February 26, 2017 PRINT Bookmark and Share

48 Hours at the Top

4 Teams, 2 Series and the Strangest End to a Hockey East Regular Season

by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer (@JoeMeloni)

The regular season is important.

It's just as meaningful a conference tournament, even if it winning its championship doesn't send a team directly to the NCAA tournament.

There's a tendency to forget the great moments or plays or performances from the regular season. They get overshadowed by something special taking place at TD Garden or the Target Center or the Xcel Energy Center. After all, an overtime winner in a league final sends gives a team a chance to play for a national championship. The drama needs no explanation. The impact is palpable.

Dramatic finishes to league regular seasons don't come with the explicit excitement. Frequently, you have to think about it, manufacture it. You have to tell people why it's important, show them the standings and explain every stupid tiebreaker scenario to your buddy who only starts to pay attention when March approaches.

Sometimes you don't have to, though. Sometimes four teams enter the final weekend of the regular season, each with a chance to clinch at least a share of the league's regular-season title. The 2016-17 Hockey East league schedule produced exactly this scenario.

After playing 20 of 22 conference games, Boston College, Boston University, Notre Dame and Lowell entered the final weekend of the season with a chance to win the nameless Hockey East regular season trophy.

Here's the cool part — they all played each other.

BC and Lowell played a home and home pair. Notre Dame travelled to the East End of Commonwealth Avenue for two games with Boston University. It set up brilliantly, and it finished around 9:10 p.m. Saturday night at Agganis Arena with one team's captain raising a trophy surrounded by his teammates and coaches.

Here's how it all went down:

Thursday

7:05 p.m.

The puck just dropped at Conte Forum, and this is what it looks like:

Boston College 13-4-3 — 29
Boston University 12-5-3 — 27
Notre Dame 11-5-4 — 26
Lowell 12-4-2 — 25.

Leading the conference by two points, three points would clinch the league outright for BC no matter what happens in the rest of the league. The Eagles are the only team entering its weekend in complete control of its own destiny.

Perhaps just as important for BC, though, was the Pairwise lift its games with Lowell promise with some wins. Despite leading Hockey East, the Eagles are only 18th in the Pairwise as of 7 p.m. on Thursday. The reason being that the only wins it had against quality competition this year came from its sweep of the two-game season series with Providence and a win over Notre Dame last month. Not since the NCAA tournament adopted its current format and selection framework has Hockey East's regular-season champion failed to earn at least an at-large bid. Even one win over the River Hawks, paired with a couple wins in the league playoffs, would thrust BC up the Pairwise.

For the River Hawks, the best they could've hoped for was a share of the Hockey East championship. With a sweep of BC and BU taking fewer than three points from its series with Notre Dame, the River Hawks would share the league title with at least two other teams. It's not exactly what UML had in mind in October, but a share of a trophy is better than no trophy at all.

8:18 p.m.

Lowell 1, Boston College 0

Chris Forney puts UML up, 1-0, early in the second period with a power-play goal. Aside from the significant contingent of UML fans who made the trip to Conte, BU and Notre Dame fans cheered this goal just as well. Without some help from Lowell, neither BU or UND have a shot at the league's regular-season title.

A live table of the league just after this goal shows Lowell level on points with BU in second place.

8:41 p.m.

Lowell 1, Boston College 1

Twenty-five seconds into the third period, Austin Cangelosi ties the game. The Eagles have a chance at this point to build on their early marker and take control of the game and the fate of their season.

8:47 p.m.

Lowell 2, Boston College 1

They didn't. UML took over once again and Joe Gambardella gave UML its deserved lead. Once again, BC's stranglehold over the regular-season title loosened. Joe Gambardella put Lowell back on top with his 16th goal of the season. It only getting worse for BC; better for everyone else.

9:02 p.m.

Lowell 3, Boston College 1

This time it was C.J. Smith. Lowell takes its first two-goal lead of the weekend. Something tells me it won't be its last. The Eagles look incapable of challenging Tyler Wall unless its on a power play or off the rush.

9:06 p.m.

Lowell 4, Boston College 1

Ballgame. Gambardella gets his second. BC isn't clinching anything tonight.

9:10 p.m.

Final: Lowell 4, Boston College 1

At 7 p.m. on Thursday, Lowell knew it needed two wins to hold its end of the bargain. Two hours and 10 minutes later, UML was half way there. The River Hawks beat BC, 4-1, at Conte Forum and ended Thursday night tied for second in the league standings with BU.

The game was basically a microcosm of BC's season. They made some nice plays and remained in the game by every measure except reality. Lowell controlled play and likely deserved an easier win than it managed thanks to some rotten luck and Joe Woll's existence.

Despite the result, BC still had a chance to win the league outright with a win in Lowell on Friday night and some help elsewhere. Still, the Eagles' sixth consecutive game without a win struck a significant blow to their chances in the league and on the national scene. To win the league outright, the Eagles needed to go into Tsongas Center and beat UML. They also need Notre Dame to get at least one point from BU this weekend.

Here's a look at the standings after Lowell picked up two points.

