Why it would be a good thing for Massachusetts-Lowell to win the Hockey East title

When a Hockey East team plays a school from outside the league, I always hope the Hockey East team wins. But when two league teams are playing, I play no favorites.

That said, I’m hoping Massachusetts-Lowell takes the regular season title this weekend. No offense to my good friends at all the other schools in contention, but I think seeing the River Hawks on top would be the best thing for the league.



What’s that?

It’s the number of regular season titles won (or shared) by Boston College (12), New Hampshire (8), Boston University (8), Maine (3) and everyone else (0).

It’s that zero number that had me hoping, going into last weekend, that either Lowell, Providence, or Merrimack emerged from the pack to take it all.

No offense to New Hampshire. I love the program, but let me ask you, Wildcats fans. Will you really appreciate a ninth title with anything close to the intensity of how River Hawks fans will feel about their first?

I think you know the answer.

In fact, I think you know that even if you’re a glass-half-full type, you know that many of your fellow UNH fans would look at another regular season title with a jaundiced ice and say, “Who cares? I want playoff titles!”

(Or have I merely had the misfortune of working with the only UNH fans who feel that not only is the glass half empty, it’s cracked and the beverage tastes like sour milk?)

No offense, as well, to Boston College. I love that program, too. But folks, you’ve enjoyed three national championships in the last five years. You’ve won the last three Hockey East tournaments, five of the last six, not to mention those 12 regular season titles. Maybe it’s time for more than crumbs to fall off your table.

Why Lowell instead of Providence?

Only because the River Hawks are in charge of their own destiny. If they win out, the title is theirs.

If Providence wins out, the title probably goes to New Hampshire (one point ahead of the Friars) or BC (which could share in the title but would take the No. 1 seed due to winning the tiebreaker).

So with all due respect to each and every Hockey East team this weekend, this writer will be hoping for a River Hawks sweep.

For the good of the league.

To put an end to that zero.

I guess they really don’t look at this stuff

Fans and Hockey East writers — (to my mind, the best writers are also fans at least to some extent) — have tortured many a neuron over the past few weeks examining all the possibilities as the league’s race has tightened and tightened.

Team X loses the tiebreaker to Team Y, but look at Team Y’s remaining opponents! Team X will almost certainly finish higher because it should take at least three points from Team Z this weekend, while Team Y is doubtful to even split.

The discussions over the probabilities and likely final positions have been great fun.

To hear coaches talk, however, they don’t even think about such things. Not at all.

Probabilities? Let me improve my probability of shutting down my next opponent’s top line.

You’ve seen the comments in this column. Or perhaps you read Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy’s response to a question about whether being three points out after Friday’s loss with so many teams clustered at the top meant the end of his team’s chances at a regular season title.

“If I knew that,” Dennehy said, “I’d be retired tomorrow because I’d have the Mega-Millions number. I love math, but [to try to figure that], my head would explode.”

Witty? Sure. Coach-speak? Perhaps.

One night later, Providence coach Nate Leaman responded in similar fashion when asked to comment on his team’s pivotal win, one that left it with a shot at the title while a loss might have meant not even home ice for the playoffs.

“To be honest, I didn’t even know that,” Leaman said.

(Yes, the question was mine and I’d provide the detailed analysis that went into it but fear I’d put you all to sleep.)

I must admit that I’ve wondered if these coaches don’t look at the standings, the matchups and the probabilities at least a little while remaining 98 percent focused on the task at hand.

Arguably, Northeastern coach Jim Madigan should have used the most basic of all this information on Saturday night in Orono. His Huskies had to get a win to maintain any chance of making the playoffs. A tie would do them no good. Yet the Huskies goaltender remained rooted in the crease even late into overtime, when seemingly an extra attacker in an all-out effort to salvage a playoff berth was called for.

(Admittedly, I wasn’t in Orono, so there may not have been an ideal moment to pull Bryan Mountain, especially after Northeastern took a penalty with 21 seconds remaining. But it’s my understanding there were opportunities, if nothing else than in the closing seconds when Josh Manson couldn’t convert the potential game-winning shot from the doorstep.)

But it didn’t happen.

Coaches apparently just think differently than the rest of us, keeping blinders on that would distract from anything except winning the next game.

Postscript: For the record, I don’t consider Boston College coach Jerry York’s decision to forgo a shot at the Hockey East regular season crown three years ago to be comparable to Madigan’s or an exception to the “blinders” rule.

For those who missed it or have forgotten, BC went into the final weekend needing to sweep New Hampshire to tie the Wildcats for the regular season title.

When the Friday night game went into overtime, the question became, would York pull his goalie in the final minute to get a shot at that crown? York declined to the amazement of some, allowing UNH to clinch that night, because he didn’t want to hurt the Eagles’ position in the PairWise Rankings by allowing an empty-netter to turn a tie into a loss.

