Hockey East Is the Only League to Eliminate Teams Before the Postseason
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
As the playoffs approach, just three teams will not be participating in the postseason in some form or another. One of those is RIT, in its second season as a Division I program, and therefore not eligible for the NCAA tournament. As a result, Atlantic Hockey has decided not to allow the Tigers to participate in its postseason tournament, unfortunate since the Tigers finished first.
The only other two teams, however, are two from Hockey East — which of years of evolution in the Division I landscape is left standing as the only conference that officially eliminates teams from its postseason tournament.
And for at least one of the teams that will definitely not be making it, that's OK.
"It would be easy for me to say now we should all get in," said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy, whose team is eliminated from contention. "I don't think that an opinion of a coach should be based on that. I like the fact that only eight teams get in. It makes the regular season mean something. There's battles for home ice, battles for the playoffs. ... It adds an intensity level to those games."
Two other teams are fighting it out for eighth place — Providence and Massachusetts-Lowell — meaning one of them will be left home when the playoffs start.
Providence coach Tim Army, whose team currently holds a two-point edge on the River Hawks going into the last weekend of the regular season, is a little more ambivalent than Dennehy about that idea.
"I like the fact that you have to earn your way into playoffs. I think that's a good thing you have to compete for a spot. It's a good character thing," Army said.
"On the other hand, it's exciting to have conference tournaments when everyone's involved. ... The depth of our league is so very strong, that everyone is capable of beating anyone.
"I guess I'm mixed. It would be exciting to have all your teams in a conference tournament environment, (but) I do like that you have to earn your way into the playoffs, and play well enough, and beat some teams to get in. I think that's an exciting element for our league."
Meanwhile, Merrimack (3-25-4) will be playing out the string this weekend, but will have a big say in what happens since it is playing a home-and-home with Providence.
To say it's been a trying year for the Warriors — Dennehy's second at the helm — would be an understatement. Key players were suspended before the season even started, others were lost to injury, and goals have been harder to find than hair on Britney Spears' head.
"We have 12 players who are no longer with the program (from last year) for different reasons," Dennehy said. "It would've been easy for seniors like Ryan Sullivan to say, 'Geez, woulda coulda shoulda,' and they haven't. They understand the process we're going through. They realize the rewards that are out there. They might not taste those, but they're working towards it.
"We're not better on paper than every other team, but we'll have a good team and excellent chemistry, and we're good citizens. And that sums up Ryan Sullivan. He plays 40 minutes. Last year he was a minus-2. He's a three-time scholar athlete."
Whether a good PR man or delusional, Dennehy is ever-optimistic. He is widely considered to be a head coach with tremendous potential, but the question remains whether he'll be given the resources to compete. A long-ago rink refurbishing project has been on indefinite hold. But Dennehy isn't sticking around waiting for answers.
"The biggest issue is, we want to maintain some sort of a positive attitude," Dennehy said. "We're young and it's an upperclassmen driven league. The strength and conditioning programs other teams and ours have set up, you can see a difference between freshmen and juniors. So for us, we know that it's going to take time, but if we wait for that to happen ..."
He trails off. He means that his team isn't going to make excuses. And Lowell hopes the Warriors have a little left in the tank this weekend.