This Week in Hockey East: Feb. 26, 2009

Breaking Down the Final Two Weeks

The finish line, my friends, is almost in sight.

Hockey East has two weekends of play remaining with each team playing a pair of two-game sets between now and March 8.

But even with the end in sight, what is visible is still pretty murky.

There’s a two-horse race between Northeastern and Boston University for the league title, it seems, though some might argue this is a four-horse race with New Hampshire and Vermont lurking five points behind the first-place Huskies and four points behind second place BU.

After that, you have a three-team battle for the final home-ice spot between UNH, Vermont and Mass.-Lowell, which opened some eyes last weekend by taking three of four points from Vermont on the road.

Once you get past home ice, Boston College and Massachusetts are entrenched in a positional battle as, in all likelihood, those teams will land in sixth and seventh place.

And finally, there’s the race for the final playoff spot. Maine’s grip on that tightened on Sunday when its closest pursuer, Providence, fell at home to Merrimack, creating a four-point buffer.

Speaking of the Warriors, they’re still mathematically alive for a playoff spot but need to make up seven points in four games. Not a likely scenario.

So let’s break down each of the four positional battles that will play out in the next two weeks:

The Race for First

I think many hoped that we might learn a little more about the two top contenders for the league title last weekend when NU and BU squared off. What we learned is that these two teams are evenly matched.

Two games, two ties.

So the only way we’ll understand which one of these clubs has the mettle to become the league champion is to look at their remaining schedules.

Northeastern faces one fifth-place and one sixth-place opponent. BU squares off with an eighth-place and a ninth-place foe. Without even discussing the teams involved, the advantage goes to the Terriers.

The Huskies will play home-and-home series with Lowell this weekend and Boston College next. Lowell has been trending upwards in recent weeks. Besides the aforementioned results at Vermont last weekend, the River Hawks are 6-2-1 in their last nine, the only loss coming to BU. Northeastern had a tough time but earned a win against Lowell in its first meeting, but that was way back in the beginning of the season, so it’s hard to put much stock in that result. Conversely, the Huskies have had some success with next weekend’s opponent. BC, winning the first two meetings this season, including a bombing of the Eagles in the Beanpot.

BU looks like it could have a walk in the park with two struggling clubs, UMass and Providence, on the slate. That is unless you consider the fact the Terriers haven’t beaten either of these clubs this year. The Minutemen trounced BU, 5-1, back in November, while Providence handed the Terriers a loss at Agganis just after the New Year. Still, the way BU has played of late, you would think the Terriers should have the upper hand in these series.

When all is said and done, it seems that Northeastern should take at least four points, and possibly as many as six from its two series. BU should take at least six and possibly sweep its two series. If either of those scenarios hold true, there’s no reason to even talk about Vermont or UNH making a run for the title.

The Race for Home Ice

Now that I’ve written off UNH and Vermont’s chances for winning the league title, those two clubs, and a third — Lowell — can be placed comfortably into the battle for home ice. Thanks to Lowell’s minor upset last weekend, earning a 3-3 tie on Friday and a 1-0 win on Saturday at Vermont, this race even exists. Had the Catamounts swept, they’d have locked up home ice for themselves and UNH would be five points ahead of the River Hawks for the final spot.

Instead, Vermont and UNH are tied with 28 points apiece. Lowell is just two points back with 26.

The competition each club will face in the closing weeks is interesting.

New Hampshire squares off with last-place Merrimack this weekend. But like BU, the Wildcats lost at home to Merrimack earlier this season. Vermont travels to Maine for a pair this weekend to face a team that it had to rally past in the third period back in late November. To cap things off, UNH and Vermont then battle in a two-game series in Burlington on the final weekend, meaning there is room for plenty of movement between these two teams.

That could be an opportunity for Lowell. Although the River Hawks take on first-place Northeastern this weekend, they’re playing their best hockey of the year, as was previously mentioned. Should they get a split with the Huskies this weekend, they’d remain in the hunt for the final home-ice spot if either UNH or Vermont is unable to sweep.

In other words, two of the three teams in the home-ice battle facing one another on the final week could result in some tumultuous movement in the standings.

The Race for Sixth/Seventh

It’s hard to think that Boston College began the year as the number-one team in the nation, and that now the battle the Eagles are in is for sixth place in Hockey East. But such has been the year for the Eagles, a team that at times can’t seem to get out of its own way.

Similarly, UMass was on top of the world back in November when it knocked off BU. But since then it’s been ups and downs for the Minutemen with the downs outnumbering the ups.

Both BC and UMass have 21 points heading into this weekend’s play. Each is five points behind fifth-place Lowell, which is a lot of real estate to make up given the way the River Hawks are playing.

BC faces two teams at the opposite end of the standings, with a home-and-home against Providence this weekend and another against Northeastern to close the season. UMass’ slate is similar, facing BU this weekend for two and Merrimack to close the year.

It’s difficult to predict how either team can handle its opposition, but the prize for doing well is grand. Finish seventh and you have to face either Northeastern or BU in the quarterfinals. Finish sixth and you grab either UNH, Vermont or Lowell. I’m not trying to put down the aforementioned trio of teams, but if I’m BC or UMass, I want to do everything and anything I can to avoid BU and NU right now.

Oh, and the fact that a No. 7 seed has never advanced in the Hockey East tournament is another reason to want sixth place.

The Race to Stay Alive

Hockey East is unique in that it’s the only league in the country to eliminate teams after the regular season. I’ve always thought this was a good thing — it makes the regular season mean more to teams. And it’s been better since Vermont joined the league and made it two teams whose seasons end before the playoffs (I always felt very bad for the single team that went nowhere).

