March 10, 2011 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Hockey East Playoff Preview

by Joe Meloni/CHN Reporter

Entering last Saturday night’s Hockey East schedule, a few things about the upcoming Hockey East Tournament were certainties.

Seven of the eight teams to play for a conference championship were decided.

Either Boston College or New Hampshire would be the 2010-11 Hockey East regular season champion.

BC, UNH, Boston University and Merrimack – yes, Merrimack – would host quarterfinal series.

And Maine, Northeastern and Vermont would be the fifth, sixth and seventh seeds.

Seems like a lot. It didn’t mean there wasn’t one final moment capable of making the regular season a memorable on.

UMass entered Saturday with a one-point lead on Providence for the eighth and final place in the conference tournament. The Minutemen hosted Maine, while Providence welcomed Merrimack to Schneider Arena for the back end of a home-and-home.

The Friars, winners of just games in 26 tries prior, defeated MC, 5-1, to move a point clear of UMass. The bid would have been the Friars’ first since 2008, while UMass found itself outside of the top eight for the first time since missing the tournament in both 2000-01 and 2001-02.

When the Minutemen and Maine skated out for the third period in Amherst, Mass., the Black Bears – and Providence – led, 3-1. Like the Friars, this season has been a difficult one for UMass, which won just five of its first 26 Hockey East games of the season and appeared destined to lose No. 27.

Junior Danny Hobbs had other ideas. Hobbs scored at 5 minutes, 44 seconds of the third period to cut Maine’s lead to one. Eighteen seconds later, UMass freshman Mike Pereria tied the game and vaulted UMass back into the tournament – for the time being. The Minutemen took the lead with 2:04 remaining in the game, but Maine quickly tied the game, 4-4, when Robby Dee scored just 19 seconds after UMass’ go-ahead marker.

Five minutes later, the game still tied, 4-4, the Hockey East regular season was over. While the Minutemen’s still showed five wins, the point earned them two more games. For Providence, it meant the end of another disappointing season and, according to reports, the end of Tim Army’s time atop the program.

Happy to be there certainly doesn’t describe UMass’ feelings. However, the Minutemen may not have much more to be excited about. About 15 minutes before UMass clinched the eight seed, defending national champion BC earned the No. 1 – drawing the Minutemen as they being their March to consecutive conference and national championships.

No. 8 Massachusetts (6-21-6, 5-16-6 Hockey East) at No. 1 Boston College (26-7-1, 20-6-1)

Season series: BC won, 3-0
Feb. 4, 2011 – BC 5, UMass 0 (Conte Forum)
Feb. 25, 2011 – BC 4, UMass 3 (Mullins Center)
Feb. 26, 2011 – BC 2, UMass 1 (Conte Forum)

Two weeks ago, UMass and BC played a pair of games that led some to believe either UMass’ young players had figured it out or BC needed to get going.

The Minutemen lost both games by a single goal, as part of four-game stretch of one-goal defeats to top 10 teams. As well as UMass played in the final few weeks of the season, the Hockey East Tournament means it’s time for Jerry York and his boys from Chestnut Hill to get going.

BC’s top line of Cam Atkinson, Brian Gibbons and Joe Whitney looked as sharp last weekend as it did during its national championship run last season. For the Minutemen – and the rest of Hockey East and the nation – this isn’t good news. Atkinson scored three goals in two games with UNH, and the trio combined for three goals and six assists.

Scoring depth has never been issue for the Eagles. However, BC sophomore Chris Kreider suffered a broken jaw in Friday’s win in Chestnut Hill. Despite the loss, one fewer weapon at York’s disposal isn’t likely to hurt BC too much.

Prediction: BC wins, 2-0

No. 7 Vermont (8-18-8, 6-14-7) at No. 2 New Hampshire (19-9-6, 17-6-4)

Season series: UNH won, 2-0-1
Dec. 5, 2010 – UNH 5, Vermont 1 (Whittemore Center)
Feb. 18, 2011 – UNH 6, Vermont 1 (Gutterson Fieldhouse)
Feb. 19, 2011 – UNH 2, Vermont 2 (Gutterson Fieldhouse)

There’s no other way to say it, really – Vermont has another very bad season following its run to the Frozen Four in 2008-09. With 2.29 goals per game, UVM boasts the worst offense of the eight teams taking part in the quarterfinals.

Last season, however, UVM finished lower than it did this season in the eight seed, which setup another matchup with the Wildcats in the Hockey East quarterfinals. After a 7-4 loss in the first of the best-of-three series, UVM pulled off consecutive 1-0 wins to advance to the conference semifinals.

