermont – there needs to be few or no upsets today and tomorrow to help their chances. But one upset that won’t crush either team’s hopes is New Hampshire coming away from the Hockey East tournament with the Lamoriello Trophy.
Should the Wildcats win and the highest team in the PairWise win all of the remaining games, Hockey East would get seven teams into the tournament. Here is what I plugged into the PairWise Predictor to get that result:
- Semifinal #2: Niagara defeats Robert Morris
- Semifinal #1: Mercyhurst defeats Canisius
- Championship game: Mercyhurst defeats Niagara
- Semifinal #2: Wisconsin defeats Penn State
- Semifinal #1: Minnesota defeats Ohio State
- Championship game: Minnesota defeats Wisconsin
- Semifinal #2: Quinnipiac defeats Colgate
- Semifinal #1: Union defeats Cornell
- Championship game: Union defeats Quinnipiac
- Semifinal #2: New Hampshire defeats Providence
- Semifinal #1: Massachusetts-Lowell defeats Notre Dame
- Championship game: New Hampshire defeats Massachusetts-Lowell
- Semifinal #2: Western Michigan defeats Denver
- Semifinal #1: North Dakota defeats Miami
- Consolation game: Denver defeats Miami
- Championship game: North Dakota defeats Western Michigan
- Semifinal #2: Bowling Green defeats Minnesota State
- Semifinal #1: Ferris State defeats Alaska-Anchorage
- Championship game: Ferris State defeats Bowling Green
If you click on the above link, you can see the actual PWR for that scenario. There may be additional scenarios that produce this same result. Regardless, such a crazy potential for this league.
Surprisingly, I had a half-decent record in the crazy quarterfinal round of games, thanks in large part to picking the entire New Hampshire-Northeastern series correctly. And with a .670 winning percentage entering the final weekend of games, I can now officially claim domination over Dave. I had him beat when he went on injured reserve and I kept going with a percentage vs. percentage race. But even there I slaughtered him.
Jim last week: 7-4
Jim to-date: 157-70-28 (.670)
Dave to-date: 123-65-24 (.637)
Friday, March 21
Hockey East Semifinals
No. 8 Notre Dame vs. No. 2 Massachusetts-Lowell
Jim’s pick: This is such a difficult game to pick. Throw out the head-to-head, which Lowell leads 2-0-0, as Notre Dame was missing a ton of players that weekend. This Irish team is so red hot it’s difficult to pick against them. Yet I’m going to do just that.
UML 3, ND 2
No. 4 New Hampshire vs. No. 3 Providence
Jim’s pick: If Jon Gillies can carry this Providence team and the PC power play can remain hot, I think they win.
PC 4, UNH 2
Saturday, March 22
Hockey East Championship
Jim’s pick: Though I picked a Lowell-PC final, below I will pick all of the possible games. What it comes down to for me: whichever team wins the first semifinal wins the championship.
UML 2, PC 1; UML 3, UNH 2; ND 3, PC 1; ND 4, UNH 2
After Notre Dame beat Boston College on the final day of the regular season, there was a reason to believe that the Irish could beat the Eagles in a best-of-three series. Still, it was difficult to pick Notre Dame. That leads the three things I learned this week:
1) Notre Dame proves postseason proficiency
I have said it for a few weeks: you need to be worried about Notre Dame if for no reason than this team last year won the CCHA tournament. This past weekend, the Irish shocked Boston College, 7-2, in game one. They then lost game two but rallied for a 4-2 victory in game three. If nothing more, you should believe in this Notre Dame team. If you’re smart, you’ll believe this Notre Dame team could become the first #8 seed to win the Hockey East tournament.
2) Massachusetts-Lowell remains alive for repeat
Advancing in tournament play in easy fashion just isn’t Lowell’s style. Remember back to last year when the River Hawks were Hockey East champs, they needed overtime in the quarterfinals to eliminate Maine, rallied to beat Providence in the semis and then won a 1-0 game with a third period goal for the title. A year later, still nothing comes easy for Lowell. The River Hawks led for just 77 seconds in Friday’s 3-2 victory over Vermont and never led in Saturday’s 3-2 overtime loss. Sunday, Lowell jumped to a 2-0 lead but couldn’t extend that lead despite controlling the game. After UVM potted a late power play goal in the second, Lowell had to return to the team that shut teams down defensively and finally earned a 2-1 win to advance to the Garden. The River Hawks should have a new promotion next season: free batteries for Lowell fans’ pacemakers. They certainly need it.
3) Vermont (and maybe Northeastern) needs to keep skating
The Catamounts may have lost to Lowell, but they can’t put the skates and sticks away just yet. Vermont still could qualify for the NCAA tournament if things fall right next weekend. If most of the conference tournaments are won by favorites (i.e. teams in the top 16 of the PairWise on the last day of the season), Vermont should earn an at-large bid. The most difficult part for the Cats is that they no longer control their destiny. Thus, in addition to continuing the practice, UVM will also need to do a lot of scoreboard watching. (Update, Monday 3:51 PM ET: According to Jim Dahl’s calculations, Northeastern still has a 7% chance of getting into the tournament)
Time to pick the quarterfinals. I may have been perfect in the opening round, but it’s difficult to pick a best-of-three. So often, if a team wins game one, they sweep. But this year’s Hockey East field is about a tightly stacked as possible. Thus, sweeps will be difficult.
