By Mary Paoletti
There are just two days of regular season Hockey East action left, yet only three conference tournament berths have been clinched. The top three spots are held by UNH (35 pts), Boston College (32 pts) and Maine (28 pts). The next six are packed in tightly. UMass-Lowell (25 pts) and Merrimack (23 pts) currently stand on either end of a 24-point logjam between Boston University, Northeastern, and Vermont. Providence (13 pts) is the lone club outside of contention.
Considering the playoff implications, this weekend's HE games should be some of the most exciting in college hockey.
No. 16 Vermont (15-11-6; 9-10-6 HE) at UMass Lowell (17-14-3; 11-11-3 HE)Friday, Mar. 5 - Saturday, Mar. 6
A sweep of UMass-Lowell would earn UVM the No. 4 seed and the coveted home-ice advantage. Vermont can also gain the advantage with just three points, a scenario possible if BU or Northeastern earn three points or less in their series and Merrimack earns three points or less in its weekend games.
UMass-Lowell is ready for the fight. The River Hawks' often up but sometimes down season currently has them riding a three game winning streak. The second period has typically been their kill point, with Lowell outscoring its opponents 44-23 in the middle frame. Kory Falite, one of 11 seniors, has been doing a lot of the damage. Falite leads the team in goals (17) and scoring (31), while the assists category belongs to senior defenseman Nich Schaus (18).
The Catamounts have senior Brayden Irwin leading nearly every category, most notably; goals (14), assists (19), points (33), power-play goals (7), shots (90), and face offs (54). In a weekend sweep of BU last weekend he recorded five points (2g, 3a) to earn Hockey East Top Performer honors on Monday. Irwin will be expected to keep the bar held aloft for his team in this crucial conclusion of the season.
Irwin and his teammates will have to come out firing because UML's goaltending is stellar. Senior goalies Carter Hutton and Nevin Hamilton have split time in net this season but Hutton (11-10-1) has been a standout. His 2.12 goals against average, .927 save percentage, and four shutouts, make him Goalies' World Magazine's number one goaltender in Hockey East in its Winter 2010 issue.
In their Nov. 6 meeting Vermont and UMass-Lowell knotted up in a 3-3 tie at Gutterson Fieldhouse. That draw was no fluke -- these two teams are well-suited for battle.
Massachusetts (16-16-0; 11-14-0) at No. 17 Maine (16-13-3; 13-10-2 HE)Friday, Mar. 5 - Saturday, Mar. 6
Maine can earn home ice with either a win or a tie this weekend or a loss or a tie by BU or UMass Lowell. A 10-3-1 record at home certainly makes it look like being in Orono does provide some benefit for the Black Bears.
Their biggest advantage is sophomore Gustav Nyquist. Nyquist is leading the nation in points per game (1.69) and total points (17-37-54). His two goals and two assists helped Maine defeat Merrimack 5-1 last Saturday night. Nyquist's playmaking abilities are a key reason why the Black Bears are currently leading the nation in power play percentage (28.9).
James Marcou of UMass has been chasing Nyquist's numbers all season. Marcou has 10 goals and 33 assists for 43 points. Casey Wellman (19-17-36) will also look to punch holes in Maine's defense, especially if UMass gains a man advantage as his nine power play goals leads all Minutemen. Will Ortiz (13-13-26) has five power play goals of his own.
There was an undercurrent of something beyond simple scoring options when UMass met Maine in the fifth game of 2009-10. The 3-2 victory achieved by the Minutemen was the gracious end of an ugly game. A total of 99 penalty minutes were slapped onto the two teams, with Maine taking 19 penalties for 54 minutes and UMass 13 penalties for 45 minutes.
It's expected that this weekend's set will be cleaner. It's also expected that the Black Bears will get the points they need from UMass to host Hockey East playoff action in Orono.
Merrimack (14-17-1; 11-13-1 HE) vs. Providence (5-17-3; 10-19-3 HE)Friday, Mar. 5 at PC - Saturday, Mar. 6 at MU
This could be MU's first playoff berth since 2003-04. Merrimack needs three points to clinch a spot, which requires a Warriors win and UMass tie or loss. To earn home ice in the playoffs they would need to sweep PC, while UVM takes 3 points from Lowell and a split between Boston U and Northeastern.
The Warriors are certainly coming in with some confidence. Last weekend's 6-3 victory over Maine on Friday saw 11 different players record a point, with Bobby Kramer and Fraser Allan each scoring their first goals of the season. Freshman Stephane Da Costa's star continues to shine brightly. The Hockey East Pro Ambitions Rookie of the Month -- for a record-setting five straight months -- leads the team in scoring (15 goals, 27 assists). Also impressive is Merrimacks combined special teams, currently ranked second in the country at 55.2.
