This Week In Hockey East: March 8, 2001

Home Ice Dominance

What is the toughest rink to enter as a visitor and come out with a win?

“Maine is obviously the toughest place to play,” says Providence coach Paul Pooley, reflecting the consensus opinion of Hockey East coaches.

Polled on the verge of this year’s quarterfinal playoff series, the surviving eight coaches were decisive, but not unanimous as to the runner-up. New Hampshire came in second, besting Boston University with a two-to-one margin.

“For us, it’s the Whittemore Center because of the size of the rink combined with the jump that the players get from their crowd,” says Maine coach Shawn Walsh. “Number two would be BU because of the low ceiling. It’s the same idea, the jump that the BU players get.”

(Interestingly enough, one coach asked to submit a surprising third tough home ice venue, Merrimack, noting how well the Warriors play there.)

Of course, that’s not to say that the other arenas make for easy pickings at all.

“Who wants to play BC in their rink?” says one coach. “Or Providence?”

Another coach also notes that a team’s home ice dominance and the strength of its players are so inextricably entwined that the one can’t be evaluated without the other.

“It’s less the physical plant of the venue and more of how good is the other team,” he says. “It varies with who’s got the jerseys on. That’s a bigger factor than how long a trip it is or anything else. The fans can’t get on the ice and play.”

Perhaps no team illustrates this better than BU. The Terriers finished this disappointing regular season with only an 8-7-1 home record after years in which their more dominant personnel made Walter Brown Arena a very hostile venue for visitors.

“Our building has been tough over a long period of time for people to come in and play,” says BU coach Jack Parker. “We’ve had a great home-ice advantage here when we’ve been playing well.”

The operative phrase, of course, is “when we’ve been playing well.”

That said, Maine and UNH are the two places that, more than any others in the coaches’ current opinion, “get things rocking.” Ironically, those are the same two arenas where longtime observers say that it’s quieter now than in the raucous good old days.

“Alfond is not as loud,” says Northeastern coach Bruce Crowder. “I was an assistant up there before they blew out the sides. It’s definitely not as loud as it was before, but the decibels can get up there pretty good still.”

That’s a point that New Hampshire coach Dick Umile confirms with a rueful chuckle.

“When they start going, let me tell you, you can’t even hear yourself on the bench,” he says.

As for UNH’s move from the Lively Snively Arena to the Whittemore Center, the noise might be less consistent than in the old days, perhaps in part because of the need for more “corporate” fans to help pay for the new facility.

“There’s probably some truth to that,” says Umile. “Sometimes they get content and comfortable and don’t generate the enthusiasm based on the opponent. That’s natural even though in our league there’s no such thing [as an easy opponent] because of the parity.

“But we have close to 7,000 people when you count the standing room. When they want to get going, it’s as loud as you can get it and louder than Snively.”

Good old days or not, Northeastern and UMass-Lowell will have their work cut out for them as they enter the Lions’ Dens of the Alfond and Whittemore Center, respectively, this weekend. Merrimack and BU may also find that the Conte Forum and Schneider Arena are no more hospitable.

“Home ice is home ice,” says Walsh. “It’s still helpful. If there’s any change, it’s that some of the teams in the early nineties were more dominant than they are now. There’s more parity now.”

What Happened To The Thursday Night Telecast?

In past years, Fox Sports Net New England has televised Hockey East quarterfinal games on Thursday, Saturday and, if any series are still alive, Sunday. Friday has typically already been taken for Boston Celtics broadcasts.

This Thursday, however, the only way that you can see UNH vs. UMass-Lowell or Maine vs. Northeastern is to have a ticket. Combined with the uncertainty of a third game on Sunday between Boston College and Merrimack or Providence and Boston University, that leaves only Saturday night as the one sure-thing broadcast of the quarterfinals.

This is the result of the contract renewal Hockey East signed with Fox earlier this year and the ensuing “mini-negotiation” for the selection of games.

“Fox holds the right to choose the games because they’re paying the bills,” says Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna. “But they have always been open to me to plead my case if there’s a certain school that hasn’t been on or a certain game that I want.

