Hockey East squads finding no easy route to finish last five weeks on high notes

 (Tim Brule)
Maine and Connecticut battle earlier this month at Frozen Fenway (photo: Melissa Wade).

There are exactly five weekends left in the Hockey East regular season.

Depending on the team, each member has either seven, eight, nine or 10 regular-season games remaining.

Certainly, there will still be a lot of unexpected twists and turns (see Merrimack’s victory over newly-minted No. 1 Boston University on Tuesday night). But at this point, you can almost see the standings beginning to take shape.

Because there are games-in-hand for a lot of teams, when looking at the standings, I really prefer to use winning percentage to measure team vs. team. But the number nerd that I am, I’ve gone through each team’s remaining schedule in an attempt to determine which team has (conceivably) the easiest and most difficult routes to the Hockey East finish line.

Calculating the average winning percentage of each of the 12 teams, here is a list of the teams, their games remaining and the average winning percentage of their remaining opponents:

hockey_east_table

Avg% = Average winning percentage of remaining opponent
Remain = Number of Hockey East games remaining

Looking at these numbers, you can see there is a pretty distinct difference in strength of schedule between Northeastern (easiest) and New Hampshire (most difficult). But there are also five teams in the middle (Merrimack, UConn, UMass Lowell, BU and Notre Dame) whose remaining schedules are almost equally difficult.

But it is the outlier teams – the teams with the (in concept) four easiest schedules and the three most difficult schedules that have me thinking.

Let’s look at some of those teams:

Northeastern: The Huskies enter the weekend tied with Merrimack for ninth place, but are very close to being in a top-eight spot, particularly considering that they play what on paper is the easiest schedule the rest of the way. The one issue for Northeastern is that they will have little room for error with only eight games remaining. The teams they are chasing (Providence, Connecticut, New Hampshire) have either one or two games in hand. So while Northeastern average remaining opponent winning percentage of .364 sounds attractive, the Huskies need to pick up as many points as possible.

UMass and Maine: Each of these teams sit tied for the final two spots. And while both have relatively easy remaining opponent winning percentages, the pair play one another this weekend in Orono. If either team is to sweep this series, they will have a clear advantage in moving out of the cellar and possibly being able to think about getting a first-round home ice bid. The fact that each has games in hands on some teams is important, but for either, there isn’t a lot of wiggle room. Win some games or head on the road in the first round.

Providence: Among the teams in the bottom six of the standings, Providence might sit in the catbird seat. The Friars still have 10 games remaining, giving them games in hand on six of the seven teams in front of them in the standings. And their average remaining opponent winning percentage is lower than every one of those seven teams. Add to it the fact that Providence is playing its best hockey of the season right now (something these statistics can’t really account for) and I think Providence is the team in the bottom six with the best chance of jumping into a first-round bye position.

Vermont: The Catamounts should feel good about the fact that they’ve ascended the standings and are currently sitting alone in third place. But Vermont also has a difficult grind ahead of them if they want to stay in position to earn a first-round bye. A single game against Connecticut this weekend and two games against Merrimack to close are the only games against the current bottom six that the Catamounts will play. In between, Vermont faces two games against Boston College and Notre Dame on the road with a two-game home set against New Hampshire sandwiched in between. We’ll talk about UNH below, but that could become the most important series of the season for both of those teams if either wants to keep that first-round bye hope alive.

Boston College: It’s definitely nice to get to this position in the season leading Hockey East. But a regular-season title isn’t exactly guaranteed for the Eagles. Their average remaining opponent winning percentage of .578 is the second most difficult in the league. Add to that the Eagles have just seven Hockey East games remaining and any losses down the stretch could take the regular season crown away. The good news is the current margin BC holds over teams below it. The Eagles nearest pursuer is Boston University, three points behind, but the Terriers have only a single game in hand. Vermont is six points behind, Notre Dame is seven points behind and Lowell and New Hampshire are both eight points behind. All of these teams have two games in hand except New Hampshire, which has three.

New Hampshire: There is good and bad news for Wildcat fans. The good news: UNH sits tied for fifth with UMass Lowell and has games in hand on every single team ahead of it. The bad news: The Wildcats will play all but three of its 10 remaining games against teams tied or in front of them in the standings. Play well and this is an incredible advantage for UNH. But if they struggle, there is strong possibility the Wildcats won’t climb to the top four and could drop so far as to have to go on the road in the first round. No team has as much opportunity in these final weeks as UNH but none will face as difficult a schedule.

Everyone else: The other five teams – BU, Notre Dame, UMass Lowell, Connecticut and Merrimack – all have relatively similar schedule strengths when it comes to average remaining opponent winning percentages. BU has the advantage sitting in second place while Merrimack has the biggest test if they want to avoid playing a first-round series on the road. For all of these teams, taking care of business by beating the teams below them and hopefully stealing a game or two against teams above them should be the goal. Doing as such would result in some positive movement in the standings. Failure to do so, though, likely means dropping a few spots into less-than-desirable playoff positions.

Merrimack’s upset of No. 1 Boston University

It happened on a Tuesday night, which means half of the college hockey world could have easily missed it, but Merrimack fans certainly didn’t.

In fact, a near-capacity crowd of 2,386 packed Lawler Arena to watch the Warriors upset No. 1 BU, 3-1.

It was the first win for Merrimack against a team ranked No. 1 in either national poll since the 1998 Hockey East playoffs. That year, the final for coach Ron Anderson, Merrimack beat No. 1 BU twice at Walter Brown Arena to advance to the Hockey East semifinals.

Merrimack had never beat a No. 1-ranked opponent at home.

“That was one of the best games we’ve played all year,” said coach Mark Dennehy. “We’ve been playing well of late. The scores have been deceiving. It was good for our guys to get rewarded with a win because we’ve been playing well enough to do just that.”

Dennehy said after the game that he liked the freedom with which his team played. Defensively they were responsible but the players weren’t hamstrung by the system. It’s a trend of late for this Warriors team but, until Tuesday, it hadn’t paid dividends.

“The last couple of weeks, we’ve played fast and we’ve played hard,” said Dennehy. “It just hasn’t bounced for us.”

Now the question for Merrimack is how it can build on the victory. Dennehy says his team is confident but that it is often jarred when things don’t go the team’s way. On Tuesday, after BU scored first, the Warriors showed a resiliency that helped the comeback.

That should create a bit more confidence for this team’s stretch run.

“This team needs to realize they can be a good team – we’ve just got to go out and play our game,” said Dennehy. “I don’t know that one thing is going to make [us confident], but you beat the No. 1 team in the country.

“If you don’t feel some confidence after that, there’s nothing I can inject into them that’s going to do it.”

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