January 25, 2013

Hockey East Journal: Playoff hunger propels NU, UMass

By Andrew Merritt

Vinny Saponari and the Huskies enter this weekend's action in eight place in Hockey East. (Photo: Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

There are seven weeks left in the Hockey East season. With the exception of the Beanpot schools, all of the teams in Hockey East are done with their non-conference schedules, and all 10 squads are staring down an 11-to-13-game dash to the finish.

For a few teams (particularly Boston College and New Hampshire), those dozen-or-so games are about playoff positioning. For some, it’s about making the playoffs at all.

The Hockey East standings normally stratify themselves by this point in the season into the contenders, the possible contenders, and the hangers-on. Yet the top nine teams are separated by just 13 points, and only six points separates fifth-place Merrimack from Vermont, tied with Northeastern for the eighth and final playoff spot as this weekend’s games begin.

In other words, there’s no time like the present to start making a splash, and two teams clearly got that message last weekend.

Northeastern’s season has been nothing if not inconsistent. The Huskies have never won more than two in a row this year, but other than a five-game winless streak in October and November, they’ve managed to mostly catch themselves when they start sliding. Still, they haven’t put enough wins together to consider themselves safe, and until a couple of weeks ago were on the outside of the playoff bubble looking in.

So when they walked into Agganis Arena Friday, Jan. 18, for a first-round Beanpot preview game against BU, prevailing wisdom had the then-No. 9 Terriers putting the screws to the Huskies – especially since BU was at home.

Yet the Huskies are one of the teams that need every point they can get right now, and that playoff hunger was evident as Northeastern scored early, then hit the first intermission with a 3-2 lead. Two more goals in the second suddenly had the Huskies looking like the favorite, but the Terriers finally came to life in the third, scoring three goals in less than six minutes to tie it. Needham native Danny O’Regan scored the eighth goal of his freshman season on the power play to knot the game at 5, and it looked for all the world like BU just needed one more goal to snatch victory away from Northeastern.

One more goal came, but not from BU. In fact, if Terrier coach Jack Parker could have picked any name on the Northeastern roster to score a late game-winner against him, it’s a safe bet Vinny Saponari would have been among the last Parker would want. Three years ago, Parker dismissed Saponari following a drinking scandal. Two years ago, Saponari won a USHL championship with the Dubuque Fighting Saints. One year ago, Saponari scored the game-winner in a 5-4 Northeastern victory over BU that knocked the Terriers out of the top playoff spot on the final night of the season.

And there he was again, the former Terrier giving it to his former team. Saponari, who has never taken the bait to fire a shot across BU’s bow in public, didn’t relent this time, either.

“It’s always fun to get a game-winning goal, but to get it against your friends and former teammates, it’s even more fun,” was as close as Saponari got to talking about getting revenge against the coach who briefly derailed his college career.

Of course, there’s more at stake than old grudges right now. For the Huskies, who enter this weekend in a logjam at the bottom of the Hockey East standings, every game the rest of the way is vital, every game carries weight. Rookie Kevin Roy said the Huskies welcome that intensity.

“I think we play for that type of game, every player on this team, they want to play a tight game, work hard and dig deep,” Roy said. “When you work hard, it’s the most fun time to play.”

UMass is in a similar position. The Minutemen have also had an up-and-down season in coach John Micheletto’s first year behind the bench. The only time they’ve won back-to-back games was at the holiday Ledyard Bank Classic, which they won with victories over Bemidji State and Dartmouth. So just as Northeastern was walking into a potential lion’s den at Agganis last Friday, the Minutemen were entering another Boston cauldron: Conte Forum, where they hadn’t beaten Boston College in more than five years. They were also coming off of a pair of losses to Providence, including a shutout.

Yet all the Minutemen had to do was look back to a year ago for some inspiration. Their shocking 4-0 win over then-top-ranked BC on Jan. 13, 2012, was one of the biggest surprises of the entire 2011-12 season. No reason, then, that they couldn’t exorcise a few more demons at the Heights.

A shorthanded goal from Steven Guzzo set the tone, and three more scores in just 3 and a half minutes during the third period turned what had been a 2-2 tie on its head, as the Minutemen beat BC 5-2 for just their fifth league win, but one that kept them inside the playoff bubble.

