Hockey East’s wide-open race, Vermont impresses

These are the three things I think I learned this week.

1. It’s anyone’s ballgame.

Going into Sunday’s games, only four points separated first-place Merrimack from sixth-place Massachusetts-Lowell.  At that point, all six teams had played exactly 20 games.

(As a tribute to Warrior fans who years ago paid their dues and then some, I’ll glue together the words “first-place” and “Merrimack” throughout this column because I know that no matter how often it’s repeated, it ain’t gettin’ old for you guys.)

After Sunday’s ties between first-place Merrimack and Providence as well as Boston College and New Hampshire, the gap grew to five points.  But that’s five minus a game in hand for the River Hawks so arguably we now have an even tighter gap from first (where you-know-who resides) and sixth.

I had thought a few weeks back that BC and UNH would make it a two-team race with the other four battling it out for home ice.  I was wrong.  It’s as open of a race as possible.

And it’ll be fascinating to watch the next three weekends unfold.

2. Vermont is a lot better than I’ve given them credit for.

I’ve been spouting off for weeks now how I expected the Catamounts to finish ninth or tenth this year.  Well, after their road sweep of Northeastern, they’ve established a four-point cushion.  They’ve now won three straight and four of five.

They do still face the toughest schedule in Hockey East (and probably the nation) over the final three weeks: two vs. UNH, two at Boston University, and two vs. BC.

But the Cats have built up the cushion that I said they’d need and I thought they couldn’t build. Can they steal some points from The Iron down the stretch?  If not, will the four points hold up?

Those are still tough questions to answer.  (I’m going with: probably and possibly.)  But either way, a tip of the fedora to the Catamounts.

3. Lowell, Providence, and BU remain in the hunt.

The River Hawks swept all four points from their sister school in Amherst to rebound from two straight losses.  Since the first of those losses snapped an 11-game unbeaten streak, this is once again one of the hottest teams in the country.

Providence continues to quietly hang in there, using one tie after another to remain in striking distance.  The Friars are now undefeated in their last five.  Four of those have been ties, but most teams would take a 1-0-4 mark especially considering that those contests were against first-place Merrimack, UNH (twice), BU, and Maine.

Boston University looked dead a week ago.  The Terriers finished last in the Beanpot.  (Hop in a time machine, go back seven or eight years, and see what the odds were of BU flopping so badly in a tournament it considered its own while staring up in the standings at first-place Merrimack.)

Then coach Jack Parker banished defenseman Alexx Privitera for the season for on-ice discipline problems.  And oh yeah, the loss in the Beanpot consolation game was the Terriers’ third in a row, making them 3-7-1 since the holiday break.

Taking three-of-four points at Alfond, however, proves the Terriers aren’t dead yet.  They did blow a 4-1 third period lead and needed a mighty fortuitous bounce of the puck to create the two-on-none that won the second game with three seconds in overtime.

But points are points.  BU needed them and got them.