This Week in Hockey East: March 20, 2008

Two For Sure, Maybe Three

You can’t say you weren’t told.

Last week’s column pointed out that not only were Boston University and Vermont on the NCAA Tournament selection bubble, but Providence, Northeastern, and Massachusetts-Lowell were on the cutting edge of being Teams Under Consideration. The implications were enormous.

Sure enough, all three dropped out as Teams Under Consideration with Providence and Northeastern exerting the biggest effect, especially on Boston College and BU. Going into the weekend, BC held a 1-4-1 record against those two compared to BU’s 6-0-1. Wiping those results off the TUC comparisons shot BC up and BU down. In fact, BU dropped after winning on Friday night because of those factors.

Now, New Hampshire and Boston College are locks to make the tournament while BU and Vermont must win the league title to keep their season alive. For those latter two teams, winning the semifinal game is not enough.

See Jayson Moy’s Bracketology and PairWise analysis for the full details. Or try your hand at USCHO’s version of crack, the PairWise Predictor.

No. 1 New Hampshire vs. No. 4 Boston College

Arguably, Hockey East’s two best teams will face each other in the early semifinal game. UNH and BC are the two league teams that will take at-large NCAA berths even if they lose on Friday. Both also swept their quarterfinal series in impressive fashion.

Not that you’ll catch UNH coach Dick Umile providing bulletin board material for any opponent still in the hunt. He’s especially mindful of how hot BU and Vermont were down the stretch.

“I thought BU, after a shaky start, played very well,” he says. “[UVM coach] Kevin [Sneddon] has got Vermont playing extremely well and congrats to him on getting the Catamounts down to Boston. [BC coach] Jerry [York] has got his team back playing well. They loosened up the stick to score a lot of goals against a good Providence team.

“Everyone’s playing well. I think anybody right now can win this. They’re all really good teams and the pace of the game will be exciting for the fans.”

BC coach Jerry York follows suit with respect paid to the other bracket.

“I’ve watched Vermont and BU play and they were both very hot down the stretch,” he says. “I think in these types of situations, it’s not necessarily who the best team is that is going to win the trophy but who plays the best at these times. All four teams, without any stretch of the imagination, are capable of winning.”

That said, UNH and BC have not only distanced themselves from the rest of the Hockey East field in terms of the PairWise, they’re also statistically the class of the league. They’re tied for top offensive ranking (3.47 goals per game) and rank one-two in team defense (UNH 2.28 GA/GM, BC 2.37).

That statistical closeness, however, belies a wide disparity in results. For Hockey East, this year really has been the Wildcats and then everybody else.

“They have a lot more wins than we do,” York says. “Dick has had an incredible year. But that’s not unusual. We’ve watched New Hampshire over the years and they’ve had teams similar to this.”

The Wildcats dominated the season series with BC, sweeping it while outscoring the Eagles, 12-3. BC fans can’t even dismiss those results as old news since only one of those games came early in the season. The two perennial powers met for a home-and-home series in the third-to-last regular season weekend and the Wildcats left no doubt, winning 2-0 on the road and 5-1 at home.

“I don’t know how much [that series] will impact [Friday], but the good thing is that we’ll being playing with some confidence,” Umile says. “Our game down at BC late in the season was one of our better games. I thought we played extremely well and carried it over the next night.”

Those head-to-head results concern York, particularly the way UNH stymied the Eagle offense.

“We scored one goal in the two [late-season] games,” he says. “That’s a problem that we are going to have to address and figure out. [Kevin] Regan has had an outstanding year in goal, but it’s not just the goaltender. They eliminate second-chance opportunities.

“They’ve played a lot better defensively than maybe some other UNH teams. They have always been very offensive and excellent in playmaking, but this year they are tough to score goals against.”

Not that UNH will be resting on its laurels.

“[BC has] balance throughout their lines,” Umile says. “They can all skate, they can all score and their defense can get into the rush. [John] Muse has played well so the goaltending is going to be good.

“UNH and BC is definitely a good match up. You’re going to see a lot of speed and a lot of skill.”

No. 2 Boston University vs. No. 3 Vermont

Talk about similarities. BU and Vermont both struggled mightily in the first half of the season, going a collective 8-19-8. Not exactly the stuff of second- and third-place teams. Both caught fire in the second half.

Both sat on the NCAA tournament bubble last week. Both needed a rubber game to advance to the Garden. Both now must win the Hockey East tournament to qualify for the NCAAs.

“At one point we were obviously thinking about having to make the playoffs and how difficult it was to just get into the top eight,” UVM coach Kevin Sneddon says. “We were sitting in the ninth spot for the first half. To gain home ice and a third seed the way we did is just a huge step for our program.

“We were very fortunate to get some timely scoring in the third period of Game 3 to advance to the Garden. That’s great for our fans, great for our league, and certainly we’re very honored to participate in this weekend’s championships.”

