Hockey East Tournament: What's the most likely upset in first round?

Merrimack senior defenseman and three-year captain Jordan Heywood (left) will be facing Maine in the playoffs for the third time in four years. - Matt Dewkett (mrd-photos.com)

The higher seeds each went 2-0 against their first round foes during the regular season.

When it comes to picking upsets, it always seems that the matchup every prognosticator pegs for an upset special ends up fizzling. With that being said let's take a look at the three first round games in Hockey East this weekend and rank them 1-3 in terms of most likely upset to least likely upset.

No. 11 Merrimack at No. 6 Maine

If this question was posed a week or two, the answer would be no chance, but a lot has changed since then. Maine controlled its own destiny for a first round bye and home ice in the quarterfinals, but then was swept on home ice by Providence in the final weekend of the regular season.

The Black Bears had lost just once all season in Orono before last weekend and seemed almost unbeatable at the Alfond. Maine students will be on spring break so there will be slightly less of a hostile environment than usual, and it's possible there is now some doubt in the Maine locker room.

Merrimack plays a physical, defense-first style that cramped Maine in the team's series less than a month ago. The Black Bears escaped with two one-goal victories over the Warriors, 2-1 and 3-2.

Mark Dennehy is very adept at controlling the tempo and forcing other teams into playing his style of hockey. Maine is the faster, more skilled team, but Dennehy will look to clog the neutral zone and force the Black Bears skilled players to the perimeter.

Merrimack's defense is big and can make it difficult for Maine's smaller forwards. Only three of the 12 forwards Maine dressed for Saturday's regular season finale against Providence come in at six feet or taller. Only Devin Shore is north of six feet among the top five scoring forwards on the team.

No one in the media was higher on Martin Ouellette in the first half of the season, but there is now a goaltending controversy in Orono. The Columbus Blue Jackets prospect is 0-3-1 with a 4.24 goals against average and a .871 save percentage in has past four starts.

Red Gendron pulled Ouellette after giving up three goals on 20 shots on senior night, and Dan Sullivan stopped all 13 shots he faced after that. Gendron, the first year Maine coach, even called one of the stops Sullivan made a "10 bell save."

Gendron will trot out a very good goaltender who has struggled of late or a goaltender who led the team to the NCAA Tournament as a sophomore, but has just started one game all season.

One final aspect that makes this series intriguing is the recent postseason history between the two clubs. Maine was swept at Merrimack in the 2011 Hockey East Quarterfinals before ousting Merrimack two-games-to-one in the 2012 Hockey East Quarterfinals.

No. 10 UMass at No. 7 Vermont

Vermont swept UMass in a home-and-home series back in November, and the Catamounts are clearly the better defensive team. Junior Michael Paliotta, a Chicago Blackhawks prospect, leads a physically strong blue line that will make it tough on the Minutemen's top six forwards to break into the zone.

Speaking of top six UMass forwards, in one of the strangest rulings the NCAA ever made, redshirt freshman Frank Vatrano will make his collegiate regular season debut this weekend in Burlington. The East Longmeadow, Mass. was forced to sit out a certain percentage of the team's games even after serving his year in residency after only attending Boston College for a few weeks in September 2012.

The USNTDP product is a dynamic offensive talent that can be a game changer, but how much impact will he have? He will be hungry to get going, but he's also been out of game shape for over a year, minus an exhibition contest.

Brendan Gracel, Conor Sheary, Michael Pereira, Ray Pigozzi and Steven Iacobellis will most certainly join Vatrano in the top six for the playoff game, but is that enough. The aforementioned five haven't exactly lit it up all season, but there have been signs.

UMass has four wins on the road against NCAA Tournament caliber teams, two at Colgate and one each at Notre Dame and Northeastern. The Minutemen also tied Boston College at Conte Forum.

Steven Mastalerz has been inconsistent, but when he's on top of his game, his athleticism can shine and he can make some game-changing saves. Could the junior from North Andover, Mass. steal a game Friday night?

No. 9 Boston University at No. 8 Notre Dame

It's not often that an 8-9 matchup can even be considered an upset, but in this case it is. There was such a gap between the teams in the middle of the pack in Hockey East and the three at the bottom. Both teams come into this series on high notes.

Notre Dame upset Boston College, 2-1, in overtime on the last night of the regular season. The Fighting Irish carry a four-game winning streak and a six-game unbeaten streak into the playoffs. Jeff Jackson's team is 15-5-1 at home compared to 5-7-1 away from Compton Family Ice Center.

Mario Lucia, T.J. Tynan, Vince Hinostroza, Bryan Rust, Jeff Costello and Sam Herr pose a serious threat to a weak and depleted BU defense that lacks depth. The Irish are also very good at puck possession and clogging the neutral zone in an effort to stymie opposing offenses.

Steven Summerhays has been sensational all season long for the Irish, but has stepped up his game over the past four outings. The Anchorage, Ak. native has a 0.25 goals against average and a .990 save percentage, including three consecutive shutouts over that span. Two of those shutouts came against the very same Terriers squad he will face Saturday night.

Boston University comes into this series after sweeping Northeastern last weekend, the first back-to-back wins for the Terriers since Nov. 17-23. It was the first win, period, since Jan. 24 against Vermont.

The Terriers have struggled mightily in generating much offense, certainly a bad omen when preparing to take on a stingy Notre Dame defense. However, the Terriers put up four goals both nights against Northeastern after first year head coach David Quinn juggled the lines some.

Another reason to think an upset is possible is the goaltending of the scarlet and white. Matt O'Connor and Sean Maguire both possess the ability to steal a game, something of particular concern giving this is single-elimination.

In the end, this writer doesn't see any of the three higher seeds being upset, but stranger things have happened.

What do you think? Leave your comments on which Hockey East first round game is the most likely to see an upset.

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

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