Top seed Boston College strong entering Hockey East playoffs

The featured teams this week are Merrimack and Maine. The two will square off in what typically is the most gripping series of the quarterfinals.

But to heighten the suspense — you can’t stand it, right? — we’ll go from top to bottom.

No. 1 Boston College hosts No. 8 Massachusetts

Brian Gibbons scores on the penalty shot to complete scoring in BC's 9-5 win over BU on Friday, December 3, 2010, at Agganis Arena in Boston, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Boston College has its first Hockey East regular season title since 2005 (photo: Melissa Wade).

Could BC possibly be going into the playoffs on any better note? It’s hard to imagine.

The Eagles swept New Hampshire last weekend to take their 11th regular season Hockey East title and their first since 2005.

Yup, you got that right. Even though they won national championships and the Hockey East tournament two of the last three years, the Eagles didn’t take the regular season crown either time.

The way they won last weekend makes them a prohibitive favorite to return to the Garden and a strong favorite to repeat as tournament champs. On Friday, they totally shut UNH down, holding one of the top offensive teams in the country to 12 shots with very few of them in Grade A territory, while taking 42 shots themselves. On Saturday, they rebounded from a 2-0 deficit and defeated the Wildcats in a closely contested, playoff-style contest.

“The play of both teams fit very well with a championship game,” BC coach Jerry York said after the game. “There was outstanding ebb-and-flow to the game. We were strong, they were strong. There was good goaltending at both ends of the ice.

“The compete level on both teams was terrific to watch. It had all the intensity of the championship game we anticipated on the bus ride up.”

UMass fans won’t want to hear this, but their team is the one still playing for which I can’t conjure a winning scenario. Not with the way BC is playing right now.

That said, UMass had to tie a very hot Maine team on Saturday to make the playoffs since Providence defeated Merrimack to temporarily pull into a tie with the Minutemen (while holding the tiebreaker). Maine had won six straight, but on the weekend outscored them by only the tiniest of margins, 8-7. And one week earlier, the Minutemen lost back-to-back one-goal games to the seemingly invincible Eagles, 4-3 and 2-1.

So perhaps rumors of UMass’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

No. 2 New Hampshire hosts No. 7 Vermont

On paper, this matchup should read for UNH: Go to the Garden, go straight to the Garden. Do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars.

The Wildcats played a terrific game on Saturday, battling tooth and nail with the second-ranked team in the country before falling just short.

“It was a great hockey game, but a difficult one to lose because I thought we played well and they played well,” UNH coach Dick Umile said. “I was pleased with the way we played tonight and I don’t say that too many times when we lose.

“But I was proud of how we played, especially after last night. We went head to head and had an opportunity to win against a very, very good team. As far as I’m concerned, they’re the best that we’ve seen.”

The Wildcats don’t really have a weakness. The only thing keeping this matchup from being a do not pass go series is that they’ve lost in the quarterfinals the last two seasons. Last year, it happened as the No. 1 seed against these very same Vermont Catamounts. (The year before, as a No. 3 against BC.) After losing the opener, Vermont shut out UNH in Games 2 and 3 by identical 1-0 scores.

Of course, while the jerseys are the same, one could contend that the teams are not. In particular, the Catamounts would appear to be a far cry from last year’s upset warriors. Last season’s edition was good enough to warrant an NCAA tournament invitation despite finishing eighth in the regular season and losing in the semifinals at the Garden. In the NCAA tournament, they lost to eventual national runner-up Wisconsin by only a single goal.

This year? They’re tied for the second-worst offense in the league and can’t make up for that in the defensive end, where they’re ranked seventh. (They’re also a pretty distant seventh at 3.15 goals against per game compared to sixth-ranked Maine at 2.70.) Until the Cats defeated last-place Massachusetts-Lowell in the season finale, they’d gone six games without a win.

With a playoff berth on the line, their Friday night tie with Lowell prompted UVM coach Kevin Sneddon to say, “I thought we were 12 players shy of being a good team tonight. I literally think half of our team showed up and half didn’t. … It wasn’t about clinching playoffs, it was about playing as well as we possibly could this weekend going into the playoffs.”

This series shouldn’t be that close. Only UNH’s recent quarterfinal struggles would argue otherwise.

