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