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Hockey East race heats up for stretch drive

Hockey East leaders in fight for home ice

Only three weekends remain in the Hockey East regular season, and it’s awfully crowded at the top. The league has a strong national standing, too, with five teams ranked in the top 11 in the USCHO.com poll.

UMass-Lowell is atop the league with 28 points, 1 more than Boston University and Boston College. Merrimack and Maine are 2 points out of first.

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The drama and excitement will only build from here.

“Last year, the story that caught most people’s attention was Merrimack,’’ said Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna. “It was a great story.

“They’re having a good year this year, too, but they’re not dominating the news as much as they did a year ago because Lowell seems to be the story where a new coach [Norm Bazin] comes in and the difference in win totals is really eye-catching.

“But the other thing is the dynamic of five teams at the top. Often, you’ve got five teams fighting for four spots [for home ice], but you have five teams that have realistic dreams of finishing first, and that’s very unusual this late in the season.’’

Bazin is one of three new coaches in the league, along with Jim Madigan at Northeastern and Nate Leaman at Providence.

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“It’s unusual to have three new coaches at one time,’’ said Bertagna. “I think all the new coaches have had high moments, none riding quite as high as Norm.

“But certainly Providence is much improved, and although the league win total doesn’t look that impressive for Northeastern, what they’ve been able to do with injuries and with their nonleague success, which helps the whole league, they’ve made a contribution as well. Although I’m sure Jimmy would like to be a little higher in the standings.’’

The Huskies have 16 points and are tied for eighth with UMass. Providence has 21 points and is in sixth.

“I like the way Nate operates,’’ said Bertagna. “I remember him when he was at Harvard when he was an assistant. I kind of lost touch with him when he was at Union, but he’s done a terrific job.’’

The high level of league competition, Bertagna believes, prepares Hockey East teams to play deep into the postseason.

“The strength of our league isn’t just the teams at the top in a given year,’’ he said, “it’s the strength from top to bottom.’’

Although no Hockey East team went to the Frozen Four last year, the league has won three NCAA titles in the last four seasons.

“The battle-tested dynamic of going through the [league] schedule has had a lot to do with how successful we’ve been in the NCAA tournament in recent years and the championships we’ve brought home,’’ said Bertagna.

Dogs have their day

Ferris State made program history Monday when it earned the No. 1 ranking in the USCHO.com Division 1 poll. The team’s previous best was a No. 4 ranking in 2003, when Ferris State won a record 31 games and made its only appearance in the NCAA tournament (losing to eventual champion Minnesota in the regional final). The Bulldogs are the second team to reach the top spot for the first time this season, with Merrimack being the other.

Inside the box

If there were a Lady Byng Trophy in college hockey, BU captain Chris Connolly would be a leading candidate. The genteel senior had 32 minutes in penalties in 115 games before this season. Heading into Monday’s Beanpot title game, Connolly had four penalty minutes in 26 games this season, so it was jarring to see him get a 10-minute misconduct at 18:42 of the second period and finish with 12 PIMs. “We struggled a little bit in that area,’’ said Connolly, referring to BU’s 26 PIMs to just 14 for BC. “We got a little bit undisciplined at times. Same for myself - I did that as well, but it’s an emotional game.’’ BU is the most penalized team in the nation, with an average of 20.14 PIMs per game.

Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at marrapese@globe.com.

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