Dissecting the all-important final week of Hockey East play

Twenty-three weeks later and here we are at the final weekend of the Hockey East regular season.

What has been decided? Next to nothing.

Sadly, Vermont has cemented its role as the 10th of 10 teams in the standings. Other than the Catamounts, though, zero is set in stone.

I would like to say this has been a Hockey East season unlike others. I feel like it is, but many will argue there have been multiple season where the standings are this close.

But in my mind, it is a struggle to understand just how close this season has been.

Let’s find some perspective. As the final weekend approaches, three teams can still win the title — Boston College, Boston University and Massachusetts-Lowell.

Five teams are in the home-ice race — the three previously mentioned with Maine and Merrimack.

New Hampshire is the rare team that really isn’t playing either for home ice or its playoff life.

But then there is Providence, Massachusetts and Northeastern. As tight as the race may be at the top of the league, these three teams are gridlocked. Providence has the inside track with 23 points. UMass and Northeastern are tied for eighth (and the final playoff spot) with 20 points.

So Providence’s motive this weekend is simple: win. One win and there is nothing to worry about. But the Friars are coming off a white-washing against BC — 3-0 and 7-0 losses — and are playing a Lowell team that needs wins, points and everything in between.

After all of this preamble, let’s now walk team-by-team to see what the possibilities are for each.

Boston College

Standings potential: First through third

Remaining games: vs. Vermont (2)

It is impossible to not feel that the Eagles are in the catbird seat. BC is on a roll, having won nine straight. Add to that the fact that BC plays last-place Vermont on home ice for the final two games and you have to think yet another regular-season title is in the works. Any fears? Of course. Vermont played a great game against BU last weekend. But that game was at home and the Cats still lost a late lead and gave the game away in OT. You have to think the regular season Hockey East title is BC’s.

Boston University

Standings potential: First through third

Remaining games: vs. Northeastern, at Northeastern

For the second straight year, BU finishes the season with a home-and-home series against Northeastern with the distinct possibility of playing the Huskies in the first round of the playoffs. It is hard to forget the five games that BU and NU played to end last season, culminating in the Huskies’ upset of the Terriers in Game 3 of the quarterfinals. Thus, this weekend takes on a totally different meaning. Yes, BU could still catch BC for the regular season title. But my guess is the minds at the east side of Commonwealth Avenue are more set on how to get to the TD Garden and the Hockey East semis. BU has plenty of talent, but second place feels like the right place for the Terriers.


Standings potential: First through fifth

Remaining games: at Providence, vs. Providence

There is no team in Hockey East that still has as wide a variety of seeding in the playoffs as the River Hawks. Through a minor miracle, Lowell could still win the league. At the same time, this team could also lose out on home ice. The River Hawks had two chances last weekend to guarantee a first-round series at home but lost to and tied Merrimack. A win either night for the River Hawks will earn home ice, but Providence already proved itself a more-than-formidable opponent, shutting out Lowell 1-0 on Jan. 24. If the Friars can once again beat this team, the road might be in the future for the River Hawks, just a few weekends after this team was No. 1 in the PairWise Rankings.


Standings potential: Third through fifth

Remaining game: vs. New Hampshire

Easily, Maine is the most vulnerable team in the Hockey East standings. The Black Bears have just a single game left — playing Saturday at home vs. New Hampshire — and no longer control any destiny. Merrimack (coming up next) can win twice and sew up another home series against Maine. The Black Bears must win on Saturday and hope for upsets to stay in Orono in the first round.


Standings potential: Third through fifth

Remaining games: at Massachusetts, vs. Massachusetts

No team has as much to gain this weekend as Merrimack. It is easy to look at Lowell and see the River Hawks’ wide variety of potential playoff seeds, but the Warriors really control their entire destiny in the quarterfinals. Win twice over UMass and Merrimack will be at home. And of course, if you know Lawler Arena, that is like handing this team two wins. Merrimack is incredible in front of its screaming faithful, making earning two wins a true MUST for the Warriors. This is a team ready to win.

