This Week in Hockey East: March 17, 2010

On to Boston

After one of the most dramatic quarterfinal rounds in league history, four teams will make the march to Boston this weekend to crown a league champion.

For two teams, it will be a short bus ride as stalwarts Boston College and Boston University make their respective rides down Commonwealth Avenue, over Beacon Hill and down to the TD Garden. Their opponents, Vermont and Maine, respectively, have considerably longer jaunts.

Regardless, all four teams are excited to be there.

How they got there, though, is a story in itself. This was the closest league quarterfinal round in the 26-year history of Hockey East. Three series went three games for only the second time and, similarly, two of the three series saw teams lose the opening game and rally to win the series. Before this year, only five teams had lost the opening game of a best-of-three Hockey East series and still advanced. In 1990, similarly, three series went three games and two teams won the series after losing the opening game. That year, though, the fourth series was a blowout as Maine ousted Massachusetts-Lowell, 7-3 and 16-0.

So saying that last weekend’s hockey was full of drama would be an understatement. Look at these story lines:

• No. 2 Boston College had possibly the “easiest” road to the Garden, yet squeaked out a 6-5 win in Friday’s opener before breaking open a 2-2 game in the third period.

• No. 6 Merrimack squandered a lead in the opening game against No. 3 BU, losing 3-2, but then responded with a brilliant overtime victory in Game 2 to force a third and deciding game. BU eventually pulled out the series with a top-notch special teams performance.

• No. 8 Vermont went to No. 1 New Hampshire and blew a two-goal lead in the opening game to lose, 7-4. Coach Kevin Sneddon called out his goaltender, Rob Madore after the game and Madore responded with back-to-back 1-0 shutouts, the latter one in overtime no less, to oust the top seed for just the fourth time in league history.

• No. 4 Maine announced before the playoffs that top goaltender Scott Darling was suspended, thrusting Dave Wilson, a senior who had just five career wins entering last weekend and who hadn’t won a game this year, into the spotlight. After a difficult 2-1 loss in Friday’s opener, the Black Bears rode Wilson’s 2-0 shutout in Game 2 and then came from behind late in Game 3 to force overtime and eventually win the game.

Given all of the dramatic action from last weekend, one has to believe that this weekend will be nothing short of action-packed. So enough talk about the past, let’s talk about what lies ahead.

BC-Vermont: Is Cinderella NCAA Bound?

Among college coaches, few are as aware and savvy as Boston College coach Jerry York when it comes to understanding the NCAA tournament selection process. Thus, he knows that if his Eagles win the Hockey East Championship, they may be dancing alone.

Should BC eliminate Vermont, currently Hockey East’s best bet for a second NCAA berth when the field is announced this Sunday, it’s a strong possibility that the Eagles will be the only representative from the league.

“It never leaves my mind, in terms of the national picture. We are always conscious of where we are in the PairWise and the RPI,” said York. “I think that by being aware of it, we know how volatile it still is and there could be some unbelievable teams here as we go through this weekend.

“I’m still hoping to get three teams from Hockey East into the NCAA tournament. We are certainly very proud of our league and I’d like to see three of us get in and I think we are deserving of it. I think the way the PairWise goes, there is still a chance for that. Whoever we put in that tournament is going to have a really good chance to win the whole thing. We might not have as many as four or five teams as we have had in the past years, but whoever plays there is going to have a chance to win this thing.”

Don’t, though, go kidding yourself that York’s team will roll over and play dead to keep Vermont’s NCAA hopes alive. BC is hoping to better its league-best eight titles and add another Lamoriello Cup to the mantle. Certainly the Eagles seem to be playing the best hockey of the four teams in the field.

That said, Vermont won the season series against the Eagles (though the one BC victory was a lopsided 7-1 game). While York can be confident of his team’s play of late, there’s still some trepidation given its opponent.

“We played three times and twice we lost, so certainly we’ve had a battle with Vermont this year,” said York. “For Vermont to go into Durham and win those back-to-back games shows a lot of momentum and it is certainly at the top of its game. We’ve got a team that has beaten us two of three times and that catches our attention.”

The positives for BC, though, include the fact that the team is scoring goals and playing pretty decent defense. The Eagles had some early season woes in both but much of that was due to young players that are now playing like veterans.

“We are playing four freshmen defensemen on a pretty regular basis of our six defensemen, and Tommy Cross is a veteran back there as a sophomore,” said York. “I think they have shown terrific improvement. They were good players when they came but they are adjusting to a strength and quickness factor as you move into it. I feel very good about their play and I think they will be fine this weekend.”

