The standings have stayed remarkably close at the top and bottom of the Hockey East standings, with three points separating the top five. Boston University begins the coming weekend in first place followed closely by Umass-Lowell one point behind. Merrimack and Boston College are two points behind tied for third and Maine is three points behind in fifth place. Three points also separate sixth to ninth place as New Hampshire, Providence, Northeastern and Massachusetts will head into the home stretch fighting for positioning and their playoff lives.
With the standings so close, every conference game will be huge in the coming weeks. The three Boston schools and Vermont will play only one game in conference this weekend, while everyone else will play two. After this weekend Maine and New Hampshire will be the only two teams that will have games in hand on anyone else. Two game weekend series will become the norm in the final three weeks, but for this weekend we have eight conference games. Here’s to previewing this weekend’s tilts.
Merrimack at UMass-Lowell
This will arguably be the biggest game this weekend anywhere in the country as UMass-Lowell will host Merrimack. The two teams are both in the top five of CHN’s Hockey East power poll but that does not tell the whole story as UMass-Lowell is tied for second in the Pairwise and Merrimack is tied for seventh.
Both teams have been led by their defense and goaltending this season. Merrimack is ranked fourth in the country in team defense allowing 2.12 goals per game and UMass-Lowell is ranked ninth in that category giving up an average of 2.32 goals per game. The difference in this game could be the strength of the offenses as UMass-Lowell is ranked third in the country, scoring 3.56 goals a game.
Merrimack relies on the services of Joe Cannata in their net. So far on the season he is 14-6-5 and has started all but one game for the Warriors. His 2.13 GAA is good for 12th in the nation. UMass-Lowell has relied upon Doug Carr this season. The sophomore is 17-4-0 on the season and ranks first in win percentage in Hockey East. His 1.88 GAA is tops in Hockey East and good for fourth in the nation. These two will face off on Friday night in what could be a huge goalie duel.
Maine at Providence
Maine and Providence are teams heading in different direction. The Black Bears are on a six game winning streak, after a weekend sweep of Alabama-Huntsville and the Friars have lost three in a row, including a weekend sweep at the hands of New Hampshire last weekend. Maine is stuck in the mess at the top of the standings and Providence is fighting for their playoff lives in sixth.
Maine is led by the best top line in the country and by Spencer Abbott in particular. Abbott had seven points on two goals and five assists in the weekend sweep of the Chargers and has amassed a ridiculous 47 points in 27 games. To put the top line in perspective, Abbott, Bryan Flynn and Joey Diamond have combined for 116 while the next three in Hockey East have combined for a meager 90 points.
Providence embraced the return of their junior scoring leader, Tim Schaller on Friday night but struggled to get anything past UNH freshman goaltender, Casey Desmith. The Friars scored just three goals in two games last weekend and have scored a lackluster seven goals in six games.
Maine has relied on the Dan Sullivan in recent weeks and he has not disappointed the local Orono crowd. Alex Beaudry has been struggling as of late but he also hasn’t been getting much support especially early.
Northeastern at New Hampshire
New Hampshire has looked good the last few weekends and Northeastern came out of the Beanpot opening round with a lackluster performance. After sweeping the Providence Friars in a home and home series, UNH gained a much needed four points and propelled themselves into sixth place in the standings. In their one conference game last weekend, Northeastern stunned UMass in overtime and put UMass on the outside looking in. This game is important in regards to the battle for sixth to ninth place.
UNH has been led by their defense and goaltending of late but have struggled to find the back of the net in bunches, which has been a hallmark of Dick Umile’s teams in the recent past. Northeastern gave up seven goals on Monday in the Beanpot opener and Rawlings seemingly struggled to find the puck on the night.
UNH will send out the freshman, Casey Desmith, to start in net. His numbers have been impressive (5-5-0, 2.17, .929) this season and he is making a case to be Hockey East rookie of the year come seasons end. Chris Rawlings has the talent and ability to be one of the top goalies in Hockey East but he is very streaky. On Monday, he gave up five goals on 24 shots and got pulled after the second period. He should start Friday.
Massachusetts at Boston University
Massachusetts and Boston University will meet up for the third and final time this season with BU leading the season series 1-0-1. Massachusetts is the only Hockey East team that is winless on the road, as they are 0-9-2 on the season in another team’s barn.
BU had a strong rebound weekend off a weekend sweep of Maine two weeks ago as they won their one conference game against Merrimack on Friday and they won their Beanpot opener 3-1 over Harvard. Massachusetts got swept last weekend by Northeastern and Merrimack and have lost four conference games in a row. Once solidly in the playoff picture the Minutemen now sit 2 points out.
Boston University will start Kieran Millan who is 14-8-1 on the season. Massachusetts has started freshman Steve Masterlerz in four of the past six games, including Saturday’s 4-3 defeat at the hands of Merrimack. The three man system has been interesting in Amherst to say the least but at some point one or two of the goalies have to step up and get wins. Who will start Friday should be another game time decision.
Boston College at Vermont
Boston College, after an impressive 7-1 victory against Northeastern in the Beanpot opening round, will head up to Gutterson Fieldhouse to take on the struggling Vermont Catamounts. Vermont enters the weekend off six straight losses and Boston College enters on three straight wins. This is the first meeting of the season between the schools.
Boston College should start Parker Milner in the game, as he has started the last three games and has escaped with three wins. The goaltending is up in the air in Burlington despite Rob Madore being the almost every day starter. He has struggled mightily this season but the troubles may be mostly defensive oriented.
New Hampshire at Merrimack
New Hampshire and Merrimack have split the season series so far this season and are an aggregate 4-4 in the two games this season. The two close games they have played have been defensive battles and one should expect the same at Lawler on Saturday night.
New Hampshire with its two wins over Providence became a TUC in the Pairwise and any game is huge against TUC’s for a top ranked team, such as Merrimack, is important.
Joe Cannata will start in net for the Warriors and Casey Desmith will start for UNH. Both have been strong this season in their respective nets and both have received solid defensive efforts in recent weeks in front of them.
Maine at UMass-Lowell
UMass-Lowell has an important weekend in front of them and their nine game home winning streak will be tested in both games. Games against Maine and Merrimack could go a long way in solidifying a strong Pairwise weekend for them. Maine on the other hand could further cement a strong second half by injecting a Pairwise boost to them as they currently sit in ninth in the Pairwise.
UMass-Lowell and Maine have met twice this season with UMass-Lowell picking up the surprise sweep of Maine at Alfond early in the season. This sweep played a major role in building the confidence of Lowell and has played a part in where the River Hawks have come since then.
Stopping Maine’s daunted first line should be the goal for the River Hawks this weekend. Doug Carr will start in net for UMass-Lowell and Dan Sullivan should start for Maine.
Providence at Massachusetts
While UMass is 0-9-2 on the road they are 7-2-3 on home ice, but they have lost their last two home games. The Minutemen and the Friars have met twice this season as Providence pulled out a 6-4 victory in early October and the two teams tied in early January.
This should be an interesting game because both teams have been struggling to find that crucial goal that will give them a win in the late stages. Last weekend, the Minutemen had to heartbreakers one in overtime and in one in the final seconds, while Providence lost in overtime to New Hampshire on Saturday.
Alex Beaudry will start for the Friars on the road against the Minutemen and it should be the second game time decision for UMass.