Of Hockey East’s semifinalists, some need playoff title more than others

Matt Grzelcyk and Boston University are a lock for an NCAA tournament bid, but the three other Hockey East semifinalists are in uncertain territory (photo: Melissa Wade).

We’ve reached the final weekend in Hockey East — the 31st Hockey East Championship — and while eight teams have ended their bid at the Lamoriello Trophy, four teams are still in the hunt.

Included is the two-time defending champion UMass-Lowell, along with top-seeded Boston University, seventh seed Vermont and eighth seed New Hampshire.

Hockey East playoffs

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

There will be plenty on the line for these teams besides just a trophy. While Boston University has already clinched at least an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament, the other three are hoping to win Hockey East to earn their bids. For New Hampshire, that’s the only way in, while Vermont and Lowell could each reach the big dance as an at-large team, though hopes for each are a bit thin.

Either Lowell or Vermont would have to win when the two face off in Friday’s semifinals if they are to keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive. And even with that win, both will need to hope for minimal upsets in conference tournaments. In fact, if Lowell loses in the Hockey East finals, the odds of getting an NCAA bid is slim — about 3 percent. Vermont’s isn’t much better — about 10 percent.

Two teams sitting home this weekend will actually have higher hopes — Boston College and Providence. The Eagles are all but in the field but they need to root against major upsets across the board (an upset, for the record, is defined as a team that would not finish in the top 16 of the PairWise Rankings winning their conference tourney. This applies to any team winning Atlantic Hockey as well as the following: St. Lawrence, Michigan, New Hampshire, Penn State, Michigan State, Ferris State, Ohio State and Wisconsin). Providence has slightly more to be concerned about — about a 75 percent favorite to earn an at-large bid.

But all this NCAA talk is getting ahead of ourselves. A trophy will be won this weekend and four schools have that opportunity. So here are brief looks at each of those teams:

No. 1 seed Boston University

How it reached the TD Garden: Two-game sweep of 10th seed Merrimack 6-2, 5-0
Semifinal opponent: Eighth seed New Hampshire (8 p.m. EDT Friday)
Season series:
Tied 1-1

It’s been the year of Jack Eichel for Boston University hockey, and for good reason.

The dynamic 18-year-old freshman hasn’t just taken over his BU team, he’s galvanized the world of college hockey.

His line, which includes wingers Evan Rodrigues and Danny O’Regan, is the top-producing trio in the country, accounting for 59 goals and 159 points.

But for Boston University to have success, coach David Quinn understands well that his team can’t be a one-trick pony. Thus far, that hasn’t been the case with a second line that is more potent than many first lines in the nation and a third line that has proven consistent, particularly in the second half of the season.

That will have to continue to be BU’s story, however, if it is going to emerge this weekend with a trophy.

“We realize that our top line is dangerous every time they’re out there and their numbers speak for themselves,” said Quinn. “But when you have a second-line left winger who has led the league in goals in Ahti Oksanen, and people say he played part of the year with Eichel, but he’s actually scored more goals without Eichel.”

Quinn also is quick to point out that with the second-best offense in the country, averaging 3.86 goals per game, it’s easy to overlook just how well the BU defense has played.

That defense continues to be led by Matt Grzelcyk and features four rookies — Brandon Fortunato, Brandon Hickey, Brien Diffley and John MacLeod. Along with goaltender Matt O’Connor, the back line has allowed just 2.29 goals per game while chipping in a combined 19 goals to BU’s offense.

“Our D corps has allowed us to have this season that we’ve had,” said Quinn. “Our four freshmen D has made a great transition to college hockey. Matt Grzelcyk is playing as well as any defenseman in the country. He’s done a great job with our freshman D in showing them what it takes. And Doyle Somerby has had a really good year.”

The fact that BU faces the eighth seed in the tournament, New Hampshire, in the semifinals conceivably makes it the prohibitive favorite to reach the title game. But don’t tell that to Quinn.

“You don’t get to this point and not have four good teams in the tournament,” said Quinn. “It’s hard to say anyone is at an advantage or a disadvantage.