York’s decision proved to be a stroke of genius — even after BC won the following night to set up the ultimate, “What if?” — because the Eagles went on to win the Hockey East tournament and as the No. 4 overall seed in the NCAAs (meaning a No. 1 seed in a regional), took home the big enchilada.

Why wasn’t York’s decision the same as Madigan’s? Madigan had nothing to lose; York’s eye was on the bigger prize.

Why wasn’t York’s decision comparable to this year’s coaches and their apparent blinders? Again, York was tactically addressing the bigger prize whereas when Leaman and Dennehy were focusing only on winning the next game; they were losing nothing tactically.

But can we agree that they’re missing on some of the fun?

Who’ll win coach of the year?

The votes won’t go in until after this weekend, but based on scuttlebutt around the rinks, it seems that speculating on who will win this year’s coach of the year award has become a popular pastime.

As of two weeks ago, Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy looked like an imposing candidate. At the time, the Warriors stood first in the league. Quite an accomplishment for a team projected to finish eighth.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: What Dennehy has accomplished with that program is nothing short of remarkable. The year before he arrived, the Warriors went 1-22-1 in Hockey East. For those not likely to become Rhodes Scholars, that’s three points for an entire season.

It took a few years, but once Merrimack escaped the cellar, it hasn’t gone back. It takes something special to transform a perennial doormat to a contender.

While Dennehy was recognized as co-coach of the year with New Hampshire’s Dick Umile two years ago, I’d like to think some season Dennehy gets the honor all to himself.

But it probably isn’t going to be this year after losses to Boston College and Boston University and then two more to Massachusetts-Lowell blew out the Warriors’ title hopes.

Boston University’s Jekyll-and-Hyde season isn’t the type likely to produce coaching awards, which leaves the four teams still alive to finish first in the league.

You can make a great case for York. This season he became the all-time winningest coach in college hockey, and with the Eagles near the top of the league and national rankings, it’s hard to argue against his candidacy. Perhaps he wins in a landslide because of that career milestone, surpassing Ron Mason, along with all his other legendary accomplishments.

Working against York is that in his 19 years in Hockey East, during which he’s won nine league titles and four national championships, he’s been named coach of the year only twice. (Can you name the years? See the answers below.) So with all that success and those few awards, is the voting likely to change this year?

Providence coach Nate Leaman makes another strong case, having transformed a program that missed the playoffs three straight years to one still in the running for first place. I’m always impressed by coaches who achieve the huge turnaround.

Having coached a bit in my day, I know how elite athletes like to go where they’ll win. It’s tough sledding to recruit the players you need to compete with the perennial powerhouses when you’ve missed three straight playoffs. It’s also tough to change that culture.

I suspect Providence and Leaman are a year away as the Friars field 10 freshmen in the lineup. I don’t think they’ll emerge on top from their matchup with Lowell this weekend. But if they do, it’ll be hard to argue against a two-year turnaround like that.

Umile seems to be a top candidate every year. He’s once again guided his team to within striking distance, just a point out of first while holding the tiebreaker against the team in front of it. The Wildcats have remained near the top of the standings and national rankings for virtually all season.

He’s won the award six times. If UNH passes Lowell and grabs first place this weekend, why not seven?

Then there’s Lowell coach Norm Bazin, whose steadying hand kept his team together during a rocky 4-7-1 start, allowing a 17-2-1 monster rebound into first place. The River Hawks face a tough obstacle to stay there in the form of Providence, but if they can pull it off, why should Bazin be denied as coach of the year?

Other than the other strong candidates, the biggest factor may be history. Bazin earned the award last year with his stunning single-year turnaround of the River Hawks from last to second place.

Only once in the history of the league has a coach won the honor in back-to-back seasons. (Can you name the coach and the years? See the answers below.)

Does that factor deny Bazin even if he leads Lowell to its first-ever title in Hockey East? It’s hard to imagine.

Fortunately, the voting doesn’t happen until after this weekend, when the coaches can take in all the results and reward whomever they consider most noteworthy.

A strong case can be made for all.

Personally, I’d put my money on either York or Bazin. A coach doesn’t become No. 1 in all-time wins every day and neither does a program experience its first league title.

As for the answers to the questions posed above:

• York was named Hockey East coach of the year in 2004 and 2011. Ironically, his Eagles failed to win national titles in both of those years and in 2004, failed to reach the Garden for the Hockey East semifinals after being upset by BU. Perhaps York is in no hurry to win the award for a third time.

• BU coach Jack Parker is the only back-to-back winner of the award, earning the honor in 2005 and 2006.

A scheduling note

Due to a scheduling conflict, Lowell’s quarterfinal playoff series will be Thursday, Friday and Sunday (if necessary) instead of the usual Friday, Saturday and Sunday.