Fans at the FleetCenter should get their money’s worth this weekend. Maine vs. Boston College looks like a photo finish, and anyone who watched Providence’s domination of BU on Sunday had to conclude that the Friars have a shot against New Hampshire.
I may have gone 9-0 in my picks last week — no applause, just money — but the choices are really tough this weekend. Don’t be surprised if I follow up my shutout with an oh-fer.
KOHO Player of the Week: Brian Gionta (F, Boston College) scored three goals and assisted on four others in Boston College’s playoff sweep of UMass-Lowell.
Heaton Defensive Player of the Week: Alfie Michaud (G, Maine) now leads all Hockey East goaltenders with postseason marks of a 1.50 GAA and a .933 save percentage.
Hockey East Standings
Record in picks last week: 9-0 (!) Season’s record in picks: 135-67, .668
No. 1 Seed vs. No. 4 Seed No. 2 New Hampshire (28-5-3, 18-3-3 HEA) vs.
Providence College (20-16-1, 12-11-1 HEA)
Friday, 5 p.m., FleetCenter, Boston, MA FSNE
Season series: The home team won all three games — Providence 6-1 (11/6), New Hampshire 3-1 (11/7), New Hampshire 4-2 (1/30)
New Hampshire had an unexpectedly tough time in its sweep of Merrimack, 3-2 and 5-4. Prior to the weekend, the Wildcats had not only held a 16-0-1 record at the Whittemore Center, they had taken all 16 wins by at least a two-goal margin.
"I’m not surprised at all," says coach Dick Umile. "Going into the last weekend of the season, Merrimack could have finished in fifth place. They’re a good team. That’s Hockey East. Every opponent is tough."
Jason Krog, who will be UNH’s single biggest factor this weekend, scored four goals on Saturday to close out the Warriors in his final home game.
"We’re real pleased for Jason," says Umile. "He put on a great finish here at the Whittemore Center. He’s done an awful lot for the program and I thought it was great to see him score four goals here. Hopefully, his leadership will help us in the upcoming weekend."
The flip side to the Wildcats’ 18-0-1 dominance on their home ice is that they were 10-5-2 on the road and at neutral sites. While that seems like a major difference, however, it’s worth noting that Maine and Boston College, the other two nationally ranked Hockey East teams, posted 10-4-2 and 8-7-1 away records, respectively.
So the big question, then, is does that home-away disparity indicate that UNH doesn’t play as well on non-Olympic ice sheets? Or is it merely a reflection of the reality that every team plays better at home and obsessing over it is somewhat akin to focusing on Cindy Crawford’s birthmark?
Umile makes it quite clear what side of that fence he’s on.
"That’s just a story, to be quite honest," he says. "We’ve played well in small rinks. Obviously, we played a lot more [away] games in small rinks so that’s why the record is what it is. We’ve played some of our best games in small rinks so that’s not a concern for us. It may be a concern for some other people, but it isn’t for us."
UNH will be taking on the tournament’s dark horse in Providence. The Friars are the only team remaining that isn’t nationally ranked, but dominated Boston University on Sunday to get to the FleetCenter. Based on that performance, there aren’t three strong contenders and one pretender for the Hockey East title, but four legitimate candidates.
"Providence obviously played a tremendous game," says Umile. "They played extremely well, but I’m not surprised. They’ve been a good team all year. Getting home ice in Hockey East, you have to be a pretty good team. They had a couple games here [at the Whittemore Center] where things didn’t go well, but that’s happened to almost everybody.
"They’re a solid team. They’ve got goaltending, they’ve got defense and some great forwards. They play hard and they’re well-coached, so obviously it’s going to be a great matchup. The four teams that are at the FleetCenter should give the fans some really interesting games."
Providence emerged victorious from one of the most bizarre series in recent memory. The Friars defeated Boston University on Friday, 8-2, by scoring on seven of eight third-period shots. They then lost 8-2 on Saturday, only to rebound with an utterly dominating 5-1 win to advance to the FleetCenter.
"I thought the first two games were very similar in the way that they played out," says coach Paul Pooley. "The first game, the first two periods were obviously a great game. Then we just got to [BU goaltender Michel] Larocque, drove the puck to the net and scored in bunches. They couldn’t stop us.