No. 3 Boston University hosts No. 6 Northeastern

BU and Northeastern could easily wind up playing five straight games against each other. Last weekend, they split a home-and-home series, with the road team winning both times. The craziness started on Friday night when the Huskies scored a short-handed goal to tie it late in the third period, only to see the Terriers respond with the short-handed game-winner a minute later.

It got no more “normal” one night later, when the Huskies broke their nine-game winless streak at Agganis Arena. That loss was particularly costly for BU since the Terriers would have taken the No. 2 playoff seed with a win, based on the tiebreaker with UNH. No offense to Vermont, but Northeastern is a far more formidable playoff foe.

All of which left BU coach Jack Parker fuming at his oft-infuriating Jekyll-and-Hyde team.

“Rule No. 1 is don’t beat yourself, and we just beat ourselves tonight,” he said. “Stupid penalties, bad plays, bad passes, turnovers. We weren’t focused. It was disguised with us getting 44 shots. But we get up 1-0, and once again this team does not know how to play for 60 minutes.

“They haven’t learned that lesson all year long. I thought we played poorly last night and squeaked out a win, and tonight we played poorly and got beat. I couldn’t have been more disappointed with about 80 percent of my guys.

“If I benched everybody who took a stupid penalty this weekend, we wouldn’t have a team.”

What will Parker get out of his team this weekend? Who knows.

On the other bench, Northeastern coach Greg Cronin will be returning after a suspension for NCAA violations.

The Huskies may have gotten off to a rough start earlier this season, but could easily pull off an upset in this series. Since taking BC to overtime in the Beanpot, they’ve played the top three teams in the league dead even: three of four points from BC, one of four from UNH and a split with BU.

Count them out at your own peril.

No. 4 Merrimack hosts No. 5 Maine

Two weeks ago, Merrimack held an eight-game winning streak (all within the league), the last three without star forward Stephane Da Costa. The Warriors had won 14 of their last 15 contests.

Now, they’ve lost three of their last four, including a collective 11-1 two-game thumping at the hands of Maine, their quarterfinals opponent.

It sure looks like a bad time for the playoffs to be starting for Merrimack. Yet if you ask coach Mark Dennehy how he feels about his team, the answer comes back strong and unequivocal.

“Really good,” he says. “I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to go into the playoffs a couple of weeks ago because it would have been without Stephane. I know we’re going in with him, we’re going to be healthy, and we’re going to be at home.

“I said to our team, ‘Hey guys, the regular season is over. We’re 22-8-4. There’s only two teams in the country with fewer losses. We have the second-best offense and the second-best defense in the league, the second-best power-play, the third-best penalty kill.’

“We’re good. We’re a pretty good team. What we need to do is make sure that we’re doing the things that we’ve done when we’ve played our best. Now there’s no safety net. Every team we play is going to be good.”

Dennehy sees three keys to the series with Maine. “The team that, No. 1, plays the hardest; No. 2, executes their game plan the longest; and No. 3, believes is going to have success.

“I’m excited. We’ve taken care of two things that we wanted to coming into the season: getting in the playoffs and getting home ice.

“We’ve got more goals on the table, and what we’ve done is give ourselves an opportunity to go after those goals.”

Dennehy held Da Costa out of Saturday’s contest as a precautionary measure since the Warriors clinched home ice on Friday, but harbors no concerns that his leading scorer will be anything less than 100 percent. Da Costa scored a goal and added two assists on Friday, his only game played in the last seven.

“Ask anybody that was at the game on Friday how he played,” Dennehy says. “It’s amazing to me how quickly he acclimated himself back to the game. He hadn’t played in three weeks and arguably was the best player on the ice again, which is usually the case.

“I think it would have been irresponsible of me to come back with him on Saturday after not playing [for so long], but he’s ready to go.”

Dennehy isn’t worried at all about the lopsided losses to Maine (without Da Costa) two weekends ago. He sees no psychological advantage for either team.

“We also played them [a few] weeks before that and beat them here, 7-1,” he says. “For me it comes down to who can spin it the best, which coach.

“All those games are irrelevant. They don’t play any part in what’s going to go on. What you’re going to have on Friday, Saturday and potentially Sunday are two very good teams that are playing for the right to get to the Boston Garden.”

