And Down the Stretch They Come
Two weekends is all that remains in Hockey East’s regular season and, at this point, the standings are about as muddy as they could be.
A few things we know right now:
One team has clinched home ice: New Hampshire. One team has guaranteed it won’t make the postseason: Providence.
Other than that, everything is up for grabs.
The most interesting team is Maine. The Black Bears, two points behind second-place Boston College and six points behind league-leading New Hampshire, can still finish first. Ironically, though, the Black Bears could also finish as low as ninth and miss the playoffs altogether.
Can someone say logjam?
That logjam is created between the third and ninth slots in the standings. Maine sits in third with 34 points. Vermont is ninth with 28 points.
Thus there are six points separating seven teams, making the stakes on these final regular-season games critical.
Some teams are already kicking themselves after recent losses, realizing that the magical points left on the table could hurt them come postseason.
Boston College, possibly the hottest offense in hockey, having scored at least six goals in four of its last eight games, had a temporary power outage last Friday night at Northeastern, losing 3-2 to the Huskies. BC answered with seven goals against Northeastern on Sunday but lamented losing points that, had BC swept Northeastern, would’ve placed the Eagles and the Wildcats in a tie for the top spot entering this weekend.
Merrimack, at the other end of the spectrum, put itself in great position to make the postseason for the first time since 2004 with a weekend sweep over Massachusetts. But the Warriors had somewhat of a no-show effort against Boston College on Tuesday night, losing 7-0.
Two teams at the opposite end of the spectrum, fighting for completely different fates, both left to lament the missed opportunities.
For York, the fact that his club responded to the Northeastern loss with two solid wins is a good sign. And as nice as it would’ve been to sit tied for first entering this weekend, knowing that New Hampshire is BC’s opponent in the final two games of the regular season works out just as well.
“Right now, we’re trying to win a pennant,” said York. “Using a basketball term, we’re trying to keep this a two-possession game. We want to keep within reach of New Hampshire entering the final weekend.”
Merrimack, too, might not have as much to worry about. Right now, the Warriors are on the right side of the playoff bubble, holding a one-point lead over Vermont for the final playoff spot. Aside of those two teams, though, is Massachusetts, which has played one more game than both Merrimack and Vermont and sits in seventh place, just a point ahead of the Warriors and two ahead of the Catamounts.
And while no opponent can ever be taken lightly, the fact that Merrimack closes its season against lowly Providence can be looked at as having potential points to grab in the final weekend, if necessary.
A Night for the History Books
Entering last Friday night’s game against Maine, the season high for goals allowed by the Massachusetts-Lowell River Haws was five, which happened twice — once in a 6-5 win over Northeastern and once in a 5-4 loss against BU.
Last Friday, it wasn’t just Maine that scored five goals against the River Hawks. It was Maine’s top line left wing Brian Flynn who lit up Lowell for five goals.
The five goals, in fact, were combined with two assists for a seven-point game, the best offensive performance in the history of Maine hockey, as the Black Bears defeated Lowell, 8-4.
“I’m surprised someone else hasn’t gotten seven,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “I’m happy for Brian. He’s worked extremely hard, and he really earned a lot of bounces.”
The five goals in a game match the record for goals by a player in a Hockey East contest. The last player to accomplish that was Brian Gionta, who scored five in one period (on five shots) against Maine in the 2000-01 season.
“It was kind of one of those days where everything was kind of going our way,” said Flynn.
Flynn is the second player to score five goals this season among Hockey East teams; rookie Stephane Da Costa accomplished the feat for Merrimack in a non-league game versus Army.
But Flynn’s accomplishment merits extra recognition given that it came against Lowell, a team known for stingy defense.
In 26 of 32 games this year, the River Hawks have allowed three goals or less. Both goaltenders for Lowell ranked among the nation’s leaders statistically (though Friday’s eight spot — three of which were given up by starter Nevin Hamilton while Carter Hutton gave up five — pushed both down the statistical ladders).
So how do you explain such an outburst? Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald believes much of it had to do with Flynn being opportunistic.
