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Wild race for the playoffs in Hockey East

Machel Matheson and the BC Eagles and Tim Schaller and the Providence College Friars are both in the running for the Hockey East crown.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Machel Matheson and the BC Eagles and Tim Schaller and the Providence College Friars are both in the running for the Hockey East crown.

There are only two regular-season games remaining for each team in Hockey East and this weekend is one of those times commissioner Joe Bertagna wishes he could clone himself.

The women’s league semi­finals are Saturday afternoon in Hyannis before the men’s regular-season finales. Does Bertagna drive to Providence on Saturday night to see either the Friars or UMass-Lowell clinch the trophy? Does he skip the Cape trip and instead drive to New Hampshire to watch the Wildcats celebrate first place? Does he tune in to see if Boston College can take 2 final points from Vermont?

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The picture might be a little bit clearer after Friday night’s games, but the only thing known for sure heading in to the weekend is that Northeastern will not advance to the postseason.

It is one of the tightest races ever in the league with 4 points separating first place from fifth.

“Every year around this time, you always get oppor­tunities to talk about the league,’’ said Bertagna. “They’ll say, ‘Have you ever seen anything like this sort of thing?’ I’ve been doing this for 31 years in either the ECAC or Hockey East. So you figure the odds are that you’ve seen everything at least once. But I don’t recall this circumstance where we could have a four-way tie for first place with two games left.’’

As much as it’s exciting, it’s also a logistical headache because there is no way to know which way the cards are going to fall.

“It’s a big deal to have the trophy presented the night you win it,’’ said Bertagna. “Even bigger if you’ve never won it before. We have some schools that have never finished first who have that opportunity. The way we do it by policy is you have to collect it at home. Only UNH and Providence are at home Saturday. There’s only one trophy, so what do you do, pull over to the side of the road halfway between Durham [N.H.] and Providence?

“I did it once when I was out in front of Agganis Arena. I had to wait for BU to win and then they were watching a later game on television and that game had to go a certain way. It’s exciting, but I’ve never seen this many kind of permutations of how the standings could end up with only two games left.’’

It would be a major accomplishment for Lowell or Providence to finish first since neither has won the title before. All 29 previous crowns have been won or shared by BC (12), BU (8), UNH (8), or Maine (3).

The excellent seasons by the Rivers Hawks and Friars are testaments to their second-year coaches — Norm Bazin at Lowell and Nate Leaman at Providence.

“It’s going to be interesting to see this final weekend because two of our young and really special coaches are going head to head,’’ said Bertagna.

Bertagna said this is the most competitive stretch run he’s ever been a part of.

“Even though there are four teams that can finish first with two games to go, we really have six-team block,’’ said Bertagna. “I have trouble wrapping my arms around the fact that Merrimack is [tied for 31st] in the pairwise [rankings that determine probability of making the NCAA Tournament]. I have trouble believing there are [30] teams better than Merrimack.’’

The Warriors, who take on UMass, are in sixth place but only 4 points out of second. Their final home game is Friday and they will be without senior defenseman Kyle Bigos, who will be serving a one-game suspension as a result of his second game misconduct handed last Sunday to go along with a third in the form of league supplemental discipline.

On Friday, BC will be without freshman forward Brendan Silk, who was assessed a one-game suspension for an illegal head hit last Saturday against Providence.

No matter how this weekend’s games go, they will be heavily influenced by the play of the league’s goaltenders.

Lowell freshman Connor Hellebuyck is 13-1-0 with a 1.41 goals-against average and .947 save percentage. On the other end of the ice this weekend will be fellow freshman Jon Gillies, who is second in the league with a 2.09 GAA and .931 save percentage.

BC senior Parker Milner has had another outstanding year (2.56, .916) and sophomore Casey DeSmith has led UNH (2.12, .928 ). Junior Sam Marotta has been a revelation for Merrimack (2.11, .927 ) and junior Martin Ouellette (2.30, .919 ) has been very effective for Maine.

Both BU freshmen, Matt O’Connor (2.86, .910) and Sean Maguire (2.95, .914) have shown a great deal of promise during a roller coaster season.

“For many, many years there we were a goaltender’s league,’’ said Bertagna, a former Harvard netminder. “Going back to [Mike] Dunham, [Garth] Snow, [Rick] DiPietro, and [Dwayne] Roloson. We’ve had some great goalies over the years. I won’t say it took a back seat for a few years, but it certainly looks like right now it’s back to being one of the strengths of the league.’’

Next weekend is the league’s quarterfinals to be followed by the Hockey East tournament at TD Garden. It certainly appears up for grabs.

“When you look at the four teams that might get to the Garden, some years you have a prohibitive favorite and people want to see if the team can lead the league from wire to wire and what does that mean for their chances in the national tournament and so forth,’’ said Bertagna.

“I think this year, whatever four teams get there, all their fans will think they have a good chance to win. There is no favorite, obviously, that is the other thing that comes out of this type of a mishmash. And I think that’s great. It creates greater interest.’’

***

Weekend outlook for Hockey East:

Friday’s games: Providence at UMass-Lowell, 7 p.m.; BC at Vermont, 7:05 p.m.; BU at Northeastern, 7:30 p.m.; Maine at UNH, 7:30 p.m.; UMass at Merrimack, 7:30 p.m.

Saturday’s games: Maine at UNH, 4 p.m.; Merrimack at UMass, 7 p.m.; Northeastern at BU, 7 p.m.; UMass-Lowell at Providence, 7 p.m.; BC at Vermont, 7:05 p.m.

What’s at stake: With as many as 4 points on the table in the final weekend of the regular season, there are four teams still alive for the top seed in the conference tournament. UMass-Lowell, which can finish no lower than fourth, looks to clinch against Providence as the Friars attempt to sew up home ice in the first round. UNH and BC might seem to have an easier path, but the Wildcats face a capable Maine team trying to hold on to the eighth and final playoff spot and the Eagles have two on the road against another desperate squad in Vermont. The team chasing the No. 8 spot, UMass, looks to make its move against ice-cold Merrimack (0-4-1 skid). BU can slide into the top four by taking care of also-ran Northeastern.

***

Hockey East standings

  Conf. All
 Pts.W-L-TW-L-T
UMass-Lowell 3215-8-221-9-2
UNH 3113-7-518-8-6
BC 3014-9-219-10-3
Providence 3012-7-614-11-7
BU 2813-10-216-15-2
Merrimack 2712-10-314-14-6
Vermont 218-12-511-16-5
Maine 196-12-710-17-7
UMass 188-15-211-18-3
Northeastern 145-16-49-19-4

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