The race to the finish in Hockey East is always compelling. But this season, the final weekend is interesting for reasons different than in past years.
For example, top-ranked Boston College ran away with the regular-season title. The Eagles (25-4-4 overall and 16-1-2 in league play) have one game remaining, against Notre Dame (19-12-2, 8-9-2) on Saturday afternoon.
Also, for the first time, all teams qualify for the conference tournament. The top five teams earn byes while the bottom six teams play elimination games March 7 and 8.
Not everyone is a fan of the new system. One coach, who requested anonymity, said although he understands it, he thinks there are problems. Because it’s just one contest, he believes the best team won’t necessarily win.
He also said the system unfairly punishes the top five teams. Because of the bye, those teams could be vulnerable to losing the first game of the best-of-three quarterfinal series because of rustiness.
“Teams want to keep playing,’’ the coach said. “They don’t want to sit out a week.’’
Here is a look at the weekend matchups:
BC-Notre Dame — The Fighting Irish hope the Eagles get off to a slow start because goaltender Steven Summerhays is only 3 minutes, 8 seconds away from tying David Brown’s school shutout record (193:27, set in 2002-03). Summerhays’s three straight shutouts are a program record. Notre Dame will host a playoff elimination game March 8.
The Eagles enter the weekend with a 19-game unbeaten streak (17-0-2), matching the longest such run under coach Jerry York. Junior left wing Johnny Gaudreau has at least one point in each of the last 27 games.
Providence (17-9-6, 9-7-2) at Maine (15-11-4, 9-6-3) — The Black Bears are alone in fourth place with 21 points, and the 12th-ranked Friars are tied for fifth with New Hampshire at 20 points. UNH and PC split their first two meetings.
One of the standouts for No. 18 Maine has been sophomore Ben Hutton, whose 13 goals are tied for the school season record by a defenseman. The others with 13 are Dwight Montgomery (1979-80), Jack Capuano (1987-88), and Jeff Tory (1994-95).
New Hampshire (18-15-1, 10-8-0) at Merrimack (7-20-3, 2-14-2) —
Junior Matt Willows has had a breakout year for UNH. Going into the season, he had just 16 points in 49 career games. But this year he has a team-high 18 goals, including two hat tricks, and 15 assists in 34 games.
Northeastern (18-10-4, 10-6-2) against Boston University (8-20-4, 3-12-3) — The ninth-ranked Huskies have had a resurgent season under third-year coach Jim Madigan. Few expected them to finish out of the bottom of the league, but with 22 points they trail UMass-Lowell by 1 point for the No. 2 seed. Junior goaltender Clay Witt has a 2.17 goals-against average and .940 save percentage. The school season records are owned by Brad Thiessen, who went 2.40 and .931 in 2008-09. Witt’s 16 victories are tied for fourth all time and his four shutouts are tied for third.
The Terriers, under first-year coach David Quinn, are in a transition stage and stand to be much better in the future with an outstanding recruiting class coming in. BU has the potential to generate an upset during the one-game elimination round.
UMass-Lowell (20-8-4, 10-5-3) at Vermont (17-11-3, 9-9-0) — The seventh-ranked River Hawks are going into a tough building but they have been playing very good hockey. They are 5-1-2 in their last eight games, with the loss against BC last Friday.
The 17th-ranked Catamounts have two losses in their last seven games, both to BC. In the five victories in that span, Vermont averaged 4.2 goals.
A key contributor for UMass-Lowell this season is senior defenseman Joe Houk. He was unable to play last Friday night in a 3-0 loss to BC but suited up Saturday night in a 2-2 tie with the Eagles at the Tsongas Center.
“It was a good weekend competitive-wise against Boston College,’’ said Houk. “I thought we put together a third period [in the second game that] was one of our best periods probably of the whole season. I thought our team was really clicking. We really pushed the pedal down and showed the way we were capable of playing.’’
After being blanked on 33 shots Friday, the River Hawks put two of 30 chances past BC freshman Thatcher Demko Saturday.
“BC is a tremendous team,’’ said Houk. “A lot of speed and a lot of skilled players. I think our team is just as fast and just as skilled. I think we work a little bit harder than them. I thought we showed that in the third period [Saturday]. Once we got that one goal [to pull within 2-1], the crowd got behind us and we got behind ourselves, our energy level picked up and we were able to get the tying goal.’’