The regular season is history. Hail to the champs, Boston College.
Now it’s on to the second season. Let’s look at the matchups.
No. 1 Boston College hosts No. 8 Massachusetts
BC ranks as the clear favorite to win its third consecutive Hockey East tournament. The Eagles have earned a unanimous top ranking in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll, the No. 1 position in the PairWise Rankings, and have won 11 straight. There’s a lot in common between this year’s club and the one that won the national championship two years ago as well as last year’s pre-tournament favorite.
“The biggest thing is our goals against is the exactly the same,” BC coach Jerry York says. “Over the last three years, we’ve given up [in 27 league games] 60 goals this year, 58 goals last year and 60 goals the year before that.
“We share that same principle of good defensively play — led by John Muse for a while and now Parker Milner. We skate well as a team. But to lead the league in goals against three years in a row is very special.”
Milner and the BC goaltending situation in general remained major question marks mid-season. Actually, “question mark” would have been putting it in charitable, almost euphemistic, terms. Bluntly put, the position appeared to be a clear Achilles’ heel.
Not anymore. Over the last 10 games, the Eagles have given up a total of 10 goals; over the last four, they’ve give up only a single one.
Milner leads the league by a large margin in goals against average (1.85) and is tied with New Hampshire’s Casey DeSmith for best save percentage (.928).
“We were really in a hard situation early in the season and through the middle of the season with stopping pucks,” York says. “We had three goaltenders all get a chance to jump up.
“We sensed at the time we had a lot of ‘B’ goaltenders. It’s hard to win championships without an ‘A’ goaltender. It just doesn’t happen.
“We challenged our goaltenders. Parker stepped up. His numbers are off the charts. His positional play, his confidence level and the numbers he has posted — save percentage and win-loss — have all of us excited.”
Although on paper this series looks like a mismatch, York points to one obvious fact that will prevent overconfidence.
“As we approach a whole new season, it’s not your typical 1 vs. 8 matchup as far as we’re concerned,” York says. “UMass is one of the few teams that took a season series from us. Deservedly so, they played extremely well in the three games. The Minutemen have our attention and we’re preparing very well this week for our matchup that starts on Friday.”
Can UMass play David to the BC Goliath? Considering that the series will be played at Kelley Rink and the Minutemen didn’t get their first of only two season-long road wins until Feb. 10, the venue would seem to dictate that Goliath can’t be beat.
“The road woes started in game one and then just got under our skin a bit, until we had that first game of success,” UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon says. “[But] we’ve got that monkey off our back in that we have had a little bit of success playing on the road.”
Despite the road ineptitude that lasted most of the season, the Minutemen finished the last month of the season with road wins at Boston University and Maine. Coupled with the two home wins over BC and others over Merrimack and New Hampshire, UMass has clearly shown that it can be a giant-killer.
So Goliath beware.
“You cannot take anything away from BC in terms of how good they are,” Cahoon says. “I am not going to compare our team to theirs, but we have some very good players as well. We have some players when they are on their game and locked in, can play at this level and really make an account of themselves.
“I think that speaks to the team coming together and playing at their highest level. The X factor is our goaltending, and I really think that both [Kevin Boyle and Steve Mastalerz] are going to be very good over time, but they are both freshmen.
“They are prone to freshmen type of play, but when they are on their A-level game — and Jerry went through that with his goalie crew — they are pretty good. When you get less than that, the team obviously doesn’t play with the same confidence.
“I think that speaks to how we’ve been able to go into some tough buildings and play well. It takes an A-game from our goaltending, and the rest locking in.”
No. 2 Massachusetts-Lowell hosts No. 7 Providence
Last weekend, the River Hawks swept the same Providence Friars they’ll be facing in the quarterfinals. It was a sweep that allowed them to leapfrog Boston University and gain the No. 2 seed.
Do those 5-1 and 4-2 wins presage an easy series for Lowell? Or do they make the task tougher?
“I don’t know if either one applies, other than you don’t have to do as much advanced scouting because you just finished up with them,” UML coach Norm Bazin says. “We will be playing a little bit different Providence team, because from my understanding, they receive their top scorer [Tim Schaller] back for the playoffs.
