College hockey's "second season" -- highlighted by the Hockey East quarterfinals -- resumes Thursday in Lowell, with the River Hawks hosting Maine. The remaining three quarterfinal matchups start Friday.
The Hockey East championship has been won by a local Boston squad -- Boston College six times, and Boston University twice -- each of the past eight years. Still, given the tight race for Hockey East's regular-season crown, with two points separating the top five teams, the postseason promises no easy passage to the NCAAs. Only top-ranked Lowell and second-seeded Boston College appear to be locks for at-large bids to the national tournament, though New Hampshire (ranked seventh nationally) should be safe as well. The remaining five teams must capture the Hockey East crown to prolong their season.
"This is anybody's tournament," said BU coach Jack Parker on Tuesday. "There's a lot of [teams] that have had really solid years. It's unbelievable that Northeastern and UMass are not in this tournament; they are such good college teams. Anybody you get is going to be a tough draw."
Here's the breakdown of the matchups, and the eight teams gunning to play in the league semifinals at TD Garden in Boston on March 22:
No. 1 Lowell vs. No. 8 Maine
The student faces the teacher. River Hawks coach Norm Bazin, in just his second year at Lowell, guided his squad to the top of the Hockey East with a remarkable second-half surge, going 18-3-1 since Dec. 8, and finishing 22-10-2 (16-9-2 in Hockey East). Now he'll face a Maine squad (11-17-8; 7-12-8 HE) led by Tim Whitehead, the man who hired Bazin when he was running the Lowell program.
"Obviously we're good friends," said Bazin. "He gave me my first opportunity in coaching and you never forget that. We really respect their staff and their team and the way they compete.
"It's one of those things you're certainly going to have a candid conversation before the game, but come game time, I think we'll have our game faces on."
Whitehead, who coached Bazin before adding him to the Lowell staff, echoed the comments of his former assistant, saying: "It is bittersweet to have to go against him in this playoff series. When the puck is dropped, it will be a great competition."
He's right. Maine, despite sneaking into the playoffs last weekend, took the season series from the River Hawks, including a 4-3 win at the Tsongas Center. Plus, the Black Bears are a road-worthy team, coming off a huge three-point weekend at rival New Hampshire.
"We were gripping our sticks a little tightly at home," said Whitehead, adding that the seniors had never suffered a losing record in Orono. "When we started going on the road, we were able to play with a lot more composure and intensity."
In Lowell, the Black Bears face a team with incredible balance. "Up front, I think we have four second lines," said Bazin of a squad that boasts eight players with 18 points or more. "I can't tell you who's going to be our best line every night, and I can't tell you who will be our weakest."
Bazin, however, did say his team won't make the same mistake as last year, when the River Hawks, then seeded No. 2, were upset at home by Providence. "Some of the best lessons you learn are from your failures," he said. "We probably didn't bring our A-game to the table every night. I think we have better depth this year."
Depth is something the Black Bears lack. What they do have, at the moment, is great goaltending from junior Martin Ouellette, fiery leadership from captain Joey Diamond and house money.
"We just want to keep playing," said Whitehead. "It is a very tight-knit group. They have stuck together through a lot. Our seniors have been excellent. ... They have all fought through adversity, but have stuck together and really helped our team move forward and improve. It is a great opportunity to get into the playoffs. We just want to play."
No. 2 Boston College vs. No. 7 Vermont
The BC Eagles (20-10-4; 15-9-3 HE) are in the rare position of looking up at someone above them in the Hockey East playoff seedings. But Friday's 4-4 tie with Vermont (11-17-6; 8-13-6 HE), coupled with Lowell's victory over Providence, cost the Eagles a shot at the regular-season crown.
"We're disappointed in the fact that we couldn't win a championship, but you've got to reset and all of a sudden it's the playoff championship we're going to go after," said BC coach Jerry York. "Our goal is to try and win it. We understand just because of our seeding doesn't put us in the Garden. We have to get by Kevin Sneddon's team, who has played very well at times over the course of the year, and I thought played us toe-to-toe on Friday night up in Burlington."
For the second year in a row, the league's No. 2 vs. 7 matchup pits two teams that met the week before, in the regular season's final games. Last year, it was Lowell against Providence, and the No. 7 Friars bounced the host River Hawks from the playoffs. York will likely remind his squad of that result. He said he doesn't expect any surprises, and he doesn't expect his Eagles to look past the seventh-seeded Catamounts.
"It's not like, hey, we played them six weeks ago, what are they like now?" said York. "We know exactly what Vermont is and what their strengths are, and we're going to have to really be conscious of that, because they're a dangerous team."
York's senior class is looking for its fourth straight championship, but the current edition of the Eagles isn't the same as last year's model, which finished the season winning 19 straight to capture the NCAA title.
"We're completely different teams from last year," said York. "We lost a lot of seniors, we lost [Chris] Kreider, we lost [Brian] Dumoulin. Coming into this year is a whole new group of players to work with, with different strengths and different weaknesses. We've tried to address the weaknesses during the course of the year and build on our strengths. I think we've got a pretty good club."
Vermont, meanwhile, is returning the playoffs after a brief absence. Sneddon said his players have already put last weekend, and especially Saturday's 7-2 loss, behind them.
