This Week in Hockey East: Feb. 28, 2008

All Hail New Hampshire

They left no doubt about it. The UNH Wildcats wrapped up the regular season title in as impressive a fashion as possible, sweeping then-seventh ranked Boston College, a team on a 13-3-2 run itself.

“I’m just really excited for our team,” UNH coach Dick Umile said after the Saturday night clincher. “They were very determined. They played very good hockey and I’m proud of them.”

The sweep began on the road with a 2-0 shutout that featured shut-down defense and big saves when called for by Kevin Regan. All shutouts are impressive by definition, but to blank the league’s top offense in its own barn takes it to another level.

“That’s as well as we’ve played all year,” Umile said. “We didn’t give [Boston College] any space to create offense, which they can do very well.”

The Wildcats then gave their fans an abundance to cheer about on the back end of the home-and-home, winning, 5-1. As if to answer every last question, the UNH power play, which had ranked merely in the middle of the pack not that long ago, scored four times. It’s now 8-for-22 (36 percent) over the last four games.

“The power play has been moving the puck fairly well recently, in my opinion at least, maybe not some of our fans,” Umile said. “Just because you don’t score doesn’t mean you’re not doing a good job. Obviously, the puck went in tonight.”

UNH now owns Hockey East’s top offense (tied for first with BC and Boston University), top defense, top penalty kill, and third-ranked power play. Small wonder the Wildcats are 13-0-1 in the league dating back to early December.

Oh yeah, there’s also that leadership factor. The UNH veterans produce. Seniors Matt Fornataro and Mike Radja rank second and fourth, respectively, among league forwards. Senior defensemen Brad Flaishans and Craig Switzer hold similar lofty positions. Senior goaltender Kevin Regan leads Hockey East in winning percentage, goals against average and save percentage.

“We have a great senior class that is playing as well as they have in four years,” Umile said.

Strange things can happen in the playoffs, but the Wildcats have become the clear favorite in the Hockey East tournament that starts in a few weeks.

Folks from the Granite State might also want to start booking their April 9 flights to Denver.

Two Is Almost The Loneliest Number

Not long ago, the PairWise projected five Hockey East teams making the NCAA tournament.

It’s down to two now. UNH and BC are in great shape, but the other league favorites of a mere month ago have taken a tumble.

That said, Hockey East might get a third team in after all without an upset winner of the league tournament. Coming up hard on the outside is Boston University. The Terriers didn’t crack the PairWise Top 25 until two weeks ago, but now rank tied for sixteenth.

Read on for more about BU. (See also Jayson Moy’s Bracketology for more NCAA tournament analysis.)

Terrier Turnaround

Okay, Boston University fans, fess up. Who among you kept the faith when your boys were 4-10-2 at the holidays?

No revisionist history, now. Be honest.

Raise one hand if you thought the Terriers held even a remote chance of finishing second. Raise the other if you thought they held any chance of making the NCAA tournament.

It’s hard to imagine many, if any, hands in the air. Teams that are 4-10-2 don’t magically finish second, much less vault to the PairWise bubble.

On Jan. 1, BU fans would have been forgiven if they were warming up their Jim Mora impersonations. “Playoffs? Don’t talk about playoffs. Are you kidding me? Playoffs? I’m just hoping we can win a game, another game.”

My how times have changed. There’s magic on Commonwealth Avenue these days. The Terriers are tied with Vermont for second place and have the much easier remaining schedule. (The Catamounts must play UNH twice.)

“Imagine us being four games over .500 in the league and back to .500 overall and in second place in our league from where we were,” BU coach Jack Parker said after the sweep over Northeastern. “The way we felt about ourselves first semester and what was going on with our team first semester, it didn’t look too promising.

“Dick Umile was talking to [BU associate head coach] David Quinn the other day and told him, ‘Hey, everyone knew there would be a market correction for BU sooner or later.’

“We’ve made a market correction to get us back to where we are accustomed to being — fighting for a home ice slot and hopefully getting to the national tournament.

“All that remains to be seen, because if we had lost tonight we would have been in sixth place, but we won and we are in second. It’s a bizarre league that way.”

And an outstanding coaching performance by Parker.

Sweep City

In case you missed it, all five series last weekend finished as sweeps.

