Hockey East Playoff Preview
by Joe Meloni/CHN Staff Writer
The question usually comes at a bad time.
Faced with a difficult loss or a hard-fought win, the 10 coaches in Hockey East know it's coming. Their answer, at this point practiced as often as the most routine of drills, flows from their mouths without thought it seems. In one of the toughest leagues in college hockey, wins aren't easy to come by.
Even the best teams routinely suffer losses to those at the bottom of the league standings. Their fans inevitably view these losses as upsets, but their frequency illustrates the truth.
A truth Northeastern coach Jim Madigan summed up as succinctly as he could've last Saturday night.
"It's a tough league," Madigan said, "every night, it's tough to come up with points."
This, after a well-earned 5-4 overtime win over crosstown rival Boston University. For Madigan and his team, the win was ultimately a wash. Twenty-four hours earlier, a loss to BU was just one of the factors in the math that meant NU's season would end after that game against the Terriers.
The 2011-12 season illustrated the parity that has become Hockey East as well as any year in recent memory. Even with multiple playoff spots being decided only when all 10 teams had finished their 27 league games in each of the last two seasons, this year presented a series of wins and losses that perplexed even the most experienced observer of Hockey East.
Madigan's Northeastern team and Vermont finished the 2011-12 season last weekend. For the league's eight remaining teams, this weekend begins the second season — the Hockey East Tournament. Four matchups await with decided favorites and underdogs. The outcomes won't be determined until at least two games take place. But this is Hockey East, and no one would be shocked to see any of them pushed to a third.
No. 8 Massachusetts (13-16-5, 9-14-4 Hockey East) at No. 1 Boston College (25-10-1, 19-7-1 Hockey East)
Season series: UMass won, 2-1-0
Oct. 21, 2011 — BC 4, UMass 2 (Conte Forum)
Nov. 5, 2011 — UMass 4, BC 2 (Mullins Center)
Jan. 13, 2012 — UMass 4, BC 0 (Mullins Center)
For the third consecutive year, UMass and BC will play in the first round of the Hockey East Tournament. In 2009-10 and 2010-11, BC dispatched the Minutemen with a pair of sweeps. The Eagles became Hockey East champions one week later on each occasion, and they begin this postseason in search of a third consecutive league championship and 11th overall.
The almost cliched second-half dominance from BC continued this season. The Eagles, led by coach Jerry York, have won 11 consecutive games since being swept by Maine on Jan. 20 and 21 in Orono. Aside from the wins, one simple statistic exhibits BC's true dominance in their last 11. Not since the second period of a 4-3 overtime win against New Hampshire on Jan. 27 has BC trailed in a game.
While the scoring touches of the skilled BC forwards have provided the highlights on this run, the emergence of the Eagles' defense and goaltending proved the catalyst for the offense's resurgence. After losing his No. 1 job midseason, junior goaltender Parker Milner reclaimed the spot. Starting all 11 of these games, Milner has a 1.16 goals-against average and .954 save percentage since the win streak began.
Despite the recent success, a pair of games that took place earlier this season, one in November and another in January, have York and his club focused on their series with eighth-place Massachusetts.
"As we approach a whole new season, it's not your typical (No. 1 vs. No. 8) matchup as far as we're concerned," York said. "UMass is one of the few teams that took a season series from us. Deservedly so, they played extremely well in the three games. The Minutemen have our attention, and we’re preparing very well this week for our matchup that starts on Friday."
Like York said, this is hardly the usual top seed, bottom seed pairing. While this is the second consecutive season these two teams have finished in these exact spots, the Minutemen made marked improvements from last year's six-win team.
Of UMass' nine wins in Hockey East play, two came against the top-seeded Eagles, including a 4-0 shutout the last time these clubs met on Jan. 13 in Amherst.
Still in the process of their most recent rebuild, the Minutemen saw players, such as Mike Pereira, Joel Hanley and Conor Sheary, progress into top-tier players in the league, while Danny Hobbs and T.J. Syner amassed strong seasons in their final year with UMass.
Scoring goals, however, is hardly the issue for Don Cahoon's team. It's preventing them that's caused the problems. The goaltending trio of Jeff Teglia, Kevin Boyle and Steve Mastalerz has been, perhaps, the most microcosmic component of the Minutemen. Boyle and Mastalerz, both freshman, have emerged as the primary options for Cahoon with Teglia injured for the better part of the season.
As has been the case all year, Cahoon has not announced his starter for the weekend. Both Boyle and Mastalerz picked up wins over the Eagles this year, but Cahoon believes his team must approach this weekend without leaning on those victories too heavily.
