Semifinal matchups should make for entertaining Hockey East championship

I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that the college hockey season, as long as it may be, flies by. Here we are at the final Hockey East column of the regular season, which also means that we’re down to four teams competing for the Lamoriello Cup.

Karl Stollery (Merrimack - 7) - The Boston College Eagles defeated the visiting Merrimack College Warriors 3-2 on Friday, October 29, 2010, at Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Karl Stollery and Merrimack are making just the program's second trip to the Hockey East championship (photo: Melissa Wade).

In the opening round last weekend, there was only one upset, and many don’t consider a relatively-hot Northeastern team knocking off a hot-and-cold Boston University club that much of an upset. So the four teams that move on to Boston are the ones that many (including yours truly) expected to get there.

The competition in Boston will be fierce. Boston College will meet Northeastern in the opening game, a rematch of what arguably was the best game of the year, BC’s 7-6 overtime Beanpot win. In the other game, Merrimack and New Hampshire square off, barely a month since Merrimack swept the Wildcats in a dramatic home-and-home series.

Regardless of which two teams make the finals, you can rest assured that these teams — two that have earned their NCAA spot (Boston College and Merrimack), one that is but a minor miracle away from punching its ticket (New Hampshire) and one that is playing for its NCAA life (Northeastern) — will put forth an entertaining and competitive championship weekend.

So let’s look at each of these teams and how they match up with their semifinals opponents.

No. 1 Boston College vs. No. 6 Northeastern
5 p.m. EDT Friday

There are few fans who will forget the Beanpot final and the game between Northeastern and Boston College that followed four days later — a 7-7 tie in Chestnut Hill.

But if you want to look at the two teams that will square off in Friday’s opening semifinal, the best game to judge these clubs is the 2-1 Northeastern win played the night after the aforementioned game at BC.

Both teams certainly can score goals — BC with three, maybe four, lines of offensive depth and the Huskies putting forth a balanced scoring attack, particularly in the last five weeks.

Truly, though, both teams want to be thought of as solid defensively.

Both teams have a young blue line corps, but each coach will tell you that their goaltenders are among the league’s best. John Muse, with two national titles in his pocket, has proven his penchant for big games. Northeastern’s Chris Rawlings, though, has not.

Last Friday against BU in the second game of the best-of-three series, Rawlings looked below average, leading to Cronin pulling him after allowing three first-period goals on six shots. Cronin confidently came back with Rawlings two nights later in the decisive third game, and that decision paid dividends as he was outstanding throughout, particularly in the third period when Northeastern’s lead had been cut to 3-2.

At this point, Cronin hopes that victory gives Rawlings the confidence to carry the team this weekend.

“Rawlings hadn’t won a big game,” said Cronin. “He played down the stretch last year when we were sitting in fourth place with four games to go. He didn’t play badly; he just didn’t play well enough to win.

“He proved to us and to his team that he could win that big game. Because that was about as big of a playoff game that you are going to face, in BU’s building. I am not going to lie to you: I had a little bit of fingers and toes crossed because his last outing three goals went in on six shots. But I love the way he handled it.”

If Rawlings plays solid on Friday, expect a low-scoring game. BC’s offense is always revved up but Rawlings was one of the few goalies to really shut it down this season.

But whether it is a high- or low-scoring game, Eagles coach Jerry York said his team will be comfortable.

“I think we are capable of playing either,” said York. “We can play solid defense and we have proven that over the year. If it gets to a game where you need to score six goals to win it I think we have enough firepower to do that.

“Once that puck drops, you can talk all you want how you think it is going to materialize, but things happen in hockey more so than in other sports as far as how the game is going to be dictated. We are prepared for both games, though we would like to play better defensively. We do not want to give up six or seven goals.”

In terms of what the game means to either team, that’s completely different.

BC has virtually sewed up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. This is a team that likes to win titles and going back-to-back and winning three of four titles would mean a lot to the BC senior class.

Northeastern, though, is playing not just to extend its season but also to possibly right a wrong two years later. It was the 2009 Hockey East tournament where Northeastern was less than two minutes from advancing to the title game when a too many men penalty led to Massachusetts-Lowell tying the game and eventually winning in overtime. A weekend later, Northeastern blew a late lead to Cornell in the NCAA tournament and the most promising season for the team in decades was over.

The few players who remain from that team — namely the top line of Wade MacLeod, Tyler McNeely and Steve Silva — will be who Cronin relies upon this weekend to call on those memories and know what it takes to win.

“It is good for me in the locker room … to talk to Wade [MacLeod] and Stevie [Silva], where you can say, ‘Hey guys, remember this two years ago?'” said Cronin. “And that reignites them because they remember it, and that is the biggest advantage as you start to build a program.”

No. 2 New Hampshire vs. No. 4 Merrimack
8 p.m. EDT Friday

Many people will look at Friday’s second semifinal and immediately say that this is the biggest game in the history of Merrimack’s program.

But if you ignore the significance of this game for their opponent, New Hampshire, you’re forgetting recent history.

