Three Things I Think: One More Time Edition – Hockey East

Posted by: Joe Meloni

Ten games take place in Hockey East next weekend. Boston College heads to Burlington, Vt., for a pair. Massachusetts-Lowell and Providence, Boston University and Northeastern and Massachusetts and Merrimack play home-and-homes. Maine travels south for two with New Hampshire.

These 10 games will, finally, clarify the field for the 2012 Hockey East tournament. In a way, this installment is the end of an era for the conference. Notre Dame’s arrival next season will lead to new playoff format that includes automatic qualification for every team. Connecticut comes the year after, which will bring yet another format change. The current plan, which includes the elimination of the ninth- and 10th-place teams, is my preference. After all, the regular season loses some of its value if everyone qualifies just by showing up, but the new formats won’t be any less exciting. We’ll just have to wait an additional week to see teams’ seasons end.

At the moment, Northeastern is the only Hockey East team eliminated. Massachusetts could see its season end on Friday if it fails to earn a point, and Maine wins its first game with New Hampshire. Fortunately for the Minutemen, UNH still has a lot to play for this weekend, and the Wildcats are always looking for a win when the hated Black Bears are in town.

Even Northeastern will see this weekend as a point of pride. A year ago, the Huskies were in the same position, eliminated heading into the final night of the season. However, their overtime win over BU cost the Terriers at least a share of the Hockey East regular season title.

Regardless of a fan’s allegiance, the drama of the weekend will lead to yet another unforgettable end to Hockey East’s final regular season as a 10-team, New England-only league.

(After the jump: A fitting end to a disappointing year for Northeastern, BC’s vulnerability and UML readying to win a championship.)

The end of Northeastern’s season was fitting

Northeastern coach Jim Madigan pulled Chris Rawlings last Saturday night in Orono. The senior goaltender allowed four goals in just more than 25 minutes of action against the Black Bears. Bryan Mountain entered and made 34 saves to help the Huskies fight back and earn a point. It wasn’t enough, though, to keep NU’s playoff chances alive. Entering Saturday, Northeastern needed to win out and receive some help from everyone playing UMass and Maine to qualify for the playoffs. The tie wasn’t enough, and the Huskies rode back to Boston knowing next weekend’s games with BU would be their last of the season.

From all accounts, it was clear that Rawlings was hardly the only reason NU allowed four goals so quickly to Maine. As he often has in his career on St. Botolph Street, Rawlings became the target, but the Huskies’ overall defensive play has been terrible for most of the season. Rawlings isn’t a world-beater by any means, but he’s a perfectly all right collegiate goaltender when he receives any kind of support from his team. Mountain’s fabulous relief appearance led many to wonder why he didn’t start the game. But that’s the easy argument that has proven to be fairly misguided at most points throughout the season.

Mountain isn’t as good as Rawlings. Perhaps he was better on Saturday, but it’s not fair to judge two goaltenders from their performances in half a game. Goaltending was a problem for Northeastern all year. Its inexperience on defense and a lack of support from the club’s forwards were bigger issues, though. They ended their season and the careers of Rawlings and a few other NU players. Mountain, who is listed as a senior, is expected back next season, since he didn’t see any game action as a sophomore.

Mountain, redshirt junior Clay Witt and current freshman Derick Roy are expected to be the three goaltenders on NU’s depth chart next season. The group is hardly an improvement from this year. In the end, it won’t matter if Madigan can’t solve the other problems that his club faced this season.

BC is vulnerable but confident as ever

Last Saturday, Boston College dropped a 5-1 decision to Providence at Conte Forum. The Eagles were without senior defenseman Patrick Wey and senior winger Steven Whitney for most of the game. This compounded the loss of Kevin Hayes, who underwent surgery last week and won’t play again this season. Whitney and Wey are still uncertain for this weekend’s games with Vermont. Neither have particularly serious injuries, but their absence had a pretty clear impact on the Eagles.

Without the pair, the Eagles were severely shorthanded on both ends of the ice and in all situations. Whitney does everything for the Eagles. Johnny Gaudreau is the focal point of most, but Whitney’s role with the Eagles is immense. He runs the first power-play unit. He drops back to defense on the penalty kill. At even strength, he’s the type of dynamic player who regular changes game with even the slightest snap of his wrist. Wey is the experienced leader of a talented but thin and young defensive unit.

If either of these players miss substantial time, the Eagles won’t enter the Hockey East tournament as favorites. However, that’s hardly an issue for them. It’s unlikely that Wey and Whitney will miss too much time. Both were on the ice for BC’s Senior Day ceremony, where they were among the BC seniors honored for their remarkable careers in Chestnut Hill.

BC plays Vermont this weekend. The Eagles can finish anywhere from first in Hockey East to sixth. At this point, they’re essentially guaranteed at least an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. In terms of the league tournament, don’t think anyone would want to see the Eagles coming to town even if BC falters and finds itself traveling for the Hockey East quarterfinals.

For most of the last decade, the Eagles’ mystique has made them even more difficult to beat. That hasn’t faded just yet. Even with some injuries right now, BC knows it can compete for more championships. A tough loss to Providence at home didn’t change any of that.

UMass-Lowell’s chance for a championship

I took some heat earlier this year when I said upsets don’t exist in January. About four days after that column ran, Maine, then in 10th place, went to Conte Forum and swept BC. I still didn’t consider it much of an upset. Those things happen. As I said, I’d use the word “upset” when a team pieced together enough success to win a championship in Hockey East.

UML enters the weekend leading Hockey East. A pair of wins over Providence would earn the River Hawks their first-ever, regular-season championships. Furthermore, they would become just the fifth team ever to win the league’s distinction for the top regular-season team. That was essentially the crux of my argument — as I said but everyone seemed to ignore.

It’s great to see teams outside of the league’s traditional powers win big games and have strong season. But it doesn’t matter if these teams don’t win championships. Lowell may very well become the first school other than BC, BU, UNH or Maine to win the league’s regular season title. A couple weeks from now, they may have the chance to pull off another feat, becoming the first school other than those four, Providence and Northeastern to win the Hockey East tournament. Other, traditional powers and lesser programs, are all gunning for the same two distinctions. UML’s sweep of Merrimack last weekend put them in front of the rest going into the final two games of the regular season. But we’ve all been here before, and the results have always been the same.

The answer will come Saturday night around 10 p.m., and I honestly can’t wait to see what the league looks like at that time.

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