Now that we’ve entered playoff season, let’s dispense with focusing on only one team and instead let’s look at all of them (that are still alive).
The Juggernaut vs. The Upstart
No. 1 seed Massachusetts (26-8-0, 18-6-0 HEA) hosts No. 8 seed New Hampshire (12-13-9, 8-10-6 HEA)
The Minutemen have accomplished pretty much everything they possibly could have hoped for heading into the playoffs. Their first-ever regular-season title allows them to host their first quarterfinal since 2007, and also makes them a heavy favorite to advance to the Garden for the first time since that same year.
Armed with arguably the top player in the country, Cale Makar (the sophomore defenseman who ranks sixth nationally in scoring and tops in Hockey East), the Minutemen also feature the No. 2, 3 and 6 scorer in the league (Mitchell Chaffee, Jacob Pritchard, and John Leonard, respectively).
Small wonder, then, that their 3.76 goals per game far outstrips every other Hockey East team. And with the league’s number two defense, they’re the clear favorite to win it all for the first time in the program’s history.
“It was a very rewarding season for our team and our university, but we’re also aware that that’s now behind us,” says UMass coach Greg Carvel. “Our next goal is to have success in the playoffs.
“UNH will be in playoff mode because they’ve had to scratch and claw to get into the top eight. So they’ll be dangerous.”
UNH also exceeded expectations this year, though in a more modest fashion. After last year’s finish in the Hockey East cellar, first-year coach Mike Souza led the Wildcats to an overall record just a game under .500 and this unexpected playoff berth.
Against a less formidable foe, UNH would stand a decent chance of at least forcing a third game. (Just ask UMass Lowell, who could only manage one of four points in their series two weeks ago.) But UMass will be a gargantuan challenge.
“They’re as good as there is in the country,” says Souza. “It’s going to require our best to give ourselves a chance.
“We were picked as a team that wouldn’t make the playoffs, so I’m proud of our accomplishment. We compete every night. It’s never from lack of effort. We just struggle to score at times.”
Hot vs. Cold
No. 2 seed Providence (21-9-6, 14-7-3 HEA) hosts No. 7 seed Boston College (11-20-3, 10-11-3 HEA)
Talk about two teams going in different directions. Providence has won seven of its last eight, while BC has lost seven of eight.
The Friars appear poised for a strong playoff run. Aside from their hot streak, they also rank as Hockey East’s top defensive club and tops on the penalty kill, while also ranking third in offense and second on the power play.
“It’s been a staple of our program to be a complete team,” says PC coach Nate Leaman. “We’re a really good defensive team because our six defensemen who play every night are pretty darned good. We’re able to break pucks out well, and we’re able to defend pretty well with our feet and our sticks. That’s made us a pretty good defensive team.
“It’s the time of the year where you need to be a complete team to move on. I definitely like that side of our team.”
At the other end, Boston College has been almost indisputably the top disappointment in the league, projected to finish first after returning all of last year’s first-place squad but instead finishing a shocking 11-20-3 overall.
“Our year has not been what we expected,” says BC coach Jerry York. “It’s been a struggle for us offensively all year.”
Although a team struggling on offense would seem to be facing a horrible matchup against the defensive excellence of Providence, York remains optimistic.
“This is the time of the year that is a second chance opportunity,” he says. “In my own heart and soul, we have a pretty good hockey team, and its best hockey hopefully will come this weekend. I firmly believe that.”
Big Mo vs. Big Mo
No. 3 seed Northeastern (23-10-1, 15-8-1 HEA) hosts No. 6 seed Maine (15-15-4, 11-9-4 HEA)
This is the one matchup of the four in which both teams have been hot. Northeastern has won seven of its last eight; Maine has gone 5-1-1 in its last seven.
That said, Northeastern is clearly the stronger of the two teams. The Huskies are well-positioned in the PairWise to proceed to the NCAA tournament (barring total disaster), while Maine will have to win the Hockey East tournament to make it. Northeastern also ranks second in offense, third in defense, and third in special-teams net, while Maine ranks in the middle of the pack in all those categories.
Just don’t tell Northeastern coach Jim Madigan.
“Standings don’t make a difference,” he says. “It’s a two-out-of-three game series.
“We might be different types of teams. They’re a bigger, heavier, more physical team than we are and like to play down below the dots.
“They might have one of the most productive lines in Hockey East with [Chase] Pearson, [Eduards] Tralmaks, and [Mitchell] Fossier.
“There are no standings. It’s how you’re playing and they’re playing really well.”
For Maine, the playoffs are arriving at just the right time. An especially dangerous six seed, the Black Bears have only lost a single game to Providence (as part of a split) and UMass (join the club) since Feb. 2. Most impressive was a season finale win of 6-0 over a Boston University team that would have clinched home ice with a win.
“We have to play our game and play it to the best of our abilities,” says Maine coach Red Gendron. “The teams have contrasting styles. We have to be able to do what we do well.
“There are certain things that we do well, and when we’re doing them well, we succeed against most of all teams that we play. So we have to do those things.”
No. 4 seed UMass Lowell (18-11-5, 12-7-5 HEA) hosts No. 5 seed Boston University (14-16-4, 12-9-3 HEA)
Lowell enters the playoffs as the most enigmatic of the teams. After going 9-0-1 since the start of the year, the River Hawks only won one of their last seven (1-3-3). BU, on the other hand, bounced back from six straight losses to finish 4-1-1, but its loss came in an embarrassing 6-0 final game loss to Maine that could have clinched home ice.
“We ran into a stretch where [pucks] weren’t going into the net for us,” says UMass Lowell coach Norm Bazin. “That’s going to happen over the course of a season.
“We went through arguably our toughest stretch of opponents, going 9-0-1, and then met teams that weren’t going to be in the playoffs and had our tough stretch. It throws credence on how difficult the league is.
“I’m not real concerned about the last seven games. It’s a new season.”
BU has seemingly timed its ups and downs better to finish the regular season with momentum, the final game notwithstanding.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” says first-year BU coach Albie O’Connell. “We’ve had some challenges scoring at times.
“Over the last few weeks, as a team we had to buckle down and play more defense because the scoring wasn’t there. Our only way to win was to play better in our own zone and through the neutral zone.
“We did a pretty good stretch of that and Jake Oettinger has been lights out until our bad game against Maine.
“[For us], it’s all about getting off to a good start and having a good first period.”
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Next week is our final Hockey East column before we turn to NCAA tournament previews. You’ll be hearing from Jim Connelly next week, so let me thank you now for your interest and passion.