UMass enters this weekend’s games in seventh place, four points behind red-hot UMass-Lowell, but one point ahead of Northeastern and Vermont. There’s still plenty to be decided, and almost no chance the standings look on March 9, the last day of the regular season, like they do now. So for teams like UMass and Northeastern, an upset victory might be just what they need to start the playoff push.

Player of the Week

Branden Gracel, jr., UMass

Gracel has quietly been having a tremendous year, leading the Minutemen in goals (10) and points (21), and in last Friday’s shocker, he tied a career high with two goals and three points to push UMass to its biggest win of the year.

Game of the Week

Boston University vs. Providence, Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m.

The Terriers and Friars are tied for third with 18 points, and seem destined to be separated by just a few points by season’s end – perhaps even by the head-to-head tiebreaker, which makes this home and home (at Providence Friday, in Boston Saturday) a very intriguing pair of games.

Power Rankings

  1. Boston College (14-5-2, 11-4-1 HEA) – The No. 3 Eagles salvaged their weekend with a 9-3 romp over Northeastern, and retained our top spot in Hockey East, but slid in the national rankings with a 2-3-1 record over their last six games.

  2. New Hampshire (14-5-2, 9-4-1 HEA) – BC’s loss to UMass opened the door for No. 4 UNH to unseat the Eagles atop our Hockey East power rankings for the first time all year, but the Wildcats couldn’t quite climb out of an early 4-0 hole against Providence Saturday in their only action of the weekend.

  3. UMass-Lowell 13-7-1, 7-6-1 HEA) – Among the many, many things working for the No. 12 River Hawks during their nine-game win streak is the goalie rotation: Freshman Connor Hellebuyck’s shutout last Thursday set the table for Doug Carr (Hanover, Mass.) to stop 29 shots in Saturday’s win over BU, which put the River Hawks over .500 in Hockey East play for the first time all year.

  4. Providence (9-9-3, 7-5-2 HEA) – Derek Army (North Kingstown, R.I.) scored his ninth and 10th goals of the year and was one of six Friars with a multiple point game in PC’s important win over UNH, which keeps them in the home-ice bubble for the Hockey East playoffs.

  5. Boston University (12-9-0, 9-6-0 HEA) – BU tumbled again after Friday’s loss to Northeastern, and a 4-3 defeat to UMass-Lowell Saturday marked the first time all year the Terriers came out of a two-game weekend without even a tie, let alone a win.

  6. Merrimack (9-9-5, 7-5-2 HEA) – While Merrimack scored a combined 10 goals over three straight games against Maine, it was the work of junior Sam Marotta (Bridgewater, Mass.) that keyed the Warriors’ five-point haul. Marotta stopped 83 of 86 Maine shots over the three-game stretch, and 53 of 56 last weekend on the road.

  7. Northeastern (7-11-2, 4-9-2 HEA) – As gritty and gutsy as the Huskies’ dramatic win over BU was Friday night, they ran into a BC buzzsaw the next night at home, surrendering six unanswered goals in the second and third period after hitting the first intermission in a 3-3 tie. NU took just 11 shots over the final 40 minutes.

  8. UMass (8-11-2, 5-8-1 HEA) – UMass’ big 5-2 win over BC on Friday ended an 18-game unbeaten streak for the Eagles at home, and a 13-game winless streak for the Minutemen at Conte Forum, dating back to Nov. 17, 2007.

  9. Vermont (6-12-4, 3-8-4 HEA) – UVM’s entry in the inaugural Philadelphia College Hockey Faceoff came thanks to the connection of sophomore Nick Luukko. Luukko’s father, Peter, is the president and COO of Comcast-Spectacor, which owns the Wells Fargo Center and the Philadelphia Flyers – who happened to draft Luukko 179th overall in 2010. That didn’t spare the Catamounts from a 4-2 loss to Penn State, however, in what functioned as something of a home game for the newborn Nittany Lions.

  10. Maine (5-14-4, 1-9-4 HEA) – If nothing else, the Black Bears will be happy to be done with Merrimack. A strange scheduling quirk put the two teams together for three straight games, and Maine came out of it on the wrong end of a 10-3 scoring margin.

Twitter: @A_Merritt
Email: MerrittNEHJ@gmail.com