Now, the games really count. As the Hockey East quarterfinal series get under way Thursday in Lowell, there are five squads with strong ties to the Boston area in the mix. But all eight teams are gunning for a spot at Boston's TD Garden, and the league semifinals, next Friday. Here's the breakdown:
No. 1 Boston College vs. No. 8 Massachusetts
No. 1 in the league, and the unanimous No. 1 in both national polls, Boston College (25-10-1; 19-7-1 Hockey East) heads into the postseason like a juggernaut. The Eagles have won their last 11 games, often decisively, after sputtering during the semester break.
"We had a 2-4-1 record after Christmas, and were in kind of a funk," said BC coach Jerry York this week. "Tommy Cross is our leader, and he just really set an example. We've been on a pretty good tear since then. We are led by our seniors, but, in particular, a junior goaltender in Parker Milner who has played outstanding for us."
Though hockey statistics can be tricky, these figures don't lie: Boston College has been dominant, leading the league in scoring (3.74 goals a game) and defense (2.22 goals against). They have the league's best penalty kill (87.1 percent), and third-best power play (22.7 efficiency). By comparison, Massachusetts (13-16-5; 9-14-4 HE) was fifth in scoring (3.07 GAG) and next-to-last in defense (3.41 GAA).
Still, Donald "Toot" Cahoon's Minutemen have already beaten the Eagles twice this season, adding an interesting twist to a quarterfinal that is a replay of the past two seasons.
"It's not your typical 1-8 match-up as far as we're concerned," said York. "UMass is one of the few teams that took a season series from us. Deservedly so -- they played extremely well in the three games. The Minutemen have our attention."
Likewise, Cahoon said he isn't putting much stock in those earlier victories against the Eagles at Amherst.
"It's a whole new time of year," he said. "BC is a great program this time of year. They refer to it as trophy season. And they know how to win these trophies.
"So I don't think those two games are going to be a real factor, other than motivating them not to look by us," he said. "Our job is to prepare these guys to play against Boston College, and to execute, and stay with the task, not for 40 minutes, but for 60 or 65 minutes (in the games go into overtime).
The question for Cahoon's Minutemen is whether they can put the puck in the net. "I think it’s fair to say that over the past month our team has conjured up one good effort every weekend," he said. "Now we need to figure out how to conjure up two good efforts this weekend."
To make the task even more difficult, all three games are at BC's Conte Forum, where UMass hasn't won since Nov. 22, 2008. The Eagles have taken 10 straight since on home ice against the Minutemen.
"You cannot take anything away from BC in terms of how good they are. I am not going to compare our team to theirs, but we have some very good players as well," said Cahoon, praising veterans like T.J. Syner, Danny Hobbs, Conor Sheary and Michael Pereira. "We have some players when they are on their game and locked in, can play at this level and really make a good account of themselves.
"The X-factor is our goaltending, and I really think that both of these kids are going to be very good over time, but they are both freshmen," said Cahoon. "They are prone to freshmen type of play."
As of midweek, Cahoon hadn't tipped his hand whether he would start Steve Mastalerz (3.37 goals against average; .889 save percentage) or Kevin Boyle (3.05 GAA, .896 save percentage). Both goalies’ numbers make snipers like the Eagles' Chris Kreider (20 goals, 17 assists), Barry Almeida (21 goals, 15 assists), Johnny Gaudreau (16 goals, 16 assists), and Bill Arnold (16 goals, 15 assists) salivate. Conversely, there's little doubt that BC's Milner (21-5-0, 1.87 GAA, and .926 save percentage) will get the nod in the Eagles net.
"We were really in a hard situation early in the season and through the middle of the season with stopping pucks," said York. "We sensed at the time we had a lot of 'B' goaltenders. It's hard to win championships without an 'A' goaltender. It just doesn't happen. We challenged our goaltenders, and Parker stepped up. His numbers are off the charts. He's given up one goal in the last four games."
Add an airtight defense led by Tommy Cross and Brian Dumoulin, and the Minutemen face an uphill battle, and the prospects of another 2-and-out quarterfinals.
No. 2 Lowell vs. No. 7 Providence
If familiarity breeds contempt, this series starting Thursday night at Lowell's Tsongas Center has all the markings of a brawl. Lowell (22-10-1; 17-9-1 HE) and Providence (12-18-4; 10-14-3 HE) played each other the last two nights of the regular season, with the River Hawks taking two from the Friars.
Those victories allowed Lowell and first-year coach Norm Bazin to tie the NCAA record for single-season turnaround, going from five to 22 wins. Ironically, last March, both schools were on the outside looking in as both failed to make the playoffs.
