Are these going to be the best Hockey East playoffs ever? We don't know how the games will actually shake out. But we do know that in terms of depth and quality, this is certainly one of the strongest fields in the 30-year history of the league. All eight teams go into this tournament with at least an outside chance of making the NCAA tournament (beyond just the obvious autobid). And really, looking at the field 1-8, is there really anyone you'd be SHOCKED to see lift the trophy next Saturday night at the Garden?
BC? No, obviously.
Lowell? Of course not.
Providence? A little surprised, but with Gillies in net, definitely not shocked.
Northeastern? Okay, maybe, because they're Northeastern, and they can't have nice things.
Maine and Vermont - I'll give you those, I would be pretty shocked if either won.
Notre Dame? Well, no.
For the Eagles, their quarterfinal series is against a familiar and difficult foe - the Fighting Irish, who just beat BC at home two weeks ago, 2-1 in OT. Let's get to the preview and predictions.
#1 Boston College vs. #8 Notre Dame
Friday, 7:00; Saturday, 4:00 (NESN); Sunday, 4:30 (if necessary)
As has been said here and many other places, this is about as tough a draw as BC could have imagined for the quarterfinals. Not just because Notre Dame is lock NCAA tournament team and probable top ten team, but because they pose a matchup issue in the form of a stifling style that has the potential to suck the life out of BC's high flying offense.
Notre Dame's goals allowed in their most recent games heading into this series? 2, 2, 2, 0, 0, 0, 1, 2. And while senior goalie Steven Summerhays is part of the reason for that - his .929 sv% is #9 nationally - it has more to do with overall team buy-in into Jeff Jackson's defensive, trapping system. It also has to do with the Irish coming into their own after just a horrendous start to their inaugural Hockey East voyage that for a while looked destined to feature a road trip in the #Octofinals.
But they've righted the ship in a big way. And the danger is that they're not just a team that's going to clog you up and pray for a lucky goal, which we've seen enough of at Conte Forum from overmatched opponents through the years. The Irish have weapons that can strike quickly when they do take chances offensively. With the highly talented T.J. Tynan, Mario Lucia, and electrifying freshman Vince Hinostroza on the roster, it's pretty amazing that the Irish are mid-pack in the nation offensively, averaging just 2.96 goals per game. But, products of the system, I suppose. On a different team those guys would probably be putting up big numbers. As it is, they have 33, 28, and 28 points, respectively.
Everyone knows, at this point, about BC's ludicrous offensive stats, and how hard they are to put into proper perspective. We know about Johnny Gaudreau's 29-game point streak. We do not know for sure how much different the attack will look this weekend with the lines shaken up. Per reports from practice and via The Kid on Twitter, expect something along the lines of what we've been clamoring for all year, because #PirateJerry:
The lines looked roughly like that for two games back in January, when BC hit what was, to this point, their peak, IMO: a set of back-to-back huge outbursts against BU and Maine at Conte Forum. A series of injuries on the blue line led to Linell being rotated back to defense and some experimenting with the 12th forward role. But now things look roughly where they belong, I think. The different look features a little more speed and finesse, which will be necessary to shake things up against the Irish.
Another key for BC is that they will need to set the tone for the games early and not allow Notre Dame to lull the game into the pace they want to play it at. "It was 4 PM and the place was dead and there was a senior ceremony" were all rationales I was willing to sell myself for their lackluster game against Notre Dame two weeks ago, but that won't do in the playoffs. BC needs to be doing two things in order to be successful at cracking open the Irish shell: they need to be making quick, tape-to-tape passes, so look for that early as a bellwether -- and they need to be hitting, and not letting Notre Dame get comfortable. If BC is stringing together good passes and throwing hits in the first ten minutes I will feel pretty good, regardless of whether they jump out to an early lead or not.
