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A Fantastic Finale

The Hockey East season looks like it’ll go out with a bang. The league’s four perennial powerhouses — Boston University, Maine, Boston College and New Hampshire — will be squaring off for all the marbles.

“It’s the usual suspects,” BU coach Jack Parker says. “All of us were fortunate to get [to the semifinals] because this league is so difficult. It was battle just to get home ice and then to take advantage of it was just as difficult.

“There were overtime games and difficult games. Fortunately, none of had to go to a third game, which was remarkable.

“I don’t think anyone would be surprised if any one of us won the tournament.”

When a team has a surprisingly strong season or pulls off a shocker in the quarterfinals to advance, it might be vulnerable to the “just happy to be here” syndrome when playing in front of the Garden’s packed house. With these four programs, however, that won’t happen. All four enter each season all but assuming that they’re going to get this far and then see where the second season takes them.

“That just adds to the drama of the game,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead says. “You’ve got teams that really are excited to be there, but they expect to be and they’re not satisfied with just getting there. So the games will be very emotional and guys are going to leave it all out on the ice. That’s the way it should be.

“From a fan’s perspective, when the top four teams in your conference advance to the Final Four of your league, that’s got to be a great formula for some really good hockey. And with the NCAA picture still a little bit up in the air for most of the teams in this tournament, that just adds a little extra excitement to the games, too. It’s going to be great hockey.”

It wasn’t that long ago that only Boston College was projected to make the NCAAs. Then BU came on while Maine and UNH remained on the outside looking in. However, both the Black Bears and Wildcats have made the most of their “make or break” finish and now all four teams would be selected if the season ended today. BU ranks sixth in the PairWise while the other three are tied for 10th.

“About a month ago, people would say that Hockey East would be lucky to get two teams to go into the national tournament,” BC coach Jerry York says. “But right now if things break right all four of these teams could play the next weekend in the regionals. That [would have seemed] ridiculous to say a month ago.”

Adding to the allure of this weekend is how hot three of the four teams have been of late. Witness:

• UNH is undefeated in its last six games and has lost only a single game since Feb. 3, going 7-1-3 in that stretch. Of further note is that all but two of those contests were against “Teams Under Consideration” for the NCAA tournament.

• Maine hasn’t lost a game since Feb. 4. The Black Bears are 8-0-2 in that stretch and 12-1-2 since Jan. 20.

• And the granddaddy of them all: BU is undefeated in its last seven and has only a single loss since Jan 6, during which it has posted a 16-1-2 record.

In other words, hot, hot and red hot.

Only BC doesn’t fit that criteria. The Eagles struggled down the stretch, but had been the Hockey East standard-bearer for most of the season and got back on track last weekend with a sweep of Vermont.

“Although BC did stumble down the stretch, they stumbled against Maine at Maine,” Parker says. “They had some [other] tough games.

“But I think they got rejuvenated after beating a very, very good Vermont team. I don’t think anybody has an advantage over BC as far as being hot down the stretch. We’re all playing pretty well right now.”

Whitehead adds, “It would be different if they struggled all season, but even though they did have a tough stretch there, it seems from the outside looking in as though they got it back on track last weekend.”

Four perennial powerhouses… all of them NCAA-bound (as of now)… three hot teams and another on the rebound….

How good is that?

UNH coach Richard Umile says, “It’s great for Hockey East.”

Semifinal Game 1: BU – UNH (5 p.m.)

“I don’t think there is any question we’re playing our most confident hockey,” Parker says.

Small wonder when you’re riding a 16-1-2 wave.

However, the lone loss did come at the hands of UNH, giving the Wildcats the season series in iconoclastic fashion: the road team won each game.

And the time-tested contention that playoffs are most often won with goaltending and special teams gives reason for pause among Terrier fans. John Curry’s goaltending speaks for itself, but UNH’s special teams have been more special this year than BU’s.

