The 25th edition of the Hockey East championship tournament is upon us and within the next couple of days, a champion will be crowned. If the final four is anything like the quarterfinals, expect plenty of shock and awe.
Assuming that the regular-season standings dictated a “script,” last weekend’s quarterfinals simply ripped that script in half.
Both Mass.-Lowell and Boston College, the fifth and sixth seeds, respectively, won their series in sweeps. No. 1 Boston University and No. 2 Northeastern were both forced to three games by Maine and Massachusetts, respectively.
For two nights, it seemed as if this weekend’s championship might have had No. 5 Lowell as its top seed.
The universe righted itself (sort of) on Sunday evening with BU and Northeastern winning (though NU needed every minute plus 10 extras to pull out the victory), and thus we enter this weekend’s championship with a pool of two highly successful teams all season long (BU and NU) along with two extremely hot teams down the stretch (BC and Lowell).
Now I know Dave Hendrickson would make some kind of wisecrack for me saying this, but this weekend it feels impossible to predict an outcome.
Here, though, is a brief look at our four remaining teams.
No. 5 Mass.-Lowell vs. No. 2 Northeastern
Season series: Northeastern swept, 3-0 (4-3, 3-0, 3-1)
Current PWR/NCAA prospects: Northeastern, 6th (NCAA spot clinched); UML, t-19th (qualifies only with autobid)
Last weekend’s three-game series pushed Northeastern to the brink. The Huskies, though, bent but did not break.
In the end, the victory in game three, which required overtime after UMass rallied in the final minute to tie the game, became the cherry on top of a great home season for the Huskies that saw massive and vocal crowds pack Matthews Arena.
“That was a great win for our seniors to finish up a terrific career here at Northeastern,” said head coach Greg Cronin, whose team advanced to the Garden for the first time since 1994. “I honestly didn’t know that it’s been 15 years. It’s great for the program.
“It’s great, too, for the fans.”
Those fans have become a major cog in the Northeastern program. The Huskies have one of the best traveling fan bases in Hockey East, and that will be on display on Friday afternoon when Northeastern faces Lowell at 5 p.m.
“The one thing that’s starting to become a really visible part about our program is our fan base that travels with us,” Cronin said about the student section better known as the Dog House. “The Dog House at BC on [the last night of the regular season], there had to be 1,000 kids up there. The Beanpot had to be thrilled because we brought four or five-thousand fans and twenty-2,500 to 3,000 Dog House members.
“When you build a program, that’s really the fuel that sustains the energy and the recruitability and the credibility of your program. They’ve just been incredible.”
The reason for the increased fan base, besides what I’m sure some might say is good marketing, is of course the team’s ability to win. By the conclusion of last weekend’s quarterfinal series, Cronin felt his team’s drive through the entire game, particularly on Sunday, was what spurred them to victory.
“I thought we ended up having a very sustained identity [against UMass],” said Cronin. “I think when you play like that you usually get rewarded.”
Now the Huskies will stand a new test on Friday evening when they face Lowell. The season series was closer than the win total (an NU sweep) and scores (the final win was 3-1 NU with an empty-netter despite Lowell holding a massive advantage in shots) indicated.
“Lowell has a terrific team. They’ve got as good of a defense as anybody in this league,” said Cronin. “They would probably argue their [defense] is as good as BU’s. Maury Edwards is an all-star and their forwards all have a very similar identity to what we do. They’re puck pursuers. They can skate.
“It’s going to be a heck of a game. I know that we swept them. All, except for the 3-0 game at home, could’ve gone Lowell’s way as well. Brad Thiessen was terrific in all three of those games. It’ll be a challenge. They might be the hottest team in the country right now.”
Vermont has never been the friendliest place to play for UMass-Lowell — until this past February. When the River Hawks went to UVM on February 20 and 21 and took three out of four points, there was a sense of confidence that came over the team; a confidence that told them they’re a force to be reckoned with.
“I think like most teams and athletes, when you’re playing well you have a high confidence level,” said Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald. “We went into Vermont with a lot of respect for their team, but we knew we just had to play our game. We didn’t have to play way over our heads or do anything spectacular. We just had to play our game to be successful.
“It’s a lot easier to focus when you’re more concerned about your game than your opponent’s. That gave us a lot of confidence going up there. It’s the way we’ve been playing most of the year.”
Still, all the confidence in the world found Lowell trailing the Catamounts, 3-1, on Friday night late in the third period. That was when they called upon yet another “confidence” that the team had gained along the way.
“One of the big turning points for [our season] was we had lost three games before Christmas and three games after,” said MacDonald. “We played Boston College on NESN on Friday the 13th [of February] and we had a come-from-behind win in that game. We scored a late goal and then scored a power-play goal in overtime. I think the way that game unfolded really helped our mindset. From that point forward we played really focused hockey.”
