Hockey East Final Four Preview
by Joseph Edwards/CHN Writer
If you were surprised by anything that happened in the Hockey East Quarterfinal last weekend, then maybe it's time for another look.
The league's finish featured the most tightly-compacted standings in history, top to bottom, so there were no jaws agape when three of the four best-of-three first-round series went the distance, saw the top seed fall to the eighth, saw underdogs push things to the limit, and back-up goalies play the hero. All this in the name of getting to Boston this weekend, for a win-or-go-home matchup at the TD Garden.
No. 2 Boston College vs. No. 8 Vermont
Season Series: 10/18/09: @ Vermont 4, BC 1; 11/14/09: @ BC 7, Vermont 1; 11/15/09: Vermont 3, @ BC 2
If the Catamounts are looking to go on a run that ends in the Lamoriello Trophy, they certainly are taking the hardest possible path. Their trials and tribulations have been well documented, and even continued into their first-round series with UNH. After dropping the opening game 7-4, despite jumping out to a 4-2 lead, Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon called out his goalie, sophomore Rob Madore, who followed up by shutting out the league's second-highest scoring team in back-to-back games.
"I think he (Rob Madore) was a little bit shocked and had a ton of different emotions going on after Game 1 and what was said in the locker room," Sneddon said. "I thought we had every chance to win that game, but unfortunately some goals went in that just aren't typical for him. We all obviously know that Rob's probably the most mentally tough student-athlete we have on our team, so as much as it was about trying to spark Rob, it was to spark our team to play better defensively in front of him and I think the team kind of rallied around him"
In that first game, the Catamounts gave up 35 shots; over the next seven periods, they allowed just 51 — back to that stingy, solid defensive game they've made their name on for the last few seasons.
"It's very nice to be able come back and have two more solid performances after kind of costing the team the first night," said Madore. "That was as much of an offensive shutout as I've seen. Forwards were blocking shots and we just outmuscled them in their defensive zone and they couldn't handle us down low."
And while consecutive 1-0 wins can be seen as sacrificing the offensive firepower Vermont has built up, they did throw 76 shots on the New Hampshire net during those games, running into an equally hot goalie in New Hampshire's Brian Foster.
Consequently, Vermont is on the bubble for the NCAAs still, despite the eighth-place league finish.
Who they'll face this weekend, however, is up in the air. BC freshman Parker Milner suited up in the Eagles' opener, a 6-5 win to open the matchup against Massachusetts, while junior John Muse tended the nets in the 5-2 win the following night. Coach Jerry York has yet to make a decision as to which of his goalies will suit up to open the series against Vermont.
"We have two excellent goaltenders," he said "And we feel very good about their save percentage, their goals against average and wins. We've got a good situation and whoever I pick will be a solid choice."
Both the goaltenders and offense have been strong points for the Eagles since the beginning of February. In that span, BC has allowed more than 3 goals a single time (a 4-1 loss to Lowell on Feb. 12), and has surpassed that total on nine occasions – including a two-game set in which they scored seven goals in each. Offensively, the Eagles have depth, with 15 players in double-digit scoring, led by sophomore and leading scorer Cam Atkinson (24-21-45), whose hat trick propelled a Game 1 win. Those totals have put them on a 10-2-1 run, and led them to the fourth-overall ranking in the country.
"It never leaves my mind, in terms of the national picture," BC coach Jerry York said. "We are always conscious of where we are in the ‘Pairwise' and the RPI. I think that by being aware of it, we know how volatile it still is and there could be some unbelievable teams here as we go through this weekend."
Before they make the jump onto the national stage, they must first survive the weekend, and Vermont.
"I think that we have a pretty good understanding of how Vermont plays," York said. "We have a good understanding that we are going to play a team that has a strong goaltender in Madore, and big, hard-nosed defensemen, maybe the biggest in the league. We are going to have to battle hard against their big, mobile, strong defensemen. They are also dangerous offensively. For Vermont to go into Durham and win those back-to-back games shows a lot of momentum and it is certainly at the top of its game. We've got a team that has beaten us two of three times and that catches our attention really well. They played so well up at New Hampshire that it's a team that is hitting its stride and playing very well. We are certainly aware of our opponents' strengths for Friday night's game."
Prediction: BC 4, Vermont 2
No. 3 Boston University vs. No.4 Maine
Season series: 11/08/09: @ Maine 3, BU 2; 02/06/10: @ BU 7, Maine 4; 02/07/10: @ BU 5, Maine 2
It was a long road in for the Terriers, who started off a dismal 4-9-3 after being nearly unbeatable in last season's NCAA championship run. Things turned around in the new year, though, as BU went 12-6-0 down the stretch, climbing up to third in the compacted Hockey East standings. Which of those teams will show up in Boston this weekend?