“What has killed us against them has been special teams this year,” Parker says. “They won the first two games on the power play. They did a really good job on their power plays and we had a hard time. [But] the last time we played them up at UNH, we did a good job stopping their power play and [I like] the way we did it. There wasn’t a lot of time spent in our zone.

“But in general they have done much better than us on special teams in the games we played against each other. We’ll have our hands full with that situation.

“I don’t think there is any question that all four of these teams will live and die with their special teams this weekend.”

Not to mention that all teams that face New Hampshire have to concern themselves with the Wildcats’ top trio of Daniel Winnik, Jacob Micflikier and Brett Hemingway. Umile moved Micflikier to another line prior to the Feb. 18 contest with BU, but the trio still spent much of Friday night’s double-overtime series-winner against Providence together.

Since BU is the number one seed, that means they’ll get to match lines against the three stellar forwards.

“I don’t think it matters whether they’re back together or not, we will match lines,” Parker says. “We like to have certain match ups and then let the flow of the game go.”

Not that having the last change is a huge deal.

“Most of the time the other coach wants it the same way that we do,” Parker says. “There’s not too many times we have to change up and change up and change up. You want your first line against their first line, your second line and vice versa. Most of the time it works out.

“Whether Micflikier is on the first line or not, [doesn’t change that much]. You could put him on the fourth line and then the first line is real good and the fourth line is real good. They’re as good a team as there is in this league as far as depth from first line to fourth line.

“Their fourth line was giving us trouble in the earlier games. No question about that. Our fourth line is playing very well now, too. But their second, third and fourth lines have played very well against us.”

After BU closed out Massachusetts last weekend, UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon made an interesting observation about the Terriers.

“They’re certainly one of the top teams in the country,” he said. “They do a lot of things very well. They’re good defensively, on special teams they scramble, and they do a good job of killing penalties. They find ways to get pucks to the net on the power play. So they have components and elements of their game that allow them to play with the big boys and succeed.

“We’ve seen them rise to the occasion whenever they’ve needed to, so they have a great mentality. I think there’s a physical strength, there’s an athletic element and then there’s the mentality.

“It’s hard to measure the value of that mentality, [but] this is a tough sport. This sport is a real grind, and team mentality across the board usually goes a long way. So I think that they’re going to be able to play with the best teams in the country for the rest of the tournaments.”

And what is Parker’s view of that mental tenacity?

“We played that way all the second half of the year,” he says. “We’ve been pretty good going into the third period down a goal, up a goal, [with the] pressure to win. We were doing a good job making sure we never got rattled.

“Against UMass, we only gave up three grade A shots in the last two periods in the second night. We were only winning 1-0 and UMass probably had us right where they wanted us, a one-goal game on the road going into the third period.

“And yet in the second period they got three grade A shots and in the third period they got no grade A shots. That’s a pretty good sign of a team that knows how to take care of business.”

The New Hampshire Wildcats have also been taking care of business. As the number four seed, they faced the toughest home ice challenge in the quarterfinals, taking on the fifth-seeded Providence Friars. UNH swept, as did all the favorites, but the clincher went to double-overtime, 2-1.

“The guys were just determined to win,” Umile says. “We’ve had a great finish to the season and great leadership. This team was determined to get to Boston and compete for the championship.”

Just a few weeks ago, the Wildcats appeared to be in major trouble. However, they faced their make-or-break situation and rose to the occasion in a big way.

“I’m proud of the way they’ve responded,” Umile says. “They’re playing very, very good hockey, not only offensively but defensively and on the specialty teams. That’s why we’re going to Boston.”

It won’t be tough to motivate the troops for a game against BU on the big stage.

“It’s a great matchup,” Umile says. “We’ve had some great games with them, especially the last couple years. It’s great for the two teams to be playing in the [TD BankNorth Garden]. A lot of people are going to love watching that game.”

Semifinal Game 2: Maine – BC (8 p.m.)

