By: Matt Dresens
The Hockey East playoffs start this weekend with three opening-round series between seeds six through 11. Maine hosts New Hampshire, UMass Lowell welcomes Merrimack, and Massachusetts will entertain Vermont. League champion Boston College, Northeastern, Providence, BU and Connecticut all have byes straight to the quarterfinals.
No. 11 New Hampshire at No. 6 Maine
At one point this year, New Hampshire (10-18-6, 5-14-5 Hockey East) actually looked like a real contender. They opened the season winning five straight, but would only find the win column five more times the entire season. Their last league win came a month ago against UMass on February 3, and the ‘Cats closed out their regular season with a pair of shutout losses at the hands of Northeastern.
Maine (16-14-4, 10-11-3 Hockey East), on the other hand, had a shot at not only getting a bye, but hosting the quarterfinals if a handful of results played in their favor on the final weekend of play. Maine lost their final three games of the season all to Boston College. That pushed them into a tie with UConn for 5th where they lost the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Huskies.
It’s the Black Bears’ first home playoff appearance since 2014 when they were also the sixth seed and hosted 11th place Merrimack. That was just a one-game playoff, though. Their last home playoff series at the Alfond was 2012, again against Merrimack.
Maine won the season series 1-0-2. All three games went to overtime, with Maine winning the third and final meeting, 4-3, in extra time at the Whittemore Center in Durham. Both games in Orono ended in a draw. Neither team is playing well entering this series. Both teams have won just one game combined in their last six respective games. Maine is 1-5-0, UNH is 0-5-1.
Maine in three. UNH will play the Bears tough. This is a rivalry that goes back ages and it’s potentially Head Coach Dick Umile’s final weekend behind the UNH bench. All that said, Alfond is a tough place to win two games in an elimination scenario and Maine has the more talented roster.
No. 10 Merrimack at No. 7 UMass Lowell
For several weeks leading up to the conclusion of the season, Merrimack (10-19-4, 7-15-2 Hockey East) was stuck in last place after going 0-5-0 from January 20 to February 2. The Warriors wrapped up their season with a 3-3 finish, and vaulted past UNH on the penultimate night of league play after a 4-1 home win against Lowell.
Lowell (17-17-0, 11-13-0 Hockey East) was expected to finish much higher in the standings. The River Hawks were selected to finish second in Hockey East only behind BU in the preseason coaches poll. Things got off to an unusually slow start in the old mill town, as UNH swept the River Hawks in their season-opening series. Lowell battled back and looked to be in good position for a first-round bye, but sputtered in the final month, playing to a 2-6-0 record in their final eight league contests.
Lowell has hosted a home series every year since 2011, but this is their first time hosting in the opening round since the league adopted the new playoff format in 2014. The River Hawks have been in the Hockey East Championship game each of the last five years, winning three times (2017, 2014, 2013).
Head to Head
The series is tied 1-1 for the year and both meetings took place just last weekend. Potentially, the two teams could play five straight games against each other.
Lowell in two. Again, Tsongas is a tough arena to play in and Lowell is usually nails at home. The River Hawks have the experience, they know what it takes this time of year. Merrimack plays a grinding style of game and they are not terribly skilled. Lowell will win the first two, but they will be close.
No. 9 Vermont at No. 8 UMass
Vermont (9-18-7, 6-12-6 Hockey East) was rather pedestrian and downright bad for the majority of the season, but they got hot at the right time, winning six and tying twice in an eight-game stretch. This came after a span that saw UVM win just one game – none in the league – from November 10 to January 19. The sudden hot spell put UVM in position to pick up home ice in the opening round, but they finished the year 0-3-1 and fell into 9th in the final weekend.
UMass (15-17-2, 9-13-2 Hockey East) and Maine were both picked to finish last in the league, and that’s where UMass was for a good portion of the year. A strong finish, including points in five of their last six games, propelled the Minutemen into 8th place in the closing weekend of games. UMass is set to host its first home series since 2007, when the Minutemen advanced past Maine in two games at the Mullins Center, before falling to UNH in double overtime in the semifinals.
UMass won the season series 1-0-1, as both games fell in that stretch from November 10 to January 19 were Vermont won zero league games. The two teams tied the first night before UMass won 6-3 the following evening. Both games were in Burlington, Vt.
UMass in three. Neither of these teams is spectacular, but UMass has the best player in the series with Cale Makar. UMass is also the more consistent team.
Really going out on a limb with these predictions, eh? Well, to be fair, since the league moved to the three-round format in 2014, only two lower seeds have advanced. In 2015, 11-seed Merrimack used two overtime wins to sweep sixth-seeded Northeastern. Then just last year, 10th place UNH took two of three from Merrimack. Both UNH and Merrimack lost in the quarterfinals to Lowell and BU, respectively.
This year, the league was down about as low as it has been in years. There was a lot of parity simply because there wasn’t a real dominant team and that goes from the top down. BC had the most points at the end of the day, but the Eagles, just like everyone outside of Northeastern and Providence still has to win the league tournament to make the NCAA playoffs.