Down The Stretch
So much can happen over these final two weeks — just ask Boston College on the negative side and Maine on the positive — but the Hockey East playoff picture has gotten a good deal clearer.
Even though the potential exists for a five-way tie for first place. Yup, a five-way tie.
In any case, here’s this writer’s projection for the quarterfinal matchups:
No. 1 Boston College hosts No. 8 Massachusetts-Lowell.
No. 2 Boston University hosts No. 7 Massachusetts.
No. 3 Maine hosts No. 6 Vermont.
No. 4 Providence hosts No. 5 New Hampshire.
Merrimack and Northeastern will miss the playoffs. For the Warriors, it’s already a mathematical certainty. For the Huskies, it’s a virtual fait accompli; only the slimmest of possibilities remain to squeak into eighth place.
Massachusetts and Massachusetts-Lowell will, in some order, finish seventh and eighth. And Vermont looks highly probable to finish sixth, barring huge performances against BU this weekend.
Which leaves BC, BU, Maine, PC and UNH in some order. Presently, only three points separate fifth place and second, not to mention only a five-point gap between fifth and first. So projecting with eight points still up for grabs has the potential for looking silly in the rear-view mirror.
But since yours truly looks silly in any mirror, there’s not much of a downside. So here goes.
Boston College (projected first with 39 points)
BC has taken it on the chin over the past 10 days, losing to BU in the Beanpot before getting swept at Maine. The Beanpot loss matters quite a bit in terms of NCAA selection, but isn’t a factor in the standings. Dropping all four points to the Black Bears, however, has suddenly put the regular season title up for grabs.
It says here that the Eagles will prevail, albeit only by the hair of their chinny chin chins. They’ll pick up six of their remaining eight points to finish a point ahead of BU. They’ll need that slimmest of margins because the Terriers hold the tiebreaker with a 2-1 head-to-head record in league play.
BC’s final two weekends include home-and-home series with Lowell and UNH. The potential for pratfalls is clear, but six of eight points seems realistic.
Boston University (projected second with 38 points)
BU finally lost last weekend, ending an 11-game winning streak. Even so, it remains the team with the best shot at topping BC. The Terriers are playing so well right now, plus they have a favorable schedule.
The key is this weekend’s trip to Vermont. The Catamounts remain a very dangerous team, albeit less so than earlier in the season. Gutterson Fieldhouse is also a very tough place to play so it’ll need to be “A Game” time for the Terriers.
If they can pull off an exceptionally difficult sweep, then the regular season could be theirs. However, the so-called “easier” end of the schedule, a home-and-home with Northeastern, could be just as difficult. The Huskies haven’t quit all year and it wouldn’t be a shocker to see this crosstown rival take a point on the final weekend to deny BU the title.
Maine (projected third with 37 points)
Just a few weeks ago, the Black Bears appeared doomed to going on the road in the quarterfinals and to needing a major run in the playoffs to get an invite to the NCAAs. Since they weren’t inspiring a lot of faith with their performances against winning teams — at least not since the first couple months of the season — the potential for a two-game playoff season followed by golf was pretty strong.
The Black Bears are 7-1-1 over their last nine games, taking three of four points at Vermont before sweeping BC at home. They’ve gone from “on the brink” to being a projected NCAA selection.
More to the point of the Hockey East standings, they also face what is on paper the easiest remaining schedule. Maine visits Merrimack for two games this weekend and then hosts UMass for two to close out the regular season. The Minutemen have taken down many strong teams this year, but the location of those final two contests in Orono could make all the difference.
The projection, then, is for Maine to run the board and finish third with 37 points. Not too shabby for a team written off just a few weeks ago.
Providence (projected fourth with 34 points)
Providence’s surprising regular season should end in a home ice berth. The key is this weekend against UNH, the team with which PC is currently tied for fourth place. If the Friars can earn a split, then they’ll be in terrific shape. They defeated UNH earlier this year so the tiebreaking advantage would be theirs.
It probably won’t even come down to a tiebreaker considering their opponents on the final weekend. PC faces Merrimack while UNH takes on BC. No disrespect is intended at all toward Merrimack, but would you prefer to face the last-place team or the one in first place?
Just taking a single point this weekend against New Hampshire, however, could unleash the rest of the tiebreakers since that would leave their season’s series at 1-1-1. Then, a PC sweep over Merrimack and a UNH split with BC would go to tiebreaker number two. Which would be league wins, which in this scenario PC takes anyway.
So although the Friars would lose control of their own destiny with anything less than a split this weekend, anything but getting swept would still leave them with a good shot at home ice.
New Hampshire (projected fifth with 32 points)
As UNH coach Richard Umile discussed last week, the Wildcats could be bound for the road in the playoffs. Their PairWise position also isn’t enviable — they’re tied for 19th — but from here on out they’ll be playing teams that can help them make the NCAAs. Perhaps they can duplicate the leap that Maine just completed.
