The Massachusetts hockey team (13-18-1, 10-14-1 Hockey East) has already locked up its postseason bid, and in terms of its own destiny, UMass can only finish in one of two positions in the final standings heading into next week’s conference quarterfinals.
The Minutemen — who play Maine (23-10-1, 16-8-1 HEA) Friday and Saturday night in Orono, Maine to close out their regular season schedule — hold a one-point edge on Lowell — playing Vermont twice at home — in the standings but need to stay there because the River Hawks hold the head-to-head tiebreaker with a 2-1-0 record against the Minutemen this season. If UMass does indeed hold firm ahead of Lowell, it will clinch the seven-seed as opposed to the eighth and final seed.
And since the Minutemen don’t have to fight tooth and nail for their playoff lives against No. 7 Maine this weekend, they can focus more on fine-tuning their game rather than playing tight and looking over their collective shoulder.
“We didn’t really talk a lot about [the playoffs],” UMass coach Don Cahoon said. “We know what we are working for. I’m sure, subconsciously, it’s out of our minds. That’s done. We’re still concerned with getting better from day to day and from week to week. Our intensity in practice and our commitment to what we’re doing is still pretty much the same.”
The Maroon and White also has the ability to play the role of spoiler at the hostile Alfond Arena this weekend. Maine, which has gone 9-1-1 in its last 11 games to make a huge surge from sixth place to a tie for second in the standings, can clinch the Hockey East regular season championship if first-place Boston College stumbles against New Hampshire tomorrow night.
“It’s just going to set the stage for the championship,” Cahoon said. “They want to win the Hockey East Championship this weekend. We’ve got a chance to keep them from fulfilling that and to better position ourselves to prepare for next week’s crucial games.”
The Minutemen know they will be on the road during the first round of the Hockey East tournament, but who they will face is still way up in the air. There is still the possibility that UMass will have to return to Amherst following Saturday night’s game and then make the six-hour bus ride back to Orono for a best-two-of-three series. But with all of this weekend’s scenarios, UMass could also draw Boston College, Boston University, New Hampshire or Providence in the opening round.
And by taking on the Black Bears in what is considered to be the most hostile environment in Hockey East, Cahoon feels that only works as an advantage because of what his team may run into next weekend.
“This is a unique situation in that we get to play in as tough of a place as there is to play,” Cahoon said. “We need to be able to put that aside, go compete and go get something done. That will be a good foundation to follow up with that same type of effort the following week.
“This week, we are going to clearly understand what it will take to succeed next week. We don’t need to go into next week uncertain about how we have to compete and how we have to play. We have to be able to execute at a high level, and we have to be able to sustain that so we can continue to do it for the next few weeks to have any success in the playoffs.”