This Week in Hockey East: February 19, 1999

My apologies for a skeleton preview this week. I’m on the road with minimal Internet access and no hope of contacting coaches.

The usual verbosity will return next week.

Hockey East Standings

Record in picks last week: 6-3

Season’s record in picks: 105-56, .652

Game of the Week No. 4 New Hampshire (22-5-2, 14-3-2 HEA, 2nd) at No. 6 Boston College (18-10-2, 12-6-0 HEA, 3rd)

Saturday, 7 p.m., Conte Forum, Chestnut Hill, MA

New Hampshire got three of four points on the weekend, tying BU before dominating Merrimack.

The Boston College Eagles, on the other hand, probably saw their regular season title hopes go down the drain when Maine rallied to defeat them. They now trail UNH and Maine by six points. Although they hold a game in hand against New Hampshire and still have this week’s head-to-head battle remaining in the quest to catch the Wildcats, they have no such opportunities left against the Black Bears.

As such, could UNH hold the motivational edge? With BC probably locked into third place and the Wildcats still in the thick of the playoff hunt, they could be just a little more focused.

Perhaps, but the biggest effect of the loss to Maine could be on the 7,000-plus fans in the Kelley Rink at Conte Forum. Had the Eagles launched themselves back into a legitimate stretch run for the title with a win at Orono, their supporters would have been primed for this contest. Instead, they could be flat, needing their team to get them going instead of the other way around.

Which could still happen. The Eagles still have as much talent as any team in the East and just haven’t put it all together yet.

In all likelihood, this game could come down to the proverbial bounces of the puck, the home ice advantage and specialty teams. As for the latter, UNH would seem to have two aces up its sleeve. While BC ranks in the middle of the pack on both the power play and penalty kill, the Wildcats ranked first in both categories going into last weekend’s play. Their power play (23.88 percent conversion rate vs. BC’s 21.62) and penalty kill (89.38 vs. 82.05) could prove decisive.

PICK: Even though many factors point to a UNH win, this is in BC’s barn and something tells me that Brian Gionta is going to be the difference. BC, 5-4.

No. 2 Maine (22-2-4, 14-2-2 HEA, 1st) hosts

Boston University (11-15-3, 6-10-3 HEA, 6th)

Friday, Saturday, 7 p.m., Alfond Arena, Orono, ME

Maine put a nail in the coffin of Boston College’s regular-season title hopes with a win last weekend. The Black Bears also received some help from this week’s opponent, the BU Terriers, who took a point from New Hampshire before losing to Providence.

This rivalry always brings out the best in both clubs. Two years ago, the Black Bears swept BU in Orono, a late-season humbling that the Terriers later credited as instrumental in their run to the national championship game because it showed them just how well they would have to play in the postseason.

This year, a sweep wouldn’t surprise anyone given Maine’s ascendance in the standings and national rankings and BU’s fall from the Hockey East pinnacle. However, the Terriers have shown in their games against Boston College that they can rise to the occasion against the best of their rivals.

That said, this does appear to be a mismatch. Maine leads the league in both team offense (4.24 points per game) and defense (2.16). BU is sixth (3.33) and next-to-last (3.61), respectively.

Specialty teams show a significant disparity as well. The Black Bear power play converts on 20.60 percent of its chances and should be on the rise now that point-man Peter Metcalf is back from injury; BU ranks next-to-last with a 15.80 conversion rate. On the penalty kill, Maine (87.30) is second only to UNH, while BU (74.50) is last.

The two contests are also in the Black Bears’ barn, where games have been tougher for road teams than in many a year. The Maine-iacs have been generating a lot of noise of late. You don’t suppose that they’ll be revved up for sweeping Jack Parker’s team, do you?

On paper at least, BU’s hopes ride on the shoulders of goaltender Michel Larocque. He’s stolen many games for the Terriers before. He’ll need to do it again.

PICKS: Maine sweeps, 5-2 and 4-2.

No. 4 New Hampshire (22-5-2, 14-3-2 HEA, 2nd) hosts

Northeastern (9-17-3, 4-13-2 HEA, 9th)

Friday, 7 p.m., Whittemore Center, Durham, NH

After looking so impressive in its loss in the Beanpot championship game, Northeastern dropped both games last weekend. Even more importantly, those losses came in the proverbial "four-point games" since the Huskies were facing Merrimack and UMass-Amherst, their two closest neighbors in the lower end of the Hockey East standings.

If the season ended today, Northeastern would be out of the playoffs. Somebody has to be left out in the cold, but it’s hard to envision that happening to the Huskies. Sure, they are ridiculously young and are missing a few pieces to the puzzle. But despite that, they also have the look of a team that isn’t that far away.