Thus, the race for eighth is one that any team involved takes seriously. I remember a day not too long ago when Boston University, struggling to the finish line, needed an overtime goal on the road at New Hampshire on the final night of the season to make the playoffs. Those who remember the 2003-04 campaign may also remember that the same BU team went on to upset BC, two games to one, in the quarterfinals to advance.

So making the playoffs means everything to the three teams in the battle for eighth.

We’ll start with the easiest to analyze — Merrimack. Simple — the Warriors have to take seven of eight points and hope Maine goes 0-4-0 or take eight of eight and hope Maine goes 0-3-1. It’s the unlikeliest of scenarios. But seeing as they needed to take two points against Providence last weekend to stay alive and got three, one never knows.

For the two remaining clubs, Maine obviously has the upper hand by virtue of holding a four-point lead. But the Black Bears have to play two pretty decent teams in Vermont and Lowell to close the year. Maine has played decent hockey down the stretch, particularly given a difficult second-half schedule, but missed a golden opportunity a week ago against UMass to shore up its playoff position.

If the Friars are going to make the playoffs, they need to be thinking weekend sweep against Boston College this Friday and Saturday. Because Maine holds the tiebreaker, Providence needs to make up five points on the Black Bears in the final four games to overtake them. Hardly an easy task.

Breaking Ties

Should teams finish in a tie, this is Hockey East’s tiebreaking procedure:

1) Head-to-head record
2) Number of wins in conference play
3) Best record against first-place team(s), then second-place team(s), third-place team(s), etc.
4) Coin flip

If more than two teams finish in a tie, the same criteria will be applied to reduce the number of teams tied, and then the process will commence again.

Here, then, are the current head-to-head records in each of the four races:

Race for First:

? BU wins head-to-head series over NU, 1-0-2.

Race for Home Ice:

? New Hampshire is 1-0-0 vs. Vermont with two games to play.
? New Hampshire wins head-to-head series over Lowell, 2-1-0.
? Lowell and Vermont tied their season series, 1-1-1; both currently have 12 wins.

Battle at the Bottom

Though I’ve spent much of this column talking about the playoffs ahead, last Sunday, the two teams on the outside looking in squared off in a game the result of which most would call unpredictable.

Merrimack beat Providence, but that’s hardly something one could call unexpected. What raised eyebrows is the manner in which the win happened.

The Warriors absolutely trounced the Friars, 5-1, despite being massively outshot in the game. The difference was goaltending (obviously), and the play of Merrimack’s special teams.

To say the Warriors’ power play has struggled is an understatement. But Sunday, Merrimack ripped off three man-advantage goals to take a 3-0 lead and never looked back.

Said Merrimack fourth-line center Joe Cucci, who scored two power-play goals himself, “We lost a lot of games this year because of special teams. It was nice to finally have them come through.”

As pleasant as the win was for Merrimack, the loss was deathly frightening for Providence coach Tim Army, whose club missed a golden opportunity to gain ground on eighth place Maine last weekend.

After the game, Army did all he could to keep from going into the famous Jim Mora “Playoffs? Don’t talk about playoffs. I just hope we can win a game” rant.

“You lose 5-1 at home at this time of the year and I wouldn’t be too worried about the playoffs right now,” said Army. “We’ve just got to go play as well as we can Friday night [against Boston College].”

Not to be Ignored

Despite scribbling more than 1,800 words to this point, I think it would be unfair not to at least mention the incredible two-game series played between BU and Northeastern last weekend.

Going in, not a lot of people knew what to expect. Would BU continue to own the Huskies? Would this be NU’s turn to shine on the big stage?

I wasn’t fortunate enough to see either game. But I can say that when I heard BU had a 2-0 lead early in the series opener I assumed the former of my scenarios, not the latter, was playing out.

But Northeastern’s impressive rally to earn a tie on Friday night, in a game in which BU coach Jack Parker said his team was clearly outplayed for the final two periods and overtime, made me believe that NU made quite a statement. It sounded like it was puck luck and pipes that kept the Huskies from getting the win, not the dominance of the Terriers.

Long-time Boston Herald scribe John “Jocko” Connolly wrote about that game that it would be a lot to expect those two teams to put forth an effort that good in Saturday’s series finale. Jocko was right.

These teams not only put forth an effort that matched Friday, they surpassed it with brilliant hockey at each end and incredible goaltending to match. Each team netted a third-period goal, Northeastern’s game-tying tally coming with 2:22 remaining, and the Huskies were unable to convert on two partial power plays in OT to force yet another tie.

The old saying goes that a tie is like kissing your sister. Well, in this case, two ties must be like kissing a supermodel.

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

Anyone who knows me well might think I’d be using this space this week to rant about the federal government, President Obama’s speech or some problem with the stock market.

For some reason that’s all too complex for my mind right now.

Instead, I’ll turn my attention to a new fixation in my life: Facebook.

Two years ago, someone brought to me the idea of becoming a member on Facebook. Now, I was an early adopter of MySpace so you’d think that Facebook was a normal transgression. It was not.

I fought the urge until my day-job employer, a public relations firm, required it.

Immediately, people I hadn’t heard from were crawling out of the woodwork. My lives of the past that I thought were, well, in the past, were creeping forward again. Memories of being the geek in grammar school and the last-picked athlete in high school were taking over my body. I was being brought back to a land I firmly believed I’d buried years ago.

And I have to say, “I love it.”

Why, I don’t really know. Maybe it’s because many of my insecurities have left. Who knows? But I love being reconnected to so many people from my past, and knowing the goings-on in their lives (sometimes more than I want to know).

Right now I have just north of 400 Facebook friends. Probably all but three or four I can say I knew at one point or know pretty well.

So I stand here before you and say proudly, “My name is Jim and I’m a Facebook addict.”

The 12 steps will begin someday.

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