“This year I wanted to convince them to do a [regular season] game from Maine because they’ve gotten into the habit of just doing the games from the Boston schools and UNH.”

Those venues are ideal for broadcasts because the teams are traditionally strong and the fans are likely to fill the seats and be noisy for the key TV matchups. Weaker teams are tougher to showcase and it’s difficult to convince a TV viewer that the game is significant if the cameras show row after row of empty seats.

“It’s tricky,” says Bertagna. “I try to be responsive to [all] the schools, but in a way you kind of have to earn your way on. We want to have good games, compelling games with good teams. If you win, you’re going to get on more often.”

Maine fits the desired profile of a strong team with an ardent following, but includes one major problem: geography. Production costs are significantly higher when all the equipment and personnel has to travel four or five hours to Orono. That becomes a prohibitive problem during the playoffs when scheduling uncertainties preclude advance planning. So Bertagna pushed for a regular season telecast from Alfond Arena.

“I thought Maine made a strong case that the only time Fox had done a game in Maine before this year was the highest rating we ever got for a regular season game,” he says. “That was a couple years ago — [Feb. 7, 1999] — when UNH went up there in a 4-3 game.

“The atmosphere is the kind of thing we’re trying to sell: the painted faces, the noise, Alfond Arena, Shawn and the history.”

While there were all those things that Hockey East wanted to showcase, the impact on Fox’s bottom line still made it far from an easy sell.

“The card that I finally played,” says Bertagna, “was I said, ‘Look, if you will agree to go up to Maine — if it’s clearly just a matter of dollars and cents — I’d be willing to concede the Thursday night game [since] nothing is really decided that night.

“So they agreed to go up to Maine. At the time they did it, there was some question whether they might be able to do both, but they have [since] decided not to do the Thursday game, following up on my offer.”

While trading away, in effect, the telecast of a playoff game for a regular season contest may seem backwards to some fans, it probably isn’t, especially once the problems with a Thursday broadcast are considered.

“A lot of times, the attendance isn’t great on the first night,” says Bertagna. “People know that they have to buy two and possibly three tickets.

“The other issue is that [a broadcast team] will often feel compelled once they start with a series to stay with the series just because they’ve kind of teased the audience.”

It comes across as contradictory to pump up the current series as great entertainment if you’re going to abandon it for another one on Saturday. The old dictum applies: dance with the one that brung you.

“If you do a Thursday game, you feel obligated to do the [same two teams] on Saturday if it goes three games even though there may be a more compelling game,” says Bertagna. “You feel obligated to the viewer that you started off with.”

As a result, Bertagna feels the loss of Thursday night’s broadcast was more than made up for by a showcase game in Maine — a 3-1 win over BU that included an empty net goal — and an overall successful year with Fox.

“I was glad they did [the game at Maine],” he says. “Just about the only thing we didn’t get from them this year is that everybody but Merrimack got on. UMass got on and they hadn’t been on very much in the past.”

So without locking into a series on Thursday, all options for the Saturday telecast remain open. The only thing that has been decided is that there will be a 10:45 Friday night conference call to decide the matter.

“[Fox is] going to wait and make their decision after they see what it looks like on Friday,” says Bertagna. “They want to have the best game for the fans.

“So if you have a repeat of the Merrimack – BU huge upset of ’98 and Merrimack wins on Friday, you [might] see Merrimack with that drama unfolding on Saturday. If BC wins and UNH-Lowell is in a game three, then they’ll do that [third game].

“But they also said they could take a chance. BC could lose Friday and we’re looking at either their second game with Merrimack or UNH-Lowell [in a game three]. We could take a chance that BC will win the second game, do UNH-Lowell on Saturday and have a BC-Merrimack third game on Sunday.

“What they’re looking for is deciding games. The perfect situation for both of us is that both Saturday and Sunday we get deciding games, UNH and Lowell going three games on Saturday and either of the other two series going three games and going to Sunday.

“The worst case scenario is that there’ll be no Sunday games because they both wrap up in two.”