Same thing, Dennehy figures, for the playoff experience edge Maine can boast of, having taken BC to overtime last year in the championship game.

“It’s what you can get your guys to believe,” he says. “My team, the majority of the season, has been very business-like in their approach to this.

“If there’s been anything that has changed potentially is maybe we got away from business-as-usual the last couple of weeks, but that’s what this week is going to be about, getting back to business. It’s incumbent on me to make sure that’s how we approach this.”

On the other side of the ice, Maine enters the postseason on all cylinders, having rebounded from a six-game winless stretch to finish 6-0-1 in the last seven.

During the tough times, the Black Bears were giving up goals by the bushel, including 18 in one three-game stretch. However, goaltender Dan Sullivan returned from injury and posted three straight shutouts and allowed only a singleton in the fourth game, giving Maine fans reason to believe their team wouldn’t have to win a succession of shootouts in the playoffs. Of some concern, though, are the seven goals allowed to UMass last weekend.

“It was important to get Dan back in the lineup and we’re pleased that we’ve improved defensively,” coach Tim Whitehead said. “We took a bit of a step back this past weekend so we need to sharpen up against a great opponent in Merrimack. But team defense has made the difference down the stretch for us.”

Like Dennehy, Whitehead downplays the significance of the recent sweep over Merrimack.

“It’s over,” he says. “This is a new season and I certainly don’t have any false illusions that the scores are going to be anything like that this weekend at their rink. We know it’s going to be a very difficult challenge for us. Merrimack is one of the top teams in the league.

“We’re coming in as underdogs, and that’s where we deserve to be. We’re just going to have to ratchet it up and again play great team defense and get our share of goals against a great goalie. We know we’ve got our hands full. Those regular season games aren’t going to carry any weight at this point in time.”

The experience gained last year in taking the eventual national champions to overtime in the Hockey East title game may prove useful, but the Black Bears may have to get to the Garden before that comes into play.

“Certainly we’re going to draw on every bit of experience that we have,” Whitehead says. “We had a successful run in the playoffs last year, but we hosted that first round against Lowell.

“We did play well at the Garden against BU and BC, so for sure we hope that that helps our team, but the things that are out of our control, we can’t worry about.

“We’ve got a tough challenge here, but we also know that we’re playing pretty good hockey at this point in the year. But that can change quickly when you face a great opponent like Merrimack. We’re going to just focus on ourselves, our effort, our execution and prepare ourselves for the challenge.”

Unlike Merrimack, Maine has to at least get to the Garden if not win out to secure an invitation to the NCAA tournament.

“We understand that,” Whitehead says. “That’s exactly where we were at last year in the season. We assumed we’d have to win the Hockey East tournament championship in order to get into the national tournament.

“So we’ve been in that situation before. We understand that we need to win out to keep advancing and it’s going to be on the road from here on in. We understand that and are preparing for that challenge and looking forward to it.”

My picks for the major awards

Player of the year: Paul Thompson (UNH) and Cam Atkinson (BC), tie

I’m going to be a weenie here and pick a tie because there’s so little to pick between these two stars. In Hockey East games, Thompson (23-19–42) does have a few more points than Atkinson (24-14–38), but in my mind the BC junior closes that gap with his league-leading four short-handed goals to none for Thompson.

Both players are deserving. It’s too close to call in my book.

Rookie of the year: Michael Pereira, Massachusetts

BU’s Charlie Coyle might get the nod and he does have one more league point on a 6-15–21 scoring line than
Pereira (10-10–20), but nine of those points have come on the power play to only two for the UMass freshman. Similarly, Merrimack’s Mike Collins picked up 12 of his 19 points on the man advantage.

I’ll go with the guy who’s gotten his points the hard way.

Coach of the year: Mark Dennehy, Merrimack

There is no runner up. As I wrote a few weeks back, it’s time for drug testing of Hockey East coaches if Dennehy isn’t a unanimous choice.

My last column of the year

There’s one more column this year before we switch to a different format previewing the NCAA tournament. Next week’s column is Jim Connelly’s.

So I just want to thank all you readers for your attention. Thanks also to my superhuman wife Brenda for the transcribing and the patience.

If you want to follow the progress of my book Cracking the Ice and my other writing efforts, please bookmark my website.