Heading into final weekend, Hockey East has a number of close races to watch

Boston College and Providence both have designs on taking next weekend off (photo: Melissa Wade).

We’re into the home stretch now. This weekend’s games will complete the Hockey East regular season and set the stage for playoffs that will extend the season for some and end it (either mercifully or cruelly) for others.

Keep in mind that the key dividing lines are between fourth and fifth places as well as between eighth and ninth. The team that finishes fourth locks up the last first-round bye and home ice in the quarterfinals. The team that finishes eighth secures the final first-round home-ice slot.

As you’ll see below, I predict Notre Dame and Maine to be the two major casualties in those two tight races.

Let’s look at where each team stands and make some predictions. The teams are ordered based on my expected final playoff seedings.

1. Boston University

Current number of points: 29

Remaining games: A home-and-home series with Northeastern

Best case: The Terriers take at least one point from Northeastern, or Boston College fails to sweep at Notre Dame, giving BU the regular season crown and No. 1 seeding outright.

Worst case: As detailed in the Monday morning blog, if BU gets swept, BC sweeps and Northeastern finishes third, the Terriers will be the No. 2 seed.

Analysis: That worst case includes a whole lotta ifs, all of which must come true for BU to fall out of first place.

You can never say never. Ask the Green Bay Packers about their certain trip to the Super Bowl.

Or better yet, ask a Seattle Seahawks fan about the certainty of Marshawn Lynch scoring from the 1-yard line or the improbability of a guy named Malcolm Butler sending them into the offseason crying.

Heh, heh, heh. Let’s spend just a couple seconds savoring that moment yet again.

Ahhhhh, yes. How sweet it is!

Back to our regularly scheduled programming …

All caveats aside, BU is as close of a lock to gaining the No. 1 seed as there is in Hockey East this year.

Projected points: 31

Projected seeding: 1

2. Boston College

Current number of points: 25

Remaining games: Two at Notre Dame

Best case: The Eagles sweep and the Terriers get swept, making the two archrivals co-champions of the regular season. Additionally, if Northeastern finishes third (or at least above Massachusetts-Lowell and Vermont) to give BC the tiebreaker, then BC becomes the No. 1 seed.

Worst case: BC gets swept and other results drop the Eagles all the way to sixth.

Analysis: Notre Dame certainly was a thorn in BC’s side last year, defeating the Eagles at Kelley Rink in overtime, and then as the No. 8 seed, toppling the seemingly unbeatable top-seeded Eagles, two out of three. (BC did win the game at Fenway Park.)

The Irish are also 4-1-2 in their last seven, including taking three of four at BU last weekend. And this weekend’s contests are in South Bend.

So it wouldn’t be shocking at all to see Notre Dame sweep its way into a top-four position.

However.

BC is still 12-2-3 since the start of December. The Eagles have done so quietly because this isn’t the offensive juggernaut of last year, and one of those losses was on the big stage of the Beanpot opening round.

But quietly winning is still winning.

I really can’t see the Eagles getting swept this weekend. I see them getting two points and holding onto second place.

Projected points: 27

Projected seeding: 2

3. Providence

Current number of points: 23

Remaining games: Hosts Maine for two.

Best case: The Friars sweep Maine and BC gets no more than two points at Notre Dame. That reasonable scenario gives Providence the No. 2 seed. (The Friars own the head-to-head tiebreaker with Lowell in case the River Hawks also sweep, and Providence also owns the most-conference-wins tiebreaker with both BC and Lowell.)

Worst case: Providence gets swept and, with other action going the wrong way, slides all the way to seventh.

Analysis: Of the five teams clustered within a point of each other (and make it six if you include BC), Providence is the only one that isn’t facing another member of the cluster.

That is, the Friars are the only member of the group jostling for a first-round bye that is a clear favorite this weekend, that is playing an opponent outside of that group. They’re also at home.

As a result, I’m predicting the Friars to get three of four points from Maine.

Why not all four points and a good shot at second place?

A week ago, that would have been my expectation. But Providence has displayed a frustrating inability to sweep weekends. Yes, I know it’s tough with Hockey East’s top-to-bottom strength and the sport’s overall parity. But last weekend’s split with last-place Massachusetts capped off a string of no-sweeps interrupted only by one over a Lowell team in the midst of free-fall.

