March 14, 2014

Hockey East Journal: An even eight

By Andrew Merritt

Five months of hockey come down to this.

After a wild year that featured a tightly contested race for playoff positioning, with even more emphasis placed on league wins in a shorter schedule, and a new playoff structure for the first time in two decades, the Hockey East season comes down to just two more weekends.

With the one-and-done first round in the books, eight teams are set to clash in the quarterfinals. While the new playoff format ensured everyone got into the postseason, it’s once again the top 8 teams playing for a chance to move on to TD Garden for next weekend’s semifinals and final, as the higher seeds all won their single-elimination games last weekend.

The first games of the best-of-three series are set for tonight, so let’s take a look at the matchups. All series played at the higher seed’s building.

Boston College (1) vs. Notre Dame (8)

Oddly enough, this one might be the hardest series to handicap. The royal red carpet has basically been laid at the Eagles feet for most of the year, and they’ve lost only two league games all season. It just so happens that Notre Dame is the owner of one of those rare wins, albeit in an end-of-season contest that couldn’t have mattered less to BC. While the Eagles lead the league in offense with 4.18 goals per game, the Irish are sixth, averaging just under three per game. But Notre Dame has played strong defense, allowing a second-best 2.00 goals per game on the other end, just ahead of BC’s 2.09. While the Eagles have three of the league’s top four scorers in Johnny Gaudreau (30-34–64), Dorchester, Mass., native Kevin Hayes (22-29–51) and Needham, Mass., native Bill Arnold (12-32–44), the Irish have used a more balanced group of scorers, with T.J. Tynan (8-25–33) leading the way. While Notre Dame’s debut in Hockey East has been slightly underwhelming as far as league games go, the Irish bolstered their national resume with a 12-3-0 non-conference record, and after winning last year’s CCHA title, they’ve got some playoff mettle.

Merritt’s pick: Boston College in 3

UMass-Lowell (2) vs. Vermont (7)

The Catamounts enter the quarterfinals as one of the league’s hottest teams, going 7-3-0 over their last 10 games. Only Boston College (8-1-1) has been better over that stretch. They’ve done it thanks to the timely arrival of some offense. The Catamounts were averaging 2.71 goals per game over their first 24, eighth-best in the conference. But over the last 10, UVM has averaged 3.20 goals per game, again second only to BC over that stretch. A big part of that surge has been the emergence of Mario Puskarich, one of the nation’s top freshmen. His 18 goals and 16 assists have him just two points behind Northeastern’s Mike Szmatula (12-24–36) for the league’s rookie scoring lead. Meanwhile, the River Hawks might not be having quite the same magical season as last year’s title-winning year, but they’re not far off, and have gotten some impeccable goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck in the starting role. After splitting time with Hanover, Mass., native Doug Carr for the first half (and missing four games in the middle of the year), Hellebuyck retook the No. 1 spot for all but two of the final 13 games, and UML went 7-3-3 over that stretch. One of those three losses, however, came in the season finale against Vermont, which bounced back from a 1-0 overtime loss the night before to edge the River Hawks, 3-2, on March 1.

Merritt’s pick: UMass-Lowell in 3

Providence (3) vs. Maine (6)

Despite being two founding Hockey East teams with loads of history on both sides, the Friars and Black Bears are meeting in the playoffs for the first time since 2001, when PC beat Maine in the semifinals. This year, the Friars took the season series with a sweep just two weeks ago, outscoring the Black Bears 7-4 over the two games. The Black Bears have made some big improvements in Red Gendron’s first year behind the bench, though they finished the regular season on a four-game winless streak before dispatching Merrimack last weekend. Sophomore Devin Shore has been a revelation for Maine, leading the team with 14 goals and 27 assists, and Martin Ouellette has been solid in net with a .927 save percentage. Goaltending has been where Providence has lived and died this year, as Jon Gillies (South Portland, Maine.) has taken a bit of a step back in his sophomore season. Though his .927 save percentage matches Ouellette’s, expectations were a little higher than that after his masterful rookie campaign. Still, he’s pieced together a strong finish to the year, with a .933 save percentage over the last six games. If the shakiness he showed throughout January is gone, he could be the Friars’ biggest weapon, and even a key to bringing Providence to the Garden.

