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March 14, 2013 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

Hockey East Tournament Preview

by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer

For the first time in 29 years, the Hockey East regular season ended without Boston College, Boston University, Maine or New Hampshire atop the league standings. Massachusetts-Lowell won its first regular-season title since joining the conference in 1984.

The River Hawks ranked second in both the coaches and media polls at the beginning of a year following the resurgence Norm Bazin led last season — his first leading his alma mater. UML held off Providence, defeating the Friars, 4-1, on the season's final night to earn the championship.

"We certainly finished the regular season in style," UML coach Norm Bazin said. "We are elated to be the regular-season champion. It's something that's very new for us. We're excited to be rewarded for our body of work. We do realize that it's the regular season and it's over, and we look forward to starting a new season."

At the other end of the league table, Maine and Vermont earn the final two playoff spots in Hockey East.

"It's been an interesting year in Hockey East — certainly the tightest that I've been involved with," BC coach Jerry York said. 

A remarkably hard-fought league season ended just as well. On the final night, scenarios existed that could've resulted in a four-way tie for first place. UNH, one of the teams in contention for the league race, wound up as the No. 5 seed in the Hockey East tournament after finishing third and losing a three-way tiebreaker with BU and Providence.

Despite the first-time champion and other clubs entering the tournament as favorites, Boston College's run of three straight championships makes the Eagles as much of a threat as anyone. BC became the first team to win three consecutive tournaments last season with a 4-1 win over Maine in the Hockey East championship.

No. 8 Maine (11-17-8, 7-12-8) at No. 1 Massachusetts-Lowell (22-10-2, 16-9-2)

Season series: Maine won, 2-1

Earning its first regular-season championship was an important step for UMass-Lowell. After a 4-7-1 start to the season, the River Hawks carry a 19-3-1 run into the postseason. Led by dominant freshman goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, a disciplined defensive game and one of the nation's deepest offenses, UML welcomes Maine to the Tsongas Center to open the playoffs.

"It started with a ruthless schedule," Bazin said. "I thought we played some of the top teams in the league at a time when they we playing their best hockey. It wasn’t the start we were looking for. We were playing nine freshmen and playing one or two seniors a night. There wasn’t a whole lot of experience out there. Fortunately for us, we ended the first half with a couple of good team defensive efforts and were able to string some wins together."

The Black Bears were one of three Hockey East teams to win the season series against UML, taking a pair of 4-3 decisions at different points in the season. UML goaltender Doug Carr started all three of the games against Maine this season, so the series will be Hellebuyck's first look at the Black Bears on the season.

Much like UML, Maine's season included a drastic turnaround led by a goaltender that entered the season as the likely No. 2. Junior Martin Ouellette played behind classmate Dan Sullivan for most of his first two years in Orono.

After a rough start, Maine coach Tim Whitehead inserted Ouellette on Nov. 9 against Lowell. The River Hawks won that game 2-1 to drop Maine to 1-9-1. Since, the Black Bears are 10-8-7. In the same stretch, Ouellette has a 2.33 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage.

"(Ouellette) came to us as a true freshman, a year ahead of what we had planned," Whitehead said. "He fast-tracked at Kimball Union Academy (N.H.) because I had to let a goalie go because of an off-ice issue. He really wasn’t ready, quite honestly. He was too young, especially as a goalie.

"He has gradually gotten better each week," Whitehead continued. "Each summer he has gotten stronger as well. He has lightning quickness and reflexes, that he has always had, but now he is under control when he plays. I am really excited, as this is just the tip of the iceberg for him. He is going to continue to get better."

UML averages more than three goals per game. Maine, meanwhile, has one of the least productive offenses in the nation, averaging 2.06 goals per game.

The series also represents a playoff meeting between former colleagues. Whitehead led the UML program from 1996 through 2001 before taking over at Maine. In 1997, he gave Bazin, a UML alumnus, his start in coaching, hiring him as an assistant.

"Norm is flat out one of the best people I have ever known in my life," Whitehead said. "You do take a chance when you are adding someone to your staff who has not coached before. Norm was the type of person, just knowing him when I was an assistant coach, his work ethic and character, and his knowledge of the game, I was very confident that he would become a great coach."

Both clubs expect a difficult series, and Maine believe its second-half success could lead to a playoff run. The River Hawks, though, pieced together a run that was a bit more impressive.