“It’s a new season. We’re certainly taking nothing for granted. We realize they’re getting Schaller back, who is a tremendous hockey player — a possible all-league consideration type player — and he’s 6-foot-2, so there’s a whole lot of hockey player to deal with. He’s a power forward and we’re going to have to contend with that down the middle — so that poses a whole new challenge.
“Overall, I know they’re very well coached. They work extremely hard, they skate very well and they’re probably one of the best forechecking teams we’ve faced in Hockey East this year.”
Ironically, this matchup pits the two teams that missed the playoffs last year. So the motivation level should be sky high.
“It’s going to be really exciting for the kids because this is the best time of the year to play hockey,” Bazin says. “Both teams will be excited; both teams are on even ground.
“The regular season is obviously done with so there’s nothing to save it for. It should prove for some very entertaining hockey come Thursday and Friday.”
For Providence, the playoff drought extended past just last year. The Friars missed qualifying a hard-to-believe three straight years.
“We don’t have a player on our roster that’s ever played a playoff game,” PC coach Nate Leaman says. “I think the guys are really chomping at the bit and looking forward to the opportunity.”
Leaman feels that despite his team’s total inexperience in the playoffs, its fight for a berth down the stretch should make it feel reasonably comfortable with the pressure this weekend.
“When you enter the second half of the season and the team is fighting for points the way they were … I thought our UNH series was playoff-like, I thought our Northeastern series was playoff-like and I thought our last game at Lowell was very close to a playoff-type game,” he says. “Both teams were battling extremely hard, and laying it on the line.
“Down the stretch in our league, there are playoff-type games where teams are playing with playoff-type urgency, desperation and hunger. Even though we haven’t played a game that’s quote-unquote playoff, I think we’ve been in those situations. We have to use our experiences from those situations, see what we did well in those games and see what we need to improve on in those games for us to be successful this weekend.”
Leaman dismisses out of hand the notion that his team could be satisfied “just to be there” for the first time in four years.
“It’s never been our goal to just make the playoffs,” he says. “Our goals are higher than that. Our standard for this program [is] we want to be higher than that. So, I don’t believe that we are promoting the atmosphere whatsoever that we’re happy to be there.”
Schaller’s return certainly adds a dimension to the Friars’ offense. Prior to his injury, he was on pace for a 20-plus-goal season. However, he’s played only six of the last 17 games.
“Tim is a scoring threat, he’s our best faceoff player and at one point he was leading the nation in power-play goals,” Leaman says. “He brings another element to our power play. Those are three pretty big things as well as being our first-line center and a 6-2 player that’s a horse to play against.”
Beyond that, the Friars will be relying heavily on their freshman class, which they’ve had to do all season long.
“It’s kind of uncommon to be led by a freshman in scoring in this league,” Leaman says. “Ross Mauermann has done a tremendous job as a guy that was recruited basically over the summer. He adds speed, he’s got a good stick and a good release on his shot. When Timmy [Schaller] has been out, we’ve turned to him to be our No. 1 center man, which in some ways is not ideal.
“A lot of games we play four or five freshmen on our top two lines. I think they’ve done an admirable job, I think they’ve grown, I think they’ve improved and certainly I was encouraged to see the way they played Saturday night, because I think they still have juice in the tank. We’ve leaned on them a little bit.
“Getting Shane Luke at Christmas time was another big plus for us and added depth up front. If we’re going to be successful, the freshmen are going to have to play a role in the series this weekend.”
No. 3 Boston University hosts No. 6 New Hampshire
For significant parts of this season, BU played like one of the top teams in the country and looked every bit the part. Over the last dozen games, however, the Terriers dropped to nothing more than .500 hockey. Most recently, they’ve had to deal with the fallout from Max Nicastro’s rape charges, which sadly was the second time a BU player was arrested on charges of a sexual assault nature this year.
“Our season, to this point, has been very eventful, I guess you could say,” BU coach Jack Parker says ruefully. “We’ve been on the front page a couple times off the ice, and that’s not good for us. On the ice, I think we’ve handled it extremely well. Credit to our captains and our senior leadership to be working as hard as they can to keep this team focused and playing as well as they can.
“We’ve played solid team defense for the most part. We’ve been surprisingly effective offensively, mostly because our power play has gone so well and we’re getting a lot of production from our point men. But also some guys have really stepped up and put the puck in the net for us that made jumps from last year. All those things have added up to a solid season.”
