How many Hockey East teams will wind up in the NCAA field of 16?

The Boston University Terriers defeated the visiting University of Massachusetts Amherst Minutemen 3-1 on Friday, February 3, 2017, at Agganis Arena in Boston, MA. (Melissa Wade)
If the season ended today, Boston University would be in the NCAA tournament, but Massachusetts would not (photo: Melissa Wade).

Believe it or not, I think that Hockey East fans have learned by now not to gloat too much.

Lest we forget, a year ago was chest-thumping time. Just a year removed from Providence and Boston University squaring off at the TD Garden for a national title, the league placed a record-tying six teams into the NCAA tournament field.

Being one of USCHO’s Hockey East homers (though I’ve always been outdone by my colleague and good friend Dave Hendrickson), all I could think about was an all-Hockey East Frozen Four in Tampa.

And then the national tournament began. And quickly, I began to realize that there were a lot of really good teams out there.

The hottest team that everyone thought might run the table, Northeastern, was eliminated on day one by North Dakota. Boston University was run out of the barn by Denver. Michigan ousted Notre Dame in a heartbreaker. Minnesota Duluth, a No. 4 seed, upset Providence.

And while Boston College and UMass Lowell survived their first-round games, only the Eagles advanced to Tampa.

But it was BC. And it was Tampa and memories of 2012, the last national title for the Eagles, made everyone nostalgic. At least until Quinnipiac stormed out of the gates and hung on for a 3-2 win in the national semifinal.

I know. All of these are painful memories.

Which is why I am tempering my expectations about this year’s national tournament.

I can report the facts: If the season ended today, five Hockey East teams would be in the field of 16, more than any other conference.

That fact in a vacuum could create the chest-thumping created late last March. But it really is about context.

Of the five teams in the NCAA picture right now, only Boston University and Providence are currently top eight in the PairWise Rankings. The remaining trio – Boston College, UMass Lowell and Vermont – all would technically be considered underdogs in their first round games and it would be difficult to pick and of those three (and you might say the same about Providence) to reach the Frozen Four.

Thus, an upset of Boston University combined with other teams holding serve against lower seeds in the regionals could leave the league without a representative in Chicago.

Yes, we’re still so far away. But with only three weekends left in the regular season it’s difficult to not look at the national picture.

And it’s also difficult to ignore trends.

Here is how those five schools have been performing of late:

HEA_table_020917

Using the last five games as a telltale sign of recent performance. Obviously, Providence is easily playing its best hockey. BC was until running in BU in Monday’s Beanpot. Boston University suffered a couple of hiccups against Merrimack but otherwise is perfect in its last 10. UMass Lowell has been streaky. Seven wins were followed by four losses before two wins last weekend. And Vermont was red hot until the last five games.

You can say any of these teams are playing poor hockey. But really only BU, Providence and BC are trending upwards (something reflected in the PairWise for those who follow closely).

So what’s the point?

Well, if you’re a Hockey East fan, keep your fingers crossed to possibly have five teams reach the NCAA field. But also make sure to temper your expectations.

Walter Brown Award sways toward Hockey East

Of the 23 semifinalists announced on Monday for the Walter Brown Award, the nation’s oldest college hockey award which recognizes the top American-born player playing for college hockey in New England, 16 came from Hockey East schools.

Boston College, Boston University and UMass Lowell all had three players on the list, while New Hampshire and Northeastern had two each and Connecticut, Maine and Vermont each placed one.

Though the award often is about scoring and point production, this year seems like a season where defense could be recognized, particularly when looking at Hockey East players.

Blueliners Charlie McAvoy at Boston University and Dylan Zink at UMass Lowell have stood out as much for their ability in the defensive zone as their ability to score. While goaltenders Jake Oettinger at BU and Joe Woll at BC have had so much impact on their team that each will be difficult to ignore.

Should point scoring dictate the vote, there is a trio that at this point that stands out: Tyler Kelleher at UNH, and both Dylan Sikura and Zach Aston-Reese. If any of these three go crazy in the final weeks of the regular season and the Hockey East tournament, they might be difficult to ignore.

Then again, this award is hardly a slam dunk for Hockey East, despite having the most New England teams of the three conferences under consideration. The last two winners and three of the last five have come from non-Hockey East teams. And no player from UMass Lowell, Connecticut or Vermont has ever won the award.

A Tip of the Hat

A little more than a week, the folks at TD Garden hosted the annual Beanpot Luncheon, an annual event that gives media access to some of the student-athletes and the four coaches who will play in the annual tournament.

It’s always a nice social event where a little bit of work gets done. Due to a work trip to Chicago, I had to miss this year’s event.

Because I was absent, I also missed the news that Steve Nazro, vice president of events for TD Garden, will be retiring at the end of this season.

Anyone who has attended a Beanpot or, quite possibly the Hockey East tournament, might know Nazro. For decades he has been a fixture in the old Boston Garden and the new venue. But most importantly, he has been the face of the Beanpot.

Steve is one heck of a sports fan and he’s a true lover of college hockey. He and his staff did a fantastic job of attracting and hosting the 1998, 2004 and 2015 Frozen Fours. His attachment to the Beanpot makes his name almost synonymous with the championship trophy presentation. It will be strange to imagine anyone else handing over the coveted trophy after this season.

I wanted to take this opportunity to share my respect and admiration for Steve Nazro. In a day and age where people change jobs as quick as outfits, Steve is a legend who will forever be linked to his time at the Garden.

I can’t say I know Steve too well. He’s a man I’ve admired from a far. But I can say that the little I know Steve Nazro, the more I believe that this won’t be the last Beanpot where we see his always-smiling face.

Simply put, it will be too hard to stay away.

26 COMMENTS

  1. If UML beats or ties BU tomorrow, 5 get in. Otherwise, I see 4. UVM on the bounce out bubble at 14 in the PWR due to the autobids in ATL and WCHA.

    • A UML win against BU would be huge. You could see a split with BC and a sweep of UMass. That would certainly get them a 3rd or 4th seed in the HE playoffs. But you need a win tomorrow night in Lowell.

  2. If UML beats or ties BU tomorrow, 5 get in. Otherwise, I see 4. UVM on the bounce out bubble at 14 in the PWR due to the autobids in ATL and WCHA.

    • A UML win against BU would be huge. You could see a split with BC and a sweep of UMass. That would certainly get them a 3rd or 4th seed in the HE playoffs. But you need a win tomorrow night in Lowell.

  3. Why shouldn’t HE fans gloat? After all we ARE the best conference in the NCAA. I’m not only considering championships but the number of players, coaches and executives the league has produced for the NHL.

  4. Why shouldn’t HE fans gloat? After all we ARE the best conference in the NCAA. I’m not only considering championships but the number of players, coaches and executives the league has produced for the NHL.

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