March 11, 2010 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Hockey East Quarterfinal Preview

by Joe Meloni/CHN Reporter

Boston College and Cam Atkinson, relatively quietly, became Hockey East's best team from a national standpoint headed into the postseason.

Boston College and Cam Atkinson, relatively quietly, became Hockey East's best team from a national standpoint headed into the postseason.

It seemed, for a while, like this day may never come. As the 26th season of Hockey East pushed forward, and teams moved up and down and back up again, fans yearned for some certainty. When the final seconds fell from the clock at Matthews Arena Saturday night, and Boston University's 4-3 lead became a 4-3 victory, the picture finally revealed itself.

Northeastern’s season is over after a final month that saw it climb as high as fourth in the standings only to wake up Sunday morning facing six long months off.

The games begin Friday night. It’s been impossible to pin one team as the best, but they’re getting closer to revealing the answer. Two more weeks until we know for sure, but, if history is any reminder, it’ll be worth the wait.

No. 1 New Hampshire vs. No. 8 Vermont

Season series: UNH won 2-0-1
Dec. 6, 2009 – UNH 5, UVM 2 (Gutterson Fieldhouse)
Feb. 19, 2010 – UNH 5, UVM 4 (OT) (Whittemore Center)
Feb. 20, 2010 – UNH 3, UVM 3 (OT) (Whittemore Center)

The Catamounts followed their remarkable run to the Frozen Four with a tough regular season marked by injuries, inconsistency and the sudden dismissal of Justin Milo following a tough weekend series with Merrimack last month. It took Northeastern losing to Boston University on Saturday night to clinch the berth.

The Wildcats, on the other hand, were never a doubt to make the conference tournament and clinched the league’s regular season championship following a tie with Boston College on Friday night in Durham.

Winning the regular season championship is always nice, but the question, as always at UNH, is whether or not Dick Umile can lead his team to a conference championship and success in the national tournament. The Wildcats haven’t won the Hockey East tournament since winning their second consecutive title in 2002-03.

Drawing an eight seed often means an easy path to the semifinals, but the 2-0-1 season series advantage UNH earned over UVM this season is a little misleading. When these two teams met three weeks ago for a pair at the Whittemore Center, UVM took both games to overtime.

“Well I don’t think No. 1 vs No. 8 has anything to do with it to be quite honest. We can throw those numbers out,” Umile said. “That’s what we discussed about the regular season. We played a tough weekend against Northeastern, and they aren’t even in the tournament. We talk about parity all the time; we say its from top to bottom, there is no question that this season was the best.”

Senior sniper Bobby Butler and sophomore blue liner Blake Kessel lead a well-rounded UNH club into the series. However, goaltending always looms as the deciding factor in postseason hockey. Take a quick peak at the postseason track records of UNH’s Brian Foster and UVM’s Rob Madore – it’s not hard to see which side gets the edge there.

Prediction – UNH wins 2 games to 1

No. 2 Boston College vs. No. 7 Massachusetts

Season Series: BC won 3-0-0
Dec. 4, 2009 – BC 3, UMass 1 (Mullins Center)
Feb. 5, 2010 – BC 7, UMass 1 (Mullins Center)
Feb. 26, 2010 – BC 2, UMass 1 (OT) (Conte Forum)

For a substantial portion of the season, UMass looked like the team to beat in Hockey East. Then came the requisite midseason collapse, which they followed with a resurrection, another collapse and a laughably improbable sweep at Maine to finagle their way into the Hockey East playoffs.

Congratulations were in short order for UMass coach Don Cahoon, though. For their efforts, the Minutemen have the honor of opening the tournament against the only Hockey East team they didn’t beat in 2009-10 – second-place Boston College.

The Eagles enter the playoffs after falling an overtime goal short of winning the league’s regular season championship over the weekend. The Eagles tied UNH on Friday and defeated the Wildcats on Saturday.

Since returning from the Winter Break, the Eagles posted an 11-4-1 record thanks in part to the emergence of the league’s most dangerous line in wingers Joe Whitney and Cam Atkinson surrounding pivot Brian Gibbons.

While the establishment of a true top line took care of the scoring, the development of a remarkably young defensive corps and the steady play of goaltenders John Muse and Parker Millner propelled BC to the top of the Hockey East table and the PairWise Rankings.

“Our club has played very well down the stretch. We’re getting contributions from a lot of people,” BC coach Jerry York said. “The one thing that strikes me – and we have our own Vezina Trophy concept at BC – is that we’ve allowed the least number of goals in the league. That’s something we’re very proud of and probably one of the reasons we have home ice and finished in second place in the league.”

The Minutemen, however, proved last weekend that they are truly capable of winning anywhere against anyone. As always, though, the question with UMass lies in whether or not coach Cahoon’s players care enough to make it happen.

In times like these, teams turn to their leaders. Against Maine last weekend, senior captains Justin Braun and Brett Watson combined for seven points – six goals and one assist – in leading the Minutemen into the playoffs.

“I think people are starting to recognize how important they are to our team,” Cahoon said of his captains. “We have had some issues, relatively minor issues, but issues that get in the way during the course of a season. These two guys have been the most consistent players and most consistent people in our locker room.”

