Going Into The Ark, Two By Two
The final week comes down to a pairing of teams two by two (barring a hard-to-conceive sweep of Boston University by Providence).
BU and Northeastern will finish one-two in some order. In the event of a tie, the two teams share the regular season title but BU gets the top seed based on the head-to-head tiebreaker.
New Hampshire and Vermont will finish three-four in some order. If they split their weekend series, UNH takes the three seed.
Massachusetts-Lowell and Boston College will finish five-six in some order. The River Hawks lead by a point. If they hold that lead or finish tied with BC, they get the five seed.
Massachusetts and Maine are locked into the seven and eight seeds, respectively.
The raindrops are falling and the ark has closed on Providence and Merrimack.
(Where is former Hockey East Media Relations guru Noah Smith when you need him to complete a metaphor?)
Not Your Father’s Huskies
If you’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for Northeastern to fold, here’s some advice.
These Huskies aren’t like last year’s team that stumbled down the stretch. And they sure aren’t like all the predecessors before that rarely got a sniff of first place.
Will Northeastern sweep BC to take its first ever Hockey East regular season championship? That remains to be seen.
But clearly this year’s Huskies are different. They’re almost a mathematical lock to earn their first NCAA bid since 1994. (Within Hockey East, only Merrimack has suffered through a longer drought.)
“Last year was a different team,” NU coach Greg Cronin says after being asked for the umpteenth time to compare the two squads. “There was a different dynamic. There were different players. We won all those games early 2-1, 3-2, and in overtime.
“I knew as a coach that when we were winning all those games close, that we weren’t legit. It was fun. It was a nice ride. But I’ve coached teams that have been to national championships and Final Fours and I just didn’t see the substance behind it last year. It was almost like, ‘Wow is this supposed to be happening?'”
Not that last year’s club was devoid of confidence. In fact, the seeds of this year’s success were sown when it bounced back late in the season.
“The test of our confidence was challenged when we lost a couple in a row to Vermont and Providence and then we never really got back on track until the end of the year when we beat BC at BC,” Cronin says. “When we responded the way we did against BC, and then we got the [playoff] win up in Vermont forcing a game three, I think this season started.”
This year’s Huskies seized first place early and haven’t relinquished their grip despite dogged pursuit by BU.
“The start we had this year had way more substance to it,” Cronin says. “Look at the number of games we won by multiple goals. A lot of the games we’ve won this year have been two-, three- or four-goal cushions. To me, that’s more of a reflection of substance.”
Cronin points to Northeastern’s three games in November against New Hampshire as the time when he first saw the substance come through. The Huskies had lost at UNH on a game-winner scored with less than three minutes left, then returned to Matthews Arena where they fell behind 2-0 only to battle back for a 2-2 tie. Facing the Wildcats again a few weeks later, they took a 3-1 lead and not even a UNH extra-attacker goal could deny the Huskies.
“I never thought for once there was an issue with the credibility or substance behind what we’ve done this year,” Cronin says. “One of the biggest reasons is because our goalie is better than he was last year. The other reason is because we have six seniors this year who went through the battles the last three years and learned what it took to win.
“When somebody tastes success and then it gets slapped out of them, so to speak, their ability to bounce back is what generates that belief and that substance.”
Clearly, the Huskies have it.
BU’s Not So Secret Weapon
Boston University’s most potent weapon was on display again last weekend in a 6-3, 7-2 sweep of UMass, obliterating a 3-0 deficit in the first win. On both nights, the Terriers scored three power-play goals. They now can boast a 23.2 percent conversion rate within in league, a country mile ahead of second-best Vermont’s 17.2 percent.
Perhaps most impressive in this weekend’s performance is how they did it.
“They played us completely different [the two nights],” BU coach Jack Parker says. “[On Friday], they played a real pro-style: keep you on the perimeter and don’t pressure. [On Saturday], they pressured like hell. [Both nights] we got three power play goals. That’s a sign of a good power-play team, [one] that can figure out what the other team is doing and execute well.”
“[On Friday], we had to play from behind the net all night long. We had to change our power play quite a bit for the way they played us.
“[On Saturday], we had the chance to make what we call a bypass pass. Instead of going from the left side to the middle point to the right side, we went from the left top of the circle to the right top of the circle or maybe a little bit lower from the right dot to the left dot and we found guys. We were allowed to find the bypass pass and when you do that it really puts pressure on the goaltender.”
Parker also recognizes that regardless of the X’s and O’s, his team’s power play has got something others can’t match.
“We’ve got big time players out there that can make those plays,” he says. “Matt Gilroy, Colin Wilson, Nick Bonino, and [Brandon Yip]. We’ve got guys that are NHL players and we’ve got guys that are going to play the power play in the NHL.”
The Importance Of Finishing First
From one perspective, winning the regular season championship should mean more to Northeastern than BU because it will be a landmark for the program. From another perspective, the Terriers want to reclaim what they feel is rightfully theirs.
So how important is winning the title?