"There was a little bit of an emotional letdown from just kind of knowing we're in the playoffs, we're the seventh seed," said Sneddon. "It was a good learning lesson for us, to just remind our guys that if we're going to play soft against a team like Boston College, that's what they can do to you. In some respects, it may have been a perfect reminder as we head into the new season here."
Vermont's success in the postseason will hinge on the Catamounts' ability to shackle the league's most potent offense (88 goals), led by the likes of Johnny Gaudreau (18 goals, 28 assists, 46 points), Steve Whitney (24-17-41), captain Pat Mullane (15-23-38) and Bill Arnold (16-17-33). It will also be an interesting matchup in goal between UVM freshman Brody Hoffman and BC senior Parker Milner, the MVP of last year's NCAA title run.
"The biggest thing we have to do is make sure we're well aware of when Mr. Gaudreau, Mr. Whitney and Mr. Arnold are on the ice," said Sneddon. "They're excellent players, they're going to get chances. We just have to make sure that we make them earn those chances and minimize to the best of our ability their time of possession with the puck.
"I think right now our depth has helped us," he said. "Knock on wood, we're healthy and ready to go, and I think it's going to be a pretty big battle so we're going to rely on that depth."
No. 3 Boston University vs. No. 6 Merrimack
There's no shortage of one-liners when BU coach Jack Parker and Merrimack bench boss Mark Dennehy discuss hockey.
"I think I just heard [Parker] say that even though they finished third [in Hockey East], and they beat us three times, that Merrimack may be favored," said Warriors head coach Mark Dennehy on Tuesday. "He is amazing. Again, I just tip my cap, because he is always coaching."
But Parker's run is about to come to an end, and Dennehy knows full well that his 5th-seeded Warriors (15-15-6; 13-11-3 HE) are facing a Terriers team (18-15-2; 15-10-2 HE) eager to deliver Parker his eighth Hockey East championship, and its automatic bid to the NCAAs.
"My players have to be motivated too, because I'm coming back next year," Dennehy said. "So whoever is coming back with me better be motivated as well. This time of the year, I don't think it comes down to motivation. I believe it comes down to execution."
Execution has been a concern for the Terriers, who have played uneven throughout the year. The Terriers have again been a force up front, with 82 league goals (second in Hockey East), but the goaltending of freshmen Matt O'Connor and Sean Maguire, while good, hasn't been championship caliber. With O'Connor injured, Maguire will carry the load in the playoffs.
"We had a very solid and consistent first half. When we came back after break, we were very inconsistent," said Parker. "Mostly our inconsistency was in regard to playing without the puck -- how well we defended, how well we defended the initial rush, how well we played in our own zone. That lack of consistency of effort and focus is something that caused us some heartache, as far as wins and losses are considered. We seem to be out of that now."
The Terriers enter the playoffs having won five of their past six, a streak that started with a 5-2 series-sweeping victory over Merrimack. "It wasn't as if we dominated any one of those games" against Merrimack, said Parker. "They always saw our best game and hopefully we can do that again. I'm not sure if we saw Merrimack's best game, so I would say the advantage falls with them right now as far as that's concerned."
Dennehy agreed, to a point. "We do think we can play better against the Terriers than we have played, but you have to give them a lot of credit," he said. "Jack has said that they have played their best hockey against us; it's good to hear that we bring out the best in them. But it would be nice to see our team play a little bit better as well. They are very hard to play against. They defend incredibly well and all of their goaltenders have played well against us. They have got some timely goal-scoring and some really good play out of their better players."
"The biggest thing that we have recognized in the three games that we have played them -- two out of the three we outshot them by a pretty good margin -- was our turnovers and
giveaways," Dennehy said. "You can't turn the puck over against a team whose defensemen move the puck way too well. They can transition. Their forwards are fast, and if they get up the side on you, they make really good plays on the rush and they go to the net very hard."
No. 4 Providence vs. No. 5 New Hampshire
Last year, Nate Leaman got the Friars back into the Hockey East playoffs. This year, his second on the job, Leaman got them home ice. Now Providence (15-12-7; 13-8-6 HE) has got a date with New Hampshire, one of the league's perennial powers.
"Our games against UNH this year were all extremely tight games, and obviously we tied with them in the standings," said Leaman. "It's Hockey East, there's obviously a lot of really good teams. We are really excited about hosting and again, expecting really tight games.
"They bring statistically the best goaltender in the league. That's always concerning," said Leaman of UNH's Casey DeSmith. "They have a very good power play. They have a lot of pluses, they have a lot of weapons. Overall they were a very good offensive team. They have a very good power play and don't take a lot of penalties."
With the league's best defense, and third most potent offense, it's alarming that the Wildcats (18-9-7; 13-8-6 HE) slipped to fifth in the league, despite a lofty national ranking (No. 7). But if the lack of killer instinct (four one-goal losses and five ties in the past 14 games) was a concern for UNH coach Dick Umile, he didn't let on this week.
"Nate has done a tremendous job at Providence," said Umile. "The team is playing well and they have great goaltending [with freshman John Gillies], but I don't think enough is said about their great balance and speed. It's going to be a challenge, but as the team knows, it's a whole new season since only four teams go on to the Boston Garden.
"We have good leadership on the team and I think the team is ready to get on the bus, head down to Providence and play down there."