Boston College 13-4-3 — 29
Lowell 13-7-1 — 27
Boston University 12-5-3 — 27
Notre Dame 11-5-4 — 26

Friday

6:05 p.m.

Lowell's win Thursday night made the scenarios for BU and Notre Dame to claim sole possession of the championship possible. Both teams need a sweep and another BC loss to move past the Eagles in the league standings.

Because of some very annoying TV things, the first game of the BU-Notre Dame series began at 6 p.m. The positive was that the second game of the American Sports Network doubleheader was the BC-Lowell game, which meant fans (and media!) could watch both games if so inclined.

6:22 p.m.

Notre Dame 1, Boston University 0

Of course! BU came out mostly flat and let Notre Dame control things early. Way back into October, I picked BU to cruise in pursuit of just about every trophy for which it was eligible this season. The Beanpot final was the first letdown. After the opening 10 minutes of Friday's game, it looked another was on the horizon.

Jake Evans got the Fighting Irish on board at 9:19.

6:33 p.m.

Notre Dame 1, Boston University 1

Here's the thing: Clayton Keller.

He spent 10 to 15 seconds wheeling around the Notre Dame zone and then fired a shot on net. Patrick Harper tipped it down, and it snuck between Cal Petersen's legs to tie the game. Keller's the most talented player in the country, and he can get BU back into games at any time.

7:26 p.m.

Notre Dame 2, Boston University 1

UND senior Ben Ostlie scores his first goal of the season after a whole lot of nothing happened following Keller's goal. Ostlie's hardly one of Notre Dame's big guns, and his teammates' reactions to his goal made that quite clear. Ostlie was happy, but everyone else wearing a gold helmet was freaking thrilled. It was his third career goal in 86 career games, and it was an awfully big one.

8:16 p.m.

Notre Dame 3, Boston University 1

That'll do it. BU pushed hard to get its equalizer, but Evans got his second instead. The real story on this goal was Anders Bjork's combination of work and skill. He picked up an assist, setting Evans up for an easy finish. It was his only point of the night, but Bjork's was UND's best player without question.

8:25 p.m.

Final: Notre Dame 3, Boston University 1

Notre Dame's win eliminated one of the scenarios. BU can no longer win the league outright, The Terriers needed to get to 31 points and have BC finish with no more than 30, so that fell out the window mostly because of Petersen. He made 23 saves in the final period Friday night to keep his team ahead even after about four goalmouth scrambles produces three or four looks apiece for the Terriers. A little help from the officials and some quick whistles made things a bit easier.

Here's how it looked moments before Lowell and BC played their regular-season finale at Tsongas Center:

Boston College 13-5-3 — 29
Notre Dame 12-5-4 — 28
Lowell 13-7-1 — 27
Boston University 12-5-3 — 27

A win for BC clinches the league. A Lowell win means either one of two scenarios remain on the table — a three-way tie between BC, BU and Lowell and Notre Dame winning the league outright. A tie would've meant only a BC championship or a split between the Eagles and Fighting Irish were possibilities.

8:35 p.m.

Lowell and BC get under way at Tsongas Center.

9:25 p.m.

Boston College 0, Lowell 1

John Edwardh scores for Lowell just 19 seconds into the second period. Lowell doesn't lose often when it has a lead at home. BC deserved to go ahead in the first period, hitting three pipes and playing a bit better than UML throughout. The Eagles couldn't get a break, though, and found themselves trailing — their bid for an outright Hockey East title a series question now.

9:38 p.m.

Boston College 0, Lowell 2

BC's screwed. Ryan Lohin redirects a pass by Woll to put the River Hawks up two. But wait! It's getting reviewed.

9:40 p.m.

Boston College 0, Lowell 2

Good goal. BC's still screwed.

10:19 p.m.

Boston College 1, Lowell 2

This is why Lowell is such a pain for opponents. The Eagles scored at 3:30 of the third period to cut the deficit to one. Plenty of time left for BC to get the equalizer, except there's no way they're going to. The River Hawks had kept the Eagles relatively quiet and managed the better of the scoring chances even with the Eagles pressing to get on the board. Colin White's goal brought them a bit closer, but only in the sense that they were going to lose by one now.

10:35 p.m.

Boston College 1, Lowell 3

Nevermind. Still going to lose by two. Jake Kamrass scores and extends the Lowell lead back to two goals. If you watched it, it seemed inevitable.

10:53 p.m.

Final: Boston College 1, Lowell 3

Lowell picks up the win and completes a weekend and season sweep of BC. The Eagles finish the regular season with just three wins over the top six teams in Hockey East not named "Boston College." The Eagles beat Providence twice: once before Hayden Hawkey remembered how to do anything and the other in a game that was literally played outside. The third was a well deserved comeback win over Notre Dame at Conte Forum last month.