That scenario actually unfolded last year when Hockey East’s four NCAA-bound teams — BU, UNH, BC and Maine — all swept their quarterfinal series. This season’s matchups, however, look too close for that.

“I’ve said all along that I’d be shocked if we got a repeat of last year when the four favorites swept,” says Bertagna. “I just don’t see that happening this year.”

Who Gets The Early Semifinal Game?

With the Hockey East semifinal games slated to go off at 4:00 and 7:00 p.m. next Friday, the question arises of which team gets the early game and an extra three hours of recuperation.

The answer is: it depends.

“It’s purposely vague in our own handbook because we wait to see the geography and the seed,” says Bertagna. “I’ll give you an example. If BC was playing BU and UNH was playing whomever, in all likelihood UNH would play the late game because it would allow UNH fans to travel and get there.

“Part of the history of this is when we did not have the ticket advance that we have now. The walk-up sales were a huge part of the [total] ticket sales. So in order to accommodate those people travelling the farthest distance to get out of work and to buy the tickets on site, we’ve left it vague so that it gave the FleetCenter and us the ability to get together and put our heads together and see which matchup makes the most sense.

“From a seeding point of view, a lot of the top seeds like to play early so they have the longer rest if they advance to the championship game. But on the other hand, if UNH was that team, they want their fans to be able to get there. So there’s been no magic way to do it.”

Although one might instinctively assume that Maine would then be most likely to get the late game because of its geography, that isn’t necessarily the case.

“Some people have made the argument with Maine that the distance to travel is so long that even for the late game, [fans] would have to take the day off to catch it because it’s four and a half hours or whatever it is,” says Bertagna. “They couldn’t get out of work, get in the car and go to the game where a UNH fan could work to five, get in the car and catch the late game.”

All this, however, could change in the future. As noted in last week’s column, Hockey East has already sold over 20,000 tickets for this year’s event. It wouldn’t be a shock if both nights again sold out, which could mean an eventual shift toward rewarding the top seed with the extra three hours of rest rather than focusing on what will sell the most tickets.

“In theory, if we get to the point like with the NCAAs where the whole weekend is sold out in advance, then we wouldn’t have to think this way,” says Bertagna. “We could just do it by seed.

“But currently, it is left open to the FleetCenter and myself getting together after the quarterfinals and seeing what makes the most sense and then announcing it as soon as possible.”

Four Bids?

After a season in which it looked as if Hockey East would receive at most three berths in the NCAA tournament, last weekend’s action put the league on pace to earn four. Here are the Pairwise Rankings as they appear going into the weekend.

 1 Michigan State (CCHA)   29
2 Boston College (HEA) 28
3 North Dakota (WCHA) 27
4 St. Cloud (WCHA) 25
5 Minnesota (WCHA) 25
6 Michigan (CCHA) 24
7 New Hampshire (HEA) 21
8 Clarkson (ECAC) 21
9 Colorado College (WCHA) 20
10 Maine (HEA) 20
11 Providence (HEA) 19

(Eleven is the key number right now since one of the 12 berths must be reserved for the MAAC, which doesn’t have a member among the top-ranked teams.)

Boston College in a strong position to gain the East’s lone bye. New Hampshire remains in good shape at number seven. Maine jumped to number 10 with its sweep of Providence, putting the Black Bears in the mix for the first time. And Providence is hanging on to the last berth at number 11, despite last weekend’s double dip at Alfond Arena.

Admittedly, the league isn’t showing the strength of two years ago, when it put three teams into the Frozen Four, nor last year when it only missed that mark by BU’s clanging a post in overtime. Remember that last season Hockey East placed four teams in the nation’s top eight virtually wire-to-wire.

While there aren’t four league teams in the top eight right now, putting four teams in the NCAAs in a “down” year may actually be a show of strength in itself. Besides, using the last two years as yardsticks for present and future success may not be fair.

“Because of the attention we got in Anaheim [in 1999, getting three teams to the Frozen Four], all of a sudden that has become something that we’re always going to be compared to,” says Bertagna. “Getting three out of four [in the Frozen Four] has happened so few times.