Merritt’s pick: Maine in 3

New Hampshire (4) vs. Northeastern (5)

Only three current members of the Northeastern team – Braden Pimm, Cody Ferriero (Essex, Mass.) and Clay Witt – have any playoff experience, having participated in 2011. But the last of those names is the reason the Huskies have real hope in this series. Witt has had one of the most incredible goaltending years in recent memory, having made 40 or more saves in five games this season – including a 52-save marathon against Providence on Dec. 6. Witt’s numbers have dipped sharply over the last few weeks, but he still has the league’s third-highest save percentage (.935), and has averaged 33 saves per game all year. On the other end, the Wildcats have had a solid if unspectacular season, with Kevin Goumas leading the way in his senior season with 14 goals and 31 assists. Goumas has largely played on a line with Nick Sorkin and Matt Willows, and that trio is among the best in the league, combining for 40 goals in 2013-14. UNH enters this weekend playing pretty average hockey, having gone 5-3-0 over its last eight, while the Huskies are 3-4-1 over that same stretch, including an ominous pair of losses to Boston University in the final weekend of the regular season.

Merritt’s pick: UNH in 2

Player of the Week

Martin Ouellette, sr., Maine

Ouellette turned aside all 29 shots taken by Merrimack in Saturday’s victory, making a little history with a shutout in the first round, the first of its kind under the new Hockey East playoff format.

Hockey East Playoffs (Quarterfinals)

Friday, March 14

Northeastern at UNH, 7 p.m.

Maine at Providence, 7 p.m. (Cox)

Vermont at UMass-Lowell, 7 p.m.

Notre Dame at Boston College, 7 p.m.

Saturday, March 15

Notre Dame at Boston College, 4 p.m. (NESN)

Northeastern at UNH, 7 p.m. (WBIN)

Maine at Providence, 7 p.m. (Cox)

Vermont at UMass-Lowell, 7 p.m.

Sunday, March 16 (all games if necessary) (NESN slated to broadcast one of the Game 3s)

Northeastern at UNH, 4:30 p.m.

Maine at Providence, 4:30 p.m.

Vermont at UMass-Lowell, 4:30 p.m.

Notre Dame at Boston College, 4:30 p.m.

Hockey East power rankings

  1. Boston College (25-5-4, 16-2-2 HEA) – The Eagles finished with the best offense in Hockey East for the fifth straight season, scoring an average of 4.18 goals per game – one whole goal more per game than next-best Northeastern.
  2. UMass-Lowell (21-8-4, 11-6-3 HEA) – Although the River Hawks hit a little skid to finish the regular season, they’re 8-0-3 in their last 11 games at the Tsongas Center, a home unbeaten streak that stretches back to Nov. 9.
  3. Vermont (19-12-3, 10-10-0 HEA)Connor Brickley (Everett, Mass.) not only gave the Catamounts a dramatic game-winner with just 1:07 to go in last weekend’s first-round win over UMass, he pulled to within two points of 50 for his career.
  4. New Hampshire (19-16-1, 11-9-0 HEA) – The No. 4 seed in the Hockey Eass playoffs is the highest for the Wildcats in three years, giving them a home quarterfinal series for the first time since 2011, when they swept Vermont.
  5. Providence (19-9-6, 11-7-2 HEA) – This marks the third straight year that the Friars are in the quarterfinals, a feat not achieved by Providence since 2006-08. They’re also hosting a quarterfinal series for the second straight year – the first time PC has done that twice in a row since 1996-97.
  6. Notre Dame (21-12-2, 9-9-2 HEA) – After finishing the regular season with two games against BU and one against BC, the Irish beat the Terriers in last week’s first round game, and visit the Eagles for at least two games this weekend.
  7. Maine (16-13-4, 9-8-3 HEA) – The next goal defenseman Ben Hutton scores will break the school single-season record for defenseman. Hutton joins Dwight Montgomery, Jack Capuano and Jeff Tory as the current record holders with 13 goals in a season.
  8. Northeastern (18-12-4, 10-8-2 HEA) – Goaltender Clay Witt’s 16 victories are fourth on the all-time single-season list at Northeastern, and his next shutout will tie him for the school single-season record (5).
  9. Boston University (10-21-4, 5-12-3 HEA) – BU’s loss in the Hockey East first round means this is the first time in the 30-year history of Hockey East that the Terriers will miss the quarterfinals.
  10. Merrimack (8-22-3, 3-15-2 HEA) – While his Merrimack career ended on a sour note with last week’s loss, Roslindale, Mass., native Mike Collins signed a professional tryout contract with the Providence Bruins on Wednesday.
  11. UMass (8-22-4, 4-13-3 HEA) – After reaching the Hockey East quarterfinals in 10 straight seasons, the Minutemen have now missed out two years in a row.  

Twitter: @A_Merritt