Hockey East playoffs: Northeastern, UNH series takes on more meaning

Northeastern senior forward Braden Pimm (left) races for a loose puck against a UMass Lowell defender at Fenway Park on Jan. 11, 2014. - Matt Dewkett (mrd-photos.com)

The health of some key players is a big story in this series.

To say this weekend's Hockey East Quarterfinal series between New Hampshire and Northeastern has greater significance isn't an overstatement. That's because both Dick Umile and Jim Madigan's teams are in precarious predicaments when it comes to their NCAA Tournament hopes.

Sure, the reason the Wildcats and Huskies are taking the ice this weekend in Durham is to decide which team advances to the Hockey East semifinals at the TD Garden, but it is also likely the end of the line for the losing team.

Northeastern enters the series squarely on the bubble at 15 in the Pairwise while New Hampshire is at 20 in the all-important formula that mimics the NCAA Tournament selection committee process.

New Hampshire has home ice advantage and the knowledge of what it took to sweep Northeastern in the regular season. The Wildcats swept the Huskies, 3-0 and 4-1, in a home-and-home series in November.

Getting healthy:

A big equation in this series is the health of some significant players on each side. Each team had the benefit of rest last weekend after receiving a bye through the first round of the Hockey East Tournament.

UNH was without star defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk for the last 10 games of the regular season after he suffered an ankle injury in the first period of a game against Union in January. The highly sought after college free agent will remain out of the lineup this weekend.

Junior forward Grayson Downing went down in the game game, and missed seven of the team's final 10 games. He was held off the score sheet in both games at Merrimack to close out the regular season.

Northeastern was without its out top two defenders for the final two regular season series against Maine and Boston University. Josh Manson and Matt Benning were held out of those four games with injuries, but they are both probably for this weekend's series at UNH.

One of Northeastern's top freshman forwards, Dalen Hedges, missed the Maine series, but returned against BU. He is expected to play this weekend.

Offensive weapons:

Likely to the surprise of many fans, New Hampshire actually average .6 more goals per game than Northeastern this season in conference games. That statistic sways to Northeastern's favor when factoring in out-of-conference games, but a more accurate barometer is league games only.

New Hampshire was one of just two teams, Boston College being the other, to average over three goals per game in league play. The Wildcats are led by senior Kevin Goumas who has been a stellar player for the Wildcats since coming to Durham. His 14 goals and 31 assists for 45 points leads the Wildcats in the assists and points categories.

Classmate Nick Sorkin more than equaled his career goal scoring total through his first three seasons. The Rockville, Md. native had 14 tallies in his first three seasons, and has 18 this year.

Junior Matt Willows had eight goals in his first two years and, like Sorkin, had 18 this season. Both players have 17 assists each for 35 total points.

The return of Grayson Downing is a benefit to the UNH offense. Another player Northeastern will need to keep an eye on is freshman forward Tyler Kelleher. The NTDP product is a speedster who Dick Umile has utilized on the third and fourth lines for the most part, but he has the skill of a top two line player.

New Hampshire creates a lot of its offense from the blue line, led by senior captain Eric Knodel and the aforementioned van Riemsdyk.

However, a new threat from the back line has emerged. Carolina Hurricanes prospect Brett Pesce was one of those steady, shutdown defenders that were reliable, yet not flashy, for the first three semesters in a Wildcats uniform. The sophomore from Tarrytown, NJ stepped up his offensive game once van Riemsdyk went down. Pesce has five goals and eight assists during a 10-game point streak since van Riemsdyk went down with the ankle injury.

Northeastern's offense is top heavy with much of its threats coming from the top six forwards. Sophomore Kevin Roy leads the Huskies in scoring with 17 goals and 26 assists for 43 points. Interestingly, he scored 13 of those goals in the first half of the season. He has scored just four goals over the last 17 games.

The story of the team's leading goal scorer, senior Braden Pimm, is a great one. The Fort St. John, British Columbia native dedicated himself to making his final season at Northeastern his best one. His 20 goals has almost equaled his total goal scoring output (22) in his first three seasons on Huntington Ave.

The stacked freshman class is another key component when telling the story of success that NU has had this season. Mike Szmatula leads the way with his overall game. A lot of notice goes into his scoring prowess, and rightfully so. The Commerce, Mich. native has the second most points per game out of any freshman in the country, but his work in the face-off circle should be equally lauded.

John Stevens, Zach Aston-Reese and Hedges have also been great rookie forwards for Madigan's club.

Witt's magic:

New Hampshire has the edge defensively, but both blue lines are more known for their offensive instincts than their shutdown defensive abilities. That has put a lot of pressure on both goaltenders, especially Northeastern redshirt junior Clay Witt, to perform and be tested often throughout the season.

Witt, the Brandon, Fla. native that had seen action in just over 600 minutes entering this season, was seen as an unknown by many outside of the Huskies program. He had a remarkable season, stealing a win for Jim Madigan's club on numerous occasions, but the well ran dry towards the middle of February.

Witt, who owns a 2.27 goals against average and a .935 save percentage for the season, had a sub-900 save percentage in four of the last five games. He was 2-2-1 over that span with a 3.59 GAA and .878 save percentage.

Not having Benning or Manson in front of him could explain some of that, but it's more an issue of how sustainable the crazy numbers were to begin with. Madigan consistently defended his team, suggesting he doesn't care that much about how many shots the defense gives up per game.

Sooner than later, it was bound to happen, and it did. No team can consistently expect its goaltender to see so much rubber and stop enough of it to succeed, especially in a league such as Hockey East.

UNH junior goaltender Casey DeSmith was spectacular on most nights this season, and was the best player on the ice for his team, as noted by Umile on more than one occasion.

He set the bar high with the numbers he put up in the first semester of his sophomore campaign, but his numbers are still impressive. He has a 2.34 goals against average and a .922 save percentage on the season.

As a sign of how much the game has changed and how important a good goalie is to the success of a team, DeSmith's save percentage is the worst of the eight remaining goalies in the tournament. The Rochester, NH native will likely be tested less than his counterpart at the other end, but he'll need to be ready when tested by NU's skilled forwards.

Keys to the series:

Special teams is usually a key in a short series like this. New Hampshire is the least penalized team in the league and Northeastern's power play hasn't been all that great in league games. UNH needs to stay disciplined and capitalize on its own man advantages. The Wildcats have the second best special teams net in the league, compared to Northeastern at third from the bottom.

Clay Witt needs to play his best. The Wildcats won by a combined score of 7-1 in the weekend series between the two clubs back in November. Especially on the big ice surface, NU's defensive errors could be magnified. Witt will be tested, and he needs to be at his best, if Northeastern has any chance of advancing.

Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.

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