For UNH, the loss to UVM proved another in its series of early exists from major tournaments. The Wildcats returned a truly gifted club this season, but the program’s failure to win season-deciding games still looms. With a two-point lead over BC entering last weekend, UNH lost both games of a home-and-home series to squander the conference regular season championship and No. 1 seed.

While an NCAA berth still seems like a certainty, and UNH still gets ti host a quarterfinal series at Lake Whitt, the failure to win in March has to be playing with the heads of the UNH players at this point.

Still, UVM can’t slow this UNH club down this time around.

Prediction: UNH wins, 2-0

No. 6 Northeastern (12-14-8, 10-10-7) at No. 3 Boston University (18-10-8, 15-6-6)

Season series: BU won, 2-1
Dec. 8, 2010 – BU 5, Northeastern 4 (Agganis Arena)
March 4, 2011 – BU 3, Northeastern 2 (Matthews Arena)
March 5, 2011 – Northeastern 4, BU 3 (Agganis Arena)

In my humble opinion, this is the most interesting matchup of the Hockey East quarterfinal pairings. Aside from the well-known fact that these teams, their universities’ students and fan bases genuinely hate each other, they split a home-and-home last weekend.

A few days later, Northeastern Athletic Director Peter Roby reinstated head coach Greg Cronin and assistant coach Albie O’Connell – just in time for the Hockey East Tournament. While the rumors fly about their guilt in alleged recruiting violations, the young Huskies have a lot to play for against the Terriers.

Without Cronin some of the Huskies seemed to move away from their responsibilities in Northeastern’s aggressive system. Freshman defensemen Anthony Bitetto, Luke Eibler and Jamie Oleksiak will need to perform well for the Huskies to move past a similarly inexperienced BU team.

Only five Terriers who saw regular minutes from the national championship team of two years ago remain. Upperclassmen Joe Pereira and Chris Connolly along with sophomore Alex Chiasson and freshmen Charlie Coyle and Sahir Gill lead the BU offense, which struggled with consistency in the final few weeks of the season. On the blue line, BU is dealing with injury and suspension woes as junior David Warsofsky (concussion) and freshman Garrett Noonan (disqualification) will miss at least the first game of the series, Thursday night on Commonwealth Avenue.

Also on the line for BU is a potential NCAA Tournament berth. Without a run to the Hockey East Championship game – and some help out west – the chance to play for a national championship will likely evade BU for a second consecutive season.

Even with Warsofsky and Noonan in the BU lineup and the incentive of an NCAA Tournament appearance, the push provided by Cronin’s return will give Northeastern an extra incentive to be at its best.

Prediction: Northeastern wins, 2-1

No. 5 Maine (17-10-7, 14-8-5) at No. 4 Merrimack (22-8-4, 16-8-3)

Season series: Maine won, 2-1
Dec. 7, 2010 – Merrimack 7, Maine 1 (Lawler Arena)
Feb. 25, 2011 – Maine 4, Merrimack 0 (Alfond Arena)
Feb. 26, 2011 – Maine 7, Merrimack 1 (Alfond Arena)

Merrimack ended the 2010-11 season losing three of four games to Maine and Providence. Prior to that, the Warriors posted a 21-5-4 record on their way to becoming one of best stories of the 2010-11 season.

Leading scorer Stephane Da Costa suffered an injury during a collision with UNH’s Phil DeSimone on February 11 in Durham, N.H. Da Costa missed the next five games. While MC posted a 3-2-0 record in those five games, their vaunted offense was not the same.

The two losses during the fives games without Da Costa came in Orono, Maine, against the Black Bears. Maine rolled over the Warriors, 4-0, in the first game before demolishing them, 7-1, in the back end. Without Da Costa, there’s no doubt that Merrimack is a completely different club, but his return still raises questions relating to his health and rhythm with his linemates.

Da Costa returned to the lineup last Friday night against Providence, scoring a goal and adding a pair of assists, before sitting out Saturday night. His absence was nothing more than a rest for the second-year player, but it was felt, as Merrimack lost, 5-3, to Providence.

Another European forward, Maine’s Gustav Nyquist, should play a major role in the series. The Black Bears closed the season on a seven-game unbeaten streak, although, they did blow a 3-1 lead against UMass to close the season. In those seven games, Nyquist scored six goals and assisted on seven others for the Black Bears.

With both clubs averaging more than 3.4 goals per night, the series figures to feature some offense.

While the weekend is pivotal for clubs, for Merrimack, a win would it to the Hockey East semifinals at the TD Garden for the first time since 1998 and only the second time since the program joined the conference.

Prediction: Merrimack wins, 2-0

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