March 5, 2008
Messy Intrigue Atop Hockey East

By Jeff Howe

There hasn't been a mess like this since Dane Cook started acting.

The top of the Hockey East standings are more difficult to decipher than one of Dennis Miller's jokes on Monday Night Football. That is mostly due to the fact that the top of the standings blend all the way down through seventh place in the 10-team league. Aside from New Hampshire already clinching the regular-season crown, everything is in complete turmoil.

Hockey East Notebook

Boston University and star forward Peter MacArthur are hitting their stride as the Hockey East playoffs near.

National TV Schedule

But it's not like that's a bad thing.

Surprises reign supreme in the league this year, and that's never been more true than the way things have taken shape heading into the final weekend of the season. Boston University, which had been left for dead just weeks ago, is tied for second place with Vermont, a team that has never hosted a playoff series since entering Hockey East in 2005-06.

Then there's Providence, which is tied for fourth place with Boston College, largely due taking three points from the Eagles in the teams' home-and-home last weekend. And that was just a week after getting swept by Merrimack.

BC is a story of its own. The Eagles had a tumultuous start, steamrolled into February and then lost their rhythm over a four-game winless stretch and 1-4-1 mark over their last six.

But even Northeastern or UMass Lowell could crash the party and steal the final home-ice spot with a big weekend and a boatload of help.

BU senior captain Pete MacArthur had seen his Terriers win seven straight before falling at UMass last Saturday, and they're back in the mix to grab a spot in the NCAA tournament. Boston University will clinch second place with a sweep over Providence and can host a first-round playoff series by taking two points this weekend. Not bad for a team that started the season 4-10-2.

"It's a little bit of a surprise," MacArthur said of BU's current position in the standings. "A lot of things had to go our way for that to happen. Other teams had to lose when we also lost. And other teams had to lose when we were winning. A lot of things have fallen into place for us this year, as far as the standings are concerned. We always knew we had a good team. I always knew we had a good team. It was more surprising that we started out the way we did, [4-10-2] at the break. That was what was more surprising for me.

"We're definitely fortunate to be in second place, but we've worked hard to get there. We're proud of it so far."

But the Terriers have a battle ahead of them against Providence, which snapped a three-game losing streak and four-game winless stretch with its three-point weekend against Boston College. The Friars control their own destiny as far as home-ice goes, and they can finish as high as second place or as low as seventh. They also own the tiebreakers with Vermont and BC and are trying to host a playoff series for the first time in five years.

"It's definitely something that we've seen flashes of in my four years – at least particularly the last three when coach [Tim] Army came in – that we can play with the best teams," senior forward Jon Rheault said. "This year, what's been different – and I wouldn't say it's a surprise, but it's something we've acquired – is our ability to be consistent at that level night in and night out. … We've played good hockey. We've been competitive. What's different this year is teams are coming in and worrying about us, and we're doing that on a nightly basis."

Vermont is another non-traditional Hockey East power trying to turn the standings upside down. The Catamounts are already assured of finishing no worse than fifth, which would trump their first two seasons in Hockey East when they were twice the sixth seed in the postseason.

But they can also finish as high as second, a feat unforeseen before the season and one that would take a near-Herculean effort, as they travel to UNH for a pair this weekend. The Catamounts have never won at the Whittemore Center during their time in the league, and the Wildcats, who haven't lost a Hockey East contest since Dec. 8, have an 11-game unbeaten streak (11-0-2).

"We have a great opportunity ahead of us going into a challenging place at UNH," said Vermont senior goalie Joe Fallon, who recorded his 19th career shutout last weekend, "and we're trying to prepare and do everything we can to lock up home-ice advantage."

Fallon's team is 9-3-2 since getting swept at Boston College in early January, and Vermont was once tied for eighth place with Merrimack. But with a chance to make school history, UVM isn't feeling the heat.

"We had a tough first half, so we feel like anything we can get is just extra," Fallon said. "The guys on the team know we're playing good. They're not worried about [pressure]."

Neither is Boston College. The Eagles are less concerned with home ice, the Hockey East playoffs or the national tournament than they are with just being able to string a couple wins together.

Just two weeks ago, BC had the chance to give UNH a run for the regular-season crown. Now, it needs some help just to finish in the top four.

The Eagles may have found the right opponent, though, a Northeastern squad that has flat-out collapsed since mid-January. The Huskies have lost five straight – their second winless stretch of at least four games in two months – and haven't won consecutive games since December.

Anyway, back to Boston College, which could finish as high as second or as low as seventh and needs a little bit of help to bring the playoffs home to Conte Forum for the sixth straight year.

"Obviously, our first goal would be to take care of what we can over the weekend," junior forward Nathan Gerbe said. "And after the weekend is over, you kind of hope that certain teams lose so that you can get a [home ice] spot. But the main thing is just playing our game so we can continue to get better. That's what matters the most. If we have to go away for the playoffs, that's fine. It's nothing we're going to be down about."

If given the hypothetical chance to sweep the Huskies but wind up on the road in the playoffs, or split the weekend and get enough help to earn a top-four spot, Gerbe said he'd rather pack his bags.

"I would rather win both games," he said. "Your team gains more confidence that way from winning. I think if we get on a little winning streak here, it can maybe go a long way, like last year when we went on a winning streak and it went a very long way. Hopefully, that continues. We just need to play better each day."

