Three Things I Think: Hockey East, Jan. 21

Posted by: Joe Meloni

A year ago, the final night of the regular season decided the Hockey East title. Massachusetts-Lowell defeated Providence to earn its first regular-season championship, but four different teams could’ve claimed the distinction with some slightly different results.

It was, for most, the most exciting ending to a regular season in the league’s history. Similar results were expected this season, but it’s not likely to happen. With about seven weeks left before the postseason, Boston College has the trophy wrapped up. It will take a bit of a collapse from the Eagles and near perfect performances from Northeastern, UMass-Lowell or Providence to get past BC.

With eight league games remaining, BC has 21 points with a 10-1-1 record through its first 12. UML looks like the only realistic contender to knock off BC. Even then, the River Hawks essentially can’t lose more than once or twice to do the job and must sweep BC in the process.

The Hockey East Tournament promises some drama to decide the 2014 recipient of the Lamoriello Trophy. For now, though, the hardware handed out for the regular season champion is almost guaranteed to land in Chestnut Hill.

(After the jump: Four critical points at stake between Providence and Lowell; Notre Dame needs to get going; A tough year for BU isn’t all on its first-year head coach)

Critical weekend ahead for Providence and UMass-Lowell

If Lowell wants any chance to challenge the Eagles for the regular season title, this weekend with Providence needs to come with four points. For the Friars, the same is true. Moreover, the games, which begin Friday night in Providence, are major opportunities for each side to fortify their NCAA Tournament chances.

PC ended a five-game winless streak with a 7-2 win at Colorado College on Saturday night. Since returning from winter break, the Friars have seen a fantastic season transform into one without any certainty. An at-large bid is still a pretty strong possibility, but difficult games in league play and a bad loss to Air Force have hurt PC’s chances. The Friars are still likely to lock up a bye and home in the league tournament. However, Nate Leaman wants championships. He believes his team is capable of competing for them. This weekend’s games with UML are a great chance to prove it, even beyond the club’s strong first half.

Since both Leaman and Norm Bazin have taken over at their programs, the clubs have played a number of important games. PC, a No. 7 seed, defeating UML in the Hockey East quarterfinals two years ago started the trend. Last year, UML winning the league’s regular-season title in PC’s building and knocking PC out of the Hockey East Tournament with a semifinal win at TD Garden only added to the fledgling rivalry.

This weekend should produce even more memorable moments between the newly established Hockey East powers.

Notre Dame’s home ice push must start this weekend

The Fighting Irish’s first season in Hockey East hasn’t gone quite smoothly as Jeff Jackson hoped. Heading into the weekend, UND is eighth in the league. With only nine games played, there is plenty of time for it to make up some of the ground its lost with some tough losses. The Hockey East Tournament format guarantees the top five teams first round byes, but only the top four earn home ice. The Fighting Irish knew the move to Hockey East would come with significant travel, but avoiding any plane rides for the quarterfinals would certainly help.

Despite its position in the league standings, UND is only five points out of fourth. Second-place Northeastern heads to South Bend this weekend for a battle with UND. The Huskies won at Compton Family Ice Arena earlier this season as part of the Shillelagh Tournament. A sweep for either side this weekend would be a strong indicator to the rest of the league. Additionally, the games have major Pairwise implications, especially for Northeastern.

The Fighting Irish have nothing but league games remaining on their schedule. All 22 of those points are winnable for a talented club that’s performed well out of Hockey East but struggled to find any consistency in the league. A regular-season title is pretty much out of the question for UND as this point, but a couple wins at Northeastern would help the club in its quest for an easier road to a Hockey East Tournament championship.

Dave Quinn isn’t to blame for BU’s problems

After winning his first game as BU head coach, Dave Quinn was both pleased and skeptical. A veteran of Hockey East, Quinn knew a win over a bad Massachusetts team wasn’t indicative of much. Not much has gone right for BU since that night. The Terriers have won just six games since. Entering the stretch run, BU is 10th in Hockey East.

Naturally, a healthy number of Terrier fans have pointed the finger directly at Quinn. He knows he’s responsible for some of the problems. There are some things Quinn just can’t account for, though. The roster he inherited is young, shallow and small. Inexperience is a common problem for college coaches given the nature of the sport. BU’s freshmen are uncommonly young, though, and the Terriers didn’t have the type of firepower in its upperclass ranks to overcome that problem.

The Terriers’ problems in possession have been well documented this year. They’re mostly a product of this inexperience throughout lineup. Lately, a number of injuries have compounded these struggles further. BU dressed only 16 players for last weekend’s losses to BC and UML. Moreover, an injury to Ahti Oksanen on Saturday left the Terriers in worse shape.

As most expected, Quinn has attracted a number of talented young players to Agganis Arena for the next few seasons, and that trend will almost certainly continue while he’s running the show. This season is essentially lost for BU. A strong showing in next month’s Beanpot is really all the Terriers have to look forward to unless something special happens in the Hockey East Tournament. Regardless, Quinn isn’t the problem for BU. The Terriers will be fine — just not this season.

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