However, New Hampshire, previewed above, isn’t the opponent for teams on the rebound. The Wildcats rank second in the league in both team offense and defense while Northeastern is seventh and last, respectively.

Despite all of that, if UNH wasn’t at home, this might be an attractive upset pick. Coach Dick Umile preaches to his troops that they must respect all opponents, but it still will be mighty easy for them to look at Northeastern’s results last weekend and think ahead to the next evening’s big clash against Boston College.

PICKS: UNH, 4-2.

FOX Sports New England Game No. 6 Boston College (18-10-2, 12-6-0 HEA, 3rd) at

UMass-Lowell (16-13-0, 8-11-0 HEA, 5th)

Friday, 7 p.m., Paul E. Tsongas Arena, Lowell, MA

UMass-Lowell continued its winning ways last weekend with a decision over sister school UMass-Amherst.

Just a few weeks ago, the River Hawks were in the Hockey East cellar. Now they’re in fifth place. While they probably aren’t going to catch Providence for the last home-ice berth — PC is already four points ahead and has a much easier remaining schedule — the River Hawks are in position to make this clash against BC a very tough one.

The key factor will be Lowell’s vastly improved second-half defensive play against BC’s surprising offensive inconsistency. UML goaltender Scott Fankhouser has turned around the goaltending position and Anthony Cappelletti has led an unsung group of blueliners.

Additionally, Boston College could be looking ahead to New Hampshire one night later. If so, it’ll spell upset for the Eagles.

PICK: Lowell surprises the TV audience with a 2-1 win.

Providence College (16-13-0, 10-9-0 HEA, 4th) hosts

Merrimack (10-18-1, 6-12-1 HEA, 7th) and No. 6 Boston College (18-10-2, 12-6-0 HEA, 3rd)

Friday, Tuesday, 7 p.m., Schneider Arena, Providence, RI

Providence continues to play solid hockey, knocking off BU last weekend. And even though they’ve appeared to be locked into fourth place for some time now, a misstep by BC could allow the Friars to leapfrog them given the remaining schedule. Including this week’s contests, PC finishes the season with four of its last five contests against teams either seventh eighth or ninth in the league standings.

Although the image most people have of the Friars is one of a solid defensive team, they actually rank third in overall offense (4.14 goals per game), trailing only Maine and UNH. The top line of Mike Omicioli, Jerry Keefe and Fernando Pisani match up well with anyone.

And their specialty teams are also strong, ranking third in the league on both counts. They convert 22.22 percent of their power plays and kill off 84.91 percent of their penalties.

Their opponent, Merrimack, appeared to be in major trouble before defeating Northeastern last weekend. The Warriors did subsequently take it on the chin from UNH, but they still won the game they had to win.

Health will be a major factor. If, as expected, defensemen Stephen Moon, Tim Foster and Brad Mills remain out of the lineup, Merrimack could take another UNH-style beating.

Boston College is previewed above.

PICKS: The Friars top Merrimack, 5-3. On Tuesday, they’ve got a great shot at Boston College, particularly if the Eagles are coming off two weekend wins. Even so, the pick is BC, 4-3.

UMass-Amherst (8-18-2, 5-13-2 HEA, 8th) vs. Army and

UMass-Lowell (16-13-0, 8-11-0 HEA, 5th)

Friday, 7 p.m., Mullins Center, Amherst, MA

Saturday, 7 p.m., Tsongas Arena, Lowell, MA

UMass-Amherst took a pivotal game against Northeastern on Saturday, one night after almost knocking off its sister school in Lowell, losing 2-1.

The return match between the two UMass schools should feature more of the same: tight checking and looking to counterpunch rather than take big chances that might lead to an odd-man rush in the other direction.

The Minutemen should be in a great frame of mind after splitting the last two weekends and coming close in the two losses. In the earlier stages of the rebuilding program at Amherst, the stretch run was a dispiriting time.

Not so now. With an overtime defeat to BC and the 2-1 loss to Lowell, coupled with "four-point" wins over Merrimack and Northeastern, the Minutemen could take a major step to solidifying a playoff berth win a win at the Tsongas Arena.

Defense will be the key. When they’ve been at their most effective this year, they’ve stuck to coach Joe Mallen’s system and kept some strong offensive teams in check. They’ve then rolled the dice with their occasional scoring chance. If they stick to that approach, they’ll have a good shot at the River Hawks.

(For a detailed look at Army, see Jayson Moy’s Season Preview.)

Lowell is previewed above.

PICKS: UMass-Amherst defeats Army, 4-2, but loses to Lowell, 3-2.