BU’s struggles putting away Massachusetts-Lowell mirrored Vermont’s with Northeastern.

“It was like pulling teeth to advance to the Garden again,” BU coach Jack Parker says. “This is the fourth time in the last five years we’ve had to go to a third game in the quarterfinals. It’s a grind.

“We were fortunate, because if we had played those games on the road, we would have been finished. Home-ice advantage obviously was a big advantage this year to the Hockey East teams. We feel very fortunate that we would up second in the league and got the home ice.”

Some may feel that BU will have a home ice advantage of sorts against Vermont since the Terriers have played in the Garden in recent Hockey East semifinals as well as the Beanpot.

“I don’t know if it’s any advantage,” Parker says. “It’s a neutral-site venue — it’s not like we practice there and know the building. We both have 200×90 rinks — Vermont and BU — and [the Garden] is a 200×85 rink, so the ice surface is smaller. We both will be making adjustments to that.”

Don’t expect a dominance in Terrier fans despite the convenience of simply hopping on the MBTA for a few stops. The Catamount fans’ devotion can’t be questioned. Due to spring break and playoffs not being on season ticket packages, there were only three sellouts throughout the league in the quarterfinals. All three were at Vermont, where the students also were on break. Count on the Catamount fans to travel well.

Experience, however, could be a key factor. You have to go back to 2001 for the last time the Terriers didn’t get to the Garden while this marks Vermont’s first appearance. How will the Catamounts handle the big stage?

“That’s a great question,” Sneddon says. “A team that’s not prepared or battle tested might feel like it’s a disadvantage that we haven’t played there or played in front of a crowd like that. We’re fortunate we’ve played in front of a packed house in every game at Gutterson. I know it’s on a much smaller dimension, but those 4,000 people are putting a lot more pressure on us than 16,000 non-UVM fans potentially at the TD Banknorth Garden.

“Some teams feel like they have to step up in these games and play even better. That goes without saying, and our team is mentally prepared for this challenge because they’ve stepped up all year.”

Parker casts an even more dubious eye at the experience factor.

“As far as the Hockey East tournament is concerned, this is our goaltender’s first time playing there,” he says. “We have two freshman defensemen that have never played in it before and three freshman forwards that have never played in it before.”

Special teams almost always play a decisive role in the playoffs, but this matchup provides an interesting twist. When BU goes a man up, it’ll be strength vs. strength. The Terrier power play ranks second in Hockey East (20.8 percent) while Vermont’s penalty kill ranks third (86.2 percent). Both trail the top team by only a fraction of a percentage point, (and BU ranks first in league games only).

“Jack would say if five good players are on the ice, you’re going to have a good power play,” Sneddon says. “Players like [Pete] MacArthur, [Brian] Ewing and [Chris] Higgins on one unit with [Matt] Gilroy and [Brandon] Yip are five tremendous hockey players that are able to feed off each other and are very dangerous.

“And then you come back with a younger unit that, at least on film, might move the puck even better. Two star young defensemen and [Colin] Wilson and [Nick] Bonino are on fire right now. There’s a ton of skill on their two power plays and we’ve got to be at our best to shut that down.

“[But] our penalty kill has been a strength for our team for the last few years. Anytime you have players that are willing to block shots and players that are able to read a power play system being run against them and are able to adjust throughout the game during the play, you’ll have success.

“You have to have great goaltending. Everybody’s focused on your forwards, on your D, but your goaltender has to be a wall back there in order for the kill to be successful. Joe Fallon has obviously been that for us.”

When Vermont goes a man up, it’ll be weakness vs. weakness. Vermont’s power play ranks eighth (13.8 percent) while BU’s PK ranks dead last (77.8).

“The power play for us has been a struggle for most of the year.” Sneddon says. “That being said, the last two weekends, I’ve really liked our puck movement. We had a lot of scoring opportunities and one power-play goal last weekend. We could have had a lot more, but that’s decent because Northeastern played fantastic as well. [Against BU], we got to take advantage of our opportunities when we’re on the power play.”

The BU penalty kill took a step backward against Lowell, giving up five power-play goals in just 10 chances.

“We had been pretty good killing penalties until Lowell,” Parker says. “Up until this past weekend, our penalty kill problems had to do with not getting good goaltending, but that was not the case against Lowell. We just had bad reads.

“We certainly took a step backwards and have to sharpen up our special teams after Lowell.”

That’s A Wrap

That’s it for this season’s columns. Next week, you’ll instead see previews of the NCAA Tournament Regionals.

Thanks to all of you for reading. Thanks to Scott Weighart for providing columns every couple weeks. Thanks to my outstanding editor, Scott Brown. Most of all, thanks to my wife, Brenda, for her assistance, without which it wouldn’t have been possible for me to keep up.