Hockey East’s top three teams set for second-half showdowns

Goaltender Brody Hoffman and Vermont are in third place in Hockey East as the second half starts (photo: Melissa Wade).

With a limited schedule since Hockey East teams returned from the holiday break (hats off to UMass-Lowell and Providence, however, for winning their respective holiday tournaments), all of the USCHO writers will be providing you with a not-so-brief look ahead to the second half.

And an exciting second half it should be. A resurgent Boston University team has grabbed tons of headlines and will continue to do so. Lowell is hunting for its third straight postseason title. And upstart teams like Merrimack will try to maintain momentum.

Here, then, is my look at what lies ahead:

Key matchups

There will be a number of key games and series ahead in the second half. Here’s a look at some of them.

Boston University vs. UMass-Lowell (at BU, Jan. 18; at Lowell, Feb. 6)
Boston University at Vermont (Jan. 23-24)
Vermont at UMass-Lowell (Feb. 27-28)

It’s hard to imagine, but none of the top three teams in Hockey East (Lowell, BU and Vermont) have faced one another thus far. That translates to what should be a few monumental games that we all have to keep our eyes on in coming weeks.

The first of those comes on Jan. 18. While much focus in Boston could be on the New England Patriots playing in that weekend’s AFC Championship game, the college hockey world should be thinking about a BU-Lowell clash at Agganis Arena.

The focus for Lowell will be shutting down the BU top line highlighted by Jack Eichel, who will be less than two weeks back from World Juniors. The Terriers’ job won’t be as easy, needing to target multiple Lowell players who have successfully found the net throughout 18 games this season.

The back end of that series is three weeks later on Feb. 6. BU will be challenged to not overlook the game should it successfully win its Beanpot semifinal against upstart Harvard the previous Monday, making the Beanpot final just three days away.

On Jan. 23 and 24, Vermont will host BU in a clash of offense vs. defense, part I. The Catamounts defense has been nothing short of stellar and has featured a pair of standout goaltenders in Brody Hoffman and Mike Santaguida. The Catamounts have limited opponents to a stingy 1.63 goals this season.

Conversely, BU’s offense led by Eichel, Danny O’Regan and defenseman-turned-forward Ahti Oksanen, has potted a cool 3.38 goals per game. Something’s got to give.

The final battle of this triumvirate won’t come until the final weekend of the regular season when Lowell hosts Vermont for two. Few will forget a season ago when these teams not only ended their season against one another but then faced off in an exciting best two-of-three quarterfinal series two weeks later with the River Hawks prevailing, two games to-one.

Many can argue that was Lowell’s biggest test on its way to a second-straight Lamoriello Trophy. This year will offer the clash of the offense vs. defense, part II, as Lowell is the only offense in Hockey East clicking at a higher pace than BU.

Providence at Boston College, Jan. 30

When these two teams met right after Thanksgiving, the pair combined for 81 shots but just a single goal. Thatcher Demko’s 37 saves were topped by Jon Gillies 43 stops and a shutout in a 1-0 Friars win.

Although there will still be a month left in the season, this could prove an important game for these two teams that haven’t quite lived up to their 1-2 preseason ranking in the coaches’ poll.

Merrimack at Vermont, Feb. 20-21

Merrimack’s play at Lawler Arena, where it posted a 7-1-1 mark in the first game, is nothing short of spectacular. And it has put the Warriors in position to be in the running for an NCAA bid come season’s end. But how will Merrimack play on the road? That’s a question that might be best answered when it travels to Vermont to take on the Catamounts twice in the second-to-last weekend of the regular season.

There are certainly a number of additional big games to keep our eye on in the second half. It should be plenty of fun.

Re-picking the champion: Boston University

Yes, I was like a sheep in a flock preseason when I picked Providence to win the league. And who knows, that might still happen (the play of the Friars the recently completed Catamount Cup certainly is a good sign).

But with a chance at a mulligan, I’m going to make a change and pick Boston University to win the regular season title. Yes, Eichel has taken this team and this league by storm and, despite being a rookie, is possibly the best candidate Hockey East will put forward for the Hobey Baker Award.

But Eichel’s arrival has been timed with the maturity of a number of players offensively and led BU to a 7-1-2 league mark, an 11-3-2 overall record and a deserved No. 1 ranking at the break. Goaltender Matt O’Connor proved he is capable of being a true No. 1 netminder, allowing a stingy 1.67 goals per game in 13 appearances.

