March 14, 2014 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Hockey East Quarterfinal Preview

by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer

For years, Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna has proudly proclaimed that the strength of his conference was its coaches. Legendary stewards of nationally renowned programs and younger coaches with an eye on knocking their better-known colleagues down a few pegs led Hockey East, guiding the program into its 30th season.

While the coaching pool in Hockey East remains as strong as ever, the 2013-14 season has revealed another strength of the league — its goaltenders. With the quarterfinals of the Hockey East Tournament set to begin Friday night 7 p.m. at four rinks around New England, it's the netminders drawing most of the attention.

On the year, Hockey East goaltenders have posted a league average save percentage of .916 — tops in the nation. Playoff hockey is the time for goalies to become stars. Whether it's Boston College freshman Thatcher Demko all the way down to Vermont's unheralded sophomore Brody Hoffman, it's clear that these series are likely to develop as battles between the young men manning the crease.

Not since the 2006-07 season when names like Cory Schneider, Jon Quick and Jon Curry kept opposition coaches up at night has the league seen since dominating efforts from its netminders. There are, of course, other stars in this league. The series at play this weekend will have other heroes leading their clubs to next weekend's Hockey East Semifinals at TD Garden. As the regular season revealed, though, it'll take a typically brilliant effort from each team's goaltender to get there at all.

No. 8 Notre Dame at No. 1 Boston College
Conte Forum, Boston
Season series: 1-1

Looking back on BC's performance in December, January and February, it's strange to think the Eagles enter the weekend on a two-game winless streak. The top-seeded club wrapped up Hockey East's regular-season championship with two whole weekends left to play before tough weekends with Massachusetts-Lowell and Notre Dame illustrated that BC's greatness, while quite plain, was still to be questioned against the best Hockey East can offer.

Playing the brand of measured, smart hockey it must to win championships, the Fighting Irish contained BC's high-powered offense and managed to get an overtime winner in the March 1 meeting in Chestnut Hill. Replicating the same outcome for the Fighting Irish is the primary concern as the program continues its first run in the Hockey East Tournament.

UND held its rival Eagles to 20 shots on goal and successfully clogged the myriad passing lanes BC always seems to find. There was, of course, a bit of brilliance from BC talisman Johnny Gaudreau, with the winger darting through two defenseman and creating a goal on a breakaway. Shutting Gaudreau and linemates Bill Arnold and Kevin Hayes down has proved impossible since BC coach Jerry York put the trio together on Dec. 6. On the year, they've combined for 159 points with Gaudreau's 64 (30 goals and 34 assists) leading the way.

"We won that game but it was by the skin of our teeth. It wasn't like we beat them handily," Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said. "You aren't going to hold that line down completely.

"They all have different talents and bring different things to the table. There are three different players there that are all tremendously talented in different ways. The chemistry of the three is why that line is so dominant. You can't focus on just one guy. For the most part, 13 (Johnny Gaudreau) gets all the notoriety, but Hayes and Arnold are great players. Arnold is a great player defensively and has great instincts without the puck too. Hayes, for a big kid, has great mitts. He's got reach and that makes him an effective player in many ways.

"They have a great ability to get up and down the ice and spread the ice out with their transition game and their speed and skill. That's what gets you playing back on your heels," says Jackson.

Fighting Irish goaltender Steven Summerhays has put together quite the senior season of his own, though. His .929 save percentage in 33 games played helped Notre Dame win games even as the club's talented offense failed to generate the scoring numbers expected of it.

Neither BC nor Notre Dame are teams that rely solely on one player or one line. However, limiting the chances of BC's top group is the only way the Fighting Irish punch a ticket to TD Garden next weekend. Some difficult stretches in Hockey East play dropped UND to eighth in the league's regular-season standings, forcing it to beat No. 9 Boston University last Saturday night in the first round. The win extended UND's unbeaten run to seven games, allowing exactly seven total goals on the 6-0-1 stretch.

Prediction: BC, 2-1

No. 7 Vermont at No. 2 Massachusetts-Lowell
Tsongas Center, Lowell, Mass.
Season series: 1-1

UMass-Lowell's season started on the wrong end of the year's most surprising result. A 2-1 loss to Sacred Heart on a night where UML celebrated last season's league double and trip to the Frozen Four was hardly the beginning expected from the River Hawks. It was, however, but a blip on another fantastic season for UML under Norm Bazin. Now in his third year, the Lowell alumnus has guided the program to three consecutive top-two finishes in Hockey East play.

The formula for Bazin's club has been mostly the same. A mix of relentless defending and offensive efficiency have UML in position for another trip to TD Garden and the NCAA Tournament. First, UML must get by Vermont. The Catamounts' seventh-place finish wasn't overly impressive, but UVM coach Kevin Sneddon iced a more competitive side than most anticipated on the season.

"You'd like to think (expreience matters), because there's only one way to get it that's to be in the playoffs and be in the thick of things," Bazin said. "I think a lot of those guys in the locker room have had those great experiences of playing under pressure and making the hard play at the right time … and when a team does that it pays dividends."

Up front, the Catamounts rely heavily on do-it-all senior Chris McCarthy. Finally healthy, McCarthy's 16 goals and 24 assists, paired with effective defensive work and penalty killing, made him one of the league's best in 2013-14. The emergence of freshman sniper Mario Puskarich (18 goals) and Michael Paliotta as a truly dominant No. 1 defensemen helped the Catamounts to 19 wins to this point.

Sophomore goaltender Brody Hoffman enjoyed a strong campaign, posting a .928 save percentage in limited action. Injuries shelved Hoffman for different stretches of the year. However, freshman Mike Santaguida provided Sneddon with a great alternative as well in his appearances.