"It's going to be a really exciting for the kids because this is the best time of the year to play hockey," said Bazin, a lock for league Coach of the Year honors. "Both teams will be excited; both teams are on even ground. The regular season is obviously done with, so there's nothing to save it for."
Bazin also pointed out that Providence won't be the same team, as junior forward and leading goal scorer Tim Schaller (14 goals, six assists in 22 games) returns to the Friars lineup.
"We realize they're getting Schaller back, who is a tremendous hockey player – a possible all-league consideration type player – and he's 6-foot-2, so there's a whole lot of hockey player to deal with," said Bazin. "He's a power forward and we're going to have to contend with that down the middle. So that poses a whole new challenge."
The Friars have overcome numerous challenges this year, proving pundits, naysayers and fellow coaches (who predicted Providence would finish dead last in the league in preseason polls) wrong. The squad, said first-year coach Nate Leaman, has faced "a lot of adversity," including the loss of Schaller for 11 of the Friars 17 second-half games, and the loss of captain Danny New for a stretch.
"I thought, overall, we managed it pretty well. Now we go on to the playoffs," said Leaman. "We don't have a player on our roster that's ever played a playoff game. I think the guys are really chomping at the bit and looking forward to the opportunity."
Leaman quickly dispelled any talk that the Friars were content with simply playing in the postseason. "It was never been our goal to just make the playoffs," he said. "Our goals are higher than that."
To advance, the Friars will need to find a way to come out on top twice in a building where they haven't won in the past five years. And they'll be facing one of the league's stingiest defenses (2.52 GAA), led by sophomore goaltender Doug Carr (2.06 GAA, .928 save percentage). "I don't think any coach will dispute the fact that you don't go very far in Hockey East without good goaltending, and he's certainly provided that for us," said Bazin.
The Lowell coach also expects to lean heavily on captain Riley Wetmore (12 goals, 23 assists), superb freshman Scott Wilson (15 goals, 20 assists), and a number of dependable two-way players such as Matt Ferreira (11 goals, 18 assists). Leaman, meanwhile, said his team is well-prepared for a playoff atmosphere.
"Down the stretch in our league, there are playoff-type games, where teams are playing with playoff-type urgency, desperation and hunger," said Leaman. "Even though, we haven't played a game that's 'playoff,' I think we've been in those situations. We have to use our experiences from those situations, see what we did well in those games and see what we need to improve on in those games for us to be successful this weekend.
"For us to be a successful team, we have to have everyone's A-game, and we have to be on the same page as far as of how we're executing," he said. "Right now, our focus is do what we do when we play our best."
And, like his counterpart on the Lowell bench, Leaman thinks Schaller can be a difference maker for the Friars. "Tim is a scoring threat, he's our best faceoff player and at one point he was leading the nation in power-play goals," he said. "He brings another element to our power play. Those are three pretty big things, as well as being our first-line center and a 6-2 player that's a horse to play against.”
No. 3 Boston University vs. No. 6 New Hampshire
It's not often you see these two perennial powers meeting this early in the playoffs, but Dick Umile's Wildcats (14-17-3; 11-14-2 HE) haven't met their own lofty standards this season, settling for an uncharacteristic sixth-place league finish and a matchup with Boston University (21-12-1; 17-9-1 HE).
"We started off to a real slow start (losing their first four games, including a 5-0 shutout at BU) and we were playing under the gun right from the start and obviously we had difficulty scoring through most of the season," said Umile. "Second half we played much better defensively and goaltending has been very consistent. Casey DeSmith, a freshman, played in the second half of the season and has been giving us a better opportunity to win."
The Wildcats have struggled to score, ranking next-to-last in the league in offense (2.52 goals a game). Umile also acknowledged that his team -- the least-penalized team in the league this year -- might need to play with a little more snarl in the playoffs, while being mindful of BU's potent power play (a league-high 25.7 percent efficiency).
"I'd like to be more penalized if we were higher up in the league standings," he said. "We've played with an edge and I am overall pleased with our physical effort. The guys compete hard and but I think overall we have done a good job trying to stay out of the penalty box."
A major factor will be whether UNH's DeSmith, a New Hampshire native, can continue his fine form into the playoffs. "He doesn't panic at all during the game," said Umile. "Long-shots, tips, he handles those well and if he has to make a spectacular save he is completely capable of doing that.
"He has given us an opportunity every night to win and I think going into the playoffs he is going to be obviously a key for us. We just have to do a better job when we get opportunities to score and we are going to be challenged with (BU's Kieran) Millan obviously being one of the top goaltenders" in the league.
It hasn't been a normal season for Jack Parker's No. 6-ranked Terriers, either, with the BU program rocked by scandal (stars Corey Trivino and Max Nicastro were both dismissed for alleged sexual assaults on campus) and defection (Charlie Coyle leaving early for the pro ranks). As a result, the team UNH faces has a decidedly altered look.