“[Flynn] got some fortunate bounces,” said MacDonald. “But most importantly he was able to capitalize on his bounces.”
Amazingly, Flynn kept his hot hand a night later when the two teams squared off again. Flynn scored another goal, but on that night, Lowell’s defense and goaltending capped his output at that resulting in a 4-2 win for the River Hawks.
A Tip of the Fedora
Two players reach the 100-point plateau for their careers last weekend.
Lowell’s Kory Falite reached the century mark with an assist on Lowell’s second goal of the game on Saturday night. Boston College’s Brian Gibbons matched a day later scoring a first-period goal in a 7-1 win against Northeastern.
For both players, reaching 100 was hardly the end of the respective nights.
Falite went on to score two critical third-period goals in Lowell’s 4-2 win over Maine. Gibbons exploded for two more goals and an assist for his first career hat trick on Sunday and then potted a goal and assist on Tuesday against Merrimack.
“He’s been an excellent player for us throughout this career,” York said of Gibbons’ accomplishment. “He had an outstanding night for us [against Northeastern].”
No Panic for the Catamounts
For the second straight weekend, Vermont earned just one point out of a weekend series and in doing so sits on the wrong side of the playoff bubble.
One season after earning the school’s second-ever NCAA Frozen Four berth, the Catamounts could be facing a doomsday scenario of missing the Hockey East playoffs.
Coach Kevin Sneddon isn’t hitting the panic button just yet. If anything, last weekend’s series between Vermont and New Hampshire was a positive sign for the Cats.
In Friday’s opening game, Vermont was dominant, outshooting the Wildcats, 43-26, and controlling play much of the evening. Bad bounces, including a deflected shot that would end up on the stick of Peter Leblanc for the overtime game winner, were the story of the night.
A night later, the Catamounts were massively outplayed for one period (UNH outshot Vermont, 22-8, to take a 2-0 lead in the first) but from the beginning of the second were clearly the better team on the ice. The result that night was a 3-3 tie, which probably seemed fitting given the slow start for Vermont and its subsequent response over the final 45 minutes.
So with just four regular season games left, Sneddon feels OK about his team’s chances to make the playoffs.
“There are still a lot of points out there to be had,” he said. “Looking at the standings, there’s not a lot of difference between fourth and 10th, so we’ve just got to keep chipping away and try to get our points when we can and hope that’ll be good enough to keep crawling up the standings.”
â€¢ Providence may be eliminated from the playoffs, but the Friars have a chance to play the role of spoilers. Providence plays two home-and-home series with the teams from the Merrimack valley — Lowell and Merrimack. Both of those clubs entered this year hoping for solid improvements in their final positioning in the standings, but both desperately need to earn points against Providence to do so. The Friars already put a little spoil into Boston University, earning a split of last weekend’s series as the Terriers battle for home ice.
â€¢ Speaking of the Terriers, the defending national champs will be on full display this weekend as they travel to Vermont. Both games of the series will be televised; Friday’s game is on NESN and Sunday’s finale is on ESPNU.
â€¢ Northeastern possibly has the toughest schedule to finish the regular season. The Huskies finished a home-and-home series with BC last weekend and will now play home-and-home series against first-place New Hampshire this weekend and Boston University next weekend.
And Finally, Not That It Has To Do With Anything, But …
I must say that, despite not really being a lover of the Winter Olympic Games outside of hockey, I’ve somehow become enthralled with this quadrennial.
I’ve found myself watching curling (though lost interest after the U.S. collapse on both the men’s and women’s side), speed skating (both short and long track), figure skating, ski jumping, snowboarding, a little bit of ice dancing and even the usually-boring 30-kilometer ski pursuit.
This year’s Olympics truly have enthralled me, and I’m sure much of the reason for that is the U.S. success.
Now, though, being enthralled is not enough for me. I want gold.
Obviously, not for myself as anyone who knows me knows I barely have an athletic bone in my body. But I want gold for the country on the ice.
With the U.S. women in the gold-medal game Thursday and the men having their chance at gold on Friday (and hopefully Sunday), I find myself more interested in the success of these teams than any other sporting event I can recall.
Contributing: Steven McCarthy