“We want to win the regular season championship. Of course we do,” Cronin says. “But we’ve been so focused on taking it one game at a time. We can’t look at any further than one game because BU has been on our heels the entire second half. That’s what we’ve been doing.
“BC will be extremely dangerous this weekend. We can’t afford to even think about a league championship. We’re just trying to win the game on Friday.”
Parker is similarly dismissive of the relative importance getting the number one seed in the playoffs compared to the number two.
“It will be meaningful to win the Hockey East regular season championship,” he says. “If we tie Northeastern, we’ll be the number one seed but we’ll get a piece of the championship. If we beat Northeastern, we’ll be the number one seed but we’ll be the champions by ourselves.
“As I’ve said many times, it doesn’t matter who you play in this league. If it says Hockey East on their shirt, they’re going to be a tough opponent.
“It would be nice to be the champion of the league before we start to play the playoffs. That’s what we’d like to do. But that’s going to be a tough road because Northeastern is playing great.”
Heating Up At The Right Time
UNH doesn’t usually fly under the radar. The Wildcats are perennial contenders who are expected to take home ice, contend for the title, and be players come time for the NCAA Selection Show.
So it’s gone a bit unnoticed, or perhaps underappreciated, what the Wildcats have done of late. They now have a five-game win streak and are 7-1-1 since getting swept by BU.
UNH coach Dick Umile is quick to give credit to Hockey East Goaltender of the Month, Brian Foster. In February, the junior posted a 6-1-1 record with a 1.86 GAA, and a .932 save percentage. But Umile’s praise goes further than that.
“Brian Foster has played very well in the net for us,” Umile says. “He’s given us a consistent effort every night.
“Our team has competed hard defensively. We’ve played well off the puck. It was an area that we wanted to improve in and I think we’ve done that.
“Our scoring has been a little bit spread out. That’s been a good thing.”
This weekend’s matchup with Vermont might seem to have lost some of its expected luster with home ice locked up and first place out of reach, but Umile knows these two games could be crucial in the NCAA tournament picture. Vermont is tied for fifth in the PairWise; UNH ranks eighth.
Not to mention the need to keep the positive momentum going.
“It’s important because of where we’re at in the season,” Umile says. “For both teams these are the kind of games that you’re going to have to play in the playoffs or if you’re fortunate enough, the national picture.
“It’s going to be: what are you capable of doing against a team the caliber of Vermont? I think it’s all timing. It’s about how you play right now.
“It’s also about the national picture. If you’re not going to win the Hockey East playoffs, you want to give yourself the opportunity to be an at-large team. These games will be important in that selection.”
A Tough Weekend
After three straight wins, one over Northeastern and then a sweep of Maine, UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon had to feel better about his team going into last weekend than he felt coming out. Giving up 13 goals to BU had to hurt.
“Discipline is a real issue with our team in terms of taking penalties and has been over the last few weeks,” Cahoon said after the second loss. “It continued to haunt us against a team that has an exceptional power play.
“We can feel victimized all we want, but the truth of the matter is that we are marching to the box way too many times to play that team and try to stay in the game.”
When asked how he felt about his team going into a playoff matchup against either Northeastern or a rematch with BU, he expressed some disappointment but even more hope.
“I’m not feeling great about them right now but come Monday and Tuesday we get back to work,” Cahoon said. “I’ve got a good group of kids. They’re resilient. They’ve come to play most nights during the year. There have been very few nights like this that I’ve had with this team.
“Our record is disappointing to us, but if you look you’ll see we’ve played a lot of teams right to the wire and we’ve lost a lot of tough games.
“This team needs to learn to win a little bit more than they understand it right now. I’m disappointed with the consistency as they are as well.”
Looking Ahead To Next Year
The season ends for Merrimack this weekend, but coach Mark Dennehy will be bringing back all his key contributors except for one. It’s a big one, Rob Ricci, but only one other senior, Grant Farrell, has regularly dressed.
Freshman Joe Cannata (2.38 GAA, .917 Sv%) has taken over as the number one goalie. Freshman defenseman Karl Stollery has opened eyes. Sophomore Chris Barton leads the team with 22 points and freshman Jesse Todd is only one point behind that.
Considering the well-chronicled number of one-goal losses for the Warriors — a school record 15 — another year of maturation on this young team could turn many of those losses into wins.
“[This is] my fourth year here and this freshman class is the best class we’ve had,” Dennehy said recently. “Karl Stollery is as good as any freshman defenseman in Hockey East, which automatically puts him among the best freshman defensemen in the country.
“Jesse Todd has had a good second half playing with Ricci and he isn’t foreign to playing with good players in big games. Chris Barton has avoided the sophomore slump. We’ve asked a lot of him and of our younger players and they’ve delivered.
“There’s no doubt we’re excited with where we’re going. Hopefully we can keep these guys around for four years.
“I think we’ve stabilized the program. We have a core group of players. Now it’s a matter of sprinkling in some superstars as we move forward.”
Thanks for Scott Weighart for his assistance. And as always, to The Kid.