What were the chances of that? I’m not sure if it’s happened even once since Vermont entered the league.

Improbable enough?

How about…

Maine and Merrimack, in ninth and tenth place, respectively, and apparently destined to finish out of the playoffs, were the sweep-ers, not the sweep-ees. They climbed back into the hunt and are now nipping at the heels of Massachusetts.

Vermont’s sweep of Lowell came on the road, despite a Catamount’s away record at the time of 3-6-3.

Although UNH’s sweep could hardly be declared an upset given the Wildcats’ dominating play, it did come at the hands of the seventh-ranked BC Eagles.

Of them all, however, Merrimack’s sweep of Providence clearly ranks as the biggest upset. The Warriors were 0-6-1 in recent league play, 1-11-1 going back to late November, but they took down one of the hottest teams in the league. Don’t forget that the previous week the Friars played UNH even for one game and 57 minutes of the next.

“We made some changes on the fly, we shortened the bench a little bit and everybody was in tune,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said. “That’s what it takes to get points in this league. When you make changes, you need people to be aware and attentive and we were.”

Providence, on the other hand, dropped off the bubble in the PairWise and off pace to get home ice in the playoffs. Not that you’ll hear PC coach Tim Army talking as if the sharp objects have all been carefully put away.

“We’ve got to get a little more trust in ourselves right now,” Army said. “I think maybe our confidence is a little bit lower, and we’ve just got to keep getting better and go play the best hockey we can play. If we play well we’re going to have an opportunity to win.”

Projecting The Finish

Only two things are certain. UNH will finish in first place and two of the following teams won’t make the playoffs: Massachusetts-Lowell, Massachusetts, Maine and Merrimack.

Other than that, all bets are off. Only three points separate second place and sixth. With so little separating those teams, earning home ice becomes all the more vital since that potentially becomes a deciding factor in the playoff quarterfinals.

As a result, I offer these crude projections based on probabilities I’ve assigned to the final regular season games. All contests are part of home-and-home series except for Vermont hosting Maine for two games this weekend and the Black Bears similarly hosting Lowell the weekend after.

For example, I assign BU an 85 percent chance of beating UMass this week so for that series I give BU 3.4 points (for the liberal arts majors out there, that’s four points on the weekend times .85) and UMass 0.6.

This week:

Boston University over Massachusetts: 85 percent.
New Hampshire over Merrimack: 90 percent.
Boston College over Providence: 70 percent.
Vermont over Maine: 65 percent.
Northeastern vs. Lowell: 50 percent.

Next week:

New Hampshire over Vermont: 80 percent.
Boston College over Northeastern: 75 percent.
Boston University over Providence: 70 percent.
Maine over Lowell: 60 percent.
Massachusetts over Merrimack: 60 percent.

Those results will turn the current standings…

Pts Team
36 New Hampshire (+6.8)
27 Boston University (+6.2)
27 Vermont (+3.4)
26 Boston College (+5.8)
24 Northeastern (+3)
24 Providence (+2.4)
20 Lowell (+3.6)
17 Massachusetts (+3.0)
15 Maine (+3.8)
14 Merrimack (+2)

… into these results.

Pts Team
42.8 New Hampshire
33.2 Boston University
31.8 Boston College
30.4 Vermont
27.0 Northeastern
26.4 Providence
23.6 Lowell
20.0 Massachusetts
18.8 Maine
16.0 Merrimack

All of which points to only one probable shift in the standings. Note the word probable. In all likelihood, there will be more volatility than that. Teams assigned a coin-flip probability turn around and sweep.

Too crude of a projection? Well, are you ready to hear Professor Hendrickson’s lecture on standard deviations?

Thanks For Your Comments

Every now and then I get anonymous emails from those who use the “Contact Us” link (at the bottom of the page) while choosing not to include their own email address for a response. A shockingly high percentage of those are kind, generous compliments.

Thanks to all of you for taking the time to send a note that puts a smile on my face.

In particular, it’s great to see the reception “Hendu’s Story” continues to get over a year now after it was posted. (If you haven’t read it, click on “#7” at the bottom of the sidebar.) It’s gratifying to hear that all the emotion that went into those pieces is still finding its way into new readers.

Thank you.

Thanks to Jim Connelly, Keith Lavon and Bill Koch.