The issue for UVM heading into a weekend in Lowell may well be its depth. UML defenseman Christian Folin is certain to see plenty of ice time against McCarthy and Puskarich. There's certainly talent beyond those two, but no other UVM player scored more than seven goals on the season. Meanwhile, the River Hawks' defensive game is as strong as ever. Sophomore goaltender Connor Hellebuyck split time with Doug Carr at different points, but Hellebuyck eventually emerged as the clear No. 1 in Lowell. His .939 save percentage being a major reason why.

For UML, goal scoring has been the interesting part of its season. Averaging 2.8 goals per game is down a bit from last season's even 3.00 goals per game. The difference, it seems, has been junior Scott Wilson. The talented winger put together a number of strong performances this season, but his goal production dropped significantly from 16 to 5. Even before an injury shelved him for eight games, pucks just wouldn't fall for Wilson.

He appeared in Lowell's most recent games, a weekend against the Catamounts in Burlington to end the regular season, and went scoreless. Beyond Wilson, senior Joe Pendenza and sophomore Adam Chapie lead a Lowell offense that looks quite similar to Bazin's first two groups. Goals in transition and second and third chances are UML's specialty. UVM must be especially careful with the puck to keep the River Hawks from jumping on any mistakes.

"To us it's making a hard play to advance a zone, getting to the net, getting inside positioning, taking the puck to the net and making hard plays," Bazin said. "There's only one way to score in the playoffs and that's to get into the hard areas and the net front is a hard area.

"I know they are anxious to play playoff hockey and so am I. ... Practices are great, but it's time to play hockey and I wish it was four out of seven."

Prediction: UMass-Lowell, 2-0

No. 6 Maine at No. 3 Providence
Schneider Arena, Providence
Season series: Providence, 2-0

On Dec. 7, Providence was 11-2-3. The Friars, now in their third year under Nate Leaman, were on their way to one of the program's best seasons ever. Sophomore goaltender Jon Gillies was typically brilliant. Junior center Ross Mauermann was scoring just about every night. The Friars were winning, but something never looked quite right.

After Gillies returned from the IIHF World Junior Ice Hockey Championship, the Friars plummeted. A 4-7-3 start to the second half jeopardized everything the Friars accomplished with their hot start. Finding their stride at the right time, Leaman's Friars with four straight wins, including two in Orono over Maine, to jump into third place and back into consideration for a potential NCAA Tournament berth.

Gillies found his game, which is imperative for PC, but the secondary scoring the Friars will need to get past this weekend's series and on to TD Garden for a third straight year emerged. Entering the weekend with Maine, Providence is confident it has the pieces necessary to win these games and beyond.

Maine is, however, just as confident. Under first-year coach Red Gendron, the Black Bears enjoyed a fantastic 2013-14 season. Led by Martin Ouellette in goal, Maine heads to Schneider Arena with revenge on its collective mind. PC's sweep of Maine in the final weekend of the regular season at Alfond Arena cost the Black Bears home ice for this series. Moreover, Maine had to play in last weekend's first round as a result. It defeated Merrimack, 2-0, at home. In fact, the Black Bears lost just three times at home this season, two coming in Providence's sweep.

The Black Bears' problems on the road are the real reason they have to head south this weekend, though. A young team, Gendron's club just never locked down the secret of success away from home, going 1-10-3 on the road.

Much of Maine's success this season came from its gifted young playmakers up front. Devin Shore's 14 goals and 27 assists led the club. Meanwhile, sophomore defenseman Ben Hutton emerged as one of the league's elite two-way defensemen, picking up 13 goals and 14 assists.

Prediction: Providence, 2-1

No. 5 Northeastern at No. 4 New Hampshire
Whittemore Center, Durham, N.H.
Season series: 2-0, UNH

Dick Umile's UNH team entered the season without the type of championship hopes it so frequently had in seasons past. The Wildcats quietly enjoyed a strong season that rarely included extended stretches of either greatness or poor efforts.

Northeastern, on the other hand, began the year on a roll before a 5-5 finish in Hockey East play dropped them from a possible second-place finish to the No. 5 spot. The Hockey East Tournament format gave NU a bye last weekend, but it still must travel up to Lake Whit for a game with Umile's club.

NU goaltender Clay Witt has been the measuring stick for the Huskies in his first year as the No. 1. When he plays well, the Huskies win. When he struggles, so does Northeastern. On the year, Witt's .935 save percentage and frequent brilliance in facing and saving more shots than anyone in Hockey East has made him a candidate for all major awards. It also revealed some of his club's weaknesses, though. NU is 52nd in the country in shots allowed per game. The Huskies see 34.79 shots on goal per game, managing a shade more than 30 of their own.

Puck possession has been an issue all season. The Huskies score goals, and it covered up a lot of these deficiencies for long stretches this year. When the goals don't come at the same rate, though, the barrage Witt faces regularly becomes a problem.

UNH, on the other hand, has thrived in possession on the year. The Wildcats manage pucks well and limit opponent's zone time effectively. Northeastern can certainly generate chances in a hurry with Kevin Roy, Braden Pimm and other talented forwards enjoying successful seasons. It is, however, difficult to build and hold leads without the puck, especially come playoff time.

Throughout the season, NU coach Jim Madigan has dismissed the shot differential issues from his club, relying on his skaters to limit opponent's high-quality looks. It's a risky game NU plays, and UNH's 3.14 goals per game should pose an even greater problem. Led by senior playmaker Kevin Goumas, UNH also saw the emergence of junior Matt Willows (18 goals) as a reliable contributor and senior Nick Sorkin (18 goals) recovered after a disappointing two-goal junior campaign.

Prediction: UNH, 2-0

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