The playoff races are getting closer, seemingly by the day and it is amazing to realize that we are in the home stretch with only three more weekends of Hockey East regular season play remaining. As we look at the standings we realize that there are only two points separating the top five teams, thus leaving five teams with a legitimate shot at winning the league regular season title. UMass-Lowell holds the top spot with 28 points, Boston College and Boston University are tied for second place with 27 points and Maine and Merrimack are tied for fourth with 26 points.
The bottom half of the standings are just as close as four teams will fight for the last three playoff spots. Both Providence and New Hampshire had big weekends last weekend coming out with four and three points respectively. The Friars currently hold the sixth spot with 21 points and the Wildcats are nipping at their heels with 20 points. Although a home spot is not mathematically out of the question for either of these teams, with Providence five points out and UNH six points out, the odds are low because they would need to pass two or three teams just to get to that point. Northeastern and UMass sit tied for eighth, four points out of seventh and eighth.
If the NCAA tournament began today, Hockey East would receive five solid bids based on the Pairwise. Boston College is currently the highest ranked Hockey East team, at second and Merrimack is the lowest ranked 11th. These two teams meet this weekend and if swept the Warriors could find themselves on the outside looking in. Boston University is tied for third and UMass-Lowell is tied for fifth. Maine is the other team in the top ten as they are in eighth. Here goes to previewing this weekend.
Merrimack at Boston College (Friday), Boston College at Merrimack (Saturday)
Every series will be big this weekend but this one may top them all. Boston College is fresh off their impressive Beanpot win over rival Boston University, a 3-2 triumph in overtime. Both teams sit right in the middle of the battle for first place with Boston College tied for second and Merrimack tied for fourth, one and two points out of first respectively. This game will be huge for the Pairwise and could be a huge boost to Merrimack if they can pick up two wins.
Boston College has returned Parker Milner to the net and in the process have five straight wins under his tutelage. His lore was created during the Beanpot. In the near 80 minutes of play Monday he stopped 32 of the 34 Terrier shots. His importance cannot be overstated in the coming weeks. The Eagles have also found their scoring touch in recent weeks as they have scored 16 goals in their last three games.
Merrimack is riding a wave known as Joe Cannata. Last weekend against UMass-Lowell and New Hampshire, Cannata made 79 saves on the weekend in a loss and a tie. His performance should have been enough for two wins but the Warriors continue to struggle putting the puck in the back of the net. Merrimack is 1-2-1 in their last four games and every game against a top team will be crucial in the Pairwise.
Boston University at UMass-Lowell (Friday), UMass-Lowell at Boston University (Saturday)
With four of five teams fighting for first place in action against each other these games are crucial to where the final standings may end up. UMass-Lowell has been the surprise team in Hockey East this season, maybe the country, and BU has responded well with a strong second half after the departures of two top tier players during the Christmas Break.
The River Hawks are the feel good story of the year and are getting balanced play on the both the offensive and defensive sides of the puck. Doug Carr has been a rock in net so far this season. He ranks first in all goaltending categories. On the season he gives up 1.81 goals per game and saves nearly 94 percent of shots he sees. His 1.81 GAA would be the lowest in Hockey East since UVM’s, Joe Fallon, finished the 2006-2007 season with a 1.86 GAA. His services have been put together nicely with a balanced offense to lead the River Hawks to the top of the standings.
Boston University needs a huge comeback after dropping the Beanpot final on Monday night and getting upset by UMass last Friday night. The Terriers are 2-4-0 in their last six games and have struggled to score in those losses, scoring just under two goals per game in those losses. Despite the lack scoring, Boston University has received solid goaltending from Kieran Millan in the losses.
Massachusetts at Maine (Friday and Saturday)
Massachusetts has been off and on in recent weeks and Maine has been nearly unblemished, except for once last weekend against Providence. The time is now for UMass if they are going to make the playoffs as they are tied with Northeastern for the last playoff spot. Maine is in the battle for first place. They are currently tied for fourth place, two points out of first place.
Maine may be in the best position to leave the weekend with a conference lead or tie mainly because they play two home games against a Hockey East team that is not in the battle for first place, as the other four play games against each other. Maine has won seven of their last eight games and in that stretch has played consistent hockey in net for the Black Bears. He has a 1.84 GAA in his last six starts and has been impressive at times for Maine. His play coupled with timely scoring by their top line has paid dividends.
Massachusetts had an inconsistent weekend last weekend. After a 3-2 upset win over Boston University on enemy territory last Friday night, the Minutemen came up with a dud on Saturday night in a 5-4 loss to the Providence College Friars. UMass has seemingly mastered the three goalie system as no one is seemingly stepping up in net for them. The only question is how long this can continue? Will somebody finally step forward?
Providence at Northeastern (Friday and Saturday)
This series is a must win for Northeastern if they wish to make the playoffs. Providence sits five points out of home ice territory and Northeastern sits tied in eighth with UMass four points shy of New Hampshire in seventh and five points shy of Providence in sixth.
Last weekend was an unsuccessful one for Northeastern as they lost to New Hampshire on Friday night on the road and lost to Harvard in the Beanpot consolation game, Monday evening. Could there be a goalie controversy brewing at Northeastern? On Monday, usual starter Chris Rawlings got scratched in lieu of second string goaltender, Clay Witt.
Witt had 39 saves in the game on Monday and on Friday night Rawlings gave up two very soft goals in the first period that killed all momentum that the Huskies had. The Huskies aren’t playing bad hockey at the moment they are just receiving just average goaltending right now. Chris Rawlings is more than capable of being better than average.
Providence took four points last weekend, sweeping Maine and UMass. After losing five out of six games, the Friars came back to life last weekend scoring nine goals after scoring just seven goals in those six games. With a spark to the offense last weekend it will be important for Providence to keep it up this weekend on the road for two. Alex Beaudry has been his usual inconsistent self this year but has been strong at times he will get the call this weekend.
Vermont at New Hampshire (Friday and Saturday)
New Hampshire has slim hope for a home ice berth but is still solidly in the playoffs with a four point lead and Vermont is looking to play spoiler as they are practically, just not mathematically, eliminated from the postseason hunt.
New Hampshire enters this weekend unbeaten in four games and has been slowly getting themselves out of the hole that they were in only two weeks ago. Getting into the playoffs has been a goal for UNH for some weeks now and they are doing a good job playing playoff, desperate hockey.
Casey Desmith has been the stalwart of the recent strong performance. His 2.05 goals against per game and his .932 save percentage are good for second in the conference, behind Lowell’s Doug Carr. Dick Umile, in his weekly press conference pared down any and all speculation that senior Matt Di Girolamo might get the start on Saturday night’s senior night in Durham by saying “He will go with who’s playing well and not start someone based on what night it is.” The senior has not played in nearly two months.
Vermont has lost a season high seven games in a row and are struggling on the defensive side of the puck especially, giving up a league worst 4.18 goals per game. The Catamounts can play a huge spoiler down the stretch. So far this season, Vermont has defeated the first, fifth and 14th ranked Pairwise teams this season and have all the ability to do just that. Rob Madore will need a strong weekend on the big sheet for Vermont to have any chance to come out with points this weekend.