If playoff time is when you need your go-to guys to come through, then the Black Bears and Eagles should have quite the battle on Friday night. Maine’s Greg Moore scored three goals with two assists against Massachusetts-Lowell.

“Greg has been a great captain and a great leader on the ice,” Whitehead says. “He scored some big goals throughout the season and again he came up with timely goals this weekend to allow us to advance to the Garden. He’s elevated his game from good to great and he’s done it consistently.

“He’s a legitimate NHL prospect in my opinion. I think it won’t be long before he’s playing with the [New York] Rangers. Maybe even the end of this season. I think he’s that good.”

In the BC corner, Chris Collins scored the tying goal in the final minute of regulation in the opener against Vermont and then followed that up with a hat trick and an assist in the clincher. Brian Boyle added a goal and three assists while defenseman Peter Harrold, a mainstay on the blue line all season, scored the overtime winner in the first game.

“Those three players have all enjoyed banner years,” York says. “Down at crunch time, it’s hard to win unless they step forward. They were really dominant players during the course of the year, but also in that [Vermont] series.”

The season series between Maine and BC was an uncharacteristic sweep. The Black Bears allowed only a single goal to the Eagles in each game, taking a 2-1 win on the road in October and then 4-1 and 3-1 victories at home in February.

Predictably, Whitehead downplays the sweep’s importance.

“The playoffs are a totally different scenario,” he says. “It’s one game and you move on or one game and you’re eliminated. So it’s a whole new season.

“We’ve been on both ends of that spectrum. If we are fortunate to advance, we’ll end up facing UNH or BU and both those teams had the edge on us in this year’s series. That doesn’t mean we’re going to get defeated.

“We really have to put those games behind us. We just have to start with a clean slate.”

A key component in whether the Black Bears can make it four-for-four over BC is whether their special teams can continue to be very special. While the Eagles were middle-of-the-pack in both categories, Maine finished first in power-play percentage (22.0) and penalty kill percentage (89.4). Both marks were head and shoulders ahead of all others in the league.

“We are happy that special teams has been a positive for us this year,” Whitehead says. “It always gives your team a lift when you can be consistently successful in both power play and penalty kill. So that gives us confidence going into the Hockey East and NCAA tournament, if we’re fortunate to advance.

“But having said that, we’ve seen it many times that a good team can cool off a power play or penalty kill pretty quick. So we respect our opponent, that’s for sure, this weekend. We’re just going to have to be at the top of our game and execute the little things.”

For BC, York sees a few key factors in reversing the regular season results.

“We have to contain [Michel] Léveillé and Moore,” York says. “Those are two very, very game-influencing type players. We have to be conscious of when they’re on the ice.

“Also, [goaltender Ben] Bishop handles the puck like a third defenseman. We know he’s a good goaltender stopping pucks, but his best attribute from my standpoint is that he can break the puck out of the zone almost like another defenseman back there.

“We’re going to have to limit that. We’re going to have to be smarter on dumps and limit his ability to influence the game with breakout passes. That’s the key.

“They’ve also been very good all year on special teams, both PK and power play.”

Ah yes, special teams.

“We’ll each have our power-play chances,” York says. “We just need to do a better job creating some scoring chances when we have a man advantage. There are things we can do for that. Number one is we’ve got to be able to really tic-tac-toe pass the puck around. Maine really forces very well. And try to create some shots that get to the net. So I think our ability to pass the puck against pressure and try to get it to the net is key.

“And then on the PK we’re going to have to make sure Léveillé is contained. He’s the key to their power play, I think. We can’t control him but we can contain him a little bit.”

A Rose By Any Other Name

After UNH’s double-overtime win over Providence earned the Wildcats a berth in the semifinals, Daniel Winnik got a bit tongue-tied, albeit for obvious reasons.

He said, “It’s great to advance to the Fleet… ah, TD Bank… ah, Garden… whatever it’s called now.”

