February 23, 2006
Fine Tuning the Playoff Picture

By Jeff Howe

 Hockey East Notebook

Though currently tied with New Hampshire, Tyler Sims and Providence likely hold the inside track for fourth place in the Hockey East standings.

National TV Schedule

The marathon season has now officially turned into a two-lap sprint to the finish as nine of the 10 Hockey East teams still alive for the playoffs jockey for postseason position.

Boston College has stumbled of late and has seen its eight-point lead in the standings shrink to just two points over rival Boston University in a span of just over a month. But the tightest race, which is much different from last year’s scenario, is among the middle of the pack where teams are battling to ensure a top-four spot to lock up home ice for the first round’s best-two-of-three series. And at the bottom, Massachusetts and UMass Lowell are tied for seventh place, while Northeastern is still mathematically alive and Merrimack is dead in the water.

The most surprising turn of events in the season’s second half is still at the top, where it looked like BC was going to run away and hide with the regular season crown in early January. The Eagles were on a 9-0-1 run, and it appeared that it would take a seismic collapse to lose out on the top seed. It wasn’t exactly a collapse, but by limping to a 3-5-0 record in their last eight games – a stretch that includes a three-game losing streak heading into this weekend on top of two losses to BU, one in the Beanpot final – plus an 11-game winning streak by the Terriers, things have considerably tightened up in the home stretch.

BC is forced to rebound after getting swept in Orono last weekend with a home-and-home against Lowell, which plays the Eagles very tough, taking them to overtime before losing earlier this season and sweeping a home-and-home in late February last year. The Maroon and Gold conclude its season with a marquee matchup next weekend with a home-and-home against New Hampshire.

Meanwhile, BU is heading to a hostile environment this weekend at Gutterson Fieldhouse, where the Catamounts are waiting. The Terriers have a shiny new one-game winning streak after their 11-game victory tour came to a close in their own building on Friday night when they were beaten 7-4 by UNH. Had the streak reached a lucky 13 games, Jack Parker’s squad would be knotted up with BC, but right now, that point is moot. On paper, BU has a more favorable matchup next weekend than the Eagles – a home-and-home with Northeastern – but if the Huskies happen to sweep UMass this weekend, they’ll be fighting tooth and nail to sneak into the second season.

The wildcard for the top spot right now is Maine, which is four points behind BC and two behind BU heading into the final weekend of February action. The Black Bears face a mathematically eliminated Merrimack team twice in North Andover before taking on UMass in Orono next week. Overcoming four points in four games is a lot to ask, but if Maine takes care of business and wins out while BC and BU succumb to tougher competition, Hockey East would see one of the greatest dark horse championship finishes in recent memory.

Providence and UNH are deadlocked in fourth place, one point behind the Black Bears, and fittingly enough, the two teams will play a home-and-home this weekend. The Wildcats have played better of late, but they have been bitten by inconsistency – especially at home – all season. Providence remains as the feel-good story in the league this season under first-year head coach Tim Army, but its up-and-down play of late is a huge concern heading into the final two weeks and eventually the playoffs.
PC has a much more favorable opponent than UNH next weekend – Merrimack as opposed to BC – so if the Friars can manage a split with the Wildcats, they will be in the driver’s seat for fourth place and the final home-ice spot, which is huge because winning two out of three on the road in this league is a daunting task. Right now, both UNH and Providence also appear to be on the outside looking in at the NCAA Tournament so if either of them can win their last four games and then make a bit of noise in the Hockey East tournament, they’ll turn some heads in terms of earning some national respect.

The Catamounts should consider themselves extremely fortunate to still have the chance to sneak into the top-four after being outplayed in both games last weekend at UMass. Still, they sit in sixth place, four points behind Providence and UNH, and need a small miracle to make up that ground, especially with two games against BU before hitting the road (5-5-2 against Hockey East opponents away from The Gut this season) for a pair with Lowell next week.

UMass and UMass Lowell move into the final four games tied with one another for seventh place, but since the River Hawks took the season series (2-1-0) with the Minutemen, they hold the tie-breaker. UMass has two huge games with Northeastern this weekend and can knock the Huskies out of the playoffs by picking up a win or two ties. The Minutemen were NU’s lone Hockey East victim through the Huskies’ first 20 league games, and Northeastern has won two of its last three conference clashes so they can make things very interesting and put some serious heat on UMass with a weekend sweep.

