By: David Souza
The final weekend has finally arrived for Hockey East, and with it comes the conference semifinals on Friday night and the league championship game on Saturday. Thus far, there have been few surprises in the conference tournament. The top four seeds have all advanced to championship weekend after dispatching their oppositions in a quad of sweeps last round.
Now the stage is set for a pair of games Friday night that will be arguably two of the best this season. Not only will they feature Hockey East’s most premiere teams from this winter, but they will also give sports fans the opportunity to see two teams battle for their playoff lives, two tournament-bound teams sharpen their skills for the championship push, and two teams rehash a rivalry that dates back 100 years.
Game 1: #4 Boston University vs. #1 Boston College – 5 p.m.
The Terriers (19-13-4, 12-8-4 Hockey East) enter this contest with just three losses in 2018, a stark turnaround from their first half of the season where BU’s largely inconsistent play sunk them from the national rankings. Since the New Year, the Terriers have rebounded with strong showings against a ranked Providence team, a gritty Harvard squad looking to defend their Beanpot title, and a UConn team trying to extend their season in the Hockey East quarterfinals.
With a No. 18 place in the national rankings, the Terriers are on the outside looking in of the NCAA tournament, meaning they will essentially have to win the Hockey East Tournament if they want to extend their season and make a run at a national title.
The first of two potential opponents standing in BU’s way is rival Boston College, winners of the Hockey East regular season. The Eagles (20-13-3, 18-6-0 Hockey East) also find themselves outside the playoff picture, despite finishing atop the regular season standings. Currently placed 15th in the PairWise rankings – and No. 14 in the less impactful Division 1 poll – Boston College will also need to win out in the conference tournament to extend their season.
These two teams met twice during the regular season, in a home-and-home series in early December. In each of those contests, the road team emerged the winner by three-goal margins, as the Terriers dumped BC, 7-4, at Conte Forum before the Eagles stifled BU, 4-1, at Agganis Arena the following night.
Both teams will look to build off of their successes in those earlier contests and add in what’s worked for them during their recent stretches.
The Terriers found success against the Eagles with offensive contributions from a wide array of sources. While Bobo Carpenter, Jordan Greenway and Shane Bowers have been carrying the torch offensively for BU, the Terriers have been most successful this season when they have had additional goals and scoring chances come from role players.
Logan Cockerill is a prime candidate to fill that need as the freshman enters the weekend with a 10-game point streak. Back on December 1 in BU’s win in Chestnut Hill, Cockerill earned two points, including the game-tying goal in the first period.
Chad Krys, who also scored in that contest for BU, is coming off of an impressive series against UConn. In game one, the sophomore defenseman tallied the game-tying goal in the final three minutes of the contest on a fantastic individual effort. With defensemen like Krys, Dante Fabbro and Brandon Hickey a threat to score at any time, the Terriers are a dangerous team in the offensive zone.
For the Eagles, they’ll look to push the Terriers to the outside on offense. BU has been successful when they’ve been able to establish a net-front presence with big bodies like Greenway and Brady Tkachuk. This ability to create a screen combined with shots from the middle of the ice where guys like Carpenter and Shane Bowers thrive has made BU’s offense deadly.
If BC is to stave off the upset, they’ll likely need to keep the Terriers on the perimeter, and let Joe Woll do the work. The net minder is likely feeling confident as he kept his team in their quarterfinal series against Merrimack, despite the Eagles being heavily outshot. Add that in with BC’s six-game win streak, and Woll’s confidence is likely near an all-time high at the Heights.
Prediction: Terriers are able to get through the BC defense that looked shaky against an uninspiring Merrimack team. Despite Woll’s hot streak, BU prevails, 4-2.
Game 2: #3 Providence vs. #2 Northeastern – 8 p.m.
Despite their finish in the regular season, these are the best two teams in the conference, without exception. Northeastern has been an offensive machine with arguably the best line in college hockey in Adam Gaudette, Dylan Sikura and Nolan Stevens. Add in a defense that is playing with confidence and a net minder in Cayden Primeau that has been a revelation in the cage for NU, and it’s no wonder why the Huskies are No. 7 in the nation right now.
A day after cleaning up at the Hockey East Awards banquet, the Huskies will look to take one step closer to adding to their trophy case with their semifinal tilt against Providence. And while the Northeastern offense is explosive and the best in the conference, if any team should scare the Huskies, it’s the No. 9 Friars.
Providence plays a very restricting type of defense that stifles a lot of opposing teams. Head Coach Nate Leaman’s style in his own zone has always been to pack his team in towards the middle, and utilize a strong tempo and active sticks to make the opposition uncomfortable. Getting sticks and bodies into the shooting and passing lanes would frustrate this uptempo Northeastern offense. And the Huskies facing struggles on offense is a type of adversity we haven’t seen too much of this year on Huntington Avenue.
But the Friars are not all defense either. They have a stellar offensive forward in Erik Foley, who has been the driving force behind the Providence attack. Leading the way with 16 goals and 35 points, Foley has the ability to jump start the Friar offense, especially if their defense holds off the Huskies and gives PC some added momentum. Add in a defenseman in Jacob Bryson that can facilitate the play in the offensive zone – as illustrated by his team-leading 21 assists – and the Friars have the ingredients for a win.
For the Huskies, they’ll likely look to their speed to break past the stout pressure they’ll face from the Providence defense. While the tough physicality and smothering defensive style of the Friars can work, its Achilles Heel is speed. If Northeastern is able to use quick puck movement with quicker skating and stick handling, they can break through that defense. And like we saw in the Beanpot final, NU can pass the puck well – especially on that first line.
Special teams may have a big role to play too if the Friars are unable to stay out of the box. Northeastern’s power play – and their vaunted top unit – are operating at a deadly 27.74 percent, second best in the nation behind only Princeton. Though Providence will likely be up to task themselves, with the Friar PK killing off infractions at an 84.93 clip – good for eighth best in the country.
Prediction: The Friars will have to be perfect to beat Northeastern, but they won’t be and the Huskies will move on to the title game after a narrow 3-1 victory.