“To get three in the Final Four [in 1999] and then two last season and then if this year we only get one, people are going to call that a slide. It’s a little bit of a specious argument because three of four is kind of a contrived standard.

“My point has always been that in a perfect year you have one or two gaudy teams at the top getting those top four or five rankings and then everybody else is so tight that you’re going to see the numbers eight and nine teams knocking off the number one and two teams.

“We’ve almost had that. The only thing we haven’t had is that our number two team — whoever it is, it’s kind of hard to determine — hasn’t been up quite as high. So instead of having two in the top five, we’ve got that one flagbearer and then we’ve got three teams in the five to ten range.

“I’ll take it. I don’t know that it signifies any drop-off.”

It also bears noting that the four bids could easily drop to two or even one. Getting upset in the league quarterfinals could be disastrous for either UNH, Maine or Providence. The latter two might even need to sweep their quarterfinal games to keep pace.

“Things are so tight that the difference between sweeping your quarterfinals and taking two out of three is huge,” says Bertagna. “That could be the thing that knocks you out of the tournament because you stumbled once against a low-rated team.”

A further very real danger lurks in the form of tournament upset winners. For example, if someone other than Clarkson wins the ECAC tourney, that team would get an automatic bid and Clarkson would also get a bid unless it fell hard in the selection criteria. That would knock Providence out, as things stand today.

Add in a second upset — someone other than Michigan State or Michigan in the CCHA or a team other than North Dakota, Minnesota, St. Cloud State or Colorado College in the WCHA — and that would bump Maine if all other factors remain equal.

“The playoffs for about seven teams are going to dictate which two or three get in,” says Walsh.

So it may be four. It may be three. It may be two. Or it may be just one.

“Though I’d like to be able to hang my hat on four teams [making it] if it was today,” says Bertagna, “the thing that’s risky is that every time there’s a tournament upset winner, it looks like we’re the league that’s going to get chopped from the bottom.”

No. 1 Seed Boston College Hosts No. 8 Merrimack

Nov. 17 at Merrimack: BC won, 6-1
Nov. 21 at BC: BC won, 7-2
Jan. 16 at Merrimack: Merrimack won, 6-3

Boston College enters the postseason fresh off its first regular season championship since 1991. The Eagles have won their last three games and are 11-2-1 since the Jan. 16 loss to Merrimack. Included in that stretch are sweeps of Providence, Maine and, oh yeah, a Beanpot championship.

“We feel very good about our club,” says coach Jerry York. “Looking back, it’s the most regular season wins we’ve had in this stretch of four years. I’m excited by that because it shows real consistency throughout the year.”

York adds an easily overlooked factor in that success.

“Our depth has been very good for us,” he says. “That’s helped us an awful lot. We play six defensemen on a fairly regular basis. Our fourth line plays more than it’s ever played.”

Goaltender Scott Clemmensen is expected to be over his bruised knee.

Despite the mismatch on paper, York remains wary of Merrimack, especially in light of the January loss.

“Whenever number one plays number eight,” says York, “there are always the trappings: ‘Hey, you should advance. It’s going to be easy.’ That’s part of what we have to deal with. We, as players and coaches, know just how difficult Merrimack played us during the course of the year and how well they’ve played against other top teams.

“They spanked us around pretty good up at Merrimack. That takes away any thought that, hey, it’s going to be easy, because it isn’t. That was a good wakeup call for us. They played very well that night and earned a lot of respect from our club with that showing.

“I don’t think it’s ever a hard sell in our league when you play a league opponent, just because Hockey East has been so balanced over the last few years. There are so many good clubs in our conference. We know we’re going to have to play very well in all three zones and have some jump and enthusiasm to get to the FleetCenter.”

As for Merrimack, it faces the daunting task of having to knock off the nation’s number two team while its own squad is banged up.

“We’re going to need everybody healthy and everybody playing at their best to even have a shot in this series,” says coach Chris Serino. “Let’s face the facts. That’s just being honest.”

That candor, however, gives way to a glimmer of optimism based on the Warriors’ showing in the last two games. With their playoff lives at stake, they tied Maine, 1-1, and defeated BU at Walter Brown Arena, 3-2.

