Future unknown for Hockey East’s single-elimination first round despite positive debut

Steven Summerhays and Notre Dame got past Boston University last weekend, but Boston College is waiting in a rematch of the regular season finale won by the Irish (photo: Melissa Wade).

The experiment that was the single-elimination opening round of the Hockey East playoffs went off without a hitch.

In fact, you may say that it was an extreme success in that the three highest seeds advanced to the quarterfinal round, all three games were close and entertaining and the attendance at all three venues was above average to excellent.

Hockey East playoffs

See the tournament bracket and get links to schedules and stories at Hockey East Playoff Central.

And with all those superlatives for the first new playoff format in Hockey East in nearly two decades, there’s no guarantee the league will use a similar format next season, according to Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna.

“Going forward, there still will be a discussion because the coaches are still on the side of a [best] two-out-of-three [format for the opening round],” said Bertagna. “The [athletic] directors who passed this didn’t pass it by an overwhelming majority. It was a fairly close vote.”

Bertagna said the major factor beginning next year, with the addition of Connecticut, is that more teams will play in the opening playoff round, putting more teams who assembled decent or sometimes more-than-decent seasons at major risk of being upset in a one-game scenario.

“You’re now extending this opening round to the fifth-place team. A 12-versus-5 upset would probably resonate more than this year,” said Bertagna. “If I was a betting man, it wouldn’t shock me if they changed [the opening round] to a best-of-three next year.”

Bertagna noted that there are also rumblings of finding a way to eliminate a bye week altogether.

The two options for that would be to either eliminate four teams after the regular season, moving right into an eight-team postseason, or to hold six best-of-three first-round series and hold the tournament at the TD Garden over three days with six participants.

The coaches, Bertagna said, do not support eliminating any teams before the playoffs. As for the three-day tournament at the Garden, Bertagna wondered whether there would be enough interest from the paying customers.

“In my mind, as great at hockey town as [Boston is], I don’t think the fans could support that,” Bertagna said about a three-day tournament at the Garden. “We can support a Beanpot. We can support a college championship, but the latter only when it’s the right circumstances. We still need certain teams to get in and certain draws to get to the high side of our [attendance] range.”

Bertagna pointed to the tournament’s drop in attendance in years where it hosts Frozen Fenway to show the potential lack of support for a third day at the Garden. Each Hockey East tournament has had a lower attendance in the March following January games at Fenway, something that points to a limited budget on the part of the consumer to attend live sporting events.

“There are people who will pay $40 for a ticket once, not twice,” said Bertagna. “Asking people to come in [to the Garden] three times as opposed to twice might not work.”

What did work with this year’s single-elimination first round was the ability to create a great atmosphere.

Attendances at Vermont, Maine and Notre Dame were all solid, particularly compared to some of the half-empty arenas that have hosted best-of-three series in past years.

Vermont announced a crowd of 2,823, or 70 percent capacity, even with students on spring break. Maine pulled in 3,678 of a possible 5,174, or 71 percent capacity.

And Notre Dame had the best attendance, packing a sellout crowd of 5,022 into Compton Family Ice Arena.

The single game on the weekend likely had a lot of do with these higher numbers, said Bertagna, although he also expects this weekend’s quarterfinal series on each campus to have higher attendances than in recent years because of the compelling matchups in all three series.

All in all, you’d have to think of last weekend’s first round as a glowing success for Hockey East. But success doesn’t always translate to repetition, something that may be realized at this year’s playoffs are reviewed in the coming months.

River Hawks begin their title defense

The Massachusetts-Lowell River Hawks will attempt over the next two weekends to do something that a team not named Boston College hasn’t done since 2003 — repeat as Hockey East champions.

In fact, when you take out Boston College’s back-to-back titles in 1998-99, 2007-08 and 2010-12 (back-to-back-to-back), repeating as Hockey East tournament champions has been pretty rare in the league’s 29-year history.

Maine in 1992 and 1993 became the first team to win two Hockey East titles in a row. And only Boston University (1994-95) and New Hampshire (2002-03) have otherwise accomplished the task.

Thus, it’s no surprise that winning the Lamoriello Trophy for the second straight year will be a tall task for the River Hawks, who drew Vermont in the best-of-three quarterfinal round to begin Friday at the Tsongas Center in Lowell.

Massachusetts-Lowell starts its bid for a second straight Hockey East playoff title against Vermont (photo: Melissa Wade).

Coach Norm Bazin was clear that the one thing he can’t do is compare last year’s team to this year’s, even in terms of how the team is playing entering the tournament.

He did say that he likes where his team is heading into the playoffs.

