And then there were four.
Am I the only one who can’t accept the reality that this season is over? It feels like just yesterday that I was picking New Hampshire to win the regular season title (yeah, how did that work out?).
Yet here we are. Just three games left on the Hockey East schedule and this Saturday night, someone will be skating around with the Lamoriello Trophy (I guess Jerry York was chastised by the league for calling it the Lamoriello Cup, so let’s make sure we’re clear).
Thus, as I type the final column on this pretty incredible season, let me find a few reasons to reflect:
This really was the tightest season I can remember
The standings may not have been as tight as I would’ve thought a few weeks back, but I think anyone who knows this league knows that any of the eight teams that made the playoffs could’ve been at the TD Garden this weekend.
In the end, three quarterfinal series went the distance and a bounce of the puck in Orono and an overtime goal at some point over nearly 25 minutes of play at Agganis Arena could’ve led us to having three of the four “underdogs” reaching the Garden this weekend.
Instead we’re “stuck” with an array of incredibly talented teams. We have the red-hot top seed in Boston College taking on Cinderella, aka Providence, in the first semifinal. In the late game, I believe you have one of the better all-time Hockey East rivalries in Boston University and Maine.
So let’s take a quick walk around the league and look at each of the four remaining teams.
We’ll start at the lowest seed (I was tempted to say “bottom” but after seeing Providence play twice last weekend, that’s simply not fitting).
The Providence Friars closed the season about as bad as any team I can remember. Providence was 0-4-2 in its final six, being outscored 22-6.
Last weekend, that team that struggled down the stretch did not board the bus to Lowell.
From Thursday night’s opener to the series deciding game on Sunday afternoon, Providence was the better team. Massachusetts-Lowell may be moving on to the NCAA tournament, but for three nights against the River Hawks, the Friars played near-perfect hockey.
Most impressive was Providence’s ability to limit the River Hawks defensively. Providence gave up few odd-man rushes over the three-game series, clogged up the neutral zone and, in the most key moments, kept Lowell from having any net-front presence whatsoever.
So what changed with this Providence team which, the weekend before the playoffs started, was easily swept by Lowell?
Coach Nate Leaman would call it hunger and desperation. That same tenor, particularly the team’s lack of satisfaction with first simply making the playoffs (no Providence player had ever played a playoff game before last weekend) will carry over to being at the Garden this weekend.
“We have a higher goal than [simply making the Garden] and it’s back to work when we hit the ice with the guys,” said Leaman. “The focus has to be laser like, the detail has to be extremely good and the work ethic and battle level has to be good each day in our practice and that will carry over into the game. That’s been the focus right now with us: Using the confidence that you built to add a little swagger, but not letting that get to arrogance whatsoever.”
One aspect of Providence’s play last weekend that was decidedly different was having forward Tim Schaller, the team’s leading scorer, back in the lineup. If anything, Schaller’s presence gave perfect balance to Providence’s lines, each player taking the position that made the Friars a dangerous team before Christmas.
Another, of course, was the solid play of goaltender Alex Beaudry, obviously making the most of his curtain call with the Friars.
“Alex is now the all-time saves leader at our school, he’s the all-time games played leader at our school,” said Leaman. ‘He never really had a chance to kind of catch his breath and prepare what he was getting ready for. This year, when he’s on, he’s extremely tough to beat. He’s really quick. He’s quick laterally and he’s got a quick glove. The biggest thing about Beauds is he’s a competitor. He’s a great competitor. He loves the big games.”
Should Beaudry and his team be able to play — and be successful — in two more big games the Friars will have at least one more “big” game to play, that, of course, in the NCAA tournament.
The Maine Black Bears advanced to the Garden by surviving one of the most physical series imaginable.
Maine knocked off Merrimack with a 2-1 win in Sunday’s deciding Game 3. But to even get to that point, Maine survived a physical, penalty-filled series against the Warriors.
“The bad news is there were a lot of ice bags handed out and the good news is there were a lot of ice bags handed out,” said coach Tim Whitehead. “We played hard and so did they. I thought it was a great series and Merrimack really forced us to raise the bar and to elevate our game to a higher level.”