"We have those two wins that everyone is making too big a deal about in our building," Cahoon said. "Those will have very little to do with what happens at BC this weekend. They might stoke BC's fire a little bit, but the truth of the matter is that the games are played on the ice in a different time of year."
Prediction: BC wins, 2-0
No. 7 Providence (12-18-4, 10-14-3 Hockey East) at No. 2 Massachusetts-Lowell (22-10-1, 17-9-1 Hockey East)
Season series: UMass Lowell won, 2-1-0
Jan. 24, 2012 — PC 1, UML 0 (Schneider Arena)
March 2, 2012 — UML 5, PC 1 (Schneider Arena)
March 3, 2012 — UML 4, PC 2 (Tsongas Center)
Providence and UMass Lowell are both back in the Hockey East Tournament after missing it last season. This year brought varying levels of success for the programs, but each can view the season as a major step.
"We brought that up in our team meeting yesterday, that both teams were on the outside looking in last year and are facing each other," UML coach Norm Bazin said. "It's going to be a really exciting for the kids because this is the best time of the year to play hockey."
For UML, the improvement has been one of the nation's best stories. A year after a five-win season, the River Hawks were in the race for the league's regular season championship until the final night. First-year Bazin's name has been a natural start for conversations regarding the Spencer Penrose Award as a result.
Ironically, PC coach Nate Leaman, also in his first year, is the reigning winner of the Penrose award for national coach of the year. Upon arriving at Providence from Union, the change in confidence for the Friars was palpable from the start. PC began the season 8-7-1, but it has won just four of its last 14.
Simply being here is an accomplishment to an extent; PC entered the season missing the last three Hockey East Tournaments. Leaman said during Tuesday's coaches' teleconference that he and his staff made it quite plain to his team that satisfaction with a spot in the tournament was unacceptable. That said, a little complacency may be inevitable with not one member of the Friars having appeared in a playoff game at this level.
Leaman believes that last few weeks of the season were similar enough to acclimate his club to playoff hockey.
"Down the stretch in our league, there are playoff-type games, where teams are playing with playoff-type urgency, desperation and hunger," Leaman said. "Even though, we haven't played a game that's quote, unquote playoff, I think we’ve been in those situations."
The return of top center and leading goal-scorer Tim Schaller will be a boost for PC as well. The junior missed 12 of PC's 18 second-half games, including its last six, with a series of injuries. Despite his absence, he finished the year as the lone Friar in double figures in goal with 14.
The last two games he missed came last weekend against Lowell as the clubs met to end the regular season as well. The River Hawks used the pair with the Friars to address a few issues that had plagued them in the previous four games — primarily, a sudden drop in the team's defensive execution.
UML goaltender Doug Carr, who has emerged from a rough freshman season to become one of the nation's best, was pulled twice in a three-game stretch. The sophomore was hardly at his best these outings, losses to Boston University and Merrimack, but Bazin pointed to his team defense as an area that needed some tightening during this stretch.
Prediction: UML wins, 2-0
No. 6 New Hampshire (14-17-3, 11-14-2 Hockey East) at No. 3 Boston University (21-12-1, 17-9-1 Hockey East)
Season series: BU won, 3-0-0
Oct. 8, 2011 — BU 5, UNH 0 (Agganis Arena)
Nov. 19, 2011 — BU 4, UNH 1 (Agganis Arena)
Dec. 8, 2011 — UNH 2, BU 1 (Whittemore Center)
It seems like decades since New Hampshire and Boston University played each other. Both teams have undergone substantial makeovers since their last meeting on Dec. 8. The Terriers' well-documented, off-ice problems along with the departure of Charlie Coyle have left them thin in certain spots. Meanwhile, UNH recovered from a dismal 0-4-1 start to assert themselves back into the league race.
After scoring just six goals in four games to start the season, the Wildcats' offense quickly became its strength once again. Defense remained an issue, though, until UNH coach Dick Umile opted to insert freshman goaltender Casey DeSmith as his starter. DeSmith has started the last 15 games for UNH, after senior Matt Di Girolamo failed to provide a consistent presence in goal.
Since, DeSmith has posted a 2.05 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage. UNH is 8-6-1 in this stretch, compared to its 6-11-2 start.
"There is no question, when Casey took over we knew he was going to be a real good goaltender, and, really, at the beginning of the season he was probably the No. 3," Umile said.
"I think going into the playoffs he is going to be obviously a key for us," Umile continued "We just have to do a better job when we get opportunities to score, and we are going to be challenged with (BU goaltender Kieran) Milan obviously being one of the top goaltenders, so we have our work cut out for us, but we are confident that we are going to get solid goaltending."