Awful Luck

You had to feel for Massachusetts-Lowell. The one team the River Hawks didn’t want to face in the playoffs was Maine. A month before the season ended, that quarterfinal matchup appeared to be almost mathematically impossible.

Then the Black Bears caught fire, BC stumbled and Lowell finished with three straight wins and four out of five. The net result: the nightmare, and presumed impossible, matchup became reality.

And once again, even though they played hard and the games were tooth-and-nail, the River Hawks lost to the Black Bears.

A Step In The Right Direction

Following his team’s elimination from the playoffs, Providence coach Tim Army reflected on a season that began in Cinderella-like fashion, but ended short of the mark.

“We made some strides and started changing the identity of our program,” Army said. “[But] it’s unacceptable to lose in the quarterfinals. We need to get better.

“I want to let it sting over the summer and we come back in September and we work so we’re not in this position next March; [instead] we’re going to the Garden.”

The End Of The Line

Following Saturday’s loss to BU, Cahoon reflected on the end of the UMass careers for his six seniors.

“There are a lot of swelled-up eyes and tears flowing in there, but one of the great things is that we’re a really young team,” he said. “We’ve got 15, 16 freshmen or sophomores, and they got a chance to be exposed to that type of competitor all year long. I know there’s a lot of value in that experience for our players.”

Thanks To The Marquis

In this course of this season, (Marquis de) Scott Weighart has linked me with Brokeback Mountain, Depends and stomach-stapling. None of which is true, of course, although if I don’t get my act together the stomach-stapling might become a necessity.

He even had the audacity to turn last week’s column in on Tuesday, making my struggles to hit a Thursday evening deadline all the more conspicuous.

So how will I pay him back?

I’ll thank him not only filling in for me, but doing a bang-up job in the process. And thanks also for sending me all the BU quotes that he can’t fit into his game stories. They’ve frequently been used in this column.

Scott dishes out abuse and I repay that with kindness.

I guess that just means I’m a much nicer guy than he is.

Final Wesleyan Thoughts

In my last column I waxed optimistic about the Cardinals’ chances next year. Why? With three straight strong recruiting classes, there’s no reason to believe next year’s freshmen won’t make it four in a row. And Wesleyan is losing only a single forward to graduation.

Also, the Cardinals were only 0-3-4 in overtime games and 1-3 in one-goal games that ended in regulation.

Oh-so-close.

Just a little more talent combined with the confidence bred by some early-season wins will turn those close losses into wins and ties. If that happens, they’ll be a NESCAC force to be reckoned with.

Until then, however, these are the positives I’ll remember most from this past year:

• Going 4-1-1 to close out the regular season and earn a playoff berth.

• Playing so well in the first period of the playoff game at Middlebury.

• Will Bennett’s unbelievable performances following his father’s death. I won’t intrude any further on Will’s privacy, but his courage and tenacity were unbelievable.

• Watching starting goaltender Dave Scardella go down with a serious groin injury 10 minutes into the season and fearing the worst. (Yes, 10 minutes.) Instead of a disaster, however, this gave freshman Mike Palladino a chance to shine. “Dino” responded in a big way with a 2.77 GAA and a .912 save percentage, making it almost impossible for Scardella to get back into the lineup. Impossible, that is, until the junior’s unconscious two periods against Middlebury. “Scars” then went on a roll, finishing the regular season with the best goaltending numbers in the country.

• Wesleyan recording the top penalty-killing numbers in NESCAC league games. Better than Middlebury. Better than everyone else. The goaltenders and defensemen deserve a lot of credit, but so does my son Ryan, the top forward on the PK. That impressive result is something to be proud of.

• Freshman Dallas Bossort’s booming slapshot on the power play, especially in the first half of the season, forcing opponents to take notice and adjust. With nine goals and eight assists in 24 games, he earned NESCAC Rookie of the Year honors.

• Brenton Stafford teaming with Dallas for one-timers in the early going and then going on to play all-league caliber defense for the entire season.