“I like the way we responded to the pressure,” says Serino. “We knew we needed points. With two games left to play, we had Maine and BU and we took three out of four. So I like the momentum we’re going in with. At least the last couple games, we’re finding ways to get it done. Hopefully, we can do the same thing this weekend.”

Serino concedes that the Eagles’ talent can be daunting.

“I don’t think there are any matchups you can put against them because most teams that they play against, they have three lines better than anybody’s top line,” he says. “So it’s very tough to match up against them.”

Which is not to say that Serino is just throwing up his hands and getting his golf clubs out. There’s a plan.

“One of the most important things against them is you can’t turn the puck over,” he says. “You have to try to get it in their zone, keep it low and not turn it over. The two games we lost to them, we turned it over a million times. The game we won, we didn’t turn it over many times.

“In order to keep them from attacking, you have to keep the puck in their end. Once they get it out of there or once they transition on you, they’re tough to stop.

“The other thing is that when they come into your end, you’ve got to pay attention to detail on defense. You can’t be running around. Guys can’t be making mistakes.

“Against them, as much as you have to play good offense, you have to support the puck defensively against them, because there are times that they’re going to break you down on individual talent. So you have to have someone there to support the puck defensively.

“Those are the things we’re going to work on. And obviously we’ve got to get a good job out of our goaltenders. We’ll see what happens.”

Tom Welby is scheduled to man the crease on Friday, followed by Joe Exter on Saturday.

No. 2 Seed Maine Hosts No. 7 Northeastern

Nov. 4 at Northeastern: Tie, 1-1
Dec. 1 at Maine: Maine won, 5-1
Dec. 3 at Maine: Tie, 3-3

Maine’s sweep of Providence last weekend put an exclamation point on its 7-1-1 record since the start of February. The Black Bears have risen from the depths to finish second in Hockey East and be on pace for an NCAA bid, albeit as a borderline case.

“We’re clearly playing the best hockey we’ve played all year,” says coach Shawn Walsh. “Any time you hold a Providence team to [35] shots in two games, you’re on all cylinders.”

Maine outshot Providence in every period: 12-4, 10-3 and 12-4 in a first game in which only 11 Friars shots were allowed and 13-8, 13-5 and 15-11 in the second.

Why the turnaround from early-season struggles?

“We’re healthy, that’s number one,” says Walsh. “Number two is that we’re extremely confident. We’ve found some pieces that have quietly helped fill in the missing blanks offensively.”

The most obvious piece is Michael Schutte, the erstwhile defenseman turned sniper on a line with Martin Kariya and Matthias Trattnig. Schutte is the reigning USCHO Player of the Week and has posted nine goals and five assists in just the last seven games.

“He’s an obvious one,” says Walsh, “but Donnie Richardson has played really well the last four games. He hasn’t had anything to show for it, but he’s electrifying. He’s doing what we thought he’d do when we brought him in.

“[Robert] Liscak has just emerged. He’s playing his best hockey.”

Liscak now has five goals and two assists in his last eight games.

The contributions of Schutte, Richardson and Liscak have led to Maine’s biggest strength, its depth.

“They’re all on different lines,” says Walsh. “We have, I think, a nine-goal scorer on all four lines at least. [To be precise, one of the four will have an eight-goal scorer.] That’s the key to our team. We play four lines. We keep coming with four. Every line has guys that can score now.

“There’s not a drop-off. We play all six defensemen. It’s just been a coming together.”

The spreading out of firepower up front has been typical of recent Black Bear teams.

“I just think that you cater your coaching to your personnel,” says Walsh. “In the last five or six years, we’ve been more of a balanced, unsung team. We usually go to the Hockey East banquet, but don’t have many awards. But by the end of the year, by the end of the playoffs, we’re in the hunt. It’s just been the team that’s been the key.”

Despite their hot ways, the Black Bears won’t necessarily have an easy time with Northeastern, which has been a tough matchup for them the last couple years.

“I think they’ve been a tough matchup for everybody,” says Walsh. “Bruce really has them so they know how to play. They’re not going to beat themselves very often.