DeSmith did see the first start of his collegiate career against BU on Dec. 8, the 2-1 loss at Agganis Arena.
Since that time, BU has lost its top two centers and one of its most experienced defensemen. However, the Terriers have remained in position for their first Hockey East Championship since the 2008-09 season due to the emergence of some players and the continued excellence of others.
While players like Matt Nieto, Garrett Noonan and Adam Clendening draw most of the attention, BU coach Jack Parker has consistently pointed to senior captain Chris Connolly as the team's true bellwether. The dismissal of Trivino on sexual assault charges in December forced Connolly to shift to center. A move he made without question for the overall benefit of the Terriers.
"He's had a lot to do as the captain of the team this year — off the ice and on the ice — and he's been terrific that way," Parker said.
"Add to that the fact that he had to move from left wing to center and put a lot more pressure on him personally to play a different position which is a lot more demanding, I think, in our system," Parker said in a release. "He's really stepped it up and accepted that challenge as well. He's been a terrific example of what we want."
Still, the backbone of the Terriers for the last four years has been Millan. As a freshman, he had the benefit of playing behind of the best defensive units in recent memory — led Hobey Baker winner Matt Gilroy. Now, facing the final month of his collegiate career, Millan will have to guide the Terriers.
Prediction: BU wins, 2-0
No. 5 Merrimack (17-10-7, 13-9-5 Hockey East) at No. 4 Maine (20-11-3, 15-10-2 Hockey East)
Season series: Merrimack won, 2-0-1
Oct. 7, 2011 — Merrimack 2, Maine 1 (Alfond Arena)
Jan. 13, 2012 — Merrimack 6, Maine 2 (Lawler Arena)
Jan. 14, 2012 — Maine 2, Merrimack 2 (Lawler Arena)
Maine's 1-0 win over UNH on Saturday clinched home ice for the Black Bears. For their hard work, their gift is a rematch with Merrimack — the team that swept it from the Hockey East Tournament a season ago. Maine and MC have established a strong rivalry in the last year to say the least. For the league, another matchup between these two programs further highlights the budding Merrimack program and a Maine club back on the rise.
The second half of the season offered two very different stories for the clubs. Since Nov. 26, the Black Bears have won 17 of 22 games, while Merrimack is 8-10-6 in its last 24 games after a 9-0-1 start. Aside from playing for a conference championship, both clubs are fighting to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.
Hobey Baker candidate Spencer Abbott and his linemates Brian Flynn and Joey Diamond have become one of the most dynamic groups in the nation. However, the emergence of Matt Mangene, Mark Anthoine and other depth players have helped the Black Bears remove the label of a one-line team.
On the back end, sophomore goaltender Dan Sullivan used his second year in Orono to become the undisputed No. 1 and netminder of the future for Maine. His .908 save percentage and 2.56 goals-against average aren't going to earn him any awards, but it has proved enough to guide Maine back to home ice.
"Yeah he certainly has, Dan has been fabulous," Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. "He has really solidified that position for us and has just given us that steady rock back there that the players know they can count on. I am really proud of Dan, he has trained extremely hard to improve his game in a lot of areas technically."
The Warriors, on the other hand, entered the season with nothing but certainty in goal. Senior Joe Cannata is among the league's best goaltenders and has lifted his level of play throughout the season. MC has struggled to create offense all season, averaging 2.79 goals per game. Cannata's play, along with that of an experienced Warrior blue line, has helped MC follow last year's 25-win season with another possible NCAA Tournament bid.
"(Cannata's) ability to make quick, strong and decisive plays has helped him out quite a bit," MC coach Mark Dennehy said. "He has been good since he got here. When you’re a freshman and your first game is a 44 save 1-0 win, that’s a pretty good start. When you look at his whole body of work, I know this year I would argue that there is not a better goalie in the country. He has only given up more than two goals in seven out of 34 games."
Last season, Merrimack advanced to the Hockey East championship game for the first time in program history. Getting back to the TD Garden for the semifinals will force the Warriors to take a very different road. Traveling to Orono for a game at Alfond Arena is never easy for a club. The veteran presence of this Merrimack team helped it to a 7-5-3 road record, including a win at Alfond to open the season.
"We have plenty of seniors that have been through a lot of tough games, and they understand that it is all about what is going on between the glass," Dennehy said. "Whether you have to drive up to Orono to play this game or if it was in Timbuktu, the only thing that really matters is what is happening between the glass."
Prediction: Maine wins, 2-1