Boston College, New Hampshire on collision course to decide Hockey East title

We’re almost at the point of handing out postseason awards (see below). Before I even think of a player or coach who deserves an award, I think we have to recognize the folks at the Hockey East office who have, once again, assembled a schedule that will allow the league regular-season championship to be played out on the ice.

The Boston College Eagles celebrate Steven Whitney's goal which opened scoring in the game. The visiting Boston College Eagles defeated the Boston University Terriers 3-2 to sweep their Hockey East series on Friday, January 21, 2011, at Agganis Arena in Boston, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Boston College needs better than a split to overtake New Hampshire for the Hockey East title (photo: Melissa Wade).

For the second straight year, Boston College and New Hampshire will face off in the final weekend series. The teams are separated by one point atop the league standings in what has turned into a two-horse race. The Wildcats have 38 points; the Eagles have 37. BC will host UNH on Friday night before traveling to Durham the next night.

Seriously, you couldn’t draw this up better with a crystal ball.

It’s been quite some time since UNH and BC played. The two squared off on Nov. 5, when Matt DiGirolamo made 31 saves in a 2-1 road win for the Wildcats. At that point in the season both clubs had unanswered questions.

Both teams had started slow by their own standards. UNH used that weekend as a springboard to success. BC stumbled in that game and then didn’t put things together completely until a month later when it swept BU.

But as we move into the final weekend of the regular season, both teams are playing very good hockey. The Eagles’ only loss in their last 11 was against a reinvigorated Northeastern team two weeks ago. UNH had a bump in the road a few weeks ago against Merrimack, but otherwise has been chugging along with consistent hockey.

Both teams admit, though, that after a long season they’re more than happy to be in a battle for the league title in the final weekend.

“It’s a unique situation that in the last weekend of the season we’ll determine where the trophy is going to go,” said BC coach Jerry York. “It’s been a long time since we’ve won the regular season.

“We acknowledge the fact we’re in a pennant race. We’ve held serve [to date] in the race and have played ourselves out of it. We’re excited by it.”

“It’s pretty exciting,” said UNH coach Dick Umile. “Here you are at the end of a long season, a very competitive one. And it comes down to the final game.”

Umile also acknowledges that the two teams are very different clubs since the Nov. 5 matchup.

“We’re a better team than we were then,” said Umile. “Kids have gotten better and improved. I’m sure Jerry [York] could say that about his guys.”

While many had high expectations for the Eagles coming off a national title and returning most key contributors, not as many were confident in New Hampshire. The Wildcats entered the season with a solid top offensive line that has performed to expectations, but untested depth, particularly in goal.

Though Umile isn’t overly surprised in his team’s success, he’s extremely pleased at the way things have come together over the past five months.

That begins in net with DiGirolamo, who was relegated to limited work heading into this season but proved his worth from the get-go and has led the Wildcats into the position they are in.

“You have to give [DiGirolamo] credit. He’s been tremendous,” said Umile. “He’s been so consistent all season and has given us an opportunity every night to win.”

While a regular season title will be the focus of both teams, UNH also has an additional concern for this weekend, and that’s solidifying its footing in the PairWise Rankings. The Wildcats struggle at times out of league and are much closer to the bubble than is comfortable for the team that perennially is a postseason contender.

“A win against a Boston College will help us tremendously [in the PairWise],” said Umile. “We need to win some more hockey games to solidify that we’re going to get to the NCAA tournament.”

For now, though, most everyone will be focused on the games at hand. Friday’s game will be televised on NESN Plus, as the Red Sox-Yankees spring training game will be on NESN — beginning at 7:30 p.m. EST.

And definitely get ready for some great hockey for, once again, this Hockey East race is the one to watch!

End-of-season hardware

With just a week left in the regular season, I’m going to go ahead and cast my vote for some of the key league awards. Understand, these are my selections solely and don’t reflect the opinion of my counterpart, Dave Hendrickson (maybe he’ll share his selections with you next week!).

So here we go:

Player of the year: Paul Thompson, New Hampshire

Runners-up: Joe Cannata, Merrimack; Gustav Nyquist, Maine; John Muse, Boston College

This honestly was the most difficult of the major awards for me to pick, as I think any of the four players I mentioned above can win the award. To me, Thompson was the offensive spark plug on a talented top line for the Wildcats. He did a great job of filling Bobby Butler’s shoes and is a major reason that the Wildcats are playing for the league title this weekend.

Rookie of the year: Charlie Coyle, Boston University

Runners-up: Brodie Reid, Northeastern; Michael Pereira, Massachusetts

Coyle lived up to all expectations for the Terriers and was consistent in his offensive production throughout the season. I think that Reid’s impact on Northeastern was strong but when it came down to it, Coyle to me is the rookie who made the biggest impact in league play.

Coach of the year: Mark Dennehy, Merrimack

Runner-up: Tim Whitehead, Maine

This award, to me, isn’t even a race. I think what Whitehead has done down the stretch to get his team tuned up for the playoffs is impressive, but Dennehy’s team has consistently achieved greatness throughout the year, reaching a number of major program milestones along the way.

All-Hockey East first team

G: Joe Cannata, Merrimack
D: David Warsofsky, Boston University
D: Brian Dumoulin, Boston College
F: Paul Thompson, New Hampshire
F: Cam Atkinson, Boston College
F: Gustav Nyquist, Maine

All-Hockey East second team

G: John Muse, Boston College
D: Blake Kessel, New Hampshire
D: Jeff Dimmen, Maine
F: Stephane Da Costa, Merrimack
F: Wade MacLeod, Northeastern
F: Brian Gibbons, Boston College

All-rookie team

G: Dan Sullivan, Maine
D: Adam Clendening, Boston University
D: Anthony Bitetto, Northeastern
F: Charlie Coyle, Boston University
F: Brodie Reid, Northeastern
F: Michael Pereira, Massachusetts