Providence, Notre Dame sweeps give each leg up on first-round byes

Ever since Hockey East changed to a three-weekend playoff format two years ago, the weekend between Beanpot games created a must-watch couple of days for the Hockey East standings as most of the games in hand that have been accumulated throughout the season level off just three weeks prior to the regular-season finale.

That was the case this weekend as both Providence and Notre Dame used their games in hand to gain control of their own destiny. That leads the three things I learned this week:

1. Friars and Irish control their destiny

A weekend sweep at this time of the season goes a long way when standings are tight. And for Providence and Notre Dame, sweeps of Maine and Vermont, respectively, put each in excellent position in the Hockey East standings. Notre Dame’s sweep placed the Irish into a two-way tie with Boston College for first place. While a title is on the minds of the Irish, seven points over the final three weekends will earn Notre Dame a first-round bye, something the team hasn’t earned in its first two seasons of Hockey East.

Providence, which has been in either a tie for fourth or fifth place for weeks, passed Boston University with its sweep on a week where the Terriers played just a single game due to Monday’s Beanpot. More importantly, Providence has two games in hand on UMass-Lowell that will be made up on February 19 and 20. Thus, should the Friars hold serve over the next two weekends, they’ll pass the River Hawks and jump into third, regardless of Lowell’s outcomes.

Plenty of hockey to play, but an enviable position for both of these clubs heading down the stretch.

2. Lowell’s single-point weekend might be a missed opportunity

An important weekend for UMass Lowell was as close to a lost weekend as one can imagine this time of year. With just four league games remaining after this weekend (while all other teams in the race for the first-round bye have six), Lowell took just a single point in single games versus Northeastern and New Hampshire.

Even more ominous is the fact that the River Hawks face Boston University (this weekend) and Boston College (Feb. 26-27) to close the Hockey East slate.

That said, with Boston University still three points behind in the standings and a two-game series on the horizon, a sweep of three-point weekend against the Terriers could go a long way to earning the River Hawks a first-round bye. UMass Lowell still controls its destiny for that bye.

3. Four-way tie for sixth creates a race within the race

It’s easy to get caught up in the race for first and for the four first-round byes, but the crazy logjam from sixth through 12th place makes the race to earn home ice in the first round of the Hockey East tournament a crazy one as well. Connecticut, New Hampshire, Northeastern and Vermont are all tied for sixth place, which would suggest at least one of those teams will be left out of the final first-round home ice spot. Should either Maine or Merrimack catch fire down the stretch, it could be more than one of that sixth-place quartet headed on the road when the playoffs begin.

I plan to break down all of these races in depth in the weekend column on Thursday.