“We know what we’re in store for and if we don’t play to our best, we’re not going to be in a position to win.”

No. 4 seed UMass-Lowell

How it reached the TD Garden: 2-1 series win over fifth seed Notre Dame 5-0, 2-4, 6-4
Semifinal opponent: Seventh seed Vermont (5 p.m. EDT Friday)
Season series: UMass-Lowell won series 1-0-1

All of the teams at the Garden this weekend know one thing: UMass-Lowell can win big games.

The River Hawks are two-time defending Hockey East champions, having won four straight at the TD Garden by a combined score of 11-1. Those two teams did have one thing this year’s club doesn’t, however: goaltender Connor Hellebuyck.

That said, what Lowell might lack on the back end (and let’s not write off Kevin Boyle, who got the River Hawks to the Garden this season), they make up for in offense. The River Hawks boast the seventh-best offense in the nation and second-best in Hockey East (behind BU).

A small part of that offense this season has come from an atypical source: the penalty kill.

The River Hawks have scored a nation’s-best 10 short-handed goals this season. The penalty kill wasn’t the strongest in keeping opponents off the scoreboard for parts of this season, but since Feb. 1, Lowell has killed at an 87 percent clip.

That makes the River Hawks’ unit when a man down a double threat.

“There was a time there where we were in kind of a lull [with penalty killing] halfway through the year, right after Christmas,” said River Hawks coach Norm Bazin. “We decided we were going to play a little more aggressively and not worry about the short-handed.”

Lowell scored a key goal short-handed in Sunday’s Game 3 against Notre Dame when Adam Chapie raced in alone on a breakaway early in the first period.

“[The short-handed threat] came back to speed this past weekend when we spent way too much time short-handed,” Bazin said. “We want to be aggressive and it’s translated into a little bit of offense for us.

“Sometimes it’s tough to understand why some things happen the way they do, but maybe it’s just taking the pressure off of us worrying about [being] short-handed and just playing a little more free.”

The danger of Lowell’s penalty kill certainly isn’t lost on its Friday opponent Vermont and coach Kevin Sneddon.

“I still picture their players going down on a two-on-one scoring on us a few weeks ago short-handed,” said Sneddon. “They have their own identity on the kill. It’s a little bit loose at times from the standpoint of being ultra-aggressive but it’s effective because they’re a four-man unit with good goaltending working very well together.

“Lowell does a tremendous job of sprinting from one system to the next. They can take a defensive situation on the kill and turn it into an offensive system because of their speed in transition.”

Sneddon even admits that Lowell’s offensive threat on the penalty kill is now also effective in keeping the opponent’s power play at bay.

“When you’ve got to tell your team, ‘Keep in mind, they look for offense,’ it tends to put your power play back on its heels,” he said. “That’s something as a coach you have to manage.”

Goaltender Brody Hoffman came off the bench to help Vermont rally past Boston College last weekend (photo: Melissa Wade).

No. 7 seed Vermont

How it reached the TD Garden: 2-1 first-round series win over 10th seed Maine 4-2, 2-4, 3-2 (OT); 2-1 semifinal series win over third seed Boston College 2-4, 3-1, 1-0
Semifinal opponent: Fourth seed UMass-Lowell (5 p.m. EDT Friday)
Season series: Lost series 0-1-1

If you hear folks in Vermont talking about the Return of the Hoff, understand no one (well, hopefully no one) is calling for a return of “Baywatch.”

Instead, they’re referring to the return of goaltender Brody Hoffman, who, after a beleaguered second half to the season, seemingly has taken the starter job back from Mike Santaguida.

It’s been a long road back between the pipes for Hoffman, who posted just one loss in 12 decisions (10-1-1) before Jan. 1. The low point came in a 4-2 loss to Boston University on Jan. 23 when Hoffman was pulled early in the third period and walked off the bench in frustration.

That following week, Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon suspended Hoffman indefinitely for a “violation of team value and expectation.”

“We’ll meet with the team and the captain and decide when [Hoffman’s] return is going to be considered,” Sneddon told the Burlington Free Press at the time. “Again, we have high expectations and high values regarding how we conduct ourselves and he did not comport himself very well … after the game.”

