The playoffs are, by definition, huge. These playoffs, however, have taken on an extra dimension based on how the PairWise Rankings have shaken out.
Not only are Boston University and Vermont on the NCAA tournament selection bubble, but Providence, Northeastern, and Massachusetts-Lowell are all on the cutting edge of being Teams Under Consideration.
How all those teams fare goes beyond the interest of their own fans or even those of other league teams.
See Jayson Moy’s Bracketology for the full analysis.
No. 1 New Hampshire hosts No. 8 Massachusetts
On paper, this looks like the only lopsided matchup of the quarterfinals. New Hampshire has rolled over its opponents for just about the entire season. Until last Saturday’s meaningless loss to Vermont, the Wildcats hadn’t lost a league game since Dec. 8.
By contrast, the wheels fell off the UMass bandwagon after New Year’s. The Minutemen went 2-11-1 and looked to be in grave danger of being caught by Maine for the final playoff berth until they won their last three games.
You won’t catch UNH looking past UMass, though. The two teams have faced each other at the Garden three of the last five years, twice when the Wildcats came in as the number one seed. In 2003, they won, 5-4, in a game that was tied with three minutes left. Last year, they needed double overtime to prevail, 3-2. In 2004, UMass proved victorious, 5-2.
So forget that number one versus number eight stuff. There’s a healthy respect.
“It’s been a great [rivalry],” UNH coach Dick Umile says. “We are border states and all that. We are going at it all the time. We’re very aware of who they are and how they play. This will be a tough battle.”
Of course, UNH ranks as a huge favorite. They didn’t go virtually wire-to-wire for nothing.
“We knew [coming into the season] we had a very strong senior class from the net out with Kevin [Regan] obviously being important,” Umile says. “Defensively, we had five of our six defensemen returning and a couple key forwards in [Mike] Radja and [Matt] Fornataro.
“We got some balance so the nights Fornataro and Radja didn’t score, our freshmen came through. We got scoring from everybody, different lines on different nights.
“[Brad] Flaishans and [Craig] Switzer led our defense and Kevin was there every night.”
UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon adds, “Their depth at forward has been a staple of the program and is still a big part of who they are. They get goal production from a variety of players. They are excellent on special teams and a real threat on the power play.
“Their most valuable player in my estimation is Kevin Regan, who has just been brilliant from start to finish and has been a real obstacle for every team that has played them. It’s going to be a real challenge for our guys to go into the environment they have.”
Fortunately, the Minutemen righted the ship with wins in the last three games. That not only put them in the playoffs, it also gave them at least a modicum of momentum to hang their hats on.
“It showed the character of our team,” Cahoon says. “I think the expectations were a bit too high as to what we really might be before going through a complete season. There was a lot of talk around here about the possibility of being a Frozen Four team after the Christmas break — too much talk — before we really knew what we were. We had a hard time resurrecting our game as we knew it pre-New Year.
“To our kids’ credit, they stayed with it, believed in what they were doing and over the last two weeks we are back to being a better team, a more consistent team and a team that plays at a level that we are more comfortable with.
“We have gotten more shots on net than we had in previous games. Our power play has been a little bit more consistent in turns of movement and shot selection. We are not getting as many shots knocked down.
“Most of the coaches will tell you that you just can’t put it on paper, X’s and O’s, to have it all come together. The team has to read and react and learn to take whatever the opposition gives you. The reads have been much better in that sense.
“There is good enthusiasm and that is important in generating the energy you need at this level.”
No. 2 Boston University hosts No. 7 Lowell
It’s been noted before, but it bears repeating. At the holidays, BU was 4-10-2; now the Terriers enter the league playoffs as the number two seed.
“As late as the middle of January, I was wondering if we were going to make the playoffs,” BU coach Jack Parker says. “We certainly didn’t have a shot of making the national tournament. Home ice was probably out of the question. Then all of a sudden we went on a pretty good run and wound up second in the league.
“Things really fell right for us. We were winning and teams ahead of us weren’t winning, so we kept climbing over people. We had an opportunity to beat some teams that were ahead of us and we took advantage of that.
“The regular season ended well for us as far as the league is concerned and we still have a shot at the national tournament with the PairWise. We’ve come back from the dead, so to speak, and hopefully we take advantage of that in the second season.”
How did the turnaround happen?
“It’s been senior leadership, confidence and goaltending,” Parker says. “When you make a mistake and it doesn’t wind up in the net, it doesn’t look as bad, and the guy doesn’t feel as bad that he made the mistake. You didn’t have to pay for it and we didn’t lose the game for it.
“At Christmas time, we changed our D-zone coverage back to the way we used to play. It really helped us out as far as being more tenacious in our zone and not leaving out goalies hung out to dry as often.
