This weekend, the second annual Hockey East Octofinals kick off as teams 5-12 in the conference fight for their playoff lives. Unlike last season, this year's opening round will feature a best-of-3 format rather than single elimination, making the road to the Garden even more daunting for teams that finished outside the top 4.
Thanks to last weekend's split at Notre Dame. BC managed to avoid the octofinals, slotting themselves in at #3. They will await the second highest seed to advance this weekend. Here are the matchups:
5. Notre Dame vs. 12. UMass
6. Northeastern vs. 11. Merrimack
7. Vermont vs. 10. Maine
8. New Hampshire vs. 9. UConn
Now let's take a look at each series, with an eye toward who will be coming to BC next weekend for the Quarterfinals.
5. Notre Dame (15-16-5 Overall, 10-7-5 Hockey East)
12. UMass (10-21-2 Overall, 5-16-1 Hockey East)
I'll say this for the Minutemen: things have looked a little bit better for them lately. They made a habit of getting smoked about once per weekend for most of the season, but over the course of the final games, they tightened up a bit, "only" being on the wrong end of an extremely lopsided loss once, a 7-1 L to Lowell (though I guess losing 4-0 to UConn counts as lopsided, too). They even have some pretty good wins in that final stretch over UMass-Lowell and Providence.
That said, UMass's 59-102 GF/GA spread in Hockey East play tells the story about this team which has really struggled mightily to keep the puck out of their own net. They're playing a pretty good Notre Dame team this weekend with a decent amount of firepower, so it's going to be hard to keep them off the board.
We got a pretty good look at the Irish last weekend, who are playing their best hockey of the season at the best possible time. They are definitely a team capable of throwing a wrench into the mix for some of the teams with Pairwise aspirations.
Worth noting, here: UMass upsetting Notre Dame would be the only way BC could avoid playing Northeastern, should NU advance past Merrimack. Go Minutemen!
The Prediction: Notre Dame sweeps.
How surprised would I be if my prediction is wrong: Extremely. I'd be quite surprised if UMass won one game.
Likelihood of seeing the winner at Conte: 0%. Neither can face BC. If Notre Dame wins, they'll play Lowell. If UMass wins, they'll face BU.
#6 Northeastern' (16-14-4, 11-9-2 Hockey East) vs.
#11 Merrimack (14-16-4, 5-14-3 Hockey East)
The smart money is on Northeastern coming to Conte Forum next weekend. It is by this point well established that Northeastern has been one of the best teams in the second half of the season, going 15-5-3 over the course of their last 23 games. Though much of the attention with regards to the Huskies is (rightfully) on their very solid goaltending tandem of Clay Witt and Derrick Roy, it's been the Husky offense that has led the resurgence; NU is 4th in the nation in goals per game with 3.77 since Thanksgiving. A major factor in the offensive surge has been the power play, which is also one of the nation's best.
It's easy to see why Northeastern has become a fairly potent offensive team as a look at their forward group reveals a lot of talent. Obviously, Kevin Roy has been stellar for his entire Northeastern career. Dalen Hedges and Mike Szmatula have also been big time contributors for NU, particularly in the second half.
In the first two games against BU last week, NU looked like the better team when Eichel wasn't on the ice—though obviously, Eichel was on the ice for about half of the game each time. On Saturday, their resistance kind of cracked. We'll see if they're able to buck up and go back to the way they've been playing this weekend against the Mack.
If they do, they shouldn't have any trouble with Merrimack. The Warriors' season followed a fairly predictable pattern, racking up some good out-of-conference wins early in the season, taking care of business pretty well at home, and, ultimately, not doing much on the road in conference play. Merrimack's last win was on January 30; they only have 4 total wins since the New Year, though one of them was against Minnesota, which, lol.
The Prediction: Northeastern sweeps.
How Surprised Would I Be If My Prediction Is Wrong: I wouldn't be majorly stunned if Rasmus Tironen stood on his head and won Merrimack a game, but I'd be extremely shocked if Merrimack won this series.