Though Hoffman didn’t actually miss too much time, his role as one of the top two goaltenders on the team seemed diminished.

That was until last weekend. When Vermont fell behind Boston College 4-0 in the opening game of the best-of-three semifinal series, Sneddon said he looked down the bench at Hoffman and he “looked like he wanted to jump in the net.”

The rest is now a bit of college hockey lore as Hoffman allowed nothing over the final 34-plus minutes of that game, got the start and won Saturday’s Game 2, 3-1, and then stole the series with a 36-save shutout in Sunday’s decisive Game 3, winning 1-0.

“Confidence is so important for these student-athletes at any position, none more than the goaltender position,” said Sneddon. “The second half [of the season] was certainly challenging for Brody and his confidence level.

“We felt the switch was important [on Friday]. We needed a change to change the momentum of the game. Brody responded well.

“But seeing his confidence in the net on Friday night made it a relatively easy decision to start him on Saturday night.”

That shift was a key component in the Catamounts’ series win over BC and it’s highly likely you will see Hoffman in net this weekend given his renewed sense of confidence in the net.

“His performance from the moment he went in to the end of the series against Boston College was sensational,” said Sneddon. “To allow one goal to a team that knows how to score like Boston College says a lot about his performance.”

No. 8 seed New Hampshire

How it reached the TD Garden: First-round sweep of ninth seed Connecticut 5-2, 2-0; 2-1 semifinal series win over second see Providence 2-1 (OT), 1-2, 2-1 (OT)
Semifinal opponent: Top seed Boston University (8 p.m. EDT Friday)
Season series: Tied 1-1

When New Hampshire’s season started off disastrously, opening with a 6-11-1 mark before the calendar reached 2015, it was hard to imagine things turning around.

It was easy to scapegoat the goaltending position after some off-ice issues led to the removal of returning starter Casey DeSmith from the team. Rookie Adam Clark attempted to jump right into the lineup night-in and night-out. While coach Dick Umile credited Clark’s efforts, he certainly wasn’t enough to carry this team to success.

That, however, had to do with much more than goaltending. The UNH offense was sputtering. Its best defenseman, Brett Pesce, was playing hurt and finally had to miss games with injury.

Translation: The Wildcats looked like a train headed full speed toward disaster.

But small changes — at least one at each position — had a major impact, and New Hampshire enters this weekend at the TD Garden as the lowest remaining seed but easily the hottest team remaining in the tournament.

On Friday, UNH faces BU, a team that the Wildcats beat on Valentine’s Day to begin an eight-game winning streak that Providence snapped last Saturday night to stay alive in the best-of-three quarterfinal. UNH prevailed a day later 2-1 in overtime.

Probably the biggest of the changes for the Wildcats was in goal when Danny Tirone came to Durham a semester early and solidified UNH’s defense. The Wildcats have allowed just 2.00 goals per game since Feb. 1.

But Tirone wasn’t the only impact change to this team. Pesce was finally healthy and shoring up the blue line. And suddenly the team’s top forward, Grayson Downing, who had just three goals in the first 15 games, began exploding, reaching this weekend with 21 goals.

“Grayson is our go-to guy, probably our most skilled forward handling the puck,” said Umile. “He’s been banged up a couple of times this season and got off to a slow start scoring. But he’s put together a solid second half in terms of scoring and setting up plays.

“Brett Pesce, we played in the first half a lot without him. He came back the second half here and he’s as good as there is. He beats forecheckers, he controls the breakout for us. He’s helped change our defensive corps and set a great example for the young guys back there.”

Umile and his team will look to not only win its first Hockey East title since 2003 but also return to the NCAA tournament after a season hiatus. New Hampshire is host of this year’s Northeast Regional in Manchester.

But first things first, and that is Boston University and, if successful, a trip to the title game with plenty at stake.

“We all know how difficult it is to get to [the TD Garden],” said Umile. “The four teams, I think all the four coaches believe anyone can win this tournament. We haven’t won it in a long time. But our focus right now is on Boston University. Everybody is excited to be in this tournament.”