However, as much as those teams can help UNH in the PairWise, they’ll also make a move up in the standings all the more difficult. Difficulty of opponents is great only if you win.
And the standings are what matters right now, not the NCAAs.
In that respect, the Wildcats may hold their home ice destiny in their own hands, but it’s going to be rough. As just noted in the Providence section, the Friars have a much easier road and they’re already tied with UNH. Their head-to-head battle this weekend will tell all.
The thing of it is, there’s so much at stake. Home ice is such a huge advantage in matchups between the fourth and fifth seed. And even though New Hampshire is an astonishing 6-6-3 at home — astonishing, of course, that the Wildcats haven’t owned the big sheet at the Whittemore Center — Providence is 10-3-2 at home this year compared to 6-8-0 on the road.
In other words, the site of where these two likely quarterfinal opponents face off will go a long way in determining whether there’s hockey life for them after the quarters.
Keepin’ On Keepin’ On
There have been some mighty heady times for Providence this year. The Friars raced out of the chute with five wins in their first six league games. By Jan. 6 they held a 9-2-1 record in Hockey East play and playoff home ice seemed to be theirs to lose.
Of late, however, there have been a couple more potholes in their road to the postseason. They’re 4-6-1 over their last 11, hardly reason for panic and distress, but a good deal different than 9-2-1. Playoff home ice is now very much in question since they’ve been leapfrogged by Boston University in January and Maine over the last few weeks.
Providence is now tied with New Hampshire for fourth place and the final home ice slot. Friar fans, of course, would have jumped for joy at this prospect at the beginning of the season, when their team was pegged for seventh place.
So certainly in the grand scheme of Hockey East, this has been a deliriously successful season for Providence and first-year coach Tim Army. The Friars need only two more league wins to tie a school record of 15 set in 1984-85. And the potential for a strong finish and postseason exists.
But should Friar fans temper their optimism? Should they be concerned that expectations got out of control? How heavily on their minds should it weigh getting only one of four points from Vermont, suffering an ugly loss to Boston College and then following a nice win over UMass managing only a split with Northeastern?
“It’s going to happen,” Army says. “There are going to be nights where pucks are going to bounce your way and nights where pucks are not going to bounce your way.
“I said this from day one: I don’t get so caught up in what the results were. To me, it’s how we played. In the long run, if you play well you’re going to give yourself an opportunity to win some big games. To look at it [any other way] clouds your evaluation of your team.”
And Army is still happy with how his team is playing.
“We’ve had some moments, but everybody does; that’s just the reality of it,” he says. “We’re still doing things the way that we need to to be successful. We’ve played against some real good opponents at a time of year where obviously everything is magnified and the stakes get higher and higher.
“You’re heading towards the playoffs and everybody’s jockeying for position. It’s always the toughest time of year to play. You’ve got very intense games; the games mean so much to everyone.
“Maybe in a couple of games we just didn’t take advantage of an opportunity when it was presented and maybe the opponent did and that was enough to control the tempo of the game. It happens when you’re winning games; it happens when you lose a game.
“Maybe in a few of the games we didn’t take advantage of the chance and our opponent did and that led to an undesired result. But I think it’s just the general ebbs and flows of the game. I think we still continue to play well.”
As noted in this column a month ago, Army emphasizes a pro-style approach with limited practice times. Perhaps holding back in this way will lead to a team still fresh heading now into crunch time.
“You coach to what your philosophy is and you coach within the framework of how you’re trying to develop your program,” he says. “What our focus is on is making sure that we have our energy, that we have our legs. We have a good conditioning base and if we have our legs we’ll create a tempo and maintain that tempo for the duration of the game.
“The way we’ve gone about trying to develop our identity and our team is so that we can play fast and we can play with energy. That’s the way we devise our daily plan. So obviously the hope will be that as we move into the last two weekends of the season and beyond we’re fresh and we’re energized and we’re skating and playing fast.”
As noted in the section above on projecting the final standings, the Friars face New Hampshire in a home-and-home series with monumental stakes.
“We obviously recognize how good a hockey club they are,” Army says. “They are a very dangerous team in transition. They have some highly skilled forwards and defensemen that add to the offensive side of the game.
“They have a very good power play and they skate fast and they work hard. So we want to make sure that we’re prepared for the good things that they bring and recognize where their strengths are.
“But on the other hand, we’ve got to put that in perspective and we’ve got to conform that to what we need to do to be a good team. And we’ve got to make sure that our emphasis is on playing to our strengths and doing the things that make us a good team.”
As for the likelihood that the weekend will speak volumes about securing home ice or heading on the road in the playoffs, fugghedaboudit.
“I’m not thinking about it at all,” Army says. “My only focus right now is Friday night for New Hampshire. Nothing else. That’s my own philosophy.
