Hockey East Preview
by Joe Meloni/CHN Staff Writer
Hockey East has billed its annual tournament as the time "When 10 Teams Become 1" for most of the 2011-12 season. Two weeks ago, the first steps were taken, as Northeastern and Vermont were eliminated from playoff contention, and the matchups for the first round of the Hockey East Tournament decided.
Last weekend, eight become four, with Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Merrimack and Massachusetts-Lowell all falling in their quarterfinal series. And it's with those four, that Hockey East shifts from campuses scattered throughout New England to the league's ultimate stage in Boston's TD Garden.
On Friday night, two games will give us two final teams, slated to play for the Lamoriello Trophy on Saturday night at 7 p.m. Boston College has won the last two Hockey East Championships.
No. 1 Boston College (27-10-1, 19-7-1 Hockey East) vs. No. 7 Providence (14-18-4, 10-14-3 Hockey East), 5 p.m.
Season series: BC won, 3-0
Dec. 6 — BC 4, PC 1 (Conte Forum)
Feb. 24 — BC 3, PC 0 (Schneider Arena)
Feb. 25 — BC 7, PC 0 (Conte Forum)
Four weeks ago, Boston College swept Providence in a weekend home-and-home pair. In the two games, the Eagles outscored the Friars by a combined 10-0 margin, including a five-goal first period in the weekend's second game. At that point, most were certain of the Eagles' second half rush to the top of the conference and national rankings. However, it also solidified the Friars as a team certain to fall quickly in the first round of the Hockey East Tournament.
Two more losses to end the season did very little to help their momentum, confidence or outside perception. All of that changed last Thursday night when the Friars, seeded seventh in the tournament, knocked of No. 2 Massachusetts-Lowell, 5-2, in Game 1 of the series. After losing Game 2 in overtime, the Friars completed their upset of the River Hawks with a gutsy 1-0 win at the Tsongas Center on Sunday.
It's with that win that PC earns its first trip past the first round of the Hockey East Tournament since 2001, when the Friars lost in the league championship game. Despite the upset over Lowell and the memorable run thus far, first-year PC coach Nate Leaman isn't satisfied.
"(T)he exact tone and tenor of our meeting yesterday with the guys yesterday is that we want to make sure that we're not setting up an atmosphere whatsoever that we get complacent or we feel happy to be going Boston," Leaman said in Tuesday's coaches' teleconference. "We have a higher standard than that. We have a higher goal than that."
Among the standards Leaman hopes to instill in his program in consistent competition for championships. A standard that BC coach Jerry York has long established in Chestnut Hill.
The Eagles already picked up a Beanpot this season playing at the Garden, and enter the weekend after two of their most difficult games in the last month. The top-seeded Eagles rode brilliant goaltending from junior Parker Milner in a two-game sweep of No. 8 Massachusetts.
A pair of one-goal wins over the eighth-seeded Minutemen ultimately may have given BC the biggest lift. Entering the playoffs on an 11-game winning streak, some pressure may be enough to galvanize the Eagles for another pair of wins at the Garden.
The Friars win over UMass-Lowell appears to have grabbed the attention of York and his players as well.
"When you look at recent results, how Providence went to UMass-Lowell and advanced, that's a wake-up call for our club," BC coach Jerry York said in Tuesday's Hockey East Coaches' Teleconference. "We know how good Lowell is and for the Friars to go there and advance to the Garden, that has certainly got our attention."
No. 3 Boston University (23-12-1, 17-9-1 Hockey East) vs. No. 4 Maine (22-12-3, 15-10-2 Hockey East), 8 p.m.
Season series: Maine won, 2-1
Dec. 10 — BU 5, Maine 1 (Alfond Arena)
Jan. 27 — Maine 4, BU 2 (Agganis Arena)
Jan. 28 — Maine 3, BU 1 (Agganis Arena)
Much like BC and Providence, Friday's late game presents an interesting rematch of a series that most recently resulted in a sweep with third-seeded Boston University taking on No. 4 Maine. In late January, Maine swept a pair of games at Agganis Arena. Those two wins were among the Black Bears' most decisive and complete efforts of the season.
After a 15-3-1 stretch, which included the sweep over BU and another in Orono against BC, the Black Bears have gone 6-4-0 in their 10 games, including last weekend's three-game series with Merrimack.
While offense has been the story for Maine this season, this most recent 10-game stretch has revealed the value of quality defensive efforts to a potential Black Bear Hockey East Championship. In its six most recent wins, Maine has allowed three or fewer goals, while allowing at least four in all of their losses. Against BU in January, Maine saw similar results in holding BU to two-goal and one-goal performance in its wins.
Sophomore goaltender Dan Sullivan's play has sustained Maine, but quality performances from its skaters have helped the Black Bears control play and generate consistent offense. Possessing the puck and staying true to defensive assignments will be especially important against the Terriers, who have found their offense of late; BU has scored at least four goals in six of their last nine games.
"It's going to be a very tough challenge and specifically where you have guys like Megan, Connolly, Chiasson, Nieto, Gill and Rodrigues right through those top two lines," Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. "I think that with some of the other guys leaving, their third and fourth lines have really gotten a lot more confidence and are really contributing a lot more."
The Terriers' scoring depth has become a major catalyst for their success. Against UNH last weekend, one of the largest sources of depth scoring, sophomore defenseman Garrett Noonan, maintained his pace. On Sunday, Noonan scored two with the Terriers trailing 4-1, then 4-2 to bring them back within a goal. Noonan's 16 goals place him tied with Wisconsin's Justin Schultz atop defensemen across the country.
With BU's off-ice issues this season, which included the arrest of both Corey Trivino and Max Nicastro along with Charlie Coyle's departure to major junior, players have been forced to do more in their lineup. Noonan's added scoring touch, along with dogged commitment to defense, has made him one of the premier young defensemen in the nation.
"(A)s I've said all along, team came together because other guys got a chance to get different roles and get more ice time and contribute more and they've all jacked it up and done that," BU coach Jack Parker said. "I'm sure that some guys are saying 'they're gone, but I've got some ice' – that's pretty good, too. I think that is what’s keeping them going – 'we're in this together.'"