"Saturday night, the first period was a good period. We had three penalties in the first 10 minutes and killed them and took over the last 10. But we came out in the second and they scored right away and had three goals in a minute and a half and we couldn’t stop them.
"It was just a mirror image of what happened the night before. They deserved the game on Saturday night. They just came in and beat us physically, mentally, emotionally and system-wise.
"We had to play on Sunday the way they did on Saturday. And we did. We played with desperation and wanted the game as much as we ever wanted anything and that showed in our play. We were so ready for that game. Physically, that was probably the best game we played all year."
The Friars will almost certainly need to duplicate that performance to knock off UNH, a team that doesn’t seem to have any real weaknesses.
"They’re tremendous," says Pooley. "They’ll be very tough to beat. It’s going to come down to goaltending, specialty teams and who executes better. We have our work cut out for us.
"They probably have the best line in the country with Krog, [Mike] Souza and [Darren] Haydar and the way they work together. Their specialty teams are excellent. It’s going to be a major challenge for us, no question, a major challenge."
Typically, major challenges must first be conquered mentally. If a team doesn’t believe it can knock off a team as impressive as UNH, it won’t. In that regard, the Friars may have gained immeasurable confidence in their play on Sunday night.
"It helps, but it can be a double-edged sword," cautions Pooley. "After Friday night, we felt invincible and we weren’t ready to play Saturday because we thought, ‘Hey, we’re going to win.’ So after [Sunday’s] game we’re sky high so it’s a matter of getting refocused and realizing that we have a new challenge ahead of us.
"That’s the major challenge for the coaching staff, to make sure that these guys are prepared and ready to play. But I don’t think that’s going to be a problem because of the motivation involved, playing such a good hockey club in a great venue."
One of the biggest factors going for the Friars is their league-leading power play (25.52 percent overall, 26.02 in Hockey East). According to Pooley, there’s one clear-cut reason for its man-advantage success.
"We’ve got two units," he says. "There’s one unit with our skill guys on it and another unit that just gets the puck to the net. That’s a nice mix and I think the competition that they have between each other is very healthy.
"I know that they’re both ready to go out on the ice on the power play and whoever gets the first call, the second guys are ready to go out and prove that they can do it as well.
"The competition has really helped, because they’re both scoring. I’d bet they both have the same number of goals. One game our so-called second unit had three goals. So we don’t really have a one-two, we have two units that can go out there and execute and get it done." PICK: Giddy with my 9-0 record in picks last week, I was thinking that it was time to live a little dangerously and consider the dark horse Friars. They were just so impressive on Sunday.
But as I considered going out on a limb — far out on a limb — I spotted Jason Krog with a chain saw and Jayme Filipowicz with an axe.
UNH, 4-3 in overtime.
No. 2 Seed vs. No. 3 Seed No. 4 Maine (27-5-4, 17-5-2 HEA) vs. No. 7 Boston College (23-11-4, 15-7-2 HEA)
Friday, 8 p.m., FleetCenter, Boston, MA FSNE
Season series: The teams split two games at BC on Jan. 8-9, Maine winning 2-1 followed by BC, 7-4. Maine took the lone game in Orono, 6-4 (2/13).
Maine swept UMass-Amherst, 3-1 and 5-2, to advance to the FleetCenter and what should be an exceptional clash with Boston College.
"I’d have to be nitpicky to find too many things that we did wrong," says coach Shawn Walsh. "We really played exceptionally well and [UMass goaltender] Markus Helanen kept the series close. We generated 48 shots the second night, as an example, without many power plays."
The Black Bears enter their contest with Boston College as the favorite, considering their neck-and-neck battle with UNH for the top spot in Hockey East while BC fought a season-long battle with inconsistency. But the feeling remains that the Eagles have been a slumbering giant that has woken up just in time.
"They’re a terrific opponent," says Walsh. "They’re a terrifically talented team and they’ve got great playoff experience, as we do, so it should be a marquee matchup.
"Goaltending will be key. The difference in our series has been goaltending. Alfie [Michaud] played particularly well in the 2-1 game. They outplayed us, but he stole the game in their rink. He was the real difference in the series.
"Special teams again will be very important. We’re very similar teams."