If playoff hockey truly does boil down to the time-honored maxim of goaltending and special teams, the Terriers will be in great shape. Kieran Millan ranks as one of the league’s, if not the nation’s, top goalies and is finishing out a great collegiate career that began with him backstopping the 2009 national championship team. The BU power play is Hockey East’s best, and the penalty kill trails only that of Boston College. The Terriers rank a clear first in net special teams at plus-19.
“We’ve had the opportunity to get on the power play a lot and we’ve had the opportunity to kill penalties a lot,” Parker says. “We’re the most penalized team in the league and I think the second-most penalized team in the league is whoever we’re playing. Our opponents get an awful lot of penalties as well. It’s obvious that referees seem to call a lot more penalties in BU games than they do in other games and I would imagine that trend would continue and there will be a lot of special teams played during this series.
“Our special teams have been a big reason why we have been successful. We’ve done a good job killing penalties, we’ve been real successful on the power play, we’ve got some short-handed goals and our net has been pretty good. Both power play and penalty kill have been things that we’ve been pretty confident in.
“We would prefer to play less on the PK, obviously, because we wear guys out, I think, and we use certain guys to play both power play and penalty kill in all those situations. When there’s a lot of penalties and a lot of power plays, we can get a little legless, and that’s something we really have to watch and maybe use some different guys more often in that situation. But it has been a big part of our success and hopefully that can continue.
“Playoff hockey is a lot different. You can go on a streak, and all of a sudden your power-play percentages jump up, and then you can get in a bad streak, and if it’s a bad streak at the wrong time, it hurts. The wrong time is playoff time and right now I’d say we’re playing pretty well in both those areas but not nearly as well as we were a month ago.”
With the roster depleted by three players no longer with the team, Parker will be demanding a lot out of his entire squad, not just the seniors who won the national championship three years ago.
“I expect them, as well as everybody else, to raise their game,” he says. “I don’t think it just falls on the goaltender or falls on the senior captain or guys that have won championships.
“I think these [other] guys have played in a lot of big games over the years even though they haven’t gotten to the Frozen Four. They’ve played in a lot of important games, they’ve played in a lot of pressure games, they’ve played in front of some big crowds. All of them have to step up.
“We have to have our fourth line playing as well as they can, our first line play as well as they can because mostly everybody steps up this time of the year and you’ll see the best hockey being played because there’s so much at stake.”
For New Hampshire, everything is at stake. The Wildcats will have to win the Hockey East tournament to extend their streak of NCAA tournament appearances to 11 (second longest in the country). This series is do or die.
Considering what happened two of the last three years, the Wildcats will be looking for some role reversal. In 2009, BC upset third-seeded UNH in two straight. A year later, the top-seeded Wildcats fell to Vermont.
“It’s a different role for us because it’s been a while [since] we haven’t played at home [in the playoffs],” UNH coach Dick Umile says. “Maybe it will be a good thing getting on the road. We’ve played well on the road throughout the second half of the season, quite honestly. At this point, we are excited just to be in the playoffs and be going down to BU. The guys are a little bit relaxed and there’s nothing better than this time of the season.”
To advance, New Hampshire will be looking to improve on its surprisingly poor regular season offensive results. While traditionally it has seemed that UNH could grow snipers on trees, this year the Wildcats lead only Vermont in league scoring.
Stevie Moses has scored 21 goals and added 13 assists, but no other Wildcats player has recorded double-digit goals.
“I wish I could have a reason,” Umile says. “Stevie Moses is our top scorer and he generates an awful lot of offense for us, [but] if he scored a third of the opportunities, he might be the highest scorer in the league.
“We just haven’t got the scoring from the guys that are in the double digits of scoring. We’ve gotten the opportunities, but we’ve just had a difficult time finishing on our scoring opportunities. We constantly work on getting shots on goal, but it’s been our Achilles’ [heel] for the season, not being able to finish our scoring opportunities.”
Without their usual powerhouse offense, the Wildcats may have to win games similar to their season-ending one at Maine, a 1-0 loss. That’ll mean relying on freshman goaltender Casey DeSmith, who entered the season third on the depth chart but has emerged to lead the league in save percentage (.928). Perhaps DeSmith can do to BU what Rob Madore did to the Wildcats two years ago.
