NORTH ANDOVER — Early Saturday evening, Providence pulled into a tie with Boston College and UMass-Lowell for the top spot in Hockey East.
Later that night, New Hampshire’s shutout victory over UMass vaulted the Wildcats into first place by a point.
Less then 24 hours later, the situation changed again when UMass-Lowell beat Merrimack, 3-1, on Sunday, to snag the conference lead outright by a point over UNH and 2 over BC and Providence with two regular-season games remaining.
Such has been Hockey East, a dizzying fight for position that almost certainly won’t be settled until the final whistle next Saturday night.
UMass-Lowell (21-9-2, 15-8-2) became the first team to clinch home ice for the quarterfinals of the conference tournament, and while a regular-season title would be a significant achievement for the program, coach Norm Bazin said it’s all about peaking at the right time.
“A couple of weeks ago, we earned our way into the playoffs,’’ said Bazin, whose team closes the regular season with a home-and-home series against Providence. “[Sunday], we earned home ice. We just want to continue to play great hockey so we’re playing our best hockey when it counts most and that’s playoff time.’’
Last year, the River Hawks went 3-3-1 down the stretch, then lost to Providence in the conference quarterfinals in three games, though they went on to reach the East Regional final in the NCAA Tournament. That ought to add a little fire to their game when they see the Friars next weekend.
Bazin said this is a vastly different team, though, as evidenced by its current seven-game winning streak.
“We have three different defensemen who are well over 200 pounds and well over 6 [feet],’’ said Bazin. “We’ve added size and we’ve added girth and I think we’re a more balanced attack than we were last year, depth-wise, up front.”
Bazin said as nice as it is to be in first place, the team has not focused on the league standings.
“We’re going to try to play our best hockey when it counts most,” he said. “If all that happens, great.’’
Bazin said beating Merrimack (14-14-6, 12-10-3) at a smaller rink such as Lawler Arena was key.
Last year, in the penultimate weekend of the regular season, the River Hawks dropped a 5-2 decision at Lawler.
And they were shut out here, 1-0, on Feb. 1.
“Playing a good game was extremely important for us because we had to prove to each other that we could do it in a small rink in an adverse environment,’’ said Bazin. “Last year wasn’t a great outcome here, and earlier this year was 1-0, so we had a lot to prove.”
Sunday’s game was an uphill battle for Merrimack. UMass-Lowell junior Josh Holmstrom, who had seven shots in the opening period and a game-high nine, potted his first of two goals at 6:58 of the first.
He added a second during a power play at 11:20 to make it 2-0.
Freshman defenseman Greg Amlong earned his first collegiate point with a goal at 7:09 of the second to give the River Hawks a three-goal cushion.
The Warriors cut the deficit to two 22 seconds into the third when junior Shawn Bates scored his seventh goal of the season. But for a team playing as well as the River Hawks, it proved too little, too late.
The Warriors suffered their fourth straight loss, and are winless in five (0-4-1).
“I think it took us too long to join the battle,’’ said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy. “I thought once we joined the battle, we made a game of it. But you’ve got to play hard. The goals they got were too easy. We didn’t join the battle until halfway through the second period, and by then a team like that with three goals is tough to beat.’’Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.