“The combination of [goaltender Brett] Bennett getting some confidence and the team getting better defensively allowed us to go from being the worst team in the league defensively at the semester break to now being the fifth-best team in the league. We’ve made quite a jump in the second semester.
“We also had our backs against the wall. If we were going to do anything, we had to win some games in a row, and the kids rose to that challenge.”
Bennett will get the start on Friday night against Lowell. Karson Gillespie, who stole a game against Providence last weekend, will go on Saturday.
NESN will be televising the opener of what should be a terrific series.
“We match up pretty well against each other,” Parker says. “I’m sure that they think it’s a good matchup for them. We can play with them, we know that, but we’re not going to overwhelm them and they’re not going to overwhelm us. It will be whoever executes the best on a given night.”
Parker recognizes that this won’t be a classic number two versus number seven mismatch.
“They present a lot of problems,” he says. “First of all, they are a really good skating team, especially on defense. They can go get the puck, they can get the puck out of their zone and they can really jump in the play.
“They’ve got a couple of great scorers and a good power play. [Kory] Falite is having a great year. They can put pressure on you on the forecheck. They can put pressure on you in the initial rush.
“They don’t spend much time in their own zone. They are so quick to the puck and they get it out. They’ll be a handful for us.”
For the River Hawks, any playoff berth might be considered a blessing.
“Seven months ago we almost didn’t have a team,” UML coach Blaise MacDonald says. “We’ve gone through a year where we’ve lost 78 man-games to injury. That’s astronomically high. We had no extra players. We had to have guys play up to their capabilities and beyond.
“Our two captains — Mark Roebothan and Ben Holmstrom — have been outstanding. Jeremy Dehner and Barry Goers have been great as well. In my 22 years of coaching, this has been a real seamless year in terms of no issues. The locker room has been great. Showing up at the rink every single day, whether we’ve lost two in a row or won two in a row, has been just an absolute joy.
“We’ve been fortunate to get a lot of guys to contribute five percent more and then some. Collectively our team has really surprised me.”
So will this surprising, young team take even another unexpected step forward?
“First and foremost, we remove ourselves from results and focus more on the body of work, what we’ve done well,” MacDonald says. “Let’s continue to do that and amplify it in areas that give you a greater probability to win. Work at those areas.
“We have a lot of confidence going into the playoffs. We’re a very young team. We had some very good stretches of hockey where we beat an awful lot of good teams including BU.
“We need to be just fast and loose, almost reckless in our approach, but yet have that underbelly of confidence that we all need to do what we’re capable to doing. We don’t need guys playing like [Alexander] Ovechkin because we don’t have anyone capable of doing that. Play to your capabilities and you’ll be fine.”
No. 3 Vermont hosts No. 7 Northeastern
Much like BU, Vermont looked like anything but a home ice team when it stood at 4-9-6. A 10-4-1 stretch drive, however, has turned the Catamounts into a force to be reckoned with.
“For our young team to be a No.3 seed, I’m certainly proud of their efforts,” UVM coach Kevin Sneddon says. “Our team has been playing very well for quite some time now. Ending our regular season with a win against one of the best teams in the country in New Hampshire was a good confidence boost for us.
“I love the way our team is playing right now. We’re getting great contributions really from every position.
“I’m just so proud of our young team and the maturing process that they have gone through this second half. Their ability to kind of step back and learn from mistakes has been really the story for this team.”
So how exactly did the Catamounts turn it around?
“This year’s team has had just a great ability to worry about the task at hand,” Sneddon says. “What are we going to do today to be better? I know it sounds like a coaching clichÃ©, but the proof is in the result. They have just been very good about not worrying about anything else that is going on around them.
“We were a team that had great respect for every team in the league just because we were a team that was at the bottom. For us to climb the standings, we did it out of respecting the game, respecting every opponent and coming to play every night. We didn’t always win, but we always played hard.
“We’re a team that no one is talking about. No one is talking about national rankings or the national tournament or anything like that. For us it’s just been worrying about playing our style of hockey and leaving it all out there every night.”
Vermont doesn’t have a single player in the Top 15 in scoring, has a defense with four freshmen and a sophomore, and in Joe Fallon a goalie who struggled over the first half and is thus in the lower half of the league statistics. Yet the Catamounts are one of Hockey East’s hotter teams deserving of their three seed.
“Our numbers don’t wow you on the defensive side or on the offensive side,” Sneddon says. “It’s really been a collective effort as a team in the second half to pull things together.”
Despite Vermont’s lack of all-stars, Northeastern coach Greg Cronin has no difficulty finding Catamount strengths his team must deal with.
