If you take a look at the pair-wise rankings heading into the final regular-season weekend in college hockey, four Hockey East teams reside in the top 16 — Boston University at No. 6, Boston College at No. 9, Providence in a tie for No. 11, and UMass-Lowell at No. 16.
The rankings use a mathematical formula that accurately predicts which teams will make it to the NCAA Tournament.
The order is expected to change over the course of the last two contests as well as during league tournaments, where there are bound to be upsets, but the chance of Hockey East landing teams in the NCAA regionals looks promising.
BU (20-6-5, 13-4-3) is having a stellar season thanks to an infusion of young talent led by center Jack Eichel and a solid starting goaltender in Matt O’Connor who is eliciting considerable interest from NHL clubs.
Providence (19-11-2, 11-8-1) was selected in the preseason coaches’ poll to finish first in the league, but the Friars have had their challenges this season. Currently, they sit in a tie for third place with 23 points, one point above sixth and seventh place and just two points below second.
UMass (10-20-2, 5-15-1) is in last place out of 12 teams in the league but the Minutemen took the Friars to overtime in both games last weekend and earned a split.
“When talking to my friends in other conferences, everybody seems to be going through the same thing,” said Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna. “Regardless of who their first-place team is or who their leaders are, there is the sense that there’s not much separating everybody. As far as the East, our record is probably OK against the other Eastern conferences. It really would be anybody’s tournament.”
From 2008-12, it was mostly Hockey East’s tournament. Boston College won three national titles during that span and BU won one. The only team outside of that league to capture a crown was Minnesota-Duluth in 2011.
The last two years, the NCAA champion has come from the ECAC with Yale winning it in 2013 and Union in 2014. Quinnipiac has been a contender the last several years with an average of 24 wins in the three seasons prior to this one. The Bobcats made it all the way to the Frozen Four championship game before losing to Yale.
Quinnipiac is impressive again with 20 victories this season (20-8-4) and is atop the ECAC standings at 15-2-3.
The 2015 NCAA champion could come from any league but Bertagna believes Hockey East teams will be battle-tested because of the high level of play teams have to bring every weekend.
“We say this all the time, we’re proud of how strong the bottom half of our league is as well as our top half,” said Bertagna. “This year is one of those years where you look at the standings and it’s real tough to find separation. Look at UNH, they’ve been down in that bottom four all year and it will not surprise on Saturday night when the smoke clears that they are hosting [a series] next week. A lot of this has to do with the reduced schedule, too. We used to play 27 games and now we play 22. The fewer games you play, the more you increase your chances for ties [in the standings]. It would be nice [if there were no ties after Saturday’s games] especially if you have a tie for fourth or a tie for eighth, that’s a big difference whether you’re not playing at all or you’re hosting as opposed to traveling.”
Because the playoff matchups won’t be set until the weekend, it generates an extra layer of interest.
“Part of my job, my business, obviously is to sell tickets to [TD] Garden [for the Hockey East tournament],” he said. “I’ve always felt you have a better chance to interest fans if they think their team has a real chance to win. Just because their team is in there doesn’t always translate in a lot of people going in there to watch them. But, if their team has a chance to win, then [they think] ‘Hey, something good might happen, let’s go check it out.’ The parity, as opposed to having a dead-on prohibitive favorite, makes everyone who goes in there think their team has a pretty good shot.”
UMass-Lowell has won the Hockey East tournament two years in a row. Heading into the weekend, the River Hawks were tied for third with Notre Dame and Providence. They have helped excite their loyal fan base.
“A lot has been written about the Beanpot maybe being hurt by the familiarity of BU’s long domination and then BC’s run and that leaves the people to hope Northeastern and Harvard can break that up,” said Bertagna. “It’s the same with us, at one point, 90 percent of our championships were won by four schools — BC, BU, UNH, and Maine. To have Lowell in there the last couple of years and win back-to-back titles where they’ve never won before, and Providence has won some and they get into the semis but haven’t been able to pull it off. Notre Dame got in [to the semifinals] last year which gave us a new look so I think it does help the event when people don’t expect to see the same schools all the time.”
Like every season, though, there are always surprises. Some teams overachieve, some underachieve, and some find their stride at the right stage of the season.
“Providence was our preseason favorite and they still have a pretty good shot to get home ice and the last-place team almost took four points from them last weekend, so that kind of backs up [the idea of parity],” he said. “It seems like it’s particularly difficult on a weekend to take four points from anybody. It’s really hard to sweep.”
And even harder to make it all the way to the end.