"We certainly have played much, much better in the second half," Terriers coach Jack Parker said. "We've had a pretty good run, but had some real setbacks, however, at the end of the second half. We made a mess out of a game up in Vermont and certainly made a mess out a game against Merrimack. It looked like we were disinterested those two games. We had a lot of those in the first semester and we've only had only a couple of those in the second semester, so I'm pretty confident that Dr. Jekyll will show up, but who knows? We know we can't afford a Mr. Hyde. If we have a no-show type of game, our season is over."
The Terriers first-round matchup with Merrimack stretched to three games, with the teams trading come-from-behind wins in the first two before Kieran Millan stopped 34 shots to blank the Warriors in the rubber game. Both Vinny Saponari (2-2) and Nick Bonino (1-3-4) tallied four points apiece in the Quarterfinal round, including Bonino's three-point effort in the third game, as BU advanced to the final weekend for the ninth straight year.
"In general, they were penalty-filled and physical, and special teams wound up being the catalyst for us," Parker said of the infraction-marred series, which featured 163 total penalty minutes. "Kieran held the Merrimack power play to 1-for-18 and they were the third-best power play in the nation. We got a couple of big power-play goals in the third game and went 2-for-5 and got the win."
Millan helped to pick up the slack for a banged-up BU defensive corps, which was shortened the just three after David Warsofsky, Colby Cohen, and Max NiCastro all suffered maladies during the game. Only NiCastro, who received a gash on his forearm that took 26 stitches to close up. According to Parker, the freshman is 'doubtful' for Friday night.
The Black Bears are all too familiar with a depleted roster, having incumbent goalie Scott Darling suspended indefinitely, and losing Kyle Solomon, Jeff Dimmen, Mike Banwell and Brett Carriere at various points during their first-round matchup with Lowell, which saw Maine win the final two games, including a series-ending 3-2 win in overtime.
"It was one after another," coach tim Whitehead said. "It was great to see how the team responded under those circumstances and was able to rise up and advance. It is a fine line. We all know in those overtime games that things can go either way. But we are thrilled that our team stuck together and rose up and we were able to get the victory."
Among those that stepped up to the plate in the wake of injuries were senior goalie Dave Wilson, who saw the majority of his playing time in the last five games of the season. He allowed just two goals in each of the three games against the RiverHawks, aiding an offense that had trouble solving Lowell goalie Carter Hutton.
"Wilson elevated his game," Black Bears defenseman Will O'Neill said. "He played unbelievable."
Sophomore O'Neill earned Player of the Week status for his efforts, as well, for his two-goal, three-point effort in the final game of the series, while senior caption Tanner House scored a pair of goals, though Whitehead adds that his impact went far beyond the scoresheet.
"It was great to see him step up on a big weekend and deliver some big plays," he said. "Tanner was key not just in regards to the goals, but he also won some big face-offs and played well defensively, just all-around gritty hard-nosed hockey. He certainly set the tone for our team and I am very proud of him."
Of course, any discussion of Maine's offense has to include sophomore forward Gustav Nyquist, the Swede leading the nation in points with 59 points in 37 games. His 18 goals place him 31st in the country, and his 41 assists put him atop the list. He added three helpers against Lowell, but will need to pick up the pace against BU, which held him to four points (1-3-4) over their three game regular season series.
Both teams are among Hockey East leaders in penalty minutes per game (BU 2nd, 15.8/g, Maine 3rd, 14.7/g), which could mean the difference for the Black Bears. Maine's strength lies in their first-ranked powerplay, firing at a 27.8 percent clip, and third-ranked penalty kill (81.8%). If this game is reminiscent of BU's first-round series against Merrimack, it could mean watching the Black Bears compete for the Lamoriello Trophy on Saturday — and don't think Jack Parker doesn't know that.
"I think we have taken a number of stupid penalties all year long," he said. "It has not been a disciplined team. Our team has not been disciplined enough as far as penalties are concerned. I don't think that it's a matter of the refereeing causing us problems, I think it's a matter of us adjusting to the refereeing. I think the referees will know that this is a game that's got to be controlled."
Prediction: Maine 3, BU 2
The Eagles and Black Bears combine for four of Hockey East's six national championships (the other two belong to BU), though BC's championships are the more recent — including the 2008 title.
That postseason experience will lend itself to their hunger for another, though they can't overlook a resurgent Maine squad that's made their name this season proving their doubters wrong. It'll be close, but Wilson's relative coldness coming off the bench and Sirman's lack of big game experience will face a tough task in the Eagles' Cam Atkinson-led offense that can kick into overdrive at any time and overpower the Black Bears' banged up squad.
Nyquist and House will have some creative license against a young BC defensive corp that dresses four freshmen, but John Muse's big-game experience - whether it be him, or his tutelage to protege Milner - gives the Eagles an edge.
Prediction: BC 4, Maine 3