“They’re very big and they’re very physical,” he says. “I called Kevin after they beat us and tied us up there and said, â€˜Hey, you’ve got a terrific team there.’ They skate, they have a nice blend of size and speed, and sense. They’re on the same page as far as systems.
“They’re a very stingy team, defensively. They all buy into his system. They block shots really well. They defend the net very well.
“[They struggled early, but] when you try to break freshmen into this league, it’s a tough league for defensemen. The freshmen forwards can kind of blend in with the scenery and pick their spots and then they really blossom as players. Defensively you can’t pick your spots. You’ve got to learn to play the game quickly at a fast pace against intense competition.
“When you have that goalie that may be losing confidence in young defensemen, that can have a really damaging effect on your team, psychologically. Clearly after the break they matured as a group and I think that maturity was really harnessed by the young defense and the emergence, or re-emergence, of Fallon.”
As for Northeastern, its season has been a mirror image of Vermont’s. A killer first half with a 9-0-2 stretch that included two wins over UNH and one at BC followed by a killer (in the opposite sense) second half. The Huskies have won only one of their last seven games.
“Record-wise we don’t look very good,” Cronin says. “The irony is we’ve actually played very similar the last six league games as we did earlier in the year. They were all one-goal games, tight games. Unfortunately we didn’t win as many as we did earlier in the year or we’d be sitting in a home-ice position.
“When we were winning those games, I kept saying to everyone, ‘It’s a delicate line you walk.’ I was guarded about that success because they were all one-goal games.”
Especially troubling to Cronin was that the roster included only a single senior. That dearth of veteran leadership threatened to be a problem.
“I kept saying, ‘This is fun but there’s not a lot of [veteran] substance behind it,'” Cronin says. “When we went through the stretch that we did losing games by a goal, it didn’t surprise me. I didn’t panic.
“A lot of people at Northeastern said, ‘Here we go again.’ I think that’s a bunch of BS because that’s just what happens when you have a young team. This is a goofy year. Everyone has gone through that except one team and that’s UNH.
“The challenge is getting through it and getting your confidence back. I think against BC [last weekend] we had it. We won the first game, we could have won the second game. That creates that believability which is critical going into a playoff series.
“I actually like the way we’re playing.”
Sneddon feels the same way about the Huskies.
“They’re very disciplined in their forechecking systems,” he says. “They don’t make a lot of mistakes. They wait for teams to make mistakes and then they capitalize.
“They have enough skill and speed up front. I think Joe Vitale is a very underrated player, a great leader for them. They have some great young talent up front in [Tyler] McNeely and [Wade] MacLeod. Their defensemen are very skilled as well. [Goaltender Brad] Thiessen has played well really all year for them.
“So really there isn’t a weakness.”
No. 4 Boston College hosts No. 5 Providence
While the other matchups involve teams that have traveled different courses through the season, the roads for these two teams are almost identical. Both Boston College and Providence got off to rocky starts, came on like gangbusters, and then faltered at the end.
BC’s gangbuster stretch began at the end of November and included a 12-2-2 record. Providence picked its game up a few weeks earlier, going 11-4-1 or if you add a few games on both sides of that streak, 13-6-3.
Unfortunately, the Eagles and Friars have won only two games in their last 14 combined. (BC has one win in its last six; PC one in its last eight.)
“Now, we enter a completely different season — the playoff season,” BC coach Jerry York says. “This is where you make your mark on what type of year you’ve had. It really comes down to how deep you go into the playoffs.”
In recent years, the Eagles have excelled come playoff time. They’ve reached the national championship game the last two seasons and the Hockey East title game the last three, winning two of those.
“I certainly think that [past tournament success] helps you,” York says. “As you go into the tournament, the whole psyche of teams change. You know it the minute that you step into the locker room that first night. Everyone understands that if you win, you advance. You don’t really get that during the course of the year.
“I like the way our team feels about the tournament. We have a lot of veterans that have gone through a good run the last few springs, so I think that will help us…. I feel pretty good about our attitude and our work habits that we’ve accumulated during the course of the year.
“But every year is different. I’ve been coaching a long time and can’t quite figure it out. “It is difficult to get to that [championship weekend] banquet, not just because of the traffic, but [because] you have to win this opening series.”
Although the Eagles hold the clear advantage in terms of postseason experience, their regular season record against the Friars is an eye-opening cause for alarm. Providence took five out of a possible six points with a win and a tie coming just two weeks ago.
“We’ve played them three times this year and we’ve only scored six goals,” York says. “They have really shut down our offense and that is one of the facets of our game that we’ll have to address this weekend.