“They’re one of those dark horse teams that our league has that most leagues don’t have. Typically, the seventh seed [in a nine-team league] isn’t going to be a threat. Northeastern is anything but a seventh seed.

“This year, we played three times and tied twice so that in itself tells you how close [it is]. We’ve got to worry about playing our game on all cylinders and take the chips as they fall.”

From Northeastern’s perspective, it must not only overcome the most daunting home ice in the league, but will also be without top goalscorer Mike Ryan (17-12–29) for the first game. Ryan was assessed a game disqualification for a butt-end in the Huskies’ butt-ugly season finale against UMass-Lowell in which a league-record 179 penalty minutes were levied.

For a team that has struggled on offense, the loss of Ryan could be the final nail in the coffin of a disappointing season. The Huskies opened the year looking like a potential NCAA tournament qualifier, but have finished with a 3-7-0 record since the start of February.

“Obviously, we’ve got a little adversity ahead of us with Mike being out,” says Crowder. “It’s an unfortunate thing, but you’re not going to change the scoresheet. You just have to move on.

“We’re hoping to get good news and get [defenseman] Arik Engbrecht back into our lineup. He’s been out for the last couple weekends and he’s a kid that we definitely need defensively.

“The other thing is that going up to Maine is obviously a challenge. The flip side for us is that it’s a situation where we can get the kids right out of Boston and get them focused and worry about the thing at hand instead of driving back and forth and back and forth every day [for a local opponent].”

In the absence of positive momentum, the Huskies will have to create their own momentum this weekend.

“We’ve got to get ourselves refocused,” says Crowder. “The season is over now and as they always say, it’s a whole ‘nother season. Each team is just four wins away from a Hockey East championship and we’re no different than BC, Maine or BU right now in that regard.”

No. 3 Seed Providence Hosts No. 6 Boston University

Oct. 28 at Providence: Tie, 4-4
Feb. 16 at Providence: Providence won, 4-3
Feb. 17 at BU: Tie, 5-5

Ask Providence College coach Paul Pooley how much of a factor its sweep at the hands of Maine will have on the playoffs and his answer is as emphatic as it is concise.


Forget about loss of momentum or any of that.

“Maine is a pretty tough place to play,” he says. “We didn’t play great on Friday, but we still had a chance to steal the hockey game. Saturday night, we played much, much better. When you’re up in Maine, some of your weaknesses during the game certainly get exploited.”

Since this weekend’s games will be back at home and, if successful, the week after that at the FleetCenter, the Friars’ 12-year winless streak at Alfond Arena is irrelevant.

What is relevant is that almost as much as Alfond has had their number in the past, they’ve had Boston University’s number in Hockey East tournament play. Since the league’s inception in 1984-85, the two schools have met 11 times in the tournament with the Friars holding a 7-4 advantage, including a 5-1 record in the quarterfinals. They are the only team with a winning record against the Terriers in the league tournament.

That said, BU remains an opponent that has seen a lost of postseason action and will pose problems for the Friars.

“In our league, whether you’re facing Merrimack, Northeastern, Boston University or Lowell, you’re going to have a tremendously tough first round,” says Pooley. “To be honest, there’s really not much difference.

“What’s the difference between 23 points and 21 points and 18 points [fifth, sixth and seventh place]? You’re looking at minimal things.

“As Dick Umile said at the [Hockey East] banquet, ‘It’s tougher to get to our Final Four than the NCAAs.’ I think everybody in the league believes that. There’s really not much difference at this point between hockey clubs. Whoever executes will win the first rounds.”

Specifically, there are a few factors the Pooley is focusing on.

“Their power play is one thing you really have to watch,” he says. “It’s been very, very good all year. [Brian] Collins and [Dan] Cavanaugh and [Carl] Corazzini are all good hockey players with [Pat] Aufiero and [Mike] Bussoli and [Freddie] Meyer [at the points]. They’re all good hockey players. They’ve got a good team and it’s going to be a battle for us.

“I told our guys, ‘No matter if we’re seeded second or third, it doesn’t matter. We’re still going to have a dang war. That’s just the way it’s going to be.'”