Likelihood of seeing the winner at Conte: Very high, if it's Northeastern. If NU wins this series, the only way BC doesn't play them is if UMass beats Notre Dame. If Merrimack wins the series, they can't play at BC; they'd play at either BU or Lowell.
7. Vermont (18-12-4, 10-9-3 Hockey East) vs.
10. Maine (13-20-3, 8-10-2 Hockey East)
Vermont is another team who started strong and then faded as the year went on. They ended the season with a 3-7-3 stretch, with their biggest win aggravatingly coming at BC's expense in OT on a lackluster Friday night at Conte Forum. The Catamounts built up their early season record on the back of some outstanding goaltending by Mike Santaguida, and, to a lesser extent, Brody Hoffman. But both have cooled off substantially; Santaguida's save percentage is .936 for the year, but .912 since January 1. The Catamounts still have some vague national hopes as they sit at 19 in the Pairwise, so climbing above the bubble isn't impossible—but they'll need to get much better to do it.
Maine has been just pretty "meh" all year long, producing in short spurts in Hockey East play but generally being about as mediocre as can be. The Black Bears' offense has been pretty good on the year, putting up 100 goals, but defensively they were #11 above only UMass in the league with 118 goals allowed over the course of the season.
The Prediction: Vermont in 3. While a lot of people are talking about Hockey East as being the top 7 and everyone else, I view it a little more like a top 6, then Vermont, then everyone else. I don't think UVM is on the same level as the teams above them and I can't see them making it to the Garden barring an unholy run from Santaguida. However, I think they'll get past Maine.
How surprised would I be if my prediction was wrong: I wouldn't be too surprised if Vermont swept. However, it would definitely be a big upset if Maine won the series. Not earth-shattering, but definitely surprising.
How likely are we to see the winner at Conte next week: Vermont is the next most likely team after NU to be coming to Conte. BC will get Vermont if chalk holds except either UMass beats ND OR Merrimack beats NU. Maine could theoretically come to Conte next weekend of the 5-12, 6-11 and 7-10 series all end up as upsets.
#8 UNH (15-17-2, 10-11-1 Hockey East) vs.
#9 UConn (10-17-7, 7-11-4 Hockey East)
These are two teams who will certainly have different emotions about being where they are in the standings. For UNH, this season has been another step in their fade from the heights of where the program was 7 or so years ago when you could pencil UNH in for the top seed in the Hockey East playoffs and a shocking early exit from the NCAA tournament. Not anymore. The Hockey East playoffs now represent the likely end of the road for the Wildcats barring an improbable run to the conference title.
I can't see it happening. They do have some decent offensive weapons, chiming in at #12 nationally in goals scored per game. Matt Willows and Grayson Downing—guys who I'm pretty sure have been at UNH for about 15 years—have each had good seasons, putting up 30 and 29 points respectiely, while Tyler Kelleher, a sophomore, leads the team with 23 assists and 37 points.
They'll need their offensive weapons to show up against #icebus and Rob Nichols who have managed to be a thorn in many teams' sides this year. UConn is the second lowest-scoring team in conference play, with 42 goals scored (ahead of Merrimack's 38—ouch). Up until a couple of weeks ago, they were in the top half defensively, but they've really sort of cracked in recent weeks and have been at the wrong end of a number of blowouts. They closed their regular season strong with a 4-0 win over UMass and will hope to ride that momentum into the playoffs.
The prediction: UConn in 3. I think UNH is a better team, but I can't see the #icebus story ending for this year right now; I think they've got two more magical Greek-soccer-like performances in them and if there's a team that can manage the ignominy of losing to UConn in the playoffs this year, it's UNH.
How surprised would I be if my prediction is wrong: Not very. This is the closest thing to a toss-up in the first round. I think the other three matchups are pretty much predictable. I wouldn't be too surprised by either result here.
How likely are we to see the winner at Conte next week: It's possible, but not probable. If two of UMass, Merrimack or Maine win their series, win in the other matchups, the winner of the UConn-UNH series will face BC.
So there you have it. The Octofinals are set. The action begins tomorrow night and the countdown to (let's face it) Northeastern coming to Conte next weekend for a tough series is on.