Four teams will play at the TD Garden in Boston this weekend for the Hockey East championship, but the reality is you can break the final four into two packs of two.
That said, even that isn’t totally accurate.
You have two teams that have guaranteed their NCAA tournament berths in Northeastern and Massachusetts. But Northeastern in making its third appearance at the Garden in four years. UMass, its first in 12 years.
On the other side, Boston College and Boston University have been perennial visitors to the Garden but both entered last weekend’s quarterfinals as underdogs and each needed three games to advance.
That said, the message among the coaches, despite a seemingly different level of desperation, all seem to have a focus on what is next: Friday’s Hockey East semifinal.
BC coach Jerry York and BU coach Albie O’Connell both admit to playing with a level of desperation, each needing to win the tournament to have any sort of NCAA hopes.
“Northeastern and UMass have a path already to the NCAA tournament,” said York. “Both [BC and BU] have that desperation. For us, we have to win one game. Our focus is on Friday night from here.
“Desperation is the right word for it. If we lose, we’re out. We want to move on the next night to play for the championship.”
For BU and O’Connell, his team was one game away from the Garden after a 3-0 win last Friday over UMass Lowell, only to drop the second game 6-4 and need to find a way to win on Saturday against a Lowell team that felt like it had the momentum.
That was when BU played its best.
“I thought we played our best game in the last game,” said O’Connell, whose Terriers are in a similar spot they were a year ago when he was an assistant: win the title at the Garden or the season ends. “We have to worry about what’s in front of us, not worry about the [NCAA] tournament. We need to find our game quick [against Northeastern] and find a way to win.”
Northeastern and UMass have very different paths this upcoming weekend. Both enter as favorites and have NCAA tournament spots locked up. Northeastern looks to win the title for the second time in four years, while UMass is making its third Garden appearance ever and hopes to make history by winning its first league title.
Northeastern coach Jim Madigan says that despite its NCAA fate all but assured, there is still way too much on the line to take anything for granted this weekend.
“We’re at the Boston Garden playing Boston University,” said Madigan. “What other stage would you want to play an opponent who is down the street from you and you have a lot of respect for and want to beat?
“Too often, we try to fast forward to the national tournament. And the national tournament is important, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a step process. Our kids our psyched. That’s the goal [to win Hockey East].
“If you want to fast forward, Friday and Saturday night impact your seeding in the [NCAA] pairings. Everyone in the tournament will be good but you can improve your seeding an awful lot, so there’s not a lot to be said to our guys [about this weekend].”
For UMass coach Greg Carvel, this is a monumental weekend for the program, having never entered as the favorite. In a year of potential highs and lows, Carvel is pleased with how his club has maintained a level head.
“We have a tremendous resource here, [sports psychologist] Mark Randall, who has done a tremendous job of maintaining a growth mindset and always focusing on the day ahead, never looking ahead, living in the now, how do you get better today,” said Carvel. “The more important thing, whenever we’ve lost a game this year, we’ve dug deep to realize how we can get better.
“I think this group built a lot of confidence last year. They play like veterans. There’s a real confidence about them. The unity as a group, the commitment as a group.”
When you look at each matchup, Boston University facing Northeastern in the early game at 4 p.m. and Boston College trying to upset UMass in the late game, there are individual storylines that are interesting.
Obviously the desperation of BU and BC in each game is notable, but the other side of the coin provides a Northeastern team with a favorite for the Mike Richter Award in Cayden Primeau and a UMass team that might feature the nation’s best defensive corps.
All of that likely gets set aside once the puck drops. Can Northeastern manage a BU team that is playing its best hockey over the last month? And can UMass, now on its biggest stage of the season, prove they are worthy against a Boston College team whose coach has won 62 of 85 games all time in Hockey East tournament history, including nine postseason titles?
The weekend ahead is the most exciting of the year for Hockey East and could provide some of the most compelling matchups that we can imagine.