But for as improved as Merrimack looks, the Warriors cannot enter the weekend counting points before they're won. Providence is 6-6-3 at home this season with three wins against ranked opponents. Last Saturday was nearly another notch for the Schneider Arena win column as PC tied a tough UMass-Lowell team 2-2 in overtime. Having a nationally ranked special-teams unit of its own has helped. The Friars have killed 59 of their last 67 penalties, including 21 of the last 22. This efficiency has PC ranked 13th in the country on the penalty kill (84.7).
On Jan. 23 Providence took Merrimack to overtime on the road. MU prevailed, 2-1, on a Brendan Brodhag game-winner. It seems that the finish, not the fight, is a problem for PC. The Warriors should win out this weekend but should not expect the Friars to make it easy for them.
Northeastern (16-14-3; 11-12-2 HE) vs. Boston University (14-15-3; 11-12-2 HE)Friday, Mar. 5 at BU - Saturday, Mar. 6 at NU
BU hasn't flinched often in the lifetime series between these two teams. The Terriers have established dominance over the Huskies with a 154-51-8 record through 213 meetings with Northeastern. But this season there have been some close calls. In the first face off this season, Northeastern nipped BU, 1-0. Then on Feb. 1 the Terriers needed some late-game heroics from Alex Chiasson to squeak out a 2-1 win in the Beanpot Tournament.
Northeastern would do well to keep the score low in this set and looks primed to do so. NU has allowed just 24 goals in its last 11 games. The 2.84 goals per game average posted by the defense ranks third in Hockey East and goalie Chris Rawlings has provided solid safety in net. A freshman, Rawlings is second in the conference with three shutouts to his credit. He's even gotten in the books with an assist. Twice.
Wade MacLeod (13-15-28), Tyler McNeely (12-15-27), Kyle Kraemer (15-11-26) and Garrett Vermeersch (5-15-20) are Northeasterns top four scoring options. When NU head coach Greg Cronin put Kraemer and McNeely on a line centered by Justin Daniels, the three clicked and has since become first line for the Huskies. To Cronin's pleasure, the trio has tallied 34 points (17-17-34) in its last 13 games.
The Terriers scored five goals in two games in Burlington last weekend but still could not beat Vermont. They will undoubtedly take their frustration out on Northeastern. Nick Bonino (9-20-29) will look to continue his assertion of leadership that's followed missed games due to injury. Colby Cohen is the more dangerous goal-scoring threat (14-13-27).
If BU has had enough of the downs in its rollercoaster season then now is the time to shut a team down. Starting goaltender Kieran Millan will need support from Bonino, Cohen, and the rest of the Terriers squad to back up his 3.26GAA and 885 save percentage. Luckily, their fourth-ranked offense in the Hockey East (3.25 ggm) compliments a third-rated defense that gives up 2.84 goals per game.
No. 5 Boston College (20-10-2; 15-8-2 HE) vs. No. 10 New Hampshire (16-10-6; 15-5-5 HE)Friday, Mar. 5 at UNH - Saturday, Mar. 6 at BC
This home-and-home series is the biggest billing of the weekend. New Hampshire needs just one point to capture the regular season crown, potentially the third for Wildcat seniors Nick Krates, Brian Foster, Peter LeBlanc and Bobby Butler.
BC can steal the title by sweeping the set. Momentum seems to be on the Eagles' side as they've tallied a 7-2-0 record in February and have won four of their last five games. This team gets hot off the fourth-ranked offense in the nation (3.75ppg). In four different February games the Eagles overwhelmed opponents, finding the back of the net six or more times. Cam Atkinson holds the team lead in goals with 21 goals and 18 assists, while linemate Brian Gibbons has racked up an impressive 42 points on 15 goals and 27 assists. Joe Whitney is the third in the 30-plus point club thanks to 12 goals and 18 assists.
But if there's anywhere that this drive could come to a grinding halt, it's at UNH's Whittemore Center. The Wildcats are unbeaten on their home ice against Hockey East opponents this season. It was at the Whitt, on Nov. 6, that UNH rallied to replace a 3-0 Boston College lead with a 4-4 final tie. The Wildcats don't just save the scoring for the hometown fans though. UNH has tallied at least two goals in each of its last 26 games, forcing foes to find the net for even a chance at a win.
Both goalies, Johnny Muse for BC and Foster for UNH, will be forced into top form.
Mary Paoletti is on Twitter at http:twitter.comMary_Paoletti