For BU, this season is showing an uncomfortable number of similarities to two years ago. In 1998-99, the Terriers posted a 14-20-3 record, lost to Providence in a three-game quarterfinal and went home to figure out what went wrong.

A similar result this weekend will result in the exact same record as two seasons past. Both years, BU stumbled into the postseason: 2-4-1 in 1998-99 and 1-6-1 this year.

“I was real disappointed in our overall effort the last few games, especially against Boston College in the last game of the year,” says coach Jack Parker.

“The good thing about the season that we completed is that it’s over. That’s about the only good thing about it as far as we’re concerned.

“Now we’ve got the second season starting up and we’ve got our hands full with a real solid Providence team, a team that we’ve had struggles with at their place over a number of years, including the playoff two years ago.

“I certainly didn’t want to get them in the playoffs, but you could look at it and say who the hell do you want to get?”

It may be coincidence, but BU’s 1-6-1 dry spell began with the weekend leading into the Beanpot championship game. In past years, the Terriers could draw on the emotion of winning another ‘Pot as a springboard for the stretch drive when bodies are bruised and the motivational tank is down to fumes. Instead of the lift they’ve gotten the last six years, the Terriers got the opposite.

“Letting that slip away certainly had a psychological downer effect on the team,” says Parker. “We played pretty well the next couple of nights … but we lost our last three games, all of which were at home. That was very, very difficult to swallow.”

Of course, the tribulations of the last month and a half can all be erased with four wins in the next two weekends. Whether the first step against Providence can happen may boil down to a few factors.

“Special teams will be a huge key,” says Parker. “They’re in the middle of the pack as far as power-play efficiency in the league, but against us they’ve done real well on the power play. We’ve got to make sure we stay out of the box, which is something we killed ourselves [with] against BC. We were very undisciplined that way.

“We’ve got to make sure we do a better job killing the penalties. We’ve done very well overall for the year on the power play, but of late we haven’t played well on it and therefore we’ve got to make sure that we crank that up.

“Besides special teams, just being able to control play in either zone [will be important], not letting them have all kinds of time and puck possession in our zone and seeing if we can have puck possession in their zone.”

No. 4 Seed New Hampshire Hosts No. 5 UMass-Lowell

Oct. 28 at UNH: UNH won, 4-3
Dec. 1 at Lowell: Tie, 2-2
Dec. 2 at UNH: Tie, 0-0

New Hampshire lost a little bit of the momentum it had been building when it was off the final weekend in February. Before that, the Wildcats had won three of four and had looked particularly strong in a weekend split with BC. After the week off, however, they frittered away a Friday night game against UMass-Amherst before coming back the next night to finish the regular season with a 3-0 win.

“We’re as healthy as we’ve been,” says coach Dick Umile. “We got Matt Swain back. That weekend that we were off helped in that category.

“As far as how well we’re playing, I’m not going to take anything away from UMass’s effort, but we were probably a little sloppy with the puck the first night. We played very well the second night. Maybe it took us the extra night to get back at it. We gave up a disappointing loss, but overall I think we’re playing pretty well heading into the playoffs.”

Without question, UNH’s number one weapon in the postseason will be Hobey Baker candidate Ty Conklin. His shutout in the regular season finale set a new Hockey East record of four in one season.

“There’s no question that he’s the backbone of our team,” says Umile. “If there’s a better goaltender in the East, you’re going to have to prove that to me. I know there are some guys that have played well, but not consistently like he’s done. There’s no question he’s the top goaltender in the East, if not the country.

“Defensively, our team has played well. Ty hasn’t had to make 60 saves per game, but I think that he, along with the team defense, have done a pretty good job overall this season. It’s probably one of the reasons why we’re in the position that we’re in.

“When I say that position, coming in fourth in Hockey East is not a disappointment. It’s only one game that separated second from fourth. It was that close.

“We’ve struggled in scoring goals, but defense has been strong for our team and Ty has been the backbone of it.”

This weekend should be a fascinating matchup. Will transition offense dominate and tip the scales for the Wildcats or will Lowell’s size advantage predominate as the River Hawks control play along the boards?