If Lowell can steal a point or two from BC this weekend, they will set themselves up with a good chance to grab hold of seventh place because Vermont hasn’t played its best hockey on back-to-back nights since sweeping Northeastern on Jan. 13-14. Conversely, UMass heads to Maine during the final weekend to take on a Black Bear team that has regained its swagger and is starting to look as invincible as it did back in October. Plus, Maine has only lost twice at Alfond since the beginning of December so UMass will have a tough time picking up any points at all.

The last two weekends of college hockey have provided fans with a number of twists and turns – across the country and in Hockey East. The intensity out of every team is growing more and more electric by the night, and if the final two weekends of the regular season are anything like they were last year, this will serve to be yet another amazing finish to Hockey East play. Now, it’s simply time to find out who wants it more.


Lenes is More: Vermont was seconds away from being on the wrong end of a tough sweep at Massachusetts last weekend. With the win, the Minutemen would have pulled to within two points of the Catamounts in the Hockey East standings and swept the season series.

UVM coach Kevin Sneddon pulled goalie Travis Russell with just over a minute left in regulation in an attempt to pot the tying goal. With heavy traffic in front of UMass goalie Jon Quick, Ryan Gunderson attempted to sneak the puck through and was denied, but Peter Lenes poked it through Quick’s five-hole with a dozen ticks left on the clock.

Then, just 68 seconds into bonus hockey, Lenes wrapped around the back of the net and flung a high wrister over a sprawling Quick to steal a victory at the Mullins Center. Lenes, who missed some time this season after coming down with mononucleosis, hadn’t scored since Nov. 18. He started the year with eight goals in his first 11 games.

“We gave the ball to a freshman…who hadn’t scored a goal in quite a long stretch there,” Sneddon said. “He obviously did the right thing on the tying goal and on the winning goal he made a beautiful play. He stood up tall to the challenge.”

“I’m just happy that I’m back and able to end this tough streak I’ve been on,” Lenes said. “It’s even more special that I was able to score to give our team the win.”

Great Weekend Getaway
120x60 - Brand Red

Boston U. at Vermont (Fri.-Sat.)
After starting the year with seven straight victories, the Catamounts made their inaugural trip to Agganis Arena and promptly lost 4-2 way back on Nov. 4. But that was before Joe Fallon started standing on his head, before David Van der Gulik made his return to BU and before the Terriers won 14 times in a 16-game stretch. Needless to say, things have changed in the last 3+ months.

While You’re There: Two words: Canada, eh?

Stick Salute

Congratulations to Maine coach Tim Whitehead who, by sweeping Boston College last weekend at Alfond, won his 200th career game on the bench.

Bench Minor

By dropping a 5-2 decision at UMass Lowell Saturday, Merrimack became the first team in Hockey East to be mathematically eliminated from postseason play. This is the second time in a row that the Warriors have missed out on the playoffs.


Maine leads the nation with a .910 penalty kill and is sixth in the country and first in Hockey East with a .211 power play. But despite the Black Bears’ prowess on special teams, they have allowed a league-high eight short-handed goals.

• When Boston University and New Hampshire split their home-and-home last weekend, with each team winning in the other’s barn, the Wildcats and Terriers continued a trend. BU is the only Hockey East club with a winning record at the Whittemore Center (7-4-4), while UNH now stands at 2-0-1 at Agganis Arena and hasn’t lost at BU since a 5-2 decision on Jan. 24, 2003.

• After winning just one series with a Hockey East opponent last year (Merrimack), Providence has already won five season series this year. The Friars have taken three-game sets from BU (2-0-1), Maine (2-1-0), UMass (3-0-0), Lowell (2-1-0) and Northeastern (2-1-0). Their last two series are against New Hampshire and Merrimack, and they have 1-0-0 records against both of those teams so far.

• The Huskies have found out that staying clear of the penalty box is a solid ingredient in the recipe of success. Northeastern has averaged 12 penalty minutes in its last four league games, going 2-1-1 in that stretch. In its first 19 conference contests, NU averaged 23.75 penalty minutes, stumbling to a 1-13-5 record.

• With its comeback win at UMass on Saturday, Vermont is now 3-0-4 in overtime this year and 5-0-9 in its last 14 extra-period contests.

• BU’s White Line – Kenny Roche, Peter MacArthur and Bryan Ewing picked up three goals and five assists last week and has combined for 44 points during the team’s 12-1-0 stretch.

A variety of sources were utilized in the compilation of this report.