“We knew he was going to be a real good goaltender,” Umile says. “He’s calm [even though] we’ve put him in for some huge games. He’s a good size and he fills up the net well with his pads and his uniform and he doesn’t panic at all during the game.
“He handles long shots [and] tips well, and if he has to make a spectacular save, he is completely capable of doing that. He has given us an opportunity every night to win. Going into the playoffs, he is going to be obviously a key for us. We are confident that we are going to get solid goaltending.”
No. 4 Maine hosts No. 5 Merrimack
At Thanksgiving, Maine’s record stood at 3-6-2 and the question might have been whether the Black Bears would make the playoffs at all, much less earn home ice. Since the Christmas break, however, they’ve gone 14-4-1 to vault into the final home-ice spot and move into a tie for ninth place in the PairWise.
Unfortunately for Maine, Alfond Arena might not be as intimidating of a place to play as usual because most students will be away for Spring Break. That said, the Black Bears played .500 on the road this year but 12-5-0 at home so the regular season finale that gave them home ice, a 1-0 win over UNH, could provide the decisive difference, students or no students.
“It was a big win for us, securing home ice,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead says. “We feel very good when we step on the ice in front of the Maine fans, so we will take every advantage that we can get. We are certainly hoping that the community will fill those student seats.”
Merrimack has had Maine’s number of late, taking this year’s series 2-0-1 and sweeping the Black Bears in last year’s quarterfinals at home. While only one of those losses came during Maine’s 14-4-1 stretch drive, Whitehead knows his team has its work cut out for it.
“[Merrimack is] very well coached,” he says. “They play within their systems and they play with a lot of heart. They are a tough team to play against. I have been thoroughly impressed with what [coach] Mark [Dennehy] and his staff have done. They continue to bring it.”
A key factor in Maine’s resurgence has been Dan Sullivan’s play in net. A question mark coming into the season, he endured some valleys to go with the peaks in the early going, but has emerged down the stretch. What was once a sub-.900 save percentage has climbed to .909, good for seventh in Hockey East.
“Dan has been fabulous,” Whitehead says. “He has really solidified that position for us and has just given us that steady rock back there that the players know they can count on.
“I am really proud of Dan. He has trained extremely hard to improve his game in a lot of areas technically. He is just a great kid. His work ethic is second to none, and he really gets after it.
“He is a real student of the game, not to mention a great student as well in the classroom [where] he has a 4.0 [grade point average]. He is a real determined young man and very talented. I have been very impressed with what he has done this year.”
The other end of the “goaltending and special teams” mantra for playoff success is a mixed bag. Maine’s power play (25.6 percent conversion rate) trails BU by only a sliver for the top ranking in Hockey East, but the penalty kill (76.9 percent) is worse than all but that of Vermont.
“That is going to be a challenge for us, killing penalties, especially against a good Merrimack team,” Whitehead says. “We are determined to stay out of the box but also to keep improving our penalty kill. It has improved over the second half of the season, but it is not where we want it to be.
“We are doing a much better job of blocking shots and getting sticks in lanes and Dan Sullivan’s improvement in the net has given us a huge lift. We are taking a lot of pride in the improvement but we know it’s going to be something we have to keep focusing on.”
Merrimack’s season could be viewed as a mirror image of Maine’s. The Warriors went undefeated over the first 10 games, rising to No. 1 in the country in the process, but have played only .500 hockey since the Christmas break and stumbled into the playoffs with a 2-4-2 record over their last eight games. Losing at UMass last Friday made the difference between hosting this series and traveling to Alfond.
However, Dennehy sees his team’s finish in a different light.
“I am appreciative of the start we had because we ended up needing it especially with the quality of the opponents we had [down the stretch],” he says. “I really like the way our team has played the last four weeks with the exception of maybe 20 minutes of hockey.
“If you look at our second half [of the season, we played] three against BC, two against BU, three against UNH, two against Maine and three against Lowell. I would argue that there was probably not a tougher second half in the country.
“I really like how we came through it. We will be battle tested and I know we will have our hands full headed up to Alfond, but I don’t think there is anyone in our program that isn’t really excited about it.”
Fortunately for Merrimack, it enjoyed considerable success on the road this year, going 7-5-3, compared to 9-5-3 at home.