Pick: UMass-Lowell wins, 2-0

No. 7 Vermont (11-17-6, 8-13-6) at No. 2 Boston College (20-10-4, 15-9-3)

Season series: Boston College won, 2-0-1

Last weekend in Burlington, Vt., Boston College and Vermont played a pair of games. The first ended in a 4-4 tie. Twenty-four hours later the Eagles put one of their trademarked whippings on the Catamounts in a 7-2 victory. A pair of very different games led to another battle between these clubs. Only this time, it's in the Hockey East tournament and the series shifts to Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

This is the third consecutive year for teams to end the regular season and start the playoffs against each other. In each of those matchups (No. 2 UML and No. 7 PC last year and No. 3 BU and No. 6 Northeastern in 2011), the lower-seeded team won the series.

If Kevin Sneddon's Vermont team plans to continue this trend, it'll need to avoid the defensive lapses that gave BC's dynamic forwards room to score seven goals last Saturday. Shutting down Johnny Gaudreau, Steven Whitney and the other BC forwards is impossible for an entire game. Managing the games and playing well in front of freshman goaltender Brody Hoffman isn't, however.

"The biggest thing we have to do is make sure we're well aware of when Mr. Gaudreau, Whitney and Arnold are on the ice," Sneddon said. "They're excellent players, they're going to get chances. We just have to make sure that we make them earn those chances and minimize, to the best of our ability, their time of possession with the puck."

Improving on this is certainly a start. Gaudreau scored twice and assisted on four other goals in Saturday's win over Vermont. His influence on games extends beyond on goals and assists. Frequently, the attention he receives from opposing defenders is enough to create space for his equally gifted teammates.

"(Opponents) circle him. He's the guy they've got to stop," York said of Gaudreau. "He gets close, close checking all the time, and he's used to it. It's been that way since he started Hockey East. ... He's had an outstanding year — even when he wasn't putting points up for that stretch of five or six games — he had the puck all night long."

Whitney is equally adept at terrorizing opponents, as are Arnold and Pat Mullane.

"We've had Caylen Walls and Yvan Pattyn play almost every game for us this year as freshmen," Sneddon said. "Then you've got (Michael) Paliotta and (Nick) Luukko who are sophomores playing minutes that most seniors would be playing.

"They've played some excellent hockey for us and have been a big part of any modest success we've had down the stretch here."

Earning a No. 7 seed is, as Sneddon called it, only modest success for the Catamounts. After missing the Hockey East tournament last season, qualification is an improvement but an unlikely win in Chestnut Hill would make this year an unquestionable success for UVM.

Pick: Boston College wins, 2-0

No. 6 Merrimack (15-15-6, 13-11-3) at No. 3 Boston University (18-15-2, 15-10-2)

Season series: BU won, 3-0

There weren't many sweeps of regular-season series in Hockey East this year. Boston University took all three games it played against Merrimack, outscoring the Warriors, 12-4, in the process. BU coach Jack Parker said after each game that his club played one of its best of the season. When the Terriers play well, they can compete with any team in the country. Merrimack thrives on taking teams away from their game and controlling puck possession.

"The biggest thing that we have recognized in the three games that we have played them, two out of the three we outshot them by a pretty good margin, was our turnovers and giveaways," Dennehy said. "You can’t turn the puck over against a team whose defensemen move the puck so well."

BU's defensemen have had a turbulent second half. Junior alternate captain Garrett Noonan will miss the series with a separated shoulder injury sustained against Northeastern last Friday night. Aside from Noonan's injury, breakouts and clearances proved quite the issue for BU's gifted defensemen at times. Much of these issues came because of poor support from the Terrier forwards. Regardless of the cause, the problems saw BU start the second half 3-7-1, including losses to Northeastern and Harvard in the Beanpot.

"When we came back after break, we were very inconsistent," Parker said. "Mostly, our inconsistency was in regard to playing without the puck — how well we defended, how well we defended the initial rush, how well we played in our own zone. That lack of consistency of effort and focus is something that caused us some heartache, as far as wins and losses are considered."

"I like (Merrimack) in every phase," Parker said. "They've got pretty good balance in all their lines. They've got a big-time scorer in (junior Mike) Collins, they've got great goaltending in (Sam) Marotta and they've been really tenacious defensively and really good on special teams, especially penalty killing."