That effort was repeated on Friday night when Lowell’s Hockey East all-rookie team selection David Vallorani scored with 6:19 remaining to pull within a goal and Nick Schaus buried a goal with 30 left to send things to overtime.
With the game looking like it was headed for a second overtime, standout defenseman Maury Edwards scored to give Lowell an improbable victory and more confidence than it ever needed to close the series out a night later.
“When you experience [coming back] once or twice, you can kind of recall that,” said MacDonald. “And I thought we often times in the one-goal losses [throughout the season], we created enough scoring opportunities to have tied or won games but for some reason we just didn’t put it behind the goalie.
“So this gave us the chance to realize we had something concrete. That we came from behind against a very defensive oriented team. That’s going to build our confidence moving forward.”
Possibly the pinnacle of confidence-building for Lowell has come from two-pronged success defensively: goaltending and the penalty kill.
“If you’re playing aggressively and you get a penalty called against you, you’re not thinking, ‘Uh, oh. Here we go. They’re going to get a power-play goal,'” said MacDonald about his penalty kill that last weekend went 8-for-9. “[Killing penalties] builds the morale and the momentum of our team.
“Both of our goaltenders are playing really well,” added MacDonald. “Carter Hutton is looking the best he’s looked since he got injured in November. Our team feels really confident with both goaltenders.”
Lowell may be painted as the hottest team in the league, but MacDonald is realistic that every team, including those not playing this weekend, is strong enough to win in a single-elimination format. That’s what makes the tournament — and the hopes that Lowell can keep its season alive with an NCAA bid — such an opportunity for the River Hawks.
“As coaches, every year we say there’s great parity. But every year it gets tougher and tougher,” said MacDonald. “I don’t think that any team that’s playing now would want to be playing Merrimack or Providence because they’re really good teams. It’s such a major accomplishment to get to the Garden in this league. But it’s not going to get any easier down the road.”
My pick: This may seem like the year of the Dog, but I really believe that Lowell is on fire right now. This is my upset. Lowell, 2-1.
No. 6 Boston College vs. No. 1 Boston University
Season series: BU leads, 2-0-1 (1-1, 3-1, 5-3)
Current PWR/NCAA prospects: BU, 1st (NCAA spot clinched); BC, 17th (qualifies with autobid; outside chance to qualify by reaching league championship game)
Boston University enters this weekend’s Hockey East championship with not only the tournament’s No. 1 seed but likely too with the knowledge that it will have the number-one overall seed when the NCAA tournament selections are announced on Sunday.
That, though, doesn’t make head coach Jack Parker that excited, particularly given his displeasure with his team’s play of late.
“We’ve been on a slippery slope since the Beanpot,” said Parker, who noted that last Saturday’s loss in game two of the best-of-three series against Maine may have been a wake-up call. “I don’t think we’ve played really good hockey. We played a couple of really good games with Northeastern. They were really good games but I didn’t think we played real well.
“After that we had a couple of easy games. We played a couple of teams that weren’t playing their best. We played UMass and the [second] game was over pretty quickly. Then we had the two Providence games. The first game down at Providence was way too easy. And the game here to win the championship was a cakewalk. So we haven’t really been tested and we weren’t tested this past weekend until [game three].”
That said, BU’s performance when everything was one the line in game three was much to the liking of Parker.
“I was glad to see how we responded,” Parker said simply.
Had BU had another cakewalk through the quarterfinals, Parker noted his team would’ve been even more vulnerable entering this weekend’s final four.
“You never got woken up when you don’t lose. We had a long time since we lost,” said Parker. “We’ve been going and sliding a little bit, and sometimes you get up a little bit. I thought the game at UMass when we got down 3-0 and came back and won that won, I thought we played great in that game. And I thought that was a rekindling [of playing well] but it wasn’t.
“So I think what happened to us [in the Maine series] certainly got us going.”
Right where you want your team, coach?
“I still don’t think we’re playing as well as we could be.”
So what should we expect on Friday night from the Terriers? That’s a question in and of itself. If there’s any motivation (beside, of course, winning the league championship), it’s the fact that BU faces off against BC.
The Terriers have done an excellent job of getting up for all three meetings against the Eagles, earning wins in the final two games after a tie in game one. But one doesn’t have to go back too far to 2006 when BU dominate the Eagles in the season only to lose, 5-0, in the NCAA regionals.
It would be surprising to even suggest that could ever happen again.
“We done pretty well against BC and them being our archrival it will be a very emotional game,” said Parker. “That will be good for us. But our guys don’t care who they have to play, they’re just glad that they’re going [to the Garden]. Give us anybody. We’ll play the Bruins if we have to. Just give us a game at the Garden and we’ll be happy.”
