Fast-paced finish in Hockey East yields trio of regular-season champions

The Boston College Eagles defeated the University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish 6-4 (EN) on Saturday, January 28, 2017, at Kelley Rink in Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Boston College finished in a three-way tie for the Hockey East regular-season crown (photo: Melissa Wade).

In Monday’s Hockey East “Three Things” blog, I led by recapping the incredible finish that produced the league’s first-ever three-way tie for the regular-season championship.

It was an incredible finish that saw UMass Lowell, 10 points down in the standing with four weeks to play, sweep Boston College to catch BC and Boston University for first, while the Terriers’ opponent in the final week, Notre Dame, finished a single point back.

Now that you’ve heard how I saw it, let’s look at it from the four coaches involved:

“[Getting to first place] wasn’t necessarily a goal of ours heading into the season. We wanted to be the best team at the end of the year,” said UMass Lowell coach Norm Bazin after Friday’s win that completed the sweep. His River Hawks still had to wait a night to see if Boston University could beat or tie Notre Dame to finish first. “If we end up winning the regular season, it would be a huge thrill for some of these kids.”

“I liked our moxy, I liked our grit,” said BC coach Jerry York after his team’s 3-1 loss on Friday to finish the weekend winless. “It’s back-to-back games where we just haven’t scored enough goals to win. You’ve got to play that perfect game to win 1-0 if you’re not going to score many goals.”

“I don’t think anyone thought we were going to come [to Boston University] thinking we were playing for first place,” said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson, whose team could have claimed a share of the title with a tie or an outright championship with a win on Saturday. “We came here with the idea that we were going to get home ice. That was our No. 1 objective and all the rest of the stuff happened within the last 24 hours. It would’ve been nice in our last year in the conference to win a championship.”

“To share the regular-season league title is a great accomplishment for our guys, for anyone,” said BU coach David Quinn after his club salvaged the weekend split with Notre Dame. “To finish the season tied for the most points in our league says an awful lot about our leadership, our seniors and our juniors. The sky was falling if you listen to everyone in the hockey world. I think we dusted ourselves off the last two weekends of the season. I think we brought out game to another level.”

Saying goodbye to Notre Dame

The Fighting Irish couldn’t win the regular-season title on Saturday night.

Had it done so, it would have finish its final season in the league with its first title and would have been the third consecutive season the Irish improved in the standings. After finishing tied for seventh in Season 1 (2013-14), they improved to fifth in 2015, third in 2016 and was within a point of once again moving up the ladder this year.

Regardless, Jackson, after finishing his team’s final regular season in the league before moving to the Big Ten next year, looked back on these four years with nothing but great memories.

“This conference is outstanding; it’s been a great home for us,” said Jackson. “I feel the same way I felt when we left the CCHA. I’m disappointed. The relationships you build up with the coaches, just the overall programs in this conference, it’s been a great conference for us.

“We’re not done yet. We’re still members of Hockey East until the season ends. And proud members.

“This league’s done us well and we’re proud to be part of it.”

With the playoffs beginning, there’s no doubt Jackson would like to finish his team’s time in Hockey East the same way it did the CCHA: winning the postseason tournament.

This Notre Dame team certainly has the talent to do so. To do so, there’s a strong chance that the Irish will have to go through one of the strongest and best teams down the stretch, Providence.

The Friars, as the No. 5 seed, have to get past Massachusetts this weekend in a first-round series. This is hardly a foregone conclusion, particularly given that UMass took the Friars to overtime last Saturday. But should the Friars survive, they’ll head to South Bend, where the Friars ended their nine-game winning streak on Feb. 17.

And while there will be some compelling storylines in the quarterfinals, there may be none better than that one.

Picking the postseason awards

Some seasons, picking which players should get awards can be a slam dunk.

Remember Jack Eichel?

Yeah, that one was pretty easy.

This season such a luxury doesn’t exist, at least from a player of the year standpoint.

There have been some impressive performances. New Hampshire’s Tyler Kelleher was consistent from beginning to end and closed the regular season on a nine-game point-scoring streak.

Northeastern’s Zach Aston-Reese racked up 29 goals and 59 points overall despite the fact that his two opening-night linemates, brothers John and Nolan Stevens, each missed significant time with injuries.

UMass Lowell’s Joe Gambardella was a workhorse for his team and helped carry the club down the stretch when it overcame a 10-point deficit in the standings to rally to a share of the regular-season title.

And Notre Dame’s Cal Petersen might be the most overlooked player. Petersen started every single game in goal for the Irish, leading his team within a win on the final night of the season of the regular-season crown. He was second in the league in GAA and third in save percentage (one-one thousandth of a point behind the leader, BU’s Jake Oettinger). His three shutouts were tops in Hockey East play.

I think it’s obvious that I’m having a difficult time picking player of the year, so let’s place that one aside for now.

Coach of the year is a decent debate as well. York led a team to a share of the conference title despite losing more than two-thirds of its top returning players from a year ago. The downside for York was his team’s struggles down the stretch that turned a runaway lead into a three-way share of the regular-season title with BC dropping to third in the seeding.

Bazin’s UMass Lowell team was left for dead by many entering February having lost four straight in league play. But the ability to rally the club and post a perfect 7-0 mark in the final month gave the River Hawks only its second regular-season title and likely earned the club its fifth NCAA bid in six years.

Rookie of the year feels like a two-horse race with both members of Boston University’s blue-chip recruiting class. Forward Clayton Keller dominated, scoring 27 points while playing only 19 of BU’s 22 league games. Oettinger was stellar in net, leading the league in GAA while playing in 20 of 22 league games.

Now that I’ve laid out some of my thinking, here are my selections for the top league awards, as well as First and Second All-Star Teams and the All-Rookie Team.

The actual awards, voted on at the conclusion of the regular season by the 12 coaches, will be presented at the annual league banquet on Thursday, March 16.

First Team All-Hockey East
F: Zach Aston-Reese, Northeastern
F: Tyler Kelleher, New Hampshire
F: Joe Gambardella, UMass Lowell
D: Dylan Zink, UMass Lowell
D: Charlie McAvoy, Boston University
G: Cal Petersen, Notre Dame

Second Team All-Hockey East
F: Anders Bjork, Notre Dame
F: Adam Gaudette, Northeastern
F: Blaine Byron, Maine
D: Matias Cleland, New Hampshire
D: Jake Walman, Providence
G: Jake Oettinger, Boston University

All-Rookie Team
F: Clayton Keller, Boston University
F: Ross Colton, Vermont
F: Patrick Grasso, New Hampshire
D: Jeremy Davies, Northeastern
D: Dante Fabbro, Boston University
G: Jake Oettinger, Boston University

Player of the Year: Zach Aston-Reese, Northeastern
Rookie of the Year: Clayton Keller, Boston University
Coach of the Year: Norm Bazin, UMass Lowell