March 6, 2014 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Hockey East 1st Round Preview

by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer

Chris McCarthy leads Vermont into the playoffs, starting against UMass.

Chris McCarthy leads Vermont into the playoffs, starting against UMass.

The 2013-14 Hockey East regular season was the league's 30th. It was, however, the first and only time the conference was composed of 11 teams.

Notre Dame's arrival adjusted the league schedule as well as the postseason format. Instead of eight teams qualifying for the playoffs and moving right into four, best-of-three quarterfinal series, the top five teams received byes with the bottom six playing single-elimination games to decide the quarterfinal field.

Those games begin Friday night in Burlington, Vt. The winners advance to the quarterfinals before the usual championship weekend at Boston's TD Garden.

Despite the parity that has defined college hockey of late, all three first round matchups finished with 2-0 sweeps in the regular season.

Of course, anything can happen in this strange and wonderful game. Boston University, Massachusetts and Merrimack hope to prove that true.

No. 12 Merrimack at No. 6 Maine,
Saturday, 7 p.m. Alfond Arena, Orono, Maine

Maine entered the final weekend of the regular season in position to take this weekend off. The Black Bears had turned the Alfond into something of a fortress prior to last weekend.

Providence, in desperate need of two wins, swept the Black Bears in Orono. Maine hadn't lost at home since November. Despite the disappointing results against PC, Maine put together two solid performances. A hot goaltender and a few defensive hiccups was all that stood between the Black Bears and a bye to the quarterfinals.

Welcoming Merrimack to Alfond means Maine has a slightly different look to contend with.

Mark Dennehy's clubs don't play a fast-paced game. But they're not exactly stationary either. The Warriors won just once this season when their opponents scored first. Suffocating opposition and generating scoring chances off mistakes only works when teams have a tie score or lead in which to work.

Effective transition from defensemen through the neutral zone is crucial for Maine to defeat the Warriors. Simple talent dictates that Maine should eliminate the Warriors without much issue.

However, the Warriors are playing for their season here. They'll need a near perfect effort to knock off Maine. Senior forward Mike Collins scored in each game the Warriors played in Orono last month. He'll need to do the same on Saturday. Junior goaltender Rasmussen Tirronen must be even better.

Led by sophomore Devin Shore and a group of speedy forwards, the Black Beats will generate chances. Strong performances from Tirronen and senior defenseman Jordan Heywood will keep the Warriors in the game.

In the end, it likely won't be enough. Maine is objectively better than Merrimack. After last weekend's sweep against Providence, the Black Bears should be motivated enough to drop Merrimack without much issue.

Prediction: Maine

No. 10 Massachusetts at No. 7 Vermont,
Friday, 7 p.m., Gutterson Fieldhouse, Burlington, Vt.

The final few weeks of the season also mark the beginning of Frank Vatrano's career at UMass. The talented winger transferred to UMass from Boston College last year. A mixup with his NCAA paperwork made him ineligible to play until the end of the regular season.

Vatrano should slot into the Minutemen's top six alongside seniors Mike Pereira, Branden Gracel and Conor Sheary, desperate to extend their careers by at least one more week.

Winning in Vermont requires something the Minutemen have done just four times this season — winning away from Amherst — and scoring on a stingy Vermont team. The Catamounts have allowed just 10 goals in their last five games, excluding a pair of games against BC.

UVM's defensive corps and goaltending have come together this season. Sophomore Brody Hoffman and freshman Mike Santaguida provided strong play in goal. Meanwhile junior Michael Paliotta emerged as the No. 1 defenseman UVM Kevin Sneddon envisioned when he recruited him. As a group, the Catamounts defensemen are a well-built corps. Paliotta serves as the shutdown marshall of the group with some skilled puck-movers and rugged defensive-zone aces mixed in.

Up front, the shallow UMass defense must contend with senior Chris McCarthy among others. Sneddon has long hailed McCarthy as a potentially special player. In his final year in Burlington, McCarthy has stayed healthy for the first time. As a result, he's flourished with 16 goals and 24 assists on the season.

Beyond McCarthy, the Catamounts are simply deeper than the Minutemen. Even with endless speed up front, UMass has rarely displayed the type of consistency required to contend in Hockey East. The addition of Vatrano certainly helps, but the Catamounts are just too good to anticipate a UMass win.

Prediction: Vermont

No. 8 Notre Dame vs. No. 9 Boston University,
Saturday, 7 p.m., Compton Family Arena, South Bend, Ind.

Prior to this season, a meeting between BU and Notre Dame in the Hockey East Tournament was quite likely. However, it seemed like a potential semifinal or quarterfinal matchup.

BU's worst season in decades, along with Notre Dame's strange year filled with puzzling stretches and generally rotten losses means two clubs expected to finish in the league's top half meet just to qualify for the quarterfinals.

These clubs met two weeks ago in South Bend. The Irish won both games by a 2-0 scoreline. Each night unfolded exactly as Notre Dame hoped and BU tried to avoid. The young, small Terriers struggled in possession all season. Generating scoring chances is difficult without the puck. Against a suffocating Notre Dame defense, it's nearly impossible.

BU coach Dave Quinn has seen improvement from his club in the last few weeks. The results haven't been there very often, but last weekend's sweep of Northeastern was a positive heading into the playoffs.

Similarly, Notre Dame picked up a big win at Boston College to end it's first regular season in Hockey East. Despite finishing as the eight seed, Notre Dame has been dominant at times this season.

A deep and diverse offense, paired with one of the league's stingy defenses, makes the Fighting Irish a true contender for a long run in the tournament.

Like Ryan Lambert pointed out yesterday, Notre Dame is a borderline dominant team. A handful of bad losses and a deeper-than-expected league dropped the Fighting Irish to eighth.

Senior goaltender Steven Summerhays has been dominant since a poor stretch that ran from late December through early February. Since, Summerhays has a 0.99 goals-against average and .965 save percentage. Notre Dame is 5-1-1 in that stretch. Its goal-scoring hasn't erupted, but UND's gifted group of forwards are due to get some puck luck eventually.

The Terriers are a talented team. The issues for BU in Quinn's first season has been a confluence of troubling traits. The one-game format gives BU something of a chance, which could set up a possible matchup with archrival BC in the quarterfinals. It'll take a near perfect game from the Terriers, though.

Prediction: Notre Dame

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