As for negative bellwethers, aside from the obvious like giving up an early goal? If BC is trying stretch passes, I'll be worried. If we start seeing frustrated forwards trying to sneak behind the defense and hope a pass goes through all five Irish players - which we saw a bit of two weeks ago - that will be a bad sign. In that game, there were a lot of icings from thesem issed connections. Stretch passes probably aren't going to get it done this weekend.
The bottom line here is that BC should win this series even though Notre Dame is an excellent team. The Eagles are better, and they're at home. They have a historically good offense and have been lights-out in this round of the playoffs in recent years.
Boston College sweeps. They'll both be close games, but it's playoff time and the cream is going to rise for BC.
Grant Salzano: BC in 2
AJ Black: BC in 2
New Guy: BC in 3
#2 UMass-Lowell vs. #7 Vermont
Lowell and Vermont are two teams that also play very good defense. The Riverhawks and the Catamounts have had numerous late-season clashes in recent years, oddly enough, and it has generated some decent animosity between the teams. This should be an entertaining series.
Vermont sits at #12 in the PWR and can lock up their spot in NCAAs with a series win, and may well get the job done by winning just one game. However, I think Lowell, like BC, will do a cream-rises act here when the curtain comes up on the postseason.
My Prediction: Lowell sweeps.
Grant Salzano: Lowell in 2
AJ Black: Lowell in 3
New Guy: Lowell in 3
#3 Providence vs. #6 Maine
Providence looked dead in the water until they roared back into form and lifted themselves out of the #Octofinals range with a two-game sweep of these Black Bears at Maine two weeks ago. We all know by now that Maine has been simply horrendous away from home, so it's tough to pick against Providence.
My Prediction: Providence in 3
Grant Salzano: Maine in 3
AJ Black: Maine in 3
New Guy: Providence in 2
#4 UNH vs. #5 Northeastern
Northeastern's regression to the mean started on the Saturday before the Beanpot final, continued through their disappointing loss to BC in said final, and carried on as they skidded first out of the top 2, then out of the top 3, and then ultimately all the way down to #5 thanks to an 0-2 weekend against BU two weeks ago. In fact they got rather literal with regressing to the mean in that they ended the season with a +1 goal differential in conference play.
They now cling perilously to the 15th spot in the Pairwise and have to travel up to New Hampshire to take on a very good team that's playing with its season on the line. I get that it's the playoffs so there's a decent chance UNH rolls over too, but it seems very Northeastern to play themselves out of the tournament with four straight losses to end the season.
My Prediction: UNH in 2
Grant Salzano: NU in 3
AJ Black: NU in 3
New Guy: UNH in 3
No score guesses this week; the scoring system will be as follows: Nail the series on the head = 10 points. Pick the right winner but in the wrong number of games, 5 points. Correctly predict it will be a 3 game series but pick the wrong winner, 2 points.
Last week's winner for the Octofinals challenge: Expatriate in Tampa, who picked Vermont 4-3, Notre Dame 3-1 and Maine 3-0. Actual scores: 3-2 ND...2-1 UVM... 2-0 Maine. Most of us got too cute and picked an upset. By sticking to chalk and being close on the scores, expat wins.
The standings going into the penultimate week of this challenge:
Brian - 4 wins (Week 3 tie, Week 4, Week 6 1/2, Week 14 (tie), Week 17)
AJ - 3 wins (Week 3 (tie), Week 14 (tie), Week 16, Week 18)
Grant - 3.5 wins (Week 5, Week 9, Week 11, Week 12 (tie))
Joe - 2.5 wins (Week 1, Week 7, Week 15 (tie))
airforce987 - 1 win (Week 18)
ACal6888: 1 win (Week 10)
giantsfan428: 1 win (Week 8)
Conrad - 1 win (Week 2)
BCEagle74 - 1 win (Week 13)
BCJacket5 - 1 win (Week 6)
JCNG - 1 win (Week 12 (tie), Week 15 (tie))
Expatriate in Tampa - 1 win (week 19)
Only AJ, Grant and I have any hope of running down Brian, but the field is wide open to see which non-BCI staff member will rank highest. Get your picks in by 7...
And go Eagles.