And while Maine earned a bad reputation last year as a near-automatic two points when you faced it in your barn, the Black Bears are 5-7-1 on the road this year and have won three of their last four overall, including one over red-hot Northeastern.

So I’m not sure if the Friars take all four points. Put me down for three and third place.

Projected points: 26

Projected seeding: 3

4. Massachusetts-Lowell

Current number of points: 23

Remaining games: Hosts Vermont for two.

Best case: Sweep Vermont and with other teams’ cooperation, use head-to-head tiebreaker wins over BC, Northeastern and Notre Dame to slide into second place.

Worst case: Lose and slide all the way to seventh.

Analysis: For a while there, the wheels had fallen off the River Hawks bandwagon with six losses in seven games. But there may be new rubber on Lowell’s ride into the playoffs. In their last two contests, the River Hawks destroyed Massachusetts 7-1 and then went on the road and tied BC.

So while they almost certainly weren’t as good as they looked in the first half, they every-bit-as-much certainly aren’t as dreadful as they looked for much of the second.

Plus, they’re hosting a Vermont team that also looked a lot better in the first semester than this one.

Still, I’m projecting no more than a split. But based on my other projections, that will leave the River Hawks tied with Notre Dame, over whom they hold the tiebreaker.

So the Hawks hold on by the very tips of their fingers to the all-important first-round bye and second-round home ice.

Projected points: 25

Projected seeding: 4

5. Notre Dame

Current number of points: 23

Remaining games: Hosts Boston College for two.

Best case: The Irish sweep their Catholic rivals, and both Providence and Lowell get no more than three points on the weekend. That will give Notre Dame second place.

Worst case: Get swept and tumble all the way to seventh.

Analysis: Last weekend’s three points from BU certainly gives reason for optimism. The previous weekend was a split with Providence and before that three points from Maine.

So the Irish are looking pretty good now. The only concern is that BC is, too.

This looks like a split between two hot teams.

The downside is that I’m projecting a tie for fourth place with Lowell that will equate to anything but a tie. The chasm between fourth and fifth place is enormous and the Irish appear to be on the wrong side.

Projected points: 25

Projected seeding: 5

6. Northeastern

Current number of points: 22

Remaining games: A home-and-home series with BU

Best case: Like all the other teams already mentioned in this cluster, the Huskies could sweep and with other teams’ cooperation, vault into second place. While the rest of the dominos might not fall, a sweep would put the Huskies in good shape for a first-round bye.

Worst case: Getting swept could dump the Huskies all the way to eighth place. Fortunately for them, though, that’s still good enough for first-round home ice.

Analysis: The Huskies have been playing as well as anyone. Will their heartbreaking overtime loss in the Beanpot championship game set them back? Or will they be primed for revenge against the Terriers?

This weekend series could go either way, especially since it pits teams facing each other for the second and third times in five days.

It looks like a probable split to me. And in the event of a tie with Vermont, the Huskies get the nod thanks to a better record against first-place BU.

Projected points: 24

Projected seeding: 6

Brady Shaw and Vermont could finish as high as third (photo: Melissa Wade).

7. Vermont

Current number of points: 22

Remaining games: Faces Lowell on the road for two

Best case: Not even a sweep can get the Catamounts into second place, but they can reach third.

Worst case: Getting swept could drop them to seventh.

Analysis: Their matchup with Lowell is one of two teams that were red hot in the first half but both of whom cooled off in the second. Arguably, Vermont cooled while Lowell went Antarctic, but the River Hawks have begun to rebound.

Since Vermont is a good road team (9-5-1 compared to 9-5-2 at home), this looks like a split.

Projected points: 24

Projected seeding: 7

8. New Hampshire

Current number of points: 17

Remaining games: Hosts Merrimack for two

Best case: The Wildcats sweep and Maine does no better than split with Providence. That’s good for eighth place.

Worst case: UNH gets swept and falls out of a first-round home-ice berth, potentially all the way to 11th.

Analysis: The Wildcats have won their last three and four of their last five. By stunning contrast, Merrimack has won only one game in its last 11, and that was one in which Lowell outshot the Warriors 52-17.