• Losing two key defensemen for the season early on and still being the second-best defensive team in NESCAC. In addition to Dallas and Brenton, Ed Klein and Scott Burns made up a core of sophomore and freshmen blueliners that should have very productive collegiate careers.

• Pat Butsch making the most of Senior Night, scoring a huge goal to give the Cardinals a tie with nationally ranked Bowdoin.

• Taylor Evans returning from a tough set of injuries and picking up right where he left off. The goalscoring of Mike Dorsey, Kevin Armstrong and Derek Davidson. J.J. Evans’s moves. Chris Graceffa’s heart.

• Watching my nephew Kevin have his best game against Middlebury.

• But most of all, I’m so proud of number seven. I’m lucky to be Ryan’s father and I get such joy out of watching him play. If everyone I ever dealt with was as good of a teammate as he is, my life would be a lot easier. I can’t believe this wonderful journey has only another year left in it, but I’m convinced it’ll be a great one.

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question was one last sadistic challenge devised by Scott. This one was called “Men Without A Country.” Skiing in Colorado a few weeks back, Scott watched hours and hours of Winter Olympics coverage. This raised the question: How many current or former Hockey East players were not born in a country that fielded a team in the men’s hockey component of this year’s Winter Olympics?

The following teams comprised the field in Torino (in order of finish): Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, Russia, Slovakia, Switzerland, Canada, United States, Kazakhstan, Germany, Italy, and Latvia.

Scott insisted he was not being cute here (and if you know Scott, he was being very honest in the “not cute” self-description) and picking guys who were born in the Soviet Union or Czechoslovakia or any other now defunct country. So, no, guys like Frantisek Skladany of BU did not count: Yes, he was born in what was then Czechoslovakia, but he certainly was eligible to play for Slovakia. Scott also didn’t want to muddy the waters by someone claiming that a player born in Australia or wherever is now a U.S. citizen. He wanted guys who were born in places that they could not possibly have represented in this year’s Olympics.

Personally, given that my sense of geography makes it difficult for me to find my way home from the TD BankNorth Garden without leaving a trail of breadcrumbs on the way, I would have to admit that this question had me waking up in a cold sweat.

It didn’t just stump me. No one answered this question until Saturday… and then two correct responses were submitted within two hours of each other. As far as anyone could identify, there are seven former Hockey East players who fit this description:

Colin Shields, Maine (Scotland)
Thomas Pöck, Massachusetts (Austria)
Matthias Trattnig, Maine (Austria)
Kim Brandvold, Lowell (Norway)
Baptiste Amar, Lowell (France)
Laurent Meunier, Lowell (France)
Yorick Treille, Lowell (France)

It’s worth noting that the three Frenchmen were teammates at Lowell, while Amar and Brandvold also were teammates. Curiously, Shields and Trattnig missed being teammates by one season.

The first to respond correctly was Jim Tobin. His cheer is:

“May the great fans of UNH be out in full voice on St. Patrick’s Day both in Boston and all around New England to watch the hockey team win their first of six consecutive victories!”

And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…

If you ask me, the Red Sox’ chances depend a whole lot more on Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett than Keith Foulke. Foulke’s return to form is important, but closers are more easily replaced than top of the rotation starters. Give me 400 innings between Schilling and Beckett and I’ll like our chances whether Foulke is once again dominant or a basket case.

And With This I Close

For reasons out of my control, I’ve faced time pressures this season like never before. Since doing this column justice consumes a lot of time, Thursday night deadlines have been a struggle. My editor Scott Brown has been patience personified. If he actually cashes in on all my “next cold one is on me” offers, you’re going to see some really sloshed Frozen Four stories.

But the Shoo-In For Sainthood Award goes to my wife Brenda, who assisted me in every way imaginable. Her transcribing interviews began as the exception and became the rule. Even though I double-check everything for accuracy, this massive time-saver kept my columns afloat even when I was sinking and circumstances kept tossing me an anchor. Here’s looking at you, Kid.