That said, even if I pick a sweep, I’ll also pick a game three result as I expect to be incorrect multiple times this week.
Jim last week: 3-0-0
Jim to-date: 150-66-28 (.672)
Dave to-date: 123-65-24 (.637)
#8 Notre Dame at #1 Boston College
Jim’s pick: I know that Notre Dame is red hot entering this series. I know the Irish also beat BC on the last day of the season. But I just feel this BC team is built for the playoffs. It won’t be easy, but I feel this will be a BC sweep.
G1: BC 3, ND 1; G2: BC 2, ND 1; G3: BC 3, ND 2
#7 Vermont at #2 Massachusetts-Lowell
Jim’s pick: This series feels identical to ND-BC. Vermont beat the River Hawks to end the regular season and I feel this is a very good Catamounts team. But Lowell has the tournament experience and that is a difference maker to me.
G1: UML 2, UVM 1; G2: UML 3, UVM 2; G3: UML 3, UVM 1
#6 Maine at #3 Providence
Jim’s pick: This is a series I see going the distance. The key for Providence is whether or not they can score goals. They did in Orono in the last week of the season, but hard to tell if that scoring magic continues. Regardless, I see the Friars advancing.
G1: Maine 3, PC 2; G2: PC 4, Maine 2; G3: PC 3, Maine 1
#5 Northeastern at #4 New Hampshire
Jim’s pick: Another series I see going three. But yet again, I see the home team advancing. I think Northeastern is probably the better team on paper, but UNH has experience in the postseason and that makes a difference.
G1: UNH 4, NU 2; G2: NU 3, UNH 2; G3: UNH 4, NU 3 (OT)
The biggest surprise in the opening weekend of the Hockey East playoffs was that there were not any surprises at all. That leads the list of things I learned this weekend in Hockey East:
1. Favorite survive single elimination
Plenty was made about the first-round single elimination series in Hockey East, mostly that some very good teams could have their seasons end on a strange bounce or bad break. Instead, all three favorites won this weekend with Maine, Vermont and Notre Dame all edging their respective opponents. The one-and-done opening round certainly had plenty of dramatics as Maine’s empty-netter made for the only game decided by more than a goal. But when all was said and done, the favorite moved on and a traditional 1-through-quarterfinal series will begin next Friday throughout Hockey East.
2. Irish smiling at Pairwise prospect
With St. Patrick’s Day around the corner, maybe it’s fitting that plenty of Notre Dame Irish eyes are smiling after the Irish held off Boston University, 3-2, on Saturday and, in doing do, moved to 9th in the PairWise heading into a best-of-three series vs. Boston College. While the task ahead is a difficult one, even if the Irish can win one game against the Eagles they could solidify their NCAA tournament position. The eighth-place Irish have the third-best PairWise in the league and are pretty darn close to making themselves a lock in the NCAA picture.
3. Rematches abound in the quarterfinals
For three of the four hosts in next weekend’s Hockey East quarterfinals, their opponents will look quite familiar. Boston College, Massachusetts-Lowell and Providence will face the team that they closed the regular season with (Notre Dame, Vermont and Maine, respectively). Only Providence, though, closed said regular season with victories, twice winning at Maine. Lowell split with Vermont, losing the final game of the regular season, and BC lost a single-game to Notre Dame to close their slate. It certainly makes preparation for all coaching staffs involved as little easier, but it should also make for some interesting grudge matches that develop when opponents play frequently over a short period of time.
Just when I began getting cocky, karma put me back in my place last week.
Jim last week: 4-4-1
Jim to-date: 147-66-28 (.668)
Dave to-date: 123-65-24 (.637)
Friday, March 7
#10 Massachusetts at #7 Vermont
Jim’s pick: I think that Vermont has enough of the depth at each position to win this game and advance.
UVM 4, UMass 2
Saturday, March 8
#11 Merrimack at #6 Maine
Jim’s pick: If there was one upset to pick, I think this is it given how Maine finished its season, but I still think this team has the talent to advance.
Maine 3, MC 2
#9 Boston University at # 8 Notre Dame
Jim’s pick: Another close one, but I just don’t see the Irish losing at home.
ND 2, BU 1
Notre Dame upsets No. 1 Boston College while Providence wins two at Maine. These two teams are playing their best hockey heading into the playoffs. That leads the three things I learned this week:
1. Irish upset Eagles to take six-game unbeaten streak into playoffs
Notre Dame pulled off an impressive upset of the top-seeded Eagles on Saturday, winning 2-1 in overtime at Kelley Rink. And even though the win didn’t do anything to move the Irish up in the standings, the Irish enter the playoffs Hockey East’s hottest teams. Notre Dame will host Boston University in next weekend’s single elimination play-in round having allowed just a single goal in the last four games, all wins. It is a long road ahead for the Irish, needing to win this weekend, then upset one of the league’s top teams in the quarterfinals just to reach the TD Garden. But remember one thing: Notre Dame would have been the defending champions if the CCHA still existed, so this is a team that knows how to play down the stretch.