Prediction – BC wins 2 games to 0

No. 3 Boston University vs. No. 6 Merrimack

Season series: BU won 2-1-0
Nov. 13, 2009 – Merrimack 6, BU 3 (Lawler Arena)
Nov. 14, 2009 – BU 6, Merrimack 4 (Agganis Arena)
Jan. 16, 2010 – BU 6, Merrimack 4 (Agganis Arena)

For half of the season, playing in the Hockey East Tournament seemed like a pipe dream for the Terriers, let alone hosting a quarterfinal. BU began the season with a 4-9-3 record. When the Terriers returned from the Winter Break, their players and coaches said there was something different about the group upon their return – no one was buying.

A 12-6-0 second half proved the Terriers were right. Some second half struggles from both Hockey East schools paid for by the state of Massachusetts paved the way for BU to march back into the Top 4.

“In general, it’s been a much, much better second half,” BU coach Jack Parker said. “Obviously record wise – we were the best team in the league January on – but I know we’re much better in the league from January on than we were from October to December just by the way we were playing.”

The play of sophomore goaltender Kieran Millan, after a dreadful beginning to his second season on the East side of Commonwealth Avenue, allowed the Terriers to play with the confidence required to win this league.

One opponent that gave the Terriers problems in both halves of the season, unfortunately for Parker, was Merrimack.

While BU won the season series, all three games could have fallen in favor of the boys from North Andover, Mass.

The way the season played out, it’s not a shock that Merrimack is playing into March for the first time since the 2003-04 season. The surprising part is the No. 6 seed. MC coach Mark Dennehy, in his fifth year since taking the job, won’t say it in person, but the Warriors have nothing left to prove to anyone.

Even with the worst road record in the country at 3-13-1, there are plenty of reasons for the Terriers to worry. Freshman center Stephane Da Costa is already being mentioned as the best player in Merrimack history. After introducing himself to college hockey with a five-goal game against Army on Oct. 17, Da Costa finished the season with 15 goals and 29 assists. Senior Chris Barton’s 19 goals led the team, and complimented the exploits of the shifty Frenchman perfectly.

Da Costa isn’t the only play Parker’s worried about this weekend, though.

“If Da Costa would’ve come a couple years ago, it wouldn’t have had as much of an effect because we weren’t good enough yet,” Dennehy said. “Now with Barton, Stollery and Todd just to name a few, we’re a much better hockey team. What he gives us is the ability to take a game into his hands and do some special things.”

The Warriors rely heavily on their power play, which finished second in Hockey East at 22.9 percent – more than one-third of all their goals. The Terriers, meanwhile, must find an answer on the penalty kill; BU finished the season seventh in Hockey East at 80 percent.

Prediction – BU wins 2 games to 1

No. 4 Maine vs. No. 5 Mass.-Lowell

Season series: Maine won 2-1-0
Nov. 27, 2009 – Maine 3, UMass-Lowell 1 (Tsongas Arena)
Feb. 19, 2010 – Maine 8, UMass-Lowell 4 (Alfond Arena)
Feb. 20, 2010 – UMass-Lowell 4, Maine 2 (Alfond Arena)

The expectations for Mass.-Lowell this season may have been a little lofty, but its goal of winning the Hockey East championship is hardly over with the pairing against Maine. The River Hawks' 4-4-2 record in the season's final four weekends smacks of mediocrity, but this team showed throughout the season that it can beat anyone.

Despite hosting the series, the Black Bears enter the series without much confidence. Starting goaltender Scott Darling, who first sat out last weekend for a violation of team rules, was then suspended indefinitely following the sweep at the hands of UMass.

“We’re excited to host, obviously. We kind of backed our way into the playoffs, but hopefully we earned it with some wins earlier in the year,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. “It is certainly not the way we wanted to go in, but we will take it.”

Freshman Shawn Sirman is expected to get the start over senior Dave Wilson in Darling’s absence. The pair went a combined 1-9-0 in 10 starts this season.

In Darling’s absence, it’s clear that Maine needs sophomore center Gustav Nyquist, who finished the regular season atop the league in scoring with 56 points on 18 goals and 38 assists.

The Black Bears did substantial damage on the power play this season – scoring on a national best 29.5 percent of their power plays.

Against UML, however, the Black Bears may not get that many chances. The River Hawks finished the season as the second-least penalized team in the conference; they averaged exactly 11 penalty minutes per game as team.

UML coach Blaise MacDonald remembers sweeping Vermont in the first round of the Hockey East tournament a year ago despite playing on the road. Three weeks prior, the River Hawks split weekend series against the Catamounts. This season, it could become a trend as the River Hawks split a pair at Alfond Arena three weeks ago.

“It reminds me a little bit of last year when we had to go up to Vermont near the end of the season and we had some success in a tough place to play, then had to go back there in the playoffs,” MacDonald said. “It is somewhat similar this year so I think it does give us a good feeling going into a playoff series. I think most people’s opinion is that of all the home ice advantages, Maine certainly enjoys the very best and it is the toughest place to play for an opponent.”

Despite splitting time with Nevin Hamilton for majority of the season, Carter Hutton locked down the No. 1 job down the stretch. The athleticism Hutton provides may be a decisive factor in this series, especially if the Black Bears’ offense pieces together the nifty passing sequences its displayed throughout the season.

“Given the dimensions and the style that we want to play, the transition game we’d like to incorporate, Hutton gives us the best opportunity to play that way while still being very fundamental and calm in the net to make the big saves when we need them,” MacDonald said.

Prediction – UMass Lowell wins 2 games to 0

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