“We found out back in November that Lowell is a very good team with names like [Yorick] Treille and [Ron] Hainsey and [Laurent] Meunier,” says Umile. “With guys like Kyle Kidney, they’re a big, strong team.

“But I think they’re skilled and I don’t think they’ve gotten the credit they deserve in terms of their skill. They do a lot of good things. They’re really strong down low and you have to handle them.

“Hopefully, we can control them down low and do a good job and create some transition. But they’re a real good team. I think [UML coach] Timmy [Whitehead] has done a tremendous job coaching them this year. It’s going to be a good matchup.”

Other than a sweep at the hands of Providence two weeks ago, UMass-Lowell has established itself as one of the league’s toughest opponents after a disastrous start. Since back-to-back ties with UNH to open December, the River Hawks have gone 9-5-1 in the league with two of the losses coming to BC and another two to PC.

“We feel good,” says Whitehead. “We feel like we’ve been playing good hockey since Thanksgiving. We’re excited to go up to UNH. We know they’re a very strong team. obviously, and we have our hands full with that matchup, but we like that rink and we feel that we can play some good hockey up there.”

Like the rink? Convention wisdom would say that a team like Lowell’s would be better suited for an NHL-sized ice surface than UNH’s Olympic sheet.

“They’ve got a home ice advantage, but at the same time we seem to play well at that arena,” says Whitehead. ” We played twice up there this year and I thought we played well both times.

“I like the atmosphere up there and I think our players enjoy that atmosphere. I think they’re looking forward to it. UNH is more comfortable on that ice, but our guys are looking forward to the [challenge].”

Other than Mark Concannon and Josh Reed, who were both lost for the season in mid-to-late January, the River Hawks are healthy.

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question asked: what Boston-area school does UMass-Amherst hold the best all-time record against? (Cambridge, Brookline and Chestnut Hill are considered to be in the Boston area. North Andover and Lowell are not.) The following hint was added: you may need to think beyond the usual boundaries.

The correct answer was MIT, against which the Minutemen have an all-time record of 20-9-1 (.683). Runners-up were Boston State 12-8-0 (.600) and Tufts (4-4-0) .500.

Of course, what made the question difficult is that it has been decades since UMass last played the Engineers. That was a 15-0 win for the Minutemen back on Dec. 2, 1967. The two schools’ women’s teams, however, faced off much more recently. The Beavers, as the MIT women’s team is known, defeated UMass on Nov. 7, 1996, 3-1.

Kieron P. Faherty was first to identify MIT as the Minutemen’s most frequent Beantown victim. His cheer is:

“GO UMASS! Next year is our year!”

The final trivia question of the season asks what characteristic is identical for all four Hockey East quarterfinal matchups? Be as specific as possible.

Send your answers or wild guesses to Dave Hendrickson.

And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…

My daughter, Nicole, turned 18 recently. This, of course, prompted some serious reminiscing on my part.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that she was a tiny chatterbox, always ready for a sleepover at a new friend’s house or a trip to Nana’s or Grammy’s. Or that I was reading her stories of Ricki Ticki Tavi or the Sesame Street characters who wanted to play baseball, but feared the dragons who said, “Argle snargle higgledly snoo.” (That was dragon-speak for “We want to play baseball, too.”)

There were many USCHO columns and features written on my laptop during swim meets between her events. There have been many plays, especially Rent, that she and I have enjoyed together as she’s gotten older. For many years now, she’s sent her witty barbs in my direction with deadly accuracy, punctuated with a joyous laugh.

Now my little girl is a woman.

And I could not possibly be more proud.

She has fought through a brutal stretch of bad health, the worst of which was getting mono twice within one year. She is the best friend one could imagine and not just to those who everyone else befriends. She’s a lot of fun to be with.

Simply put, the world is a much better place with her in it.

Nicole, I’ve been one very lucky guy to be your Dad.

Publishers Weekly called it a “witty collection.” Click here for information about Food and Other Enemies, an anthology that includes Dave Hendrickson’s latest short story, “Yeah, But Can She Cook?”