Of those special teams, the Maine power play could be the biggest concern for Black Bear fans. After finishing first or second in the nation on the man advantage the last two years, the Black Bears started the year looking strong again with an over 30 percent efficiency rate. That success, however, faltered as the season progressed and a four-game drought prior to the 5-2 win over UMass-Amherst dropped them to 18.97, sixth in Hockey East.
"I was pleased with the chances we generated over the weekend," says Walsh. "I think that if we can continue to generate those chances, [we’ll capitalize]. Helanen kept us from scoring three or four power-play goals, but then we got the big power-play goal when we needed it. It was 2-2 and [Cory] Larose got a great goal.
"We’ve made some changes since the New Hampshire weekend. We made some tactical changes that weekend because of the big ice surface that I probably wouldn’t change again."
And as for the championship game, it isn’t even worth talking about until Maine gets past the Eagles.
"At this point, we just want to get to that game," says Walsh. "We’ve been in it nine times in the last 12 years — [all but 1994, 1995 and 1997] — and that’s our goal, to get there and not worry about who we’re playing."
Boston College swept UMass-Lowell, 5-0 and 5-4, to start what Eagle fans hope to be another playoff run to the national championship game.
"We’re on a pretty good roll," says coach Jerry York. "We’ve won four straight and I feel pretty good about 23 wins. Not many teams have 23 wins, so I’m pretty proud of some of our accomplishments.
"I think we’re playing some of our best hockey of the campaign right now, starting with the win at BU [on Mar. 5]….
"[Our quarterfinal series with Lowell] was a physical, hard series. They play a good brand of hard-nosed hockey and I think we matched them in that respect."
York will be looking to four of his game-breakers to duplicate their performances against UMass-Lowell.
Jeff Farkas has scored goals in the last three games and, in particular, his performance in the Lowell close-out game prompted York to say, "I thought Jeff Farkas had his best game of the year."
Brian Gionta earned Player of the Week honors with three goals and four assists, shaking off a cheap shot from The Boston Globe that tabbed him as the Sneakiest/Dirtiest player in the league.
"He’s terrific," says York. "He’s the heart and soul of our club. It’s great to have player like that, not only for BC but for the league and college hockey. He’s a phenomenal player.
"He represents a lot of what we stand for. He’s combative, he’s got great skills and he’s got a tremendous amount of heart."
Mike Mottau and Bobby Allen represent BC’s game-breaking blueliners, potent forces on the power play and even strength.
"They certainly are the prototype power-play defensemen," says York. "They’re mobile. They read the ice very well and they both have big shots. A lot of teams have to put forwards back there to get a person that reads [the ice], but they possess a forward’s skills. They’re really the quarterbacks of our power play."
A lot could be riding on this weekend for the Eagles in addition to the opportunity to repeat as Hockey East tournament champions. (As if anything more was really necessary.) The NCAA tournament selection committee will likely be faced with a choice between sending BC to Madison, Wisconsin to avoid a second-round same-conference matchup at Worcester, where UNH and Maine appear to be mortal locks, and keeping three Hockey East teams in the East to maximize the draw. An impressive performance for the Eagles this weekend, combined with St. Lawrence faltering in the ECAC playoffs, could make that decision a lot easier.
It won’t be easy, though, for BC against Maine in the semifinals, a repeat of last year’s championship game matchup.
"We had a good battle [at the FleetCenter] last year with them," says York. "We have a pretty good rivalry with Maine so that will have the focus of our attention all week."
PICK: This is like a calorie-starved dieter choosing between a Milky Way and a Baby Ruth. How can you go wrong with either choice?
While you can be an all-of-the-above eater, however, you can’t pick both of these teams. Only one can be playing on Saturday night.
The keys will be goaltending, where Maine holds a clear advantage, and the Black Bear power play, where the picture is murky, indeed. If the latter struggles, then BC will return to the championship game.
The pick here, though, is for the specialty teams to be a wash and Alfie Michaud the difference. Maine wins, 3-2.
Saturday, 7 p.m., FleetCenter, Boston, MA FSNE
PICK: In a weekend of tough choices — where is a gimme like North Dakota vs. Mankato when you need one? — this is yet another brutal one.
Eeeny, meanie, miney, moe…
Offensive depth proves decisive. The winner of the Maine-Boston College contest prevails, 3-2 in overtime against the Wildcats or 4-2 against the Friars.