All positive words that certainly paint the picture of a BU team that has righted the ship that never appeared to be sinking … and just at the right time.
Boston College winning a playoff series doesn’t surprise many. But winning a playoff series by dominating a team that just weeks earlier owned you, that is a shocker.
“I thought [Friday] night’s game was kind of out of character for both teams,” said BC head coach Jerry York of a 5-3 win that saw the Eagles jump out to leads of 4-0 and 5-1 over New Hampshire. “[Saturday’s] game was very well played, a really excellent college hockey game. Who would have thought that the early goal by Matt Price would hold up for the rest of the game? That was a good jump start for us.”
That jump start has Boston College returning to the TD Banknorth Garden in a quest for its ninth league title and its seventh under York. This year, though, the league title would mean quite a bit more.
BC’s lackluster regular season has painted the team into a corner. There are extreme scenarios in which BC would make the NCAA tournament by advancing to but losing in the Hockey East title game. To do so, it would seem far too many planets have to align for the Eagles to put any faith in that. Thus, York and his team are ready to try to earn an NCAA bid the tough way: winning the conference title.
“You know it’s an interesting scenario; you know I firmly believe that there are four Hockey East schools assured of the national tournament, with BU and Northeastern, New Hampshire and Vermont, and they’ve all certainly had terrific seasons,” said York. “Now we’re trying to stay alive in this thing. Lowell beat Vermont and they’re trying to stay alive also.
“We’re going to send four teams to the nationals, now we’re trying to join them. I think the depth of our league, the balance in our league is indicative of some of my previous comments.”
In essence, the road ahead may be the easiest for the Eagles. Their record on Garden ice is incredible, particularly in March where BC has won three of the last four league titles.
“It’s pretty exciting for us to go to the Garden,” said York. “[The Whittemore Center at UNH] has been a difficult place for us to play over the last number of years and to go up there and play well in both games, we feel really proud of that.”
Pride about anything in a year like this is a major positive for the Eagles. This season’s performance has been anything but up to snuff for that school’s expectations, but there’s a dÃƒÂ©jÃƒÂ vu type of feeling that is emanating from the Eagles locker room these days.
Just a season ago, BC was licking its wounds toward the end of the regular season. An overtime loss to Northeastern on the final Friday of the regular season was the team’s low point. The next night, though, BC responded with a superb effort that kicked off a nine-game win streak culminating in a national title.
Thus far that scenario has painted itself again in the form of a direct copy. Part of that is the mentality York asks his players to uphold.
“We talk about having the ‘glass jaw’ and having a ‘steel jaw,'” said York. “And you know, a steel jaw can take a hit and can stay in, but the glass jaw you fall apart when something bad happens. On Saturday, [the final penalty kill] was the perfect example; we’re trying to defend a 1-0 lead and all of a sudden we’re in the penalty kill situation and I thought we showed that kind of steel jaw and resiliency there. We made some really good plays: blocks and good clears there.”
York and his team hope to bring that steal jaw with them on Friday night when they face their cross-town rivals, BU. Failing to do so means the end of the road, but accomplishing the task at hand has a sweet reward.
“We’ve had a kind of up and down season, that’s why we have to win this thing to get to nationals I believe,” said York. “I wish we were one of the four teams I talked about [BU, Northeastern, UNH, Vermont] that could play with house money, but we don’t have any; we’ve got to win out here.”
My pick: BC is hot, but BU is just too good for the Eagles. BU wins, 3-2.
Championship Game Picks
I know I’ve outlined a BU-Lowell final, but my picks below outline all three scenarios:
BC-Lowell: Lowell wins, 3-2.
BC-Northeastern: BC wins, 4-2.
BU-Lowell: BU wins, 5-3.
BU-Northeastern: BU wins, 4-2.
And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But …
As Dave Hendrickson mentioned last week, this is the final regular Hockey East column of the year. Having finished my first season alongside Dave, I’ll admit it really was a pleasure (a poor picks record aside).
Many don’t know my background, but I’ve been in and around Hockey East since its inception, first as a fan, then as an equipment manager and statistician and ultimately as a beat writer at BC. It’s great to see how far the league has come in 25 years and I really look forward to celebrating that accomplishment with this weekend’s Hockey East tournament.
I want to thank a few people who have made this year easier on me. In particular, I have to thank the Hockey East beat writers who have shared quotes and postgame interview transcripts with me: Melissa Parrelli, Keith Lavon, Scott Weighart and Joe Meloni. I also want to thank all of the Hockey East sports information directors who, night in and night out, do a great job keeping the media informed.
Here’s to hoping that Hockey East gets five NCAA bids and dominates the tournament. Keep the national title in Hockey East!