Especially with both games at the Whitt, and Maine facing a tough road series with Providence, this is a great opportunity to grab that last home-ice berth.

I won’t call it a “gift-wrapped” opportunity because Merrimack tied Vermont in its last outing. There are no sure things. But considering how this season started for UNH (including a share of last place), home ice would be quite the recovery.

And that’s my prediction.

Projected points: 21

Projected seeding: 8

9. Maine

Current number of points: 18

Remaining games: Two games at Providence

Best case: If Maine sweeps and Northeastern gets swept, that inches the Black Bears up via tiebreaker one spot from their current position to seventh place. But their ceiling goes no higher.

Worst case: Maine gets swept or in some lesser way still fails to stay ahead of UNH. The Black Bears own a one-point lead and the head-to-head tiebreaker but remain vulnerable.

Analysis: As already noted, I think New Hampshire has a great shot at sweeping its series, which would force Maine to take three of four points from Providence to force a tie in the standings.

I don’t see that happening. I think UNH leapfrogs the Black Bears, forcing them on the road for the playoffs.

Projected points: 19

Projected seeding: 9

10. Connecticut

Current number of points: 16

Remaining games: Host Massachusetts for one

Best case: In theory, the Huskies could defeat last-place UMass and vault over Maine and UNH for the final home-ice berth.

Worst case: UConn loses and Merrimack leapfrogs into 10th place.

Analysis: That theoretical chance at home ice is a tough theory to swallow.

In their last six games, the Huskies have a 1-0 win over Merrimack to their credit. The other five? A collective shellacking to the tune of 34-4.

UConn was one of the great stories of the league for much of the season. But sadly, it’s well past midnight for Cinderella.

Projected points: 16

Projected seeding: 10

11. Massachusetts

Current number of points: 11

Remaining games: One at UConn

Best case: A win combined with two Merrimack losses to escape the cellar (via tiebreaker).

Worst case: A loss to stay in last place.

Analysis: I’ve been rather negative about UMass’ chances this year. I’m sure someone in Amherst feels I’ve surgically attached the “last-place” adjective to the “UMass” noun and the two can never be set asunder.

Well, it’s sundering time.

Based on how poorly UConn and Merrimack have been playing down the stretch, and based on some much improved performances from the Minutemen, I see them getting out of the cellar.

Projected points: 13

Projected seeding: 11

12. Merrimack

Current number of points: 13

Remaining games: Two at UNH.

Best case: A sweep would launch the Warriors all the way to ninth place. True, that still means going on the road for the playoffs, but ninth is the only road matchup that avoids the cluster of top-seven teams in the league.

Worst case: Get swept while UMass wins its lone game, and fall into last place.

Analysis: Unfortunately, I see the cellar on Merrimack’s immediate horizon. As already noted above (in the New Hampshire section), the Warriors have won only once in their last 11 and got severely outplayed in that one.

They were a great story over the first half, but this isn’t going to end well.

Projected points: 13

Projected seeding: 12

One extra nugget

This one comes from the incomparable John “Jocko” Connolly at the Boston Herald.

Within the past week, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced a panel to investigate the storm-related problems at the MBTA. If you recognize the name of that panel’s chairman, kudos to you. You know your hockey history.

Paul Barrett, the Southie native named as the chair, ranks as the No. 9 goalscorer at Boston College. (He’s tied with three others. See if you can guess their names. The answer is below.)

Barrett was co-captain of the 1978 team that lost to BU in the NCAA championship game held in Providence.

Have you given yourself enough time to guess the identity of the other three who also scored 78 career goals?

Here they are: Bob Sweeney (1982-86), Blake Bellefeuille (1996-2000) and the player who even newbies should have gotten, Johnny Gaudreau (2011-14).

And finally, not that it has anything to do with anything, but …

This is one last reminder before it disappears from the newsstands.

The current issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine — the No. 1 mystery magazine in the world — contains “Huram’s Temple,” a unique story of mine. Look for the March/April double issue.

You can always follow my fiction writing on
my website where you can sign up for my newsletter so you can hear (never more than once a month) about my latest releases.

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