And Danny O’Regan, a player everyone knew was a natural goal scorer, has already passed his 10 goals from a season ago with 12 in the first half.

There are a lot of tests that still lie ahead for this BU team, but the ability to keep this train rolling should lead to the club’s first regular season title since 2008-09.

Boston University’s Jack Eichel has set himself up to be Hockey East’s first player since Paul Kariya to earn rookie of the year and player of the year honors in the same season (photo: Melissa Wade).

Who gets the hardware?

It’s unusual for me to feel comfortable making postseason award predictions at the end of the season, let alone at the midpoint, but there is no doubt in my mind about two of the league’s major awards: Rookie of the year and player of the year will go to the same guy: Eichel.

Yes, I too feel this column has been a wet kiss to the 18-year-old phenom, but at this point in the season it is entirely deserved.

Eichel is the best freshman in the league since Maine’s Paul Kariya, who was the only player in league history to win both the ROY and POY. Sure, Eichel won’t reach Kariya’s 100 points his freshman season, but the game has also changed significantly and offense isn’t what it used to be.

To give some perspective, Kariya’s Maine team, which went 41-1-2 that season, averaged 6.75 goals per game. These days, the top offense rarely cracks 4.00 GPG, thus if Eichel records, say, 60 points this season, I think the comparison of the two players is perfectly on par.

As for the remaining major award in Hockey East, coach of the year, I think there are a number of candidates. You have to consider BU’s David Quinn to complete the awards trifecta. But you also need to consider Vermont’s Kevin Sneddon, who has slowly brought his program back from its six-win low point in 2012; Lowell’s Norm Bazin, whose club will make a run at the regular season title despite being picked seventh; and Merrimack’s Mark Dennehy, who may lead his club to the NCAA tournament despite being picked 10th to start the year.

The bold prediction: Notre Dame gets first-round bye, makes NCAA tournament

Yes, this is as bold as I am willing to get, although I think it really is going out on a bit of a limb. At 9-9-2, Notre Dame hasn’t exactly been a power through 20 games. But this team seems to have too many of the necessary components to not be a top-four team in this league.

There are enough offensively talented players (Vince Hinostroza, Mario Lucia, Thomas DiPauli, Robbie Russo, Sam Herr) and a decent enough goaltending tandem of Cal Petersen and Chad Katunar so that this team under the direction of a coach like Jeff Jackson should be able to put forth significant accomplishments.

If there is one must for this team — and it’s a big one — Notre Dame must get its power play going. With a 6.1 percent efficiency rating, Notre Dame is ranked 58th of 59 nationally (Niagara at 5.6 percent is worst) and didn’t get off to the greatest start after the break, going 0-for-8 in a 3-2 overtime win over Miami in the first game back.

The NCAA tournament: Who will make the field?

It’s probably too early to even look at the PairWise Rankings and talk about the NCAA field, but this wouldn’t be much of a look-ahead column if I didn’t do so.

Certainly, BU has put itself in the best position, ranked fifth in the PairWise and holding an 11-3-2 mark at the break. The Terriers have done so against the seventh-toughest schedule to this point, making them Hockey East’s clubhouse leader to make the tourney.

After that, Vermont and Lowell have the record at the break but will need to still perform well in the second half. Despite the Catamounts at 14-4-1 and Lowell at 12-3-3, neither of their schedules has held its end of the bargain. Vermont’s schedule is ranked 27th and Lowell’s 23rd.

Providence and Merrimack are both alive in the NCAA discussion, and Merrimack could put to the test an argument I have been making for some time. I have often contended that you don’t have to play what appears to be the toughest out-of-conference schedule to make the tournament. Instead, you need to win out-of-conference games.

Outside of Hockey East, Merrimack has played Holy Cross, Mercyhurst and Clarkson twice, and Princeton and Connecticut (in a tournament) once each. That’s not thought of as the most demanding schedule, but the Warriors’ strength of schedule is ranked 13th (Merrimack has already played Providence and BU twice each in conference).

Merrimack is 6-1-1 out of conference, bettered in the league only by Vermont (7-1). Merrimack still has some tough nonleague games on the docket, beginning Friday at Minnesota, but if the Warriors remain a .500 team in league and hold on to an NCAA spot, it may prove that it’s not the difficulty of the out-of-conference schedule that is as important as your out-of-conference success.