“It’s safe to say that I feel very good about this team,” said Bazin. “I think they’ve got their strengths and weaknesses. It’s a very different team than it was a year ago in that we do have some different personnel. And those [freshman] are going to have to play a role in the same way the new guys last year had to find a way to play a role.”

Advancing past Vermont will be no easy task. Lowell registered a 1-0 overtime victory before dropping a 3-2 decision on the final night of the regular season.

“They’re a good team structurally,” said Bazin. “They’ve got good depth. They’ve got a couple of 40-point guys in [Chris] McCarthy and [Mario] Puskarich. It’s clear we have to be aware of their balance.”

So what will make this River Hawks team successful enough to repeat as champions? According to Bazin, it will come down to mental strength.

“I think the mental part is even bigger than the physical part,” Bazin said about the need to be mentally strong in the postseason. “Forget about who you have in the lineup. It’s who mentally is prepared to pay the price.”

The impact of the quarterfinals on the national picture

I know many readers may be sick of reading about the national picture at this point. Yes, there are still two weeks to play before the PairWise Rankings even matter.

But at the same time, a number of people have asked, “What will happen to my team, if …” And from there you can fill in a number of blanks.

Does my team need to reach the Garden to have a chance at the NCAA tournament? What if my team sweeps? What if my team gets swept?

Well, thanks to data made available by Jim Dahl, who runs the site SiouxSports.com, here is a brief breakdown of what this weekend means to each team still playing in the Hockey East tournament:

No. 1 seed Boston College: The Eagles have clinched their NCAA bid.

No. 2 seed Massachusetts-Lowell: A sweep or 2-1 series win over Vermont will likely make the River Hawks a lock for the tournament as they would be somewhere between fifth and ninth in the PWR after the weekend (likely 6, 7, or 8). A 2-1 series loss still keep the River Hawks on solid footing but makes them prone to upsets in conference tournaments that could bump Lowell out. A sweep at the hands of Vermont drops the River Hawks to the bubble where they can end the weekend as high as ninth or as low as 15th.

No. 3 seed Providence: The Friars really need a series win against Maine to solidify their NCAA chances. Advancing over the Black Bears places Providence between sixth and 12th in the PairWise come week’s end, the most likely scenario between ninth and 11th. Losing to Maine 2-1 could leave Providence as high as 11th or as low as 17th and done. Being swept by the Black Bears means Providence likely would be between 13th and 17th in the PWR and in strong peril of missing the tournament.

No. 4 seed New Hampshire: This one is very simple. New Hampshire must advance to keep its NCAA chances alive. And even then there will be work to do. If the Wildcats advance, they will enter next week somewhere between 15th and 21st in the PairWise. And it won’t be until next week and all of the matchups are solidified across the country that UNH will know if it can reach the tournament without winning the Hockey East title.

No. 5 seed Northeastern: Two wins over New Hampshire will help Northeastern’s cause significantly. Currently 11th, the Huskies could creep as high as eighth or drop as low as 15th by advancing. If they can pull out one win while losing the series, all hope is not lost for an NCAA bid, but the Huskies will then rely on other teams for help during the championship weekend. A sweep at the hands of UNH and Northeastern can just about kiss its NCAA hopes goodbye as it would have less than a 10 percent chance to remain 15th or higher in the PairWise.

No. 6 seed Maine: Similar to UNH, Maine must advance to have any chance at reaching the NCAA tournament. Unlike UNH, however, I believe that sweeping Providence could put the Black Bears in a more solid position in the PairWise than a UNH sweep of Northeastern. Maine could finish this weekend as high as 13th though likely between 15th and 19th with two wins. Thus, one more win in the semifinals could be enough to earn a bid. That, however, is still to be determined.

No. 7 seed Vermont: It seems crazy to imagine, but both Vermont and Notre Dame have might brighter NCAA futures than New Hampshire, Northeastern and Maine. If Vermont advances past Lowell, the Catamounts will end the weekend between sixth and 13th in the PairWise (likely between 7th and 10th). If they lose the series 2-1 all hope is not lost. Vermont likely would end the weekend between 13th and 15th in the PairWise and still have a shot, though unable to control its destiny. Should the Cats gets swept, even, there would be a reason to keep practicing as they would finish the weekend anywhere from 12th to 18th, and most likely 15th.

No. 8 seed Notre Dame: If Notre Dame can beat Boston College in the series, there is a strong chance it will punch its NCAA ticket. The Irish would enter the Hockey East tournament between fourth and ninth in the PairWise, likely somewhere around seventh. And even if Notre Dame loses the series, its NCAA hopes are hardly out the window. One win against BC on the weekend would place Notre Dame between seventh and 12th in the PairWise. And a sweep at the hands of the Eagles would place the Irish between ninth and 15th with one week to go. Other than Lowell and BC, no team has as high of NCAA hopes as Notre Dame.