New Hampshire

Standings potential: Sixth through seventh

Remaining game: at Maine

It would be an understatement to say New Hampshire underachieved this season, but at the same time, it is difficult to think any team wants to play UNH in the playoffs. The Wildcats have but a single game at Maine remaining, but that matters very little. Whether Maine finished sixth or seventh, this is a team hyper-ready for playoff hockey. It’s almost more appropriate to think about the teams at the top of the standings that simply want to avoid UNH in the first round of the playoffs.


Standings potential: Sixth through ninth

Remaining games: vs. Massachusetts-Lowell, at Massachusetts-Lowell

The Friars are just a point behind UNH with a game in hand. You almost want to pencil this team as the sixth seed but Providence has a very difficult home-and-home series with Lowell this weekend. Wins mean a lot but losses could put this Friars team not just low in the standings, but potentially out of the playoffs for the third straight year. That’s something that first-year coach Nate Leaman doesn’t want to see, so expect this weekend that the Friars will be playing with the ultimate desperation.


Standings potential: Seventh through ninth

Remaining games: vs. Merrimack, at Merrimack

UMass and Northeastern are in a dead heat entering the final weekend. The reward is the final playoff spot. While Providence could mathematically be eliminated from the postseason, you have to believe the final playoff spot is coming down to UMass and Northeastern. NU faces BU, so there is hardly a way to say that either the Minutemen or Warriors have an easier road. I think one of these teams will gain points in the final weekend that will be the deciding factor when it comes to the league’s final playoff spot.


Standings potential: Seventh through ninth

Remaining games: at Boston University, vs. Boston University

You could copy and paste the above paragraph to describe NU’s playoff scenarios. I think either the Huskies or the Minutemen will earn points this weekend and the team that grabs more will make the playoffs. I think the Huskies, with a first-year coach, need the playoff bid to make this school feel comfortable with its decision. Regardless, a very good team will be left out when the Hockey East playoffs begin.


Standings potential: 10th

Remaining games: at Boston College (2)

There is only one team cemented into a playoff position, and that is Vermont. The Catamounts are amid the ultimate low point of a season. That said, Vermont could play the spoiler role at Boston College this weekend. If Vermont earns but a win it can prevent BC from earning the outright league title. That alone is plenty of play for, in my opinion.

Quick hits

• If any team made a statement last weekend (aside from BC, which seems to already be in postseason mode) it was Merrimack. The Warriors struggled to score goals for quite a while but they busted out for five on Friday against Lowell, a team that has been among the most stingy this season. If Merrimack keeps up its current level of play, don’t just expect it to earn home ice. This is a team that could once again reach the tournament finals.

• Best road trip of the year goes to Boston University. With Max Nicastro facing sexual assault charges, the second member of the team to be in such a situation this year, the Terriers earned two desperately needed wins at Vermont. Friday’s was a domination. Saturday’s was not. BU needed every ounce of character to score late with an extra attacker and then grab the OT winner on a fortunate bounce. If BU has any sort of postseason success, look back to the Vermont weekend as critical to this team’s success.

• As close as this league has been all season, I was shocked by how many blowouts occurred last weekend. BU 5-0 over Vermont. BC 7-0 over PC. Maine 7-1 over Northeastern. The last of those was a true shocker. The Huskies were solid in a 4-2 win over Maine the night before. The Black Bears, though, had the bounce-back factor that is needed this time of year.

• If I may, let me take a few minutes to talk the Hobey Baker Award. It is impossible to ignore Maine’s Spencer Abbott as a Hobey candidate, given that he leads the nation in points with 56 in 33 games. It will be difficult for the school, though, to promote Abbott over his teammate Joey Diamond. Diamond may have just 41 points, but his 22 goals are tied for third in the nation. It is the ultimate blessing to have two Hobey candidates, but it also creates the struggle for that school of which player to promote. At this point, I almost feel like you need to give the nudge to Abbott, knowing that Hobey voters traditionally love points more than anything else.