The Black Bears and Warriors played a series that contained 269 minutes of penalties. When you think of those numbers, you would expect Maine, the second-best power play in the nation, to easily come out on top. But the Black Bears’ power play was hardly potent. Maine was a combined 1-for-9 in its two wins; it was 1-for-8 in the lone loss.
With the power play lacking its necessary production, Maine was forced to turn to the penalty kill.
This Friday, Maine will face Boston University, the nation’s third most penalized team. For the record, Merrimack is No. 1 and Maine is No. 2.
So maybe the physical play last weekend was a good tune-up for the Black Bears.
“Everyone wants to stay out of the box,” said Whitehead. “We don’t want to get drawn into that type of game. But our games down the stretch have all been very tight defensive battles, hard fought and physical and we are very comfortable in that type of game.
“That’s exactly what these games were about and that’s why I’m glad we played Merrimack and UNH in our last home game of the season and even more games down the stretch that I remember.”
Whitehead is aware that his Black Bears will face a Boston University team that, for one, may believe it “survived” last weekend’s series with New Hampshire, but also has overcome the difficult obstacles of losing key players throughout the year and thus seems to be a focused playoff team.
“This is a club that has pulled together,” said Whitehead. “We went through that a couple of years ago when I had to release our goalie from the team and it pulled us tighter together and I see the same reaction from their team. It’s really impressive so we know we have our hands full.”
And speaking of those Terriers, if there is one team that should feel like it’s playing with the house’s money, it is BU.
Yes, Providence pulled off last weekend’s biggest upset. But BU has been dead and buried by many, including myself, numerous times this season with its off-ice problems. And last weekend, it took a record-setting goaltending performance for the Terriers to advance.
Personally, I remember seeing Kieran Millan win the NCAA title his freshman year and remember thinking that he was as good a goaltender as I remembered seeing.
Players sometimes get criticized over the course of their four collegiate years, and a number of times I may have not given Millan his due credit.
After last weekend, Millan deserves every honor, every accolade and every ounce of credit he gets.
BU won a best-of-three series, two-games-to-one, over New Hampshire. But BU and its fans witnessed the single best goaltending performance in Hockey East tournament history.
Each night, Millan was tremendous. And the series was capped by a record-setting, 68-save performance for Millan in the third and deciding game. There simply aren’t enough words to describe how incredible his performance was.
“Our goaltender played absolutely fabulous,” BU coach Jack Parker said of Millan.
Parker pointed out key saves throughout the various games. But again, words simply don’t describe his dominance.
And still with dominance, BU barely escaped.
The Terriers at times last weekend played like an NCAA tournament team. At times, those same Terriers sleep walked, and if they do the same this weekend at the Garden, the ride may be a lot bumpier.
“[UNH] won [Game 1 in] double overtime, but they could have won it 7-1,” said Parker. “But we didn’t play anywhere near up to our capabilities.
“We came down to the rubber game, so to speak, and we started that game just like we played Friday night. The first period and a half, UNH was dominating us shot-wise, dominating grade-A chances, they were doing the same thing to us that they were doing to us Friday night. We seemed to be in a daze and then we came out it.”
The fact of the matter is, though, BU may have used up its nine lives. From here forward, there may not be an opportunity to come out of said funk. Get into a funk now, and the Terriers could be done.
Boston University does get to enter the Garden with the knowledge its season can’t end here. Sometimes that is a positive thing, allowing a team to play looser. Something it’s a negative as teams don’t respond knowing that there is yet another chance at life.
If anything benefits BU it has having faced UNH in the quarterfinals. UNH’s potent offense, which reared its head last weekend, is similar to Maine’s. Thus, the Terriers should be prepared to play an up-tempo game where they likely will be outshot.
“We were just in a series that was very difficult for us to control and we’ll be seeing the same type of team on Friday night,” said Parker. “We can’t have any lapses like we did in the first half of the third game or the entire first game against UNH. We have to be focused and ready to play.”
When you look at Boston College, its 13-game winning streak should tell the story.
BC hasn’t lost since late January. Yet last weekend, the Eagles struggled to get past Massachusetts, earning two one-goal wins in two games in which BC was outplayed.
There was no hiding the difference-maker in the series: goaltender Parker Milner.