The Wildcats were a mainstay at the TD Garden on the middle Friday in March. UNH, which is often beat on by its fans for lack of postseason success, can at least point to the Hockey East tournament as a one place where trophies have been won.

For many fans of UNH who have stuck with the team through thick and thin remember celebrating on Causeway Street in 2002 and 2003 when the Wildcats captured their only two tournament titles.

Since that time, there have been some incredible UNH teams to skate onto the Garden ice, but far too many that have walked away empty-handed.

In each of those games, it’s been a team with the word “Boston” in its name that has led to UNH’s demise. Boston College beat UNH in the 2005 and 2007 finals, while Boston University ended the Wildcats’ run in the semis in 2006 and BC did the same (dramatically in 3 OTs) in 2008.

Then, of course, there is the past two seasons, when the Wildcats had their hopes dashed at home in the quarterfinals. It’s understandable why far too many have dubbed this team the “University of No Hardware.”

“We had been getting to Boston regularly then the last couple of seasons we hadn’t,” said UNH coach Dick Umile. “We have an opportunity to get to Boston and now we’re heading there to compete for the Hockey East playoff championship and we’re all really excited about it.”

Should UNH win, it’ll have to hoe a road that isn’t an easy one based on recent results. The Wildcats, as mentioned earlier, were swept by Merrimack right before Valentine’s Day. And if they advance to the title game and face Boston College, that would come on the heels of losing both games on the final weekend of the regular season, in doing so letting the regular season title slip away. Even Northeastern wasn’t an easy opponent for the Wildcats — the Huskies earned two ties in the three games.

But first things first, the Wildcats must worry about containing a Merrimack team that ran all over them recently, putting up seven goals in the two games while limiting UNH to just two a game.

Scouting the Warriors, both from that weekend and more so from last weekend’s quarterfinal win over Maine, the ability to stretch the defense and create breakaway chances with home-run passes stands out.

“We watched the film [of the Maine series] the other day, and [Merrimack] got behind them both Friday night and Saturday,” said Umile. “So you really need to pay attention. … They move the puck. They’re a smart team. They’re well coached, they play both ends of the ice so you better pay attention.”

For the Warriors, the biggest challenge this team might face this weekend won’t even be fixed on the ice with X’s and O’s. Being just the second time this team ever advanced to the Garden, coach Mark Dennehy will be challenged with keeping his players from getting too starry-eyed on the big stage.

Dennehy said he hopes to draw upon the postseason experience his players had before the arrived in North Andover.

“If you’ve seen the size of Kyle Bigos’ Royal Bank championship ring, you see that these guys have played in big games before,” said Dennehy. “Joe Cannata and John Heffernan have played at the Garden before so this isn’t new territory for them.

“We’ll let them take in the Garden before practice on Thursday but after those few seconds, it’s all about what’s inside the glass.”

So what about inside the glass? Merrimack may have swept the Wildcats five weeks ago, but that doesn’t mean Dennehy doesn’t have concerns.

“[UNH’s] puck skills are extremely good. I just watched their game versus UVM and they were outshot 14-4 in the first period but they were up 1-0,” Dennehy said. “Their special teams play is good and their goaltender has played really well. They came within one game of winning the Hockey East championship this year. We have our hands full.”

Early hardware

Hockey East will hand out its major individual awards and announces its all-league teams Thursday night at the Championship Banquet. In advance of that, though, the league released the members of its rookie teams and the recipients of some of its individual awards.

Here are the awards that the league announced Wednesday:

All-rookie team

G: Dan Sullivan, Maine
D: Anthony Bitetto, Northeastern
D: Adam Clendening, Boston University
F: Bill Arnold, Boston College
F: Charlie Coyle, Boston University*
F: Mike Collins, Merrimack
F: Michael Pereira, Massachusetts*
F: Brodie Reid, Northeastern
* — unanimous selections

Best defensive defenseman: Brian Dumoulin, Boston College

Best defensive forward: Tanner House, Maine*

Len Ceglarski Sportsmanship Award: Brian Flynn, Maine

Turfer Athletic Award: Jeff Dimmen, Maine

Three Stars Award: Paul Thompson, New Hampshire

Goaltending champion: John Muse, Boston College (1.84 goals-against average, .933 save percentage)

Scoring champion: Paul Thompson, New Hampshire (42 points)

Charlie Holt Team Sportsmanship Award: New Hampshire

A word of thanks …

To all of the loyal readers of this column, thank you for yet another great year. I know that many of you were patient with our format change in the early going but I hope you all see value to receiving additional coverage for Hockey East on the site throughout the week.

To my colleague, punching bag and good friend, Dave Hendrickson, it’s been a pleasure splitting this space with you throughout the season and even more enjoyable to kick your butt in the weekly picks! (Understand, I’ve never had a better record than Dave picking games. So I’m going to gloat about this one for quite some time!)

There is still plenty of hockey to be played and we’ll be bringing you as much information as we can on the Hockey East teams as the league’s top teams race toward a fourth straight NCAA title.

That all begins THIS WEEKEND, with a live blog from each of the three Hockey East tournament games. Make sure you log on as you watch the coverage on NESN!