Lowell's win put the River Hawks atop the race for the No. 1 seed in the league tournament by virtue of winning tiebreakers even if they can't win the league outright. Here's what it looked like heading into the final night of the Hockey East regular season:

Lowell 14-7-1 — 29
Boston College 13-6-3 — 29
Notre Dame 12-5-4 — 28
Boston University 12-6-3 — 27

With BU and Notre Dame still to play on Saturday, there were three remaining scenarios depending on the result:

A Notre Dame win would clinch the regular season for the Fighting Irish.

A tie means a shared championship between Lowell, BC and Notre Dame.

A BU win would mean Lowell, BU and BC share the title.

Saturday

7:05 p.m.

Senior Night

It was nice even if it delayed the start of the game. BU honored its three seniors in uniform as well as one of its student managers. They even gave a nod to Notre Dame's two seniors. Lovely.

7:37 p.m.

Notre Dame 1, Boston University 0

A tremendous start that saw Notre Dame take the lead late in the fist period. Both teams created a number of chances, but the Fighting Irish got the lead through Mike O'Leary. Notre Dame has been marginally better than BU in the series to this point with a few bounces — and Bjork — giving UND the edge. BU needs its best players to have the impact Bjork had on Friday.

This goal put UND in great position to lock the lead up and claim its first-ever Hockey East trophy in its final season in the league.

8:14 p.m.

Notre Dame 1, Boston University 1

Consistent, dangerous traffic has often gone missing from BU's offense this season. Kieffer Bellows tied the game by getting to the net and tucking a rebound past Petersen. Agganis was packed Saturday night. The roof was just waiting to blow off the place, especially after some objectively bad officiating in the first period. The BU fans were excited and legimimately pissed off. Bellows' goal tied the game, sent Agganis into a frenzy and put BU right back in the race for the win it so desperately needed.

8:28 p.m.

Notre Dame 1, Boston University 2

More traffic. More goals. A John McLeod slap shot from the point beat Petersen — who never saw the shot — over his right shoulder to give BU its first lead of the weekend. Lowell and BC fans cheered this goal, too.

Few things are as enjoyable to watch as fans of other Hockey East teams, especially Boston College, counting on BU to get a win.

8:56 p.m.

Notre Dame 1, Boston University 3

Jake Oettinger kept BU in front with a marvelous right pad save early in the third period. A Clayton Keller delfection shortly after doubled BU's lead at 4:08 of the third. The shifty playmaker can dazzle with his puck skills and vision. Sometimes, though, he just needs to get to the right place. His redirect came from little more than getting to the net and doing so hard. A huge goal for the Terriers — just as big for Norm Bazin and Jerry York.

9:18 p.m.

Notre Dame 1, Boston University 4

Keller again. With 3:30 left in regulation, the first-round pick puts the game out of reach and seals the first-ever three-way tie for the Hockey East regular-season championship. Oettinger's saves once again kept BU in control long enough for the Terriers' best player to make something happen.

9:24 p.m.

Final: Notre Dame 1, Boston University 4

Fifty hours and 19 minutes after the final weekend of Hockey East's regular season began with four teams vying for a championship, it finished with three of them sharing the trophy and BU raising their model of the still nameless Hockey East regular season trophy at center ice. Given the track records of the teams involved and their recent performance, it was the most likely result.

Here's how it looked at the end:

Lowell 14-7-1 — 29 points
Boston University 13-6-3 — 29
Boston College 13-6-3 — 29
Notre Dame 12-6-4 — 28

Lowell earns the No. 1 seed in the Hockey East tournament, followed by BU and BC as the Nos. 2 and 3. Tiebreakers are used only to determine seeding.

On Nov. 13, Notre Dame and Northeastern played to a scoreless tie at Matthews Arena. However, the teams only played 40 minutes that afternoon because of a zamboni malfunction, which made the ice unplayable for a third period. The game went down as a scoreless tie. It's one of the bigger what-ifs of the season. Another point that evening would've given Notre Dame the same amount of points and delivered a four-way tie atop the league. Each team has the games it'll look back on and the points it dropped because of a hit post or a questionable offside call. These things get forgotten because of the drama and meaning of the games to be played next month. They deserve to be remembered, though.

All four teams earned a bye to the quarterfinals of the Hockey East tournament, which begins March 10. The four opening round series begin next Friday night in Providence, Burlington, North Andover and Boston. The matchups are:

No. 12 Massachusetts at No. 5 Providence
No. 11 Maine at No. 6 Vermont
No. 10 New Hampshire at No. 7 Merrimack
No. 9 Connecticut at No. 8 Northeastern

The winners travel to the home rinks of the four teams who spent the weekend battling for the league's regular-season crown.

The most important games of the season are still to come.

Conference tournaments will decide the eventual field of 16 before regionals give us our field for Chicago.

The hockey that comes before, though, prepares teams for championship runs and eliminates those undeserving. It's when old rivals are sure to play each other and where new rivalries form. The wonderful players soon to become national superstars make their names playing in their leagues before they move onto the national stage to show the rest of the country what they can do. Regular-season trophies may not be as glamorous, but they're just as difficult — and just as meaningful — to get your hands on.

The 2016-17 Hockey East season produced the first-ever three-way tie for the league's regular-season championship. The tournament promises to deliver something just as special.

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