Benched near the midpoint, Milner is the comeback story of the year, having taken the reins in late January and, with his team, run off the 13 straight wins.
What many saw as BC’s downfall right around the New Year — goaltending, that is — is now the team’s strength.
“Parker Milner was the difference in the [UMass] series,” said York. “He continues to play very strong for us. His goals against average and his save percentage are a reflection of how well he is playing. Some of the saves he made were absolutely outstanding. He was the key player in the series.”
The Eagles will face an interesting challenge in Friday’s semifinal. BC swept Providence easily two weeks before the end of the regular season, outscoring them 10-0.
But as Lowell saw last weekend, this is hardly the same Providence team that has walked into the Hockey East playoffs. BC will have to be much sharper, something that seems strange to say given the lopsided nature of the last series between these clubs.
“They’re on fire; they’re hot,” York said of the Friars. “We certainly have to be ready for a different Providence College team than what we saw a few weeks ago.
“You can’t say, ‘We’ve got 25 wins and we should be moving on.’ It’s who plays well on this particular night.”
York called the Friars’ wins over Lowell a “wake-up call” for his club and promises his team won’t overlook the upstart Friars on Friday evening.
“We know how good Lowell is and for the Friars to go there and advance to the Garden, that has certainly got our attention,” York said. “It’s similar to UMass. During the course of the year, UMass had taken two out of three from us, so they had our attention because of that fact. The ability to go up to beat that Lowell team has impressed me and has impressed the players.”
If anything from the UMass weekend helped the Eagles it is that the team played competitive games, even if York would much prefer to win more lopsided games.
“The ability to win a close game is certainly something that tests you and also makes you a better club,” said York. “I’m not saying that 3-0 or a 4-0 games aren’t more enjoyable to coach. But if you’re going to advance, against good competition like the Minutemen gave us, it gives us even more confidence.”
On to the hardware
The Hockey East banquet will take place on Thursday night. And though the league already announced some of its awards (All-Rookie team, Best Defensive Defenseman, Best Defensive Forward), I’m going to take my opportunity to tell you who I believe should win each award.
Understand, these decisions are mine and mine only. Don’t agree? Yell at me. My wonderful counterpart Dave Hendrickson has nothing to do with my opinion.
Best Defensive Defenseman: Brian Dumoulin, Boston College.
Best Defensive Forward: Matt Mangene, Maine.
Rookie of the Year: Scott Wilson, Massachusetts-Lowell.
Coach of the Year: Norm Bazin, Massachusetts-Lowell.
Player of the Year: Spencer Abbott, Maine.
Hockey East All-Rookie Team
G Casey DeSmith, New Hampshire
D Zack Kamrass, Massachusetts-Lowell
D Alexx Privitera, Boston University
F Scott Wilson, Massachusetts-Lowell
F Johnny Gaudreau, Boston College
F Ludwig Karlsson, Northeastern
All-Hockey East Second Team
G Joe Cannata, Merrimack
D Adam Clendening, Boston University
D (tie) Chad Ruhwedel, Massachusetts-Lowell
D (tie) Garrett Noonan, Boston University
F Brian Flynn, Maine
F Barry Almeida, Boston College
F T.J. Syner, Massachusetts
All-Hockey East First Team
G Kieran Millan, Boston University
D Brian Dumoulin, Boston College
D Will O’Neill, Maine
F Matt Nieto, Boston University
F Chris Kreider, Boston College
F Spencer Abbott, Maine
And so wraps another season
I know Dave said his thank yous last week. I need to do the same this week.
First off, thanks to all the readers. I love covering this league for the fact that there are simply so many passionate fans. Negative and positive feedback has all been appreciated.
I do have to thank my wife, Maureen, next. She has been more than patient with everything I do in the college hockey season. It’s hardly over and the next few weeks she certainly feels like a hockey widow. But she also is patient and supportive, the two best attributes I could ever hope for in a wife.
To all of the coaches and SIDs, your support is always very appreciated. All of the Hockey East coaches are so easy to deal with night in and night out. And though we may not always agree, at the end of the day I feel like there is a mutual respect and that is so appreciated.
There’s plenty of incredible hockey left and let’s hope that on April 7 there is a Hockey East team hoisting that NCAA championship trophy in Tampa!