If you are a college hockey fan, this is the most anticipated time of year. If you follow Hockey East, it’s all about who will survive this weekend to make it to TD Garden for the tournament.
Can much-improved UMass-Lowell, the No. 2 seed, take another step in its resurgence? Can No. 8 UMass upset No. 1 seed Boston College? Can No. 3 seed Boston University keep rolling despite the adversity it has faced? Can No. 5 Merrimack upset No. 4 Maine at Alfond Arena?
It will all play out this weekend. Here is a look at the Hockey East matchups, as well as Harvard’s series against Yale in the ECAC quarterfinals:
No. 1 BC vs. No. 8 UMass: The Eagles have won 11 in a row heading into Friday night’s opener against the Minutemen, who beat BC two out of three times this season. Both teams skate well, but for the third year in a row, the Eagles should prevail. Junior goaltender Parker Milner has taken his game to a higher level as the season has worn on. The Eagles have the best defense in the league, allowing an average of just 2.25 goals per game. UMass has allowed an average of 3.32, which is ninth among the 10 league teams. BC won the regular-season crown for a reason and it is playing like a well-oiled machine. Next stop, TD Garden.
No. 2 UMass-Lowell vs. No. 7 Providence: This series features two first-year Hockey East coaches. The River Hawks’ Norm Bazin tied the Division 1 record for the biggest turnaround by a first-year coach with 17 more victories than the team had a season ago. But Nate Leaman has been a strong nurturer in his own right, leading the Friars to their first playoff spot since 2008. PC wound up with 10 league victories, six more than last year. The Friars’ rookies have made an important contribution, scoring 37 percent of the team’s goals. No one on the squad has played in a college playoff game, so how they handle it when the pressure ratchets up will be interesting.
No. 3 Boston University vs. No. 6 New Hampshire: It has been an unusual season for both schools. The Terriers have faced a great deal of adversity, with one player (Charlie Coyle) leaving the team voluntarily, and two others (Corey Trivino, Max Nicastro) kicked off or suspended, and facing criminal charges. Captain Chris Connolly has been instrumental in keeping the Terriers together, and Kieran Millan has been stellar in goal. On the other hand, the Wildcats are traveling in the quarterfinals for the first time since 1995-96. The Sons of Dick Umile, who have had trouble scoring throughout the season, haven’t seen the Terriers since Dec. 8, so they might as well be facing each other for the first time. Umile said he doesn’t mind being on the road, because UNH has played well away from the Whittemore Center. This series pits the most penalized team in the league (BU, with an average of 19.6 minutes per game) against the least-penalized (UNH is at 10.1).
No. 4 Maine vs. No. 5 Merrimack: The Black Bears have the best power play in the league, scoring at a success rate of 27.8 percent. That could be the turning point in the series if the Warriors, the second-most penalized team in Hockey East, can’t stay out of the box - although in the second half of the season, they did a far better job of that. The Black Bears have a formidable offensive trio in Spencer Abbott (56 points), Brian Flynn (45), and Joe Diamond (41). On the other hand, the Warriors have goaltender Joe Cannata, who seems to play better when the stakes are higher. It would be a shock if the series were decided in two games.
No. 3 Harvard (10-8-11) vs. No. 6 Yale (15-14-3): Crimson bench boss Ted Donato, one of three nominees for ECAC coach of the year, has said all along that his team was better than most outsiders thought. So far, he has been proven right as Harvard, which was picked last in the preseason media poll, earned a first-round bye and will face the Bulldogs in the quarterfinals beginning Friday night. The teams split in the regular season, but a 7-1 rout by Yale Feb. 18 will give the Crimson extra motivation.
Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at email@example.com.