“Not only were they successful in beating us twice, but our inability to score [is a concern]. [PC goalie Tyler] Sims has played really, really well against us throughout the course of the year.
“They have had good goaltending against us and we have not had a lot of Grade A chances. We’re going to try to create more and try to score some more goals.”
Providence could have entered the playoffs with two week’s worth of momentum — three of four points from BC and a split with BU — had Karson Gillespie not stolen a game for the Terriers. PC outshot BU that game, 33-17.
“We had a good game,” PC coach Tim Army says. “We’ll build on that going into Friday’s game at BC.”
The Friars recognize that despite their success against BC this year and its recent cold stretch, the Eagles pose many tough challenges.
“We feel excited about the challenge of playing against a very talented, explosive team in their building,” Army says. “They’ve had a lot of success over the last 15 years.”
Don’t even ask about his team’s confidence.
“I don’t like to use the word confidence in sports,” Army says. “I don’t think there’s such a word in sports. Confidence is a direct result of hard work and commitment from an individual or a collective group. I think our kids feel good about our team, feel good about themselves and are looking forward to the challenge that’s in front of us.”
Special teams assume a prominent role in the playoffs and that’s an area where the Friars have struggled recently. They’ve scored only a single power-play goal in the last six games, going 1-for-32. While shorthanded, they’ve given up goals in four of the last five games and seven of the last nine (9-for-36).
“We’ve struggled on our special teams as of late,” Army says. “Our penalty kill has slipped, our power play has slipped and it’s going to be important, the special teams battle.
“We’re going to play against a very talented power-play unit. They’ve got great skill, move the puck extremely well and they’re very opportunistic. Our penalty kill has to be ready and alert. They’re very aggressive on the puck and we have to be disciplined.
“We’re going to be on the road. Boston College is going to have some opportunities on the power play and we need to limit those opportunities.”
Congratulations to my niece Cherie for ending her collegiate career with a bang. Her Providence Friars defeated Connecticut in the Hockey East semifinals with You Know Who scoring a back-breaking second period goal. Facing UNH in the title game, the Friars gave the number two team in the country all it could handle, losing 1-0.
Cherie also earned Hockey East’s Turfer Athletic Award, presented annually to an individual, coach or team with the core values of tenacity, commitment and innovation. According to the league release, “Hendrickson has continued to make self sacrifices for the betterment of her teammates, while remaining a tireless worker, making positive contributions to and for her team.”
Way to go, Cherie!
For his last trivia question of the season, Scott actually asked a question for which he already knew the answer — a first season this season, I believe.
This one was called “Former Foes.” This pair of former Hockey East players used to face off against each other in college but are teammates this season on a professional team somewhere in the world. Both players are forwards. One had collegiate point totals of 22-54-76 in 111 games played with 163 PIM. Since then, that player played for three teams in the AHL … but now is somewhere else.
The other put up collegiate totals of 56-59-115 in an almost identical number of games (110) with just 54 PIM. Since moving on from Hockey East, the second player has played for professional teams based in a total of six countries. Finally united as teammates, the two players are the only two former U.S. college hockey players on their team… and they are 1-2 in scoring this season!
Scott asked readers to use their powers of deduction to narrow down the possibilities.
Impressively, Jason Halpin was able to identify the pair within an hour or two of the column coming online. The first player described above is Dan Cavanaugh of Boston University, while the second is Anthony Aquino of Merrimack. The pair are now teammates for a team called Pontebba in an Italian league.
Jason’s cheer is “Go BU! NCAA’s or bust!”
With coverage moving to NCAA tournament previews after next week’s column, that’ll be the final trivia question of the season. Congratulations to all the winners and thanks to all for participating.
And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…
• I’m sure that a lot of you may have already seen it and I did include in as a link with Blaise MacDonald’s reference to Alexander Ovechkin, but if not you’ve really got to see this. The choice of Aerosmith and a finale of Beethoven as accompaniment didn’t hurt either.
• I’ve only seen the ads in passing — I prefer not waste many heartbeats on TV — but if you watch Moment of Truth it doesn’t speak very well of you. Isn’t there enough unforced agony without adding more for pure voyeuristic sake? That show is sick.
• I must, however, admit to getting sucked into a bit of American Idol this week. Hey, I’m a sucker for the Lennon/McCartney songbook. I made the prediction that there would be two songs the contestants would be insane to try because you couldn’t match the original: “Let It Be” and “Hey Jude.” I was wrong on the first count and the young woman who went for broke did a knockout job. When they announced that another contestant would be trying “Eleanor Rigby,” I headed to the other room to write, sure that such an odd song could only get butchered. Wrong again. I guess in the future I’ll restrict my bad predictions to this column.