This Week in Hockey East: After sweeping Merrimack, Boston University knows ‘it’s crunch time now’

The Terriers celebrate Bobo Carpenter's goal which made it 6-3 BU in the second period. (Tim Brule)
Boston University players celebrate a goal earlier this season in Hockey East play at Boston College (photo: Melissa Wade).

It may seem difficult to remember, but way back in October, the Hockey East coaches, along with yours truly, picked Boston University to finish first in Hockey East.

Fast forward to last weekend and entering a two-game set against Merrimack, we all knew, even if watching from afar, that this hasn’t been the easiest road for the Terriers.

Something that most may have failed to realize was that prior to last weekend’s two-game set against the Warriors, BU hadn’t swept a single series – in or out of league – all season.

Way back on Oct. 20-21, when the Terriers were ranked No. 7 in the nation, they earned a tie and win against Connecticut, taking three of four points. But since season-opening wins over Union on Sept. 30 and Quinnipiac on Oct. 8, BU hadn’t as much as won back-to-back games.

Thus, you can understand the sense of relief as coach David Quinn, a night after a 4-3 road win, walked out of Jack Parker Rink on Saturday with a 3-1 victory and four league points in his pocket.

“That was a long time coming,” said Quinn. “Getting four points on a weekend, it hasn’t happened all year. It feels good, I’ll tell you that.”

The weekend featured a number of solid story lines for Boston University.

Goaltender Jake Oettinger, after allowing a bad goal early on Friday, settled in and was the Oettinger of old, able to save his team’s bacon when necessary. Dante Fabbro, finally feeling back healthy after sustaining a leg injury during World Juniors, netted his first career hat trick on Friday night.

And special teams, in particularly the power play, wasn’t just clicking but scored at opportune times.

On Friday, the power play lit a fuse in BU’s offense. After being outplayed in the game’s first 16 minutes, the power play scored on a Fabbro shot and then the offense put up two more goals in the next 70 seconds.

A night later, it was the power play that was able to close out the game.

“It’s 2-1 and we get a power-play goal, and in a timely manner,” said Quinn. “Our power play was pretty good all weekend.”

Quinn and his club understand how important last weekend’s four points were. This week, they’ll head to Arizona State for a two-game nonconference slate, meaning the 10 active teams in Hockey East will have a chance to either play catch up or possibly move past the Terriers in the standings.

Last weekend put BU in better position, bumping them to a tie for third with Providence (Friars have two games in hand). BU sits four behind first-place Boston College and three behind Northeastern, which sits in second.

More importantly, BU is now five points ahead of sixth-place Maine, a little cushion room when you consider that the top five teams in Hockey East will earn a first-round bye (and the top four will get home ice in the quarterfinals).

None of that is lost on Quinn.

“It’s crunch time now. There’s two things we’ve talked about: We need to have urgency because we don’t have time,” said Quinn.

“We’ve created a situation for ourselves that every second counts no matter what you’re doing if we want to achieve some of the things we want to achieve. But four points feels good.”

Road takes its toll on Massachusetts

When assembling a schedule, college hockey coaches understand well that the road is part of life.

You’re going to play half your league games on the road and when it comes to nonleague contests, if you’re playing a disproportionate number of those at home one season, generally the next season you’re equally lopsided in the number of road games (unless you shell out significant money to buy home games from your opponents, but that’s a story for another day).

For Massachusetts, when coach Greg Carvel took over the reins a year ago, some of his schedule was laid out. And while I’m sure he tried to do everything he could to balance things out, the span of hockey between Dec. 5 and Jan. 23 this season simply was daunting.

In that span, which did include a 25-day holiday break, UMass played 10 games, nine of them coming on the road. There was significant time spent on busses traveling to exotic destinations like Hartford, Schenectady, N.Y., New Haven, Conn., Burlington, Vt., and Orono, Maine.

His Minutemen put forward a 3-6-1 mark in that stretch and, impressively, took care of business in its lone home game, a 3-0 win last Friday against No. 8 Northeastern.

But Carvel was honest when talking about the trip and the toll it takes on his student-athletes.

“For the first time in a long time, we didn’t have a lot of energy [in Saturday’s 5-0 loss to Northeastern],” said Carvel. “We’ve been playing a tough road schedule since we’ve been back. Our energy level dipped and that’s the first time I’ve seen that from my team in a long time.

“But I’m not too surprised given the amount of travel we’ve had.”

Carvel admits that his staff has looked at this difficult span and tried to plan accordingly. But when you single out individual games, Saturday’s 5-0 loss to Northeastern looked worse because of his club’s fatigue.

Add on to that UMass still has 10 league games to play, tied for the most of any team in Hockey East, there is significant opportunity ahead to gain in the standings though little rest ahead.

“You have to have a long-term answer to [your schedule],” said Carvel. “We knew this was coming, so the way we manage our guys the entire year is so they can sustain the energy.”

The good news: of those 10 games, seven will be at the confines of the Mullins Center where UMass is 6-3-0 this season. That stretch begins with two games against Maine this weekend.

Winning brings smiles back to the faces of Vermont players

It’s been a long season to date for Vermont.

Thought of to be a middle of the pack club, the Catamounts entered last weekend with just a single victory in league play.

On Friday, it looked like they might pull off an upset of UMass Lowell but instead let a 2-0 lead slip away, losing eventually in overtime, 3-2.

A night later, it felt like déjà vu.

This time, the lead was doubled – 4-0. But a three-goal rally by the River Hawks brought them to the brink of another impressive comeback.

Saturday, though, Vermont found a way to close things out paced by a hat trick by Liam Coughlin.

“It’s huge,” said Coughlin. “We hadn’t won a game in a little while so it feels great. Even between the period it felt great. Everybody’s having fun right now.

Bench boss Kevin Sneddon was more than happy to see his team get rewarded for their efforts.

“It was nice to stand outside the locker room for five minutes and just hear the banter,” said Sneddon. “I’ve missed that. I know the boys have missed that.

“They deserve it. They’ve stuck with it every day and hopefully this is a start of some good things to come.”