Hockey East Quarterfinals: Preview and Predictions
By JD Biagioni
The Hockey East Tournament kicks off today, and for the first time since the 2008-09 season, a quarterfinal matchup will not take place at Conte Forum. At 10-11-3 in conference play, Boston College finished seventh in the conference. The Eagles will travel back to Providence, where BC ended its regular season with a 3-1 loss against the Friars. Other quarterfinal matchups include Maine at Northeastern, New Hampshire at UMass, and Boston University at UMass Lowell.
The Minutemen are a lock for the NCAA Tournament after a program-best 26-8-0 (18-6-0 HEA) season. With a strong performance in the Hockey East Tournament, UMass could challenge for the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Friars and Huskies also appear safely in the NCAA Tournament, but a first-round upset and some conference tournament bid-stealers could bring them closer to the bubble. The other five Hockey East teams in the conference tournament would most likely only secure an NCAA Tournament berth via an auto-bid.
Can Boston College, or another Hockey East team, become a bid-stealer? Will UMass continue to roll in the conference tournament and hoist the Lamoriello Trophy at the TD Garden? Let’s break down the four quarterfinal matchups and see which teams are primed to advance to the second weekend.
No. 1 UMass Minutemen vs. No. 8 New Hampshire
Greg Carvel’s first season at UMass yielded a 5-29-2 record. Just two years later, Carvel has the Minutemen ranked No. 3 in the nation. A major reason for the success is a Hockey East-best 3.76 goals per game, over half a goal per game better than any other team in the conference. UMass has the top three point-getters in the Hockey East. Hobey Baker candidate and former fourth overall pick Cale Makar leads the conference with 42 in his sophomore season. Four of the seven Hockey East players averaging over a point per game are Minutemen.
UNH was a very middle-of-the-pack, finishing in the middle of the conference in most major statistical categories. The teams met twice during the regular season, both in November. UMass took both games by a combined score of 9-3. The Wildcats showed flashes of potential late in the season, going 1-0-1 in a home-and-home against Lowell in the beginning of March, but that win against the Riverhawks is their only win against a ranked team this season. UMass by a lot.
Prediction: UMass (2-0)
No. 2 Providence vs. No. 7 Boston College
This matchup features the top two teams in the preseason Hockey East polls. One met expectations and the other fell short. The Friars are the most sound defensive team in the conference, allowing just 1.86 goals per game, also good for fourth best in the nation. Senior Hayden Hawkey led the conference with a 1.77 GAA. Josh Wilkins recorded 36 points, the most by a non-UMass Hockey East player. Providence took care of business in Hockey East play, boasting season sweeps over Northeastern and UMass Lowell.
Boston College has been a bit of an enigma all season. The Eagles returned almost everyone from a team that won the Hockey East regular season title last year and added top recruit Oliver Wahlstrom. BC again struggled to win non-conference games, only recording one win, a Beanpot semifinals victory over Harvard; this was the Eagles first non-conference win in over two years. It looked like a repeat of last year, as BC started 7-1-2 in conference play. But the momentum started to fade in mid January. A 1-8-0 stretch to end the season dropped the Eagles from second to seventh in the bunched-up Hockey East standings. Still, David Cotton, Logan Hutsko, and Julius Mattila form one of the best top lines in the nation. And Joe Woll can steal some games in net for an Eagles team that often struggles to score. Two of the three regular season games were played at BC, and the home team won every game of the regular season series. That means BC actually enters the series with the head-to-head advantage over Providence. But BC has only won three games since it beat Providence 4-1 on January 19th.
Prediction: Providence (2-1)
No. 3 Northeastern vs. No. 6 Maine
Northeastern tied with Providence for the second-most points in Hockey East play, but the Friars owned the tiebreaker via the home-and-home sweep of the Huskies in January. Outside of that stretch of play, which included dropping two against Providence and a game the following weekend against Lowell, the Huskies were consistently solid all season long. The team lost its stellar top line of Adam Gaudette, Dylan Sikura, and Nolan Stevens but survived with a grinding style of play and depth scoring. Seven Northeastern players recorded more than 20 points on the season. The Huskies can play from behind and thrive in the final period. Northeastern scored 50 of its 108 goals in the third period and led the Hockey East with four overtime winners.
A team that sputtered out of the gate but finished strong, Maine is sort of the anti-BC. The Black Bears finished the season 7-4-0. The final stretch included a 4-3 win over UMass and a regular season finale thumping of BU, 6-0. We already mentioned that Northeastern is a great third period scoring team, but Maine locks down on defense in the third, allowing the third fewest goals in the final frame (26). Bruins prospect Jeremy Swayman finished last in GAA among goalies in the Hockey East Tournament, but the sophomore has shown the potential to bail Maine out at times. His goaltending could be the x-factor in this first round matchup.
Prediction: Maine (2-1)
No. 4 UMass Lowell vs. No. 5 Boston University
Lowell rebounded from a disappointing 17-19-0 to finish 18-11-5. The team could have finished with an even better mark had it not been for a 0-1-3 stretch to end the season against teams in the bottom of the Hockey East standings. Fourth feels right for a Lowell team that ranks fourth in both scoring offense and scoring defense in the conference. Lowell doesn’t excel in any one category and no one player will wow fans with eye-popping numbers, but the Riverhawks are a solid team. They also have the most to gain in the Hockey East Tournament, sitting at 20th in the pairwise rankings right now.
Boston University, like its Comm. Ave. rival, failed to reach its lofty expectations and finished below .500. The Terriers struggled for long stretches of play during the season, and only rose to fifth, because they picked up 11 of their final 12 possible points. They took care of business against the league’s bottom-feeders, something that can’t be said about Lowell, but the Terriers haven’t shown the ability to win on a high level this season.
Prediction: UMass Lowell (2-0)