BC isn’t the only one playing solid defense. As mentioned earlier, Vermont hasn’t allowed a goal since Game 1 of the best-of-three series against New Hampshire. Though before that, netminder Rob Madore allowed six in the first two-plus periods of the opener against the Wildcats and sparked Sneddon’s ire.

“I think he [Madore] was a little bit shocked and had a ton of different emotions going on after Game 1 and what was said in the locker room,” said Sneddon. “There was no yelling or screaming, I was just very matter of fact about the way I thought he played.”

Madore, as some remember, led the Catamounts to the Frozen Four last season but his play has been up and down much of this year. Sneddon admitted that as much as challenging Madore to step up his game was to light a fire under the sophomore, it also was a way in which he hoped to spark the team.

“The team played pretty hard [on Friday]. I thought we had every chance to win that game, but unfortunately some goals went in that just aren’t typical for [Madore] and I guess I looked at it and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got to spark something in this team,'” Sneddon said. “We were pretty down in the locker room and knew it was going to be a long series, obviously if we were going to stay alive it was going to go three games and you have to take some calculated risks.

“We all obviously know that Rob’s probably the most mentally tough student-athlete we have on our team, so as much as it was about trying to spark Rob, it was to spark our team to play better defensively in front of him and I think the team kind of rallied around him.”

Now with his No. 1 goaltender back focused, the challenge will be containing a high-power BC offense.

“BC’s got such a great blend of having tremendous talent and the ability to score goals, but I also think they have a great ability to play team defense,” said Sneddon. “They use their speed in a very good way on back pressure, they’re very good on transition and their layers of defense are very solid.”

But beating BC is likely the only way for the Catamounts to keep their season alive. Despite being 14th in the current PairWise, the Catamounts face slipping out of contention with a loss on Friday. Though given the fact that we’re talking about the No. 8 seed in this tournament, it almost seems crazy that an at-large NCAA bid is even being mentioned in the same sentence.

“Our non-league conference record was impressive,” said Sneddon. “But it doesn’t make a lot of sense when you’re an eighth seed and still have hopes for an at-large.”

BU-Maine: The Rivalry Renewed

Any fans old enough to remember back to the early ’90s know that there was likely no better a non-traditional rivalry than Maine and Boston University. The clubs met in numerous Hockey East championship game and even squared off in the 1995 national title game with the Terriers walking away with the crown.

Slumps, scandals and just plain old bad timing have kept these two heated rivals from meeting on a grand stage. And usually it’s those big games that really keep major rivalries alive.

Another thing that dissolves rivalries is one team’s dominance over the other. That certainly has been the case between these two teams.

“BU has had our number this year and for several years,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “We were able to beat them at home this season but [BU has] one of the best winning percentages in Hockey East in the second half of the season.”

The fact that Maine even has a shot at BU is a miracle in some people’s book. Few gave the Black Bears a chance when it was revealed that Darling had been suspended before the playoffs began. But Wilson did his best to seize an opportunity and win the final two games of the best-of-three series against Lowell.

“I am really proud of David,” said Whitehead. “He persevered, not just this season, but during his career.”

Darling’s suspension for violating team rules has no length attached to it, so the sensible question is whether or not the top netminder will return this weekend. At this point, the answer is no.

“I am going to meet with him and we’ll keep moving forward,” said Whitehead. “But he won’t be in the net this weekend for sure.”

BU coach Jack Parker, like many others that witnessed Wilson’s play last weekend, doesn’t feel like a Maine club sans Darling is any less dangerous.

“Certainly Darling is having a great season, but I remember Wilson played once against us and he was great,” said Parker.

In that game, played on Valentine’s Day of 2009 when BU was on its way to the NCAA title, Wilson stopped 34 shots in a 2-2 tie.

“I’m not surprised that he stepped up [last weekend] and became the man for them in a crucial series, because some guys are just waiting for their chance,” Parker said. “Just because he’s the backup goaltender doesn’t mean he’s not a good goalie.”

Thus Parker knows that his team, which has acted out the Jekyll-and-Hyde routine a bit lately, will need to bring its best game if it’s going to advance.

“We know we can’t afford to be Mr. Hyde,” said Parker. “If we have a no-show type of game, our season is over. I know we have enough competitors and leadership to make sure that we are focused and ready instead of wondering, ‘I wonder how this game is going to go tonight?'”

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