"Our matchup with UNH is kind of weird because we haven't played them since December, and we're obviously a different team than we were in December, not only because everyone is different after playing and practicing as long as we have, but also because we've lost three key guys that were very instrumental to our first-half success," said Parker. "Those guys are no longer with us, so it's a different team that UNH will see this weekend."
Though the team's depth was crucial in BU's second half run, Parker praised captain Chris Connolly and his veterans for saving a season that could have quickly jumped the tracks. "We've been on the front page a couple times off the ice, and that's not good for us," he said. "On the ice, I think we've handled it extremely well.
"Credit to our captains and our senior leadership for working as hard as they can to keep this team focused and playing as well as they can," said Parker. "Because we've removed guys from the team, we've had to have people step up and play different positions and/or step up and get more ice time, and mostly everybody has responded well to that situation."
Meanwhile, home ice hasn't been a huge advantage for the Terriers, who suffered six of their nine league losses at Agganis Arena. Last year, Northeastern came into the Terriers' home rink and bounced BU from the playoffs in a wild three-game set. But Parker says his Terriers aren't taking the Wildcats lightly.
"(UNH) is a team that presents a lot of challenges and our guys know that. They respect UNH as an opponent and they respect UNH's talent and their preparedness, so they know they have to be ready for that," he said. "As far as the home-ice advantage is concerned, this has been a funny year because we've played some very, very good games at home and didn't win.
"Maybe we'll have our guys get on a bus and drive around town for a minute and come back to the arena."
No. 4 Maine vs. No. 5 Merrimack
For these two blue-collar programs, this series represents not only a chance to reach the league semifinals in Boston, but it could very well decide which team gets invited to the NCAAs the following weekend. No. 10 Maine (20-11-3; 15-10-2 HE) and No. 14 Merrimack (17-10-7; 13-9-5 HE) are classic bubble teams, slotted 9th and 14th respectively in the PairWise rankings.
Goaltenders may play a huge role in this series, a rematch of last year's quarterfinals. Merrimack senior Joe Cannata (2.19 GAA; .923 save percentage), a four-year starter for Mark Dennehy's squad, is having one of his best seasons.
"He's been good since he got here," said Dennehy. "When you're a freshman and your first game is a 44-save 1-0 win, that's a pretty good start. When you look at his whole body of work, I know this year I would argue that there is not a better goalie in the country."
Meanwhile, Maine's Dan Sullivan (2.56 GAA; .908 save percentage) has been a revelation, seizing the starting job in his sophomore year.
"Dan has been fabulous," said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. "He's really solidified that position for us and has just given us that steady rock back there that the players know they can count on. I am really proud of Dan. He's trained extremely hard to improve his game in a lot of areas technically. He's just a great kid and his work ethic is second to none."
However, the bread and butter of Maine's game is offense, led by the most potent line in the league: seniors Spencer Abbott (19 goals, 37 assists) and Brian Flynn (17 goals, 28 assists) and junior Joey Diamond (22 goals, 19 assists).
"They all skate well," said BC's York. "The difference in Flynn, Diamond and Abbott is that they really understand the game well. Their hockey IQ is outstanding."
Whitehead reserved special praise for Diamond. "Joey has really emerged as an elite player for us this season. He has been able to stay healthy this year after playing the entire season last year with a badly sprained ankle."
"The second thing is that he has stayed out of the penalty box," said Whitehead. "Over the last 22 games or so he has only had 12 minor penalties, so he has really done an excellent job at handling that side of the game and controlling his emotions. He is still playing hard and playing with a great edge."
Dennehy knows exactly what his team is up against. "They are an offensive juggernaut and you need to be aware of them on the ice," he said of the Abbott line. "You have to be very respectful and make sure you get on the right side of the puck."
"With that said we have had some success forcing them to defend," said Dennehy. "Offensive players don't like to play defense and they are used to being in the other team's zone and they have had a lot of success doing that. The further away from your net the puck is when they are on the ice, the better off you are. But that's a lot easier said than done."
Dennehy counters with a battle-tested squad. Five of the team's top-six scorers are seniors, led by Ryan Flanigan (10 goals, 18 assists) and Jesse Todd (12 goals, 14 assists), and Dennehy said that leadership is chiefly responsible for the Warriors' success on the road this year.
"A big part of it is having a good veteran core," he said. "We have plenty of seniors that have been through a lot of tough games and they understand that it is all about what is going on between the glass. Whether you have to drive up to Orono to play this game or if it was in Timbuktu, the only thing that really matters is what is happening between the glass. Our team has that ability to hone in on that."
Starting Friday, they'll have to.