2. Providence back on track with bye into quarterfinals
You had to be concerned about the Friars heading down the stretch. A five-game winless skid put home ice and even a bye for the first round in extreme jeopardy with two weeks remaining. But four wins to end the season, including a two-game sweep at Maine this past weekend makes Providence one of the most dangerous teams heading into the playoffs. A big difference has the return of the Providence offense. Scoring just five goals in the five-game slump, the Friars potted 13 goals in the four wins to end the season. With Jon Gillies in net, you have to believe that a three-plus goals per game pace should be enough for this Friars team to win.
3. Maine, Northeastern have cause for concern heading into playoffs
Two of this season’s best stories – Northeastern and Maine – were both swept this weekend, each controlling destiny for both home ice and a first-round bye. The Huskies ended up backing into a bye while Maine will host a play-in game next weekend and neither team will have the confines of home in the league quarterfinals. Northeastern ended the season 3-6-1 in its final 10, while Maine were only a tad better down the stretch, 4-5-1 in its last 10. Both will need to right the ship or seasons that at one point had great promise could end prematurely over the next two weekends.
Somehow Dave’s non-participation in picks has brought out the best in me. A near-perfect week last weekend.
Jim last week: 8-0-2
Jim to date: 143-62-27 (.674)
Date to date: 123-65-24 (.637)
Friday, February 28
Northeastern at Boston University
Jim’s pick: The Huskies come into Parker Rink and spoil Jack Parker Night.
NU 4, BU 2
New Hampshire at Merrimack
Jim’s pick: UNH needs wins to have a shot at home ice and wins the Wildcats will get.
UNH 3, MC 2
Providence at Maine
Jim’s pick: This might be the best series of the weekend with the most on the line. First-round byes, home ice, NCAA footing all up for grabs in Orono.
Maine 3, PC 2
Massachusetts-Lowell at Vermont
Jim’s pick: This series has split written all over it. I just can’t figure out which team wins which night.
UML 3, UVM 2
Saturday, March 1
Notre Dame at Boston College
Jim’s pick: It was a great game when these two met at Fenway. Expect nothing different.
BC 4, ND 3
New Hampshire at Merrimack
Jim’s pick: The Wildcats complete a difficult – and much needed – road sweep.
UNH 4, MC 3
Providence at Maine
Jim’s pick: Friars earn the split to make the long ride back more pleasant.
PC 3, Maine 2
Boston University at Northeastern
Jim’s pick: Huskies sweep and wrap up home ice.
NU 5, BU 2
Massachusetts-Lowell at Vermont
Jim’s pick: My toughest pick of the week, but I have to take Vermont on Senior Night.
UVM 3, UML 2 (OT)
The fact that Boston College clinched the regular season title a night after Valentine’s Day hardly means that there won’t be excitement in Hockey East in the final weekend of the regular season. That is one of three things I learned this weekend in Hockey East:
1. League races from two through eight incredibly tight
There has been little settled in the Hockey East playoff picture. Boston College is the top seed in the tournament and Massachusetts, Boston University and Merrimack will be hitting the road for the single-elimination first round. Everything else is relatively up in the air.
Massachusetts-Lowell and Northeastern both will avoid the opening round but neither has clinched home ice. Because Notre Dame has only one game remaining, it can only get as high as sixth place and thus will be hosting a first-round game. Vermont can finish from third to eighth. Every other team in that mix (Lowell, Northeastern, Maine, New Hampshire, Providence) can finish as high as second place. Look forward to a crazy couple of nights of scoreboard/standings watching next weekend.
2. Vermont seniors earn first wins at Merrimack
Every now and again, we are provided with statistical abnormalities. Such was the case heading into this weekend’s Vermont-Merrimack series given that the Catamounts hadn’t won at Lawler Arena since Feb. 14, 2009, a season in which Vermont reached the Frozen Four. The Cats earned a 4-1 victory behind Mario Puskarich’s natural hat trick in the third period. Ending another long streak, it was the first hat trick by a Vermont player since Oct. 8, 2010. The Catamounts finished off the weekend sweep the next night with a 4-3 victory.
3. Lowell’s improbable tie vs. Eagles ‘felt like a win’
If there is one team you don’t want to fall behind to these days, it’s Boston College. The No. 1 Eagles held the often-potent Lowell offense off the board for five periods of hockey this weekend. But an explosive third period on Saturday at home for the River Hawks earned them a point. Trailing 2-0, Lowell scored twice in a span of 2:27 to tie the game, a welcome sight to the record 7,649 fans that packed the Tsongas Center. Granted, getting only one point from the weekend loosens Lowell’s grip on the second seed in the playoffs, but as coach Norm Bazin said on Saturday night, that was a tie that “felt like a win.”