Fighting for those final playoff berths

A week ago, Jim surveyed the NCAA tournament chances of Hockey East’s top teams.  This time let’s look at those schools with the more modest immediate goal of just making the league playoffs. 

Who’s going to make it and who isn’t?

The top six spots are pretty much locked up, albeit with the order still very much in doubt.  New Hampshire, Boston College, Boston University, Merrimack, Maine, and Northeastern look to be in.

You might quibble over Northeastern since all of the remaining teams except Massachusetts-Lowell hold two games in hand over the Huskies.  That’s a valid point.  However, a look at the standings  shows Northeastern with 19 points and a .500 league record (7-7-5).  The Huskies would need to fall past at least three teams down to where Vermont now stands at 3-11-3.

Northeastern hasn’t mathematically clinched a playoff berth but it’s inconceivable that they won’t get one.  (Fans of the William Goldman book or movie The Princess Bride can substitute another word for inconceivable.)

Which leaves Massachusetts (14 points),  Providence (10), Vermont (9), and Lowell (6) with the River Hawks in particularly bad shape not only because of their present standing but also because they give up two games in hand to the other three.

UMass is in the best shape and in the worst shape.  The Minutemen have earned 14 points but have the league’s toughest remaining schedule.  Nine of its remaining 10 games are against nationally ranked foes. 

Their cushion should hold up, but it could get tight over the final two weekends unless they have some success against the league’s iron. They’ve already tied BU and UNH and are 3-2-1 over their last six games so that could happen, but it’s a tough row to hoe.  Either way, that Feb. 12 contest against Providence could hold the key to some extra breathing room.

My pick: UMass makes it, which leaves one spot for three teams.

It gets a lot tighter in Providence’s position.  The Friars are only a single point ahead of Vermont in the race for the final playoff berth and they don’t have a league win since Nov. 5.  They do, however, have the most remaining games (five) against unranked opponents among the contenders for that berth. The Friars play twice at Vermont, once at UMass, and have a home-and-home with Lowell.

Neck-and-neck behind them is Vermont, which has a slightly tougher schedule. The Catamounts play six games against nationally ranked teams along with two against the Friars and another two against the River Hawks.

Lowell’s giving away the two games in hand amounts to a serious nail in its coffin.  The River Hawks will need to pull a major league Bela Lugosi in the final two weekends against Providence and Vermont to escape the cellar, much less reach eighth place.

My pick: Lowell finishes last.  That’s the easy part even though I do like the River Hawks and wish them well.

The final playoff berth could be decided this weekend when Providence travels to Vermont for two.  A sweep for either team would be huge; even three points would act more like four because the two teams tied earlier this year.  As a result, the winner this weekend gets the tiebreaker.

I’m picking the Catamounts.  They’ve played more than a few stinkers (a 6-0 loss to UMass two weeks ago and a 7-1 thumping at the hands of Merrimack last weekend), they trail Providence by a point and have the tougher schedule.  Even so, when they’ve played well they’ve looked pretty good.  So they’re my pick.

UMass seventh.  Vermont eight.

I reserve the right to change my opinion next week.

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In a recent column I gave a link to my fiction website, not realizing that the formatting I used prepended to my link.  As a result, it didn’t work.  If you’d like to follow the progress of my novel Cracking the Ice to its publication in May or check in on my other fiction, click here and bookmark it.

I also comment herewith often snarky comments about Boston-area sports other than college hockey.

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