“Where we are in the standings and where we could be when the season is over in a couple of weekends doesn’t mean anything to me right now because none of that matters unless we come out and play the best possible game we can play Friday. And that’s the only thing that we can control.
“So our focus is on New Hampshire and only on New Hampshire for Friday night. Everything else will play itself out.”
Until Next Week
Monday holidays tend to wreak havoc on writing this column, no week more so than this one. Look for a bit more verbosity next week.
Down For The Count
Reader Gerry Miles nailed yours truly with a good one recently. In an email he wrote:
Who gets more time off? Dave Hendrickson or the Big O on Boston’s WEEI?
Wesleyan Takes On Goliath
Which proved USCHO’s otherwise impeccable D-III New England writer Tim Costello wrong. Prior to the two wins Tim predicted that the Cardinals would fall short in their run for the playoffs. He wrote, “Wesleyan has played everyone tough but doesn’t score enough to take four points on the road.”
There’s been no word yet as to whether Tim has chosen to have his crow sautéed or fricasseed.
Of course, that’s now in the rear-view mirror.
What looms is Middlebury, the Goliath of NESCAC. Umpteen national championships. Ranked second in the country.
That sounds like an opportunity to shock the D-III world.
Let’s Go Cardinals!
Last week’s question was a particularly sadistic one that (Marquis de) Scott dreamed up. What does he do? Get drunk on grain alcohol and collapse, only to produce virulent nightmares, waking up in a cold sweat to bark a Hockey East trivia question into a tape recorder? If we have many more of these, our readers are going to need to have liquid Prozac squirted down their throats with a turkey baster.
Scott’s theme last week was “Double-Trouble Anagrams.” He produced ten anagrams — one for each Hockey East program — that were created from the letters of PAIRS of the names of current Hockey East teammates.
Of course, he also screwed up. There were not one, not two, but three typos. Here at USCHO.com, we call that a Weighart hat trick. (We only keep him around because he makes the rest of us feel so much smarter.)
Here are the anagrams along with the intended player pairs:
Pond Skater Armoire Jelly Jar
JERRY POLLASTRONE, MIKE RADJA (UNH)
Club Intro: Stick Themselves
STEVE BIRNSTILL, CHUCK TOMES (Northeastern)
Rink Rat Verse: Jam New Hen Pen
KEVIN JARMAN, STEPHEN WERNER (UMass)
Anybody Send Iron Goalie?
ELIAS GODOY, DANNY O’BRIEN (Mass.-Lowell)
Archenemy? Not Puck! Err Not, Earth.
PETER MacARTHUR, KENNY ROCHE (BU)
Harsh Penalty: Bred Rebel Mob
BRENT SHEPHEARD, ROB BELLAMY (Maine)
Overtime Lawyer Drug Nest
TREVOR LUDWIG, NATE MEYERS (Providence)
Botch Icing: Error Bug
ROB RICCI, BRENT GOUGH (Merrimack)
Drab, forlorn, bad brain hockey
BROCK BRADFORD, BRIAN O’ HANLEY (BC)
Dream Assist: Jog In Free
JAMIE SIFERS, DEAN STRONG (Vermont)
Typo numbers one and two came on the BU answer. There is an extra “not” that isn’t accounted for. Also, Scott specified that names as they appeared on USCHO rosters would be used, which would have required “Pete MacArthur” and not “Peter.” So there really were an extra four letters there.
Scott got the hat trick with the Vermont answer, which was short an “n.”
But, hey, as village idiots go, he’s not half bad.
The first to overcome the Marquis’ faux pas was Stephen Fischetti. His late-breaking cheer is:
“I have to give love to Brian Boyle and my Eagles on Saturday. Let’s get another hat trick! And I can’t forget my surrogate team this weekend, Vermont. Help keep those Terriers down!”
This week’s question asks when the last time one Hockey East team held a nationally-ranked league opponent to only a single third-period shot to complete a shutout? Email my trivia account with the teams, the date and the final score. The winner will be notified by Tuesday; if you haven’t heard by then you either had the wrong answer or someone else beat you to it.
As always, you can also submit suggested trivia questions to the same email address and if your question is used, you’ll get a cheer as long as you were first to submit it. Please include something like “SUGGESTION” in the subject line.
And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…
A couple weeks ago I related a story about discovering 29-cent first-class stamps amidst papers in my junkyard of an office. A couple industrious readers found that indeed that was the first-class denomination from 1991 through 1994. A sad truth.
A couple other readers, including my brother Ray, questioned whether my slob-osity would have been reined in just a tad if I’d had to move my office.
The reality is that I went through one such move. And was too busy to do any cleaning so I simply numbered the boxes and, from left to right, dumped everything in and then unpacked in the same fashion so that I could perfectly recreate my junkyard ambience.
Yeah, I know, that makes it even worse.
Small wonder, then, that when my group was threatened with a move of offices recently, one helpful co-worker just said, “Hey, Dave, why don’t we just get you a dumpster.”