Hockey East playoff race comes down to final weekend

Scott WIlson and his UML teammates jumped out to an early lead at Merrimack Sunday and bottled up the Warriors the rest of the game. - Jeff Cox

UMass-Lowell is in first place in Hockey East thanks to being one of the hottest teams in the country since December. The River Hawks have won seven in a row and only lost twice since December 1st.

First place UMass-Lowell became the first team to clinch home ice for the Hockey East quarterfinals following their weekend sweep of Merrimack. The River Hawks have been charging since December, only losing two games in that period. UMass-Lowell is receiving terrific goaltending from freshman Connor Hellebuyck and timely scoring from a group of talented, hardworking forwards. It was Josh Holmstrom's time to shine Sunday at Merrimack as the junior from Colorado Springs, Colorado picked up two goals.

Merrimack fell into sixth place over the weekend and has dug themselves a fairly large hole. There is little chance of them moving up the standings next weekend. Merrimack has struggled to score. Even when the Warriors put a lot of shots on goal and cycle well, they fail to find any real quality chances. Mark Dennehy's team simply lacks finishers and other teams can hone in on guys like Mike Collins. Staying out of the penalty box has been another issue for this team. Kyle Bigos will miss his own senior night game after receiving his third Game Misconduct of the season. Shawn Bates has remained one of the positives during this recent losing streak.

New Hampshire needed to rally in the final seconds to tie UMass-Amherst Friday night, but picked up three points on the weekend. The Wildcats shut out UMass convincingly Saturday night. UNH can clinch home ice with a win Friday night in Durham against Maine. If sophomore goalie Casey DeSmith can get on a roll like he did at the end of last season, it would certainly give UNH a leg up on the competition.

Boston College and Providence split their weekend series with each team winning on the other's home ice. That left the pair tied for third with 30 points. BC will have an easier weekend on paper with a pair of games at Vermont, but the Eagles have been hit hard with the injury bug. The young BC defense might not be able to hold up in the post-season. BC needs just two points this weekend to clinch home ice.

On the other hand Providence showed they are a team to be reckoned with in the post-season. The Friars bounced back from a hard fought loss to BC Friday night with a 5-1 win over BC on Saturday in Chestnut Hill. Freshman goaltender Jon Gillies is a difference maker between the pipes. However, they have a tough home-and-home series this weekend against first place UML. The Friars magic number for clinching home-ice is three points.

Boston University missed an opportunity to pick up four points on the weekend when they split their weekend series on home ice with Vermont. The Terriers won Friday night, but got off to a slow start Saturday before eventually falling short. The Terriers are in 5th place, two points out of fourth, but have a home-and-home with last place Northeastern this weekend. The Terriers need two win and help from UMass-Lowell to gain home ice.

The Huskies were eliminated from playoff contention Saturday night. Jim Madigan pulled his goaltender in the waning seconds of overtime, needing more than a tie to stay alive. NU is seriously short-handed and banged up with freshman sensation Kevin Roy missing the last three games due to an upper body injury. Due to other injuries the Huskies dressed 10 defensemen and eight forwards Saturday night in Orono.

The last playoff spot will almost certainly come down to Maine and UMass. The Black Bears picked up three points on the weekend at home against Northeastern. Conversely, the Minutemen failed to hold on to a lead at UNH Friday and only picked up one point on the weekend. Maine leads UMass by one point, but the Minutemen have the tie-breaker between the two clubs. In other words, Maine needs to pick up as many points or more than UMass to hold on to the final playoff spot, and UMass just needs to pick up only one more point than Maine does this weekend to receive the final spot.

Team Points Remaining Schedule Ceiling/Floor *
UMass-Lowell 32 Providence, @Providence 1-4
New Hampshire 31 Maine, Maine 1-6
Boston College 30 @Vermont, @Vermont 1-6
Providence 30 @UMass-Lowell, UMass-Lowell 1-6
Boston University 28 @Northeastern, Northeastern 2-6
Merrimack 27 UMass-Amherst, @UMass-Amherst 2-6
Vermont 21 Boston College, Boston College 7-9
Maine 19 @New Hampshire, @New Hampshire 7-9
UMass-Amherst 18 @Merrimack, Merrimack 7-10
Northeastern 14 Boston University, @Boston University 9-10

* Ceiling is the highest a team can finish. Floor is the lowest a team can finish.

Let's take a look at the relevant tie-breakers:

  • UML wins tie-breaker over BU, leads PC 1-0 with two games this weekend.
  • UNH wins tie-breaker over UML, BU.
  • BC wins tie-breaker over UML, UNH, PC, BU and Merrimack.
  • PC won season series over UNH.
  • BU wins tie-breaker over PC, Merrimack.
  • Merrimack wins tie-breaker over UNH, PC.
  • UVM wins tie-breaker over Maine.
  • UMass wins tie-breaker over Maine, UVM.

Jeff Cox covers college hockey for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.

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