Collins has carried the Merrimack offense for most of the season. His 16 goals and 21 assists both lead the team. In fact, no other MC player has more than 19 points on the season. Jordan Heywood, the club's unquestioned leader, will see his usual ice time against the Terriers.

"He is the leader of our team in any situation, no matter if it's 4 on 4, the power play or penalty kill, he plays all situations," Dennehy said of Heywood.

"Our style is a pretty aggressive style, and he has to cover a lot of ice. He's not just responsible for the defensive zone, our defensemen are pretty involved in the offense. It amazes me what he is able to do."

The series also could include the final game of Parker's 40-year career at BU. Earlier this week, Parker announced his retirement from hockey. His players, motivated already by the chance to win a championship, will look to extend their coach's career by at least one more game.

"The only thing that I thought to be honest with you is the game is going to lose one of its best coaches in the history of the game and one of its best ambassadors," Dennehy said of Parker. "I have more respect for Jack Parker than I can put into words.

"One thing I know about Jack is he tells it like it is," Dennehy said. "This isn’t a ploy to motivate his team; he wants an opportunity for his players to know before he stops coaching that he is going to stop. He is not someone that would want the fanfare of going through the tour."

Pick: BU wins, 2-1

No. 5 New Hampshire (18-9-7, 13-8-6) at No. 4 Providence (15-12-7, 13-8-6)

Season series: Providence won, 2-0-1

Despite being a contender for a regular-season championship and a lock for the NCAA tournament, New Hampshire will spend its first weekend of the playoffs on the road. The Wildcats travel south to Providence for a series with the upstart Friars. The clubs finished the season tied with BU in three-way tie for third place. The tiebreaker gave BU the advantage and dropped PC and UNH to the fourth and fifth seeds, respectively.

The Friars won two of the three games during the regular season with the other finishing in a tie. Two of those games came in the second half when UNH suffered some setbacks that didn't come in the first half. When the Wildcats left for the winter break, they were 11-2-2. Since returning, they're 7-7-5, including difficult ties against UMass and Maine in the season's final two weekends.

"We got off to a pretty good start in the first half of the season," UNH Dick Umile said. "Coming off a tough season last year, the team was committed to making a statement and to establishing ourselves. In the second half, we've played some pretty good hockey but didn't get as many wins as we needed."

Offensively, the Wildcats don't feature the explosive offense of years past. Kevin Goumas leads the way with 10 goals and 28 assists. Grayson Downing, Austin Block and John Henrion account for most of the goal-scoring. A talented defensive corps has contributed points as well. Trevor vanRiemsdyk has become a reliable defenseman without losing any of his scoring touch. Eric Knodel has added scoring from the blue line as well.

"It's a different team and it hasn't been like in the past where a couple of players produce big numbers," Umile said. "We have had a couple of seniors that are having the best seasons of their careers as far as goal scoring with John Henrion and Austin Block. We are a team that has balance, our power play has been solid but we have struggled a little lately with scoring.

"Eric is having a terrific season," Umile said. "He can get into the rush with Trevor and having Trevor out there is like having another forward on the ice. He is a clever player and likes to get into the offense."

Goaltending's influence on the series will likely be the defining factor, however. UNH's Casey DeSmith was the unquestioned best goaltender in Hockey East in the first half. Meanwhile, Providence freshman Jon Gillies emerged in the second half as one of the nation's best.

"There's not much that rattles Jon," PC coach Nate Leaman said. "He's been considerably consistent for a freshman. Even when he had not had his 'A' game he has found ways to win the game as a freshman, and he can really take a mental edge in doing that."

For Providence, just hosting a playoff series is a victory for the program after missing three consecutive tournaments from 2009-11. Since Leaman arrived from Union college two summers ago, the Friars are a completely transformed team. Leaman's brought in more talent, of course, but the mindset at Schneider Arena is completely different as well. A series win over UNH would clinch a spot at the TD Garden for PC for a second consecutive year after their upset of second-seeded UMass-Lowell last season.

"Our last few home games have been against really good teams," Leaman said. "I thought we got a little emotional and didn't get as plugged into be as successful. Maybe we tried to do too much in those games. It’s learning."

Pick: Providence wins, 2-1

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