“A big part of it is having a good veteran core,” Dennehy says. “We have plenty of seniors that have been through a lot of tough games and they understand that it is all about what is going on between the glass. Whether you have to drive up to Orono to play this game or if it was in Timbuktu, the only thing that really matters is what is happening between the glass. Our team has that ability to hone in on that.”
Dennehy sees at least one obvious key to this series.
“Let’s start with Joe Cannata,” Dennehy says. “Last time we played them, they threw 40 shots on him and they very easily could have scored five goals. We will have to play with a lot of discipline because they have a very good power play. We like to say that we play playoff hockey all year long and there aren’t too many blowouts in playoff hockey so that is what we are shooting for. We have two teams that play really hard.”
Dennehy plans to approach the Spencer Abbott, Joey Diamond and Brian Flynn line — which includes the top three scorers in Hockey East — the same way that produced success against Gustav Nyquist’s line in last year’s playoffs.
“They are an offensive juggernaut and you need to be aware of them on the ice,” Dennehy says. “You have to be very respectful and make sure you get on the right side of the puck.
“With that said, we have had some success forcing them to defend. Offensive players don’t like to play defense, and they are used to being in the other team’s zone and have had a lot of success doing that. The further away from your net the puck is when they are on the ice, the better off you are. But that is a lot easier said than done.”
The enigmatic Huskies
Northeastern’s loss to BU on Friday eliminated the Huskies from the playoffs, but they came back one night later to defeat the Terriers in overtime and knock their crosstown rivals to a No. 3 seed. The win also made that elimination on the basis of a tiebreaker with UMass instead of points.
Since the 27-game league schedule went into effect for the 2005-06 season, Northeastern’s 22 points would have been good enough to make the playoffs all but three times. In 2006, the Huskies again would have tied UMass and it would have come down to a tiebreaker. In 2008, they’d have fallen a point short, again behind UMass. And in 2010, they suffered an even worse fate, finishing with 24 points, one point out of the playoffs and only four points out of home ice.
This season, their eight-game unbeaten streak to close out 2011 included road wins over three teams that have spent time in the nation’s top five: Michigan, Notre Dame (two wins) and Minnesota. Michigan and Minnesota appear to have NCAA berths wrapped up.
Only Lowell’s 5-1-0 nonconference record topped the Huskies’ 4-1-1 mark. Sadly, though, none of those games outside of Hockey East counted in the standings so Northeastern finds itself on the outside looking in for the second time in three years.
Cracking the Ice
I’ll be signing books at the Barnes and Noble in Peabody, Mass., at 2 p.m. on April 14. The Frozen Four will be history by that time so stop by and chat.
You may also bump into me on the way out to the Frozen Four. I’ll potentially be doing a signing at the Logan Airport BookLink store on Wednesday morning, April 4, around 6:15 a.m. This is inside security, so forget it unless you’re ticketed for Terminal A. You won’t be able to get in. BookLink is located near the escalator. We still need to work out a few kinks, so check my website for updates.
Here are endorsements the book has gotten since last column:
“When the final buzzer sounds, Dave Hendrickson’s “Cracking the Ice” will have you shouting GOOOAAAALLLL!” — Karen Dellecava, author of “A Closer Look”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been disappointed that a book ends. For the last thirty or so pages, I kept hoping the pages wouldn’t run out. The tension kept rising right to the last page.” — Terry Edge, YA/children’s author and editor
If you don’t find Cracking the Ice at your local bookstore, get it at Amazon or Barnes and Noble online. If you’d like to order a personalized copy, drop me a line at email@example.com or send $16.95 (shipping included) via PayPal to that email account. Be sure to include address and personalization instructions. Thank you!
Thanks to all of you for reading this column. It’s been another fun and interesting year in Hockey East. There’ll be one more column next week before we switch over to NCAA tournament coverage in another format, but Jim Connelly has that one.
Thanks also to Jim for doing such a great job and being so accommodating with swapping around to meet the quirks of my schedule. I’d like to think we’ve made a pretty good team. (If he can possibly choke and lose his one-game lead in our picks race, I’ll consider him the consummate teammate.)
And last but most certainly first, a resounding thank you to Brenda, Best Wife Ever, for her support in all things and especially for her interview transcriptions, the bane of all sportswriters. Without her, I couldn’t possibly survive a challenging day job, write novels, teach at a local college in the evening and write for USCHO.