By: Jarett Leonard
No. 5 Connecticut at No. 4 Boston University
This is a matchup of two teams that found their grooves in the second half of the season. A nine-game unbeaten streak helped BU (17-13-4, 12-8-4 Hockey East) grab the fourth seed for home ice in the quarterfinals. The Terriers’ rebound was due in large part to the growing confidence of freshmen Shane Bowers, who finished third in the nation in goals among rookies, and Logan Cockerill, who is riding an eight-game point streak. Jake Oettinger has also bounced back after returning from World Juniors, as the sophomore has a .924 save percentage in the second half after a .902 save percentage in the first half.
A seven-game winning streak in the last month or so propelled UConn (15-17-2, 11-12-1 Hockey East) into fifth place and earned the Huskies a first-round bye. Even after sophomore goaltender Adam Huska went down with a wrist injury, senior Tanner Creel’s play down the stretch salvaged the season for the Huskies. With Huska now healthy, Head Coach Mike Cavanaugh said Tuesday during a conference call that his staff will have a tough decision on who to play in goal for this series. Max Letunov leads the team with 27 points while Spencer Naas and Alexander Payusov each have 12 goals. Not only is UConn vying for its first appearance at TD Garden, this is the first time that the Huskies have reached the quarterfinals since joining Hockey East in 2014.
It was the Bobo Carpenter show when these two teams met in a home-and-home series in October to kick off Hockey East play. The junior forward netted two shorthanded goals to earn BU a point at Agganis in a 2-2 tie before scoring a power-play hat trick the next night at the XL Center in a 6-3 win. In the finale in mid-February, UConn overcame two different two-goal deficits to beat the Terriers in overtime on a Letunov goal to split the season series.
BU in three games. UConn will be confident going into the series given their recent play which included a comeback win over the Terriers in overtime, so I see them taking game one. But BU has the advantage in goaltending with Jake Oettinger, who has allowed only two goals in the three games since that contest in Hartford, and I think the Terriers win the last two games.
No. 6 Maine at No. 3 Providence
Maine (18-4-4, 10-11-3 Hockey East), like UMass, finished much higher than expected, and even had a chance at a first-round bye if not for a three-game sweep by BC to finish the regular season. Goaltending was the big story in Orono, with freshman Jeremy Swayman making a huge impact in his first season. His .922 save percentage was second in Hockey East, only behind Primeau. Sophomore Mitchell Fossier led the team with 12 goals and 21 assists for 33 points. The Black Bears are looking to get back to TD Garden for the first time since 2012, when they fell to BC in the title game.
Maine swept New Hampshire in the opening round at Alfond Arena, led by two third-period goals from Cedric Lacroix in a 4-1 game one win and a late power play goal from Eduards Tralmaks to seal the series with a 3-2 victory.
It was another solid season for Providence (20-10-4, 13-7-4 Hockey East), finishing third in the conference and earning a first-round bye. Junior Erik Foley was a key offensive contributor, collecting 34 points on 15 goals and 19 assists, which was fourth most in the conference, only behind the Northeastern trio of Adam Gaudette, Dylan Sikura and Nolan Stevens. The Friars have come up short of the semifinal in two of the last three seasons, including the year they won the National Championship in 2015.
The Friars swept the season series from the Black Bears, shutting out Maine 3-0 in the Friendship Four in Northern Ireland before a narrow 3-2 win at Schneider Arena in January.
Maine in three games. I think the combination of size, physicality and solid goaltending that Maine offers is a good formula to beat Providence, and the Friars have had some trouble getting past this round, including their National Championship year, so I’ll take the upset here.
No. 8 Massachusetts at No. 2 Northeastern
UMass (17-18-2, 9-13-2 Hockey East) exceeded all expectations under second-year head coach Greg Carvel. The Minutemen finished eighth after being picked tied for last in the preseason coaches poll, due in large part to a core group of freshmen. The team’s top five scorers were all rookies, highlighted by forward John Leonard (12 goals, 15 assists) and defenseman Cale Makar (5 goals, 15 assists). Freshman goaltender Matt Murray also came on strong in the second half, posting a .924 save percentage in the new calendar year.
It took three games for the Minutemen to get past Vermont in the first round, with the teams trading overtime wins in the first two games before UMass cruised to a 5-1 victory in game three to move on. As has been the case all year, Leonard and Makar provided the sparks offensively, as they both turned in highlight reel goals in the series.
Carvel went with Ryan Wischow over Murray in that third game, but whoever gets the start against Northeastern (21-8-5, 15-6-3 Hockey East) will have their hands full. The Huskies fifth-ranked offense (3.59 goals per game) deservedly gets all the attention, but their defense is also fifth best in the nation, holding opponents to 2.09 goals per game. That can be attributed to freshman goaltender Cayden Primeau, who had a .933 save percentage, once again the fifth-best in the country. Northeastern is looking to get back to the Garden for the first time since winning the tournament in 2016, while UMass hasn’t reached the semifinal since 2007.
Murray and Primeau traded shutouts back in January. Mitchell Chaffee scored twice in a 3-0 win at the Mullins Center, and Nolan Stevens netted a hat trick as the Huskies responded with a 5-0 blanking the next night at Matthews.
Northeastern in two games. The Minutemen are on the rise, but they don’t have much of a chance to give the Huskies a run this weekend on the road.
No. 10 Merrimack at No. 1 Boston College
Merrimack (12-19-4, 7-15-2 Hockey East) is riding a wave of momentum after sweeping UMass Lowell in the Hockey East First Round. Ludvig Larsson and Jace Hennig delivered the overtime winners to stun the River Hawks at Tsongas, as the Warriors captured their fifth-straight postseason overtime win. Senior Brett Seney leads the team with 32 points on 13 goals and 19 assists.
Boston College (18-13-3, 18-6-0 Hockey East) earned a bye after winning the conference regular season title. The Eagles will also have some momentum heading into the series, as they finished the regular season with a four-game winning streak and five-game conference winning streak. Freshman Logan Hutsko has been a spark for BC, providing a team-high 29 points.
BC is looking for its third straight appearance at TD Garden while Merrimack is trying to get back to championship weekend for the first time since 2011, when the Warriors fell to the Eagles in the Hockey East title game, 5-3.
BC swept a closely-contested series in early November, winning 3-1 in Chestnut Hill before escaping Lawler Rink with a 2-1 victory the next night. Eagles’ goaltender Joe Woll turned aside 48 of the 49 shots he faced while Craig Pantano made 64 saves over the weekend.
BC in three games. Momentum can only take Merrimack so far, and while I can see them winning one, I don’t think they have the offense to win two on the road.
Like Matt Dresens said in his first round preview, I think its easy to say the higher seeds will win most of these matchups, but I could definitely see all of these series going three games. I think Maine has the best chance for an upset, and UConn could definitely beat BU as well, but I don’t think anyone would be surprised if we see the top four seeds at TD Garden.