All things considered, this is destined to be one of the wildest weekends in recent memory with six teams vying for three home-ice spots and three more teams (UMass, Maine and Merrimack) jockeying for the final playoff position. There are seven scenarios that feature teams finishing in a three-way tie and another possibility of a four-way tie.

This will also be the second straight year that every member of the "Big Four" doesn't host a playoff series, and it could potentially be the first time two teams crash the party since 1996-97. There is no scenario, however, in which three teams outside of the Big Four (BC, BU, Maine, UNH) can claim home ice in the first round, something that has never happened in Hockey East history.

With the chaos set to unfold, teams will be sure to monitoring the out-of-town games, but Rheault cautions against those who take the scoreboard watching a bit too far.

"You don't need to scoreboard watch when you control your own destiny," Rheault said. "If we need to scoreboard watch, then we've obviously not done what we needed to do this weekend. Hopefully, that won't be the case, we can get our job done and we won't have to rely on other teams to help us out.

"When you start looking ahead, that's when bad things happen. That's when your season could just come to an end when you get to looking too far ahead. Obviously, if you get things done in the short term, it will all add up and you'll be where you want to be in the long term."

Great Weekend Getaway
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Providence at BU (Fri.)
Providence and BU will be the first teams in the clubhouse this weekend, as they wrap up their home-and-home Friday night at Agganis while the other four series conclude on Saturday.

While You’re There: Get an extra fix of Hockey East action by sticking around for Saturday night's contest between Northeastern and Boston College over by Huntington Ave.

Stick Salute

Here at INCH, we like to celebrate the good people of college hockey as much as anything else. This season, we lost one of them. While it's already been written about to great lengths (due to his sheer popularity and contributions to the game he loved), this final stick salute has been saved for Jon Barkan, whose initials have graced the Inside College Hockey banner since his much-too-soon passing. I never had the pleasure of meeting Jon, but I know how much he meant to the hockey community, especially here at INCH. So let's celebrate the college hockey stretch run the way Jon would have wanted, and raise the sticks high one more time for a man who meant so much to so many.

Bench Minor

Disaster often strikes when NESN broadcasts a Hockey East game without Tom Caron or Eric Frede in the booth. Last weekend's tandem who called the Maine-Vermont game in Burlington featured more erroneous statements than a Roger Clemens alibi. The most striking claims had to do with Maine's playoff hopes. The crew said Maine could control its own destiny by beating Vermont, which it did, 3-0. However, the Black Bears could sweep this weekend's series against UMass Lowell and still fail to make the playoffs. Next, the bumbling broadcasters said Maine would be eliminated from playoff contention with a loss. While that would have been true with the way things eventually unfolded across the league that night, Maine would have stayed in contention if UMass fell to Boston University in a game that was being played at the same time.


• Here's the deal for the final Hockey East playoff spot, which will be claimed by either UMass, Maine or Merrimack. The Warriors must sweep UMass, and Maine cannot take more than two points from Lowell this weekend for Merrimack to get in for the first time since 2003-04. UMass, which heads into the weekend holding a two-point lead over Maine for eighth place, must finish ahead of the Black Bears because Maine took the season series. And if there is a three-way tie, Merrimack wins the tiebreaker.

• The only time Maine has missed the Hockey East playoffs came in 1997.

• New Hampshire has 39 points in league play, the most in the conference since switching to the 27-game format when Vermont entered Hockey East two years ago. UNH also has 18 Hockey East wins, tying the school record in that department.

• Boston College has played in a school-record eight ties this season.

• Merrimack is doing things the right way this weekend, offering a two-for-one deal when the Warriors host UMass on Saturday night. Of course, the game would wind up being meaningless in terms of playoff positioning if Merrimack doesn't win on Friday.

• BC freshman Joe Whitney has 34 assists this season, which is third all-time among BC freshman. Ken Hodge (44 in 1984-85) and Brian Leetch (38 in 1986-87) are the leaders.

• Boston University's eight wins in February were their most in a month since going 8-0-0 in February 2002.

• UMass took the season series with Boston University (2-1-0) for the first time since entering Hockey East. It's also the only series UMass has won this season.

• New Hampshire's Mike Radja (Player of the Month) and Kevin Regan (Goaltender of the Month) and Boston University's Colin Wilson (Rookie of the Month) captured Hockey East's league honors for February.

• UMass Lowell forward Mike Potacco registered his first career hat trick last Friday.

• The River Hawks have two overtime wins (2-1-4) this season after not winning an OT contest last year (0-2-7).

• Merrimack sophomore goalie Andrew Braithwaite has emerged as one of the league's rising stars. While making 16 straight starts, he has a 2.11 goals-against average, .933 save percentage and two shutouts. Braithwaite is 2-1-1 in his last four games with a 1.25 goals-against average and .970 save percentage.

• The Wildcats went unbeaten in February (8-0-1) for the first time in 80 years.

• Providence won two games at Boston College this season, the first time the Friars have done that in 12 years. They also took the season series against BC (2-0-1) for the first time in six years.

• Joe Fallon's 19 career shutouts rank second all-time in Division I history, behind Michigan State's Ryan Miller, who had 26.

A variety of sources were utilized in the compilation of this report. Jeff Howe can be reached at